After fall of 1914, World War I on the western front was characterized by trench warfare. That is to say that soldiers in trenches protected by machine guns and barbed wire occupied such strong defenses that attacks involving hundreds of thousands of men would do well to advance a few miles at a time. This lasted until the spring of 1918 when German numerical superiority and new, "storm" tactics upset the balance one way, and the arrival of fresh American troops and new equipment such as tanks upset the balance the other way.

Germany's eastern front was not nearly as static (against the Russians). Why was that? Was it because of factors such as weather and terrain, or were the Russians slower to adopt trench warfare tactics than the Germans, British, or French?

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    The western front was a relatively constrained area, as was the Italian-Austrian front - both resulted in trench warfare. Trenches are of little value if the lines can be flanked; see the siege of Petersburg during the Civil War. Aug 1, 2016 at 0:40
  • AFAIK trenches were used in the East, too. But the length of the front and the lack of equipment (machineguns and artillery) for the Austro-Hungarian and Russian armies made them a less formidable obstacle than in the Western Front. This made the situation more fluid there, which in turn also made it more difficult to properly strengthen the trenches. So, they were not the big, uninterrupted mesh of trenches of the West and they were easier to breach, but trenches were still used ( references to them then and now in "The Great War" channel of youtube). I'll put as an answer when I get sources.
    – SJuan76
    Aug 1, 2016 at 1:20
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    And BTW, the Russians already had trench warfare experience from the Ruso-Japanese war
    – SJuan76
    Aug 1, 2016 at 1:42
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    The Germans and Austrians dug in in the West after the Schifflen Plan failed but they had superior ... vastly superior actually ... defensive positions "looking West." Looking East the Germans had crushed the Russian offensive in East Prussia whereas the Austrians were routed in and around Romania ... since the German Railway ran all the way to Instanbul an "American Western in the East" took hold with some very dramatic, bold and massive engagements that would very much presage the type of War World War 2 would become. Aug 1, 2016 at 2:34

3 Answers 3


To frame what the OP is asking the question is "Why didn't the Eastern Front devolve into an attritional conflict like the Western Front?" we need to examine what were the tactical and operational reasons for the devolution of warfare into stalemate.

The two obvious and interrelated causes are: 1. Space and 2. Command and Control.

Space: By the beginning of 1915 warfare on the Western Front had devolved into a stalemate as a result of the Race to the Sea which meant there was no potential for maneuver to achieve the upper hand. However this was not unique to France, and we can see the same result for example in the Dardanelles Campaign. The terrain did not permit manuever so the conflict become a war of attrition. Another poster also mentioned the Italian campaign.

Command and Control:

It seems to surprise some but the ability to control large armies (one hundred thousand plus) simply didn't exist before the end of the First World War. Even with the space to maneuver, the Americans found in the Civil War that it was not easy to achieve a breakthrough when faced with significant defenses (see the Seven Days Battles).

In fact the Americans never really were able to develop sufficient ability to command large bodies of troops nor manage their logistics during that conflict, rather it being won through the far superior industrial capacity of the North rather than the evolution of the operational art. We see similar results in the excessive casualties suffered by both sides.

Another example of command and control hindering the offensive movement of an army occurred at the First Battle of Gaza. The Australian Light Horse were able to enter the city at the end of the day, but were withdrawn due to concerns regarding Turkish reinforcements and poor communications. In fact communications played a very large role in poor C&C in WW1.

the Russians slower to adopt trench warfare tactics than the Germans, British, or French?

It was less necessary. After all, what pressing reason would the Russians have for adopting trench warfare? They remained on the offensive, strategically speaking, for the duration of their involvement in the war. Simply remaining on the defensive in the East would've suited the Central Powers war aims perfectly - that is to say the Germans were seeking a decision in the West before turning to the East to fight the Russians.

The Russians had a strategic imperative to attack in the East in order to prosecute a two-front war (which is ultimately what cost the Central Powers the war). Not attacking would've played into their hands. Their alliance with the French also obligated them to take the offensive. It's also important to note that in the Galician Campaign, the number of trains that were able to available to the Russian to transport materiel to the theatre

The Russians could bring 260 trains a day to their front, compared to the Austro-Hungarian's 152.1

Another interesting point is that there were significant forces crammed into Galicia, despite the front being only 260km long, the Russians were able to achieve a decisive victory in a matter of months.

The East Prussian campaign also offers another insight into how strategic imperatives influenced the prosecution of the campaign. Due to the unique shape of East Prussia being connected to the rest of the German state by the Danzig corridor, the Germans were simply unable to conduct a passive defence and used their rail networks and superior command control to execute a devastating counter offensive that utterly annihilated Samsonov's 2nd Army.

Both the ability (or lack thereof) to control large armies and a lack of "strategic" space is what often caused a devolution to trench warfare. However, these factors alone did not drive a devolution into attritional warfare. We also know that the industrialization of warfare and Europe also presented difficult tactical and operational challenges that took officers on both sides some time to learn how to over come. The vast resources available to both the Allies and the Central Powers also ensured that the war was never going to be settled with short battles of maneuver.

A young Charles de Gaulle, already wounded twice, grimly observed in December 1914: “What is this conflict but a war of extermination? A struggle of this kind, which in its range, significance and fury goes beyond anything that Europe has ever known, cannot be waged without enormous sacrifices. It has to be won. The winner will be the side that desires it most ardently.”

Technology also played a part. Warplanners on both sides made faulty assumptions that led to miscalculation when the war started. For example:

Alfred von Schlieffen’s vision of a grand envelopment was impossible because the technologies of mobility and communication lagged far behind the destructive power of 20th-century weapons. “In the pre-motorised age, defenders proved able to redeploy and reinforce more swiftly than attackers advanced, by the exploitation of rail links. It was a disastrous collective delusion, to suppose that a formula could be identified for achieving quick victory over three of the greatest powers in Europe…Rather than a strategist of genius, Schlieffen proved to be a fantasist who brought doom upon his foolish disciples.”

This article from The Economist lays out some great texts that cover a lot of aspects of the war, and is worth perusing if you are looking for further read on the topic. 2

This article also outlines how many battles on the Eastern Front were battles of maneuver rather than attrition. Simply put, the Eastern front allowed opportunities for maneuver that the West did not. http://warontherocks.com/2016/07/slaughter-on-the-somme-the-limits-of-foresight-on-the-road-to-the-great-war/

[please not this answer is only a first draft, and it is 3am here, and I'm having a glass of wine, typing on a keyboard without a space bar - I do apolgise for what is in my mind a rather terribly written post - expect it to be revisited over the next 24 hours.]

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    You typed all that without a space bar? You're crazy.
    – enderland
    Aug 2, 2016 at 1:46
  • So, the both eastern and western fronts had long period when armies stood still in trench wars. OK. You say in fact that they on the Eastern side moved far simply because they had enough place. Utter nonsense without any logic. if the only difference was the place, Germans would simply take Paris. Command? You name it the second reason and at once say it was not the reason, but the economics was. And the main reason - why they broke front on the East more times remains unanswered.
    – Gangnus
    Aug 2, 2016 at 7:38
  • @Gangnus Economics surely played a part by the war's end but it was not the sole reason. Whited's Law.
    – Anaryl
    Aug 2, 2016 at 8:29
  • @Anaryl economics and inner politics were the real reasons. As for inventions, every invention on one side was answered by an invention on the other side. Some inventions broke stalemate only once, some never. As for MOBILE storm groups, the whole technology tree was not ripe enough for them. Even in WWII the war was manoeuvre only in places of maximal concentration of the best technology.
    – Gangnus
    Aug 2, 2016 at 9:19
  • Through which mechanisms do you believe economics and politics were the drivers of stalemate on the Western Front?
    – Anaryl
    Aug 2, 2016 at 10:23

On the eastern front the troops where deployed over a much larger area, which meant the density of troops was lower. The lower density of railway lines meant that the troops can not be switched as easily or always as close to any attack as they were in the west, where the much easier lateral communications mean that any sector that was seriously in danger could be quickly reinforced, ts was not always the case in the east.

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    What on Earth does that even mean? @Gangnus
    – Anaryl
    Aug 1, 2016 at 16:35
  • @Anaryl that means that the main thesis of the question - that East had much less trench war is false. And any arguments pro or contra are irrelevant.
    – Gangnus
    Aug 2, 2016 at 7:42
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    Except that it is evidently true! How can arguments supporting, or to the contrary be irrelevant? Arguments pertaining to conditions on either front are ipso facto, relevant.
    – Anaryl
    Aug 2, 2016 at 8:32

There was the same trench war on the East, too. Simply sometimes on both fronts HAPPENED something that broke that system. And after some time of manoeuvre war it returned to the same trench war. On the West it happened at the first German attack and in the end of the war. On the East it happened at the first Russian attack, at Brusilov's attack, when Romania entered the war and immediately lost, and at the end, when Russian army refused to fight after the revolution. The trench war was present even on Italian and Serbian fronts. But they happened to be broken sometimes, too.

All of contemporary soldiers and generals(but not politicians!), hated the trench war. And tried to break it from the both sides. Sometimes somebody managed to do it. But never England/France. Every their success was the result of politics and economics, but never of some clever warfare. Yes, they invented much, as all greater participants did, but every such invention was immediately answered by another one. So, some inventions broke stalemate once, some never. And E/F were not successful in that till the very end of the war.

The trench war doesn't mean there are no movements at all. There were advances and retreats. The greater movements on the Eastern front was the result of absolutely crazy politics of the Russian Czar, Nikolaj II. Several times his allies asked him for help, and he sent millions of soldiers for their death because of his playing the knight. Sometimes these offensives won, more often they lead to problems. The last such "ordered by allies" offensive attempt was in the summer of 1917. And that was one of the most important reasons of the Bolshevik's revolution. Because nobody in Russia already wanted to fight for somebody else.

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    " But never England/France. Every their success was the result of politics and economics, but never of some clever warfare." false, there was constant innovation and clever warfare on the western front.
    – pugsville
    Aug 1, 2016 at 12:31
  • I generally agree with this answer. The East did see a lot more maneuver, but not ALL the time. If armies are taking a break and not going to move for awhile, they'll dig in. The East had such long distances and opportunities for dynamic action that breaking loose from trenches was not hard. In the West, I can see the argument that Britain and France never figured it out despite the innovations they tried, although I'd hedge it a bit - by 1918 French troops were doing better.
    – Smith
    Aug 1, 2016 at 15:01
  • @pugsville I did not say they haven't invent something. I said they hadn't invent something that allowed to break the trench stalemate. Neither tanks nor better planes nor gases helped. Stormgroups or attack without artillery preparation DID help, but they were not their inventions. England/France fought defensively mostly - it is well seen simply by looking at the map. Even their attack looked more as defense.
    – Gangnus
    Aug 1, 2016 at 15:27
  • @Smith I am not saying they did it badly. They did it their way. They overpowered by economics. They did it well enough - they won. Only USA did it better.
    – Gangnus
    Aug 1, 2016 at 15:30
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    @Gangnus - "England/France fought defensively mostly - it is well seen simply by looking at the map. Even their attack looked more as defence." quite false for most of the period the Britain and France were attacking and they learned much and doctrine, equipment changed throughout the war.
    – pugsville
    Aug 1, 2016 at 15:40

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