I’ve wondered was the Western front always just mud and devastation or were a lot of green fields and woods still intact most of the time?

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    Welcome to History:SE. What has your research shown you so far? Where have you already searched? What did you find? Please help us to help you. You might find it helpful to review the site tour and Help Centre and, in particular, How to Ask. Commented Dec 26, 2019 at 14:56
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    The trenches were probably dug in green fields; war transformed the green fields into devastated landscapes - after repeated shelling green fields become devastated landscapes. Add in trenches, dead bodies, human waste, barbed wire, hopelessness and desolation and the effect is complete
    – MCW
    Commented Dec 26, 2019 at 15:28
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    This is based on a romantic misconception: agriculture devastates nature as much with tilling, plowing erosion (goal: green fields) like dust-bowl etc As the Western front ran through a millennia old cultural landscape, it could not by definition even start in untouched nature. Unless definitions are provided to frame this, answers will be based on romantic opinions of nature and destruction. Late fall fields looked always very bleak in the fog… Commented Dec 26, 2019 at 16:56
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    @LаngLаngС You are completely wrong, there were no erosion or devastation in Flanders or France. Farmers in Europe have lived there for centuries, and did not employ environmentally damaging practices for a quick profit. Phenomenon of "dust bowls" is unique for US and barring occasional drought it did not happen in Europe . In fact, those same fields are arable even today, and are used for that purpose.
    – rs.29
    Commented Dec 26, 2019 at 20:10
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    @rs.29 The point to observe is not how much Flanders fields did historically degrade, as they continue to do, but that agricultural landscapes are artificial! (All of them, some worse than others.) Commented Dec 26, 2019 at 20:26

2 Answers 2


Summary: Trenches were often dug in un-wrecked countryside, but attacks on, and defence of those trenches, created the familiar scenes of devastation.

The entrenched Western Front of WWI developed as a consequence of the Race to the Sea. This phase of the war lasted from mid-September to mid-October 1914, as the Allied and German armies repeatedly tried to go round each other's western flank, and were stopped every time. This only ended when the front line reached the English Chanel, with both armies spread out along the front line from there to the Swiss border.

With WWI technology, artillery was devastating to troops in the open, but almost ineffective against troops in trenches. So the troops on both sides had to dig in to hold their positions, and they had to hold their positions to prevent their armies being outflanked.

The traditional answer to this was cavalry, who could move faster than infantry, and thus outflank them. However, machine guns and barbed wire would stop cavalry very effectively, allowing a line to be held against both infantry and cavalry attacks with far fewer troops than would have been necessary in the nineteenth century. That meant that the armies of both side could actually defend a front line hundreds of miles in length.

The trench lines were originally dug through countryside that wasn't utterly devastated, although digging several lines of trenches made a fair mess. What wrecked the countryside was the artillery bombardment that had to be done to suppress defending troops before each attack, was done by the defending side during each attack to kill advancing troops, and had to be available and demonstrable everywhere along the line to prevent surprise attacks. The ever-present mud had two sources:

Most of the technique of trench warfare was developed by the French army during the winter of 1914-15, and has been universally practiced since then whenever the conditions force it on an army. Armies hate it, but it is sometimes unavoidable.

Poison gas attacks with the primitive gasses of WWI would theoretically have made the devastation worse, by killing all the plant life, but it's doubtful that this was particularly noticeable.

  • How about a summary sentence: "Digging trenches and their attack or defense cratered the terrain in short order."
    – o.m.
    Commented Dec 26, 2019 at 16:55
  • How about using early images en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… instead of describing 1917 scenes? Commented Dec 26, 2019 at 16:58
  • @o.m. Added at your suggestion. Commented Dec 26, 2019 at 17:35
  • @LangLangC, I'm failing to understand your suggestion. That photo is from 1915, as far as I can tell. Commented Dec 26, 2019 at 17:41
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    @PieterGeerkens: Added that too. Commented Dec 30, 2019 at 20:36

The question can be interpreted in one of two ways: 1) Were there advantages to digging trenches in "already" devastated landscape? or 2) Did the process of digging trenches by itself"devastate" the landscape. Of the two, the latter is more probable.

Just the act of digging trenches will "carve up" the landscape. Of course you might do this by plowing fields, building irrigation ditches, etc. But as we will see, building trenches is not only a different operation, but has a different fundamental purpose.

The purpose of trenches is to protect men who are fighting. In the "modern" era, this means "shooting." Specifically tons of bullets and (artillery) high explosive. The idea was that the men inside the trenches would be killed at a slower rate than men attacking from the outside across open field, particularly when barbed wire was installed in front of the trenches. These trenches were usually built for "imminent" attacks that occurred most of the time, not "hypothetical" attacks, at some distant point in the future.

There may have been some advantages in building trenches in "devastated" (broken) ground. But the fighting that accompanied trench building caused most of the devastation even if there were none previously.

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