Updated:
Original:
Year
1914
Month Day
September 15

First trenches are dug on the Western Front

In the wake of the Battle of the Marne—during which Allied troops halted the steady German push through Belgium and France that had proceeded over the first month of World War I—a conflict both sides had expected to be short and decisive turns longer and bloodier, as Allied and German forces begin digging the first trenches on the Western Front on September 15, 1914.

The trench system on the Western Front in World War I—fixed from the winter of 1914 to the spring of 1918—eventually stretched from the North Sea coast of Belgium southward through France, with a bulge outwards to contain the much-contested Ypres salient. Running in front of such French towns as Soissons, Reims, Verdun, St. Mihiel and Nancy, the system finally reached its southernmost point in Alsace, at the Swiss border. In total the trenches built during World War I, laid end-to-end, would stretch some 35,000 miles—12,000 of those miles occupied by the Allies, and the rest by the Central Powers.

As historian Paul Fussell describes it, there were usually three lines of trenches: a front-line trench located 50 yards to a mile from its enemy counterpart, guarded by tangled lines of barbed wire; a support trench line several hundred yards back; and a reserve line several hundred yards behind that. A well-built trench did not run straight for any distance, as that would invite the danger of enfilade, or sweeping fire, along a long stretch of the line; instead it zigzagged every few yards. There were three different types of trenches: firing trenches, lined on the side facing the enemy by steps where defending soldiers would stand to fire machine guns and throw grenades at the advancing offense; communication trenches; and “saps,” shallower positions that extended into no-man’s-land and afforded spots for observation posts, grenade-throwing and machine gun-firing.

While war in the trenches during World War I is described in horrific, apocalyptic terms—the mud, the stench of rotting bodies, the enormous rats—the reality was that the trench system protected the soldiers to a large extent from the worst effects of modern firepower, used for the first time during that conflict. The greatest danger came during the periods when the war became more mobile, when the soldiers on either side left the trenches to go on the offensive. German losses per month peaked when they went on the attack: in 1914 in Belgium and France, 1915 on the Eastern Front, and 1918 again in the west; for the French, casualties peaked in September 1914, when they risked everything to halt the German advance at the Marne. Trench warfare redefined battle in the modern age, making artillery into the key weapon. Thus the fundamental challenge on both sides of the line became how to produce enough munitions, keep the troops supplied with these munitions and expend enough of them during an offensive to sufficiently damage the enemy lines before beginning an infantry advance.

FACT CHECK: We strive for accuracy and fairness. But if you see something that doesn't look right, click here to contact us!

ALSO ON THIS DAY

Lehman Brothers declares bankruptcy

On September 15, 2008, the venerable Wall Street brokerage firm Lehman Brothers seeks Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, becoming the largest victim of the subprime mortgage crisis that would devastate financial markets and contribute to the biggest economic downturn since the ...read more

Tide turns in the Battle of Britain

The Battle of Britain reaches its climax when the Royal Air Force (RAF) downs 56 invading German aircraft in two dogfights lasting less than an hour. The costly raid convinced the German high command that the Luftwaffe could not achieve air supremacy over Britain, and the next ...read more

Tanks introduced into warfare at the Somme

During the Battle of the Somme, the British launch a major offensive against the Germans, employing tanks for the first time in history. At Flers Courcelette, some of the 40 or so primitive tanks advanced over a mile into enemy lines but were too slow to hold their positions ...read more

U.S. forces land at Inchon

During the Korean War, U.S. Marines land at Inchon on the west coast of Korea, 100 miles south of the 38th parallel and just 25 miles from Seoul. The location had been criticized as too risky, but U.N. Supreme Commander Douglas MacArthur insisted on carrying out the landing. By ...read more

Future President William Taft born

William Howard Taft is born in Cincinnati, Ohio on September 15, 1857. Taft was born into a politically active family; his father had served as President Ulysses S. Grant’s secretary of war. He attended college at Yale University, graduating second in his class. He then attended ...read more

A Bible school instructor abducts a teenage girl

Thirteen-year-old Melissa Benoit disappears in her hometown of Kingston, Massachusetts, on her way home from a friend’s house. Although the town detective talked to everyone who lived on the path between the two houses, no one admitted to having seen Benoit. Soon afterward, the ...read more

Khrushchev arrives in Washington

Nikita Khrushchev becomes the first Soviet head of state to visit the United States. During the next two weeks, Khrushchev’s visit dominated the news and provided some dramatic and humorous moments in the history of the Cold War. Khrushchev came to power in the Soviet Union ...read more

Confederates capture Harpers Ferry

Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson captures Harpers Ferry, Virginia (present-day West Virginia), and some 12,000 Union soldiers as General Robert E. Lee’s army moves north into Maryland. The Federal garrison inside Harpers Ferry was vulnerable to a Confederate attack ...read more

Nuremberg race laws imposed

On September 15, 1935, German Jews are stripped of their citizenship, reducing them to mere “subjects” of the state. After Hitler’s accession to the offices of president and chancellor of Germany, he set about the task of remaking his adopted country (Hitler had to pull some ...read more