To most of the Western European powers involved the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914 represented a return to the battlefields of the old Continent after 43 years of peace. During that time the armies of some of those powers had been involved in colonial conflicts of relatively low intensity, which barely served to predict accurately the type of difficulties a new European war would cause its participants.
The progress meanwhile made in terms of firearms (precision, range and volume of fire), transmissions and transports, profoundly altered the characteristics of the battlefields with reference to the last conflict between Western European powers (the 1870-71 Franco-Prussian War). The Second Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) had shown that effective combat distance was now 800 metres instead of the previous 400 metres of 1870. The consequence of this difference was naturally that the attacking infantry was exposed to enemy fire for much longer periods of time and the horses’ vulnerability greatly reduced the offensive use of cavalry. Furthermore, as the intensity and precision of the firepower had increased, everything combined to strew the battlefields with dead bodies.
A little over a month of mobile operations sufficed for the military chiefs of both contenders to grasp the harsh reality: given the superiority of fire over movement, shock and protection, the defensive attitude was the one that led to less loss of blood. At moments of striking confusion the principle that “only the offensive leads to victory” gave way to a practice based on the surprised conviction that “only defence avoids defeat”. The construction of the trench systems initiated in September 1914 between the English Channel and the Swiss border, for about 765 km, transformed this real “war frontier” into a battlefield that was quite shallow and almost linear. It was as if, in fact, each contender was both besieged and besieger.
Initially, the linear defence structures were far from standard. The Germans had their infantry positioned along a first line, with the nearest support being reduced to a few machine gun positions. The British, who had prior experience on this matter from the Boer War, soon adopted the three-line system – front, support and reserve – linked by zigzagging communication trenches. The lines followed an irregular route, constantly switching directions to prevent the blast from grenades exploding inside from wounding men along a great extension. This same limiting effect was also obtained should the enemy penetrate at any point along the trenches.
In the end, the British system was adopted by most of the Allied forces, although the French – ever obsessed with the offensive – were clearly late in doing so. Facing the trenches, at the distance of the launch of a hand grenade, rolls of barbed wire were placed to deaden the momentum of the enemy in the last stretch before the attack. In front of these rolls was the narrow strip of land known as ‘no man’s land’, usually under 500 metres and often no more than 50 metres wide. Immediately after the first fighting, this no man’s land resembled a lunar landscape filled with craters, where all signs of life were reduced to nightmarish images.
Living conditions in the trenches were particularly hard. During the rainy season many flooded and filled with mud. For the wounded soldiers the existence of this mud was particularly conducive to the development of serious infections. Sanitary conditions were terrifying. In no-man’s land enormous rats devoured the unburied cadavers and roamed at will through cracks in the trench walls. Foot infections – trench foot and ulcerated chilblains – caused by prolonged contact with the damp and the cold and aggravated by deficient conditions of hygiene were responsible for countless casualties on both sides, often necessitating the amputation of gangrenous limbs.
With the exception of deliberate attacks on either side, the day-to-day routine in the trenches was broken only by occasional sniper shots, the approach of reconnaissance patrols and the almost daily bombardments.
In addition to this European experience to which the Portuguese Expeditionary Corps was subjected, it should be noted that, despite the different characteristics, Angola and Mozambique also saw battle against German forces under difficult conditions that deserve emphasis. Although less intense campaigns, the great distances which had to be covered, the enormous logistics and communications difficulties and the deplorable sanitary conditions – leading to heavy non-combat casualties – contributed to a very modest strategic result, which final victory will not allow us to forget.