In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Trench Warfare

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Resources
  • Wars of Spanish Succession and the Age of Enlightenment
  • Lines of Torres Vedras
  • New Zealand Wars
  • Crimean War
  • American Civil War
  • Second Anglo-Boer War
  • Russo-Japanese War
  • Second World War
  • Korean War
  • Vietnam War

Military History Trench Warfare
Lon Strauss
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 June 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 June 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0111


For many, trenches are synonymous with the Western Front of the First World War. Soldiers dug a scar into Europe that stretched over four hundred miles from the Belgian coast to the Swiss border. Yet entrenchments were nothing new to warfare. Soldiers had built temporary field fortifications, ditches, and obstacles of various kinds between themselves and their enemy for centuries. Most notably in siege warfare, trenches became an integral part of the dance armies played out with each other. However, armies utilized trenches beyond siege warfare, especially from the 18th century onward. The main scholarly debate over trench warfare is how technology influenced its application and adoption. The other is about the influence of cultural motivations that put an emphasis on morale and a soldier’s ability to overcome the defensive measures of digging in. Entrenchments allowed officers more control over soldiers, which deterred desertion, but they also saved lives. Since soldiers could shoot more often, further, and more accurately, trenches became necessary to keep soldiers out of the open. Additionally, the tactical advantage of the defense meant that fewer soldiers could successfully hold off a larger enemy, freeing up more units for offensive action elsewhere.

General Overviews

Unfortunately, there really are not many overviews that specifically evaluate trench warfare. Saunders 2010 is one of the few that does so. Saunders argues that the influence of industrialization and the adoption of wars of annihilation altered how Europeans fought. He asserts that Napoleon introduced wars of annihilation, and that the American Civil War influenced industrialization. However, it would not be until the Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905) and the Crimean War (1853–1856) that these lessons would influence European military thinkers; since it was at the Siege of Sevastopol, during the Crimean War, that a modern interpretation of trench warfare was truly “born.” Any evaluation of trench warfare will also include Hughes 1974. Although it does not specifically address trench warfare, this volume does engage the debate over technological advancement and the effect on warfare. Finally, Murray 2013 engages the evolution of trench warfare from its humble beginning to its use in maintaining the discipline of ill-trained, less professional soldiers, and for command and control.

  • Hughes, B. P. Firepower: Weapons Effectiveness on the Battlefield, 1630–1850. New York: Scribner, 1974.

    For the most part, Hughes’s book examines the evolution of firepower and how armies employed it or adapted their tactics to it. Hughes does, however, offer some examples near the end of the book of instances where entrenchments were used, such as at Ferozeshah during the Second Anglo-Sikh War.

  • Murray, Nicholas. The Rocky Road to the Great War: The Evolution of Trench Warfare to 1914. Washington, DC: Potomac, 2013.

    In this work, Murray traces the theories and application of trench warfare from 1740 to the First World War. Emphasis is placed on evaluation of the Russo-Turkish War, Second Anglo-Boer War, Russo-Japanese War, and Balkan Wars.

  • Saunders, Anthony. Trench Warfare 1850–1950. Barnsley, UK: Pen and Sword, 2010.

    While Saunders offers a good overview of the evolution of trench warfare, his book does not contain footnotes. This is problematic, since it is likely that he may not have looked at the early technical manuals. However, he offers one of the only works that examines trench warfare.

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