British military historian Paddy Griffith provides an interesting introduction to the defensive tactics and techniques used on the Western Front in the First World War in Osprey's Fortress #24. While the volume is a bit overly succinct in some areas, the author provides an insightful and useful summary of the main characteristics of the defensive measures that shaped the course of the First World War in the West. Although much of the focus is on the British and German experience, there is just enough on the Belgians and French to provide some balance (although no surprise, American readers will find the AEF's trench experiences unmentioned in this account).
After a short introduction to the layout of the First World War Western Front, Griffith lays out sections on the 1914-18 operational history of fortifications, principles of defense and the design and development of the three main types of fortifications. Griffith also provides interesting notes on the sites today, which would make this volume a useful tool for anyone interested in viewing the remnants or reconstructions of First World War trench systems. One of the highlights of this volume is the seven color scenes by artist Peter Dennis (underground fighting at Fort Vaux; a British trench of 1914-5; the Battle of Cambrai 1917; British trench system on the Somme, 1916; German trenches and deep dugouts; German fortifications in depth at Third Ypres 1917; British defenses in depth, 1918). Additionally, Griffith provides one 2-D map of the Western Front and an excellent bibliography.
There are a number of interesting and often ignored points in this volume. Griffith mentions that it was actually the French in 1915 that first employed storm trooper type tactics. Another telling point about the short usefulness of "secret weapons" is that the German 420mm super howitzers failed to destroy reinforced French forts at Verdun (one fort sustained 339 hits by 420mm shells), meaning that the temporary German advantage in super heavy artillery had passed. Griffith also points out that the French invested a large part of their defense budget in 1871-1914 into fixed fortifications that failed the nation when war came - an eerie foretaste of the futility of the later Maginot Line effort. Griffith does a superb job outlining the main features of Western Front fortifications, including habitability, protection and firepower of the three main types of fortifications (pre-war permanent forts, hasty or improvised fieldworks and planned trench lines). There is a lot of material to cover in only 64 pages and inevitably, some things are left out that will disappoint some readers; Vimy Ridge and a detailed look at the Hindenburg line come to mind.
Griffith does not really assess the two methods chosen to break the trench deadlock - infiltration tactics and the tank - although he does mention the introduction of both techniques. Since Griffith mentions the re-occurrence of trench warfare up through Dien Bien Phu in 1954, readers might leave with the faulty impression that the defensive methods used in the First World War remained valid for much of the century. In fact, the methods of the First World War were an aberration and although trench warfare did re-appear in later conflicts like Korea, it was only applicable in secondary or economy of force circumstances. The type of fortification systems outlined by Griffith briefly dominated warfare, but once technology and doctrine caught up, their significance diminished greatly.
Griffith mentions two other interesting items that point to the enduring dynamics of warfare. First, Griffith mentions that the Germans quickly realized that building reinforced structures at least 6 meters underground provided safety against even the heaviest shells (the British often only dug down 2-3 meters, which made their structures vulnerable to heavy artillery). Interestingly, one of the lessons learned from Desert Storm in 1991 was that NATO forces needed the capability to penetrate at least 6 meters with precision weapons to destroy underground facilities - a capability that still eludes US aircraft with non-nuclear weapons. It seems like the lessons of 90 years ago are still relevant about survivability, and incomprehensible that this lesson needs to be periodically re-learned. The second interesting item relates to the doctrinal use of reserves in the face of a superior foe. Griffith notes that the Germans continually experimented with keeping their reserves either close to the front or further back; too close and the reserves were interdicted by British artillery, too far and they survived but arrived too late. This situation would face the Germans again in Normandy in 1944, with Allied airpower rather than artillery being the key factor influencing deployment.