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War in the Trenches

The German army nearly succeeded in winning a quick victory against France in 1914. German troops poured through Belgium and advanced to within 15 miles of Paris, the French capital. In September, however, French and British troops stopped the German advance at the Marne River. After the Battle of the Marne, the fighting bogged down. Neither side was able to win a clear victory. A "stalemate" developed. For three years the two armies faced each other and fought without making a move forward or backward more than a few miles.

With no victory in sight, both sides dug trenches for protection. These long ditches stretched for 400 miles across Belgium and France. The line of trenches was called the Western Front. Soldiers on both sides lived for months in the muddy trenches, with enemy shells exploding continually nearby. Between the trenches of the two sides was “no man’s land”—a wasted zone of mud, barbed wire, and land mines. In trench war fare, troops from one side or the other would go “over the top”—rush out of the trenches— and try to break through the enemy lines.

Soldiers lived in the trenches, eating and sleeping during the day and digging more trenches during the night. Troops had no way to protect themselves from bad weather, enemy shells, or poison gas. To make matters worse, the trenches were infested with rats and lice. Many soldiers died from diseases or the cold.

Attacks "over the top" across "no man's land" were met with machine-gun fire and seldom succeeded. In just one day during the first Battle of the Somme, July 1, 1916, the British lost 60,000 men - and gained not one inch of territory. The battle continued for months. When it ended in November, British casualties totaled 450,000. French losses were 195,000, and 650,000 German soldiers lay dead or wounded. For all their losses during all that time, the Allied Powers advanced less than eight miles during the battle.

As the war went on, new weapons—poison gas and tanks—increased the number of dead and wounded.
Both sides also used another relatively new invention, the airplane, to observe and attack enemy positions. Millions of soldiers were lost on both sides. In the east, the armies of the Central Powers and the Russian forces also faced each other along miles of trenches, with neither side able to win a clear victory.



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