The Myriad Faces of Battlefield Dynamics

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As someone departing from material culture studies and being a novice in war studies, I was mesmerized by a quote of the French historians Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau and Anette Becker who wrote: “It is striking how much historians, though they profess to be discussing war, are cut off from areas of relevant knowledge. Weapons, for example – how they are used, how they work, and what effect they have – are outside the competence of most of them …”1

My presentation shall try to bypass this blind spot and emphasize the material, the geographical, and the technological dimension of war. Thereby I hope to thematize the question in which ways new weaponry and the bodily materiality of trenches and frontlines influenced the self-perception of soldiers so that they could not only survive but also endure the mass-slaughter for such a long, inconceivable period of time. The popular view of the First World War is heavily influenced by a darkly painted tableau of the Western front, which epitomizes the futility of war and accuses ignorant generals willfully sacrificing their men.

As I shall argue later on – matters are much more complicated – and the Great War, in spite of the many casualties and victims, can also be perceived as some huge, although not planned and of course very costly “experiment”. An experiment how to coordinate modern weapons such as machine-guns or portable trench mortars with sophisticated assault tactics in novel ways and how to utilize the technical skills of map-making, meteorology, and ballistics for a more accurate assessment of battlefield specificities. Thus, warfare for the first time became a truly science- and technology-driven affair.

The presentation shall consist of three parts. Firstly, I will compare the combat zones in the West with those grooving across the harsh limestone plateau above the Isonzo River and I shall thereby reveal decisive factors of battlefield dynamics such as the intricate reciprocity of geography, geology, technology, and tactics. Whereas combatants in the West feared less geomorphology than artillery, soldiers in the Carso war of attrition were foremost paralyzed by cascades of falling rock triggered by heavy artillery bombardment of rugged terrain.

Secondly, I will re-read military history with the means of Science Technology Studies in order to better understand how sophisticated (automatic) weaponry remodeled the minds and bodies of front-line soldiers. Thirdly, I will point to the emergence of the three-dimensional battlefield through better coordinated armed service branches on the ground and in the air. By sketching this new constellation, the conventional macro-perspective of an overall static conflict shall be relativized and the importance of flexiblized assault/defense tactics and new concepts of combat space as well as forces’ mobility will be underscored.

In 1916 Henri Barbusse was one of the first French belligerents to narrate the horrors of the Western front as Erich Maria Remarque did it for German audiences more than a decade later. Though Le Feu2 is foremost a masterly peace of literature, the novella is also a touching eyewitness account of what it meant to be a captive of the evolving Western front inferno. Barbusse focuses the reader’s perspective on a strange world where endless plains are zigzagged by trenches, piled up with ragged barbed wire, smashed pieces of steel and wood, and pierced by countless shell craters.

But more than constant artillery bombardment and gun fire, the French “Poilu” feared a landscape, which by an uncanny convergence of technology and harsh weather conditions had been turned into some nightmarish, grey-colored scenery of mud and water-flooded dug-outs drowning or burying soldiers alive. What defined the Western front was not only the sudden change from a war of movement to a static trench warfare but in similar scale geological features such as clay and soft soil which under constant rain transformed into chewy, sucking ground.

Flanders mud became a notoriously dreaded zone of combat with its own logic and dynamic of fighting and surviving. The effects of artillery fire were greatly reduced when shells exploded in sticky loam. But shell holes quickly filled up with water, that could not be drained away, and chewy soil drastically slowed down the attack of troops for which the shelling was supposed to be a relieving preparation. Equally hindered was the transport of supplies, heavy guns and ammunition, and troop reinforcements got lost in the mire of the hinterland forcing their frontline comrades to leave already conquered positions.

Mass attacks became a dreadful practice since the soldiers had great difficulties scrambling out of slippery trenches and their tardy advance over tenacious ground offered the Germans ample opportunities to machine-gun them down in large numbers. As the American military geographers Douglas Wilson Johnson and Tasker H. Bliss noticed:

“Rifles became so clogged that they could not be fired; and, when they were wrapped in cloth to keep the mechanism clean, were not ready for in-stant use. The wounded lay half buried in the mud, and many were suffocated. Even the well and strong were caught in fatal mud traps (…). In a British assault on the low clay mound near St. Eloi in April, 1916, the attackers had to lie flat and distribute their weight evenly in order to prevent sinking into the mire. As it was, a number of the men were engulfed and suf-focated.”3

It took the belligerents powers on the Western front ample time and huge technical efforts to cope with a geological formation which might have been beneficial for agriculture but had a devastating impact on the daily conduct of war.

Water, liquid loam, and torrential rain filling in dugouts and foxholes made everyday life unbearable and diseases such as the infamous “trench foot” from long exposure to cold mud, or dysentery caused by contaminated water severely weakened morale and combat strength of the troops on both sides. Only when some better entrenchments, which through wood floors spared soldiers the burden to stand in knee-deep or even waist-deep water, were implemented and only when a sophisticated system of drainage and dewatering pipes was constructed, frontline service could be endured more easily.

If we look at the Carso front, which means a rather small sector of the Austro-Italian Southwestern front at the Isonzo River, geographical conditions for soldiers were quite different. There was not loam or soft chalky ground that prefigured the logic of combat and shaped the battlefield, and it was not mud respectively chewy and sucking ground which soldiers put into danger to be smothered or suffocated.

Rather it were razor-sharp spall by which combatants were killed when shells exploded upon the stony chalk. The Italian liaison officer to the British high command, Colonel Filippo De Filippi, described the war in this nasty upland only covered with scanty vegetation as truly hellish experience:

„You have often heard or read of the “Carso Maledetto,“where trenches and shelters have to be hewn out of the solid rock. It has become a vast cemetery of our men, still more of Austrians: a cemetery without dead. The rocky ground does not permit the digging of graves, and the dead have to be transported side by side with the wounded to find a resting-place in the valley at the foot of the plateau. (…) The effect of the enemy’s shells bursting upon this rocky ground was extremely deadly, on account of the innumerable rock splinters, which greatly multiplied the effects of the projec-tiles.”4

In comparison to the battlefields at the Western front that mostly stretched over sloppy hills, loam and soft soil, the Isonzo battles were mostly fought on this damned flat-topped plateau, a dry, wind-swept desert of roughly 50 square kilometers size, situated between the city of Gorizia, the city of Monfalcone, and the Adriatic Sea close to Rainer Maria Rilke’s romantic fishing village of Duino.

The Austro-Italian front differed from other battlegrounds of the Great War in some important respects. It stretched from the glacier-covered peaks of the Ortler, the Great Adamello and the Dolomites to the Carnic Alps, and finally to the Italian Eastern front with the Carso plateau as its center of combat gravitation.

Though especially the fighting in the Dolomites became infamous because of the terrible causalities caused by avalanches and mine explosions, blowing up entire mountain fortifications, it was specifically this wasteland and its locations of Monte San Michele, Doberdò, and Monte Hermada which soon acquired a frightening reputation because of grim and never-ending battles of materiél.

In addition to the nightmare of mechanized warfare, more easily to be implemented in the hills and plains than in the mountains, troops on both sides had to cope with drastic climatic conditions: hot summers in a waterless desert full of shell craters, smashed-up trenches, unexploded artillery shells and barbed wire, and during wintertime soldiers were buffeted by the bora, a fierce cold wind which turned the battlefield into a storm-ridden landscape of ice and snow.

A touching eyewitness account of how nerve-straining the fighting especially in the Doberdò area was, are the memoirs of Joseph Gál who served as Hungarian Honvéd infan-tryman during the 6th Isonzo battle in August 1916. In his book entitled In Death’s fortress Gál wrote:

“It is now the tenth day that we have inactively listened to the artillery barrages nerve-killing explosions. The shells have devastated the entire area; they have created a real hell for us. Like rats among ruins, we run from one place to another. Regardless of where we hide, in the following second like scared rabbits we jump out from among the ruins and, being accompanied by the death-rattles of our severely wounded comrades (…). Every single minute of a day like wandering souls we run here and there or possibly we push over to a blood-soaked piece of broken rock so that we can find some protection. These are indescribable tortures.”5

The intricate reciprocity of technology, geology, and the massing of troops produced a new kind of war landscape in the Carso which literally unified men and stone. The Austrian staff officer Constantin Schneider wrote in his memoirs that men were simply treated like stones, and both – men and stones – were intermingled to something what could be called a “fortification”. Behind those rocks lay men, guarded those, and let it more less passively happen to be smashed by and through these rocks.6

Schneider’s remarks underline once more how different the interaction and dynamics of geology, technology, and war practices in the West and at the Italian front worked out. Soldiers in the West had to find ways how to better cope with mud, blocked mobility and deadly artillery fire, and how to circumvent the stalemate by new flexible assault tactics. Soldiers in the Carso had to find ways how to protect themselves more efficiently against the deadly mixture of up-hurled boulders and shell splinters and how to turn geological disadvantage into gains of defensive tactics. As reportedly one of the Austrian defenders said: “We have but to retain possession of a terrain fortified by nature”.7

In order to better understand the evolution of trench warfare in both places, it might be worthwhile to re-read military history with the means of STS – Science Technology Studies. This evolutionary process was not only the effect of a violent “rite de passage” as analyzed by Eric Leed8 but also the consequence of entirely new men-machine-landscape interactions. In my view this reciprocal dynamics of subjectivity, automatic weapons, and war landscapes might be adequately disclosed by approaches elaborated by scholars such as Bruno Latour9 and Stephen Woolgar for the understanding of laboratory processes.

Though their primary objects of research had been biological, physical, and chemical artifacts with some references to wider socio-technical contexts, one can extent their analytical tools to the study of modern, science-based warfare. Roughly speaking, STS consider human actors as dynamic factors within a network of material “actants”, technological gadgets and scientific facts. None of them is a fixed entity but rather all entities interact with each other and are intermixed through processes of transcription, mutation, and transformation.

Thus humans remain not clearly separated from the world of things; on the contrary through science-based innovations subjective competences are transferred into material things and vice versa sophisticated techno-objects transfer their hidden programs into human agency hence creating uncanny hybrids of men and combat artifacts.

If machine-guns can fire up to 500 rounds per minute and a heavy mortar shell can kill half a regiment at once by explosive impact and innumerous splinters of steel and stone, then a new universe and epistemology of war is created. This new universe of war implies the total subjection of soldiers to forces of technological destruction, which are beyond their individual control and comprehension and condemn them to passiveness, random strategies of survival, and a fatalistic worldview in the trenches.

The novel epistemology of war gives birth to feedback-based systems of technological development, applied sciences, rational modes of production, weapon logistics, and tactics. Thus, for example machine-guns and their crews cannot be adequately conceptualized as singular units alone but have to be seen as actors within networks of machines, gunners, supply and repairing units, transport systems, engineers – calculating improved modes of shooting techniques, and finally specialized commands – applying the new science-based knowledge of photographic surveillance, mathematical ballistics, and wireless communication.

As a result the crude division of labor in mechanized mass-killing at the Isonzo, the contradiction between rationalized combat logic and individual incomprehension, the close interaction of real and imagined battles, and the overlapping of real targets and their abstract representations, such as air reconnaissance pho-tos, created a schizophrenic experience of war. This “trench schizophrenia” separated inci-dents from causes, dissociated events from narrations, and chapped nerves from their bodies.

The battle of materiél in the Carso favored some Ernst Jünger-type of warrior fully adapted to the requirements of mechanical precision, cold-mindedness, and targeted aggression; in short it favored storm-troopers full of daring. The battlefield geography is no arbitrary momentum within the overall hybridization of men and killing machines as it took place in ever more increasing intensity. Rather geography represents, as the difference between the Western and Italian front reveals a crucial factor in it. Geological circumstances remodeled soldiers equally as new weaponry, and the techno-materiality of the war landscape became an intrinsic, agency-guiding moment of battlefield dynamics.

But this novel epistemology of war did not imply some encompassing and long-lasting passiveness and standstill. Rather combatants, staff officers, technicians, experts in various branches of surveillance, meteorology, geology, ballistics, communications etc. began to learn how to wage war more rationally, so to say more scientifically. Hence passiveness intermingled with an agency which turned soldiers into “industrial warriors” accustomed to perceive their weapons as some “organic” extension of their senses and their bodies.

In particular the battles of attrition during 1916 gave birth to new tactics, lighter and better portable weapons such as the British Stokes mortar or the slim version of the heavy Austrian Schwarzlose machine-gun. The invaluable combat experience of surviving elderly soldiers, trial-and-error experiments by raiding parties using hand grenades, flamethrowers, and flexible assault methods, a more flattened hierarchy among frontline units, creeping artillery barrages, and the creation of shock troops thus altered the character and the logics of battlefield dynamics.

In the Carso for example, the Austrians began to scientifically exploit the geological features of the chalkstone landscape by using natural caves, sink holes, and “dolinas” as integral component of their trench system, enforced those slots with steel and concrete, and implemented a flexible strategy of defense against the overwhelming strength of the Italian forces.

Instead of using machine-guns as mere supplement of infantry firepower, the Schwarzlose guns were now well-entrenched and tactically well-positioned to mow down waves of opponents while scarce artillery support was used to beat back the then heavily weakened enemy. The new strategy also implied that Italian attacks were suddenly rebutted by storm-trooper units occu-pying lost territory and preparing it for regular units to endure further fighting and to hold the line.

And during the 12th Isonzo battle, the Austro-Hungarian forces with crucial support of German troops could turn atrocious stalemate, which had brought them close to military collapse, into mobile warfare, achieving some surprising victory at Caporetto, and making a rap-id advance into the heart of Northern Italy until the Piave River. Preconditions of this – as we know – only temporary success had been the camouflaged build-up of large numbers of troops in the rear, the merciless utilization of poison gas, the bypassing of heavily fortified Italian mountain positions, and the use of improved communication means enabling flexible maneuvering and surprise attacks such as Erwin Rommel’s seizure of the Monte Matajur.

After the bloody and costly battles at Verdun and the Somme, the Western front became also a laboratory for new tactics, strategic exploitation of geography, and the application of more efficient assault techniques. Two crucial technological innovations contributed to this – the invention and development of automatically lit hand grenades and the Stokes rapid-fire infantry mortar.

While the Mills grenade was at first solely used by specialized bombing squads, it became later on an ordinary infantry device of which more than ten millions were put into action. Reliable hand grenades and light portable mortars together with the easy-to-carry Lewis machine-guns enabled far more flexible attacks, tactical retreats, and renewed assaults on enemy positions.

By 1917, the purpose of bombing was not about directly killing the enemy but much more forcing him into a lethal zone where the British could kill German troops with small arms, machine-guns, and the very accurately firing Stokes mortar. Often Stokes batteries were part of a much larger arrangements, in which raiding parties with light weapons and fixed mortar units in the rear were neatly concerted with heavy artillery that by now made effectively use of aerial photography and wireless communication.

In late 1917 British artillery could rely on sophisticated ballistics taking into account the weight of shells, muzzle velocity, air temperature, and barrel accuracy enabling gunners to hit targets precisely even in the far rear of the German frontline. Probably the most important aspect in the evolution of trench warfare was, as Anthony Saunders suggests, the comprehensive remodeling of infantry corporate culture.

“While the platoon of 1914 was trained in musketry and bayonet (…), the infantry platoon of 1918 was an all-weapons unit. Everyone in the platoon of 1918 was trained in musketry, bayonet fighting and bombing, while experience of the light machine-gun was widespread among the infantry, especially so for the Lewis gun …”10

In my closing argument I shall link up my analysis of the battlefield dynamics with the conference’s leading themes of “Geo-Politics” and “Tectonics of Space.” As I have hopefully demonstrated in sufficient clarity, the concepts of space and spatiality remarkably changed during the war. Firstly, the trench spaces experienced significant innovations equally in technical-tactical respect as in their psychological dimensions exemplified through the “industrialized” soldier.

Although trenches were not permanently places of hardship, suffering, and death, but also places of boredom, some relaxation, and even minor pleasures, in significant ways trenches were also sites of experimentation and laboratories for learning how to survive and how to achieve advantages over the enemy. This “learning process” on a micro-level implied that soldiers on both sides became closely mingled with sophisticated war machinery.

They absorbed not only the harsh philosophy of industrialized warfare, but in a very bodily sense incorporated the logic of modern weaponry that radically suspended the borders between the organic and the inorganic. The thereby instigated “technification of souls” made them not only appearing like “men of steel” trying to become masters of the trenches and experts of survival but also altered their subjective perception of space.

Space was denaturalized and became a suffocating jug that threatened soldiers to be devoured into diluted loam, debris, and spall as it equally became a utopian mindscape for relieving moments of mobility, fighting, and escape from the perils of war. In this respect, shock troopers respectively storm-troopers might be seen as paradigmatic warriors since they embodied more than others the intimate hybridization of men, technology, and geology.

But their post-war biographies varied signifi-cantly. Most British and Canadian shock troopers rather easily found their path into civilian life whereas many German, Hungarian, Austrian storm-troopers and in particular Italian assault-troopers joined right-wing militias putting up the arch of retroactive trench experience from democratic until totalitarian conceptions of post-war politics. It is not accidental that many early followers of Benito Mussolini’s fascist movement were recruited from demobi-lized Reparti d’Assalto units, which George M. Trevelyan characterized as follows:

“Skill in flame-throwing, bomb-throwing, and the dagger at close quarters are their favorite arts; holding the trenches by rifle fire after their capture is left to the ordinary regiments of infantry. Indeed, the Ardito lives in an atmosphere of bombs and flames.”11

Secondly, space seen from a macro-perspective also fundamentally changed during the course of war. The plain two-dimensional space of Napoleonic warfare, based on geometric orders of battle and supervised by an ideally ingenious up-hill high command, turned into a sprawling and confusing three-dimensional combat zone hardly to be commanded properly, constantly exposed to surprise, logistic default, and overwhelming mechanized violence.

Nevertheless, also on this macro-level a significant technology-driven “learning curve” took place albeit on the expenses of millions of casualties. In the closing months of the Great War, the concept of the “deep battle” had been well-elaborated, imagining space now reaching as far as into the aviator’s sky and into the depth of the enemy’s hinterland as well as to the bottom of submarine maneuvering.

This new strategy of coordinating mobile all-weapons forces including tanks and motorized supply units on the ground, and bombing and surveillance powers from the air, revolutionized military strategy. Although this revolution of the tectonics of “war landscapes” and the altered concept of Geo-Politics was not all that evident in 1918, its aftermath nevertheless created cunning “blueprints” for further wars to come: Wars of massive area bombardment, “Blitzkrieg” tank wars, “wolf pack” submarine warfare, large amphibious landing operations, and wars of merciless mass violence against civilians as analyzed in Timothy Snyder’s stunning book Bloodlands.12


Paper given at the IFK conference „The Geo-Politics of the Great War 1900–1930“ (6–8 October 2011).

1 Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau, Anette Becker, 1914-1918. Understanding the Great War, London 2002, 19.

2 Henri Barbusse, Le Feu. Journal D’Une Escouade, Paris 1916.

3 Douglas Wilson Johnson and Tasker H. Bliss, Battlefields of the World War, Western and Southern Fronts: A Study in Military Geography, New York 1921, 24.

4 Filippo de Filippi, The Geography of the Italian Front, in: The Geographical Journal, Vol. LI/No. 2 (1918), 73.

5 Joseph G l, In Death’s Fortress, translated by John F. Csomor, New York 1991, 126.

6 Constantin Schneider, Die Kriegserinnerungen 1914–1919. Eingeleitet, kommentiert und herausgegeben von Oskar Dohl, Wien 2003, 375.

7 Quoted in: Johnson, Bliss, Battlefields, 562.

8 Eric J. Leed, No Man’s Land. Combat & Identity in World War I, Cambridge 1979.

9 For example: Bruno Latour, Pandora’s Hope. Essays on the Reality of Science Studies. Harvard University Press 1999.

10 Anthony Saunders, Trench Warfare 1850-1950, Barnsley 2010, 151.

11 G. M. Trevelyan, Scenes from Italy’s War, London 1919, pp. 86.

12 Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands. Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, New York 2010.


Lutz Musner, PD Dr., Associate Director, IFK_Internationales Forschungszentrum Kulturwissenschaften an der Kunstuniversität Linz. 2002 Fulbright Visiting Professor at Duke University; 2008 Habilitation (venia legendi) for “Kulturwissenschaft”, Humboldt-University at Berlin and 2010 Gutenberg Fellow at the University of Mainz. In 2011 he received the “Victor-Adler-Staatspreis für Geschichte sozialer Bewegungen“. Publications (among others): with Wolfgang Maderthaner, L’autoliquidation de la raison. Les sciences de la culture et la crise du social, Paris 2010; Der Geschmack von Wien. Kultur und Habitus einer Stadt, Frankfurt/Main 2009

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