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Last Updated: Tuesday, 27 June 2006, 11:41 GMT 12:41 UK
A century of mud and fire
By Patrick Jackson
BBC News

On the eve of the 90th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme, a look at how wars of attrition have continued into our own times.

Ethiopian troops withdraw from Senafe, Eritrea, in February 2001
It may never be known how many died in the Horn of Africa war

Lt Ludwig Breyer, a hero of Erich Maria Remarque's World War I novel The Road Back, returns from the German trenches in 1918 "smelling of blood" and stricken with incurable syphilis.

He picked up the disease - a powerful image for a ruined generation of young men - while on three days' leave behind the lines in Brussels:

"Tomorrow back to the howl of shells, grenades, flame-throwers, blood and annihilation... but today, for just one more time, the experience of tender, sweet skin that attracts you imperceptibly like life itself."

A year into the 21st Century and Andualem Ayalew of the Ethiopian army takes his own road back from the Eritrean front.

He is also a lieutenant and along with his gunshot wounds he also carries an infection: HIV contracted from a war front prostitute.

Behind him lie bunkers and trenches in a terrain littered with shattered tanks, ahead of him the prospect of thrown out of the military without a pension.

He is a soldier of the trenches, one among millions dug in on a line zigzagging across the 20th Century, from Mukden in China to the Somme, through Korea and on to the Fao Peninsula in Iraq.


Wars of attrition date back, at the very least, to the land battles of the 1904-05 Russo-Japanese War such as Mukden.

I lied and pretended to be 18 because I like the army and was set on joining
Lt Andualem Ayalew, Ethiopian army

The 1998-2000 Horn of Africa conflict in which Lt Ayalew served and the 1980-88 fight between Iran and Iraq are the two most striking recent examples of such wars.

"Modern, professional militaries take the manoeuvrist approach," says Amyas Godfrey, a military analyst at the Royal United Services Institute in London.

"No-one wants to fight trench warfare. It is incredibly demoralising and saps your resources. Every time you see it emerge, it is down to having large conscript armies ill-equipped for great attacks or very complicated manoeuvres."

Mr Godfrey outlines how World War I became deadlocked for similar reasons:

"The sides fielded professional armies in open warfare for two months without digging a trench, all of August and September 1914.

When you have somebody who has only gone through training for three or four weeks, there is not a lot they can do except sit in a trench and defend it
Amyas Godfrey
military analyst, RUSI

"Then both armies expended all their energy and could not do anything else.

"They needed to rest but neither side wanted to give up any territory so they backfilled their armies with this sudden mass of volunteers, then conscripts.

"And when you have somebody who has only gone through training for three or four weeks, there is not a lot they can do except sit in a trench and defend it."

In the Iran-Iraq War, "the armies were largely conscript and pretty much matched each other", he adds.

Accounts abound of initial poor leadership on both sides, whether it was Iranian soldiers commanded by clerics or Iraqi troops under officers promoted for political loyalty.

The wars in the Gulf and the Horn were waged along national borders with limited room for manoeuvre, even when tanks and aircraft - weapons invented to overcome trench warfare - were on hand.

The flat spaces of Iraq's frontier Fao Peninsula became lined with trenches as the Iraqis spent most of the war on the defensive.

Unknown numbers

Much of the Iranian effort, at least initially, lay in charging those trenches with Somme-like "human waves" into a field of fire from machine-guns and massed artillery.

Iraqi soldier leaves his trench to pray
An Iraqi soldier prays: The war with Iran dragged on eight years

One of the worst aspects of wars of attrition is the sheer loss of life.

Between half a million and 1.5m people were killed overall in Iran-Iraq. In the Horn, the death toll is usually described vaguely as "tens of thousands".

"Whom do you ask about the casualties in most post-War [WW2] conflicts?" says Anthony Cordesman, a strategy analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

"The governments in the developing world, intelligence analysts, strategists and non-governmental agencies? You might as well hold a wet finger up to the wind and wait till it dries."

While futile charges against enemy guns - also a salient feature of the Horn fighting - account for many losses, along with minefields and hazards such as disease, it is often the weapons used to break the deadlock which cause the most damage.

Iraq prided itself on its artillery, raining down massive barrages on the Iranians, and eventually turned to another, arguably more terrifying World War I tactic, the use of poison gas shells.

Moving on

Today's British soldiers are still trained to dig three-metre trenches - "harbours" as they call them - but they never expect to use them for more than 24 hours.

Professional armies may have moved on but analyst Amyas Godfrey believes that trench warfare is "never going to go away".

But any major new war of attrition, he says, would largely happen in the developing world.

So the jagged trench line which links Remarque's generation with Lt Ayalew's will probably, eventually, turn a new corner.

Is military history doomed to repeat itself? Have you ever found yourself caught up in horrors similar to those of the trenches?

Your comments:

Arthur White's comment is spot on. War is an international business, BIG business. Trillions of dollars are spent on arms globally. WW2 brought the world out of the Great Depression and the USA emerged a super-power, with a huge industrially base dependant upon conflict. War is a great money maker, who are the shareholders? Until we REALLY start thinking for ourselves it will just keep on happening.
Steve Roy, Fremantle, Western Australia

In response to KW's remarks about General Haig winning the war, I would disagree to a substantial degree. General Haig merely kept the stalemate and condemned millions to death. If like the Canadians who introduced tactics that would end the war, he had at least gone to the front and seen the conditions his troops fought under, the result might have been different. In the end the war was won because Germany was exhausted, Canadians tactics had proved superior and the US was bringing in new men and equipment to turn the tide. War is a terrible thing but Generals who destroy the lives of their men, far worse.
BK, Toronto, Canada

My great uncle on my mother's side (British) was in the Kensington Regiment. He was a professional soldier with a wife and children. He was killed in the 1915 attacks in Picardy and his body was never found. A couple of years I was the first of my American family to find his monument in Ploegsteert on the Belgian-French border. This huge monument is for the unknown dead of the 1915 battles and there was uncle's name, Percy Mee, carved on the wall.

The poor devil died in a stupid war which Britain blundered into, ran badly and gave the professional officer corps free hand which led to the massive unneeded slaughter infantry being mowed down by machine guns. Once the Americans came into the Great War they, led by Pershing, a stern man whose ineptness is now known, allowed his brave young, eager infantry to be slaughtered at Belleau Wood and other fields by exactly the same stupid idea that attacking infantry could overcome massed machine guns.

Although the Iraqi war is similarly a war we should never have entered at least one can take comfort that the American officer corps is far better trained than its great grandfather-officers and that the American public is far more aware than those of 1918 of the blunders that have and occurred in this miserably planned war. God save us from civilian leaders who have never known what war is.

I was wounded in the final battles of the Korean conflict and am probably alive today because I was sent to a Mash hospital before the final assaults on my regiment killed many boys from my hometown.
Robert Charles McLaughlin, Falls Church, Virginia, USA

My grandfather, Carl H Schaeffer, served in the American Expeditionary Force in WW1 with the 305th Field Artillery based out of NY City. He spoke little and seldom of his experiences, mentioning only the hunger and mud he encountered constantly. I learned of the battles in which he participated only through crumbling military documents. (Seeing the Order of Battle, I suspect his unit was one that fired in support of the "Lost Battalion" in which US artillery rained down on their own men - one more reason to not speak of his experiences.) I often thought it tragically strange that he, of German descent, would be killing Germans some of whom might well have been distant relatives. May he and all those who served and died in "the Great War" rest in peace.
Fred Burton, Marshville, NC, USA

So long as there are politicians able to send others to fight their wars for them, there will continue to be wars. The best solution is a politically-informed and active citizenry.
Lord Thomas Postlewaite, Leeds, UK

Questions should of course be asked about the fighting of any war. However I believe on a day which marks the anniversary of the commencement of one of history's bloodiest battles, this is an opportunity not to question the sanctity of the causes for which these individuals fought, but rather to applaud their courage in answering a call to sell their lives to protect the interests of others. We must never forget men and women of all nationalities prepared to give their lives that we have the freedom to express our opinion within these pages.
David Simpson, Edinburgh, UK

Yes. My uncle (Irish Guards) died at Ginchy on Sept. 16. His brother died fighting the British in 1921. Another brother died on Corregidor in 1945 (503d Parachute Regimental Combat Team). I served in Korea and was very lucky to survive. (My unit took 200-percent casualties.) I was drafted. My son served in Vietnam. He served early in the war (1965), because he had a commitment as a Reserve Officers Training Corps student while at university. I thought WWII, Korea and the Irish War of Independence were "legitimate" wars. (Vietnam wasn't; Iraq isn't.) Wars are caused by venal politicians and dictators, and stupid generals in WWI and Vietnam were responsible for the horrendous losses. Madness; when will it ever end?
Joe O'Connor, Worcester, USA

Swing and cycles folks, what goes around comes around. The only winners are the weapons manufacturers and the munitions makers and big oil and the media. Bad news makes for big audiences, readers and listener groups which conversely make for big advertising bucks. What happens to people and the environment do's not matter to any of them. It is all about money
Paul Kinney, Penrith, NSW, Australia

Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it. But people don't learn. And mankind comes up with easier and more technologically advanced ways of butchering itself. Sun Tzu said centuries ago that politics has no place in war. Politicians have never heeded this, and this alone has resulted in millions of un-necessary deaths. I am grateful that I have never experienced war first hand. But I am envious of the kinship that exists between soldiers who have seen action - a bond that is forged in fire, sealed in blood and is unbreakable, even in death.

As a photographer I spent two days and nights in a trench in Northern Bosnia under a heavy bombardment, just one of many. The first few explosions fill you with fear then, as the bombing continues and you watch them carry away men that only minutes earlier were sat next to you, numbness overcomes you, just waiting for the inevitable. This was only 12 years ago; the photos that I took are no different to the ones in 1914. Will we ever learn?
Steve Chapman, Plymouth

It's easy to send troops to the front line from a general or politician's armchair. I recommend that if a politician is not prepared to send his own sons to the frontline then he shouldn't send someone else's son to the front line.
Abdullah, UK

Wars like the Eritrean-Ethiopian War repeat the horrors of the past because the leaders care more about a worthless border area of hills and sand, rather than the lives of their people.
S. Meath, Perth, Australia

My father Frank Guy was one of the fortunate few who survived the horrors of the Somme. He was born on the 5th July 1898 and was in France by the time he was 17.He joined the Royal Field Artillery.

His task was to take ammunition to the front line in horse drawn wagons; I understand they had a crew of two. My father had the reins.

He was a very quiet man who never talked about the war except when he and his brothers got together. My father told a story about a soldier who had been tied to a gun wheel for punishment; he was undaunted by his situation and just kept singing, the song most clear in my fathers memory was 'Till the sands of the desert grow cold'.

He also recalled a more sombre occasion; he and the other soldier were taking ammunition to the front when a shell burst quite close to them. His friend was killed and had severe facial injuries but he had to keep going. He said he was very lucky... he only suffered shock.

After the war my father became a train driver on the London District Line for the duration of WW2 and until he retired. He witnessed the aftermath of the bomb explosion at platform level on the Central Line Bank Station. The bomb fell down a ventilation shaft. He volunteered to man the lift to take the injured and the dead up to street level.

My father and my mother now share the same grave here in Somerset.
E. Guy, South Petherton, Somerset.

Jac Radoff's letter is certainly a winner. Good stuff. Too bad we never learn enough about making war. Politicians and the military never make good bedfellows - or do they, for each other?!
John Murray, Seabright, Canada

Mr Radoff needs to get his facts straight. It was General Sir Henry Rawlinson that was commanding the forces on 1 July 1916 - Fourth Army, to be precise. The battleground was fully reconnoitred and Haig and Rawlinson were painfully aware of the deficiencies (not "non-effect") of their artillery. And to suggest that the head of the army should accompany troops into battle is, frankly, laughable.

Oh, and let's not forget that Haig and his generals did actually win the war, with fewer than one million British dead (rather than the "millions lead to bloody slaughter" claims one so often hears). Why have Haig's countrymen and allies never forgiven him?

My father served in the british army in WW1. I served in the Australian army in WW2. My son served in the Australian army in Vietnam. My seven grandsons are of age to serve. When will this madness ever end!?
Mr D Gildersleeve, Fremantle, Australia

Douglas Haig commanded all British forces on 1 July 1916, and gave the order that sent these men over the top to their doom. He knew nothing of the enemy's defenses, or of the non-effect of his artillery preparations; or what was happening to them on the bloody battlefield. For he did not accompany them. He knew politics. He knew how to get appointed as their commander. And he knew also how to avoid the blame. Is this history important? You bet your life.
Jac Radoff, New York City USA

It is the duty of all able bodied young men to serve their country. There will always be tyrants who must be defeated in order for there to be peace afterwards. Stupid and unnecessary wars ie. Vietnam, Iraq and WWI for example should NOT be fought. WWII was a necessary war and was worth the carnage and suffering.
Joe Terry, Vietnam vet, Guadalupe, CA USA

How can there be any peace when the largest arms dealers are the USA, Uk, France & China
Arthur White, Fremantle , Australia

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