Military Review English Edition July-August 2014 - Page 108

THE ROCKY ROAD TO THE GREAT WAR: The Evolution of Trench Warfare to 1914 Nicholas Murray, Washington, Potomac Books, 2013, 320 pages, $27.96 N icholas Murray examines the “theory and practice of trench warfare” to help readers understand how the belligerents found themselves deadlocked for four years. Murray, an associate professor of history at the U.S. Army’s Command and General Staff College, assesses the development and evolution of field fortifications from a theoretical or conceptual perspective using four case studies: the Russo-Turkish War, 1877-1878; the second Anglo-Boer War, 1899-1902; the Russo-Japanese War, 1904-1905; and the Balkan War among and between the lesser Balkan Powers and Turkey, 1912-1913. The conventional wisdom is that the First World War cost so many lives largely because of military incompetence shared equally among the combatants. The trenches made famous on the western front are often cited as demonstrating the stupidity of the generals who presided over the fighting. However, though incompetence abounded, it was not the only reason for the slaughter of combatants during that war. In 1914, the technology of war had outstripped conceptual thinking about warfare. Even this explanation falls short. Murray’s analysis of the development of field fortifications provides some answers as to why things happened as they did. Murray examines the evolution of field fortifications through six themes he identified from reviewing field fortification theory from 1750-1914. The themes include: using field fortifications to prevent desertion, providing physical protection for troops, enhancing fighting power, reinforcing key tactical points, providing a secure base, and dominating an area. What he found is that armies adjusted the employment and use of field fortifications to keep pace with improvements in weapons and innovation in field fortification. Belligerents, as they had always done, developed field fortifications along the best lines that the terrain afforded and accounted for differences in that terrain. Over time, these efforts led to more sophisticated, more complex, and in the end, more effective works. 106 Murray ably makes the case that army leaders carefully considered the role and use of field fortifications in any war they might fight. Even leaders from those armies who had no occasion to fight were able to analyze the use of field fortifications because it remained common until World War I for nonbelligerents to send observers to combat zones. Observers were afforded good access to the fighting by those at war. The U.S. Army and the Europeans paid close attention to fighting they observed or found themselves embroiled in, and learned many valuable lessons. Murray draws many of his observations from American observers of these campaigns. Murray’s chapter on the state of military thought in 1914 is his best. Murray debunks the claim that Ivan Bloch and others who argued that modern warfare had become impossible were ignored. Murray argues that Bloch was mistaken in much of his thinking. In any case, Ivan Bloch was not ignored. In only one particular is Murray unconvincing. His assertion that the theory of field fortifications included the idea of using them to prevent desertion is not entirely illustrated in the review of the cases he chose. His contention seems logical nonetheless. For example, deserting from a well-developed trench work would not be as easy as leaving a formation on the mov