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A century of mud and fire

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Geregistreerd op: 2-2-2005
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BerichtGeplaatst: 13 Jul 2006 21:30    Onderwerp: A century of mud and fire Reageer met quote

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

Three years at the front

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.
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