Book Review: The Rocky Road to the Great War: The Evolution of Trench Warfare to 1914


by Nicholas Murray

Washington: Potomac Books Inc., 2013. Pp. xx, 302. Illus., maps, plans, append., notes, biblio., index. $34.95. ISBN: 1597975532

An insightful look at the origins of trench warfare.

Prof. Murray (Leavenworth) opens by reminding the reader that field fortifications – trenches -- are an age-old feature of war, especially in sieges or where terrain favored their use.  But from the mid-eighteenth century they began to become more common, as gunpowder almost totally dominated the battlefield and as armies grew ever larger, which tended to reduce maneuvering room.  

Murray then examines the Russo-Turkish War (1877-1878), the Second Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902), the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905), and the Balkan Wars (1912-1913), and, in an appendix, the American Civil War (1861-1865)  Each of these wars began with armies maneuvering against each other in open field operations.  In each case, however, the combination of modern firepower and, in most cases, larger and larger armies, soon led to the development of extensive field fortifications, i.e., trench lines, often stretching for scores and scores of miles. 

This leads to Murray’s final chapter, “The State of Military Thinking in 1914.”  In this chapter, he examines what the various European armies thought the coming war would be like.  Viewing recent history, they believed that if the war could be won quickly during the open field operations, trench warfare could be avoided.  They were wrong, of course.  The armies of 1914 were so large, there almost literally was not enough maneuvering room, even on the Eastern Front.  Within two or three months of fighting, all the armies resorted to increasingly elaborate field fortifications.  These greatly reduced casualties, but then the armies spent most of the next four years trying to figure out how to break the stalemate.  

This is essential reading for those interested in the events of the early weeks of World War I.

Reviewer: A. A. Nofi, Review Editor   

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