Authenticity: Site Construction and Maintenance at Newville, PA

This category relates specifically to the Newville, PA site where our primary events are held. One notion that must always be maintained is that what was true for the other belligerent armies was not necessarily the same for the French. While there are certain universals regarding the construction of field fortification, French positions were unique from those of its allies. The subject of French army entrenchments can not be studied without viewing it in the context of the midset of the État-Major ("High-Command"), which rested entirely on the notion of offense, both on the strategic and tactical levels.

Many generals, particularly the most senior commanders, refused to accept the fundamental reality of the war that came about with the first trench systems in the fall and winter of 1914. To them, trench warfare was simply a transitional stage of the war which would eventually be broken with the transition made back to open warfare again. This view was reinforced with the fact that France had been invaded and French sacred soil under German occupation. On the tactical level, French army doctrine of the time emphasized the offensive solely. The État-Major feared that if their men were permitted to dig deep, formidable entrenchments, a bunker-mentality would develop. The men would lose their offensive-spirit and become content to stay where they were. This was something that had to be absolutely avoided.

Following this line of thought, the État-Major saw no reason to invest a significant amount of time and resources in entrenchment training or supplies before the war. Only the génies ("engineers") were given this specialized training and there were far too few of these units. Instead the men taught themselves by learning from their own experiences in the field. This helps to explain the governing force over all trench construction and indeed the French army as a whole: System D. The 'D' came from the verb débrouiller ("to muddle through") as it appears in the context of the phrase "on se débrouillera toujours" ("we'll always muddle through"). Under this system, problems which could not sort themselves out were resolved through improvisation. Ironically, this marks one of the greatest virtues of the French soldier. And it was reflected manifestly in the patchwork appearance of French positions; moreso in this army than those seen in the British or German lines. They involved a combination of various types of trench revetments used in conjunction with each other. The absence of any revetment was also a common site in French trenches.

Acceptable revetting techniques include the use of claies ("wattles"), gabions and fascines, sandbags, logs and wood planks. Wattling, the most common form of revetment in French trenches, was an interlaced fencing of sticks woven between vertical stakes. When digging proved more difficult, such as in particularly wet or rocky soil, gabions and fascines were more often employed. Gabions were cylindrical wattled revetments (like bottomless baskets) placed on top of the walls of a shallowly dug trench and then filled with earth. Fascines were long cylindrical bundles of sticks fastened together. They were installed into the earth that was thrown on top of the gabions to support the parapet and to act as protection against bullets and shell-fragments. Sandbags were similar to fascines in that they were meant primarily to block bullets and shell-fragments. Sandbags were used less often in the French army than by their British counter-parts. They were usually reserved for placement on the top of the parapet or for other particularly exposed positions such as observation and command posts. Logs and planks were used sporadically and parsimoniously, generally reserved for shelters along with observation and command posts.

All unit members are asked to be prudent in their construction or repair of positions. For instance, a plank of wood or a single row of sandbags would not be enough to stop a bullet, especially at closer ranges. Try to keep in mind the real killing power of the munitions used in the war.

For more information, please see the History page.

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