John Ellis - Eye-Deep in Hell: Trench Warfare in World War I

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Eye-Deep in Hell: The Horrors of Trench Warfare in World War I.

Nov 10, 2004
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Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Excellent and informative book on World War I trench warfare.

Cons:Rats, lice, stench and other stomach turning issues.

The Bottom Line: If you want to read about the horrors of World War I trench warfare, this one is for you.

Eye-Deep in Hell: The Horrors of Trench Warfare in World War I.


James P. Zaworski

World War I was one of the most horrific wars in this history of the world. With the introduction of “trench warfare”, a whole new context for human suffering and human tragedy was created. The sustained carnage and endless casualties that this war produced were something new in warfare. With the advent of trench warfare, there was a general stagnation of the grand troop movements of the past, as both sides has expected this was to one of swift maneuver and swift and decisive conquest. These Napoleonic movements were squelched by the determined digging in of both sides on the western front in a defensive effort, as well as an offensive effort to outflank the other side in the “race for the sea”. A whole new kind of circumstance was created in which the troops involved had to adapt, endure, and survive or perish. John Ellis’s book Eye-Deep in Hell: Trench Warfare in World War I is a book that seeks to explain the horrendous conditions of the trench warfare networks that existed on both sides of the western front during World War I, and to show how the men who lived and died under these conditions, both physically and psychologically. What follows is a review of this book.

Eye-Deep in Hell is organized into four parts by John Ellis, with part one being titled “In the Line”. “The Setting” is a great introduction to the beginning action of troop movements and the context in which trench warfare came about in World War I. The date of September, 1914 is given as the beginning of trench warfare, with the advent of the stalemate on the western front between the German troops and British and French troops trying to outflank one another by building these trenches, for ostensibly defensive purposes as well as offensive purposes, in an ungodly long 475 mile long front stretching from the Swiss border to the North Sea. Ellis does a fine job in showing the geographical extent of the trenches that were dug as well as using diagrams and discussing the layout of the typical trench system in this chapter. After providing the context for the development and existence of trenches and trench warfare, Ellis goes on to talk about the lives of the men who had to live under these conditions in the trenches, night and day, wet and dry, for four whole years. Daily life and the natural misery that went with lack of food, parasites, rain, mud, flooding, as well as the man made miseries of gas attacks and artillery and shelling attacks are covered in great detail.

Part Two covers the military strategies and tactics that went into the various battles that unfolded in World War I from the context of the trenches. “Over the Top” is an apt title to this section. Part Three is titled “A Lighter Side? and covers the “leisure time” that the men “enjoyed”. Part Four is titled “Attitude”, and this section covers the political and propagandist aspects of World War I.

Ellis’ main thesis and points in writing this book have to do with the experiences of war itself, the human level of experience, as it were. I think that this is all too often overlooked by historians when it comes to treating with vast historical subjects such as World War I, which is so grand in not only its various causes, but also in its grand scope and sweeping consequences in death, destruction, and results. The whole situation of trenches, as not only a place to fight, but also as a place to live is presented to the reader as an overwhelming place of dampness, stench, mud, and misery.

Ellis identifies three research topics that could be researched on further, each in its own right. The first has to do with the physical aspects of the trench systems themselves, from the trenches anatomy to the living conditions that resulted. Ellis does a fantastic job in diagramming, outlining, and defining how the trench systems were constructed, and how they differed from one another, depending upon which side of the front you were on, German or British, or French. Ellis’ is very strong here in the physical descriptions of these trenches. Ellis uses lots of great primary sources in drawing upon the physical conditions of trench life. He uses Siegfried Sassoon very effectively to describe the “natural miseries” of trench life on page 43. Ellis draws upon such first-hand accounts to great effect in every section of the book.

I think that Ellis could have used more primary sources for this section, and one could conceivably do an entire book devoted to this section of the physical aspects of the trenches themselves, their unique environment and “ecosystem” (lice, rats, flies, etc.).

The second them where Ellis does a great job is in the section “Over the Top”, where we get a picture of the tactical and strategic situation created by the existence of the trench warfare system. The sheer physicality of the trench system at the western front, at over four hundred miles in length, is staggering. Shelling by artillery, poison gas, barbed wire, “no man’s land”, and the sheer folly of “going over the top” is presented by Ellis in a very excellent fashion. The theme he sets forth here is that the technology of modern weaponry, that is, machine guns and heavy artillery, really was too much for the tactics of warfare up until that time. He is very good here, in describing the various “raids and patrols” that were undertaken in “no man’s land”, and he uses his primary sources to great effect. Ellis does a further good job of detailing the battles and tactics of warfare, and the futility of “going over the top”, in the face of the technologically superior weaponry. I think he uses his primary sources very effectively here as well.
“The outward and visible sign of the end of the war was the introduction of the magazine rifle…The soldier by natural evolution has so perfected the mechanism of slaughter that he has practically secured his own extinction.”

The third area of themes that Ellis touches upon is the psychological aspects of trench warfare. This is probably Ellis’ greatest weakness in the book, as he devotes only a part of one chapter to this, in the section about “disillusionment”. I think that a great amount of research could be undertaken here in regards to this, from “shell shock” to complete and total psychological breakdown. Ellis could spend an entire chapter, or an entire book on this subject. He does examine the mental terror and anguish in the chapters about battle and shelling: “To experience this type of bombardment was a physical and mental torture.” Perhaps Ellis was limited here by the primary sources, because in Sassoon’s “Memoirs”, he keeps the proverbial “stiff upper lip” of hindsight, writing from the safety of the future and looking back on the war, twenty years later.

John Ellis does a fantastic job in introducing and entreating the subject of trench warfare within the context of World War I in his book Eye-Deep in Hell. He touches on many aspects and themes connected with and concerned with trench warfare. He uses and utilizes primary sources to great effect. Where he does not go far enough, there is certainly a number of research questions that could be explored further, not the least of which would be the psychological effects of trench warfare, to further research and information on the battle tactics and strategies. But, all in all, Ellis does a fantastic job on the whole concept and subject of trench warfare.

Recommend this product? Yes

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