If World War I is synonymous with one thing it is trenches.
On the Western Front alone the trench line stretched nearly 500 miles from the shores of the North Sea in Belgium to neutral Switzerland to the south.
Within that line, tens of thousands of miles of layered and interlocking trenches formed almost impenetrable lines of defense for both the Allies – primarily France, Britain, the United States and Russia – and the Central Powers of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Turkey.
“The trenches are a remarkable negative achievement on the part of western civilization,” said University of South Carolina archeologist James Legg, who curated a new exhibit on World War 1 trench maps that opens Friday at the S.C. Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum. The exhibit will be on display through Jan. 3.
“Trench Maps: Military Cartography on the Western Front, 1914-1918” features 19 original maps from World War I. The exhibit focuses on the development of trench maps throughout the war and why they were so vital to troops fighting on both sides of the conflict. In addition to the unique maps, artifacts also include artillery ammunition, field equipment, a French artillery uniform and photographs.
Jami Boone, the Relic Room’s curator of exhibits and design, said the exhibit is an extension of the musuem’s popular 2007 exhibit “Forgotten Stories: SC Fights the Great War,” which was extended through 2010.
“We felt that it was time to revisit the conflict from a fresh angle,” she said. “Trench Maps examines a different aspect of the war than our previous exhibit by looking in depth at the changes in warfare and technology that made the maps vital to troops on both sides. It’s part art exhibit and part history exhibit, which makes for a unique experience for our visitors.”
When the Great War began in August 1914, the European powers considered themselves well-prepared for the conflict. They imagined that improvements in military technology would result in a violent but relatively brief struggle. But by the end of 1914, after five months of fighting and an unprecedented scale of slaughter, it was clear that this war was different. In previous conflicts, battles lasted for hours or days, but during World War I, Troops held the same entrenched positions for weeks, months, or years.
This stalemate led to the development of a new class of military maps. These maps depicted trenches and other features in great detail, and allowed for the first widespread use of long-range indirect artillery fire. The detailed maps were essential to target artillery fire by both sides, Legg said, because artillerymen would be miles away from their targets.
“There was a considerable effort by industrial European powers to find a way out of the deadlock,” he said. “So you see increased use of artillery. The vast majority of casualties in the war were caused by artillery and when there was a success it was largely do to artillery.
If you go
What: “Trench Maps: Military Cartography on the Western Front, 1914-1918”
Where: S.C. Confederate relic Room and Military Museum, 301 Gervais St, Columbia, SC 29201 (in the same building as the SC State Museum)
When: Friday through Jan. 3.
Hours: Tuesday-Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and the first Sunday of the month from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.
For more information: Go to www.crr.sc.gov or call (803) 737-8095.