As in the Somme or Verdun during the First World War, Ukrainian soldiers move in trenches. Excavated by them, using sticks and shovels, or by the Russian enemy under the same conditions, they are a line of defense, protected from enemy artillery fire. As France this Friday commemorates the Armistice signed in 1918 marking the defeat of Germany and the victory of the Allies, these images ring into the 21st century and evoke the trenches of the Great War. These photographs of hairy men buried hundreds of kilometers long in pits to shelter from German fire litter the history books.
However, today’s soldiers live much like they did in the last century…albeit with a few “improvements”. “There are electricity generators, wifi, etc. “, so enumerates 20 minutes Bureau of French journalist Loup, who spent four months in the trenches in Donbass between 2017 and 2018 during the war between Ukrainians and Moscow-backed pro-Russian separatists.
Fortification for self-defense
For war experts, these images are not surprising. Trenches exist in any conflict where “equilibrium is established” and stretched over time, explains Michel Goya, a former navy colonel, historian and strategist. 20 minutes. “Dig is one of the first things you learn even in this field,” agrees the expert. As the war drags on, everyone begins to bury themselves. »
Since 14-18 we have seen the trenches between Iraq and Iran during the Korean War or in the 1980s. This technique remains relevant because “the military has not created a better means of mitigating the effects of enemy fire (artillery, artillery, guns) than trenches. tanks, aviation) and protects their infantry and combat capability,” Mykola Bielieskov, a researcher at the National Strategic Research Institute under the President of the Ukrainian Army, in turn develops.
And to be more precise, these trenches in Ukraine started to appear in Donbass in 2015. Today they are also found in Kherson or Kharkiv. “They were slowly built up over the years and over time became a huge network of fortifications,” the Loup Bureau emphasizes. The technique of drilling for protection was developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries for cannons, machine guns, etc. “We increased the number of bullets coming at us by four or five,” recalls Michel Goya. So, inevitably, “we realized the solution was to hide,” he continues. Johanna Möhring, a researcher at the Center for Advanced Security, Strategic and Integration Studies (Cassis), adds: “The rain of artillery shells from both sides does not allow the exits from the trenches to advance without causing disproportionate losses.” 20 minutes.
Isabelle Dufour, director of strategic research at Eurocrise, emphasizes in an interview that trenches are “a defensive position that is easier to maintain than to attack” for armies. 20 minutes. In order not to be too exposed to fire, the trenches are set back a little from the front line. “This is where we hide behind the battle line,” he continues. Often, weather permitting, there are several trench lines with different functions. Thus, it is used to treat the wounded farthest from the front and the closest for defense, because “a strong position that is not caught by fire is useless”, claims Isabelle Dufour. In summary, trenches are used “to protect soldiers, to hold ground, to transport troops from point A to point B without (very large) losses, to prepare troops for an attack,” details Johanna Möhring.
War of position
These defenses are synonymous with positional warfare, during which each side holds its line without much movement or much advance. During this time, progress is made slowly, line by line. “In a war of positions, as in Ukraine, first of all, in order to attack these positions, the defenders need to be neutralized,” says Michel Goya. After crossing the trench line, you need to take the next one. And when you lose that position, you have to quickly dig in again, rebuild the fortification, to regain strength, spend time behind this shield.
The historian and strategist emphasizes that for the development of the war in Ukraine, “you have to advance inside until the enemy falls, and Ukrainian soldiers have been doing exactly that since September.” “The troops of the Ukrainian army fully understand that if they do not dig deep, their chances of survival will decrease. Without a successful defense, there will be no opening for attack,” explains Nikolay Bieliekov.
“Warfare is the skilful combination of defensive and offensive operations, depending on the circumstances, to destroy the enemy’s forces faster than they can recover, and to establish your own superior force. Trench warfare is part of this winning combination,” Mykola Bielieskov further elaborates. “At some point you have to make a flag,” describes Michel Goya. And in order to end this war, which could go on forever if the positions are not moved, it is necessary to make leaps, to seize territory on one side or the other, and thereby get out of the trench. The historian notes that “the movement turns into a war.” “You need a combination of shooting and maneuvering, striking and preventing movement,” adds Isabelle Dufour. And currently the Russian army is failing in this aspect. “They can’t target the Ukrainian forces, not a single Caesar cannon has been fired”, Isabelle Dufur emphasizes once again, this is the failure of the Russians.
“Psychological Space Prison”
Progress at the cost of very difficult living conditions. Loup Bureau reminds us that underground life is “very primitive”. His documentary TrenchesThe film depicting the life of Ukrainian soldiers in Donbass gives a good account of the early daily life of the fighters. But this life remains less difficult than in the open area. Moreover, during the Great War, “it was during trench warfare that the conflict was least lethal,” recalls Michel Goy.
Still, morally, “it’s too hard, too exhausting, there’s too much perversion, too dusty, a bit of a psychological space prison,” warns Loup’s Bureau. Incessant bombings, underground life, in the dark, “where you hear more than you see what is happening,” a French journalist, can leave a lasting mark. “Some are deeply traumatized after living in a trench for months. Isabelle Dufour: “Being constantly beaten is mentally exhausting, so we raise our defenses.” The season also changes everything. Cold, rain, mud come and life becomes very hard to bear. “Winter in Donbass is hell. It is a steppe climate with frosty nights and temperatures down to -30°C,” soldier Yuri Syrotyuk told AFP recently.
“However, over time, the objects turn into small villages, sometimes relatively comfortable,” says the nuances Michel Goya. If they’re well-equipped, it’s “due to the skill of the soldiers, it’s their own initiative,” Loup’s office says. Because in general, you have to go quickly, such hiding places are dug during the day. Loup’s Bureau pictures show truly innovative installations, cooking soldiers and simpler hideouts. Although soldiers are not permanently in these trenches, they can remain there for months. No shower, no basic amenities.