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An essential analysis
on 22 August 2011
Ashworth's book looks at the times in trench warfare when there was not a battle on as such. These periods made up the largest part of the life of most soldiers. As the war went on, the efforts of the military hierarchy to oblige soldiers to be permanently aggressive against the enemy in the trenches opposite became more and more systematic, and the efforts of soldiers to avoid war, or sometimes refuse war, became more sophisticated.
Ashworth gives many examples but a few will do. Night raiding was a tactic which soldiers often avoided, because it upset the "live and let live" agreement which tacitly reigned in many trenches outside the "elite" regiments. Until the end of 1915 the initiative for night raiding was left to local leadership - after 1916 it was centralized. Batallions had to do "their quota" of night raids. In some cases the superior officers even demanded that they bring back samples of German barbed wire to prove the raid had been carried out. The cleverer soldiers hid a roll of German barbed wire so that samples could be readily available.
A second example is mining - digging tunnels under the enemy in order to blow them sky high. Again this was a danger to the live and let live atmosphere, and once more the military hierarchy centralized decisions on mining in 1916, since local leadership could not be trusted to be "aggressive enough".
Ashworth gives many more examples and the statistics to back them up.
All in all, Ashworth is an exceptionally good book, because it reminds us most convincingly that the interests of the Generals and those of the ordinary soldiers were *not the same* and that the soldiers employed considerable ingenuity to defend their own priorities, which generally consisted of keeping things quiet in the hope of surviving the war. Other writers have pointed out that death rates in 'elite' companies of shock troops were four times higher than in less trusted batallions, so it is clear that "live and let live" could be a smart option.