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The Hindenburg Line (Siegfriedstellung or Siegfried Position) was a German defensive position of World War I, built during the winter of 1916–1917 on the Western Front, from Arras to Laffaux, near Soissons on the Aisne. In 1916, the German offensive at the Battle of Verdun had been a costly failure. The Anglo-French offensive at the Battle of the Somme had forced a defensive battle on the Germans, leaving the western armies (Westheer) exhausted. On the Eastern Front, the Brusilov Offensive had inflicted huge losses on the Austro-Hungarian armies in Russia and forced the Germans to take over more of the front. The declaration of war by Romania had placed additional strain on the German army and war economy. Construction of the Hindenburg Line in France was begun by the Germans in September 1916, to make a retirement from the Somme front possible, to counter an anticipated increase in the power of Anglo-French attacks in 1917.
The shorter defensive position behind the Noyon Salient was built to economise on manpower, contain an Allied breakthrough and make possible a deliberate withdrawal to prepared positions. By destroying the infrastructure and demolishing civilian buildings in the salient before a withdrawal, the Germans could dislocate Franco-British offensive preparations, by forcing them to advance into a wasteland. The British and French armies would need about eight weeks to rebuild roads, bridges and railways in the abandoned area before they could attack. A shorter Western Front could be held with fewer troops and by incorporating the lessons of defensive battle on the Somme, the importance of troop dispersal, reverse-slope positions, defence in depth and camouflage, German infantry casualties could be reduced. While the German army recuperated from the losses of 1916, protected by the Hindenburg Line and similar defensive positions on the rest of the Western Front, a return to unrestricted submarine warfare and a strategic bombing offensive against Britain were planned.
By the beginning of 1917, the strategic outlook for the Germans made a retirement inevitable. German divisions on the Western Front numbered 133 on 25 January 1917, reducing the German manpower shortage but not by enough to contemplate an offensive. Greater output of explosives, ammunition and weapons by German industry to provide the means to counter the Allied Materialschlacht (battle of equipment) was attempted in the Hindenburg Programme of August 1916. Production did not sufficiently increase over the winter, with only 60 percent of the programme expected to be fulfilled by the summer of 1917. The German Friedensangebot (peace initiative) of December 1916, had been rejected by the Entente and the Auxiliary Service Law of December 1916, intended to further mobilise the civilian economy, had failed to supply the expected additional labour for war production.
The retirement to the Hindenburg Line took place as part of the Alberich Bewegung (Operation Alberich/Alberich Manoeuvre) from February–March 1917, after local withdrawals on the Somme had been forced on the 1st Army in January and February, by British attacks up the Ancre valley. News of the demolitions and the deplorable condition of French civilians left behind by the Germans, were serious blows to German prestige in neutral countries. Labour was transferred south in February 1917 to work on the Hundingstellung, from La Fère to Rethel and on the forward positions on the Aisne front, which the Germans knew were due to be attacked by the French armies. Divisions released by Operation Alberich and other reinforcements increased the number of divisions on the Aisne front to 38 by early April. The Hindenburg Line was attacked several times in 1917, notably at St Quentin, Bullecourt, the Aisne and Cambrai and was broken in September 1918, during the Hundred Days Offensive.
No Man’s Land
The British Army did not widely employ the term when the Regular Army arrived in France in August 1914, soon after the outbreak of the Great War. The terms used most frequently at the start of the war to describe the area between the trench lines included ‘between the trenches’ or ‘between the lines’. The term ‘no man’s land’ was first used in a military context by soldier and historian Ernest Swinton in his short story The Point of View. Swinton used the term in war correspondence on the Western Front, with specific mention of the terms with respect to the Race to the Sea in late 1914. The Anglo-German Christmas truce of 1914 brought the term into common use, and thereafter it appeared frequently in official communiqués, newspaper reports, and personnel correspondences of the members of the British Expeditionary Force.
In World War I, no man’s land often ranged from several hundred yards to in some cases less than 10 yards. Heavily defended by machine guns, mortars, artillery and riflemen on both sides, it was often riddled with barbed wire and rudimentary improvised land mines, as well as corpses and wounded soldiers who were not able to make it across the sea of bullets, explosions and flames. The area was usually devastated by the warfare and riddled with craters from artillery and mortar shells, and sometimes contaminated by chemical weapons. It was open to fire from the opposing trenches and hard going generally slowed down any attempted advance. However, not only were soldiers forced to cross no man’s land when advancing, and as the case might be when retreating, but after an attack the stretcher bearers would need to go out into it to bring in the wounded. No man’s land remained a regular feature of the battlefield until near the end of World War I, when mechanised weapons (i.e. tanks) made entrenched lines less of an obstacle.
Effects from World War I no man’s lands persist today, for example at Verdun in France, where the Zone Rouge (Red Zone) is an area with unexploded ordnance, poisoned beyond habitation by arsenic, chlorine, and phosgene. The zone is sealed off completely and still deemed too dangerous for civilians to return: “The area is still considered to be very poisoned, so the French government planted an enormous forest of black pines, like a living sarcophagus”, comments Alasdair Pinkerton, a researcher at Royal Holloway University of London, who compared the zone to the nuclear disaster site at Chernobyl, similarly encased in a concrete sarcophagus.