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Western Front Power



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The Germans had no choice but to retreat, stopping at a line behind Verdun, Soissons, and Reims. When renewed French attacks were halted by the once-more cohesive German forces, Joseph Joffre , commander-in-chief of the French army, ordered troops to move to the far left flank and try to outflank the Germans from the north. With no flanks left to turn, the Western Front as we think of it came into being: a solid front from the sea to the Alps, with only one way through: straight ahead. There were a few attempts to break through this line before the winter weather set in and exhausted, overstretched units became incapable of action. Most notable was the First Battle of Ypres , immortalized in the popular image of German schoolboys marching gleefully in close order to attack.

Despite a more robust artillery preparation than the Germans had been able to muster at Ypres, the French attack was an irredeemable failure. Trench networks could not be broken by hasty offensives, but rather had to be systematically neutralised by concentrated heavy artillery fire. The armies on the Western Front spent the next four years trying to coordinate ever-more complicated attacks to break trench networks of increasing depth and complexity. It was this rapid and constant innovation, rather than stodgy conservatism, that created the bloody stalemate on the Western Front. To an extent, however, this is misleading. Even the grand battles of and can only be described as such because of their geography.

Given the constraints of time and space, this article can only provide quick snap-shots of parts of the front; keep in mind that other parts were simultaneously active. The French launched the first attack in Champagne on 16 February The First Battle of Champagne in many ways set the precedent and a poor one for the shape of offensives in The French managed an acceptable initial advance and then spent a month relentlessly hammering against a solidified German line to no avail. Undaunted, the French continued to launch and maintain such attacks throughout the year, making the deadliest year for French forces , deaths.

The Battle of Neuve Chappelle March stands out as the only truly independent effort. The small-scale battle, whilst initially successful, eventually petered out, with British troops unable to capitalize on their initial gains. Doing anything with that initial break in, however, proved exceedingly difficult. The Germans suffered a similar fate the next month in their attempt to test the trenches on the Western Front.

The Germans, whose focus was overwhelmingly on the Eastern Front in where they won a series of stunning victories over Russian forces, making the largest sustained advance of the war , instigated one battle on the Western Front in Rather than hoping that the battle would win some grand strategic victory, the Second Battle of Ypres 22 April—25 May was largely designed as a testing ground for a new weapon of war: poison gas.

German forces had secretly installed a series of chemical tanks across their front line trenches, and on 22 April released their deadly chlorine gas to waft over to the French and British trenches opposite them. On their flank, Canadian troops held on doggedly for days, isolated and repeatedly attacked by German forces. Entente forces were able to recover from the momentary collapse due largely to the lack of German effort: unconvinced that the gas would be as effective as it proved, the Germans had no plan in place to exploit any possible breach in the Allied lines. The result after a few weeks was, again, a minor territorial gain of no strategic importance for tens of thousands of casualties. The rest of followed this pattern, with few exceptions.

The French Moroccan Division and the 77 th Division managed an advance of 4. Notre Dame de Lorette was captured by the end of the battle, but Vimy remained in German hands until April , when it was finally captured by Canadian forces. Even the largest coordinated Allied battle since the Marne proved ineffective. On 25 September the French attacked simultaneously in the Champagne and Artois, while the British attacked in the direction of Loos using the same chlorine gas tactics the Germans had pioneered months earlier.

The repeated failure and excessive costs for the Entente, especially from the French attacks, shaped German strategy for the following year. Coming to power in September after the mental collapse of his predecessor, Helmuth von Moltke, the grand-nephew of the brilliant Prussian strategist of the same name Erich von Falkenhayn inherited a difficult strategic position. In the best case scenario Germany would only be worsening its logistical and strategic problems. Falkenhayn knew that he did not have enough forces to pummel the French into submission or to push the British back into the sea. Even if he had, the inherent strength of field fortifications meant that such an effort would be unduly costly for Germany, and perhaps lead to nothing more than a pyrrhic victory.

The staggering losses the French suffered in were well understood by German strategists. It was here that Falkenhayn placed his hopes. If he could force the French to attack with the same ferocity and lack of success as they had in , the French Republic could prove incapable of bearing the burden and be forced to sue for peace. This would free up German forces to fight Russia in Eastern Europe, where they stood to annex enormous tracks of land: the Lebensraum that would tantalize extremist German strategists in both world wars.

Falkenhayn deduced that the ancient fort of Verdun would be just the spot. It was supposedly a national symbol that the French could not let pass into German hands although this interpretation has become increasingly contentious. Counting on this, Falkenhayn launched his attack on 21 February This was a strategic offensive that relied on the strength of the tactical defensive. The French and German armies grappled for the next ten months in the longest land battle in history: the Battle of Verdun. From a German perspective the battle, at least as originally conceived, had but one purpose: to kill as many French soldiers as possible.

This was attrition, conceived in its purest form. The casualties were enormous, although fewer than one might expect from such a battle. Ultimately some , soldiers from each army were killed or wounded. The battlefield conditions were barbaric. Troops were fed mechanistically into an ever-grinding machine of fire, steel, mud, and death. French troops felt that the battle was a futile waste of lives. They expressed what they felt was the obvious lack of value placed on their lives by bleating like sheep being led to the slaughter as they marched into the Verdun salient; a bone-chilling foreshadowing of the widespread mutinies that would wrack the French army in The situation for German forces was hardly better.

Whereas French forces were rapidly and aggressively rotated in and out of the front, ensuring that troops did not have to endure more than a few days at the hellish front, German units were frequently left at the front for weeks on end. Nevertheless, the Germans very nearly pushed the French to the breaking point. Contrary to popular belief that the Somme was purely a reaction to Verdun, the battle had in fact been agreed upon as a joint Anglo-French battle in December , months before the German attack at Verdun changed the strategic dynamic of the Allied forces. Although initially planned as another French-led battle, the Battle of the Somme became the first British-led effort.

This was in large part due to the fact that the French forces were worn down in the fighting around Verdun. The only problem was that the British army, and its leader, Douglas Haig , did not feel ready to attack. Verdun was the longest battle on the Western Front in , but the Somme was the bloodiest; it sent nearly twice as many men to their graves in half the time as at Meuse Mill. In many ways the Somme was the archetypal Western Front battle. Many of the persistent myths and stereotypes of the First World War come from the battle or are at least attributed to it. For many Britons, the war is symbolized by the Somme; it was a microcosm of the mud, blood and horror that the war is remembered for.

The battle, however, was never meant to be led by the British. Its initial form, roughly sketched out at the Chantilly Conference in , foresaw forty French divisions supported by twenty-five British. This version of the Battle of the Somme was quickly chewed up on the banks of the Meuse. By the time the battle actually began, the French contribution was a mere twelve divisions, and it was the British army that acted as the senior partner. This not only marked an important change in the relationship between the two allies Britain could thereafter rightfully demand more independence , but it was also a chance for the British army and its new commander-in-chief, Douglas Haig, to establish their reputations.

General Henry Rawlinson , at the head of British Fourth Army, had tactical command of the battle. Haig and Rawlinson viewed the goals at the Somme differently. Rawlinson sought to maximize the chance of success for his largely unbloodied forces. This meant lowering the expectations for what any one attack could accomplish and relying on firepower rather than manpower to overcome stiff enemy defences. The reasons for this are complicated, but are in large part due to the pressures of command at the strategic level.

If the Somme was a tactical success, if it could point to the capture of some notable town, ridge, hillock or village and was not too costly, he could justifiably consider his work to have been successful. For Haig, whose position meant tackling the often diametrically opposed demands of subordinate officers, superiors in Whitehall, and the strategic imperatives of his allies especially France , a minor tactical success could mean a strategic or political defeat. If his allies or political masters felt he was not doing enough to further their strategic goals he could well find himself on the chopping block. This pressure often led strategic commanders to overreach the tactical capabilities of their armies.

At am on 1 July , some 55, French and British troops went over the top in the initial wave of the assault across a sixteen-mile front, signalling the start of the Battle of the Somme. In the southern sector French and British troops advanced rapidly, captured their objectives, and solidified their positions at minimal cost. To the north, British formations were mown down, capturing very little and sustaining heavy casualties. With concentrated machine gun fire, effective pre-sited artillery barrages, and barbed wire emplacements that were frequently still intact, the Germans in the northern part of the battlefield easily repulsed British attacks.

Forced to march over open terrain due to the communication trenches already clogged with the dead and dying, they made easy targets for German artillery and machine guns, which sometimes engaged British infantry at ranges of over half a mile. It is easy to understand why the First World War is seen as futile when recounting incidents like these. By the end of the day, British forces had suffered 56, casualties, including 19, dead. Despite gains in the southern sector, the overall result fell crushingly short of the success Haig and Rawlinson had hoped for. The French, able to resume the attack the next day, eagerly did so.

The British required time to recover physically, morally, and spiritually. Of course, the Battle of the Somme was far larger than the events of a single day. The French and British continued to attack vigorously through to December. All told the battle claimed around 1. The Somme set the stage for the string of impressive battlefield successes the army achieved in and Tanks were first used at Flers-Courcelette on 15 September , forever changing the face of warfare.

French troops twice broke through the German lines and for a brief moment found themselves with no immediate obstacles between their position in the fields of Picardy and Berlin. However, these local successes — the result of a relentless, methodical, operational hammering at the German lines — led to nought. If the Allies were to beat Imperial Germany, it was going to have to happen some other way. If we take a step back and examine the whole of on the Western Front, the picture is somewhat mixed. Germany lost twice as many men on the Western Front in as it had in ; Britain lost several times more men than the size of the entire British Expeditionary Force in Despite these high casualty rates, neither side achieved their stated strategic objectives.

The French and Germans suffered roughly equal casualties, and French morale was not broken. On the contrary, despite the heavy pressure at Verdun, the French were able to take part in the Battle of the Somme, eventually sending more men to fight there than Britain did over the course of the battle and inflicting far more casualties on the Germans than they suffered themselves.

These strategic shortcomings were not without their repercussions. Haig managed to survive through to the end of the war, but both Joffre and Falkenhayn lost their jobs. Joffre was promoted to a position in which he had no real authority over French operations the traditional way of gracefully moving a military commander out of the way. In their places, Robert Nivelle took over for France Nivelle had risen to prominence after retaking Fort Douaumont in October , while the team of Erich Ludendorff and Paul von Hindenburg took over for Germany. Faced with continued encirclement, a biting blockade and struggling allies, German war-leaders needed to knock at least one of the Great Powers out of the war as quickly as possible to stand any chance of even a conditional, negotiated victory.

Hindenburg and Ludendorff chose to continue operations in the theater of war where they had earned their fame: the Eastern Front. Russia was by far the weakest of the three major Entente powers and Germany had already pushed Russian forces deep into their own territory. Such an attack would require concentrated manpower from an already-overstretched German army. To help free up men for the coming offensives, Hindenburg and Ludendorff withdrew forces to the so-called Hindenburg Line Siegfriedstellung around the Noyon Salient in France in early This new line of fortifications both shortened the length of the frontage Germany had to man and was well protected by concrete bunkers and well-planned out defensive arrays.

These further economised on manpower and were quite difficult for the Entente powers to break through. In the short to medium term the Hindenburg Line solved a number of important strategic and tactical issues the Germans faced in the immediate aftermath of the Battle of the Somme. For the Allies, needed to be better than Haig wanted more than ever to have a truly independent hand in operations, and he sought to pursue independent battles in the British sector. Before British battles had been part of broader French efforts and under some level of French strategic direction. Haig got his wish although not in the way he had hoped thanks to Robert Nivelle, under whose stewardship the morale of the French army finally cracked.

Nivelle succeeded Joffre as commander-in-chief, in large part because of his highly optimistic view of the war. He was convinced that if the French made another successful push like they had on the Somme, the end of the war might be in sight. He chose the Chemin des Dames as the area of attack. Like Castelnau, who over-promised on the Second Battle of Champagne, Nivelle chose to operate in the south-eastern sector where there were fewer villages to hold up the presumed French advance. This also, of course, meant that there were fewer genuine objectives to hold out before attacking troops. Nivelle eagerly elaborated on his plans to fellow generals, French politicians, and even British politicians. The attack began on 16 April French Fifth and Sixth Armies advanced against German positions, making little progress and suffering grievous casualties.

Going back on his word, Nivelle kept pushing beyond his forty-eight-hour limit, even though it was clear that the offensive had failed. In the end, the battle lasted for nine days and cost the French , casualties: two-thirds the number of casualties that the French had lost in five months of fighting on the Somme. Worse than the casualties was the deep loss of confidence that rippled through the French army. The realisation that the Nivelle Offensive was yet another failure and the fear that the war might go on forever shattered the already thread-bare resolve of many French soldiers. Within days of the closing of the Nivelle Offensive, some French troops began to refuse to do their duties; in some instances officers were harassed or even shot by their men.

It shaped Entente actions on the Western Front for the rest of the year. The soldiers complained about the poor tactics in recent battles and refused to go over the top in badly thought-out and executed attacks they would still, however, defend their positions if attacked by the Germans. The soldiers also, however, used the occasion to address a range of long-term grievances, including the substandard food issued to French troops and the lack of adequate leave time to visit family especially in comparison to their British comrades.

It unleashed a surge of emotion that had been growing for years thanks to a range of pre-existing grievances. Nivelle, however, did not get a chance to rectify the situation. He made immediate efforts to organise better food and more frequent leave for the troops. Fearing what would happen if the Germans learned of the French indiscipline, the French became desperate for a British attack to ensure that the Germans were preoccupied elsewhere. For the first time in the war, in Britain acted as the senior partner on the Western Front. The British launched a series of independent battles in , starting with the Battle of Messines June , and ending with the Battle of Cambrai in November-December What makes these battles so interesting is not only their methodology the British army was a much more effective force in than it had been in , but also the technological ingenuity of many of the attacks.

Messines Ridge, for example, saw one of the most successful mine attacks of the war. Starting in late and early , the British had tunnelled a series of mines down under the German positions in and around Messines. Nineteen mines dug under the British positions were detonated from about am on, at which point British artillery opened fire on German positions and British troops surged forward.

They captured Messines quickly and suffered only moderate casualties. Tactically it was a notable success, but it still lacked the substantial strategic effect that Haig desired. He hoped to win his big strategic victory in the Ypres salient that summer. Douglas Haig had advocated for an independent British attack in Ypres to clear the Channel ports since becoming commander-in-chief at the end of Such an attack would best suit British interests and would make it more difficult for the Germans to launch further naval raids against British shipping. The paralysis of the French army in gave Haig the autonomy he had long sought and opened up the possibility for a large-scale offensive in the Ypres sector.

This battle, the Third Battle of Ypres, would be better known as Passchendaele, named after the ultimate goal of the battle. The planning for the battle followed lines similar to those of the Battle of the Somme. Haig wanted an ambitious strategic victory and was willing to set distant goals for his troops to meet. Whereas General Herbert Plumer , commanding the British Second Army, had recommended an advance of just over 1. As had happened on the Somme, this greatly thinned the British artillery concentration, making it more difficult to effectively neutralise German defences and protect advancing infantry with a sufficient barrage. Ultimately, the battle faltered and eventually ended.

Here we explore some of the weapons used and developed by the British Army during the conflict. Weapons played a big part in creating the difficult and unusual circumstances of trench warfare which the British Army encountered during the First World War The destructive power of modern artillery and machine guns forced soldiers to seek cover on the battlefield and dig in for protection. Both sides dug in and a line of trenches soon ran from the Channel to the Swiss frontier. These early trenches were built quickly and tended to be simple affairs that offered little protection from the elements. But they soon grew more substantial. The front line trenches were backed-up by second and third lines: 'support' and 'reserve' trenches.

Communication trenches linked them all together. This system was strengthened with fortifications, underground shelters and thick belts of barbed wire. For commanders, the greatest tactical problem was to get troops safely across the fire-swept divide between the trenches to penetrate enemy defences. While modern weapons had helped create this problem, generals hoped that they would also assist the army in fighting their way out of it. Artillery was the most destructive weapon on the Western Front. Guns could rain down high explosive shells, shrapnel and poison gas on the enemy and heavy fire could destroy troop concentrations, wire, and fortified positions. Artillery was often the key to successful operations.

At the start of the war the British bombarded the enemy before sending infantry over the top, but this tactic became less effective as the war progressed. Before the Battle of the Somme the Germans retreated into their concrete dugouts during the artillery barrage, emerging when they heard the guns stop. Later in the war, the British used artillery in a defensive way, rather than obliterate enemy positions.

The army developed tactics like the creeping barrage, which saw troops advance across no-man's-land behind the safety of a line of shell fire. They also made the most of new technologies like aircraft, sound ranging and flash spotting to locate and neutralise enemy artillery. The machine-gun was one of the deadliest weapons of the Western Front, causing thousands of casualties.

It was a relatively new weapon at the start of the war, but British and German forces soon realised its potential as a killing machine, especially when fired from a fixed defensive position. The Vickers machine-gun above was famed for its reliability and could fire over rounds per minute and had a range of 4, yards. With proper handling, it could sustain a rate of fire for hours. This was providing that a necessary supply of belted ammunition, spare barrels and cooling water was available. When there was no water to hand, soldiers would urinate in the water jacket to keep the gun cool! It required a team of two gunners to operate it, one to fire and one to carry ammunition and reload.

As gunnery practice improved the British were able to use this light machine gun to give effective mobile support to their ground troops. Aircraft were a such a new technology during the First World War that no one recognised their potential as a weapon at first. Pilots would even wave at enemy planes when they passed each other on aerial reconnaissance duties! Initially aircraft carried out artillery spotting and photographic reconnaissance.

This work gradually led pilots into aerial battles against enemies engaged in similar activities. As the war progressed aircraft were fitted with machine guns and strafed enemy trenches and troop concentrations. As the speed and flying capabilities of aircraft improved they even bombed airfields, transportation networks and industrial facilities. Mortars of all sizes were used on the Western Front. Their size and mobility offered advantages over conventional artillery as they could be fired from within the safety of a trench. They were also effective at taking out enemy machine gun and sniper posts.

The Stokes mortar above was the most successful British mortar. It consisted of a metal tube fixed to an anti-recoil plate. When dropped into the tube, a bomb hit a firing pin at the bottom and launched. It could fire 20 bombs per minute and had a range of 1, metres. Tunnelling and mining operations were common on the Western Front. Much of this work was done by special Royal Engineers units formed of Welsh and Durham miners. On 1 July , a few minutes before they attacked on the Somme, the British exploded several huge mines packed with explosives under the German position. Although many defenders were killed by the explosions. The delay in starting the advance meant that the Germans had time to scramble out of their dugouts, man their trenches and open a devastating machine-gun fire.

One successful use of mines was on 7 June , when the British unleashed a series of huge mine explosions at Messines Ridge. They killed around 10, Germans and totally disrupted their lines. Following the detonation of the mines, nine Allied infantry divisions attacked under a creeping artillery barrage, supported by tanks. The devastating effect of the mines helped the men gain their initial objectives. They were also helped by the German reserves being positioned too far back to intervene.

Rifles were by far the most commonly used weapon of the war. It had a maximum range of 2, metres, but an effective killing range of A well-trained infantryman could fire 15 rounds a minute. In August , the Germans mistook the speed and precision of the British rifle fire for machine guns. A rifle fitted with a bayonet could prove unwieldy in a confined trench so many soldiers preferred to use improvised trench clubs instead. But the bayonet was still a handy tool that soldiers also used for cooking and eating! The Germans first used gas against the French during the capture of Neuve Chapelle in October when they fired shells containing a chemical irritant that caused violent fits of sneezing.

In March they used a form of tear gas against the French at Nieuport. These early experiments were a small taste of things to come. As the war progressed all sides developed ever more lethal gases including chlorine, phosgene and mustard gas. The introduction of gas warfare in created an urgent need for protective equipment to counter its effects. Rattles, horns and whistles were also soon adopted as means of warning troops and giving them time to put on protective equipment during gas attacks.

The British Army soon developed a range of gas helmets based on fabric bags and hoods that had been treated with anti-gas chemicals. These were later replaced by a small box filter respirator which provided greater protection. Not all actions on the Western Front were large scale battles. Often soldiers were involved in trench raids, small surprise attacks to seize prisoners, enemy weapons or gain intelligence. This often involved close-quarters fighting in confined spaces so many experienced soldiers preferred to use improvised clubs, knives and knuckledusters rather than cumbersome rifles. Such weapons were also ideal for silent killing during raids.

Reminiscent of medieval weapons, they were often fashioned from items found in the trenches, but were no less deadly and symbolised the primal, brutal nature of trench warfare. Tanks were developed by the British Army as a mechanical solution to the trench warfare stalemate. They were first used on the Somme in September , but they were mechanically unreliable and too few in number to secure a victory. One of the few ways that tanks were effective during the war, was that they were capable of crossing barbed wire defences, although their tracks were still at risk of becoming entangled.

As the war progressed, the army found better ways to use their new weapon and exploit the advantage it created. At Cambrai in , the tank made its first significant breakthrough when it was used en masse. Technologically, the machines became more advanced. By tanks were being effectively used as part of an 'all arms' approach during the Allies' successful attacks. But they remained vulnerable to enemy fire and were still mechanically unreliable. Thick belts of barbed wire were placed in front of the trenches on the Western Front.

They were placed far enough from the trenches to prevent the enemy from approaching close enough to throw grenades in. Sometimes barbed-wire entanglements were designed to channel attacking infantry and cavalry into machine-gun and artillery fields of fire. Even though it was an agricultural invention, barbed wire made an effective defence.

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