West Front Summary
Late during the summer of 1914, train stations all over Europe echoed with the sound of leather boots and the clattering of weapons as millions of enthusiastic young soldiers mobilized for the most glorious conflict since the Napoleonic Wars. In the eyes of many men, pride and honor glowed in competition with the excitement of a wonderful adventure and the knowledge of righting some perceived infringement on the interests of their respective nation. Within weeks however, the excitement and glory gave way to horror and anonymous death, brought on by dangerous new machines of war which took control of the old fields of honor and turned them into desolate moonscapes littered with corpses and wreckage. This new great war, called World War One, began as a local disturbance in Southern Europe but eventually spread into a worldwide struggle which produced two of the greatest bloodlettings in history; the battles of the Somme and Verdun. The western portion of this conflict took place mostly in Belgium and France, and started as a war of "grand maneuvers" as had been theorized before the fighting began. But when more troops were poured into an increasingly cramped area, there came a time when the antagonists could no longer maneuver against each other in any operational sense. When this occurred, the forces involved began entrenching in the face of more and more lethal concentrations of firepower, and the war of the machines and trenches had begun.
These conditions triggered a complex and difficult to trace series of evolutions in both battlefield tactics and technology. The Germans responded by creating what amounted to modern combined arms squad tactics, something their French and British opponents initially brushed off as infiltration tactics. After a long period of grim failure, the British managed the mass deployment of a new weapon called the tank, which also changed the nature of warfare and helped break the brutal deadlock of position warfare. The French adopted both of these methods and weapons, applying them is a combined form which appealed to the French leadership. It was however, Germany which finally succumbed to the drain of economic warfare, and by October of 1918, German field commanders declared that the war was militarily lost, and that a truce must be sought. From that point on, it was only a matter of time, and the end came on November 11, 1918. The Great War ended, having caused millions of deaths on the Western Front alone. Europe and the world would never be the same.
"When day dawned we were astonished to see, by degrees, what a sight surrounded us. The sunken road now appeared as nothing but a series of enormous shell-holes filled with pieces of uniform, weapons, and dead bodies. The ground all round, as far as the eye could see, was ploughed by shells. You could search in vain for one wretched blade of grass. This churned-up battlefield was ghastly. Among the living lay the dead. As we dug ourselves in we found them in layers stacked one upon the top of another. One company after another had been shoved into the drum-fire and steadily annihilated. " Ernst Junger, after a night march to the front line at Guillemont.
The Western Front 1914
Militarily the war in the west began on August 4, 1914, when German troops from seven Armies swept into Luxembourg and Belgium as part of the "Schleiffen plan," which required a sweeping move through neutral Belgium and down to Paris from the North. Fortunately for the Allies, the plan did not work as expected, due both to its own limitations and German High Command's weakening of the crucial right attack wing. The result was a partial German success which failed in its ultimate goal of knocking the French army out of the war early. The German Armies swept into Belgium as planned, but the Belgian Army did not oblige by quickly losing. They instead put up a stiff fight, which delayed the rigid German campaign schedule. After overcoming the Belgians, the northern German armies marched into northern France, where they were again stiffly rebuffed in several places, both by the newly arrived British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and the French Third and Fourth Armies in the Ardennes region. The Fifth Army under French General Lanrezac, was caught outnumbered and nearly outflanked, thanks to French high command's refusal to acknowledge a German thrust from the north. Only at the last moment did Lanrezac receive permission to reposition part of his army to face the oncoming juggernaut. His freshly repositioned troops were hit with the full force of the German Second Army, and sent reeling back to the south. Soon after, as the BEF also withdrew south after their own travails, the entire front broke open as troops on both sides raced southward to the Marne, and the prize: Paris.
The Schlieffen Plan
The German offensive was only blunted when German General Alexander von Kluck re-faced his First Army in order to turn the flank of the now exhausted French Fifth Army. French General Joseph Gallieni quickly assembled the newly formed Sixth Army and, coordinating with Fifth Army's commander, assaulted Kluck's exposed flank. In the process of defending himself, Kluck redirected his corps westward, allowing yet another dangerous gap to open between him and Bulow. These errors (which were sanctioned by General Headquarters) cost the Germans any further progress and they withdrew back to safe positions north of the Marne River, where they resisted attempts by the French to dislodge them. The fault lay not only with Kluck, but with the German Commander-in-Chief, Count Helmut von Molkte and probably with the Schleiffen plan itself, which failed to account for the limitations of infantry formations operating at such rapid tempos.
The Western Front 1914-1915
For months after the failure of the German offensive, both sides made various local attempts at achieving breakthroughs. Most of these attempts failed miserably in the face of the unexpected effects of modern weapons. As each side attempted to outflank the other, the front expanded. Troops spontaneously began to dig in for better protection, and within a few months, a solid front stretched from the Swiss border to the English Channel. In November of 1914, the Kaiser personally ordered the commitment of the Imperial Foot Guards in order to guarantee a breakthrough. They attacked at Ypres and conducted a close-order frontal assault on new British trenches, losing hundreds of men and officers without securing an inch of ground. The failure of the Guards at the First Battle of Ypres marked the beginning of a major reassessment of battlefield tactics by the Germans. Despite this however, they began another series of offensives in February of 1915 in the Soissons region north of Paris (marked 1), which secured little ground. The British then attacked in the Artois region (marked 2) and broke through at Neuve Chapelle, but were unable to exploit their fleeting advantage. The Germans quickly closed the gap and in April, successfully used gas for the first time on the Western Front at Ypres (marked 3). This gas attack was not accompanied by any major breakthrough attempt, so its element of surprise was partially wasted. It did however, disrupt the plans for the second Allied campaign at Artois, which was a joint British/French operation (marked 4). These assaults also failed at a cost of 300,000 Allied casualties. The French made one more attempt against the German lines in the Champagne region (marked 5), preceded by a lengthy artillery bombardment and a simultaneous British attack at Artois. After 250,000 casualties, the French commander Joffre called off the assaults. In one year of fighting, the lines changed very little, and neither side was yet learning how to fight in this new, dangerous environment.
The Western Front 1916-1917
By early 1916, German units in the field had accumulated enough experience with position warfare to allow a few aggressive young officers to begin asserting their new ideas. This was accomplished because of the German policy of "directive control," by which officers were given broad instructions which they executed according to their own discretion. While this freedom of action resulted in a lack of standardized training, it also allowed men in the field to experiment with tactics in ways not allowed by their allied counterparts. By the time that the German offensive at Verdun was begun, many units in the field had spontaneously formed assault units which specialized in squad-level operations. The early proponents of these nascent combined arms tactics eventually ran a series of training centers immediately behind the lines. These centers assured that draftees arriving from Germany were trained in the methods of real war instead of the methods still being taught by people in Germany who had no idea of the changes occurring at the front.
Millions of exploding artillery shells completely stripped the land down to bare ground. In some places, hilltops ended the war several meters lower in altitude than they were in early 1914. In the middle foreground of this image can be seen three tiny figures moving across the man-made moonscape.
The German Commander-in-Chief, Erich von Falkenhayn, now put into action his plan to "bleed white" the French Army. He intended to isolate a section of the front-line which the French would not allow to fall, and then assure that the area was ringed by the heaviest artillery coverage available. His target was the ancient French fortress of Verdun, which his troops first assaulted on February 21 after the most concentrated bombardment of the war (marked 1). Falkenhayn however, correctly divined that his subordinates would not likely agree with such a "bleeding white" plan, and so he did not share with them his intent to purposefully avoid capturing Verdun itself. He thought that he could control the pace of the German advance, and hence the advance on Verdun itself, by withholding the vital reserves upon which his subordinates relied. Because of this appalling policy of calculated ignorance, attacking German field commanders launched wave upon wave of stop-at-nothing assaults against the Verdun fortresses without knowing that their attacks would not be followed up. The campaign carried on for five terrible months, during which 300,000 Germans and 460,000 French became casualties. This series of battles, one of the greatest slaughters in history until that time, did not achieve Falkenhayn's goals, because his men, who had been trained to attack, continued attacking against all odds in the mistaken belief that their efforts would be followed up. The French were indeed "bled white," but not as severely as hoped, and the Germans ultimately lost many of their best troops.
The Western Front 1916
On July 1, 1916, the British and French launched the Somme Offensive (marked 2). This offensive, which put an end to any German thoughts of continuing the Verdun Offensive, was launched against some of the heaviest German fortifications on the entire Western Front. The British commander, Field-Marshal Douglas Haig, protested the idea, but the French commander Joffre won the debate and the campaign was begun. This campaign saw the first use of tanks, and was preceded by the war's greatest artillery barrage. Despite these advantages, the general slaughter of allied troops which occurred is famous, with the British suffering 65,000 casualties on the first day alone. When the October rains finally put an end to the prolonged carnage, 400,000 British, 200,000 French and 450,000 Germans had become casualties! The Allies only captured a few miles of ground, and the Germans soon withdrew to their new Hindenburg Line in early 1917 (marked 3).
The general retreat which the Germans carried out between February and April of 1917 did not prevent the Allies from renewing a series of attacks that summer. The British commander Haig thought he had the formula for achieving a breakthrough: more artillery! The ensuing attack at Arras on April 9 (marked 4), cost 84,000 casualties and achieved no breakthrough. Before this battle had ended, the new French Commander, Marshal Robert-George Nivelle, launched his own ill-advised offensive (also marked 4) from Soissons to Reims. This attack ground to a halt on its first day, and by the time the assault was called off one month later, 220,000 more casualties had been added to the already overlong list of French losses for the war.
This last failure helped to finally trigger long brewing discontent into open mutinies. This was not the first time during the war that such things had occurred. As the failure at Verdun became apparent, whole German units had also surrendered or mutinied. Nivelle was dismissed and the hero of Verdun, Marshal Petain, assumed command of the French Army. Slowly control was restored, but resentment continued to run high among combat troops headed for the front lines. Some units had developed the macabre habit of bleating like sheep when senior officers passed their road columns. This, and other equally disturbing behavior continued to put commanders on notice that the tolerance for their lavish expenditure of human life was running extremely thin.
The British, who enjoyed more freedom of action after Nivelle's dismissal, opened yet another assault at Ypres with a series of great mine explosions which totally disrupted the German lines. For once, the British inflicted more casualties than they received and pushed forward (marked 5). But Haig's previous bloody commitments had made others wary of him and he was no longer given the great numbers of troops he had enjoyed previously. By the time he convinced his superiors that a breakthrough really had occurred, the Germans had patched up the lines and so yet another round of bloody fighting resumed. By the time Haig received his extra troops, the time for exploiting the breakthrough was long past, but the third battle of Ypres was launched anyway, causing one of the greatest slaughters of the war. The Germans used a new chemical called mustard gas to hold off the British, whose losses approached 400,000.
Finally, in November, a new method was used against the German lines. The British launched an attack toward Cambrai (marked 6) using hundreds of "tanks," new machines of war which held great promise. All three lines of the Hindenburg Line complex were penetrated, yet even this success did not last. The conservative high command had not been convinced of the tank's possibilities, so reserves had not been allocated for the attack. Within days, German counterattacks drove the British back to their starting positions.
The Western Front 1917-1918
So 1917 ended with little change in the bloody stalemate. The Allies had spent the year bludgeoning themselves on the German defenses with little to show for it. The Germans spent the winter of 1917/1918 retraining their Army in what was now widely accepted as the best new way to conduct positional warfare. The small assault groups needed early in the war spurred a complete reevaluation of unit behavior. The basic battlefield unit was no longer to be the company or battalion, but the squad. Each squad was no longer just a group of riflemen, but a combined arms formation of machine gunners, grenadiers and flamethrower troops supported by a few riflemen. This new way of thinking was only vaguely recognized by the Allies, who had also equipped their troops with more automatic weapons, but who did not re-train their men in a way which extracted the greatest advantage from these new weapons. The Allied failure to see the real change behind the German actions was to curse them for the rest of the war.
The Western Front 1918
The last great German offensive was launched on March 21, 1918, with Operation "Michel" (marked 1). It was opened with an unprecedented 6,000 gun barrage which delivered a lethal gas attack deep into Allied lines. At one point, the Germans advanced 14 miles in one day, more than at any other time during the fighting in the West. During the first six weeks of fighting, the Allies lost 350,000 casualties, but more troops were rushed in from across the channel, and American units began arriving for the first time. The attack was quickly followed by a second offensive (marked 2) at Ypres, but this was halted after a brief threat against the channel ports. Another German blow to Allied lines fell with the twin operations "Blucher" and "Yorck," whose combined might drove south toward Paris, occupying Soissons and nearly cutting off Reims (marked 3). The spearhead of their advance penetrated as far as Chateau-Thierry, only 56 miles from Paris. This operation however, suffered from the same flaw as many which had preceded it. Ludendorf had not planned for this offensive to succeed. It had been intended as a feint in order to draw French troops away from the main offensive to the north, and so the astounding achievements were not exploited because inadequate reserves were available. Still, the Allied situation was very grim, and the Allies were forced to issue a "backs to the wall" order.
A German machine gunner killed on the Western Front, April 1918.
The German troops however, were quickly tiring from the prolonged effort, as well as giving in to periods of looting. The economic blockade of Germany had cut off many vital supplies and back home, many people were literally starving. Many German troops were chronically undernourished, and whenever they encountered Allied food stocks, much time was lost as these desperately famished troops gorged themselves. So the last German offensive, an attempted pincer operation around Rheims (marked 4), was finally stopped with concentrated artillery and aircraft attacks. By late June, German strength on the Western Front fell below that of the Allies, and the final Allied assault was not long in coming.
The first attacks were, amazingly, made in July by the French west of Rheims (marked 5). This was followed by a British offensive at the Amiens Bulge (marked 6) and a general offensive toward the Hindenburg Line. The Americans under General John Pershing attacked the St. Mihiel Salient south of Verdun (marked 7) and then attacked through the Argonne west of Verdun as part of a general advance (marked 8). The Germans were now steadily pulling back, and even though the Allies continued to suffer tremendous losses (The Americans lost 100,000 casualties just fighting through the Argonne region), they were now inspired by the continued German retreat. The final position of the yellow line shows the approximate front at the time the Armistice was signed on November 11. The only German to keep fighting after this was Field Marshal Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck in East Africa, who was beginning his tiny invasion of Rhodesia. He surrendered on November 23, immediately upon hearing of the surrender.
Losses and Casualties
Instead of supplying a list of losses, which are difficult to fathom, we thought it appropriate to mention the percentage of a country's population directly afflicted. During the course of World War One, eleven percent (11%) of France's entire population were killed or wounded! Eight percent (8%) of Great Britain's population were killed or wounded, and nine percent (9%) of Germany's pre-war population were killed or wounded! The United States, which did not enter the land war in strength until 1918, suffered one-third of one percent (0.37%) of its population killed or wounded.