Overview of the war on the Western Front

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World War I lasted for fifty-one months, from 1 August 1914 to 11 November 1918, and was fought on four fronts in Europe:
-    the Western Front, considered from the outset to be the decisive front
-    the Eastern Front, with Russia;
-    the Italian Front, in the Alps; and
-    the Balkan Front, against the Ottoman Empire.

Only the Western Front saw action throughout the length of the war and it was there that the conflict was finally decided. Except for a brief foray by the French into the region of Alsace, a German possession in 1914, the remainder of the fighting was conducted on French and Belgian soil (Belgium was wholly occupied apart from an enclave situated between Ypres and the French border); indeed, no Allied soldier set foot on German soil except for those taken prisoner.

On the Western Front, in an attempt to drive the German Army from the occupied territories, the Allies succeeded in mobilizing a coalition force comprising more than twenty nations with the French and British Armies providing by far the most soldiers and equipment; however the United States, which entered the war in the spring of 1917, played a considerable role in the final days of the conflict, in the summer of 1918, which saw the Allies victorious.

The militarized zone of the front, which separated the zone occupied by the Germans from the rest of France, stretched 700 kilometres from the shores of the North Sea to the Swiss border and varied in breadth from a few hundred metres to several dozen kilometres. It was essentially a line of defensive works comprising trenches, barbed wire entanglements, blockhouses and underground shelters. Millions of soldiers saw service on the front, where the incessant shelling of both sides transformed the area into a landscape of craters and desolation, and several million of them perished there after enduring the cold, unhealthy and parasite-ridden conditions of the trenches. Throughout the conflict the various sectors of the front experienced periods of calm punctuated by heavy shelling and bloody offensives.

The Western Front of the Great War went through three main phases:

-    a war of movement from August to October 1914;

-    a war of position from November 1914 to March 1918; and

-    a return to a war of movement for the final confrontation between March and November 1918.


1.    The invasion and a war of movement (August to October 1914)

In the final days of July 1914 the belligerents were able to mobilize their armies at great speed thanks to the efficient railway network then covering mainland Europe.

The principal objective of the Schlieffen Plan, the document which guided German military strategy in the summer of 1914, was to take Paris and thus force a rapid victory on the Western Front. The plan prescribed a surprise attack through neutral Belgium and the plains of Northern France, executed by a considerable force of infantry, cavalry and artillery, while at the same time neutralizing the French initiatives on the Franco-German border.

On 4 August 1914, forty-four German divisions streamed through Belgium in an attempt to attack the rear of the French Army massed in the north-east of the country, mostly in Lorraine. However despite the surprise, and at great human cost, the French Army was able to withstand the assault and retreat, without dislocating, to the great plains situated to the north of Paris. The French were supported in this by the first wave of troops of the British Expeditionary Force which had arrived on 14 August. In early September 1914 the French, in a final spurt, halted the German thrust just forty kilometres from the capital at the First Battle of the Marne. On 9 September, the German Army withdrew sixty kilometres to the north, to a defensive line along the Aisne River. This decision was in effect an acknowledgement that the Schlieffen Plan to capture Paris and destroy the French Army had failed. The withdrawal was also the first indication that the war was not going to be over quickly, as many had thought, and that a long confrontation of considerable forces was to be expected.

At the end of September, starting in the Aisne Valley, the two sides embarked upon what would be subsequently known as the Race to the Sea where each army attempted to pass round the flank of the other before it was able to shore up its defence. For several weeks the two armies were constantly on the move, fighting disorganized battles and suffering huge losses. This phase of movement came to a halt in October on the shores of the North Sea near the Belgian town of Nieuwpoort. A final attempt by the Germans to break through was thwarted by French and British forces in late October near the city of Ypres. Exhausted, the two sides proceeded to take up position behind a continuous line of trenches and defensive works.

The huge numbers of casualties suffered in the movements of the summer and autumn of 1914 were a direct result of the industrialization of the war. By the end of November 1914 the French Army alone had lost nearly a million men, of which 300,000 had been killed, and ten per cent of its officers had been put out of action. With Germans losses as high as those of the Allies, the offensive could only be considered a major strategic failure.

[Timeline: the main phases and offensives of the Great War; the participation of French (F), British (GB), Belgian (B) and American (USA) armies is indicated in brackets; the offensives launched by the Germans are indicated by the letter D. The offensives which took place in Northern France are indicated in bold type.]

1914

- Battle of the Frontiers (14-25 August 1914)
- First Battle of the Marne (5-10 September 1914) (F and GB)
- First Battle of Artois (1-26 October 1914) (F)
- First Battle of Ypres (11 October to 30 November 1914) (D)
- First Battle of Champagne (10 December 1914 to 17 March 1915) (F and GB)


2.    Trench warfare (November 1914 to March 1918)

In the autumn of 1914, despite their huge losses, neither of the great armies massed on the Western Front was in a state of dislocation; although measures would have to be taken, and on a large scale, if they were to adapt to the huge war looming on the horizon.

The Germans occupied large portions of France and Belgium, controlling major economic resources such as the Belgium coal basins and the largest coal field in France, the Pas-de-Calais coal basin which alone supplied half of the "black gold" required by French industry. In tactical terms, the German Army took great care to install its defensive line on high ground, however slight, notably in Flanders.

For the French the objective was to reclaim, at any human cost, the territory occupied by the Germans; and this they had to do alone up to the end of 1915 and the arrival of the "new" British Army of volunteers.

Throughout most of the war of position, from the end of 1914 to late 1917, the commanders in chief of the Allied armies on the Western Front, Marshal Joffre for the French and Field Marshal French (and later his successor General Haig) for the British, were convinced that a war of attrition was the only way to drive the Germans out of France and Belgium. The result was a series of attacks, ranging from localized actions to massive assaults, in various sectors along the front. The quantity of human and material resources committed to these attacks was of a size never before seen in the history of war. And yet, until the spring of 1918, all these attempts on the German lines resulted in tragic failure, the decisive breakthrough sought by the Allies never materializing. At best, the Allies made some mediocre territorial gains in Somme and at Ypres but the cost to human life was horrific. At the end of 1917, despite the failure in its attempt to weaken the French Army at Verdun, the German Army remained powerful and undefeated on the Western Front and continued to improve its strategy for defence. Earlier in the year, in February and March, it executed a strategic withdrawal to a heavily-fortified and seemingly invulnerable line of defence that stretched from the North Sea to Verdun: the Hindenburg Line.

Morale among German troops was high but, after the terrible reverse suffered by General Robert Nivelle on Chemin-des-Dames Ridge in April 1917, the French Army descended into crisis with large-scale mutinies breaking out in the spring of 1917.

The British Army, after a complete reorganization in early 1915 with the creation of a "new" army of volunteers placed under the command of Field Marshal Horatio Kitchener, suffered horrendous losses in the Battle of the Somme in July 1916; however the lessons learned from this blood-soaked failure were slow to filter through to operations on the ground.

As for American support, considered by the French and the British to be a decisive factor which would tip the balance in favour of the Allies, it was slow to materialize. The Americans were methodical in their approach to establishing their troops on the Western Front, choosing to observe and learn the rules of trench warfare before bringing a major force to the battlefield.



1915, 1916, 1917

- Battle of Neuve-Chapelle (10-13 March 1915) (GB)
- Second Battle of Ypres (22 April to 25 May 1915) (D)
- Second Battle of Artois (16 May to 30 June 1915) (F and GB)
- Argonne Forest Offensive (20 June to 4 July 1915) (F)
- Second Battle of Champagne (25 September to 6 November 1915) (F)
- Battle of Loos (25 September to 8 October 1915) (GB)
- First Battle of the Somme (1 July to 18 November 1916) (F and GB)
- Battle of Verdun, the German offensive (21 February to 18 December 1916) (D)
- Battle of Verdun, the French counter-offensive (24 October to 18 December 1916) (F)
- Battle of Arras (9 April to 15 May 1917) (GB)
- Second Battle of the Aisne (16-20 April 1917) (F)
- Battle of Messines (7-14 June 1917) (GB)
- Third Battle of Ypres (31 July to 10 November 1917) (F and GB)
- Battle of Cambrai (20 November to 10 December 1917) (GB)


3.    A return to a war of movement and victory for the Allies (March-November 1918)

At the end of 1917 the Russian Army collapsed amid the events of the Bolshevik Revolution and thus relieved of pressure on its Eastern Front, the German Army, under the command of General Erich von Ludendorff, turned its attention to forcing a decision in France. The German High Command began to amass and train a considerable fighting force in preparation for a massive offensive on the Western Front which would rely on a new tactic using shock troops supported by very mobile groups of light artillery.

A formidable army of seventy-four divisions (approximately 900,000 men) gradually took up position along the eighty kilometre front defended by thirty British divisions, from Bapaume to Saint-Quentin. Ludendorff aimed to break through the Allied lines and advance to the Channel in order to seize the ports used by the British before American reinforcements arrived in any great number. This would have put Germany in a strong position to negotiate favourable conditions for the termination of the war.

Ludendorff called his offensive Kaiserschlacht, the "Emperor's Battle", although it was code-named "Michael", and he intended it to be a flexible operation with a series of successive impact points. The plan called for the German Air Force to play an important role in the offensive, which excluded a winter start, and on the first day of the attack 700 aeroplanes took to the sky in support of the German soldiers on the ground.

The Allies were in an awkward position in the spring of 1918. The French Army had been severely weakened by the fighting at Verdun and the tragic reverse on Chemin-des-Dames Ridge, and its morale had been sapped by the mutinies of 1917 and the social issues agitating the rear. Similarly, the British Army had fewer men at its disposal than the previous year, before the disastrous offensives of 1917, but a greater portion of the front to defend with an infantry made up of very young and inexperienced men. As for the American forces, they had yet to prove their worth in the field.

The major German offensive began at dawn on 21 March 1918. It was devastating: the British front was penetrated and losses were high (38,000 casualties and 20,000 prisoners in one day), forcing the British into a hurried retreat. After a month of fighting Ludendorff decided to interrupt the attack; the Germans had progressed more than sixty kilometres into the Allied lines in some areas but their troops were exhausted and their supply lines could not keep pace.

After a pause lasting several days, and a return to trench warfare along makeshift lines, Ludendorff decided to restart the offensive in the form of limited, tactical attacks on certain sectors of the front. One of these was Operation Georgette: the German Army fought its way along the Lys Valley to Béthune between 9 and 19 April, sweeping aside the Portuguese Expeditionary Force and flattening the town's centre with heavy shelling. French and American forces finally brought the German thrust to a halt in May 1918.

By the end of July the front was moving in the opposite direction, propelled by a powerful and coordinated counter-attack by the three Allied armies. On 8 August 1918 the Allies began an offensive along the length of the front, Ludendorff describing it as the German Army's "black day". This offensive, after 100 days of fighting, ended in victory for the Allies and the Armistice was signed on 11 November, bringing a welcome end to the slaughter.



1918

- Operation Michael (21 March to 5 April 1918) (D)
- Operation Georgette (Lys Valley) (9-29 April 1918) (D)
- Blücher-Yorck Offensive (27 May to 17 June 1918) (D)
- Operation Gneisenau (9-13 June 1918) (D)
- Second Battle of the Marne (15-19 July 1918) (D)
- Battle of Amiens (8 August to 4 September 1918) (GB)
- Battle of Cambrai-Saint-Quentin (26 August to 12 October) (F, GB and B)
- Battle of Saint-Mihiel (12-16 September1917) (US)
- Meuse-Argonne Offensive (26 September to 11 November 1918) (F and USA)
- Flanders Offensive (28 September to 11 November 1918) (F and GB)
- Picardy Offensive (17 October to 11 November 1918) (GB)


Thus after four years of unprecedented fighting, both in terms of its extent and the slaughter, the Allies claimed victory on the Western Front over the most powerful and most professional army in the world.

France paid a high price for her place among the victors of the Great War: she had lost a whole generation of young adults and some of her most economically-productive regions, both in terms of industry and agriculture, were devastated.

The price paid by Great Britain and her empire was equally daunting: never before had the British nation suffered so great a loss of human life, and her enormous financial reserves, accumulated over centuries, were severely depleted. The Great War also changed the face of the British Army, which until that time was designed to satisfy the needs of a colonial empire, turning it into a powerful fighting machine capable of undertaking massive operations. The war also contributed to creating a sense of nationhood among the Dominions of the Empire (Canada, Australia and New Zealand) and sowed the seeds of independence from the British homeland.

Despite the negative outcome for Germany, with her servicemen decimated and her finances exhausted, her territory remained intact. The defeat was attributed by many Germans to political manoeuvres rather than the failings of the military and this encouraged the emergence of a vengeful nationalism, particularly among former soldiers such as one Adolf Hitler. The entry into the war of the Americans, albeit belated, forced the German Army into an ultimately doomed offensive.

In 1918, with limited losses and a strengthened economy, the United States attained for the first time the enviable status of world power.

Yves LE MANER,
director of La Coupole
History and Remembrance Centre of Northern France