World War I on the Western Front

The Western Front: England, France, and Germany: 1914-1917

 

The Western Front was a four-hundred-mile line of fortifications that stretched from the northern border of Belgium and the Netherlands to the northern border of Switzerland. This territory became the primary center of action for the Allies and Central Powers in World War I. The Western Front is often emphasized in studies of World War I because of the extensive combat between German troops and those of the French and British. Beginning in 1918, the United States also fought on the Western Front. It was the Western Front battles that turned the war’s tide in favor of the Allies in 1918.

 

Learning Objectives

  • Evaluate how the Western Front became the primary center of combat in World War I.
  • Explore the development of “modern warfare” techniques, including trench warfare, and modern weapons.
  • Examine why some historians argue that “the war was won and lost on the Western Front.”

 

Key Terms / Key Concepts

Western Front: four hundred miles of trenches established by the Allies and Germany from the border of northern Belgium to northern Switzerland, predominately in France and Belgium

Race to the Sea: the frantic building of trenches by the Allies and Germans in 1914 to Belgium’s coast

First Battle of the Marne: decisive 1914 battle that resulted in the development of trench warfare

trench warfare: stagnant form of warfare in which firepower exceeds mobile ability

No Man’s Land: area between opposing enemy trenches, typically characterized as open field covered with barbed wire

Schlieffen Plan: German offensive strategy in 1914 used to try and defeat France on the Western Front by first invading them from the north through neutral Belgium

Battle of Verdun: major 1916 battle between the French and Germans on the Western Front

Battle of the Somme: major 1916 battle between predominately the British and Germans on the Western Front

War of Attrition: a form of combat in which the end goal is to wear down the enemy to the point of collapse through patience and the destruction of their men

Stalemate: a battle in which there is no clear victor

Total War: a form of warfare in which the international rules of warfare, particularly those applying to the treatment of civilians, POWs, and use of technology, are increasingly ignored in favor of “no rules” of warfare

Meuse-Argonne Offensive: campaign led by the French and Americans in Fall 1918 against the Germans on the Western Front

Alvin C. York: most decorated American soldier of World War I

Poison Gas: typically chlorine, phosgene, or mustard gas that was used extensively on the Western Front as an irritant that would attack the skin, eyes, lungs, or some combination thereof

 

Background

 

In July 1914, most of Europe had chosen sides in World War I. Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, and to a lesser extent, Bulgaria, comprised the Central Powers. The Allies consisted of England, France, Russia, and smaller states such as Serbia. Each European country also recruited colonial troops from Africa, India, and other parts of their empires to fight on the Western Front.

Fatally, the mentality of each European nation was initial excitement and the expectation of a short war. Heads of state touted their military developments and the belief that they could “lick” the enemy within six months. None of the combatant nations had developed defensive strategies. On the contrary, each nation developed offensive plans. A dance of offensive and counter-offensive maneuvers ensued throughout Belgium and France. When it became clear that the war would not end in six months, both sides developed trench warfare, and they “dug in” for a long and costly war.

 

The Schlieffen Plan

 

The Schlieffen Plan was Germany’s offensive strategy for defeating France in August 1914. Germany’s military strategists planned to deploy troops using the modernized railways, and thought they would quickly defeat the Allies on the Western Front before turning their attention to helping Austria-Hungary defeat the Russians on the Eastern Front. This strategy was meant to ideally prevent Germany from fighting a two-front war: one in the east and one in the west. To achieve this, German troops would march through the northern half of neutral Belgium, then encircle French troops from the north. Thus, France would be defeated before England could come to their aid. Although a respectable plan on paper, it proved harder to successfully enact.

 

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Simplified Map of Germany’s Schlieffen Plan, 1914

 

Germany attacked their neighbor, Luxembourg, on August 2; on August 3 it declared war on France. On August 4, after Belgium refused to permit German troops to cross its borders into France, Germany declared war on Belgium as well. Britain declared war on Germany on the same day following an “unsatisfactory reply” to the British ultimatum that Belgium must be kept neutral.

In the end, Germany failed to avoid a long, two-front war, but it had fought its way into a good defensive position inside France and effectively halved France’s supply of coal. It had also killed or permanently crippled 230,000 more French and British troops than it itself had lost. Despite this, communications problems and questionable command decisions cost Germany the chance of a more decisive outcome.

 

Early Battles

 

Following the outbreak of war in August 1914, the German Army opened the Western Front by invading Luxembourg and Belgium but were forced back with the First Battle of the Marne.

 

First Battle of the Marne

 

The German Army came within 43 miles of Paris; however, at the First Battle of the Marne (September 6 – 12) French and British troops were able to force a German retreat by exploiting a gap that appeared between the German 1st and 2nd Armies. This ended the German advance into France. The German Army retreated north of the Aisne River, establishing the beginnings of a static western front that would last for the next three years.

Following this German retreat, the opposing forces made reciprocal outflanking maneuvers known as the Race for the Sea and quickly extended their trench systems from the Swiss frontier to the North Sea. The territory occupied by Germany held 64% of French pig-iron production, 24% of its steel manufacturing, and 40% of the coal industry, dealing a serious blow to French industry.

 

Trench Warfare

 

After the German march on Paris was halted at the First Battle of the Marne, both sides dug in along a meandering line of fortified trenches stretching from the North Sea to the Swiss frontier with France. The Western Front settled into a war of attrition, with a trench line that changed little until 1917.

Trench warfare is a style of combat in which combatant nations have excellent firepower, but poor mobility. While trench warfare was not new in World War I, it quickly became associated with World War I because of its prolonged use by both Germany, and the Allies, on the Western Front. Both sides of the war would dig long networks of trenches that sometimes extended as deep as twelve-fifteen feet underground. Trenches were fortified (strengthened) by use of boards and sandbags. Both sides also employed the use of barbed wire rows in front of their trenches.

 

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Photograph of a British soldier in 1916 in a trench. One of the challenges of maintaining a trench was the mud that would slip and collapse during rain.

 


In between the two sides was a massive, usually open field called No Man's Land that was extremely dangerous to cross because of mines, barbed wire, snipers, artillery, and machine gun fire. And yet for nearly four years, this form of combat was the definitive form of warfare on the Western Front. Attacks involved sending hundreds of men, sometimes thousands, charging across No Man’s Land to dislodge or defeat the enemy who was in the opposing trench system. This tactic frequently resulted in massive losses of life, such as half a million men in a month, as well as stalemated battles in which neither side had a clear victory.

 

Problems facing attacking troops
Diagram showing the construction and layout of No Man’s Land and a trench system.

 

Throughout 1915 – 17, the British Empire and France suffered more casualties than Germany because of the strategic and tactical stances chosen by the sides; while the Germans only mounted one major offensive, the Allies made several attempts to break through the German lines.

 

Daily Life inside a Trench

 

In accounts of the trench warfare of World War I, the daily life of the men is over overshadowed by the sweeping battles of the Western Front. But one of the primary challenges of the war was combatting the daily struggles of living inside a trench. Indeed, many soldiers could not escape these horrors and succumbed to shell shock, which is a form of PTSD.

On both sides of the war, soldiers were confronted with the challenges of fighting a war on a poor diet. Rations for the British were notoriously bad and became worse as the war waged on. Tinned beef and biscuits were the mainstay for most troops. At best, soldiers could hope to receive a package from home with something to supplement their diets. As a result of poor diet, combined with exhaustion, many troops also contracted diseases and experienced malnutrition. Harold Mayhall of the Durham Light Infantry, recalled with horror, his diet on the Western Front:

Oh, that’s a sore point: rations were very poor. The rations when you went up in the trenches and you couldn’t get rations up! You’d try to brew tea and you couldn’t, it was always cold and probably the water was all tasted of petrol because it came up in petrol tins – which were never cleaned out properly – and the tea was half petrol and cold. The food, they were supposed to give you some bacon, well you were lucky if you got a piece of bacon it was all cold and greasy. I mean you couldn’t get any. If you were out of the line they’d cook some bacon and you could, they’d let you have – you’d get a piece of bread and dip it in, that was that, or you could have a tiny bit of bacon without dipping your bread in, that was all you got. And the cooks, probably if a man was a chartered accountant they’d make him a cook or something like that because it was always square pegs in round holes, you know. They couldn’t cook; we used to say they couldn’t boil water without spoiling it or something. The food was terrible.

In addition to poor diet, soldiers had to deal with pests. Their presence ranged from annoyances, such as snakes and spiders, to outright dangerous. For instance, lice and fleas infested soldiers; one American soldier reported that the average soldier had a quart of lice on his person. And typhus, a disease carried by lice, ravaged soldiers on all fronts in World War I. But the most dangerous, and famous, of the pests to plague soldiers were the notorious trench rats.  They not only carried fleas and lice that would infect the soldiers; they also carried diseases, and did not hesitate to chew on anything inside the trench, including a human face. James Harvey, an English soldier, gave an account of this issue:


Rats were common, very common, you didn’t dare leave a bit of food about or else there’d be swarms of rats round you. And all the time you didn’t attack them, they didn’t attack you. But on one occasion where we got a bayonet and stuck one; needless to say we got out of that place quick! There were thousands of rats, must’ve been thousands, the number I couldn’t count them – didn’t stop to count ’em! Didn’t matter what part of the line you was in, you’d got these rats. One of our men who was asleep, and had his forehead all bitten by them. Oh yes, he had to go into hospital special for it.

 

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A French soldier combats the boredom and fatigue of the Western Front by “knocking off” unwanted trench companions. Rats proved annoying and potentially harmful to soldiers on all sides of the war. Indeed, some soldiers reported that rats could grow to the size of a “small dog” and that they would eat anything from scraps of food to rotting human and animal flesh, to exposed skin on soldiers’ faces.



Given the poor living conditions, continual presence of disease, and the looming threat of death, it is unsurprising that many soldiers suffered from shell shock. But many more suffered from wounds, injury, and mysterious fevers, as they fought to stay alive another day on the Western Front.

 

"We Shall Bleed France White": The Battle of Verdun

 

In February 1916 the Germans attacked the French defensive positions near the symbolic and ancient French village of Verdun. The attack’s goal was simple in the eyes of the German commander, Erich von Falkenhayn. “We shall bleed France white.” In short, the goal was to kill or critically wound as many French soldiers as possible, thereby forcing France to surrender. After their surrender, the Germans could sue the British for peace. Although the Battle of Verdun became the longest, and one of the costliest battles of World War I in terms of human life, the Germans came very close to achieving this goal. Lasting for ten months (until December 1916), the battle saw initial German gains before French counterattacks returned them near their starting point. Casualties were greater for the French, but the Germans bled heavily as well. Between the two sides, the Battle of Verdun inflicted nearly one million casualties in ten months. Verdun became a symbol of French determination and self-sacrifice. The outcome of the battle was a stalemate. Critically though, the Battle of Verdun (and also the Battle of the Somme) helped alter the mentality of the war. Having suffered such intense, high casualties, both sides of the war increasingly disregarded the rules of warfare prescribed under international law. The two major battles would transform World War I from a war theoretically governed by agreed-upon rules of war, into a total war 1917.

 

Relieving Pressure: The Battle of the Somme

 

News of the horrible French casualties at Verdun prompted the British to launch an attack against the Germans to try and relieve pressure on their French allies. After months of planning, the British began their attack in June 1916.

From June 24 – June 30, 1916, the British bombarded the German trenches and defensive position near the Somme River in northeastern France. British artillery and aerial bombardment hammered No Man’s Land with the goal of destroying barbed wire and obliterating the German trench network.

Convinced that the week-long bombardment had been largely successful, the British then strategized an attack that would charge over No Man’s Land and defeat the surviving German troops in their trenches. The decision proved one of the most underestimated and costliest mistakes of World War I. For although the bombardment had looked successful, the barbed wire had become badly mangled in No Man’s Land, rather than destroyed. Twisted and bent into virtual soldier traps, the barbed wire formed a nearly impassable network of obstacles.

Worse for the British, they had underestimated German engineering. During the weeklong bombardment, the Germans had simply gone deep into their trenches, some twelve to fifteen feet underground. The result was that most of the German army had survived the British bombardment, unbeknownst to their enemy. When the British infantry attacked, the Germans were ready and waiting.

 

photo of man looking at camera while carrying a corpse on his back through the trench
Famous still image from a 1916 film taken by the British at the Battle of the Somme

 

The British, unaware of the follies of their bombardment, launched an infantry attack on the German defensive position early in the morning of July 1, 1916. Quickly, troops were ensnared in the endless barbed wire rows. As they worked to free themselves, the German machine gunners opened fire. In a matter of a few hours, No Man’s Land was transformed into a slaughterhouse. In one day alone, the British suffered 57,470 casualties with 19,240 dead; including many officers.

 

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Lieutenant John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, circa 1915-1920.
Tolkien’s experiences at the Battle of the Somme would later help shape parts
of his famous book, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.

 

A young lieutenant in the British army named John Ronald Reuel Tolkien experienced the Battle of the Somme firsthand. He wrote of how at night; he would go with medics to help retrieve bodies from the battlefield. Horrified, he recalled seeing the mangled bodies of comrades who seemingly peered up him through the mud with shocked and ghostly expressions. Decades later, his memories inspired the eerie “Dead Marshes” in his famous book The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. The scene depicts heroes Frodo and Sam traversing a swamp with their guide, Gollum, while ghoulish corpses leeringly peered and reached up through the mud and water toward the travelers.

The successive weeks and months proved horrible for both sides. Infantry attacks, artillery bombardments, horrific weather, and failed charges resulted in massive casualties. The entire Somme offensive cost the British Army some 420,000 casualties. Their French allies suffered another estimated 200,000. The Germans suffered an estimated 500,000. In only five months, Europe had suffered over one million casualties (mostly young men) in a single battle. World War I was indeed, tearing Europe apart.

 

New Weaponry

 

Both sides tried to break the trench stalemate using scientific and technological advances. Machine guns, tanks, airplanes such as the biplane and triplane, Zeppelins, grenades, artillery, and personal weapons were employed on the Western Front.

 

The Use of Poison Gasses on the Western Front

 

The French Army was the first to use gas on the battlefield. They deployed tear gas, a skill and eye irritant, against the invading German Army in August 1914. Very quickly, the idea of using gas as a weapon took hold.

An English war poet, second lieutenant Wilfred Owen wrote several poems depicting the horrors of battle on the Western Front. One of his most famous, “Dulce et decorum est” is an ironic title, which translated as “It is sweet and fitting to die for ones country.”  Among the most poignant points expressed in the poem is the horrific experience of a poison gas attack:

 

“Gas! GAS! Quick Boy—an ecstasy of fumbling

Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,

But someone was still yelling out and stumbling

And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—

Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,

As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.”

 

Perhaps more than any other form of technological warfare, poison gas became the iconic weapon employed on the Western Front. As well as the most feared. Although banned by international law, both the Germans and the Allies would use various poison gases, including tear, chlorine, phosgene, and mustard gas, which was the most-deadly. Some of the gasses simply irritated exposed skin and eyes; others attacked mucus membranes. The most-feared, mustard gas, attacked both skin and the lungs. Importantly, mustard gas also lingered in low lying areas of the battlefield for several days after it was deployed and was difficult to see. This combination made it particularly dangerous for advancing troops.

 

 

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Gas attack on the Western Front.

 

On April 22, 1915, at the Second Battle of Ypres, the Germans used chlorine gas for the first time on the Western Front. After a two-day bombardment, the Germans released a cloud of 171 tons of chlorine gas onto the battlefield. Though primarily a powerful irritant, it can asphyxiate in high concentrations or prolonged exposure. The gas crept across no man’s land and drifted into the French trenches. The green-yellow cloud killed some defenders and those in the rear fled in panic, creating an undefended 3.7 mile gap in the Allied line. The Germans were unprepared for the level of their success and lacked sufficient reserves to exploit the opening; this resulted in Canadian troops on the right drawing back their left flank and repelling the German advance.

The success of this chlorine gas attack would not be repeated, as the Allies countered by introducing gas masks and other countermeasures. The British retaliated, developing their own chlorine gas and using it at the Battle of Loos in September 1915. Fickle winds and inexperience led to more British casualties from the gas than German fatalities. French, British, and German forces all escalated the use of gas attacks throughout the rest of the war.

 

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Canadian soldier being treated for mustard gas burns.

 

 

Tanks and Airplanes

 

Tanks were developed by Britain and France, and they were first used in combat by the British during the Battle of Flers–Courcelette (part of the Battle of the Somme) on September 15, 1916, but only with partial success. Unlike later counterparts used in World War II, the tanks of World War I were clumsy, enormous, and difficult to maneuver effectively. However, their effectiveness would grow as the war progressed; the Allies built tanks in large numbers, whilst the Germans employed only a few of their own design supplemented by captured Allied tanks.

 

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Destroyed tank in France.

 

For the first time in human history, a major conflict was fought in the air. And far more romantic than the war on land was the war in the air. The Germans employed the use of Zeppelins—rigid airships—that could silently fly over major targets such as London and drop bombs on the city under the cover of darkness. All sides of the war employed the use of airplanes. Famously, the English developed the olive-green Sopwith Camel biplane for use on the Western Front in 1917. Far more famous though was the German DR.1 Fokker triplane piloted by aerial ace, Baron Manfred von Richthofen. The highest-scoring ace of World War I, the “Red Baron” has been immortalized as the rival pilot of Charles M. Schultz’s comic strip beagle Snoopy.

 

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A replica of the “Red Baron’s” red, DR. 1 Fokker Triplane.

 

Biplanes and triplanes became a common feature, and often a welcome sight, for troops on the Western Front. As the war evolved into a total war in 1917, fighting increased in severity and scope. For the final two years of the war, planes were regularly employed with mixed success.