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World War One: The Western Front

1914

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During World War One, combat raged on the Western Front from 1914 to 1918. This front was largely fought on French soil, although Belgium was also invaded. The key powers were the Entente / Allies on one side – British and French troops and their Imperial forces, later boosted by the US – and Germany on the other.

Causes of World War One

War Plans

Germany, planning for their much feared two front war with France and Russia, planned to knock France out in a quick, six week campaign before Russia could mobilize and threaten from the east. The plan was designed by Schlieffen, and called for a massive German attack to roll through the flat north of Europe – including Belgium – before swinging south and attacking Paris from the rear. The plan presumed France would surrender if Paris fell, presumed people would ignore the fall of Belgium, presumed Russia would take a long time to mobilize, and also presumed that a war of such movement was still possible.

More on the Schlieffen Plan

France knew of the Schlieffen Plan, but had formed their own Plan XVII despite it. This called for a mass attack with the bulk of their troops to regain Alsace and Lorraine, with a much smaller force left with the British to stop the German advance in the north. The plan assumed Germany could be stopped fairly easily. The French military had actually tried to get authorisation for a plan to attack through Belgium into Germany, but the government was against violating Belgium neutrality.

Britain had a plan called ‘Business as Usual’. This involved putting a token British force on the continent to fight a little in the north, and instead demonstrating their support for the war effort by starting a naval blockade to starve Germany, all the while supplying France with much needed materials. Britain would then proceed to seize Germany’s colonies. The British commanders didn’t agree with this, and demanded millions of troops once war broke out.

Total and Static War

The Western powers hoped, and firmly believed, that any war would be short. The longer it went on, the more the meat grinder was dependent upon harnessing all the natural resources each country possessed to procure, supply, transport and deploy the army. It has been argued that victory was more dependent upon economics than tactics or elan. The million strong armies of 1914 and beyond lent themselves to a long war, a conclusion the commanders had not yet reached.

Machinery, technology, guns, gas, barbed wire, accurate long range rifles and artillery had also changed the nature of war, and this nature favoured static defences which human flesh found hard to conquer. Dominant firepower stops mobility, as humans cannot advance successfully into a hail of metal and live; digging is their answer. That the armies on the Western Front – and to some extent, the Eastern Front – found themselves in trenches was because it was the safest place to hold the line in the circumstances, rather than any desire on the part of the commanders. Instead, they faced the question of how to break the deadlock. They were trying to answer new questions, and experiments across the years of conflict would prove costly.

1914

The first three months of the First World War on the Western Front saw the war of manoeuvre the commanders had been expecting. Germany attacked in the north and met a small force of British and French, as well as the Belgium army, while France attacked Germany in the south, Joffre ruthlessly replacing commanders who weren’t aggressive enough. Both moved encouragingly as they travelled through their enemy’s weak points. While the France attack soon stalled, Belgium provided little opposition to the Germans, who committed atrocities that are still debated to this day. Then General Moltke altered what passed for his plan, changing the advance, pulling troops out to defend the east from a faster than expected Russian mobilization. This decision is still hugely debated: did Moltke lose the war in doing so? Was he right not to risk the Germany army getting trapped if it failed? Was the plan doomed had it been carried out? In addition, was Moltke right to devolve command to the army commanders?

Germany and Britain met at Mons on August 23rd. The British had some success – the BEF could fire fifteen aimed rounds a minute - but the British and French were pushed back. Suddenly the British had the chance to damage Germany when the first and second armies drifted apart and presented a gap, but the BEF’s commander – called French – was falling apart with a growing depression.

When the Germans reached the River Marne half a million people fled Paris as their enemy came into artillery range. However, the German attack stalled as the British and French clung on, thanks to the arrival of troops Joffre had calmly marshalled after his offensive had failed. The Entente powers now counter attacked at the Battle of the Marne, and pushed Germany back to the River Asine. Some historians argue that had the Germans persisted – if Moltke and others hadn’t been such pessimists – they could have held onto their line. Others stress the ability of Joffre to react in a manner which saved his country. There was arguably the opportunity to inflict a larger defeat of Germany, but it was missed.

Moltke was open to criticism for altering the plans – even though Kluck, the commander of the German First Army has also changed the plan by improvising, hunting the BEF, and allowing his forces to drift away – and appeared to have a breakdown; he was replaced by Falkenhayn.

There then followed a rapid series of attempts by all three armies to outflank each their enemy, which led to troops and trenches spread from Switzerland to the English Channel. This has been called the ‘Race to the Sea’, but the sea was not the intention, getting round was; the sea was just where they ran out of land. The remainder of the BEF was almost destroyed when the Germans attacked at Ypres, as by the end a third of the British were dead. As Britain couldn’t call on existing reserves, and didn’t at this point conscript, it instead held a campaign for volunteers, spearheaded by Lord Kitchener’s famous posters. A ‘New Army’ of three million men was gathered.

November 1914 saw a battlefield that, despite millions of casualties, didn’t fundamentally alter until 1918. Casualty figures were already high, with French casualties over a million and Germany over 650,000. The political and military reaction was one of stupefaction: what was happening? It wasn’t war as the commanders would describe it. In addition, the opportunity to attack was temporarily reduced, as all sides faced a ‘shell shortage’: they simply hadn’t planned for such a long war, and had too few munitions. A race to harness their economies for total war followed.

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