Settling in: The First Years on the Western Front
Settling in: The First Years on the Western Front
Settling in: The First Years on the Western Front
World War I began on August 4, 1914, with Germany and France launching their attacks according to the war plans they had carefully laid out during peacetime. Germany crossed Belgium and began its attack on France along that country's northeastern border; France sent its forces against German foes in the Alsace region; Great Britain sent help across the English Channel to bolster French forces. Within weeks, however, it became obvious that this war would not go as planned. The warring armies faced each other along a front that was known at the western front, a line that stretched northwest from Switzerland and eventually reached the Belgian coast. Along the western front German troops were stalled by stiff resistance from the Allies; and French attacks were being repulsed by German machine guns. And there they sat, brutally fighting over small stretches of land, gaining a mile here, 300 yards there, in a bloody confrontation that would last for four more years.
This chapter covers the fighting along the Western Front during the first two years of the war, from the opening of the war in August 1914 to the end of the Battle of the Somme in the autumn of 1916. Despite the important battles that were fought
in eastern Germany, Russia, Serbia, and in other spots around the globe, the fighting on the Western Front is considered the most important in the war. It was on the Western Front that the major combatants committed the majority of their troops and their efforts. And it was on the Western Front that the world was introduced to a new form of warfare that exhausted nations and destroyed armies on a scale never seen before.
Prelude to War: The March across Belgium
At the war's outset, German advances went according to plan—the Schlieffen plan. Created by former chief of the German military Alfred von Schlieffen (1833–1913), the Schlieffen plan called for German troops to storm across Belgium and begin attacking France along its border with Belgium. Germany planned to push the French southwest from the Belgian border and then flank (attack the side of) French troops on the
west, capture the French capital of Paris, and then encircle and defeat the French army.(Then, Germany would be free to battle Russia in the east; see Chapter 5.) Schlieffen's plan required two things: massive numbers of German troops and speed. Yet Helmuth Johannes von Moltke (1848–1916), the chief of the German general staff (the ruling body of the military) from 1906 to 1914, decided not to commit as many troops as Schlieffen had called for at the far western edge of the German attack. It was a crucial mistake.
Germany asked for free passage across Belgium; the Belgians refused, and Germany decided to fight its way across. Belgium was a neutral country; it did not have a large army. But it did have a complex of fortresses near the town of Liège, squarely in the path of the German advance. On August 4 Germany declared war on Belgium and sent a special attack force to capture Liège. After nearly two weeks of battle and artillery bombardment, Liège was beaten into submission, and the Germans were free to roll across Belgium, facing only scattered resistance
from snipers and small bands of troops. On August 19 the Germans began their attack on Belgium's fortress at Namur, and the next day they entered Brussels, the nation's capital.
The German advance turned the peaceful countryside into a fierce battlefield. A French officer observed this change from a point near the Belgium-France border, as quoted in Martin Gilbert's The First World War: A Complete History: "A dog was barking at some sheep. A girl was singing as she walked down the lane behind us. From a little farm away on the right came the voices and laughter of some soldiers cooking their evening meal … Then, without a moment's warning, with a suddenness that made us start and strain our eyes to see what our minds could not realize, we saw the whole horizon burst into flame." A German artillery attack had begun. "A chill of horror came over us," the soldier continued. "War seemed suddenly to have assumed a merciless, ruthless aspect that we had not realized till then. Hitherto it had been war as we had conceived it, hard blows, straight dealing, but now for the first
time we felt as if some horrible Thing, utterly merciless, was advancing to grip us." That terrible Thing, modern warfare, would soon grip the entire Western Front.
First French Attacks
The French also opened the war according to plan—in their case, Plan XVII. Unlike the detailed Schlieffen plan, writes James L. Stokesbury in A Short History of World War I, the French plan "was more a statement of general intent. It called for the concentration forward of all the French armies, and then for them to move to the attack as they were fully mobilized." Under General Joseph "Papa" Joffre (1852–1931), the French launched their first attack on the town of Mulhouse in the Alsace region of Germany. It was a botched attack led by a reluctant commander who was soon fired by Joffre.
A more sustained French offensive was launched on August 14, 1914. For six days, French troops pushed into the
German province of Lorraine, which was once a part of France. Dressed in their bright red trousers and blue coats and waving their bayonets before them, the French soldiers poured forward in neat lines. Despite being hammered by German machine-gunfire, they still managed to advance. On August 20, however, the German forces launched a brutal counterattack. The two sides fought through the day, and the exhausted French began a retreat that night. The Germans pressed the French through the night, and for the next two days pushed them all the way back across the French border and nearly to the city of Nancy. The first French offensives had failed, and the southeastern end of the front locked into place. The next battles would take place to the north and west.
The Battles of the Frontier
The opening French attacks in the Alsace-Lorraine region failed. Even worse, French generals realized to their
horror that German armies approaching through Belgium were near the French border. Joffre sent the French Third, Fourth, and Fifth armies into the Ardennes region, which lay east of the Meuse River. On August 22, in this hilly, wooded valley the French Third and Fourth armies met German troops of surprising strength. The French were badly beaten, with infantry abandoning the field in panic under the assault of German artillery. The most experienced of the French divisions, the Third Colonial, suffered 11,000 casualties (men killed, wounded, or taken prisoner) out of a total of 15,000 soldiers.
The next major confrontation—there were many minor confrontations—occurred near the Belgian town of Mons. French troops under General Charles Lanrezac were to advance into Belgium alongside the newly arrived British Expeditionary Force (BEF) led by Field Marshal Sir John French (1852–1925). But Lanrezac's Fifth Army was driven backward along the Sambre River by the ferocious firepower of German
troops. By August 23, the French army had decided to retreat, leaving the outmanned British to fight the Battle of Mons.
The Battle of Mons. The 150,000-man British Expeditionary Force (BEF) had arrived in France not long after the British declared war on Germany. By August 23, the British had taken up positions on a front twenty miles wide, facing north toward the town of Mons. (The western front ran generally southeast to northwest. But the front had jigs and jags, allowing some individual battle fronts to be aligned along a north-south axis and others along a more southeast-northwest axis.) Their five divisions would soon face the full force of German general Alexander von Kluck's First Army, fourteen divisions strong (a division was usually made up of a headquarters and three to five brigades of troops). The BEF stood at the far northwestern end of the front; by overrunning them, the Germans could successfully flank the combined French and British forces and achieve the goal of the Schlieffen plan. Instead, the BEF fought one of the bravest battles of the war, slowing the German advance before fleeing again in retreat.
The British soldiers fighting at Mons were experienced professional soldiers, many of whom had fought in the Boer War in Africa some years earlier. They were crack marksmen known for their ability to fire quickly and accurately. Their firepower soon took its toll on the advancing Germans. A German soldier, quoted in John Keegan's The First World War, recalled facing the British rifles: "No sooner had we left the edge of the wood than a volley of bullets whistled past our noses and cracked into the trees behind. Five or six cries near me, five or six of my grey lads collapsed in the grass… . Thefiring seemed at long range … . Here we were as if advancingon a parade ground… . away in front a sharp, hammeringsound, then a pause, then a more rapid hammering—machine guns!" But they weren't machine guns—they were British soldiers firing at rapid speed.
With their overwhelming numbers, the Germans eventually pressured the British out of their positions, and the BEF joined the French forces in a general retreat from battle. But they were not through fighting. In fact, British and French forces fought bravely in retreat, especially at Le Cateau, and set the stage for another major confrontation in the Battle of the Marne.
The Battle of the Marne
In the days following the Battle of Mons, the Germans continued pressing forward, driving southwest from Mons directly toward Paris. To some, it looked as though the German plan might succeed, for the Germans were coming perilously close to circling around the Allies. But the problems with the Schlieffen plan soon revealed themselves. The further forward the Germans pushed, the more distance they opened between themselves and their supplies of food and ammunition. Stretched thinly across enemy territory, German troops had difficulty communicating with each other and with their leader, General Moltke. Moltke often did not know which armies were in which positions, and he grew frantic in his efforts to control the actions of the war.
Though they had been pushed back, the French had easy access to supplies and to reinforcements. And their leader, Joffre, grew increasingly confident that French forces would
withstand the German onslaught. Thus, at the end of the first week in September, the tide of the war shifted. Well fed and well supplied, the French and British armies began an attack of their own in what became known as the Battle of the Marne. Pushing forward, the French encountered disorganized German troops, which soon turned in retreat. In hard-fought battles on September 6 and 7, the French slowly pushed the Germans back to the River Ourcq. According to Stokesbury, "The dead piled up in little villages, and the French put in attack after attack. Many of them were reservists, tired and confused, but they fought on all through the day." Finally, on September 9, the Germans had had enough, and they retreated back beyond the Marne River, north toward Belgium.
The Race to the Sea
The Germans had advanced as far as they could. Sent back northward, they now had to rethink their attack. They still hoped to get around the open flank of the French army to the west; the French saw a similar flank to the German army. And so began the race to the sea, the name given to the series of running battles between two armies desperately trying to outflank the other.
As each side attacked the other, the clashing armies learned that the best way to defend against machine guns and artillery was to dig trenches in the earth. From these trenches defenders could peer out and annihilate attacking soldiers; dug deep enough, the trenches also provided cover from the flesh-ripping shrapnel thrown off by exploding shells. The barbed wire strung in front of the trenches effectively slowed any enemies who avoided the hail of bullets from machine guns or rapid rifle fire. Through September and into October, in fights known as the First Battle of the Aisne and the First Battle of Artois, German, French, British, and Belgian forces—in ever larger numbers—died as they tried to gain some advantage on the enemy. At one point the Belgian army survived a German attack near the Lys River by opening dikes and allowing sea-water to flood the low-lying battlefield.
First Ypres. The final battle in the race to the sea took place in late October and is known as the First Battle of Ypres (pronounced EE-per; British soldiers rhymed it with "wipers."). At First Ypres (as the battle came to be known, to distinguish it from Second and Third Ypres), the Germans made one last effort to gain an advantage before winter set in. After launching an artillery bombardment, which was designed to "soften up" the enemy's defenses, the Germans sent their troops across the field to do battle. They were promptly gunned down by British soldiers nestled into the shallow, muddy trenches. Again and again, over twenty-two days, the Germans tried to gain ground; again and again, increasingly fragmented bands of British soldiers repelled their attack. Finally, on November 22, the battle ended.
Stalemate: The End to Hopes of a Quick War
The result of four months of battle on the Western Front can be described in one word: stalemate. The end result of all the grand war plans, dozens of intense battles, and hundreds of thousands of deaths was a line of opposed armies stretching 475 miles from the Belgian coast on the North Sea southeast to the border of neutral Switzerland. In these months of battle, nearly 306,000 French soldiers died; Germany's dead numbered 241,000; Belgium and Great Britain both lost 30,000 men. Worse—if anything could be worse than all these deaths—was the death of any hope that the war would end soon. As the combatants settled down to wait out the winter on the dreary plains of the region known as Flanders, they knew that, come spring, the war would go on.
As the generals and political leaders spent the winter planning how to overcome an enemy holding firm in trenches and armed with powerful machine guns, the soldiers in the trenches did their best to survive. Their perspective on the war was made clear in an event referred to as the Christmas Truce.
The Christmas Truce. Christmas Eve, 1914, brought colder temperatures and occasional snow to the soldiers camped in trenches along the Western Front. But it also brought something rare: a chance to put aside hatred and violence and greet the enemy as a fellowman. Across the length of the front, soldiers heard the enemy launch into a Christmas carol or saw them step out of the trenches to extend a hand of friendship. Jay Winter and Blaine Baggett, authors of The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century, recount one such incident:
Along some portions of the German lines, unusual lights began to appear. The British thought the enemy was preparing to attack, but then quickly realized that the Germans were placing Christmas trees adorned with candles on the parapets. Instead of rifle fire came shouts from the Germans. "English soldiers, English soldiers, Happy Christmas! Where are your Christmas trees?"
British rifleman Graham Williams, quoted in The Great War, recalled:
[The Germans] finished their carol and we thought that we ought to retaliate in some way, so we sang "The First Noël," and when we finished that they all began clapping; and then they struck up another favourite of theirs, " O Tannenbaum. " And so it went on. First the Germans would sing one of their carols and then we would sing one of ours, until when we started up "O Come All Ye Faithful" the Germans immediately joined in singing the same hymn to the Latin words "Adeste Fidèles. " And I thought, well, this was really a most extraordinary thing—two nations both singing the same carol in the middle of the war.
When the leaders heard of this fraternization between the enemies, they immediately ordered that such unwarlike
activity must cease. It did, for the combatants soon returned to the activities of war.
The Plan for 1915
The leaders of the three major warring powers on the Western Front all faced the same question: What do we do now? The British, whose Expeditionary Force (the BEF) had
been nearly destroyed, were not eager to concentrate their efforts on the Western Front. While Britain tried to rebuild its army with volunteers, it preferred to use its naval power to strike in faraway places such as Gallipoli, Italy (see Chapter 6). The German generals were divided in their opinions. General Erich von Falkenhayn (1861–1922), who had taken over as chief of the German general staff, wanted to win a war of attrition in the west, wearing down the enemyto the point of exhaustion and killing as many as necessary for a decisive victory. But other leading generals argued that Germany needed to win the war against Russia on the Eastern Front before turning its full attention to the Western Front. In the end, the Germans decided to wage a defensive war, hoping to hold the line in the west. The French had no illusions about what they must do: The war was being fought on their soil; they had to drive the Germans back. Thus France went on the offensive. The dreams of a speedy war had faded; each side now knew that winning this war would be a long and difficult process.
In an offensive war, the attacking power usually looks to strike its enemy at a weak point, or to attack from a position of dominance, such as a hill or a strong fortress. But on the Western Front there were no weak points in the German line and no strong positions from which to launch an attack. The French were thus forced to make headlong charges against the waiting defenses of the Germans. French soldiers began these attacks in the First Battle of Champagne in March of 1915, but they quickly exhausted themselves. Meanwhile, British troops under General Douglas Haig (1861–1928) prepared to aid the French offensive with an attack near the village of Neuve-Chapelle. They opened the battle with a barrage of artillery fire—the standard preparation for troop advance—and sent four British divisions against one German division. The British were proud that they were able to push over half a mile into
German territory, but it had cost them 13,000 casualties. (Casualties are men lost in a battle through death, injury, capture, or desertion.)
The Germans struck back hard in the Second Battle of Ypres, which began on April 22. They intended to capture the bulge, or salient, that the French and British occupied in front of the Belgian town of Ypres, and they planned to use a weapon never before used in war: poison gas (see sidebar). The German attack began with an artillery bombardment. James Stokesbury describes the gas attack that followed (the Algerians and Territorials he mentions are part of the French forces):
In the midst of the bombardment a yellowish-green cloud began rolling over the ground toward the French lines. It was chlorine gas, which attacks the lungs and respiratory systems, destroying the mucous membranes of the air passages. As the cloud hit the Algerians' line they broke for the rear; the panic and the gas spread to the Territorials, and they too joined in with their fleeing comrades. Suddenly, there was a hole four miles wide in the Allied line. The Germans pushed boldly forward into this, until they met their own gas—and the Canadians.
Though the gas attack had not been decisive, it introduced a new and horrible element into the war. The Germans "won" Second Ypres, pushing French and British forces back several miles. This victory cost Germany 35,000 casualties, and it cost the Allies twice that number. The enemies remained deadlocked.
Joffre's plans for the next French offensive called for his troops to capture a high point called Vimy Ridge near Artois, and he opened the attack in early May. After a five-day artillery bombardment, French troops led by General Henri Philippe Pétain pushed the Germans back two-and-a-half miles. By the time they reached Vimy Ridge, however, the battlefield had become so torn up that it was difficult to bring supplies and reinforcements forward. The Germans repulsed the attack and drove the French down off the ridge. According to Stokesbury, "the battle degenerated into a simple killing match, and finally both parties subsided after a week." This battle cost France 100,000 men, and the French gained little ground. It was the first of several key battles fought for Vimy Ridge over the course of the war.
Attack … Again
By midyear the Allies faced severe shortages of shells and soldiers. Neither the factories nor the military training programs could pump out these "war supplies" quickly enough to satisfy the voracious appetite of battle. Joffre analyzed the situation and decided that the best he could do was try again. And so the French attacked again in the Second Battle of Champagne and the Third Battle of Artois.
The Second Battle of Champagne. The Second Battle of Champagne opened like many other battles: the French first bombed, then charged. This time, however, they broke through the German defenses and pushed behind the German trenches. There they made a sickening discovery: The Germans had dug a second line of trenches. Well supplied and unharmed by French artillery, the German soldiers in this second line of trenches opened fire with their machine guns. French soldiers fell like dominoes. The second line of trenches became the norm on both sides of the battle line, and it further strengthened the defensive capacities of the warring armies. The fight cost the French 145,000 casualties; the Germans, 75,000. But the French gained a little ground, so they declared it a victory. The Third Battle of Artois was similarly inconclusive: The French took Vimy Ridge, the Germans drove them back off it, many men were killed, and the two exhausted armies faced each other across a field of dead.
The Battle of Loos. To the north, the British launched what would become one of the bloodiest battles of the war, the Battle of Loos. Led by General Haig, the British army consisted of both seasoned soldiers and a mass of new recruits freshly trained in Britain. On September 25 the Brits began their bombardment. Next, they released 150 tons of poison chlorine gas, which blew across the no-man's-land between the armies. The British army confidently advanced behind their gas and artillery attack; according to Gilbert, "one battalion was led in its assault by men dribbling a football across No-Man's Land."
The British broke the Germans' first line of defense, occupied their trenches, and prepared for a second push. It was to be their undoing. Climbing out of the trenches by the thousands and advancing across the open field in neat lines, the numerically superior British were riddled with bullets from German machine guns. A German account of the battle, quoted by Gilbert, describes the scene: "The men stood on the fire-steps (of the trenches), some even on the parapets, and fired triumphantly into the mass of men advancing across open grass-land. As the entire field of fire was covered with the enemy's infantry the effect was devastating and they could be seen falling literally in the hundreds." Another German soldier, also quoted by Gilbert, wrote this description in his diary: "[D]ense masses of the enemy, line after line, appeared over the ridges, some of the officers even mounted on horseback and advancing as if carrying out a field-day drill in peacetime. Our … machine guns riddled their ranks as they came on. As they crossed the northern front of the Bois Hugo, the machine guns caught them in the flank and whole battalions were annihilated."
Like no other, the Battle of Loos confirmed the killing power of the machine gun. The Germans, badly outnumbered and in retreat, had saved the battle by placing machine guns in defensive positions. Both sides were aghast at the numbers of dead; of the 10,000 British involved in the battle, over 8,000 were killed or wounded. The Germans called the battle "Der Leichenfeld von Loos"—the Field of Corpses of Loos.
Loos was bad, but then so was the entire year of battle on the Western Front. By year's end, the British had lost 279,000 men and seen the British Expeditionary Force, once the core of the British army, utterly destroyed; the Germans had lost 612,000. The French, who had led the attacks throughout the year, had 1,292,000 casualties in 1915. Despite all these deaths, little had been decided. The enemies still faced each other across a front that had shifted only slightly from the year before.
1916: The Year of the "Great" Battles
The battles of 1915 brought little change on the Western Front and even less change in the minds of the military leaders, who used the break from war provided by winter to plan for the next year. German general Falkenhayn saw one good thing in the battles of 1915: the extreme loss of French lives. Resentment toward the war was growing in France, and Falkenhayn thought Germany could stop France's desire to fight by raising the cost of waging war. In Falkenhayn's own blunt words, quoted by Stokesbury, the Germans' plan was "to bleed France white." The first step of this plan was to capture the strategic French fortress at Verdun.
French leaders were aware of the costs of waging war, but the idea of giving up did not occur to them. After all, they were fighting to protect their native soil. At a meeting of the Allied leaders late in 1915, the French generals continued to urge new and bigger attacks. The British commander, Douglas Haig, still wished that he had more time to train the recruits who were slowly fleshing out the British army, but as the British had done throughout the war, he followed the French lead. The Allied leaders agreed that they would mount a major offensive near the Somme River.
The Battles of Verdun and of the Somme have gone down in history as two of the "greatest" battles of the war, perhaps of all wars. They are known not as decisive victories, however, but as examples of the tragedy and futility of modern warfare. Verdun is best known for its length—ten months—its cost in lives, and for the introduction of the flamethrower. The Somme is known, especially in Britain, for the sheer efficiency with which men were killed. Both battles finally taught the generals crucial lessons about how to wage a modern war.
The Battle of Verdun
Falkenhayn targeted Verdun because he knew that it was key to French morale: For centuries, some of the greatest battles in French military history had been fought there. In 1916, however, Verdun consisted of a set of forts in a forgotten area of the Western Front. If the Germans could concentrate their forces there and pound their way through, they might be able to finally break the French will to fight. The German attack began
on February 12 with the biggest artillery barrage bombardment of the war. According to Winter and Baggett, "One million shells were fired on the first day alone." By the end of the battle, over forty million shells would be expended.
As the shelling finished, German troops advanced, causing heavy French losses. The Germans used heavy amounts of phosgene gas and introduced a new weapon to the war: the flamethrower. The flamethrower could shoot flames into trenches or passageways in fortifications, burning alive all those inside. (It could also backfire, as a battalion of German soldiers found when barrels of fuel for the flamethrowers ignited within a section of the fort they occupied, killing over a thousand men.) Within a few days the Germans had taken Fort Vaux and Fort Douaumont, and they boasted that the battle would soon be over.
The French had different ideas. Although they had retreated, they soon were fighting from defensive positions of strength and were able to concentrate their artillery fire on the very spots their troops had recently occupied. Joffre, realizing that he needed a defensive genius to lead the French forces, called on Philippe Pétain (1856–1951). Pétain quickly realized that the way to beat back the German attack was to keep his troops fresh and well supplied. Supplies came forward from the French interior on a road known as the "Voie Sacrée," or Sacred Way. Day and night, this road was clogged with trucks bringing soldiers, shells, and food to the front, and carrying the wounded and the tired back to safety. Constantly shifting men in and out of action may have saved the French army from giving up. It certainly made sure that everyone got to see action in this most important of French battles; historians estimate that 70 percent of the entire French army fought at Verdun at some point in the battle. In the end, Pétain rallied the French soldiers, convincing them that they could not be defeated. For his efforts, he became known as the "Hero of Verdun."
The Battle of Verdun raged on. In the first months of the battle, the Germans were on the offensive, launching attacks here and there across the wide battlefield, taking ground only to lose it to French troops days later. By July the Germans were ready to withdraw from the field, content with having at least achieved the deaths of many Frenchmen. But the French were not willing to let the battle end. Having stocked up on supplies, they began an offensive of their own on October 19, eventually retaking Forts Vaux and Douaumont. By the time the battle ended in the third week in December, the French had retaken nearly all of the territory they had lost.
Was France bled white by the Battle of Verdun, as the Germans hoped? France had lost about 542,000 casualties, but the French army had somehow held itself together, despite the enormous pressures of this months-long battle. Pétain emerged a hero, and he would become the most effective of French generals in battles to come. Germany was nearly bled white itself, having lost 434,000 casualties of its own. The architect of the Battle of Verdun, General von Falkenhayn, was dismissed from his position and replaced by General Paul von Hindenburg, with Erich Ludendorff as his assistant. Hindenburg and Ludendorff were to see the war through to its end.
To the north and west of Verdun, the French and British planned their joint offensive in the area near the Somme River, on a 30-mile front between Amiens and Péronne. Though the French had hoped to help, they were so distracted by their efforts at Verdun that the British under General Haig were left to do battle with only minor assistance from the French. Haig carefully planned what he thought would be a devastating attack on the heart of the German line. What he orchestrated instead was the biggest single-day disaster in the history of the British army.
Beginning on June 23, 1916, the British launched what was to be the most sustained artillery attack of the war. Lasting for a week and consuming one and a half million shells, the bombardment could be heard all the way to England. Haig believed such shelling, conducted both wide and deep across German defenses, would thoroughly destroy the German trench system. On July 1, 1916, the bombing stopped and the British soldiers, almost all newly recruited to the army, climbed up out of their trenches to claim their victory. They had been told, according to a source quoted by Winter and Baggett, "You will be able to go over the top with a walking stick, you will not need rifles…. You will find the Germans alldead, not even a rat will have survived."
British private W. Slater, also quoted by Winter and Baggett, recounted what really happened: "For some reason nothing seemed to happen to us at first; we strolled along as though walking in a park. Then, suddenly, we were in the midst of a storm of machine gun bullets and I saw men beginning to twirl round and fall in all kinds of curious ways as they were hit—quite unlike the way actors do it in films." His experience was repeated across the wide front. German soldiers climbed up out of their trenches, manned their machine guns, and raked the lines of men with their withering fire. By the end of that first day's attack, 20,000 British soldiers had been killed, 40,000 wounded. Several brigades lost a majority of their men; the fourteenth platoon of the First Rifle Brigade lost 39 of 40 men. What had happened?
The first day of the Battle of the Somme was an utter disaster for the Allies, but why? The simple answer is the artillery bombardment did not work: German trenches were deeper and stronger than expected and largely survived the days of bombing; German barbed wire, thicker than the kind used by the British, also survived the bombs and couldn't be cut by British wire cutters. When the British marched across what they thought would be an open field, they were slowed by the unbroken barbed wire and then mowed down by unfazed German soldiers. Even when the bombs worked on the first line of trenches, the Germans fell back to a second and third line of trenches.
Undaunted by the first day's disaster—in fact, poor communications meant he didn't even understand it was a disaster—Haig ordered his men to battle on. For days the British threw themselves against the German line. On July 14 they got through the second German line, only to be turned back by fresh German reserves. The Germans then set about to regain the ground they had lost, and the Somme settled into a pattern that was much like Verdun. Through August and September and into the fall, British and German troops took turns trying to break the other. Neither succeeded.
On September 15, Haig ordered a new weapon onto the battlefield: the landship, later called the tank. Though he was not convinced that these armored vehicles equipped with guns would be effective, Haig thought that they couldn't hurt. Forty-nine tanks crawled forward at a pace of half a mile an hour; only eighteen made it as far as no-man's-land. The new vehicles frightened the German soldiers at first but did little other damage; they would be developed further for future battles.
In the end, it was weather and fatigue that brought the Battle of the Somme to a close at the end of November. The British had succeeded in advancing six miles and claiming the village of Beaumont-Hamel; it was a meager prize for such a cost in lives. The British took 420,000 casualties in this battle alone, followed by 195,000 for the French. The Germans sustained a total of 650,000 casualties. In a battle in which all took heavy losses, the British, with their small gain in territory, declared themselves the winner.
By the winter of 1916–17 the combatants had been fighting for more than two whole years, yet little had been decided. For two years, the British, French, and German armies had faced each other across the no-man's-land that lay between their lines of trenches. For two years, the combatants had launched brutal, futile attacks on armies highly skilled in the art of defense. For two years, these countries had sent a generation of men to die in battles that resulted in the gain of a few yards of earth. The soldiers were growing tired; so too were the countries they defended. Yet the war went on. By the winter of 1916–17, however, generals on both sides recognized that things would have to change in the coming year. The entrance of the United States into the war and the withdrawal of Russia would bring changes; advances in technology and changing tactics would also alter the course of the war. But one thing would remain the same: On the Western Front, death would reign supreme.
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Winter, J. M. The Experience of World War I. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.
Winter, Jay, and Blain Baggett. The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century. New York: Penguin Studio, 1996.
Soon after the Germans unleashed poison gas on French troops in the Second Battle of Ypres, such gas attacks, or chemical warfare, became a common feature of World War I battles. Poison gas shells were often launched in the initial artillery barrages that started most battles. The gas that was released spread through the enemy's battle lines, either forcing the soldiers to put on gas masks or forcing them to flee to avoid the disastrous effects of the gas. Gas attacks succeeded because they created chaos among enemy troops.
There were several kinds of gas used in World War I. Tear gas caused temporary blindness and burning of the eyes and throat. Chemical agents that cause asphyxiation (chemical agents which caused choking and suffocation) like chlorine, phosgene, and diphosgene formed hydrochloric acid, which badly burned soldiers' lungs and throats, causing many deaths. The most feared gas was dichlorethylsulfide, or mustard gas. It caused searing burns and blisters on whatever skin it reached. This gas could linger on a battlefield for days.
Gas attacks accounted for 800,000 casualties during the war, most of these on the Western Front. Though the Germans were the first to use gas, they were certainly not the only ones to do so. France, Britain, and the United States all used poison gas in their attacks on the enemy. Poison gas was one of the most hated weapons used in the war. Often invisible, poison gas snuck up on soldiers, suffocating them before they even had a chance to fight back. According to Great Weapons of World War I author William G. Dooly Jr., "It symbolized the death of individual bravery, initiative, and skill."
In World War I the most haunted and dangerous piece of land was not a battlefield or bombed-out town, but a small strip of land that separated the trenches of the two warring armies—noman's-land.
No-man's-land could be as narrow as a hundred yards or as wide as a couple of miles. On either side of this strip of land, soldiers had dug trenches and machine-gun nests, strung barbed wire, and stashed the guns and ammunition they would need to kill the enemy. No man dared enter this strip during daylight, for snipers from both sides turned it into a killing zone. During the night, brave soldiers sometimes tried to extend their defenses further into this zone, but they had to be careful to show no light or they too might be killed. Noman's-land was at its worst during and after a battle, for the men who crossed it were killed in vast numbers and their blood soaked the ground. For years after the war, farmers plowing the battlefields of France and Belgium churned up the bones and bullets of men killed in noman's-land.