The Western Front was one if the two priomary theaters of World War I. The Westrn Front began with the German Army smashing into Belgium as part of the Schliffen Plan's efforts to outflank the formidable French border fortifucations . It would eventually streach from the North Sea to the Swiss border. It is the one that most Western historians focus on because here the great bulk of the Belgian, British, French, and eventually the Americans armies were committed. It is on the Western Front that the War is generally addressed and known to the public. The Germans expected a quick vicyory in the West, smashing the French Arny and seizing Paris before the British or Russians could effectively interven. The Belgian Army was basically dismissed. This would have ended the War in a month. With the French defeated, the British and Russians would have had to seek terms. The German assault on Belgium proved to be a powerful thrust, but it was no Blitzkrieg. The Germans could move no faster than men on foot. The Germans had only a handfull of trucks, using wooden wheels. The men could not move beyond artillery cover and the artillery was horse drawn. And the German General Staff was astounded with several unforseen development. First the Belgian Army fought, and fought effecively, slowing the German advance. Second, by taking the offense, the Germans did not fully appreciate the advantage they were seeding to the the Allies. They were unable to move troops forward by rail after the jumping off point. The Allies were able to use the rails. The French Arny in particular made efficent use of the rails in shiting men west to meet the German advance. Third, the British moved their small, but highly professional army into Belgium much faster than the Germans anticipated, bolstering the Belgian defenses. Fourth, especially disconcerting to the Germans was the speed to which the thought-to-be lumbering Russian Army struck in the East. This forced the Germans to take forces fom the drive through Belgium and shift them to East Prussia to met the Russians. All of these factors mean that it not only took the Germans Army longer than anticipated to move through Belgium, but as they crossed the French border and moved toward Paris, the front-line troops were tired, battered, and low on supplies. The French strike on the Marne, ended the German hope of a quick vicory. The Western Front would settle down to a brutal war of attrion fought from trenches that barely moved for 4 years despite mountains of casulties. This was a disater for Germany. The German Army which was built to strike hard and fast and gain a quick victory was now locked into a war of atrition aginst advrsariels that had substantially greater human and material resources.
The German Schlieffen Plan to counter the French-Russian alliace was prepared in the early 20th century. There were many subsequent modifications. The basic concept called for attacking and knocking France out of the War before the ponderous Russian Army could fully mobilize. Europe proceeded to go to war with jouous crouds of civilians and marching bands cheering their young men off to war without the slighest idea of what that mean. The German Army marched into Luxembourg (August 2) and soon crossed into neutral Belgium (August 4). The German invasion of Belgium was an effort to go around the strong French border defenses. The British Government voted for war and ordered an Expeditionary Force (BEF) immediately dispatched to France, following plans aprepared before the War with the French High Command. The Germans to their surprise were seriously delayed by the small Belgian Army led bybKing Albert. The Germans were shocked by the Russian Army's rapid advance into East Prussia and how swiftly the BEF reached France and Belgium. The BEF formed on the left flank of the French Army. The BEF while small was highly professional. The French had committed the bulk of its army to a disastrous offensive into Alsace-Lorraine and first clashed with the German army near Mons in southern Belgium. The German invasion force forced the Allies into a strategic retreat. The Germans were convinced they could take Paris before either the British or Russians could intervene in force. The valiant resistance of the hoplessly outgunned Belgian Army helped slow the advancing Germans. Some military analysts contend that the Germans weakened their right wing, in part because of the Russian offensive, but there is considerable debate among military historains concerning the German offensive.
The French Army carried the bulk of the fighting on the Western Front until the final year of the War. But without the Belgians and British, the French Army could not have stopped the Germans. The small Belgian Army was a factor in the vital, first month. The British also played a crucual role in that first month and then an inceasingly importnt role as the War progressed. It was not a forgone conclusion that the British would join France in a war with Germany. They had not joined France in the Franco-Prussian War (1870) and through most of the 19th century saw the Germans as an ally and the French as their greatest threat. Many in Britain were concerned that the French were trying to draw them in a war against Germany. The French on the eve of war went to St. Petersburg to encourage Tsarist officials. The British War Cabinent decided against war if the Germans invaded France. The British were committed to a defensive alliance with France, but the French were taking a beligerant approach. It would be the Germans, howver, that launched the war. The German Army's determinatiom to activate the Schlifen Plan would decide the issue. The Schlifen Plan projected a massive invasion through Belgium to avoid the powerful French border defeneses. The Germans were sure that the Schlifen Plan would gain them a rapid victory before the British, if they did declare war, could make a meaningful contribution. The British attitude toward Germany in 1914 was very different than it had been in 1870. Kaiser Wilhem II had managed becuse of his belicose statemenbs and decission to build a Highseas Fleet had steadily eroded the German image in British public opinion. The invasion of neutral Belgium outraged the British public. Britain not only had a special relationship with Belgium since the 1830s, but had treaty obligation to insure Belgian neutrality establish when Belgium was created. King Leopold I had been largely responsible for bringing Albert and Vicoria together and was a family confident. Britain may not have declared war if the Germans had just invaded France. For Britain the violation of Belgian neutality was the causus bellum for the declaration of war (August 4). [Gilbert] Britain, France, and Russia became known as the Allies. The German gamble to win the War by a quick strike through Belgium before Britain could effectively intervene proved to be a dreadful mistake. The small, but highly professional British Expeditionry Force (BEF) stunned the Germans by the speed with which they came to Belgium's defense. nd the Royal Navy implemented a North Seaa blockade even quivcker. The first major engagement was the Battle of Mons (August 24), was in World war I terms more of a skirmish, but it began the fighting with the Germans. The Battle of Le Canteau was a full scale engagemnt (August 26). With these engagements the British joined the Nlarger Battle of the Frontiers which would lead to the Miracle on the Marne. Historians have criticised the British commander, Sir John French, for his role in the fighting at the Marne. [Hart]
There is no doubt that wighout the BEF, Germny would have taken Paris and won the war. German Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg described Britain's treaty with Belgium as 'a scrap of paper'. In fact that scrap of paper would cost the Germans the War. (The Kaiser was to make a second disastrous gamble in 1917, renewing unrestricted sunmarine warfare, believing they could win the War before America could train and transport an army to France.)
The Russians, true to their treaty obligations, with the commencemebnt of hostilities, drove west with their huge but cumbersome army into Germany (East Prussia) and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Lithuanian and Poles had decisevely defeated the Teutonic Knights near Tannenburg haltuing German expansion east (1410). Thus it was a location indelibly engrained in German history. Germany braced for the invading Russian Army. The Germans under Hindenburg and Ludendorff met a Russian army under Samsonov (August 26, 1914). The Germans smashed the Russians, taking 100,000 prisoners. Such was the scale of the Russian defeat that Samsonov shot himself. A scond Russian army under Rennenkampf was to have joined up with Samsonov. The Germans soon engaged that army and destroyed it in the Battle of the Mansurian Lakes. Hindenburg and Ludendorff became German national heros. The victory in the Eat, howevr, came, at a great cost. The Germans had been forced to siphon forces designated for the Western drive, disaterously weakening their offensive.
Throughout August the German Army moved rlentlessly forward, albeit behind schedule and a great cost. The British and Belgians had shlowed the German advance and diverted German focus on the French. The French army was central to the Allied war effort. The Belgians could delay the Germans and the British could play a mjor supporting role, but in the final analysis it would have to be the French Army that would stop the Germans. The Germans began to cross the Marne and it looked like the French would have to abandon Pars to the Germans. Joseph Joffre, the Commander-in-Chief of the French forces, ordered his men to fall back to a defensible line along the River Seine, south-east of Paris and over 60-km south of the Marne (September 3). Sir John French, BEF commander comitted to attacking the advanncing Germans. The French 6th Army attacked the German Ist Army at the Marne (September 6). General Alexander von Kluck wheeled his entire force to meet the attack, opening a 50-km gap between his forces and the German 2nd Army led by General Karl von Bulow on his flank. The British the French 5th Army struck into that gap, splitting the two German armies. The fighting was furious, the French 6th Army was close to collapse, but the French used Paris taxis to rush 6,000 reserve troops to the front. Finally von Moltke had to order von Bulow and von Kluck to fallback (September 9). Miraculously the French Army had managed to stop the Germans at the Marne, saving Paris. [Tuchman] Not only were the Germans forced to retire back over the Marne, but the French and British crossed the Marne in pursuit. The Schlieffen Plan had failed to bring a quick German victory. By this time the German army had ehausted itself and the two sides began digging trenches to protect themselves from the murderous machine guns and artillery. The short war of rapid movement that everyone had expected degenerated on the Western Front into a stagnant war of the attrition. The Germns had gambled that following the Schliffen Plan and invading Belgium and bringing Britain into the war would be a moot point after a swift victory. This proved to hav been a disastrous miscalculation.
Having stopped the Russians in the East, the Germans again turned their attention West. This was the last effort in the War to wage a free wheeing war of movement that all the beligerant military commanders had anticipated. Ypres was located in Western Belgium (Flanders) near the French border. The First Battle of Ypres began Germans struck in an offensive aimed at seizing the Channel Ports (October 1914). The German losses were horendous and they finally had to susoend the iffensive (Novenber 1914). After the First Battle of Ypres the War on the Eastern Front settled down into static, but bloody trench warfare. Ypres proved to be some of the most contested ground of World War I. Several further battles were fought here. The Third Battles of Ypres was a terrible blood-letting for the British who lost 400,000 men for minimal gains. Finally it was at Ypres that the British finally broke through the Gernan lines (October 1918).
World War I resulted in a revolution in infantry tactics which fundamentally altered how wars were fought. The armies which clashed in August 1914 operated on essentially 19th century doctrines, large units of riflemen were screened by cavalry and
supported by artillery. Commanders expecting a decisive engagements to settle the war rapidly. Sweeping manuevers exposed the calvary and infanntry to the killing power of modern weapons. Modern weapons, especially artillery and machine guns as well as accurate rapid-fire rifles proved devestating, especially when used against the tactics field commanders employed in the initial phases of the War. Field operations by 1916 had, after the loss of millions, been fundamentally changed. The professional armies of 1914 were devestatee and were replaced by conscripted replacenments. What began as a rapid war of movement soon settled down to static trench warfare and became a brutal war of attrition. Both the Germans and French and British began digging trenches to stay alive. Eventually parallel trench systems streached from the Swiss border to the English Channel. There were about 40,000 kilometers of trenches on the Western Front alone. Living conditions in the trenches were dreadfull, but they did offer protection. [Bull] The British developed the tank which helped to breach the German trench lines, but it would be the Germans in World War II tha would put this weapon to effective use.
Many countries had home leave policies allowing soldiers to spend a few days at home out of the front lines. This made it possible to visit with parenbts and family for a few days away from the fighting. I am not ure how often these leaves were granted. Such policies varied from country to country. The War on the Western Front was conducted over a stable battle front very near to French and German cities. Soldiers could get on a train near the frnt line and be at home within hours. England was also close, only the minor complication of a Channel crossing. Americans were in the War only a little over a year. Vrossing the Atlantic mae home leaves infeasible. We have little actual information on the home leave policies of combatant countries. Many studies of World War I do not even mention this subject.
Poison gas was first used in World War I. Poison gas was first been developed by a German Jewish scientist working for the Whermacht. Gas was widely used on the both the Western and Eastern Front during the War. Losses were especially severe on the Eastern Front where the Russians were not equipped to take the needed counter measures and were unable to reply
with gas weapons of their own. The Germans first used poison gas at Ypres (April 1915) with devestating effect. The British and French followed suit. I don't think the Americans and Russians used it, but I think the Austrians did. Gas because of its stealth and horendous effects was perhaps, the most terror-inspiring of all the World War I weapons. Poison gas caused only a small fraction of total battlefield deaths, less than 0.1 million, but more than 1.3 million men received terrible wounds--many never fully recovered. Countermeasures were, however, rapidly developed which reduced gas to primarily a means of harassing the opposing forces. One estimate suggests that by the end of the War in 1918, about 25 percent of all artillery shells fired contained chemical weapons.
After the French stopped the Germans on the Marne, the most important battle of the War was Verdun. Verdun was the most drawnout battle of the War and considered by most historians to have been the greatest battle. German Chief of Staff, Erich von Falkenhayn, accurately concluded in 1915 that the key to winning the war lay not on the Eastern Front, but on defeating the French Army on the Western Front. Falkenhayn maintained that if France could be defeated in a major set-piece battle, Britain would have no other option than seeking terms from Germany. This of course is a strategy the Germans could have persued in 1914. If they had attacked France directly instead of through Belgium, they would not have ad to fight the Belgians and British and in all liklihood would have prevailed on the Western Front. Falkenhayn correctly assessed that the French would consider the defense if Verdun as a matter of honor. His plan was essentially to bleed the French white in the defense of Verdun. One historian claims this is what all commanders said after their offensives failed and that he was actually trying to achieve break through. [Strachan] Verdun and surrounding fortifications were a strategic French position located on the eastern section of the Western Front and thus was fought by the Germans and French without British involvement. The battle took place in 10 km square around the French fortifications at Verdun. The battle began with a German offensive (February 21, 1916). The Germans hammered at Verdun for 8 months, but because of the British to the west could not concentrate all of their forces. General Henri Philippe Petain made the words " They shall not pass." (Ils ne passeront pas.) famous during the b. The Germans were unable to compleletly surround Verdun. The French at great cost maintained a road connection to supply their ebatteled forces in Verdun. It came to be called the "Sacred Way". Verdun was the greatest bloodbath in European military history. Casualties totaled an incredibke 0.7 million men. The fighting did not end until the end of the year (December 19). Falkenhayn was correct in many respects. The Germans came very close to breaking the French Army. They did destroy it as an offensive force. In the process, however, the German Army was also weakened. This Falkenhayn had not forseen. And not only would the British after the Somme begin building a large conscript army, but the Kaisser was in the process of brining America into the War with its huge reserves of manpower. And a German Army weakened by Verdun would have to face them.
Some of the greatest battles of Europen history were fought on the Somme. And this proved the case in World War I. The Battle of the Somme is one of the major engagements of the War. The BEF supported by the French attempted to take the German's strong defensive position in the Somme valley. The French convined the Brittish commander Douglas Haig to launch an offensive to relieve the German pressure on the French at Verdun. The Battle is primarily remembered for te enormous casualties. The British casualties were horrendous. It is probable that if modern media existed at the time that the War would have endeded at Verdun and the Somme. The British public if they had fully understood what had happened might have demanded an end to the War as the American public did after the Tet Offensive in Vietnam. The same can be said of the French at Verdun. The Somme was a terrible bloodletting. After the Somme there was no longer any illusions in Britain about what war meant. In many ways the Somme was the turning point of the War. It was a massive catastrophe for the British Army. The first day on the Somme was the worst day in the history of the British Army, which suffered 57,470 casualties. The result was needed reforms in the British Army and the introduction of conscription, something that Britin did nodoeven during the Napoleoic Wars. As a result in 1918 when the war was decided, the Germans faced not only a new American Army, but a much more formidable British Army supported by increasingly formidable tanks to spearhead the infantry.
The Western Allies (Britain and France) on the Western Front commit serious tactical errors. The were only saved from defeat by the defect that the Germans had to divide their forces between a Eastern and Western Front. With superior resources and larger man-power reserves, the British and French were not only unable to dent the German Western Front, but sustained enormous casulaties in poorly conceived offensives in whivh infantry was thrown at fixed German positions resulting in massive cassualties. Both the British and French High Command essebtially lied to the civilian governments to mask the extent of the disasters on the Western Front as a result of their leadership. [Mosier] In the end, over 2.3 million British Empire and French soldiers were killed in the War. The Germans who fought on two fronts and lost the War suffered fewer lossess--1.8 million mortalities. When Russia collapsed in 1917-18, the Germans were convinced that they could finally bring the War to a conclusion on the Western front.
The Allies faced the greatest crisis of the War since the initial German invasion in 1917. England began the War with only a small professioinal army. The BEF was rushed to France and Belgium in August 1914, but for the first years of the War, it was the much larger French Army that was bulwark of the Allied defense on the Western Front. Thus the French suffered much larger casualties than the British. The blood letting at Verdun was particularly severe. Marshal Foch was replaced with General Robert Nivelle who launched the Chemin des Dames Offensive (April 1917). The offensive failed with disastrous losses--over 100,000 men were killed or wounded,. It also brought the French Army close to collapse. Discontent flared among French frointline troops. In addition to a collapse in confidence with their commanders, French troops vigorously criticized how they were treated: food, home leaves, rest, and other matters. Thet had many justfiable complaints. While French officers received home leave, some enlisted men had been in the trenches for 3 years without any leave. One report suggests that 30,000 men left the trenches and began walking home.
At one point 54 divisions which constituted half the French Army were not responding to orders from commanding generals. The High Command feared that the Army was near collaspse. The French bturned to Marshal Petain, the hero of Verdun. He acted decisively. There were mass arrests and about 24,000 men were tried. The trials attempted to focus ion the leaders. In the end 400 men were sentenced to death of which 50 were shot. The rest were shipped to Devil's Island. Petain also instituted reforms to address the many legitimate vgrevences of the men. The mutiny lasted 6 weeks. Incredibly thev Germans do not seem to have preceived what had occurred. A major German oiffensive at this time might have cracked the French Army. Petain succeeded in restoring discipline in the Army, but itv was a changed Army. The French were no longer willing to launch major offensives against the Germans, but they would hold the line if attacked. It was to be the British and British Empire troops along with the new American Army that began to arrive in 1917 that in the end would crack the Hindenburg Line.
American President Woodrow Wilson camaigned for re-election in 1916 with the slgan "He kept us out of war". America at various points tried to negotiate an end to the War. Wilson in a 1917 speech called for a "peace without victory". None of the major European combatants showed much interest in the American efforts. The Britsh were still hopeful that America would join the Allies. Kaiser Wilhelm dimissed Wilson's efforts as unrealistic. The Germans seriously under estimated the potential impact of American involvement. Gambling that they could force a decission in the Western Front, the military convinced Kaiser Wilhelm to resume unrestricted sunmarine warfare. After German U-boats sank five American merchant vessels, President Wilson on asked Congress to Declare War on Germany which was approved April 6. This proved to be a disastrous German miscalculation. The American and Britsh Navies defeated the U-boat campaign. A problem for the Allies was that the Aericans did not have a large modern Army that could be committed in France. The U.S. Army was tiny with no modern battle experience.
The Battle of Cambrai was an initially successful British attack launched on the Siegfriedstellung (November 20). The Germans who had largely been on the defensive in 1917, called their increasinly hardened lineSthe iegfriedstellung or Siegfried Line. The British called it the Hundenburg Line.) The British gains resulted in the most poewerful German counter-attack against the British since 1914. The town of Cambrai in Nord, was a major German supply center, vital for suppling the Siegfriedstellung. British seizure of the town and the nearby Bourlon Ridge would have endangered the entire rear of the German position in nothrn France. The British after the disaster of the Somme were developin new tactics which focused on botyh artillery and the new tanks. Especially imprtant was Major General Henry Tudor, Commander, Royal Artillery (CRA) of the 9th (Scottish) Division. He was developing artillery support tactics to aid the infantry. As part of the preparations, J.F.C. Fuller with the Tank Corps was advocating increased use for his tankss. General Julian Byng, commander of the Btitis Third Army hit on the idea of merging the two tactical innovations. Both the French and British had introduced tanks earlier in 1917, but with limited success. [Littledale] The British achieved a major success on the first day. They were, however, unable to follow up on their success. The mechanical unreliability of theor Mark mIV tanks combined with reiliant German artillery and infantry defences prrevented a break out. By only the secoind day, half of the tanks were no longer operational and the British advance ground to a halt. Some authors focus on the tank, but other authors describe ongoing evolution of artillery, infantry, and tank methods. [Miles] There is a general consensus that after 3 years of bloody trench warfare, major developments were finally maturing at Cambrai. They included artillery fire, sound ranging, infantry infiltration tactics, infantry-tank co-ordination and close air support. These tasctics would play a key role in the Allied Hundred Days Offensive that would win the War the following year. After Cambrai, imprtant improvements were made in the Mark IV tank with improved types. The Germans in contrast took other lessons from the battle and believed that tanks were not all that imprtant. Their timely reinforcement and defence of Bourlon Ridge and the success of their powserful counter-attack led the Germans to believe that a massive Spring offensive strategy could win the War before American Expedfitionzary Force arriving in France be trained and brought to bear at the front. [Miles]
The collapse of Russia in late 1917 and peace treaty forced upon the Bolsevicks in 1918 enabled the Germans to transfer powerful forces to the Wesern Front. The draconian demands on the Bolshecicks delayed the siugning of the peace treaty and the transfer of troops to the Western Front. The Russian Revolution occurred during the late Fall. The ensuing Winter of course meant that the Germans could not launch a major offensive. By the tinme they were able to launch their offensive, a new American Army of over 1 million men awaited them in the Allied trenches. Without the arrival of the Americans, it is likely that the Germans would have won the war. German General Ludendorff was to say after the War that it was the arrival of the American infantry that was the decisive factor on the Western Front. Of course left unsaid was that it was German actions, especially resuming unrestricted submarine warfare that brought America kinto the War.
Allied offensives on the Western Front cracked the German front forcing them back toward Germany. The German Navy mutined. Riots broke out in Germany cities. The General staff informed the Kaiser that they could no longer guarantee his saftey. He abdicated and fled to the neutral Netherlands. A German Government was hastily formed and asked for an armistice based on President Wilson's 14 Points. After determining that the request came from a civilian German Government and not the Kaiser or German military, the Allies accepted the German offer. There was not total agreement on this Genetral Pershing wanted to fight on to Berlin. The guns fell silent after 4 years of vicious fighting at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month (November 11, 1918). There had been over 8.5 million soldiers killed and 21.2 million wounded.
Bull, Stephen. World War I Trench Warfare two volumes (Osprey Publishing Co., June 2002).
Buttar, Prit. Collission of Empires: The War on the Easten Front in 1914 (2014), 488p.
Gilbert, Martin. World War I.
Hart, Peter. Fire and Movement: The British Expeditionasry Force and the Campaign of 1914 (2014), 496p.
Herrmann, David G. The Arming of Europe.
Littledale, Harold A. "With the tanks", The Atlantic (December 1918). Part I Anatomy and Habitat. pp. 836-48.
Miles, W. (1991) . Military Operations France and Belgium 1917: The Battle of Cambrai (1991). Miles is a British official historian and also the author of History of the Great War in whicvh he discusses the importance of Cambrai.
Mosier, John. The Myth of the Great War: A New Military History of World War I (Harper Collins, 2001).
Strachan, Hew. The First World War (Viking, 2004), 354p. Strachan offers an excellent brief review of some of the lesser known campigns. This volume is a condensed version of a three volume work he is preparing.
Tuchman, Barbara. The Guns of August.
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