Late during the summer of 1914, train stations all over Europe echoed with the sound of leather boots and the clattering of weapons as millions of enthusiastic young soldiers mobilized for the most glorious conflict since the Napoleonic Wars. In the eyes of many men, pride and honor glowed in competition with the excitement of a wonderful adventure and the knowledge of righting some perceived infringement on the interests of their respective nation. Within weeks however, the excitement and glory gave way to horror and anonymous death, brought on by dangerous new machines of war which took control of the old fields of honor and turned them into desolate moonscapes littered with corpses and wreckage.
This new great war, called World War One, began as a local disturbance in Southern Europe but eventually spread into a worldwide struggle which produced two of the greatest bloodlettings in history; the battles of the Somme and Verdun. The western portion of this conflict took place mostly in Belgium and France, and started as a war of “grand maneuvers” as had been theorized before the fighting began. But when more troops were poured into an increasingly cramped area, there came a time when the antagonists could no longer maneuver against each other in any operational sense. When this occurred, the forces involved began entrenching in the face of more and more lethal concentrations of firepower, and the war of the machines and trenches had begun.
The main theatre of fighting in World War I was the Western Front, a meandering line which ran from the Swiss border in the south to the North Sea. Most of the Western Front’s 700 kilometre length traversed the north-east of France, with its ends in Belgium and southern Germany. The largest battles of the war – Marne, Ypres, Verdun, the Somme, Passchendaele and others – were fought along the Western Front.
Though the death toll from Western Front battles will never be accurately known, at least four million were killed there. Despite the size, frequency and ferocity of attempts to break through the line or push back the enemy, the Western Front remained relatively static until 1918. Many aspects of the Western Front have become symbolic of World War I: mud-filled trenches, artillery bombardments, appalling tactical blunders, futile charges on enemy positions, periods of stalemate, high death rates and atrocious conditions.
The Western Front began to take shape in the autumn of 1914, after the German advance through northern France was halted at the Battle of the Marne. The Germans then retreated to the Aisne River, where they dug a network of trenches to consolidate and hold their position. The Allies, believing the Germans were awaiting reinforcements and preparing a further assault into French territory, reciprocated by constructing their own trench system. Over the next few weeks both sides extended their trench systems further to the north, racing to outflank each other and to reach the North Sea coastline. Their aim was to prevent an enemy advance, to secure supply lines and to seize control of key ports and French industrial areas.
As the Allies and Germans carried out this ‘race to the sea’, a major battle erupted at Ypres in Belgium. At the personal order of the Kaiser, German generals launched a massive assault on the Allied line, using divisions of their most experienced infantry and cavalry – but the attack was repelled at the cost of more than 40,000 men. By the end of 1914 the Western Front trenchline had grown to more than two-thirds of its eventual length.
Commanders on both sides developed grand plans to outmanoeuvre and outflank the enemy, or to break through the front. But as weeks passed, home-front enlistments pumped hundreds of thousands of reinforcements into the area. By early 1915 many parts of the Western Front were thick with soldiers on both sides of ‘no man’s land’. This weight of numbers contributed to the front’s impenetrability and the stalemate that developed through 1915. Germany’s early defeats in northern France also shaped its tactical approach. German military strategists embraced defensive positions, determined not to be forced out of France.
Victory, they asserted, would pass to the side that could better withstand assaults and lose fewer men. German military planners abandoned the Schlieffen Plan and adopted a strategy of attrition, aiming to inflict death and injury on as many Allied men as possible. (The German chief of staff, Erich von Falkenhayn, famously declared that his goal was to “bleed France white”). The consequence of this was that Germany launched few major assaults in 1915; they instead relied on weapons like artillery and poison gas to weaken and debilitate Allied personnel.
In contrast, British and French generals were more committed to battlefield offensives and attempts to break through the front. They tried to penetrate the German line at Champagne and Loos during the autumn of 1915, but against positions fortified with artillery and machine-guns this proved almost impossible. Falkenhayn changed tack in early 1916, hoping to lure the French army into a gigantic battle from which it could not retreat or withdraw; his aim was to inflict maximum casualties and to sap French morale.
For this showdown the German commander chose the town of Verdun, near a heavily-fortified section of the Franco-German border. The Battle of Verdun, which began in February 1916, was the longest and the second-deadliest battle of World War I, claiming between 750,000 and 1,000,000 lives. It ended with no decisive victor: neither army was able to achieve their objective. Even more deadly was the Battle of the Somme, from July to November 1916. With many French generals occupied at Verdun, the Somme assault was planned and led by the British, particularly General Sir Douglas Haigh.
It was to be part of a simultaneous three-way offensive: with the Russians attacking on the Eastern Front and the Italians from the south. But the choice of location, the Somme River, was problematic. German defences there sat on an elevated position; they had seen minimal action since late 1914 so had been able to construct a comprehensive system of trenches and bunkers.
The Somme assault began with an artillery barrage that lasted seven days and used more than one million shells. This assault did not wipe out or push back the Germans, who sat it out in deep bunkers; it also failed to destroy the masses of barbed wire strewn in front of German trenches. At 7.30am on July 1st 1916, more than 120,000 British soldiers leapt from their trenches and advanced on the German line. Expecting to find obliterated trenches and dead Germans, they were instead met by machine-gun fire, artillery shells, mortars and grenades. In the coming slaughter, more than 50,000 soldiers were killed in just one 24-hour period – the deadliest single day in British military history.
(Photo credit: Bibliotheque nationale de France / National Library of Scotland / National Archives).