The Western Front

On August 1st 1914 Germany declared war on Russia and on the same day German troops entered Luxemburg. On August 2nd 1914 German troops invaded France declaring war on the French the day after. On August 4th 1914 German troops invaded Belgium and Britain, obliged by the Treaty of London to defend Belgian neutrality, issued an ultimatum demanding that Germans troops withdraw; the ultimatum was ignored and Britain found itself having to declare war on Germany at midnight that day.

The German Army were executing the Schlieffen Plan, devised to allow Germany to fight a war on two fronts against France and Russia simultaneously. The Schlieffen Plan called for a holding force to oppose the Russian army whilst the majority of German units were deployed in the West with the intent of knocking France out of the war quickly before the Russians could fully mobilize.

The Schlieffen Plan was compromised: modifications by von Moltke the younger, a quicker than expected Russian mobilization and British troops arriving in Belgium far sooner than thought, who fought much harder, at Mons and Le Cateau, than anticipated, were all factors that had a negative impact on the Schlieffen Plan. The German thrust to outflank Paris was parried and between September 6th and 10th at the Battle of the Marne the Entente forces held the German armies forcing them to retire north to a defensive position behind the Aisne. There followed the 'Race to the Sea' all the way to the channel coast, during which the opposing armies tried to outflank each other. This was to become the essence of the network of trenches stretching over 500 miles from the Swiss border to the Channel coast that was known as the 'Western Front'.

The Battle of Mons, August 1914.

On August 23rd 1914, the Battle of Mons was the first confrontation between the British Expeditionary Force and the German Army. The B.E.F. assumed a holding position along the line of the canal that runs through the town of Mons to give the French First Army, on its right flank, time to withdraw. The British infantry were trained to deliver rapid aimed rifle fire and took a dreadful toll of the advancing close order German infantry units. The B.E.F. had no choice but to retire and fell back in reasonably good order towards Le Cateau.

The Battle of Le Cateau, August 1914.

The exhausted IInd Corps of the retiring B.E.F. gathered at the village of Le Cateau on the night of August 25th 1914. Smith-Dorrien, the Corps commander, appraised his situation and felt he had no choice but to turn and fight the following German vanguard. The action was similar to Mons but with a more significant part being played by artillery. Losses were high on both sides but IInd Corps BEF was able to slip away in the evening and continue its retreat. The German pursuit was hesitant and cautious; the action at Le Cateau slowing down the German advance and playing a decisive part in preventing the German attack on Paris from developing as planned.

The First Battle of the Marne, September 1914.

The French and British forces fell back before the advancing German armies to a position on the south bank of the Marne. Instead of continuing as planned and encircling Paris the German First Army turned east to attack the exhausted British and French forces along the Marne. On September 6th 1914, the French Sixth Army attacked the German First Army in the flank forcing them to turn west and create a gap between the German First Army and Second Army. The BEF was launched at the gap whilst the French Fifth Army pinned the German Second Army. Six thousand French reserves were ferried from Paris to the front 30 miles away in order to allow the French Sixth Army to maintain pressure on the German First Army. An aggressive attack by the French First Army convinced von Moltke that a breakthrough by the Entente forces was imminent and, on August 9th, he ordered a retreat back to a line along the River Aisne.

First Battle of the Aisne, September 1914.

After their victory at the Battle of the Marne, the Entente was slow to pursue the retreating Germans and gave them the opportunity to prepare a defensive line along the high ground to the North of the Aisne. On September 13th 1914 the allies opened a frontal attack on the German positions, creating a bridgehead north of the river on September 14th. It soon became apparent that a frontal attack was out of the question after several attempts had been repulsed by entrenched German troops using machine guns and artillery fire. By September 28th  hopes of a frontal attack by the Entente succeeding had been abandoned and both sides moved west towards the Channel coast in an effort to outflank each other.

The Race to the Sea

With the stalemate at the Aisne both sides moved West, each side attempting to outflank the other. The First Battle of Albert, between September 25th and 28th, the Battle of Arras around October 1st were inconclusive and the armies continued north towards Flanders.

First Battle of Ypres, October 1914

On October 20th 1914, an offensive was launched by the new German commander, Erich von Falkenhayn against the Belgian town of Ypres. The north side of the town was defended by the BEF with the French covering the flank. The offensive stalled when Belgian troops  flooded the area between them and the Germans. The German attacks recommenced on October 31st and continued until 22nd November 1914, when winter weather forced the combatants to break off. The First Battle of Ypres witnessed the deployment of the first British Commonwealth troops in the form of the Indian Corps, who were to prove to be a very valuable asset.

The Battle of Neuve Chapelle, March 1915

The Battle of Neuve Chapelle was intended by Sir John French, the British commander, to be a limited attack on the village of Aubers and put pressure on the German defenses around Lille. In doing this this he intended to reduce the German salient around Neuve Chappelle. On the morning of March 10th 1915 the British First Army, under the orders of Sir Douglas Haig, opened up a barrage, directed by reconnaissance aircraft of the Royal Flying Corps, that was intended to soften up the German defenses. Thirty Five minutes later 40,000 men moved out of the trenches and attacked the German line. Neuve Chappelle was taken after four hours of hand-to-hand fighting, but the British found it impossible to exploit the success by attacking the German lines that had not been softened up with artillery around Aubers. The battle of Neuve Chapelle was the first to set the scene for future battles; set piece attacks on ground prepared by heavy artillery bombardment.

Second Battle of Ypres, April 1915

The primary concerns for the German Army during 1915 were the actions on the Eastern Front against the Russians. The German attack on Ypres in 1915 was mainly to test the use of gas. On April 22nd 1915 one hundred and sixty eight tons of chlorine gas was released against the French positions over a front of 6.5 km. The Allied troops retreated in panic, over 5,000 of them being killed by the greenish-yellow gas. The German infantry advanced relatively un-opposed into the vacant trenches but no one had anticipated how easily and there was no reinforcements available to achieve a breakthrough. A second gas attack was made against Canadian positions on April 24th. This attack was met with more resistance and the Germans suffered relatively heavy casualties. On May 1st the British executed a 4km withdrawal toward Ypres and a more easily defendable line. More gas attacks continued until the end of May, when a lack of manpower and resources forced the Germans to call off the attacks. The allied armies had lost nearly 70,000 men, a significant portion of which being due to the gas. The Germans had lost around 35,000 men and had gained a small amount of high ground to the East of Ypres. The Allies were quick to develop their own gas after the successful deployment of it by the Germans.

Verdun, February 1916

On Christmas Day 1915 the German Chief of Staff, Erich von Falkenhayn, wrote a letter to the Kaiser, Wilhelm II. The letter identified Britain as the cornerstone of the Anglo-French Russian alliance and outlined a plan to force Britain out of the war by the application of unrestricted submarine warfare, whilst an offensive on land was intended to 'bleed France dry' of manpower. This re-directed the effort from the eastern Front to the Western Front, a move criticized heavily by Paul von Hindenburg the Eastern Front commander. Verdun was chosen as the target for von Falkenhayn's land offensive and on February 20th 1916 was subjected to a huge artillery bombardment, followed by infantry attacks on the 21st. German strategy revolved around forcing the French to make counter attacks that exposed them to German artillery fire. The offensive lasted until December 18th 1916 and cost around one million casualties suffered equally between both sides. In terms of success the Verdun offensive failed miserably to 'bleed' the French Army to death and it cost von Falkenhayn his job; Paul von Hindenburg replacing him on August 29th.

Battle of the Somme, July 1916

A joint offensive between the British and the French had been planned for August 1916. The offensive had been intended as a battle of attrition rather than a means to capture ground. Von Falkenhayn's Verdun offensive had focused French attention onto the defense of that fortress. The French had pleaded with the British to bring the planned offensive forward to relieve the pressure on the defenders at Verdun. The area of the Somme had been chosen for the joint offensive simply because it was the junction of the French and British lines. With the French firmly fixed on Verdun the Somme Offensive became primarily a British undertaking that now sought to create a breakthrough in the German line. On 24th June 1916 a preliminary bombardment by around 3,000 guns commenced that was to last eight days. It was expected to destroy the German defenses and leave a gap that could simply be occupied by the British troops. The British offensive began on the morning of July 1st with the explosion of 17 mines. A creeping barrage preceded the lines of infantry but the initial bombardment had failed to destroy the barbed wire and gun emplacements. As the barrage passed the German Infantry came out from their protective bunkers and put up a fierce resistance, forcing the British back to their start point having suffered 58,000 casualties, a third of which were fatal. Sir Douglas Haig, the British commander, was convinced that the German Army was exhausted and persisted with the attacks despite mounting heavy casualties. In September tanks were used for the first time but these new weapons added little of value to the attack. The Offensive continued to November 18th when poor weather forced a halt to the fighting. Allied losses totaled a staggering 620,000 men, German losses were not quite as high but still came to around 500,000 men.

Battle of Vimy Ridge, April 1917

Vimy Ridge was a portion of high ground occupied by German forces that overlooked the Allied held town of Arras. The ridge was a honeycomb of formidable defenses that the Germans had been using as a platform to bombard Arras to great effect since 1914. Several French and British attempts to take the ridge had failed incurring large casualties. At first light on April 9th 1917, following an artillery barrage that had lasted three weeks, Canadian troops attacked the ridge. Within the hour the front and second line of German trenches were captured and by April 12th the entire ridge had been occupied by the Canadian troops. The Canadians had suffered over 10,000 casualties and the Germans 20,000. Nevertheless the operation was considered a great success.

Second Battle of the Aisne, April 1917

In 1916 the French commander, Robert Nivelle envisaged a breakthrough offensive across the Aisne, expecting it to end the war in a matter of says. The offensive began on April 16th 1917 and, far from ending the war, nearly ended in disaster for the French Army. The Offensive saw the use of tanks by the French army but they provided little assistance to the infantry. The offensive was called off on May 9th after repeated failed assaults that cost the French over 187,000 casualties, whilst inflicting around 168,000 casualties on the German Army. Nivelle was dismissed for the failure of the offensive, being replaced by Henri-Philippe Petain.

Battle of Passchendaele, July 1917

Sir Douglas Haig, the British commander, had entertained hopes of an offensive into Flanders during 1916. The battle of Verdun had necessitated that the British undertake the Somme offensive in an effort to relive the French, forcing Haig to postpone his ambitions in Flanders. During June the British 2nd Army had successfully taken Messines Ridge and Passchendaele ridge was proposed as an immediate follow up. The Battle of Passchendaele, sometimes referred to as the Third Battle of Ypres, began on July 31st 1917 after 10 days of preliminary artillery bombardment. Heavy rains, that flooded the churned up battlefield into a mud bath, hindered allied mobility and few gains of any significance were made. By November 6th, when the offensive was called off, for a territorial gain of only a few miles the allies had suffered over 300,000 casualties, the Germans over 250,000. The battle was notable for the first German use of mustard gas.

Battle of Cambrai, November 1917

The Battle of Cambrai was notable for the first massed use of tanks during the First World War. The attack began on November 20 1917, when 476 tanks supported by six infantry divisions went 'over the top' without the usual preliminary artillery bombardment. The Germans were taken by surprise and huge territorial gains were made by the British. The British, however, were not prepared for the success and weren't in a position to exploit it. German counter-attacks forced the British back and by around November 27 had reclaimed most of the lost ground. Losses amounted to around 45,000 British and 50,000 Germans.

Third Battle of the Aisne, May 1918

The Third Battle of the Aisne was conducted by Erich Ludendorff as a diversionary attack intended to divert troops from Flanders before striking a major blow there. It began on May 27th with an intense bombardment, supported by gas, of  the Chemin des Dames Ridge, then held by four recuperating divisions of the British IX Corps. The British divisions were annihilated by the surprise attack and could not oppose the 17 divisions of German infantry that advanced against them. By the end of the first day the Germans had advanced 15km and by May 30th they were within 90km of Paris. By June 6th the German advance had ground to a halt through lack of supplies and fatigue. The Allies had suffered nearly 130,000 casualties, at least 50,000 being taken prisoner.

Second Battle of the Marne, July 1918

On July 15th 1918, Erich Ludendorff the effective German Supreme Commander, launched the last attempt at winning the war for Germany. The attack was made as two spearheads, one to the east of Rheims and one to the west. The attack to the east was halted on the first day after making no progress. The attack to the west made more progress and succeeded in establishing a bridgehead across the Marne, but even this was halted on July 17th by a combined force of French, British and American troops. The Allied Supreme commander, Ferdinand Foch, immediately ordered a counter attack that drove the Germans back to their start line by August 3rd. The German losses were high at 68,000, as were the allies at 120,000. The Battle marked the end of the German offensive operations in the west.