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First World War

Overview of the Western Front

by Justin Leivars, 27 June 2010

The greatest war in history, and perhaps the greatest crime, began on 28 June 1914, when the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, nephew and heir to the Emperor Francis Joseph of Austria, was assassinated at Sarajevo in Serbia. The same fate befell his wife.

Messages of sympathy poured into Austria but that power, encouraged by Germany, seized on the tragedy as the pretext for beginning a war they had long been considering. Serbia was to be taught a lesson, and Germany, the master-schemer, was to extend the discipline to France and Russia.

Immediately after the murders the Austrian press declared that they were actually plotted by high officials in Belgrade, notwithstanding the fact that the Serbian government had called attention to the presence of one of the murderers in Hungary, and had advised his deportation.

Austria, after a month's playing for time to enable Germany to complete her preparations, dispatched a note to Serbia on 25 July, repeating the charge of Serbian complicity in the crime, demanding the suppression of all Serbian propaganda in the Dual Monarchy, and insisting that an investigation into the assassinations should be conducted on Serbian soil with the assistance of Austrian officials.

Serbia indignantly refused. Russia declared that she would permit no trifling in the Balkans, and on 28 July, Austria, having refused Great Britain's suggestion of a conference, declared war on Serbia.

So began the hostilities which were to plunge the world into a sea of blood.

Russia took up the challenge, Germany declared war on her and France, and Great Britain, refusing to tolerate the invasion of neutral Belgium and to contemplate the harrying of the French coast, declared war on Germany at 11:00pm on 4 August 1914.

The western front

A mass of German grey bore down on Paris, spilling through Belgium on the way, causing the destruction of some of its greatest treasures, and for a time it was thought that this mass of military might was unstoppable.

This would have been the case, had it not been for two men; Sir John French, commander of the 'Old Contemptible', and General Joffre, who commanded the French army. These two commanding officers presented a sturdy resistance at the Battle of the Marne, and eventually brought the German momentum to a standstill. It was one of the most important turning points of the war.

Britain had gained an excellent reputation for its fighting spirit and patriotism, owing to many a past conflict. This time the call to arms was no different in its result. Lord Kitchener appealed for men to enlist, and they flocked to the colours in their thousands, were trained, and were rapidly sent out to France.

The initial prediction that the war would be over by Christmas was now dismissed and all sides prepared themselves accordingly. Trench warfare and attrition became the order of the day, how best to grind down the enemy being their main concern. Trench systems soon extended from Belgium, across the north-eastern corner of France, into Lorraine and Alsace, and through to the Swiss frontier.

The second year of the war saw very little change in allied or enemy positions, despite major offensives taking place, notably the capture of Neuve Chappelle in March, the two battles of Ypres (the second of which became more sinister with the introduction by the Germans of poisoned gas), the arduous campaigning in the Forest of Argonne in north-eastern France, the relentless and sustained bombardment of Rheims, and the French offensive in Champagne.

The Battle of Loos in September 1915 proved that with better communications, and well trained and seasoned troops, the Germans could be defeated. The first day of the battle was a huge success, but poor communications (suddenly no longer 'better') and the inexperience of fresh troops put paid to Sir Douglas Haig being able to capitalise on his previous day's triumph.

Conscription armies

During 1916, there was a slight shift in the tide, although it was only slight. For the first time, Germany appeared to be at a disadvantage. Conscription was now in place, and the British army increased its size to a magnitude which had never before been witnessed.

General Sir Douglas Haig
General Sir Douglas Haig arrived at the front as commander-in-chief of British and Imperial forces looking for results, but in time he earned himself the nickname of 'Butcher Haig'

Sir John French was replaced by Sir Douglas Haig as commander-in-chief. Romania and Italy joined the allies, and Germany started to feel the pressure from all sides.

In an attempt to offset some of that pressure, the Germans embarked on their most ambitious and costly offensive so far. By laying waste to the French fortress of Verdun, the German command had hoped that the French army would be morally and physically crushed. However, after four months the fortress was still in French hands, and the enemy had to acknowledge that continuing was a fruitless exercise.

The day of 1 July 1916 saw the beginning of the great Franco-British offensive on both sides of the Somme, stretching along a forty kilometre front. Ten days later Sir Douglas Haig announced that the first line of German defences were in the hands of the allies.

The second phase of the battle commenced on 14 July, and lasted for over two months, during which time the first tanks were used in warfare. The battle had left exhausted the thirty-eight German divisions who took part, and having little choice they retired to the Bapaume-Transloy line, although not before the allies had managed to capture over 25,000 prisoners. The British casualty figures made grim reading and many wondered if the gains were worth such human sacrifice.

The year 1917 saw Germany still undefeated, but the world's support for its demise started to gain momentum. The United States of America had deliberated long and hard regarding their involvement in the war, but the sinking of the Lusitania had brought the issue to their door and their role took on a whole new appearance.

During the spring there was another joint advance on the south-western angle of the line, and the enemy this time retired to the new heavily fortified 'Hindenburg' line. The fighting now passed northwards and westwards, with each chapter bringing the allies new confidence. Vimy Ridge in April, Messines Ridge in June, and the progress made at Passchendaele Ridge in November enabled the allies to feel that victory was theirs. It was just a matter of time.

One final push

The Germans used the winter of 1917-18 to rest and prepare for a last bid for victory. The collapse of Russia enabled a large number of divisions to join their comrades on the western front, and German commanders knew that they needed to act sooner rather than later, before the United States could re-enforce the allies. Kaiserschlacht (Kaiser's Battle), began on 21 March along an eighty kilometre front between the Scarpe and the Oise. By the 25th the Germans had reached their original line of July 1916.

Four long, hard years of fighting seemed to have been all but wasted. The enemy were near to obtaining the positions they originally contemplated; the possession of the Channel ports and the opportunity to dominate Britain's shores. General Foch was made commander-in-chief of the allied armies. A military service bill was hastily passed through parliament, raising the age of recruits to fifty-one, this guaranteed a continued stream of fresh men, should they be needed.

The scene was now set for a final confrontation. The Germans had run out of steam and it was time to attack the enemy before they could rest and regroup.

The allied armies roused themselves with a mighty effort and by the beginning of June it was declared that the German attack had been checked. The Kaiser's Battle had proven to be a failure and the allies achieved a remarkable series of victories, all part of a plan to encircle the German armies or force them to retreat from France and Belgium; Haig east of Amiens, Byng north of Ancre, the French lower down the line, and the Americans under the command of General Pershing at the St Mihiel salient. The German armies were forced backwards at every point. Flanders was now evacuated and the Americans drove into the enemy lines at Sedan, albeit using tactics which were reminiscent of the earliest days of trench warfare despite the best efforts of the allies to advise them otherwise.

The situation for the kaiser was now precarious. His forces were being driven back in disarray, his navy being on the verge of mutiny, and the situation at home edging towards social revolution. Faced with such a disaster, he requested an armistice on 6 October.

Bavaria was proclaimed a republic. The duke of Brunswick renounced his throne, and the Berlin banks suspended payments. The kaiser had witnessed his dream of domination collapse and on 9 November he and the crown prince, who was equally as guilty, abdicated.



Text copyright © Justin Leivars. An original feature for the History Files.