Revolution on the western front

The western front has long been synonymous with futility and deadlock. Yet, argues Nick Lloyd, the great battles of 1914–18 triggered a period of enormous innovation – one that ultimately ushered in a new age of warfare

Learning the hard way: soldiers struggle to move a field gun through the Flanders mud. The key to victory in the west was the Allies’ ability to effect one of the “most consequential technologies and tactical transformations in the history of war,” says Nick Lloyd. (Photo by Getty Images)

The western front occupies a fixed and unchanging position in our memory of the First World War. It is synonymous with trenches and bloody, futile combat; a place of barbed wire and poison gas, of massed artillery batteries and machine-guns, mud and blood. It was where the armies of Germany and France, the United Kingdom and America (alongside a host of minor powers and colonial possessions) placed the bulk of their military strength and where they suffered the majority of their casualties. This arena of combat left a legacy of commemoration and remembrance that continues to influence our attitudes to the war to this day.

Advertisement

That the western front was the most important theatre in the First World War is surely beyond doubt. Allied victory in France and Belgium ensured that Germany could not win the war (despite defeating Russia on the eastern front and Serbia in the Balkans) and that the British, French and Americans would go on to shape the postwar settlement at Versailles.

But what is up for debate is the western front’s reputation for stalemate and futility. I would argue that, far from being a stale and unchanging arena devoid of strategy or innovation, the battles fought in France and Belgium witnessed an astonishing degree of change and development – on both the German and Allied sides. The western front was a cauldron of war in which modern warfare was forged.

Going to ground

The central problem on the western front between 1914 and 1918 was the relationship between firepower and space. The armies of 1914 possessed weapons of enormous power: quick-firing artillery, modern magazine-fed rifles, and machine-guns, but only limited ability to move quickly when they left their railheads. Although manoeuvre was possible, once armies were engaged in combat, infantry rapidly went to ground and began digging trenches or foxholes to escape the lethal fire-swept zone between the two forces. This created a major problem for commanders who needed to move onto the offensive to win the war.

The armies had weapons of great power, such as quick-firing artillery and machine guns. But they had only limited ability to move quickly

By the end of 1914, commanders of both sides were convinced that trench warfare could be shaken off, but they underestimated just what it would take to do so. The French Army attacked throughout the winter of 1914 and the spring of 1915, pushing forward in a vain attempt to snap the German line in two.

It was in Champagne (north-eastern France) where the basic tactical methods of the next three years were hammered out. Attacking infantry would firstly attempt to close with enemy positions by digging saps before a furious artillery bombardment was fired. The preliminary bombardment would increase into what the Germans called trommelfeuer (“drum fire”) before the infantry went “over the top”. But too often the artillery did not do its job, either because it was not heavy enough (a lack of howitzers combined with the fact that high-explosive shells were still not available in large numbers), or that it was inaccurate, leaving the infantry exposed to a hail of rifle and machine-gun fire once they left their trenches.

Some hoped to avoid this problem by utilising novel weapons (the German army deployed poison gas at Langemarck near Ypres in April 1915), or by avoiding the western front entirely (such as the attempt to knock the Ottoman empire out of the war at Gallipoli).

The French Army had little option to do either, so put its faith in massing its forces at crucial points and refining its methods of attack. This almost succeeded at Vimy Ridge on 9 May 1915, when the latest techniques in artillery registration, “creeping barrages” and infantry tactics based on infiltration, broke the line and allowed French assault troops to seize their objectives. But the break-in could not be exploited and it took too long for reserves to move up to the front, allowing German reserves to seal off the penetration and pulverise it with shellfire.

A nightmare of barbed wire

As quickly as the Allies developed new methods of attack, the defenders worked on counter-measures. “The main characteristic of the French attacks was an irresistible artillery preparation, defying all description, directed against that portion of the line which they intended to break ” noted one German report from 1915. Because French artillery fire was becoming so intensive, German forward positions were soon reduced to “little more than a mass of ruins”. Therefore, what was needed was “not one or even several lines of fixed defences, but rather a fortified zone which permitted a certain liberty of action, so that the best use could be made of all the advantages offered by the configuration of the ground, and all the disadvantages could as far as possible be overcome”. The western front was now becoming thicker and deeper – a nightmare of sandbags, barbed wire and fortifications.

By the end of 1915, French commanders fully understood the dilemmas they were facing and the difficulty of achieving the great breakthrough that would restore the war of movement. General Philippe Pétain, a future commander-in-chief, noted (in November 1915) how present operations had “demonstrated the difficulty, if not the impossibility, in our current state of armament, our method of preparation and opposing forces, of taking successive enemy positions in one wave”. The only thing to do was to conduct a series of separate attacks involving “a considerable use of manpower” and an “unprecedented expenditure of ammunition” to gradually chew through enemy lines. He would fight fire with fire and operate in an avowedly attritional manner, dispensing with the idea of a breakthrough.

These dilemmas continued into 1916 – a year defined by the twin battles of Verdun and the Somme, which have come to symbolise trench warfare in all its horror. Mass slaughter became condensed into a small area of the front with such intensive artillery fire that these battlefields was reduced to a moonscape of mud-filled trenches.

The German attack at Verdun in February 1916 was probably the world’s first modern battle, in which German aircraft (notably the Fokker Eindecker) gained control of the air before the attack went in. German troops went forward (now wearing newly issued steel helmets) after the most murderous bombardment yet seen, intending to occupy ground that had been razed by the shellfire. Although the French line buckled, reserves poured into the sector and a bloody equilibrium ensued.

Various attempts were made to break the deadlock in 1916. Germany used phosgene (that could penetrate French gas masks), sent in flamethrower teams and even deployed their 420mm “Big Bertha” super heavy howitzers – all in the attempt to cripple the French army. The French responded both on the ground and in the air. By the early summer, they had wrested control of the air back from Germany with a new generation of aircraft, including the Morane-Saulnier monoplane and the Nieuport XI Bébé, which were grouped into special fighter squadrons and tasked with mounting offensive patrols.

The French also benefited from a rapid industrial mobilisation and were now able to fire off hundreds of thousands of shells every day. On 24 October they recaptured Fort Douaumont (which had fallen in February) after firing half a million shells and coordinating their infantry with air support in an impressive set-piece attack.

A lack of “knack”

The British also went through the same process of trial and error that the French had undergone. Despite some promising results in the battles of 1915, at Neuve Chapelle and Loos, the attack on the Somme in July 1916 was the first time the British mounted an offensive on a mass scale – attempting to break the line in a way that most French commanders had already abandoned. But lacking the skill or the technology (British guns were frequently inaccurate; shells were plagued by shoddy manufacture; and there was not enough high-explosive), the result was the worst day in the history of the British Army (1 July 1916). Battalion after battalion attacked the German trenches, but found the defences intact, the wire uncut, and the defenders battered, but still full of fight.

During the bloody battles of 1916, the British went through the same process of trial and error that the French had undergone

A French observer commented ruefully that the causes of failure were “poor artillery preparation” and the “neglect of mopping-up enemy trenches after the first assault waves” had gone forward. “The British,” he concluded, “have not yet got the ‘knack’.”

It took months before the British got the “knack”. Fighting on the Somme went on throughout the summer and autumn, and although British performance improved (most notably in their use of artillery), it was the arrival of tanks in September that seemed to offer a new way of breaking the stranglehold of trench warfare. These armoured vehicles were slow, and vulnerable to field guns, but they had an immediate impact, helping British divisions to advance and presenting the defenders with another significant problem.

That month, one of Germany’s most senior commanders, Crown Prince Rupprecht, noted that the army was being worn down by “continued prolonged and exhausting fighting”. Germany had previously been “inferior to that of the enemy in terms of size” but “far superior in terms of quality”. But this had now changed, owing to the huge numbers of casualties that had hollowed out her armies and left her with a growing problem of poor morale and defeatism.

Now condemned to the defensive, there seemed little way out other than hoping that another wonder weapon, unrestricted submarine warfare (which began on 1 February 1917), would somehow strangle the Allies before she succumbed.

The disparity between Allied armies awash with guns, shells and tanks, and a threadbare enemy, was stark

By 1917, the Germans were finding defence on the western front increasingly difficult. Although the year began well with the collapse of the Nivelle Offensive in April (in which a series of over-ambitious French attacks on bad ground failed), the growing disparity between Allied armies awash with guns, shells and tanks, and a German army increasingly threadbare, was a stark one.

Germany continually improved her defensive tactics, widening yet further the defensive “zone”, and sucking the British and French in, before hitting them with counter-attacks from the rear. But the cost of doing so was growing. The German command team of Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff-recognised that a radical overhaul of industry was needed if they were to procure the weapons they needed. “People – as well as horses – must increasingly be replaced by machines.”

Despite growing exhaustion and declining manpower resources, the Allies continued to hone their offensive tactics throughout 1917. By the summer, the combination of heavy artillery, intelligent and flexible infantry formations, new tanks, and the presence of aircraft (providing reconnaissance and spotting, and occasionally bombing and strafing ground targets), allowed the Allies to break into any German positions they cared to attack, inflict damaging losses on their opponents, and hold on to their gains.

Typical of this new approach was the French attack on La Malmaison in October 1917. An abandoned fortress situated on the Chemin des Dames ridge, Malmaison was taken after a six-day bombardment that included the use of “special shells” (phosgene and phosphorous) fired against German gun batteries, saturating them in poison.

Although the ground was difficult, a topsyturvy moonscape, the infantry took their objectives on time. “It’s frightful,” remembered one veteran. “Everything is devastated, we stumble into huge craters, German corpses everywhere, blown to pieces, others over by gas, dying. It’s dreadful, but superb.”

The final roll of the dice

Everything came full circle for the final year, 1918. With Russia defeated, the German supreme command decided to gamble everything on a decisive attack in the west. It was the final roll of the dice. Massing 77 divisions along the attack sector, supported by 6,400 guns, Ludendorff was gambling upon breaking the front, separating the British from the French, rolling up the line, and then forcing the Allies to sue for peace.

It was an audacious, breathtaking plan. Everything that had been learned from four years of war would be put into the operation. A five-hour bombardment, high-explosive and gas, would neutralise enemy positions, interfere with their artillery, and so disorientate the defenders that they could not resist properly. German divisions went through an unrelenting process of training and preparation for the assault. Elite stormtroopers would lead the attack, bypassing centres of resistance to spread chaos in the enemy’s rear.

The opening of the German spring offensive on 21 March 1918 ushered in a series of massive battles that would only cease with the armistice of November 1918. Germany’s three attacking armies broke through the stretched Allied lines on the Somme, threatening to separate the British and French armies, and inflicting terrible losses. Perhaps as many as 21,000 British soldiers were taken prisoner on 21 March, and with the Allies in disarray, the moment of German victory appeared close.

Faced with what seemed like imminent defeat, the British and French agreed to appoint General Ferdinand Foch supreme commander in order to co-ordinate their efforts in defence of Amiens, where their two armies joined.

The German army had mastered the techniques required to break through a trench network, combining artillery, infantry and air power, to impressive effect, but they lacked the logistical support to sustain such a large offensive over succeeding days, and had little way of moving their troops around the battlefield quickly. The result was impressive initial gains (as seen in the attacks on 9 April, 27 May and 9 June 1918) that proved harder to repeat as Allied reserves arrived, which they were now doing at speed. By the summer of 1918, the United States (which had entered the war in April 1917) was finally able to deploy significant manpower on the western front – thus turning the tide of the war.

All the elements of combined-arms warfare that would define the 20th century – infantry, artillery, armour and air power – had come together by the summer of 1918. The Franco-American counter-attack on the Marne on 18 July wrested the initiative away from the German army and ushered in the final phase of the war. Now the horrors of trench warfare had been banished as a new kind of fighting emerged: more mobile and decisive.

Utilising a surprise tank attack – led by the new Renault FT-17, the first modern tank with a revolving turret – French and American divisions launched themselves against the German lines and took 20,000 prisoners in a matter of hours. Afterwards, a German report noted sadly: “The tanks, employed in numbers never known before and much better developed technically, rolled ahead of the infantry in long, connected lines. Our defence was not adapted to this mass employment on a wide front and was effective only in spots.” The events of 18 July were “a turning point in the history of the world war”.

Over the next three months the Allied armies mounted a final advance that brought the German army to defeat. Victory had been the result of one of the most impressive and consequential technological and tactical transformations in the history of war.

Human flesh had been replaced by technology and industry. A violent, bloody birth of a new age in warfare had taken place that was worlds away from the two-dimensional battlefield of 1914. The western front deserves to be remembered not as an unchanging arena of futility, but as a radical moment in history.

Nick Lloyd is reader in military and imperial history at King’s College London. His latest book, The Western Front: A History of the First World War, is published by Penguin Books in March

Advertisement

This article was first published in the March 2021 issue of BBC History Magazine