Decisive Entente victory
Armistice of Compiègne, end of World War I
Central Powers' victory on the Eastern Front nullified, fall of the
French colonial empire
United States (from 1917)
Italy (from 1915)
Portugal (from 1916)
Russian Empire (1916–17)
Siam (from 1918)
Brazil (from 1918)
Commanders and leaders
John J. Pershing
Albert I of Belgium
Helmuth von Moltke
Erich von Falkenhayn
Paul von Hindenburg
Casualties and losses
Casualties by country
civilian deaths: 534,500
Casualties by country
civilian deaths: 424,000[a]
Race to the Sea
Theatres of World War I
Sinai and Palestine
Asian and Pacific theatre
The Western Front was the main theatre of war during the First World
War. Following the outbreak of war in August 1914, the German Army
opened the Western Front by invading
Luxembourg and Belgium, then
gaining military control of important industrial regions in France.
The tide of the advance was dramatically turned with the Battle of the
Marne. Following the Race to the Sea, both sides dug in along a
meandering line of fortified trenches, stretching from the North Sea
to the Swiss frontier with France, which changed little except during
early 1917 and in 1918.
Between 1915 and 1917 there were several offensives along this front.
The attacks employed massive artillery bombardments and massed
infantry advances. Entrenchments, machine gun emplacements, barbed
wire and artillery repeatedly inflicted severe casualties during
attacks and counter-attacks and no significant advances were made.
Among the most costly of these offensives were the Battle of Verdun,
in 1916, with a combined 700,000 casualties (estimated), the Battle of
the Somme, also in 1916, with more than a million casualties
(estimated), and the
Battle of Passchendaele
Battle of Passchendaele (Third Battle of Ypres),
in 1917, with 487,000 casualties (estimated).
To break the deadlock of trench warfare on the Western Front, both
sides tried new military technology, including poison gas, aircraft
and tanks. The adoption of better tactics and the cumulative weakening
of the armies in the west led to the return of mobility in 1918. The
Spring Offensive of 1918 was made possible by the Treaty of
Brest-Litovsk that ended the war of the
Central Powers against Russia
and Romania on the Eastern Front. Using short, intense "hurricane"
bombardments and infiltration tactics, the German armies moved nearly
100 kilometres (60 miles) to the west, the deepest advance by either
side since 1914, but the result was indecisive.
The inexorable advance of the Allied armies during the second half of
1918 caused a sudden collapse of the German armies and persuaded the
German commanders that defeat was inevitable. The German government
surrendered in the Armistice of 11 November 1918, and the terms of
peace were settled by the
Treaty of Versailles
Treaty of Versailles in 1919.
1.1 War plans – Battle of the Frontiers
1.2 First Battle of the Marne
1.3 First Battle of Ypres
2.1 Gas warfare
2.2 Air warfare
2.3 Spring offensive
2.4 Autumn offensive
3.1 Battle of Verdun
3.2 Battle of the Somme
3.3 Hindenburg line
4.1 Nivelle Offensive
4.2 American Expeditionary Force
4.3 Flanders offensive
4.4 Battle of Cambrai
5.1 German spring offensives
5.2 Allied counter-offensives
6.2 Economic costs
10 Further reading
11 External links
War plans – Battle of the Frontiers
See also: Schlieffen Plan, Plan XVII, and Battle of the Frontiers
Map of the Western Front and the Race to the Sea, 1914
French bayonet charge
German infantry on the battlefield, 7 August 1914
At the outbreak of the First World War, the German Army, with seven
field armies in the west and one in the east, executed a modified
version of the Schlieffen Plan, moving quickly through neutral Belgium
to attack France, and then turning southwards to encircle the French
Army and trap it on the German border. The Western Front was the
place where the most powerful military forces in Europe, the German
and French armies, met and where the war was decided. Belgian
neutrality had been guaranteed by Britain under the Treaty of London,
1839; this caused Britain to join the war at the expiration of its
ultimatum at 11 pm GMT on 4 August. Armies under German generals
Alexander von Kluck
Alexander von Kluck and
Karl von Bülow
Karl von Bülow attacked
Belgium on 4 August
Luxembourg had been occupied without opposition on 2 August. The
first battle in
Belgium was the Siege of Liège, which lasted from
5–16 August. Liège was well fortified and surprised the German Army
under Bülow with its level of resistance. German heavy artillery was
able to demolish the main forts within a few days. Following the
fall of Liège, most of the Belgian field army retreated to Antwerp,
leaving the garrison of Namur isolated, with the Belgian capital,
Brussels, falling to the Germans on 20 August. Although the German
army bypassed Antwerp, it remained a threat to their flank. Another
siege followed at Namur, lasting from about 20–23 August.
The French deployed five armies on the frontier. The French Plan XVII
was intended to bring about the capture of Alsace-Lorraine. On 7
August, the VII Corps attacked Alsace to capture Mulhouse and Colmar.
The main offensive was launched on 14 August with the First and Second
Armies attacking toward Sarrebourg-Morhange in Lorraine. In
keeping with the Schlieffen Plan, the Germans withdrew slowly while
inflicting severe losses upon the French. The French Third and Fourth
Armies advanced toward the
Saar River and attempted to capture
Saarburg, attacking Briey and Neufchateau but were repulsed. The
French VII Corps captured Mulhouse after a brief engagement on 7
August but German reserve forces engaged them in the Battle of
Mulhouse and forced a French retreat.
The German Army swept through Belgium, executing civilians and razing
villages. The application of "collective responsibility" against a
civilian population further galvanised the allies. Newspapers
condemned the German invasion, violence against civilians and
destruction of property, which became known as the "Rape of
Belgium".[b] After marching through Belgium,
Luxembourg and the
Ardennes, the Germans advanced into northern
France in late August,
where they met the French Army, under Joseph Joffre, and the divisions
of the British Expeditionary Force under
Field Marshal Sir John
French. A series of engagements known as the Battle of the Frontiers
ensued, which included the
Battle of Charleroi
Battle of Charleroi and the Battle of Mons.
In the former battle the French Fifth Army was almost destroyed by the
German 2nd and 3rd Armies and the latter delayed the German advance by
a day. A general Allied retreat followed, resulting in more clashes at
the Battle of Le Cateau, the
Siege of Maubeuge
Siege of Maubeuge and the Battle of St.
Quentin (also called the First Battle of Guise).
First Battle of the Marne
Main article: First Battle of the Marne
The German Army came within 70 km (43 mi) of Paris but at
First Battle of the Marne
First Battle of the Marne (6–12 September), French and British
troops were able to force a German retreat by exploiting a gap which
appeared between the 1st and 2nd Armies, ending the German advance
into France. The German Army retreated north of the Aisne River
and dug in there, establishing the beginnings of a static western
front that was to last for the next three years. Following this German
retirement, the opposing forces made reciprocal outflanking
manoeuvres, known as the
Race for the Sea
Race for the Sea and quickly extended their
trench systems from the Swiss frontier to the North Sea. The
territory occupied by Germany held 64 percent of French pig-iron
production, 24 percent of its steel manufacturing and 40 percent of
the coal industry – dealing a serious blow to French industry.
On the Entente side (those countries opposing the German alliance),
the final lines were occupied with the armies of each nation defending
a part of the front. From the coast in the north, the primary forces
were from Belgium, the
British Empire and then France. Following the
Battle of the Yser
Battle of the Yser in October, the Belgian army controlled a
35 km (22 mi) length of
West Flanders along the coast, known
Yser Front, along the
Yser river and the Yperlee canal, from
Nieuwpoort to Boesinghe. Meanwhile, the British Expeditionary
Force (BEF) occupied a position on the flank, having previous occupied
a more central position.
First Battle of Ypres
Main article: First Battle of Ypres
From 19 October until 22 November, the German forces made their final
breakthrough attempt of 1914 during the First Battle of Ypres, which
ended in a mutually-costly stalemate. After the battle, Erich von
Falkenhayn judged that it was no longer possible for Germany to win
the war by purely military means and on 18 November 1914 he called for
a diplomatic solution. The Chancellor, Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg,
Generalfeldmarschall Paul von Hindenburg, commanding
Ober Ost (Eastern
Front high command), and Hindenburg's deputy, Erich Ludendorff,
continued to believe that victory was achievable through decisive
battles. During the Lodz offensive in Poland (11–25 November),
Falkenhayn hoped that the Russians would be made amenable to peace
overtures. In his discussions with Bethmann-Hollweg, Falkenhayn viewed
Russia as having no insoluble conflict and that the real
enemies of Germany were
France and Britain. A peace with only a few
annexations of territory also seemed possible with
France and that
France out of the war by negotiated settlements,
Germany could concentrate on Britain and fight a long war with the
resources of Europe at its disposal. Hindenburg and Ludendorff
continued to believe that
Russia could be defeated by a series of
battles which cumulatively would have a decisive effect, after which
Germany could finish off
France and Britain.
Map of the Western Front, 1915–16
Between the coast and the Vosges was a westward bulge in the trench
line, named the
Noyon salient for the captured French town at the
maximum point of advance near Compiègne. Joffre's plan for 1915 was
to attack the salient on both flanks to cut it off. The Fourth
Army had attacked in Champagne from 20 December 1914 – 17 March
1915 but the French were not able to attack in Artois at the same
time. The Tenth Army formed the northern attack force and was to
attack eastwards into the Douai plain across a 16-kilometre
(9.9 mi) front between Loos and Arras. On 10 March, as part
of the larger offensive in the Artois region, the
British Army fought
Battle of Neuve Chapelle
Battle of Neuve Chapelle to capture Aubers Ridge. The assault was
made by four divisions along a 2 mi (3.2 km) front. Preceded
by a surprise bombardment lasting only 35 minutes, the initial assault
made rapid progress and the village was captured within four hours.
The advance then slowed because of supply and communication
difficulties. The Germans brought up reserves and counter-attacked,
forestalling the attempt to capture the ridge. Since the British had
used about one-third of their supply of artillery ammunition, General
Sir John French blamed the failure on the shortage of ammunition,
despite the early success.
Chemical weapons in World War I
All sides had signed the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907, which
prohibited the use of chemical weapons in warfare. In 1914, there had
been small-scale attempts by both the French and Germans to use
various tear gases, which were not strictly prohibited by the early
treaties but which were also ineffective. The first use of more
lethal chemical weapons was against the French near the Belgian town
Despite the German plans to maintain the stalemate with the French and
British, Albrecht, Duke of Württemberg, commander of the 4th Army
planned an offensive at Ypres, site of the
First Battle of Ypres
First Battle of Ypres in
November 1914. The Second Battle of Ypres, April 1915, was intended to
divert attention from offensives in the Eastern Front and disrupt
Franco-British planning. After a two-day bombardment, the Germans
released a cloud of 168 long tons (171 t) of chlorine gas onto
the battlefield. Though primarily a powerful irritant, it can
asphyxiate in high concentrations or prolonged exposure. Being heavier
than air, the gas crept across no man's land and drifted into the
French trenches. The green-yellow cloud started killing some
defenders and those in the rear fled in panic, creating an undefended
3.7-mile (6 km) gap in the Allied line. The Germans were
unprepared for the level of their success and lacked sufficient
reserves to exploit the opening. Canadian troops on the right drew
back their left flank and halted the German advance. The gas
attack was repeated two days later and caused a 3.1 mi
(5 km) withdrawal of the Franco-British line but the opportunity
had been lost.
The success of this attack would not be repeated, as the Allies
countered by introducing gas masks and other countermeasures. An
example of the success of these measures came a year later, on 27
April in the
Gas attacks at Hulluch
Gas attacks at Hulluch 40 km (25 mi) to the
south of Ypres, where the
16th (Irish) Division
16th (Irish) Division withstood several
German gas attacks. The British retaliated, developing their own
chlorine gas and using it at the
Battle of Loos
Battle of Loos in September 1915.
Fickle winds and inexperience led to more British casualties from the
gas than German. French, British and German forces all escalated
the use of gas attacks through the rest of the war, developing the
more deadly phosgene gas in 1915, then the infamous mustard gas in
1917, which could linger for days and could kill slowly and painfully.
Countermeasures also improved and the stalemate continued.
Specialised aeroplanes for aerial combat were introduced in 1915.
Aircraft were already in use for scouting and on 1 April, the French
pilot Roland Garros became the first to shoot down an enemy aircraft
by using a machine-gun that shot forward through the propeller blades.
This was achieved by crudely reinforcing the blades to deflect
bullets. Several weeks later Garros force-landed behind German
lines. His aeroplane was captured and sent to Dutch engineer Anthony
Fokker, who soon produced a significant improvement, the interrupter
gear, in which the machine gun is synchronised with the propeller so
it fires in the intervals when the blades of the propeller are out of
the line of fire. This advance was quickly ushered into service, in
Fokker E.I (Eindecker, or monoplane, Mark 1), the first single
seat fighter aircraft to combine a reasonable maximum speed with an
Max Immelmann scored the first confirmed kill in
an Eindecker on 1 August. Both sides developed improved weapons,
engines, airframes and materials, until the end of the war. It also
inaugurated the cult of the ace, the most famous being Manfred von
Richthofen (the Red Baron). Contrary to the myth, anti-aircraft fire
claimed more kills than fighters.
Carency after it was recaptured by France
The final Entente offensive of the spring was the Second Battle of
Artois, an offensive to capture
Vimy Ridge and advance into the Douai
plain. The French Tenth Army attacked on 9 May after a six-day
bombardment and advanced 5 kilometres (3 mi) to capture Vimy
Ridge. German reinforcements counter-attacked and pushed the French
back towards their starting points because French reserves had been
held back and the success of the attack had come as a surprise. By 15
May the advance had been stopped, although the fighting continued
until 18 June. In May the German Army captured a French document
La Ville-aux-Bois describing a new system of defence. Rather than
relying on a heavily fortified front line, the defence was to be
arranged in a series of echelons. The front line would be a thinly
manned series of outposts, reinforced by a series of strongpoints and
a sheltered reserve. If a slope was available, troops were deployed
along the rear side for protection. The defence became fully
integrated with command of artillery at the divisional level. Members
of the German high command viewed this new scheme with some favour and
it later became the basis of an elastic defence in depth doctrine
against Entente attacks.
During the autumn of 1915, the "Fokker Scourge" began to have an
effect on the battlefront as Allied reconnaissance aircraft were
nearly driven from the skies. These reconnaissance planes were used to
direct gunnery and photograph enemy fortifications but now the Allies
were nearly blinded by German fighters. However, the impact of
German air superiority was diminished by their primarily defensive
doctrine in which they tended to remain over their own lines, rather
than fighting over Allied held territory.
In September 1915 the Entente allies launched another offensive, with
the French Third Battle of Artois,
Second Battle of Champagne
Second Battle of Champagne and the
British at Loos. The French had spent the summer preparing for this
action, with the British assuming control of more of the front to
release French troops for the attack. The bombardment, which had been
carefully targeted by means of aerial photography, began on 22
September. The main French assault was launched on 25 September and,
at first, made good progress in spite of surviving wire entanglements
and machine gun posts. Rather than retreating, the Germans adopted a
new defence-in-depth scheme that consisted of a series of defensive
zones and positions with a depth of up to 8.0 km (5 mi).
On 25 September, the British began the Battle of Loos, part of the
Third Battle of Artois, which was meant to supplement the larger
Champagne attack. The attack was preceded by a four-day artillery
bombardment of 250,000 shells and a release of 5,100 cylinders of
chlorine gas. The attack involved two corps in the main
assault and two corps performing diversionary attacks at Ypres. The
British suffered heavy losses, especially due to machine gun fire
during the attack and made only limited gains before they ran out of
shells. A renewal of the attack on 13 October fared little better.
In December, French was replaced by General
Douglas Haig as commander
of the British forces.
German soldier on the Western Front in 1916
Falkenhayn believed that a breakthrough might no longer be possible
and instead focused on forcing a French defeat by inflicting massive
casualties. His new goal was to "bleed
France white". As such,
he adopted two new strategies. The first was the use of unrestricted
submarine warfare to cut off Allied supplies arriving from
overseas. The second would be attacks against the French army
intended to inflict maximum casualties; Falkenhayn planned to attack a
position from which the French could not retreat, for reasons of
strategy and national pride and thus trap the French. The town of
Verdun was chosen for this because it was an important stronghold,
surrounded by a ring of forts, that lay near the German lines and
because it guarded the direct route to Paris.
Falkenhayn limited the size of the front to 5–6 kilometres
(3–4 mi) to concentrate artillery firepower and to prevent a
breakthrough from a counter-offensive. He also kept tight control of
the main reserve, feeding in just enough troops to keep the battle
going. In preparation for their attack, the Germans had amassed a
concentration of aircraft near the fortress. In the opening phase,
they swept the air space of French aircraft, which allowed German
artillery-observation aircraft and bombers to operate without
interference. In May, the French countered by deploying escadrilles de
chasse with superior
Nieuport fighters and the air over
into a battlefield as both sides fought for air superiority.
Battle of Verdun
Main article: Battle of Verdun
French soldiers observing enemy movements
Battle of Verdun
Battle of Verdun began on 21 February 1916 after a nine-day delay
due to snow and blizzards. After a massive eight-hour artillery
bombardment, the Germans did not expect much resistance as they slowly
Verdun and its forts. Sporadic French resistance was
encountered. The Germans took
Fort Douaumont and then reinforcements
halted the German advance by 28 February.
The Germans turned their focus to
Le Mort Homme
Le Mort Homme on the west bank of
the Meuse which blocked the route to French artillery emplacements,
from which the French fired across the river. After some of the most
intense fighting of the campaign, the hill was taken by the Germans in
late May. After a change in French command at
Verdun from the
Philippe Pétain to the offensive-minded Robert
Nivelle, the French attempted to re-capture
Fort Douaumont on 22 May
but were easily repulsed. The Germans captured
Fort Vaux on 7 June and
with the aid of diphosgene gas, came within 1 kilometre
(1,100 yd) of the last ridge before
Verdun before being contained
on 23 June.
Over the summer, the French slowly advanced. With the development of
the rolling barrage, the French recaptured
Fort Vaux in November and
by December 1916 they had pushed the Germans back 2.1 kilometres
(1.3 mi) from Fort Douaumont, in the process rotating 42
divisions through the battle. The Battle of Verdun—also known as the
'Mincing Machine of Verdun' or 'Meuse Mill'—became a symbol of
French determination and self-sacrifice.
Battle of the Somme
Main article: Battle of the Somme
British infantry advance near Ginchy. Photo by Ernest Brooks.
In the spring, Allied commanders had been concerned about the ability
French Army to withstand the enormous losses at Verdun. The
original plans for an attack around the
River Somme were modified to
let the British make the main effort. This would serve to relieve
pressure on the French, as well as the Russians who had also suffered
great losses. On 1 July, after a week of heavy rain, British divisions
Picardy began the
Battle of the Somme
Battle of the Somme with the Battle of Albert,
supported by five French divisions on their right flank. The attack
had been preceded by seven days of heavy artillery bombardment. The
experienced French forces were successful in advancing but the British
artillery cover had neither blasted away barbed wire, nor destroyed
German trenches as effectively as was planned. They suffered the
greatest number of casualties (killed, wounded and missing) in a
single day in the history of the British Army, about 57,000.
Verdun lesson learnt, the Allies' tactical aim became the
achievement of air superiority and until September, German aircraft
were swept from the skies over the Somme. The success of the Allied
air offensive caused a reorganisation of the German air arm and both
sides began using large formations of aircraft rather than relying on
individual combat. After regrouping, the battle continued
throughout July and August, with some success for the British despite
the reinforcement of the German lines. By August, General Haig had
concluded that a breakthrough was unlikely and instead, switched
tactics to a series of small unit actions. The effect was to
straighten out the front line, which was thought necessary in
preparation for a massive artillery bombardment with a major push.
The final phase of the battle of the Somme saw the first use of the
tank on the battlefield. The Allies prepared an attack that would
involve 13 British and Imperial divisions and four French corps. The
attack made early progress, advancing 3,200–4,100 metres
(3,500–4,500 yd) in places but the tanks had little effect due
to their lack of numbers and mechanical unreliability. The final
phase of the battle took place in October and early November, again
producing limited gains with heavy loss of life. All told, the Somme
battle had made penetrations of only 8 kilometres (5 mi) and
failed to reach the original objectives. The British had suffered
about 420,000 casualties and the French around 200,000. It is
estimated that the Germans lost 465,000, although this figure is
The Somme led directly to major new developments in infantry
organisation and tactics; despite the terrible losses of 1 July, some
divisions had managed to achieve their objectives with minimal
casualties. In examining the reasons behind losses and achievements,
once the British war economy produced sufficient equipment and
weapons, the army made the platoon the basic tactical unit, similar to
the French and German armies. At the time of the Somme, British senior
commanders insisted that the company (120 men) was the smallest unit
of manoeuvre; less than a year later, the section of ten men would be
Main article: Hindenburg Line
Hindenburg Line at
Bullecourt seen from the air.
In August 1916 the German leadership along the western front had
changed as Falkenhayn resigned and was replaced by Hindenburg and
Ludendorff. The new leaders soon recognised that the battles of Verdun
and the Somme had depleted the offensive capabilities of the German
Army. They decided that the German Army in the west would go over to
the strategic defensive for most of 1917, while the Central powers
would attack elsewhere.
During the Somme battle and through the winter months, the Germans
created a fortification behind the
Noyon Salient that would be called
the Hindenburg Line, using the defensive principles elaborated since
the defensive battles of 1915, including the use of Eingreif
divisions. This was intended to shorten the German front, freeing
10 divisions for other duties. This line of fortifications ran from
Arras south to St Quentin and shortened the front by about 50
kilometres (30 mi). British long-range reconnaissance
aircraft first spotted the construction of the
Hindenburg Line in
Hindenburg Line and Tactical development on the Western
Front in 1917
Map of the Western Front, 1917
Hindenburg Line was built between 2 and 50 kilometres
(30 mi) behind the German front line. On 25 February German
forces began retreating to the line and the withdrawal was completed
on 5 April, leaving behind a devastated territory to be occupied by
the Allies. This withdrawal negated the French strategy of attacking
both flanks of the
Noyon salient, as it no longer existed.
However, offensive advances by the British continued as the High
Command claimed, with some justice, that this withdrawal resulted from
the casualties the Germans received during the Battles of the Somme
and Verdun, despite the Allies suffering greater losses.
Meanwhile, on 6 April the
United States declared war on Germany. In
early 1915, following the sinking of the Lusitania, Germany had
stopped its unrestricted submarine warfare in the Atlantic because of
concerns of drawing the
United States into the conflict. With the
growing discontent of the German public due to the food shortages,
however, the government resumed unrestricted submarine warfare in
February 1917. They had calculated that a successful submarine and
warship siege of Britain would force that country out of the war
within six months, while American forces would take a year to become a
serious factor on the Western Front. The submarine and surface ships
had a long period of success before Britain resorted to the convoy
system, bringing a large reduction in shipping losses.
British Army on the Western Front (August, 1917)
By 1917, the size of the
British Army on the Western Front had grown
to two-thirds the total numbers in the French forces. In April
1917 the BEF began the Battle of Arras. The
Canadian Corps and the
5th Division, attacked German lines at Vimy Ridge, capturing the
heights and the First Army to the south achieved the deepest advance
since trench warfare began. Later attacks were confronted by German
reinforcements defending the area using the lessons learned on the
Somme in 1916. British attacks were contained and, according to Gary
Sheffield, a greater rate of daily loss was inflicted on the British
than in "any other major battle".
During the winter of 1916–1917, German air tactics had been
improved, a fighter training school was opened at
better aircraft with twin guns were introduced. The result was near
disastrous losses for Allied air power, particularly for the British,
Portuguese, Belgians and Australians who were struggling with outmoded
aircraft, poor training and weak tactics. As a result, the Allied air
successes over the Somme would not be repeated and heavy losses were
inflicted by the Germans. During their attack at Arras, the British
lost 316 air crews and the Canadians lost 114 compared to 44 lost by
the Germans. This became known to the
Royal Flying Corps
Royal Flying Corps as Bloody
Battle of Arras (1917)
Battle of Arras (1917) and Nivelle Offensive
The same month, the French Commander-in-Chief, General Robert Nivelle,
ordered a new offensive against the German trenches, promising that it
would end the war within 48 hours. The 16 April attack, dubbed the
Nivelle Offensive (also known as the Second Battle of the Aisne, after
the area where the offensive took place), would be 1.2 million men
strong, preceded by a week-long artillery bombardment and accompanied
by tanks. The offensive proceeded poorly as the French troops, with
the help of two Russian brigades, had to negotiate rough,
upward-sloping terrain in extremely bad weather. Planning had been
dislocated by the voluntary German withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line.
Secrecy had been compromised and German aircraft gained air
superiority, making reconnaissance difficult and in places, the
creeping barrage moved too fast for the French troops. Within a
week 120,000 French soldiers were casualties. Despite the casualties
and his promise to halt the offensive if it did not produce a
breakthrough, Nivelle ordered the attack to continue into May.
On 3 May the weary French 2nd Colonial Division, veterans of the
Battle of Verdun, refused orders, arriving drunk and without their
weapons. Lacking the means to punish an entire division, its officers
did not immediately implement harsh measures against the mutineers.
Mutinies occurred in 54 French divisions and 20,000 men deserted.
Other Allied forces attacked but suffered massive casualties.
Appeals to patriotism and duty followed, as did mass arrests and
trials. The French soldiers returned to defend their trenches but
refused to participate in further offensive action. On 15 May
Nivelle was removed from command, replaced by Pétain who immediately
stopped the offensive. The French would go on the defensive for
the following months to avoid high casualties and to restore
confidence in the French High Command, while the British assumed
American Expeditionary Force
On 25 June the first US troops began to arrive in France, forming the
American Expeditionary Force. However, the American units did not
enter the trenches in divisional strength until October. The incoming
troops required training and equipment before they could join in the
effort, and for several months American units were relegated to
support efforts. In spite of this, however, their presence
provided a much-needed boost to Allied morale, with the promise of
further reinforcements that could tip the manpower balance towards the
Battle of Messines (1917)
Battle of Messines (1917) and Third Battle of Ypres
Two British soldiers run toward a bunker past the bodies of two German
In June, the British launched an offensive in Flanders, in part to
take pressure off the French armies on the Aisne, after the French
part of the
Nivelle Offensive failed to achieve the strategic victory
that had been planned and French troops began to mutiny. The
offensive began on 7 June, with a British attack on Messines Ridge,
south of Ypres, to retake the ground lost in the First and Second
battles in 1914. Since 1915 specialist Royal Engineer tunnelling
companies had been digging tunnels under the ridge, and about
500 t (490 long tons) of explosives had been planted in 21 mines
under the German defences. Following several weeks of bombardment,
the explosives in 19 of these mines were detonated, killing up to
7,000 German troops. The infantry advance that followed relied on
three creeping barrages which the British infantry followed to capture
the plateau and the east side of the ridge in one day. German
counter-attacks were defeated and the southern flank of the Gheluvelt
plateau was protected from German observation.
On 11 July 1917, during Unternehmen Strandfest (Operation Beachparty)
Nieuport on the coast, the Germans introduced a new weapon into the
war when they fired a powerful blistering agent
Sulfur mustard (Yellow
Cross) gas. The artillery deployment allowed heavy concentrations of
the gas to be used on selected targets.
Mustard gas was persistent and
could contaminate an area for days, denying it to the British, an
additional demoralising factor. The Allies increased production of gas
for chemical warfare but took until late 1918 to copy the Germans and
begin using mustard gas.
From 31 July to 10 November the Third Battle of
Ypres included the
Battle of Passchendaele
Battle of Passchendaele and culminated in the Second Battle of
Passchendaele. The battle had the original aim of capturing the
ridges east of
Ypres then advancing to Roulers and Thourout to close
the main rail line supplying the German garrisons on the Western front
north of Ypres. If successful the northern armies were then to capture
the German submarine bases on the Belgian coast. It was later
restricted to advancing the
British Army onto the ridges around Ypres,
as the unusually wet weather slowed British progress. The Canadian
Corps relieved the
II ANZAC Corps and took the village of
Passchendaele on 6 November, despite rain, mud and many
casualties. The offensive was costly in manpower for both sides for
relatively little gain of ground against determined German resistance
but the ground captured was of great tactical importance. In the drier
periods, the British advance was inexorable and during the unusually
wet August and in the Autumn rains that began in early October, the
Germans achieved only costly defensive successes, which led the German
commanders in early October to begin preparations for a general
retreat. Both sides lost a combined total of over a half million men
during this offensive. The battle has become a byword among some
British revisionist historians for bloody and futile slaughter, whilst
the Germans called Passchendaele "the greatest martyrdom of the
Battle of Cambrai
Main article: Battle of Cambrai
On 20 November the British launched the first massed tank attack and
the first attack using predicted artillery-fire (aiming artillery
without firing the guns to obtain target data) at the Battle of
Cambrai. The Allies attacked with 324 tanks (with one-third held
in reserve) and twelve divisions, advancing behind a hurricane
bombardment, against two German divisions. The machines carried
fascines on their fronts to bridge trenches and the 13 ft
(4 m) German tank traps.
Special "grapnel tanks" towed hooks to
pull away the German barbed wire. The attack was a great success for
the British, who penetrated further in six hours than at the Third
Ypres in four months, at a cost of only 4,000 British casualties.
The advance produced an awkward salient and a surprise German
counter-offensive began on 30 November, which drove back the British
in the south and failed in the north. Despite the reversal, the attack
was seen as a success by the Allies, proving that tanks could overcome
trench defences. The Germans realised that the use of tanks by the
Allies posed a new threat to any defensive strategy they might mount.
The battle had also seen the first mass use of German stosstruppen on
the Western front in the attack, who used infantry infiltration
tactics to penetrate British defences, bypassing resistance and
quickly advancing into the British rear.
Map of the final German offensives, 1918
German tank in Roye, 21 March 1918
Following the successful Allied attack and penetration of the German
defences at Cambrai, Ludendorff and Hindenburg determined that the
only opportunity for German victory lay in a decisive attack along the
Western front during the spring, before American manpower became
overwhelming. On 3 March 1918, the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was signed
Russia withdrew from the war. This would now have a dramatic
effect on the conflict as 33 divisions were released from the Eastern
Front for deployment to the west. The Germans occupied almost as much
Russian territory under the provisions of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk
as they did in the Second World War but this considerably restricted
their troop redeployment. The Germans achieved an advantage of 192
divisions in the west to the 178 Allied divisions, which allowed
Germany to pull veteran units from the line and retrain them as
sturmtruppen (40 infantry and 3 cavalry divisions were retained for
German occupation duties in the east).
The Allies lacked unity of command and suffered from morale and
manpower problems, the British and French armies were severely
depleted and not in a position to attack in the first half of the
year, while the majority of the newly arrived American troops were
still training, with just six complete divisions in the line.
Ludendorff decided on an offensive strategy beginning with a big
attack against the British on the Somme, to separate them from the
French and drive them back to the channel ports. The attack
would combine the new storm troop tactics with a over 700
aircraft, tanks and a carefully planned artillery barrage that
would include gas attacks.
German spring offensives
Main article: Spring Offensive
Operation Michael, the first of the German Spring Offensives, very
nearly succeeded in driving the Allied armies apart, advancing to
within shelling distance of Paris for the first time since 1914.
As a result of the battle, the Allies agreed on unity of command.
Ferdinand Foch was appointed commander of all Allied forces in
France. The unified Allies were better able to respond to each of the
German drives and the offensive turned into a battle of
attrition. In May, the American divisions also began to play an
increasing role, winning their first victory in the Battle of
Cantigny. By summer, between 250,000 and 300,000 American soldiers
were arriving every month. A total of 2.1 million American troops
would be deployed on this front before the war came to an end.
The rapidly increasing American presence served as a counter for the
large numbers of redeployed German forces.
Main articles: Second Battle of the Marne, Hundred Days Offensive, and
Armistice of 11 November 1918
In July, Foch began the Second Battle of the Marne, a
counter-offensive against the Marne salient which was eliminated by
August. The Battle of Amiens began two days later, with Franco-British
forces spearheaded by Australian and Canadian troops, along with 600
tanks and 800 aircraft. Hindenburg named 8 August as the "Black
Day of the German army". The Italian 2nd Corps, commanded by
General Alberico Albricci, also participated in the operations around
Reims. German manpower had been severely depleted after four
years of war and its economy and society were under great internal
strain. The Allies fielded 216 divisions against 197 German
Hundred Days Offensive
Hundred Days Offensive beginning in August proved
the final straw and following this string of military defeats, German
troops began to surrender in large numbers. As the Allied forces
Prince Maximilian of Baden
Prince Maximilian of Baden was appointed as Chancellor of
Germany in October to negotiate an armistice. Ludendorff was forced
out and fled to Sweden. The German retreat continued and the
German Revolution put a new government in power. The Armistice of
Compiègne was quickly signed, stopping hostilities on the Western
Front on 11 November 1918, later known as Armistice Day. The
German Imperial Monarchy collapsed when General Groener, the successor
to Ludendorff, backed the moderate Social Democratic Government under
Friedrich Ebert, to forestall a revolution like those in
Main article: Aftermath of World War I
Western Front 1914–1918[c]
The war along the Western Front led the German government and its
allies to sue for peace in spite of German success elsewhere. As a
result, the terms of the peace were dictated by France, Britain and
the United States, during the 1919 Paris Peace Conference. The result
was the Treaty of Versailles, signed in June 1919 by a delegation of
the new German government. The terms of the treaty constrained
Germany as an economic and military power. The Versailles treaty
returned the border provinces of
Alsace-Lorraine to France, thus
limiting the coal required by German industry. The Saar, which formed
the west bank of the Rhine, would be demilitarised and controlled by
Britain and France, while the
Kiel Canal opened to international
traffic. The treaty also drastically reshaped Eastern Europe. It
severely limited the German armed forces by restricting the size of
the army to 100,000 and disallowing a navy or air force. The navy was
Scapa Flow under the terms of surrender but was later
scuttled, under the order of German admirals, as a reaction to the
Main article: Casualties of World War I
The war in the trenches of the Western Front left tens of thousands of
maimed soldiers and war widows. The unprecedented loss of life had a
lasting effect on popular attitudes toward war, resulting later in an
Allied reluctance to pursue an aggressive policy toward Adolf
Belgium suffered 30,000 civilian dead and
(including 3,000 merchant sailors). The British lost 16,829
civilian dead, 1,260 civilians were killed in air and naval attacks,
908 civilians were killed at sea and there were 14,661 merchant marine
deaths. Another 62,000 Belgian, 107,000 British and 300,000
French civilians died due to war-related causes.
See also: French war planning 1920–1940
Germany in 1919 was bankrupt, the people living in a state of
semi-starvation and having no commerce with the remainder of the
world. The Allies occupied the Rhine cities of Cologne, Koblenz and
Mainz, with restoration dependent on payment of reparations. In
Stab-in-the-back myth (Dolchstoßlegende) was propagated by
Hindenburg, Ludendorff and other defeated generals, that the defeat
was not the fault of the 'good core' of the army but due to certain
left-wing groups within Germany who signed a disastrous armistice;
this would later be exploited by nationalists and the Nazi party
propaganda to excuse the overthrow of the
Weimar Republic in 1930 and
the imposition of the Nazi dictatorship after March 1933.
France lost more casualties relative to its population than any other
great power and the industrial north-east of the country was
devastated by the war. The provinces overrun by Germany had produced
40 percent of French coal and 58 percent of its steel output.
Once it was clear that Germany was going to be defeated, Ludendorff
had ordered the destruction of the mines in
France and Belgium.
His goal was to cripple the industries of Germany's main European
rival. To prevent similar German attacks in the future,
built a massive series of fortifications along the German border known
as the Maginot Line.
^ 424,000 German civilians died due to war-related causes, ~1,000 in
^ A modern author uses the term only in the narrower sense of
describing the war crimes committed by the Germans during this
^ German casualties from "Reichsarchiv 1918". Appendix F additionally
breaks down the German killed figures (per the Reichsarchiv) as:
829,400 killed in action; 300,000 died of wounds; 364,000 missing
reclassified as dead.
^ a b ILO 1925, p. 29.
^ SWO 1922, p. 742.
^ Ayres 1919, p. 105.
^ Hosch 2010, p. 219.
^ Maurel, Henri. "The Volunteers of the Russian Expeditionary Corps in
the Moroccan Division during the Second Battle of Marne". Archived
from the original on 19 January 2008. Retrieved 18 January 2017.
^ Grebler & Winkler 1940, p. 78.
^ Liddle 1997, pp. 45–58.
^ Edmonds 1991, pp. 361–363.
^ Hamilton & Herwig 2003, p. 159.
^ Stevenson 2005, pp. 44–45.
^ Griffith 2004, p. 9.
^ Griffiths 1986, pp. 22–24, 25–26.
^ Hamilton & Herwig 2003, p. 254.
^ Griffiths 2003, p. 30.
^ Griffiths 1986, pp. 29–30.
^ Smith, Audoin-Rouzeau & Becker 2003, p. 33.
^ Horne & Kramer 2001, pp. 1–608.
^ Zuckerman 2004, p. 23.
^ Terraine 2002, pp. 78–175.
^ Strachan 2001, pp. 242–262.
^ Griffiths 1986, pp. 31–37.
^ a b Kennedy 1989, pp. 265–6.
^ Barton, Doyle & Vandewalle 2005, p. 17.
^ Baldwin 1962, p. 27.
^ Strachan 2001, pp. 273–278.
^ Foley 2005, pp. 105–110.
^ Fuller 1992, p. 165.
^ Neiberg 2008, p. 110.
^ Lyons 2000, p. 112.
^ Fuller 1992, pp. 166–7.
^ Richter 1994, p. 7.
^ Doughty 2005, pp. 148–151.
^ Fuller 1992, pp. 172–3.
^ Sheldon 2012, pp. 81–95.
^ Sheldon 2012, pp. 95–121.
^ Jones 2002, pp. 22–23.
^ Richter 1994, pp. 69–73, 88.
^ Richter 1994, pp. 182–183, 210–211.
^ Spick 2002, pp. 326–327.
^ Wise 1981, pp. 349–350.
^ Granatstein & Morton 2003, p. 40.
^ Smith, Audoin-Rouzeau & Becker 2003, pp. 79–80.
^ Herwig 1997, p. 165.
^ Lupfer 1981, pp. 1–36.
^ Campbell 1981, pp. 26–27.
^ Griffith 1994, pp. 155–156.
^ Bailey 2004, p. 245.
^ Samuels 1995, pp. 168–171.
^ Palazzo 2000, p. 66.
^ Hartesveldt 2005, p. 17.
^ Warner 2000, pp. 4–31.
^ Wiest 2005, p. xvii.
^ Lyons 2000, p. 141.
^ Knox 2007, p. 153.
^ Hull 2005, pp. 295–296.
^ Foley 2005, pp. 207–208.
^ Marshall 1964, pp. 236–7.
^ Campbell 1981, p. 40.
^ Lyons 2000, p. 143.
^ Martin 2001, pp. 28–83.
^ Jones & Hook 2007, pp. 23–24.
^ Foley 2005, p. 224.
^ Jackson 2001, p. 28.
^ Griffiths 1986, pp. 71–72.
^ Campbell 1981, p. 42.
^ Baldwin 1962, p. 79.
^ Rawson 2014, pp. 140–158.
^ Miles 1992, pp. 245–249.
^ Prior & Wilson 2005, pp. 280–281.
^ Watson 2008, p. 11.
^ Corkerry 2001, p. 88.
^ a b Herwig 1997, pp. 246–252.
^ Wynne 1976, p. 290.
^ Dockrill & French 1996, p. 68.
^ Marshall 1964, pp. 288–9.
^ Baldwin 1962, p. 99.
^ Neiberg 2004, p. 46.
^ Griffiths 1986, pp. 144–5.
^ a b Baldwin 1962, pp. 99–100.
^ Sheffield 2014, Chapter 7.
^ Campbell 1981, p. 71.
^ Hart 2005, pp. 11–13.
^ Cockfield 1999, pp. 91–114.
^ Uffindell 2015, p. 26.
^ Lyons 2000, p. 243.
^ Marshall 1964, p. 292.
^ Neiberg 2003, p. 53.
^ a b Baldwin 1962, pp. 101–102.
^ Griffiths 1986, p. 124.
^ Baldwin 1962, p. 144.
^ Bostyn 2002, p. 227.
^ Edmonds 1991, p. 87.
^ Sheldon 2007, pp. 35–36, 39.
^ Liddle 2013, p. 112.
^ Baldwin 1962, p. 103.
^ Sheffield 2002, p. 216.
^ Sheldon 2007, pp. vi, 316.
^ Miles 1991, pp. 13–15, 32–35.
^ Miles 1991, p. 88.
^ Miles 1991, pp. 176–248.
^ Herwig 1997, pp. 393–397,400–401.
^ Baldwin 1962, pp. 139–140.
^ Baldwin 1962, p. 140.
^ Carlyon 2006, p. 543.
^ Murphy 2005, p. 69.
^ Baldwin 1962, pp. 140–141.
^ Carlyon 2006, pp. 544–545.
^ Marshall 1964, pp. 353–357.
^ Baldwin 1962, pp. 141–143.
^ a b Baldwin 1962, p. 146.
^ Tucker & Roberts 2005, p. 1254.
^ Ekins 2010, p. 24.
^ Griffiths 1986, pp. 155–156.
^ Edmonds 1994, pp. 2, 31, 242, 245–246.
^ Kennedy 1989, pp. 266–302.
^ a b Herwig 1997, pp. 426–428.
^ Griffiths 1986, p. 163.
^ Herwig 1997, p. 446.
^ Ellis 2001, p. 270.
^ a b Churchill 1938, p. 558.
^ Carlyon 2006, pp. 743 & 760.
^ Massie 2004, p. 787.
^ Adamthwaite 1989, pp. 25–26.
^ Grey 1991, p. 292.
^ ASB 1922, p. 100.
^ Ellis 1993, p. 269.
^ Hersch 1927, pp. 47–61.
^ Herwig 1996, pp. 87–127.
^ Chickering & Förster 2000, p. 297.
^ Marshall 1964, p. 460.
^ Alexander 2003, p. 180.
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Library resources about
Western Front (World War I)
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Wikimedia Commons has media related to Western Front theatre of World
Krause, Jonathan: Western Front , in: 1914-1918-online. International
Encyclopedia of the First World War.
The Western Front Museum
Articles on the Western Front in Lorraine & Alsace at Battlefields
'That Contemptible Little Army' by E. Alexander Powell. The British
Army Seen by an American Journalist in 1916
Watch clips from the Australian War Memorial's collection of films
made on the Western Front 1917–1918 on the National Film and Sound
Archive's australianscreen online
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