no longer an exclusively vicarious one.

Friday, January 28, 2005

Modern History: WW1: the western front

Notes for Modern History
World War 1 (1914-1921)
The Schlieffen Plan
Reasons for the failure of the German Schlieffen Plan:
- Encountering Belgian resistance
- Delayed by unexpected British forces at Mons
- Kluck and Bulow decide to attack Paris from the East, not the West
- Unexpected ready mobilisation of Russian forces means troops are sent to the Eastern Front too early
- Moltke commits troops to battle at Nancy (left wing)
- Moltke reduces overall size of the right wing, so it never penetrates France as it was meant to
- Allies hold Ypres, preventing Germans from ever taking the Channel ports and keeping supply lines open to France
- Battle of the Marne, where Germans were forced to withdraw to the Aisne, setting up for a long defensive war – the war of mobility is stopped

Conditions at the Front
- Rain and mud up to the waist for hours, eg. Battle of Passchendaele
- Trench foot from immersing feet in water for too long
- Rats the size of cats spread disease
- Lice caused trench fever
- Poor sanitation from rotting corpses, excreta and urine and rubbish
- Wounds from shell and grenade splinters
- Behaviour disorders from mental anxiety
- Shell shock from the noise of constant bombardment and shelling
- Gas gangrene from bacilli entering wounds and infecting open wounds
- Poor food and rations
- Effects of gas
- Summers were hot and wet, winters extremely cold

Trench Warfare
Artillery bombardments, sometimes for days, to collapse trenches, disorient men and break lines of barbed wire
A whistle is blown and infantry would climb out of the trenches and go “over the top” to reach and theoretically capture enemy lines
Usually enemy machine guns would massacre the oncoming troops without too much effort
Structure of the trenches:
- Front line made of 3 parallel lines (fire, travel and support trenches)
- Trenches built in dog-tooth shape with bays and hiccups to minimise damage from bombardments
- Trenches had a built-up wall of sandbags as a parapet to cover standing men on the firestep
- At the bottom of the trench ran a drainage runnel leading to sumps covered in duckboards

From new technology came new weapons with which to wage war. Also, industrialisation meant that these new, destructive weapons could be mass-produced quickly and cheaply.
- Heavy artillery:
o “Big guns” were heavy to move, but could shell targets 13km away. The noise from barrages could damage men’s brains, make their ears bleed and cause shell shock. They had large, long barrels and were often carried on railway carriages.
o Howitzers were a smaller “big gun”, with a shorter barrel and higher projectory. They travelled 5-8km and were useful for hilly mounds in terrain. They used less explosives.
o Shells used in heavy artillery were: high explosives (collapse trenches), shrapnel shells (timed to explode before impact) and gas shells.
- Infantry weapons:
o Machine guns were utilised early on by the Germans, but the Allied generals did not think it was important. The early models weighed up to 100kg.
o Grenades were preferred by soldiers in hand-to-hand combat situations. British grenades were pineapple shaped, the Germans’ were stick-shaped, called “potato mashers”.
o Trench mortars fired small bombs at very high projectories over very short distances.
o Flamethrowers had psychological advantages
o Light machine guns were created late in the war, giving infantry more firepower, eg. the Lewis gun, which weighed 18kg
o Barbed wire was brought from USA. It hampered soldiers’ advances, making them easy targets and helped bring an end to cavalry charges.
o Gas was a new weapon in WWI. Chlorine gas and phosgene gas suffocated the lungs, while mustard gas simply began to rot the body in a few hours. They were fired either from shells via heavy artillery, or from cylinders that were opened in the right wind. Used first at Ypres in 1915, but advantage was not used well. Although first used by the Germans, the winds on the Western Front helped the Allies more than the Germans. Gas created terror and confusion on both sides of the trenches. Both sides soon stopped using gas because it was easy to counter with gas masks. First, soldiers simply breathed through fabric soaked in their urine, later helmets with breathing masks were introduced and by 1917 every soldier had an effective gas mask, eg the box respirator.
- Tanks were made to restore the initiative to the offense. They were to be bullet-proof steel motorcars, armed with rapid-fire guns and mounted on caterpillar treads. They would be able to break through barbed wire, roll over trenches and deflect machine gun fire. First use was at the Somme in 1916 by the British, however they were used too early. Crews hadn’t completed their training, tactics were ignored and there simply weren’t enough of them. No one, even at Cambrai, knew how to hold the land gained by these new weapons. Only at Amiens in 1918, were tanks used as they were designed to be used, en masse and in cover. It was a success.

Tactics to break the stalemate
Although there were battles and conflicts in other places throughout the war, many of these were still directly related to fighting on the Western Front – they aimed at altering the balance between the two sides and hence breaking the deadlock. Actions elsewhere that didn’t have this primary objective still affected the Western Front by using resources that might otherwise have been available.
Because both sides were so evenly matched in manpower, resources, technology and reserves, a stalemate occurred. The inability of both sides to break through the opposing trench system into open country resulted in a new type of battle – attrition warfare. The aim of any battle was not so much to win territory held by the enemy, but to destroy or wear down the opposing army by inflicting as many casualties as possible.
- For much of the war, the aim was to deceive the enemy as to the real front of any attack, to wear them out and to reduce fighting efficiency by:
o preparations (advancing trenches and saps, dummy assembling trenches, gun emplacements)
o wire cutting to induce the enemy to man their defences and cause fatigue
o gas discharges to cause the enemy to wear gas helmets and inducing fatigue and causing casualties
o artillery barrages on important communications to render reinforcements, relief and supply difficult
o bombardment of rest billets by night
o intermittent smoke discharges and shrapnel fire by day
o extensive raids by night into the enemy’s system of defences
When these old-style tactics failed, many machines and devices, such as poison gas, were invented with the aim of inflicting greater casualties and to break through trenches.

The Generals and Politicians
- General Alfred von Schlieffen
o Chief of General Staff 1891-1905
o Created the Schlieffen Plan
- Col-Gen. Helmuth von Moltke
o Chief of General Staff 1905-1914
o Changed the Schlieffen Plan, so was responsible for German reverse at Marne
o Lost his nerve under pressure, lost control of the right flank
- Gen. Erich von Falkenhayn
o Chief of General Staff 1914-1916
o Used poison gas
o Believed war would be won on the Western Front
o Failed to break through the stalemate
- Gen. Paul von Hindenberg
o Recalled from retirement at the age of 66
o Commanded Eighth Army on Eastern front
o Chief of General Staff from 1916
o Ended war of attrition at Verdun
o Withdrew troops to Hindenberg Line
o Launched March offensive with Ludendorff. Its failure led to retreat and armistice
o Elected President of Germany in 1926
- Gen. Erich von Ludendorff
o Quartermaster-general of Second Army 1914
o Played decisive role in taking Liege
o Hindenberg’s Chief of Staff
o Involved in militarisation of German economy
o Demanded unrestricted submarine warfare
o Counter-attacked immediately after Allied assaults
o Directed censorship and misleading propaganda program on home front
- Crown Prince Rupprecht
o Transferred to Somme-Flanders after August 1914
o Faced the BEF for the rest of the war
o Opposed Ludendorff’s policy of devastation during the withdrawal to Hindenberg Line
o Favoured early peace
- Gen. von Kluck
- Gen. von Bulow
o Both underestimated the strength of their enemy
o Both quickly lost faith in the Schlieffen Plan when they lost sight of each other
- Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg
o Chancellor 1909-1917
o Disagreed with Generals over a number of points, incl. use of unrestricted U-boat warfare
o Upset Kaiser because not wholly supporting his bid for peace, upset soldiers because not wholly supporting military efforts
- Gen., then Marshal, Joseph Joffre
o Chief of General Staff from 1911
o Comm.-in-chief 1914-1916
o Believed in superiority of offensive
o Halted Germans at the Marne
o Failed to break through trench warfare deadlock
o Replaced after Battle of Verdun
- Gen. Robert Nivelle
o Commander-in-chief Dec 1916-1917
o Distinguished himself at Marne
o Increased popularity with counter-attacks at Verdun
o Offensive in spring 1917 was a failure, led to mutinies and his replacement
- Gen., later Marshal, Henri Phillipe Petain
o Commander-in-chief May1917-1918
o Conducted skilful defence of Verdun
o Restored morale after mutinies following Nivelle’s spring offensive
o Decided against future large-scale offensives, waiting for USA and more tanks
o “Defence in depth” policy to slow German offensive 1918
o In 1918 proposed to withdraw to the South
o Marshal of France 1918
- Gen., later Marshal, Ferdinand Foch
o Energetic and optimistic leadership in 1918
o Flexible approach when dealing with trench deadlock
o Coordinated Allied armies March 1918
o Given control of strategic direction of Allied military operations April 1918
o General-in-chief of Allied armies in France April 1918
- PM Clemenceau
- Field Marshal Sir John French
o Commander-in-chief of BEF 1914-1915
o Brave, popular with troops
o Often quarrelled with French allied and own subordinates
o Blamed Kitchener for shell shortage 1915
o Kept reserves too far back at Battle of Loos
- Gen., later Field Marshal, Sir Douglas Haig
o Commander-in-chief of BEF 1915-end of war
o Field Marshal Dec 1916
o Criticised for battles of attrition at Somme, Arras, Ypres, Passchendaele
o Believed the entire war was centred on the French Western Front
o Showed tenacity in face of German spring offensives
- PM Lloyd George
o Chancellor of the Exchequer to 1914
o Minister of Munitions 1915-1916
o PM Dec 1916-
o Added force to the political direction of the war
o Often conflicted with generals and didn’t like Haig’s decisions at the Somme without consultation of the government
o Often suggested attacks on other fronts, such as Italy, but to no avail
- Lieutenant-General Sir John Monash
o Colonel at Gallipoli
o General commanding 3rd Australian Division 1916
o Commander of Australian Corps on Western Front from May 1918
o Engineer by profession – he understood how to use new technology
o Known for attention to detail and care for the lives of his men
o Fully briefed individuals on their roles in attack, eg. at Battle of Hamel
o Spearheaded attacks at Amiens and Peronne
o Played a vital role in halting the Ludendorff offensive and breaking through the Hindenberg Line
- PM William Morris Hughes
o Labor Party until 1917 when he left and formed coalition with the Opposition
o PM 1915-1923
o Called for vote on conscription twice (1916, 1917). Both times rejected
o Passed laws to control the home front during the war, extending the powers of the Federal gov.
A summary of the major movements of the Western Front
Battle/ Area
Main attack
Aug 1914
BEF and Belgian forces delayed the advancing Germans
6-9 Sept 1914
Battle of the Marne
French halted German advance. Gap in line forces them to retreat to the Aisne
Oct-Nov 1914
“Race to the Sea”
Outflanking manoeuvre
Feb-Mar 1915
Attempt to force Germans back failed with massive loss of life

Channel ports
Germans tried to take the ports to make Britain vulnerable – failed
April-May 1915
1st Battle of Ypres
Attempt to capture last Allied-held Belgian town failed and a salient is formed. 50000 Brit lives lost. Germans use poison gas
25 Sept-4 Nov 1915
Battle of Loos
Unsuccessful, shows flaws in organization and leadership. Brits use gas
21 Feb-15 Dec 1916
Battle of Verdun
Objective: to “bleed France white”. No advance held. 377000 French, 337000 German casualties
1 Jul-19 Nov 1916
Battle of the Somme
+ French
Aims: to provide relief for French at Verdun, break German line. Brit tanks used, but stuck in mud. 8km gained for 620000 Allied, 450000 German lives
9-12 Apr 1917
Battle of Arras
Aim: to draw German reserves from Nivelle offensive area on the Aisne. Vimy Ridge captured but Hindenberg Line not taken. 11000 dead
11 Apr 1917
Break to second line of trenches on Hindenberg Line, but Brit artillery support is unorganised. Australia lose 2258 out of 3000 men
16-27 Apr 1917
Nivelle Offensive around St Quentin
Aim: mass attack to breakthrough fails. 187000 French losses leads to mutiny. Nivelle replaced by Petain with different strategies
Jun 1917
2nd Battle of Ypres aka. Flanders
Mud meant Haig’s ambitious plans to break through German line could not be carried out
Jun 1917
British + Australian
Mines and planted explosives take a hill, but hesitancy means no advantage is gained
Aug-Nov 1917
3rd Battle of Ypres, aka. Battle of Passchendaele
Haig aims to break out of the Ypres salient, and engage Germany until US troops arrive. 11km cost 245000 lives in bad weather – it is a failure
20 Nov 1917
Mass tank assault shows line can be broken, but reserves not available to capitalise on gains. German storm troop tactics prove equally successful
21 Mar-5Apr 1918
German Spring Offensive, aka. Ludendorff Offensives
Using troops freed by Russia’s withdrawal in the war, storm troops break through 50km before US arrives
Apr-Jul 1918
German Spring Offensives continue
Subsidiary attacks also successful, by May only 60km from Paris, but troops very weary
8 Aug-25 Sept 1918
Allied Counter-offensive
Allied (incl. USA)
Allies gain lost ground, Germans very weak From 26 Sept push further than 20 Mar lines

- Verdun 1916
Falkenhayn was Commander-in-chief of the German army and he intended to “bleed the French white”. Victory on the Eastern Front was impossible and a critical blow was needed in the West. Taking Verdun, at the head of a salient, would have advanced the German line, but that was not the primary objective. Briand, the French PM, had promised to defend the town at all cost, as a matter of national pride and because civilian morale was falling. In the end, over 300000 men were lost on both sides and no strategic gains were made by anyone. Verdun had been held. It appeared to be a French victory, but the spirit of the French army had been broken.
- The Somme 1916
o Haig brought the date of commencement for this planned battle forward to provide a distraction for the French at Verdun. He aimed to launch a massive prelim. bombardment to break through German lines. Infantry and cavalry charges would then rush through to defeat the Germans.
o However, Kitchener’s army of volunteers had inadequate training, and were weighed down by loads of equipment (field phones, wire cutters, shovels + usual equipment). Junior officers were also reckless with their men’s’ lives.
o Also, the Germans had several advantages. They knew about the incoming attack, they had the high ground of the battlefield, they had built underground shelters immune to shell fire, erected impenetrable lines of barbed wire and had hidden observers armed with light machine guns.
o Brit. prelim. bombardments failed to cut through the German barbed wire, and so infantry was easily cut down when ordered “over-the-top”. Several more offensives were launched but all failed and had to be abandoned.
o Only CO Foch managed to break through after delaying his French forces for 2 hours, then taking the Germans by surprise
o Battle lasted over 4 months. 13km gained for 3 million lives on both sides: 420000 Brit, 200000 French, 450000 German casualties.
o Brit generals blamed the heavy losses on inexperienced men, but it was their continual frontal attack tactics that was suicidal. Tanks were used sparsely, with little effect.
o The Somme was seen as a huge British loss, esp. of the generals, led by Haig.
o Gen Joffre was seen as an advocate of useless slaughter and was relieved of command.
- Nivelle Offensives 1917
Allied morale along the Western Front was beginning to concern the generals by the end of 1916. Nivelle’s secret plan was to attack the Noyon salient from the north and south, breaking up trenches with heavy barrages, and he was supported by PM Briand. However the Germans realised what was happening and quickly withdrew to well-fortified positions, destroying all the land and resources as they pulled out. As they withdrew, a political crisis erupted in Paris. In March, PM Briand fell. Worried by the Germans’ actions, Haig urged Nivelle to cancel his attack, but despite a widespread lack of support from his own generals, he pressed on. He threatened to resign, but the new gov., anxious to avoid a damagingly public political row, assured him of its support.
o The Battle of Arras. At Vimy Ridge, the Brits and Canadians made good ground but the Germans brought up reserves and countered to a standstill. At Craonne Plateau, the Germans knew the French were coming and hid. After surviving the initial French barrage, they emerged from their foxholes and set up new positions, massacring their enemy. Tanks were deployed, but they simply presented sure targets for enemy gunners.
Nivelle was replaced by Petain, who was scornful of wasteful slaughter, and preferred to “wait for the Americans and the tanks”.
- Mutinies of 1917
On 19th May, mutinies broke out at a French reserve depot when soldiers refused to entrain for the Front. It soon spread and soldiers refused to fight and abandoned first line trenches. The Germans never knew about the mutiny at the time. If they had, they could simply have walked through the French lines and won the war.
Reasons for mutiny:
o Soldiers began to believe offensives were useless slaughter
o French military discipline was harsh, officers unconcerned for their men
o Conditions were poor, food was bad, leave irregular, medical services inadequate
o Mutineers numbered 30000-40000, and were not led by political radicals
Petain soon reversed the situation, abandoning further large-scale offensives, doubling leave, improving food and ordering new beds and placing a news blackout on the army. Ringleaders were arrested and court-martialled, with many sentenced to death. Most were imprisoned and sent to Caribbean penal colonies. Petain himself visited every division and encouraged his men and listened to complaints.
- Flanders (2nd Battle of Ypres) 1917
A breakthrough in Flanders would threaten German position in Belgium and northern France. Also, a U-boat campaign had convinced the Brit gov. of the need to take Ostend and Zebrugge. Haig believed he could break through German lines in he north along the Ypres salient in Flanders. However, the fields of Flanders were subject to waterlogging; clay soil allowed rain to settle and the drainage systems had been destroyed by constant shelling. The Germans were well fortified and held the high ground of Messines Ridge.
- Passchendaele (3rd Battle of Ypres) 1917
Lloyd George withheld his final approval for any further “push”. He regarded Haig as someone who needlessly wasted lives. He finally agreed to Haig’s plans, but neither his own generals, nor the French fully supported them. The Germans had been warned of the impending attack, so they had abandoned their front line trenches in favour of “flexible defence in depth”. The British attack made little progress against dogged resistance, and rain swamped the battlefield. Haig ignored these factors and pressed the attack. Limited advances were made, bombardments firing over 4 million shells. In its first use on the Western Front, the Germans dropped mustard gas over Brit positions. Fighter planes endlessly strafed Brit lines with machine gun attacks. The town of Passchendaele was completely destroyed, and the battle was nicknamed the “Battle of the Mud”. The British generals had learnt nothing.


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