The Western Front

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Many troops were concentrated into a very small area on the Western Front where victory was expected to happen. However, it did not, and instead, many troops were brutally slaughtered in a stalemate situation. This was brought about by a combination of effective and incompetent tactics detailed below. Every soldier was equipped with a rifle and bayonet, but the trenches forced new weapons and tactics to be introduced, as close combat was virtually eliminated. The most effective weapons in 1914 were artillery guns.

Any tactics employed by the generals were experiments, as all previous attempts had failed. Firstly, artillery shells were fired at the enemy from a distance of up to 13km, and troops would follow them up, taking over deserted enemy trenches. This failed because the Germans were not destroyed by the artillery fire, and so when the men got up out of the trenches, which was very difficult because “Each man carried 66lb – over half his body weight”, they were bogged down in the pitted land, “one huge quagmire” and found the trenches “Blown away! Nothing of the sort! . When this failed to work, attrition was considered.

The simple aim was to wear the enemy down first so you could win the war slowly. It had got to such a point of desperation by 1916 that any battle was considered to be helping win the war if you lost fewer casualties than your enemies. The Germans pioneered two new tactical weapons in the war, the machine gun and gas, (chlorine, phosgene and mustard). The former was only considered by the British after suffering heavy losses at the hands of the German guns, and the latter were curtailed by the use of gas masks.

Thus, once both sides had obtained machine guns, neither weapon helped gain a significant advantage, and soldiers were pinned in their trenches until the gun’s effectiveness could be reduced. Aeroplanes were also developed during the war. Neither side had many, and due to the unsafe nature of primitive planes, they were first used for reconnaissance, and effective information could help plan offensives and locate enemy artillery. As their numbers increased, so did “dogfights” in the air.

After pistols and machine guns were found to be useless, the Germans perfected synchronised firing of bullets between the propellers. This greatly increased effectiveness, as did the new bombing methods developed. First, Zeppelin airships filled with hydrogen made raids on Britain, but the effective defences of searchlights, guns and cable aprons called for the Gotha IV to be developed in 1917. The Germans dropped bomb loads of 500kg on London, killing many civilians. In 1918, Britain retaliated with the Hanley Page Type 0/100, and killed many Germans too.

First introduced in 1916, tanks could cross trenches, break through barbed wire, go over shell pitted ground and deal with machine guns. Infantrymen were aided in destroying their increasingly difficult targets, and the sight of a tank certainly boosted morale and reassured powerless troops. The Mark I was superseded by the increasingly armoured Mark IV, but neither could beat the new German armour-piercing bullets. Apart from this problem, tanks were very hot inside, causing men to become delirious, and notoriously difficult to control.

We can see then, that artillery destroyed trenches but more often destroyed important land, attrition did not work, and after both sides had machine guns and could combat gas, none of these tactics caused a very noticeable advantage for either side. Tanks and aeroplanes, though effective in some areas, had their disadvantages too, and so no tactics used in the First World War so far really helped to win the war. It was as much a stalemate as it had ever been.

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