Why did a stalemate develop on the Western Front

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Following on from the battle of Marne (September 1914) there was a deadlock between the opposing forces fighting it out in France. This deadlock surprised people by making the war carry on for a number of years, until finally ending before December 1918. The majority of people think that this is due to the poor tactics used by the hierarchy, the new style of combat, used trench warfare, or the failure of the Germany’s Schlieffen Plan. The Schlieffen plan was Germany’s hopes of a winning in a quick and decisive war.

A large right wing would sweep through Belgium and then curl around to encircle Paris. While another force came straight from Germany to trap the French defences so that they German troops on either side. There would also be light, feinted, attacks on the well defended fortress towns of the France/German border. There were a number of gambles the Schlieffen plan- firstly Belgium wouldn’t put up any resistance against the German troops marching through; thirdly Britain would remain neutral and not reinforce Belgium if it was attacked.

Von Schlieffen also gambled on the fact that Russia would take more than 6 weeks to mobilize. He believed however that France could easily be defeated in those 6 weeks. Helmuth von Moltke replaced Von Schlieffen as German Army Chief of Staff, before the plan was put into action. Von Moltke made a number of changes to the plan before 1914: firstly, von Moltke did not believe that Holland would give permission to traverse her territory, and dropped the idea of an advance of the German right wing by this route. Therefore the main route of the German army would now be through the flat plains of Flanders.

Secondly Von Moltke reasoned that Belgium’s small army would be unable to stop German forces from quickly entering France so 34 divisions should invade Belgium while 8 divisions would have the task of stopping Russia advancing in the east. However according to recent historians the Schlieffen plan was doomed to failure, however strong the German forces were. Because of the deadlock that developed in the First World War, the opposing armies spent four years in trenches, giving them more than enough time to experience trench warfare to its fullest extent.

Trenches were typically dug into he ground about ten feet with a small parapet extending above the ground. There was between 10-50 feet between the two trenches in the area known as ‘no mans land. ‘ Men could hear the enemy chatting, snoring, laughing and maybe even crying. Sniper fire was a deadly menace at all times. Both sides maintained almost constant sniper watch and the brief show of a helmet; arm or shoulder could mean death. Even going to the latrine could be a lethal process. The trenches also had a fire-step so that soldiers could fire over the top against oncoming troops.

Unfortunately trenches sides’ crumbled easily after rain, so they would be built up (or ‘revetted’) with wood, sandbags or any other available material. Because of the rain and wet vermin rats and lice were very numerous; disease was spread both by them, and by the maggots and flies that thrived on trench latrines, discarded food and tins, and the remains of decomposing corpses. Both sides used barbed wire as an obstacle. Barbed wire was usually staked in the ground around 20 yards into no-man’s land.

Also in no-man’s land, there were observation posts where sentries could watch the enemy’s trenches and gather intelligence or report an impending attack. Sound equipment was also to try to hear enemy tunneling. Three types of trench were used on the western front: Fire trenches were the most forward front line trenches; these directly confronted the enemy’s trenches. Behind them were the cover trenches, which supported the front line and were manned by reserve troops. They also contained essential services such as forward first aid stations, latrines, and headquarters. For this reason they were sometimes known as command trenches.

There were normally at least three lines of cover trenches behind the fire trenches. The Battle of the Somme (1916) is an example of the bad leadership of the allies. It was planned as a joint French and British operation. The idea was originally the French Commander-in-Chiefs, Joseph Joffre and General Sir Douglas Haig the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) commander, accepted it, despite his personal preference for a large attack in Flanders. Although the plan was mainly concerned with territorial gain, it was also an effort to annihilate German manpower. At first Joffre intended the plan to use mainly French soldiers.

However circumstances change cases this was proved here -the German attack on Verdun in February 1916 turned the Somme offensive into a large-scale British attack. General Sir Henry Rawlinson was in charge of the main attack and under his command the Fourth Army was expected to advance towards Bapaume. To the north, General Edmund Allenby and the British Third Army were ordered to make a breakthrough with cavalry standing by to exploit the gap that was expected to appear in the German front-line. Further south, General Fayolle was to advance with the French Sixth Army towards Combles.

General Sir Douglas Haig took over responsibility for the operation and with the help of General Sir Henry Rawlinson, came up with his own plan of attack. Haig’s strategy was for a eight-day preliminary bombardment that he believed would completely destroy the German forward defenses. This was because the German defenses were strong, i. e. there were several lines of trenches, supported by machine guns, and behind them a number of heavily fortified villages. In the rear the German artillery was ready to fire on no-man’s land, ready to pour down fire on any advancing soldiers.

To deal with these defenses, Haig, the Allied Commander in Chief, believed that an extended artillery bombardment was necessary. Haig confidently believed that there would not be ‘even a rat’ alive in the German trenches and ordered the British soldiers to advance in waves, at walking pace. As planned, before the attack the enemy was bombarded with shell after shell from the British artillery. Haig then used 27 divisions (750,000 men) against the German front-line (16 divisions). However, the bombardment failed to destroy the barbed wire before the German trenches.

In fact the shelling tangled up the wire even more than it was before, the attacking armies would now have to cut it. The artillery also failed to even slightly damage the concrete bunkers that the German soldiers were taking cover in. This meant that the Germans were able to exploit their good defensive positions on higher ground when the British and French troops attacked on the morning of the 1st July. The slowly advancing British soldiers were cut down in a hail of machine gun and artillery fire, and suffered 60,000 casualties on the first day of the attack.

Nevertheless Haig was not disheartened by these heavy losses on the first day and ordered his Generals to continue making attacks against the German front-line. Eventually a night attack on 13th July achieved a short-lived breakthrough but German reinforcements arrived in time to counter attack. Haig assumed that the Germans were close to the point of exhaustion and continued to order further attacks expected each one to achieve the necessary breakthrough. Although small victories were achieved, these were not substantial. Eventually, on 15th September General Alfred Micheler’s Tenth Army joined the battle in the south at Flers-Courcelette.

Although tanks were used for the first time, Micheler’s 12 divisions gained only a few kilometers. Whenever the weather was appropriate, General Sir Douglas Haig ordered further attacks on German positions at the Somme and on the 13th November the BEF captured the fortress at Beaumont Hamel. However, heavy snow forced the British troops to abandon their gains. With the winter weather deteriorating conditions, Haig brought an end to the Somme offensive. Since the 1st July, the British had suffered 420,000 casualties. The French lost nearly 200,000 and it is estimated that German casualties were in the region of 500,000.

The Battle of Passchendaele, took place between July and November 1917 also used these tacticts: A 10-day preliminary bombardment used 4. 25 million shells. There had been very heavy rain and the heavy bombardment had destroyed the drainage system in the area. This heavy mud caused terrible problems for the infantry and the use of tanks. Eventually Sir Douglas Haig called off the attacks and did not resume the offensive until late September. Eventually in after 310,000 casualties for the BEF the offensive was halted. Haig was severely criticized for continuing with the attacks long after the operation had lost any real strategic value.

As a result of these two major battles, German morale was severely hampered, and the cost of trench warfare was fully understood. However, Haig, the Allied commander, was severely criticized for persisting with suicidal frontal attacks in the face of appalling losses, and there was a definite change in attitude towards the war. For many it was no longer the glorious patriotic adventure of 1914, but simply the grim slaughter of the flower of England’s youth. At the end of the war these battles commanded by Haig, who was then the Allied Commander in Chief caused a public outcry at the slaughter of nearly a whole generation.

It wasn’t really ‘lions led by lambs’ but rather a case of poor intelligence on the British side, as they didn’t know how deep the Germans were dug. Haig believed that an extended artillery bombardment could destroy the German soldiers who were inside poorly built shelters and their defenses proof of this is when he said that not ‘even a rat’ would remain alive in the German trenches after the shelling.

However Haig refused to give up, “The attacks are to be pressed, regardless of loss. At the Somme and Passchendaele, British soldiers were slaughtered and Haig was criticized for not abandoning the offensives, after they had lost their strategic value. Haig could have changed his tactics after the first day, preventing further losses, or waited for the tanks, which were now arriving on the front in numbers. However at the Somme he knew that the French needed to be relieved from pressure at Verdun. A stalemate developed on the Western Front after the battle of Marne (September 1914), the deadlock between the opposing armies remained until 1918.

Did the stalemate was occurred because of the poor tactics used by the hierarchy, the new style of combat, used – trench warfare, or the failure of the German’s Schlieffen Plan? The failure of the Schlieffen plan shocked the German army authorities, and the commander of the army at that time, General Erich Von Falkenhayn, ordered his men to dig trenches so that no captured land would be lost. As a result the allies dug trenches too. So the Schlieffen plan’s failure caused the first trenches to be dug, but as the commanders weren’t expecting this they weren’t aware of what to do.

Numerous tactics were used to try to gain land and make a break through the other side’s trenches. However when this happened, support was needed to strengthen the troops who had made the break through and often the reinforcements did not arrive soon enough to keep that land. The tactics used were often well and thoroughly planned, nevertheless the sides had a lack of knowledge about the others defenses and trench networks, so when the whistle to go over the top came the soldiers were often mowed down by machine guns and blasted by artillery fire.

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