Western Front (World War I)

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For most of World War I, Allied and German Forces were stalled at trenches on the Western Front.

The Western Front line for most of World War I extended relatively statically from the English Channel to the Swiss frontier, most of Belgium, all of Luxembourg, and a few important industrial regions of France remained under German control.


Opening - German invasion of France and Belgium

At the outbreak of the First World War, the German army executed a modified version of the Schlieffen Plan, quickly attacking France through Belgium on August 4, 1914. Luxembourg had been occupied without opposition on August 2. The first battle in Belgium was the Siege of Liège which lasted from August 5 to 16. Liège was well fortified and surprised the German army under Erich Ludendorff with its level of resistance. Following the fall of Liège most of the Belgian army retreated to Antwerp and Namur. Although the German army bypassed Antwerp, it remained a threat to their flank. Another siege followed at Namur lasting from about the 20th until the 23rd of August.

During the latter half of August the German army advanced into northern France and met both the French army, under Joseph Joffre and the initial divisions of the British Expeditionary Force, under Sir John French. A series of battles known as the Battles of the Frontiers ensued. Key battles included the Battle of Charleroi and the Battle of Mons. A general Allied retreat followed this series of battles and led to more battles such as Le Cateau, The Siege of Maubeuge, and the Battle of Guise.

The German army came within 70km of Paris, but at the First Battle of the Marne, from September 6th to 12th, French and British troops were able to force a German retreat ending their advance into France. The German army retreated north of the River Aisne and dug in there, establishing the static western front that was to last for the next three years. After that, the opposing forces tried to outflank each other in the Race for the Sea and quickly extended their trench systems from the English Channel to the Swiss frontier.

1915 - Trench warfare

Toward the end of 1914 during the First Battle of Ypres, the British managed to capture the Belgian town of Ypres from the Germans. On April 22, the Germans attempted to regain control of the town, launching the Second Battle of Ypres. This marked the first large-scale use of chemical weapons on the western front, as 168 tons were dropped on the allied lines. This resulted in the death of 5,000 men within minutes. However the German command failed to exploit the four mile opening, and Canadian troops arrived to drive back the advance.

  • 5/9 - Artois offensive
  • 9/29 - Artois-Loos

1916 - Artillery duels and attrition

  • 2/21 - German offensive at Verdun
  • 7/1 - Somme offensive

1917 - Commonwealth takes the lead

In April 1917, the Canadian Corps, joined by the British 5th Infantry Division, managed to break through the German lines at Vimy Ridge, though this did not change the prevailing strategic situation.

The same month, the French General Robert Nivelle ordered a new offensive against the German trenches. The attack would be one million men strong, to be preceded by a massed artillery barrage and accompanied by tanks. However the operation proceded poorly and within a week 100,000 french were dead. Despite this, Neville ordered the attack continued.

On May 3rd, the weary 2nd French division refused their orders, arriving drunk and without their weapons. Their officers lacked the means to punish an entire division, and so harsh measures were not implemented. Instead appeals to patriotism and duty encouraged the soldiers to return to defend their trenches, although they would refuse further attacks.

This pattern of mutiny expanded through more and more French units, and by May 15 Nivelle was removed from command. The French army, now led by General Henri Philippe Petain, suspended large-scale attacks. The French would go on the defensive for the next year, leaving the burden of attack to Britain and her commonwealth allies.

  • 4/6 - U.S. declares war on Germany
  • 4/16 - 2nd battle of Aisne

The Messines ridge, to the south of the town of Ypres, had been lost to the Germans back in 1914. On July 7 an offensive was launched to retake the ground. Since 1915, engineers had been digging tunnels under the ridge, and a total of 450 tons of explosives had been planted under the enemy lines. Following four days of heavy bombardment, these explosives were set off and resulted in the deaths of 10,000 Germans.

The offensive that followed again relied on heavy bombardment, but these failed to dislodge the Germans. During this battle the Germans employed mustard gas for the first time. The offensive faltered due to the flooded, muddy ground, and both sides suffered heavy casualties.

  • 6/25 - First U.S. troops arrive in France

In October the struggle around Ypres was renewed with the Battle of Passchendaele. Again the trench warfare produced horrific numbers of casualties for relatively little gain. The ground remained muddy and pocketed by shell craters, making advance and supply movement very difficult. Both sides lost a combined total of over a half million men during this offensive.

On November 9, the British launched the first massed tank attack during the Battle of Cambrai. The attack included a rapid barrage and the use of smoke. At first the advance went well, with advances of up to 8 km through German fortified positions. Eventually the German resistance strengthened, however, and by December the British were back at their starting lines.

Despite the reversal, the attack had been seen as a success by the Allies as it proved that tanks could overcome trench defenses. The battle had also seen the first massed use of German stosstruppen on the western front, which used infantry infiltration tactics to successfully penetrate the allied lines.

1918 - Final offensives

After defeating the Russians on the Eastern Front, the German Empire redirected units for a wave of offensives in the west beginning in March, 1918. The Spring Offensive was an enormous success, moving the frontlines more than 100km west, within shelling distance of Paris for the first time since 1914. A series of Allied counter-offensives soon reversed the German advances and began to push back further east in August 1918. The German army's manpower had been severely depleted after four years of war, and its economy and society were under great internal strain.

After a string of military defeats in the autumn of 1918, the losing troops began to surrender. As the Allied forces broke the German lines at great cost, the German Imperial Monarchy collapsed and the two near-dictatorial commanders of the army Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff stepped aside. Battles were still raging when the German Revolution put a new government in power that quickly signed an armistice which stopped all fighting on the Western Front on November 11 1918.

See also

External links

Template:WWI-stubde:Deutsche Westfront (Erster Weltkrieg) ja:西部戦線


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