B4: The First World War
1: The Schlieffen Plan
By 1914, both Germany and France had plans prepared for an outbreak of war. The French High Command had drawn up Plan 17 in 1912-13. It was based on an attack from Champagne across the German border into Alsace-Lorraine. In August 1914 it went into immediate effect.
In Germany, the 'Schlieffen Plan', had been drawn up by the German Chief of Staff, Count Alfred von Schlieffen, in 1905, was set in motion. It was intended to win the war in the west in six weeks.
The Schlieffen Plan had been drawn up to deal with a situation in which Germany had to fight a war on two fronts. The Germans assumed that the more dangerous opponent would be Russia, so the Plan was intended to knock out France before the Russian army mobilised. The Plan was based on the belief that the Russian army would take six weeks to mobilise. In six weeks France would be defeated. An army of 1,500,000 men would advance through Belgium, swing around the French army, encircle Paris and then France would collapse.
The Plan looked good on paper, but Schlieffen had not taken account of the distances that the German armies had to cover in the strict timetable he laid down. It also assumed that forces on the French right would be allowed to advance into Germany to draw them away from the German forces advancing through Belgium. But the Plan was changed by von Moltke, the new Chief of Staff, who withdrew forces from the right wing of the German army, to strengthen the left.
A further complication was the intervention of Britain. When Germany declared war on Belgium on 3 August 1914 the Belgian government appealed to Great Britain for help. The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was hurriedly got together and despatched to Belgium within three weeks. In the meantime, the German army met much stronger opposition in Belgium than was expected. The Belgian forts at Liege held out for twelve days and Brussels was only occupied on 20 August. This meant that the BEF was in position to meet the advancing Germans at Mons on 23 August and again at Le Cateau on 26 August. The British were professional soldiers. They were heavily outnumbered, but they were trained to fire thirty rounds a minute from their new Lee Enfield Mark III rifles. They managed to slow the advance of the Germans, although they could not stop it.
In the east, the Russian army had taken the Germans by surprise and had attacked after two weeks, before it was fully mobilised. Two German army corps were sent east as reinforcements. This weakened the German forces in Belgium. Consequently Von Kluck, the commander of the German First Army, on the extreme right, gave up the attempt to encircle Paris and turned south. The Germans then met French forces along the river Marne. In a battle lasting eight days, the Germans were forced to fall back to the river Aisne. The Schlieffen Plan had failed.
2: Deadlock on the Western Front
In late September 1914 the Allied armies tried to force the Germans back at the battle of the Aisne, but in heavy rain they failed. Both sides began to 'race to the sea'. This was an attempt to gain control of the Channel ports. The race to the sea created a front line of trenches that stretched from the Channel to Switzerland and it soon became clear that defence was much easier than attack.
The popular image of the trenches is mud and death, and for many soldiers this was their abiding memory. But the strongest memory of all was the smell of decaying bodies, made worse by the fact that battle after battle was fought over the same stretch of ground. The bodies from the previous battles were uncovered in later fighting.
In places the two frontlines could be as little as fifteen metres apart, as at Hooge, near Ypres, in 1915. Even the slightest movement above the parapet resulted in instant death from a sniper's bullet. Elsewhere, the two frontlines could be as much as 1,000 metres apart. Here there was relative safety, even boredom. Opposing units sometimes agreed truces, until their officers found out about. Soldiers normally spent four days in the frontline and were then moved into the support trenches and then into the reserve. For some troops that was all they did for the four years of the war.
But for others it was a very different story. Worst of all were the soldiers who found themselves in the front line at the beginning of a major battle. On the Somme on 1 July 1916, 70 percent of the troops who went over the top in the first wave were either killed or wounded. Many of the troops in the first wave at the Somme were members of 'Pals' Battalions'. They had been recruited from the same areas in big cities or towns and put into the same units to increase morale. But this meant that they were all cut down at the same time, with devastating effects on their locality. The following year, 1917, the horrors of the big push were repeated at Passchendaele. With as little success. All the ground won was lost in 1918 during the German offensive Operation Michael.
The deadlock in the West meant that both armies tried to find ways of breaking through the enemies defences. Gas was first used by the Germans at Ypres in April 1915 and proved a deadly weapon. 9,000 Allied soldiers were killed. Gas could be used in two ways. It could be released from tanks at the front line and allowed to drift over towards the enemy. This depended upon the wind being in the right direction. Gas shells could also be used. These broke open when the hit the ground. Early respirators were clumsy and only fitted into the shirt collar. Later designs proved very effective.
Gas was terrifying, but in the end did not prove to be a decisive weapon. It could blow the wrong way and attackers had to wear respirators, which hindered visibility and movement. Nevertheless, gas continued to be used until the very end of the war. Adolf Hitler was blinded by gas in October in 1918 and spent the last weeks of the war recovering in hospital.
Another methods used to try to break through was mining. Special units were formed to dig under the enemies trenches and put huge mines in place. These were first used near Ypres in early 1915. The biggest mines were dug under the German frontlines at the Somme and then exploded just before the attack. In June 1917 twenty mines were dug under the Messines Ridge near Ypres. The tunnels were nearly 300 metres long and contained more than 20,000 kilos of high explosive. Eighteen of the mines were detonated at the start of the battle, but two were forgotten. One blew up in 1956, but the other is still out there.
In 1916 tanks were used for the first time. At first the Germans were terrified by them, but they broke down far too easily and proved unsuccessful. Despite all of these attempts to break through, by 1915 there was complete deadlock on the Western front. In Britain, there was a demand for an attempt to break the deadlock by opening up a new front in the Eastern Mediterranean. This led to the decision to land troops in Gallipoli in April 1915 and try to knock Turkey, Germany’s ally, out of the war
The landings at Gallipoli were the idea of the 'Easterners', led by Winston Churchill. They believed that it was impossible to defeat the germans on the Western front and it was their way to break the deadlock. The aim was to attack Turkey, Germany's ally from November 1914, and knock the country out of the war, then attack Austria and send supplies to Russia.
In March the navy had tried to force the Dardanelles but failed. This meant that the Turks were forewarned and, although the initial landings at Cape Helles in April were unopposed, the troops were unable to make any progress inland. The second force was landed in the wrong spot at Anzac Cove. Instead of a wide beach and gently sloping hills, they were faced by high cliffs and Turkish defenders, who were well dug in, and who had been trained by the German general Liman von Sanders.
In August 1915 another landing was made at Suvla Bay, but with little effect. Eventually it was decided to withdraw the entire force. The evacuation, the most successful part of the whole operation, was carried out without any loss of life in December 1915. By that time the Allied forces had suffered 250,000 casualties.
The first attempts by the Royal Navy to force the Straits in March 1915 warned the Turkish forces of the attack. This was the first time that operations involving the army and navy had been carried out and there disagreements between the army and navy commanders.
The landings at Cape Helles on 24 April warned the Turkish forces that a further attack was coming. The landings at Anzac Cove on 25 April were in the wrong place. The ships got lost and landed a mile away from the correct beaches. Instead of a shallow beach, the landing force was faced by steep cliffs. This meant that beachhead was too small to allow forces to be landed quickly and later landings faced similar problems. At Suvla Bay, in August 1915, the landings were carried out in darkness and the troops became lost. There was total confusion.
Once on land, the Allied troops found themselves bogged down in very difficult country, where the Turkish forces were always holding the high ground. There were serious difficulties in keeping the troops supplied and the climate was very inhospitable and many soldiers died of heat and disease.
4: The Somme and Passchendaele
Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig was Commander-in-chief of the British Army on the Western Front from December 1915 until the end of the First World War. Douglas Haig believed in the 'Big Push'. He was convinced that the enemy could be overwhelmed by sheer weight of numbers, and that final victory could only be achieved on the Western Front. Haig continually demanded more and more men from the politicians and refused to allow any troops to be diverted to other areas of fighting.
Haig originally intended to fight his first major battle near Ypres in 1916, but he was forced to change his plans after the German attack on Verdun, which began in February 1916. Instead, on 1 July 1916, Haig launched his first great battle began along the banks of the river Somme. This was an attempt to take pressure off the French at Verdun, but it proved to be a disaster.
Haig had ordered a seven day bombardment involving 4,000 guns, which was intended to destroy the German positions. But bombardment failed to destroy the enemy defences and the British suffered 59,000 casualties on the first day. There were a number of reasons why the attack failed. The German trenches were very well constructed and offered very effective protection from gun-fire. They were dug deep into the chalk and this allowed the German troops to emerge virtually unscathed when the bombardment stopped. One of the mines that were dug under the German positions was exploded ten minutes early and allowed to the Germans time to prepare.
Despite the failures and the horrifying casualties, Haig ordered the attacks to continue, but progress was slow. Pozieres was five kilometres from the start line. Haig had expected to capture it on the first day. In fact it was no taken until 25 August after very bitter fighting and very heavy casualties in the Australian units that were ordered to attack. By then, the town had been almost completely destroyed. Much the same story was repeated elsewhere. Instead of a sweeping victory, the Allies were forced to fight every inch of the way.
When Haig eventually called off the attack in November, less than five miles had been gained. In Haig's defence. It is true that he had only about half the forces that he believed he needed, but on the other hand, he allowed the army to go on attacking long after it was clear that no real progress was being made. At the same time, the French on the British right made much more impressive advances.
In 1917 Haig ordered a second major attack at Passchendaele, just north of Ypres. The aim was to capture the Passchendaele ridge and then capture the U-Boat pens at Zeebrugge. He had been encouraged by the success of the battle of Messines Ridge, east of Ypres, in June 1917, when eighteen mines were exploded under the German lines. But the Germans had defended the Passchendaele ridge with 2,000 concrete machine-gun posts. However, it was the mud that defeated the British attackers. Throughout the battle it rained heavily and the bombardment destroyed the drains and ditches that crossed the low-lying ground. Haig and his aides never visited the battle-field and were unaware as to how bad the conditions were. When the British advanced they needed duck-boards laid across the mud and ribbons to show them where the safe ground was. This time four miles were gained in three months, across a battlefield that was a sea of mud.
Haig has often been criticised for the heavy losses that he incurred in his big battles. He appears to have been inflexible and lacking in new ideas, but so were most commanders in the Great War. He remained convinced until the end of the war that cavalry was the key to victory. Haig also resisted Lloyd George's attempts to create a unified Allied Command in 1917, but was forced to accept Foch as his superior in 1918. Haig's tactics of the 'Big Push' failed. In 1918, victory was one by surprise attacks without massive bombardments.
5: The War at Sea
When war broke out in 1914 the Royal Navy expected that there would be a major battle with the German High Seas Fleet. In fact the first two years were spent chasing German raiders and eliminating Von Spee's squadron at the Falkland Islands. The only action in home waters was between battle-cruisers at Dogger Bank in 1915.
The Germans began submarine warfare in 1915, but stopped after the protests from the USA over the sinking of the Lusitania in May 1915. This was a passenger liner that was sunk with the loss of 1,400 lives. It was carrying contraband (war goods), which had been falsely entered in the ship’s records.
In fact there was only one major sea battle during the First World War, at Jutland in May 1916. The result was indecisive. In a dense fog, the British fleet found itself between the German ships and the German coast, but failed to press home its advantage. Although the Royal Navy lost twice as many ships as the Germans and twice as many men, it was the German High Seas Fleet that broke off the action and returned to port. It never left port again.
That meant that from 1916 the Royal Navy controlled the seas. It now fulfilled two functions. It blockaded Germany and prevented vital supplies from getting through, and from 1917 it began to escort convoys across the Atlantic. This role ensured that Britain received the supplies it needed.
The failure of the German High Seas Fleet was one reason for the beginning of unrestricted U-Boat warfare at the end of 1916. With the failure of the battle of Verdun and the Allies increasingly on the offensive, the Germans attempted to starve Britain by sinking merchant ships as they sailed across the Atlantic. In April 1917 more than 875,000 tonnes of shipping was sunk. This immediately changed naval strategy. From May 1917, David Lloyd George, the prime minister ordered the Admiralty to supply escorts for convoys sailing across the Atlantic. The Admiralty resisted Lloyd George, it did not want its ships tied to merchantmen, when they could be on the lookout for the High Seas Fleet. But Lloyd George forced the navy to give way and by October 1917 the Germans had lost more than 50 submarines and the danger was over.
At the same time the Royal Navy began to exert a stranglehold on Germany. Imports were cut and this led to severe shortages of food and other essential goods. Rationing was introduced and by mid-1918 many Germans were going hungry. More significant was the fact that war materials were in short supply. The allied blockade played a key role in the final defeat of Germany in 1918
6: The defeat of Germany
By early 1917 it had become clear that neither side was in a position where it could win the war. At the same time, it seemed very unlikely that either side would be defeated. The deadlock was broken by the declaration of war by the USA in April 1917. Until 1916 the US government adopted an anti-war stance. President Woodrow Wilson spoke many times against US involvement. Nevertheless, by 1917 the USA had lent large sums of money to Britain and France, £850,000,000 to Britain alone. This would be lost if Germany won. There was also increasing sympathy in the USA for Britain and France, as democratic countries.
In March 1917, after Germany had begun unrestricted U-boat warfare, four US ships were sunk by German U-boats. The British government then handed the Zimmermann Telegram to the US government. This had been intercepted by British agents. It invited Mexico to attack the USA if war broke out with Germany. It also offered German support to Mexico in recovering the territory lost to the USA in the nineteenth century. It was a ridiculous scheme, but it angered the Americans. Woodrow Wilson could not now stay out of the war any longer. In April 1917 the USA declared war on Germany.
The most important effect of the US declaration of war was that it convinced the German High Command of the need to win the war quickly. The repeated attacks in April, May and June 1918 were in an effort to finish the war before US forces arrived in Europe in large numbers. In fact they had the effect of exhausting the German soldiers, which made final defeat all the more certain.
German strategy was influenced by the Bolshevik seizure of power in October 1917. Lenin accepted the terms of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918 and this released many of the German soldiers serving on the Eastern front. This allowed the Germans to move 1,000,000 men from the Eastern Front to France. In fact these troops proved to be of doubtful value when they arrived in the west. Many had had little battle experience in the previous two years, and they were unprepared for the ferocity of the fighting on the Western Front.
On 21 March 1918 the Germans launched a massive surprise attack (Operation Michael) on the Allied forces at St. Quentin. They used a short barrage and specially trained shock troops. The Allies were taken completely off their guard. The Germans were trying to bring the war to an end before any US forces arrived in Europe. In one place the Allied forces were driven back fifty-three miles. By the end of May the Germans were only thirty-seven miles from Paris.
But the Germans failed to drive a wedge between the French and British forces, which had been their main intention. The line held and in June US troops reinforced the Allies.
US forces did not arrive in Europe until the spring of 1918. After halting the German advance in June they played an important part in the second battle of the Marne in June and the subsequent battles in September and October. Altogether about 1,250,000 US soldiers served in Europe, they showed immense bravery, but were not prepared for the dangers of modern warfare; their casualty rate was very high.
The commander of the US forces, General Pershing, generously allowed his troops to be used wherever they were needed, provided they were kept as one united force. This gave Marshal Foch, the Allied commander, reinforcements which he could use as he wished.
Operation Michael ground to a halt in June 1918. For two months the front was stable once again, but now the Allies had several major advantages. More and more US troops were arriving in Europe and the Germans had advanced beyond their defensive lines. They were now in much more exposed positions. So on 8 August, the Allies attacked near Amiens, it was called the 'Black Day' by the German High Command. The German army collapsed all along the front.
From August until the end of October the Allies advanced steadily. It became more and more obvious that Germany was on the brink of disaster. Even so the German High Command still refused to agree to peace talks. There were informal peace talks between the Germans and the Allies in October and early November, but while Hindenburg favoured an armistice, Ludendorff opposed it and claimed that the army could hold out until the spring of 1919. Eventually, on 7-8 November, the Socialists seized power in Berlin and immediately asked for an Armistice. Germany surrendered unconditionally at 11 am on 11 November 1918.