First World War
Overview of the Western Front
by Justin Leivars, 27 June 2010
The greatest war in history, and perhaps the greatest
crime, began on 28 June 1914, when the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, nephew
and heir to the Emperor Francis Joseph of Austria, was assassinated
at Sarajevo in Serbia. The same fate befell his wife.
Messages of sympathy poured into Austria but that
power, encouraged by Germany, seized on the tragedy as the pretext
for beginning a war they had long been considering. Serbia was to
be taught a lesson, and Germany, the master-schemer, was to extend
the discipline to France and Russia.
Immediately after the murders the Austrian press
declared that they were actually plotted by high officials in
Belgrade, notwithstanding the fact that the Serbian government had
called attention to the presence of one of the murderers in Hungary,
and had advised his deportation.
Austria, after a month's playing for time to
enable Germany to complete her preparations, dispatched a note
to Serbia on 25 July, repeating the charge of Serbian complicity
in the crime, demanding the suppression of all Serbian propaganda
in the Dual Monarchy, and insisting that an investigation into the
assassinations should be conducted on Serbian soil with the
assistance of Austrian officials.
Serbia indignantly refused. Russia declared that
she would permit no trifling in the Balkans, and on 28 July, Austria,
having refused Great Britain's suggestion of a conference, declared
war on Serbia.
So began the hostilities which were to plunge
the world into a sea of blood.
Russia took up the challenge, Germany declared war
on her and France, and Great Britain, refusing to tolerate the
invasion of neutral Belgium and to contemplate the harrying of the
French coast, declared war on Germany at 11:00pm on 4 August 1914.
The western front
A mass of German grey bore down on Paris, spilling
through Belgium on the way, causing the destruction of some of its
greatest treasures, and for a time it was thought that this mass of
military might was unstoppable.
Sinking of the Lusitania
The Results of the War
WWI Grave Revives Forgotten Battle
Digging up the Past in Belgium
GREAT WAR RULERS:
First World War.com
This would have been the case, had it not been for
two men; Sir John French, commander of the 'Old Contemptible', and
General Joffre, who commanded the French army. These two commanding
officers presented a sturdy resistance at the Battle of the Marne,
and eventually brought the German momentum to a standstill. It was
one of the most important turning points of the war.
Britain had gained an excellent reputation for its
fighting spirit and patriotism, owing to many a past conflict. This
time the call to arms was no different in its result. Lord Kitchener
appealed for men to enlist, and they flocked to the colours in their
thousands, were trained, and were rapidly sent out to France.
The initial prediction that the war would be over
by Christmas was now dismissed and all sides prepared themselves
accordingly. Trench warfare and attrition became the order of the
day, how best to grind down the enemy being their main concern.
Trench systems soon extended from Belgium, across the north-eastern
corner of France, into Lorraine and Alsace, and through to the Swiss
The second year of the war saw very little change
in allied or enemy positions, despite major offensives taking place,
notably the capture of Neuve Chappelle in March, the two battles of
Ypres (the second of which became more sinister with the
introduction by the Germans of poisoned gas), the arduous
campaigning in the Forest of Argonne in north-eastern France, the
relentless and sustained bombardment of Rheims, and the French
offensive in Champagne.
The Battle of Loos in September 1915 proved that
with better communications, and well trained and seasoned troops,
the Germans could be defeated. The first day of the battle was a
huge success, but poor communications (suddenly no longer 'better')
and the inexperience of fresh troops put paid to Sir Douglas Haig
being able to capitalise on his previous day's triumph.
During 1916, there was a slight shift in the tide,
although it was only slight. For the first time, Germany appeared
to be at a disadvantage. Conscription was now in place, and the
British army increased its size to a magnitude that had never
before been witnessed.
General Sir Douglas Haig arrived at the front as
commander-in-chief of British and Imperial forces
looking for results, but in time he earned himself
the nickname of 'Butcher Haig'
Sir John French was replaced by Sir Douglas Haig as commander-in-chief.
Romania and Italy joined the allies, and Germany started to feel
the pressure from all sides.
In an attempt to offset some of that pressure, the
Germans embarked on their most ambitious and costly offensive so
far. By laying waste to the French fortress of Verdun, the German
command had hoped that the French army would be morally and
physically crushed. However, after four months the fortress was
still in French hands, and the enemy had to acknowledge that
continuing was a fruitless exercise.
The day of 1 July 1916 saw the beginning of the
great Franco-British offensive on both sides of the Somme,
stretching along a twenty-five mile front. Ten days later Sir
Douglas Haig announced that the first line of German defences were
in the hands of the allies.
The second phase of the battle commenced on 14
July, and lasted for over two months, during which time the first
tanks were used in warfare. The battle had left exhausted the
thirty-eight German divisions who took part, and having little
choice they retired to the Bapaume-Transloy line, although not
before the allies had managed to capture over 25,000 prisoners.
The British casualty figures made grim reading and many wondered
if the gains were worth such human sacrifice.
The year 1917 saw Germany still undefeated, but the
world's support for its demise started to gain momentum. The United
States of America had deliberated long and hard regarding their
involvement in the war, but the sinking of the Lusitania had brought
the issue to their door and their role took on a whole new
During the spring there was another joint advance
on the south-western angle of the line, and the enemy this time
retired to the new heavily fortified 'Hindenburg' line. The fighting
now passed northwards and westwards, with each chapter bringing the
allies new confidence. Vimy Ridge in April, Messines Ridge in June,
and the progress made at Passchendaele Ridge in November enabled the
allies to feel that victory was theirs. It was just a matter of
One final push
The Germans used the winter of 1917-18 to rest
and prepare for a last bid for victory. The collapse of Russia
enabled a large number of divisions to join their comrades on the
western front, and German commanders knew that they needed to act
sooner rather than later, before the United States could re-enforce
the allies. Kaiserschlacht (Kaiser's Battle), began on 21 March
along a fifty-mile front between the Scarpe and the Oise. By the
25th the Germans had reached their original line of July 1916.
Four long, hard years of fighting seemed to have
been all but wasted. The enemy were near to obtaining the positions
they originally contemplated; the possession of the Channel ports
and the opportunity to dominate Britain's shores. General Foch was
made commander-in-chief of the allied armies. A military service
bill was hastily passed through parliament, raising the age of
recruits to fifty-one, this guaranteed a continued stream of fresh
men, should they be needed.
Sinking of the Lusitania
The scene was now set for a final confrontation.
The Germans had run out of steam and it was time to attack the
enemy before they could rest and regroup.
The allied armies roused themselves with a mighty
effort and by the beginning of June it was declared that the German
attack had been checked. The Kaiser's Battle had proven to be a
failure and the allies achieved a remarkable series of victories,
all part of a plan to encircle the German armies or force them to
retreat from France and Belgium; Haig east of Amiens, Byng north of
Ancre, the French lower down the line, and the Americans under the
command of General Pershing at the St Mihiel salient. The German
armies were forced backwards at every point. Flanders was now
evacuated and the Americans drove into the enemy lines at Sedan,
albeit using tactics that were reminiscent of the earliest days of
trench warfare despite the best efforts of the allies to advise them
The situation for the kaiser was now precarious.
His forces were being driven back in disarray, his navy being on the
verge of mutiny, and the situation at home edging towards social
revolution. Faced with such a disaster, he requested an armistice on
Bavaria was proclaimed a republic. The duke of
Brunswick renounced his throne, and the Berlin banks suspended
payments. The kaiser had witnessed his dream of domination collapse
and on 9 November he and the crown prince, who was equally as
Text copyright © Justin Leivars. An original
feature for the History Files.