World War One

Important dates (part one)


  • August: War declared; British Expeditionary force sent to Belgium
  • September: Battle of the Marne Halts German advance
  • October: First Battle of Ypres; trench stalemate follows


  • March: Battle of Neuve Chappelle 
  • April: First use of Chemical weapons and Second Battle of Ypres
  • September: Battle of Loos 


  • February: Battle of Verdun begins
  • July: First Battle of the Somme begins
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Important dates (part two)


  • April: Battle of Arras 
  • July: Battle of Passchendaele
  • November: Battle of Cambrai 


  • March: Spring offensive by Germany
  • August: Battle of Amiens, followed by the Hundred Days’ offensive
  • September: Allies break through German ‘Hindenburg Line’
  • 11 November: Armistice ends the war at 11.00AM
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Why did it turn into a war of attrition?


  • Series of mobilisations in countries bound by treaty obligations 
  • Germany planners had predicted it would take the Russians up to 30 days to ready Europe’s largest army of 6 million.
  • Using Russian mobilisation as an excuse, Germany declared war on Russia on 1st August and on France on 3rd.

Entrenchment and the building of defence systems:

  • The German plan of attack in the west had been drawn up in 1905 by Alfred von Schlieffen, chief of the army of the General Staff.
  • Part of the German army would tie down the French along the border in Alsace-Lorraine, while the main German force attacked in the west, through Belgium and into France to encircle Paris. 
  • Germany might have to fight on two fronts, but hoped Russia to be slower to mobilise. 
  • In fact, the Russians attacked within three weeks on the Eastern Front, but were defeated by the Germans at the Battle of Tannenberg. 
  • The defeat halted any Russian plans for movement westward
  • The French also planned to attack: several armies (800,000) were to advance through Alsace-Lorraine into Germany.
  • The BEF’s role was defensive, while French generals planned a ‘Napoleonic’ surge to victory, their infantry still resplendent in red and uniforms, and cavalry in plumed helmets and breastplates.
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The Failure of Movement

  • The Germans moved through Belgium, takes Brussels on 20th August.
  • The plan required to the German 1st Army to cover at least 15 miles a day for the first three weeks. 
  • This was too fast. The troops pushed too far ahead of their railway-supply system, and the further they advanced, the worse supply problems became.
  • The British took to France roughly as much hay and oats (five million tons) as ammunition.
  • Both sides were hampered by poor communications and lack of intelligence. 
  • The French were not sure of German intentions, while the German high command lost radio contact with its army, having only one wireless receiver.
  • After the BEF landed in France on 13th August 1014, for more than a week the Germans had little idea of British movements.
  • Most Generals relied on cavalry patrols for intelligence, and on bicycles, horses, carrier pigeons and visual signals for messaging. 
  • The French underestimated German strength, and when they tried to attack the German centre, losses were severe as soldiers were exposed to the full force of modern firepower from machine guns and artillery; by 29th August, the French had already lost more than 250,000 casualties.
  • Sir Douglas Haig’s 1st Army Corps and Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien’s 2nd Army Corps, compromised the BEF.
  • By 22nd August, the small but well trained British Army was defending the Belgian town of Mons.
  • At Mons the British prepared to attack but quickly switched to defence as the Germans broke through. 
  • The British ‘dug in’ to a defensive position before retreating from Mons. 
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Attrition and stalement

  • The Germans swung away from Paris in September 1914, allowing the allies to launch a flank counter-attack at the Battle of the Marne.
  • Germans tried to push the British out of the Belgian town of Ypres.
  • After four weeks (19th October to 22nd November) the Allies held Ypres, but casualties amounted to more than 100,000. 
  • Smith-Dorrien wrote that individual initiative and intelligence would be more important than out-of-date drills and training manuals written for the battlefields of the past.
  • Trench warfare allowed little freedom for individual initiative and intelligence. 
  • Many commanders stuck to the old rule books, used to train the inexperienced volunteers and conscripts who from 1915 made up most of their armies.
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The Need for Military adjustment

  • Entrenchment war involved constant construction and reconstruction.
  • Trench building took six hours for 450 men to dig 250 yards
  • The first trenches were shallow, made in a hurry and easily collapsed.
  • Throughout the winter of 1914-15, both sides constructed complex deep-trench systems, including infrastructure such as field kitchens, first aid posts, causality clearing stations, hospitals, command posts, ammunition dumps, artillery parks and telephone lines.
  • Fore trenches ran in one direction, communication trenches criss-crossing them.
  • The forward trench nearest the enemy was the front line attack point. Behind this was the support trench, then a reserve trench. 
  • Miles of barbed wire entanglements were laid in front of trenches. 
  • The army had to adjust its manning arrangements, to rotate men through the front line usually more for one or two weeks at a time, and then moving units back to a support and reserve role, before returning to the front line. 
  • Wooden ‘duckboards’ made temporary roads across mud and around shell holes.
  • The French sent more than 800 trainloads of reinforcements to Verdun in three weeks. 
  • Movements were normally done at night, so the new troops could be settled in before day breaks. 
  • Battles now lasted weeks, even months.
  • From 1915 onwards, the troops knew their movements were observed by a growing number of aircraft, so they led a part-subterranean, part nocturnal life, except when ordered to attack.
  • Dirty, hungry, often scared and constantly exhausted, the soldiers relieved boredom and ear by black humour. 
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Trench warfare

  • The armies had to adjust fighting tactics following the failure of movement, and the war became a series of attacks and counter-attacks.
  • The trench was usually 8 feet deep.
  • A raiding party would sneak into enemy trenches to hurl grenades or take prisoners. 
  • Face-to-face confrontations were fought with bayonets, spades, knives and clubs.
  • When in frontal assaults across No Man’s land, waves of infantry left the trenches to walk or run through the barbed wire strung between them and the enemy.
  • In the mud and wet ‘trench foot’ caused serious problems, and eventually British soldiers were ordered to change their socks three times a day.
  • During the ‘Christmas truce’ of December 1914, British emerged from their trenches to meet in no man’s land. 
  • Officers used in dugouts and trenches could use buried telephone landlines to give and receive orders. 
  • Headquarter commanders had maps, and feedback from aerial reconnaissance, but too often had little idea of progress.
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New fighting techniques and technologies

  • By January 1915, the war of movement was over.
  • Kitchener realised, that he supposed they must now recognise that the French army would not make a sufficient breakthrough to force a retreat of the German forces. 
  • Mechanised cavalry was not widely used on the Western Front, and tanks, were not used properly until later in the war. 
  • From 1915 to early 1917, despite improved tactical knowledge and technology, generals too often persisted in frontal attacks.

Rifles and attack strategies:

  • By 1914 a rifle could fire up to 15 rounds a minute in skilled hands and hit a target 800 yards away.
  • Entrenchment changed rifle tactics.
  • In the noise and fury of battle, often an officer had little control over riflemen’s fire once orders had been given.
  • Britain preferred ‘wave and flow’ attacking on mile wide fronts.
  • Artillery bombardment preceded the attack.
  • Each wave would advance in four lines.
  • The men would be two or three yards apart, and each line left a gap of 50 to 100 yards. 
  • The advance would be steady, not a run, and the soldiers carried 60lbs of equipment and rations.
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Machine guns and artillery

  • All a machine gun team had to do was feed ammunition into the gun, and spray bullets over a wide arc, at about 60 rounds a minute. Pre-1914 tests showed that one machine gun was worth 50 or more rifles in terms of firepower. The heavy Vickers gun needed three gunners. In 1914, an infantry regiment had 12 times as many rifles as machine guns, by 1917 the ratio was 2:1.
  • German Minenwerfer mortar was effective and Britain matched it with their own Stokes mortar that could fire 25 bombs a minute.

Artillery and the creeping barrage:

  • Generals clung the notion that stalemate could be broken by artillery, since quick firing field guns like the French 75mm gun were capable of firing 15 shots a minute. 
  • Bombardments were supposed to destroy trenches, flatten barbed wire and machine guns, and demoralise enemy troops. By 1916, artillery guns on the Western Front ranged from light 18lbs (range 6,000 yards) to heavy howitzers (1,400lbs over 10,000 yards)
  • The difficulties can be judged from the Battle of the Somme in 1916, when the British encountered German barbed wire defences 40ft wide and too deep to be destroyed. Britain used 1.6 million artillery shells in the first week. High explosive shells meant to penetrate defences before exploding were also ineffective in clearing barbed wire. British fuse would destroy barbed wire defences and cause a smokescreen. •Reports of ‘a shell shortage; at Arras, disputed between factories, government and the army had caused alarm in Britain but from 1917, troops saw an improvement in artillery support. 
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Poison Gas and the Tank

  • First used on the Western front by the Germans in April 1915 at Ypres.
  • June 1915, gas masks were issued to allied troops September 1915 the French used gas for the first time, the British doing so at the Battle of Loos. Phosgene Gas was six times more toxic than chlorine, causing 80% of gas casualties. Mustard Gas, July 1917 caused lung and skin damage.
  • Gas masks improved to respirator masks with goggles and a canister filter to protect against inhalation. 

The tank:

  • The Americans were aggressive, but inexperienced at trench warfare; their commander, Pershing, believed in mobility and rifle fore but made little use of tanks.
  • The British used over 38 tanks at Cambrai in November 1917. 
  • Even so, the British and French had high hopes for tanks and, by 1918, there were nearly 10,000 tanks on the Western front. The Germans fighting the defensive, opted for heavy tanks. 
  • Tanks offered commanders an artillery that did not need horses to pull it. 
  • At the Battle of Amiens in August 1918, allied tanks advanced 9 miles in one day. 
  • With tanks and aircrafts supporting infantry on the ground, the western front became mobile.
  • German exhaustion, but fighting methods had evolved. 
  • With machine guns, tanks, which are supported by aircraft mobility became more widespread. 
  • The German Spring offensive of 1918 was driven back and allied superiority in numbers, equipment and morale began to pay off. On October 8th, the Germans abandoned the Hindenburg Line in France
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Battles 1914

Battle of Mons 23rd-24th Augsut 1914:

  • Trying to defend Belgium and delay the German advance into France.
  • Showed to the quality of the British soldier, good leadership, use of terrain and the discipline of soldiers.
  • Was 70,000 British vs 160,000 Germans. Withdrawal of the French had left the british exposed.

First Battle of the Marne 6th-12th September 1914:

  • Secured allied line. Prevented Germany from capturing Paris. Ruled out any chance of the Schlieffen plan succeeding. High moral, use of terrain and teamwork
  • 12,733 casualties, France lost 250,000 and there was a lack of reinforcements.

The First Battle of Ypres 19th October-22nd November:

  • Kept the city, prevented Germany from reaching the sea.
  • High casualties, 65,654.
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Battles 1915

Neuve Chappelle, 10th-13th March 1915

  • Long bombardment, which didnt break the barbed wire, loss of 11,200 men. Was supposed to capture the illage at Aaubers.

2nd Battle of Ypres, April 1915

  • First time Germans used poison gas. Responded well to surprise attack and defended well. High casualties of 69,000 men.Germans weren’t prepared for an actual breakthrough so lost the chance to make an advance.

Battle of Loos, 25th-28th September 1915:

  • First battle where newly trained recruits were deployed. Use of gas backfired. Start of shell shortage, 50,000 casualties.

Battle of Gallipoli:

  • Attack Dardanelles & take pressure away from the West. Failed as Dardanelles was heavily fortified and high death & casualties, 58,000 lost. 
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The Battle of the Somme 1916

  • 750,000 men, 80% were compromised from the BEF.
  • Began with the detonation of 17 mines. 

What went wrong:

  • Leadership issues. Lack of cooperation 
  • Lack of experience
  • Not enough troops
  • Mines exploding too earlier 
  • German counter-attacks highly effective
  • Not prepared-  brought the attack forward by a month
  • Amount of gear they had to carry with them slowed down the attack
  • Poor intelligence 
  • Very basic and predictable commands 
  • Speed of advance
  • Role of the artillery
  • Loss of 20,000 troops
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Rest of the Somme

•Rawlinson’s forces secured the first line of German trenches on 11th July

•Saw few victories 

•Victory at Pozieres, captured by two Australian divisions on 23rd July.

•First use of tanks September 1915. 24/50 tanks were useful

•Renewed attacks again between 25th-27th September.

•Advances were small but were consolidated upon.

•Final effort 13th November- captured the field fortress of Beaumont Hamel.

•25km (long) 6km (wide) of ground gained 

•Total of 420,000 British casualties and a further 200,000 French casualties 

•The Spring offensive allowed Germany to regain all of the land they lost.

•No major breakthrough took place 

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Before the Battle of Passchendaele

  • German army withdraws to the Hindenburg line in 1917.
  • This shortens their line considerably so they need less men.
  • Nivelle takes over from Joffre in 1917.
  • British to attack at Vimy/Arras
  • Canadians took Vimy Ridge.
  • British attack at Arras doesn’t go so well, but takes 5,000 prisoners and advances line.
  • French attack at Chemin des Dames is a total disaster- leads to 187,000 casualties.
  • After 3 years, the French army mutinies.
  • Nivelle is replaced by Petain who restores discipline, but the French army is in a very weak state. The French could only hold the line. 
  • Burden of the war in 1917 falls on Britain.
  • The USA enters the war in April 1917 but will take months for them to arrive in numbers.
  • Britain launches an offensive in 1917 to keep the pressure on Germany.
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Battle of Paschendaele

Battle of Messines:

  • Messines ridge occupied, with little German resistance. German counter-attack fails 
  • Excellent co-ordination of infantry, tanks, supply tanks, artillery meant objectives achieved. Regarded as a successful example of ‘bite and hold’.
  • 24,562 British casualties. Plumer not permitted to press attack. Haig puts Gough in charge of main assault.

Actual Battle:

  • The Germans were aware that an attack was coming and still had high ground. The Germans launched a small attack on the 10th July- takes 1,000 prisoners, The Germans then bombard British lines and use mustard gas for the first time. 16,000 British casualties. 
  • 17th July, preparatory bombardment starts- lasts until 31st July. 4.2 million shells fired.
  • But unusually heavy rain begins and the British bombardment overwhelms but destroys ancient drainage system which means mud becomes a problem. 
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Battle of Paschendaele

Stages of the Battle:

  • 31st July- initial attack begins. Good progress in Northern sector, although tanks become bogged down. Ends with 31,850 British casualties.
  • August- attacks are renewed- German defensive tactics make attack very costly. 4 weeks later- 4,000 yards taken- 68,010 British casualties.

Closing stages:

  • September- weather improves
  • October- British dominated the battlefield
  • November- village of Passchendaele taken, but now it no longer exists.
  • Battle ends 15th November 
  • Total British casualties 244,897 
  • German casualties- 230,000
  • Seen as a disaster by many British officers.
  • Also a disaster for Germany, huge losses they couldn’t replace- especially with US soldiers beginning to arrive in large numbers.
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Problems for the British army in 1918

  • Wastage of 76,000 men a month
  • Manpower crisis
  • Army low of list government priorities
  • Haig demanded 600,000 men, but received only 100,000
  • Troops from the USA were slow to arrive
  • Little co-ordination of attacks between the British and French
  • Lloyd-George also held back vital soldiers in Britain, believing Haig would waste them
  • As a result- the British lines in 1918 were dangerously thinly held
  • Britain also had a habit of concentrating troops in the forward areas of their trenches, in contrast to the Germans ‘defence in depth’ strategy. It means that a breakthrough could cause problems.
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Reporting of the Western Front

  • Opposition to the war in 1914 was small, if vocal, though criticisms of government and army mounted as casualties rose and victory seems ever remote. 
  • Potential groups against the War: Labour, socialists, women suffragetes, domestic terrorists. Irish Nationalists.

Public mood:

  • The war began with optimistic patriotism 
  • Irish nationalist movements postponed their protests and many Irish men joined the British army.
  • Pankhurst, along with other suffragist leaders like Millicent Fawcett, believed that the war would benefit women’s rights in the long term
  • The public remained supportive of the war and demanded victory. 
  • There was little sign of revolutionary unrest and despite the high casualties, Haig’s reputation remained untarnished.
  • Conscientious objectors refused military service were assessed by tribunals; were allotted non-combatant work, those who refused were sent into the army or jailed.  
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Government control and censorship

  • The government judged public mood from reaction to such news as came from the front, reactions expressed to MPs, in letter to the press or in public meetings.
  • The Germans had a War Press Office to control war news through a semi-official news agency. 
  • The British government let newspapers censor themselves, but controlled direct war reporting by the official correspondents through censors at the front and agreement with newspapers.
  • In Britain many papers published casualties lists in full from the summer of 1915.  
  • Provincial papers printed more letters from soldiers.
  • To begin with the Newspapers would censor themselves, rather than the government enforcing rules


  • Charles Masterman headed the War Propaganda Bureau, set up in 1914. Propaganda looked at improving the defeating the Germans and social reform Most propaganda was relatively truthful, while not always revealing the whole truth. Posters were patriotic, some were virulently anti-German and crude cartoons showed innocent civilians in Belgium menaced by ravening hordes of ‘Huns’. The Times and The Daily Mail were strongly anti-German 

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Strategic bombing

  • Zepplin LZ-38’s bombs killed seven and injured 14 in 1915 after a bombing raid on London .Airships dropped 200 tonnes of bombs, killed 557 people and injured more than 1,300.British citizens shocked by having war on their front door Gotha heavy bomber.London 24th June 1917 was London’s worst raid of the war, with 162 people killed.
  • 100 British planes failed to intercept 24 Gotha heavy bombers
  • In east London 300,000 took shelter in the underground and 500,000 taking shelter in basements and cellars.
  • Towards the end of 1917, the Germans switched to night attacks and had the ability to drop 1,000lbs bombs.
  • London divided into air defence zones and AA-guns installed to create curtain of fire between zones.Air raid warnings by police. Was very difficult to intercept zeppelins Flew very high. No radar. Hazardous for early aeroplanes to fly at night Government used the press to reduce fears and publicise the new measures and official reassurances. December 1915- 11 RFC squadrons moved from the Western Front
  • 2nd September 1916- RFC lieutenant Leefe Robinson shot down Zeppelin using incendiary bullets.
  • Leaflets issued to allow the public to determine between British and German planes.
  • If they saw an enemy plane, they would be required to inform the authorities of the time and place and direction.
  • By April 1918, the LADA (London air defence area) had 266 AA guns, 353 searchlights and more than 270 day and night fighters Of 60 Gotha’s lost more than two thirds came down in the sea or crashed on landing.
  • A total of 8,578 bombs dropped by 103 aircraft through 51 Zeppelin Raids. National War Aims Committee, set up in 1917 to counter pacifism and defeatism. Lloyd George promised to bomb Germany ‘with compound interest’. 3,000 DH4 fast day bombers and 200 0/400 heavy bombers.RFC bombers continuous offensive against targets in Germany. The last German raid was on 19th May 1918.


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