The Race to the Sea
Both sides raced to get to the English Channel first to outflank each other.
Sequence of Events:
- Belgian resistance.
- German retreat from the Marne.
- German attempt to capture ports.
- The Battle of Ypres.
- The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was destroyed but the German advance was halted.
Germans tried and failed to outflank British and French armies by sweeping north. After the failure of this, they went for the English Channel to seize ports instead. This would cut BEF retreat meaning no British reinforcements.
British arrived first and the Belgians flooded countryside, delaying the German advance. The Allies were concerned with protecting the port cities and ensuring that aid from Britain continued to arrive.
The British made a stand at Ypres; this was the first Battle of Ypres (19th October – 22nd November 1914):
- 19th October - 22nd November 1914
- British arrived at port-Had to defend it from Germans
- They dug trenches at Belgian town of Ypres
- Battle lasted 1 month
- Hand to hand fighting in forests resulted in 50,000 British casualties, 8000+ deaths
- The BEF destroyed Germans causing 20,000 deaths
- Failure to gain control of channel meant the German advance was halted and the ports were saved
This battle and many others have become linked forever with The First World War. Along with the Battle of the Somme, the battles at Ypres and Passchendaele have gone down in history. The town had been the centre of battles before due to its strategic position. The sheer devastation of the town and the surrounding countryside seems to perfectly summarise the futility of battles fought in The First World War.
This video looks at the stabilisation of the fronts including the First Battle of Ypres in the West; Austrian defeats in Serbia and in Galicia in the East. Reprisals against Germans in Britain, mass enlistment in the British Empire, and Christmas at the front lines.
Stalemate and the beginning of Trench Warfare
A Stalemate occurred between the two opposing armies and were unable to move
This video provides an overview of life in the Trenches
The Trench System:
- Protected and sheltered soldiers.
- Easily defended.
- Easily built and maintained.
- Allowed soldiers to shelter for winder.
- Allowed the use of artillery pieces.
- Allowed soldiers a chance to rest.
- Allowed the chance to test new weapons (machine guns and gas).
- Immobile and stationary.
- Prolonged confrontation. This caused problems such as:
- Trench foot.
- Shell shock.
- And other diseases.
- Cost millions of lives to defend trenches.
Life in the Trenches:
Shell shock was a mental illness which caused soldiers to lose the will to fight after prolonged exposure to enemy fire. It was not recognized as such then and victims were often shot for cowardice.346 soldiers from the British were shot for cowardice.
Why was there stalemate for three years?
- Trench system persisted.
- Infantry could not attack through barbed wire.
- Cavalry charges were hindered by the terrain of no man’s land as well as the barbed wire.
- Failure of new weapons.
- Gas masks negated the dangers presented by most types of poisonous gases.
- Early tanks were slow and unwieldy and would often break down.
- Artillery was inaccurate and often churned up no man’s land to such a degree that infantry and cavalry charges became impossible.
- Artillery pieces could not remove barbed wire:
- Explosions only picked these up and threw them around, creating an even greater tangle than before.
- Flamethrowers were unreliable and other blew up during use.
- The machine gun was overly successful. They accounted for heavy casualties on both sides.
The commanders did not know how to fight such battles.
- Commanders believed that using large numbers was the only way to defeat the enemy:
- By killing enemy soldiers, they thought they could win the war.
Thus attrition was born.
- They thought that the only way to achieve a breakthrough was to penetrate enemy lines and gain access to open country.
- This would allow them to maneuver again.
- They thought that the only way to penetrate enemy lines was to start a massive artillery bombardment of a chosen sector and follow it up with a massive infantry assault:
- This battle plan did not change at all even though it only kept failing.
- As commanders changed they kept trying to achieve a breakthrough; it became a challenge for them and they kept using the same tactics based upon the policy of attrition. They knew not just how much death and misery their tactics were causing the soldiers on the battlefield.
- They thought that they needed to prove that their tactic was a good one.
- Each time they launched an attack the only change was adding more artillery shells and more troops.
- To them no alternative appeared to exist.
Maintaining fixed positions only generated boredom and eventually despair. France only wanted to recovery the territories she and Belgium had lost to Germany. This preoccupation hampered British-French strategy.
At the beginning people felt the war would be over by Christmas 1914 and so they joined the army for a share of the glory. They were sadly disappointed and this had a devastating effect on the morale of soldiers on both sides. Messages from the front were censored by governments and so the citizens at home had no idea what was going on in the Front.
By 1917 the growing sense of despair and lack of purpose (the political purposes had been lost amid the death and destruction caused by the war and by the never ceasing deadlock) caused widespread discontent in the French and Russian armies. Both sides had equal forces, there was a tragic equilibrium where both sides kept trying but gained nothing.
French commander in chief thought the Western Front was the only battle worth fighting. The British thought that the war in the east against the Ottoman Empire was very important and so the military priorities of Britain and France often clashed.
On the Eastern Front there was also stalemate. The Russians fought using a tactic that had brought them victory against European invasions in the past:
- They would fight bloody defensive battles as they withdrew eastward into Russia.
- Their vast supplies of manpower would then refill their ranks as their enemies wasted away.
- This time it did not work as Russia’s industry could not supply the weapons to arm its vast reserve of manpower.
- Fortunately, the periodic offensives launched by the British and French on the west stopped Germany from transferring enough troops into Russia to destroy her.
- No one gained a decisive edge on the eastern front until the Russian Revolutions of 1917.