Being one of the two main theaters of military operations of the First World War, the Western Front certainly occupies the first place in terms of its military and political significance. It was here that the German command in August – September 1914 made a decisive bet on victory, and its failure led to the final defeat of Kaiser Germany, unable to withstand a protracted war of attrition against the combined potential of the Entente powers. Being of paramount importance for Germany, on the one hand, and Great Britain and France, on the other, the Western Front lasted until the conclusion of the Compiegne Armistice in November 1918.
After declaring war on Russia on August 1, 1914, Germany presented an ultimatum to France, demanding that it remain neutral, but France declared that it would fulfill its allied obligations to Russia, and on August 3 Germany declared war on it under the pretext of an alleged bombing of German territory by French airplanes. Since the German plan for a lightning war (the Schlieffen plan) involved the invasion of the main forces of the German army into France through the territory of Belgium, the refusal of the Belgian government to let the German troops through led to the latter’s violation of the neutrality of Belgium, which served as the basis for the entry into the war of Great Britain, bound by military-political agreements with France and Russia.
During the Battle of the Frontier in August 1914, French troops and the British Expeditionary Force failed to hold back the advance of seven German armies that poured across the borders of Belgium and France. The German plan for waging war on two fronts was to defeat the troops of their opponents in the West with a powerful blow in a short time, capture Paris and force France to surrender, after which they would transfer the main forces of the German troops to the Eastern Front and in cooperation with the Austro-Hungarian army inflict a decisive defeat on Russia. However, this plan was thwarted due to the active actions of the Russian troops in East Prussia. Despite the fact that the Russian 2nd Army of General Samsonov eventually suffered a heavy defeat near Tannenberg, the German command, having very limited forces against the Russians, was forced to prepare reserves for sending to the East – two army corps designed to reinforce the strike force advancing to Paris. This played a decisive role in the defeat of the Germans at the Battle of the Marne.
Battle of the Marne. On September 5, 1914, the French 6th Army of General Maunoury, concentrated east of Paris, launched a counterattack on the unprotected right flank of the enemy on the Marne River. The German command did not have free forces to fend off the blow, and the commander of the right-flank German 1st Army, General von Kluck, transferred two corps against the Maunoury army, and then two more divisions, exposing the junction with the neighboring 2nd Army. This allowed the French 5th th army and British troops to launch a second counterattack into the gap that had opened. The German 2nd Army faced the threat of encirclement and was forced to retreat north, pulling the neighboring 1st and 3rd armies with it. By September 12, the German troops rolled back 60 km, taking up defense along the lines of the Aisne and Vel rivers. Thus, the German plan to defeat France with one blow failed, which predetermined the unfavorable outcome of the entire war for Germany.
In the second half of September – October, both sides continued maneuvering, trying to outflank the enemy from the open northern flank (the so-called “Run to the Sea”), as a result of which the front line extended to the coast of the North Sea, and the war acquired a positional character.
First Battle of Ypres. From October 19 to November 22, German troops made their last breakthrough attempt in 1914 during the First Battle of Ypres (Ypres), which ended in a mutually beneficial stalemate. After the battle, Erich von Falkenhayn decided that Germany could no longer win the war by purely military means, and on November 18, 1914, he called for a diplomatic solution. Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg; Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, commander of Ober-Ost (high command of the Eastern Front); and his second-in-command, Erich Ludendorff, continued to believe that victory was achievable in decisive battles. During the Łódź Offensive in Poland (November 11-25), Falkenhayn hoped that the Russians would be inclined towards peace negotiations. In his conversations with Bethmann-Hollweg, Falkenhayn believed that Germany and Russia had no irresolvable conflict, and that Germany’s real enemies were France and Britain. Peace with only a few annexations of territory also seemed possible with France, and that when Russia and France were out of the war through negotiations, Germany could focus on Britain and fight a long war with the resources of Europe at her disposal. Hindenburg and Ludendorff continued to believe that Russia could be defeated in a series of battles that would collectively have a decisive effect, after which Germany could finish off France and Britain.
– Ypres, the Guide Book, the museums and the battlefields.
From the end of 1914, the opposing sides dug into the ground, rebuilding dugouts, trenches, machine-gun emplacements, securely covered by barbed wire and minefields. Attempts to break through such defenses each time turned out to be huge losses for the attacking side with insignificant results. In the changed conditions of hostilities, along with the strengthening of the role of artillery, especially heavy artillery, new means of conducting armed struggle began to develop, including chemical weapons, airplanes, tanks, and specially trained assault detachments of infantrymen and combat engineers. At the same time, the significance of the cavalry, which turned out to be extremely vulnerable to fire from automatic weapons, aviation weapons (bombs, airplane arrows) and poisonous substances, was reduced to nothing. In the spring of 1915, the main efforts of Germany were transferred to the Eastern Front, and the Anglo-French troops tried to take advantage of this situation to go on the offensive. However, the operation undertaken in May-June in Artois was not successful. In two weeks of fighting, the Allies lost 130 thousand people, advancing only 3-4 km on the French sector of the front and 1 km on the British.
Conferences at the Château de Chantilly Castle. The failures of the Anglo-French troops in operations on the Western Front, the retreat of the Russian armies in Galicia and Poland seriously worried the military-political leadership of the Entente powers.
In the middle of 1915, the French government invited the Allies to carry out a general development of future operations and submitted a project to convene a conference in the Château de Chantilly, where the headquarters of the French army was located. In a year and a half, four inter-allied conferences were held. The first conference (July 1915) discussed the plan of the Allies for the second half of 1915. At the second conference (December 1915) the general plan of the 1916 campaign and recommendations to the governments of the Entente countries on economic and political issues were discussed. The Third Conference (March 1916) reviewed and approved the 1916 campaign plan. The Fourth Conference (November 1916) decided to prepare coordinated operations for the spring of 1917. The conferences also repeatedly discussed the issue of a centralized body for coordinating the actions of the allied armies, but the military-political contradictions between their participants did not allow it to be created. The Supreme Military Council of the Entente was formed only in November 1917.
Despite the major successes won in 1915 on the Eastern Front, the Austro-German troops failed to crush Russia and withdraw it from the war, and the German command decided to try their luck again in the West.
Battle of Verdun. The fortified area of Verdun was chosen as the main point of application of forces, against which the Germans gathered artillery forces unprecedented in history (1225 guns, of which 703 were heavy, 110 guns per 1 km of the front). It was assumed that in the battle for Verdun, which is the key to Paris, the French would be forced to deplete their resources of manpower, weapons and ammunition. However, during the fierce fighting that lasted from February to December 1916, the German army was able to achieve only very limited successes at the cost of huge losses. This was facilitated, in particular, by the fact that during the year the German command had to repeatedly withdraw troops from the front in order to support its ally Austria-Hungary, which found itself in a difficult situation as a result of the offensive of the Russian troops (Brusilovsky breakthrough), undertaken in accordance with the decisions adopted at the meetings of representatives of the General Staffs of the Allied Powers in Chantilly.
Battle of the Somme. In July-November 1916, the Allied Command undertook an offensive operation on the Somme River, which went down in history as one of the largest battles of the First World War. Despite many days of artillery preparation, the offensive developed slowly and at the cost of heavy losses. The total losses of the parties in killed and wounded amounted to more than 1 million people. For the first time in history, tanks were used to break through the enemy defenses during this battle. As a result of the operation, the Allies broke through the German front by only 10 km in a sector of 35 km. in depth. In order to prevent the development of a breakthrough, the Germans had to urgently create a new line of defense. Losses near Verdun and on the Somme seriously affected the morale and combat effectiveness of the German troops. The strategic initiative passed to the allies for a long time.
The 1917 campaign was marked by new Allied attempts to break through the front. This was preceded by the withdrawal of German troops to the rear defensive line (the Hindenburg line), prepared in the winter of 1916-17. By shortening the front line, the German command thus freed part of its forces.
The April offensive of the British and French near Arras, which went down in history as the “Nievel massacre” (after the French commander-in-chief Robert Nivel), did not achieve its goals, and the losses incurred during it caused protest moods and unrest in the French army on the basis of the unwillingness of the soldiers to go to the battle. Equally unsuccessful were the actions of the British troops during several operations undertaken in July – November in Flanders (Battle of Passchendaele). Their results remained far from desirable, but the experience gained made it possible to improve the offensive tactics of the Allies, which were successfully used in the operations of 1918.
Battle of Cambrai. In late November – early December 1917, British troops undertook a large-scale operation against the new German defense line in the area of the city of Cambrai, relying on the massive use of tanks (476 units) and the new assault tactics of infantry units. On the first day of the offensive, they managed to achieve tangible success, breaking through the German front in a section of 12 km to 6-8 km in depth with fairly small losses. However, the delay in bringing Canadian cavalry into the breach allowed the Germans to recover from the initial shock and close the breach. Over the next days, the German troops were able to completely stop the advance of the enemy, and then launched a counteroffensive and pushed the British back to their original positions.
During the 1917 campaign, both sides had exhausted their forces almost to the limit. Only the influence of external factors could decide the outcome of the struggle in favor of one of them. For Germany, this was Russia’s exit from the war as a result of the Bolshevik revolution and the possibility of using additional forces transferred from the East on the Western Front; for Great Britain and France – the entry into the war of the United States on the side of the Entente and the arrival in Europe of numerous and fresh American troops. In such a situation, Germany could only count on achieving a decisive victory before sufficiently large American contingents appeared at the front.
In March 1918, after the conclusion of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk between Germany and Soviet Russia, German troops launched a series of offensive operations in the West, which went down in history under the general name of the “Battle of the Kaiser”. The Germans managed to significantly push back their opponents and again, as in 1914, reach the approaches to Paris. However, the material resources of Germany and the morale of the army and the population were finally undermined. In July, during the second battle on the Marne, the German offensive was stopped, and in August, having broken through the German front near Amiens, the Anglo-French troops went on the offensive, supported by the American troops who arrived in France. The German command was forced to leave all the territories occupied during the offensive and withdraw troops to rear positions. Failures at the front and an extremely difficult situation in the rear led to a revolution in Germany in early November, the monarchy fell, and the provisional government that came to power signed an armistice with the Entente powers on November 11 in Compiegne, recognizing defeat in the war and pledging to evacuate all territories, still occupied by German troops at that time.