World war 1 – stalemate

When in the August of 2014 German troops crossed into Belgium intent on taking Paris they found Belgian resistance in forts to be greater than expected. What is more 100,000 British Troops had been sent to support the Belgian resistance. They encountered the Germans at the battle of Mons and, with the French on their right at Charleroi, discovered that warfare had changed. The Germans had many heavy tripod machine guns requiring a number of operatives. They fired in short bursts to avoid overheating but were excellent at countering the war practice of charging across open ground. The British had few machine guns at this stage because some of its Generals had thought them to be an inappropriate form of warfare and its soldiers were encountering machine guns for the first time.

The French had also instigated a plan to recapture Alsace and Lorraine but they like the other resisting forces were being outnumbered and outgunned and had to withdraw to defend Paris. The British, who had been grossly outnumbered at Mons, retreated with the French and were now intent on aiding the French in their defence of Paris.

Russian troops had moved quicker than the Germans expected and they attacked East Prussia. That caused the Germans to divert 100,000 troops to the Eastern Front where Russia suffered a crushing defeat and withdrew from Prussia, having taken about 60,000 casualties. .

Hold up at the Marne River: The German offensive reached a position within 40 km of Paris where the French had established defensive positions along the river Marne. Supported by British troops they now had an advantage as the Germans were becoming weary from their advance and were running out of supplies. The Germans had to retreat. Their Schlieffen plan had failed.

The retreating German commander had one last instruction for his troops before he was replaced. It was to “fortify and defend. They dug in on a 40 km ridge overlooking the river Aisne and were proving difficult to remove. His instruction to fortify and defend was to seriously prolong the war. The war was not to be over by Christmas as many had thought.

The western front: The Allies tried to go round the Germans but the Germans had anticipated that and were rapidly moving and reinforcing to counter such moves. To the north and south both sides were fortifying, digging trenches and fighting battles. The trench system gradually extended north to Belgium and the sea and south to the Swiss mountains, some 475 miles in total. The mobile war became a static war with millions of men guarding their dirt fortifications. It was the start of years of trench warfare.

There were many battles and skirmishes along the extending trench line. At Ypres, near the Belgian border not far from the coast and in the October of 1914, the Germans thought they had found a weak spot. The British were outnumbered, outgunned and ill prepared but German deaths at 50,000 were double that of the British. Most deaths happened moving across the open Flanders fields. When the rains came the fields became mud and with ammunition low the fighting came to a near halt. The British and neighbouring French troops withdrew to better positions. It was the first of three battles fought in that area.

The commanders on both sides were used to charging across fields at each other but the power of the modern weapons now in use made such tactics very high risk. The trenches may have been filthy dirty places but they did offer some protection from shells and being surrounded by barbed wire made it difficult for attacking troops to get near. They also were sandbagged back and front for added protection.

The Germans had seized most of the high ground and their trenches were usually deeper and better fortified than the often shallow and easily flooded allied trenches. The trench system involved an “up front” fire trench, with support and reserve trenches behind it with many interconnecting trenches that enabled troops to pass to and from the front line to positions well behind it.

Generals persisted in believing heavy shelling followed by waves of infantry would work. Millions died at the hands of enemy machine gunners as they advanced across no man’s land proving time and again that the tactic did not work. The stalemate was evident to all and in late 2015 both sides had plans to break through in better weather of the coming 2016. The British were planning an assault near the Somme river, the Germans an attach near Verdun.

The Germans saw Verdun as a weak spot as they were on three sides of it. Their intent was to make it the scene of a long and bloody battle that would draw French troops in, leading to their defeat and an allied bid for peace. The battle started in the February of 2016 with a thousand gun barrage, followed up by flame throwers to drive the French from their trenches. In three days they were just a few miles from the city walls.

The French appointed a General Petain who used thousands of trucks to bring supplies and better and bigger guns into the city. They were delivered along what was termed the sacred way. The Germans now struggled to make progress and were being torn to pieces by Petain’s artillery. German soldiers likened the mud churned battlefield to a mincing machine. By June the delivery road was at full capacity with 12,000 vehicles along it every day. Fighting finally stopped in early December. Verdun was the longest battle of the first world war and it cost both sides dearly. About a half million men on each side were either killed or injured and lost to further action.

In an attempt to divert German troops from Verdun, the British launched their “Big Push” at the Somme River, a location with with well established German concrete machine gun posts and underground bunkers designed to protect their troops against heavy shelling. The British shelled the German positions for several days and then on the 1st of July of 2016 after some serious shelling and the detonation of 21 mines in secretly built tunnels, launched a 2.5 mile long line of soldiers that advanced slowly toward the German lines. But the barrage had failed and the Germans came out of the bunkers, with their machine guns and saw their barbed wire protections much intact.

Heavy numbers were lost to the machine gun fire. Although many reached the German barbed wire and some gained entry into German trenches they were soon dislodged.  The assault had failed but fighting had to continue to stop the Germans reinforcing their position at Verdun. The battle lasted 141 days until November, when rains flooded the battlefield. The Germans had as many as 680,000 casualties, whilst British Empire troops killed numbered 125,000, some 20,000 of them on that first day, making it the bloodiest day in British military history.

Further action on the eastern front: Austria – Hungary had an empire but it was weak because its satellites wanted independence and could not be relied on in a war. Austria Hungary had issues with Serbia and so had invaded it. They were also fighting the Italians on their border.

Despite earlier failings the Russians invaded Austria- Hungary in what is known after its General as the Brusilov Offensive and which lasted from 4 June – 20 September 1916. It, like the British attack at the Somme was designed to assist the French at Verdun. It was probably the most successful breakthrough in the war and it forced the withdrawal of many troops from the conflict with the Italians but also forced Germany to redirect troops to the Eastern Front both in support of its ally and because such an attack made vulnerable German industry.

The Germans drove the Russians drove the Russians back in what became known as the Great Retreat. By the end of 1916 1,700,000 of her soldiers were dead and on the home front Russians were suffering with food shortages and loss of work.

General Haig commanding the British thought the Germans would be exhausted after the Somme battle and decided that a swift attack through Flanders would break the German line and gain them access to the German “U boat ports of Zeebrugge and Ostende” and so a third battle of Ypres was launched at the end of July 1917. The Germans occupied a well defended Passchendaele ridge surrounded by lower open plains. Haig shelled the ridge for 10 days and made the marsh area into one of mud.Rain followed in a thirty year worst.

Despite all this Haig pressed on using duckboards over which troops moved behind an ever advancing and difficult to control artillery barrage.  Tens of thousands of men still lie buried there today. The suffering of the men and the horses that pulled the artillery was appalling. In the November of that year 1917, the ridge was captured by Canadian Forces but the ports remained in German hands. Five month later all the ground gained was back in German occupation.  

The “Young Turks” government, keen to get back some of their lost Ottoman Empire joined the war in 1914 on the side of Germany. They blocked the Dardanelle Straights effectively locking the Russian Fleet in the Black Sea. The Russians asked the British for help and some 16 British and French battleships tried to enter the straits but withdrew after mines sank a number of them. Mine sweepers were then sent in but withdrew under heavy fire from the overlooking cliffs. It was decided to send in land forces. They were Australian and New Zealand forces called Anzacs. The attempted landings were a fiasco with the landing troops making for easy targets.

It became 9 months of trench warfare with no land gain and eventual withdrawal with a 50,000 loss of allied lives and an 87,000 loss of Turkish lies. The plan had been that of Winston Churchill, a future prime minister, and its failure brought his resignation.

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