Deadlock on the Western Front
In late September 1914 the Allied armies tried to force the Germans back at the battle of the Aisne, but in heavy rain they failed. Both sides began to 'race to the sea'. This was an attempt to gain control of the Channel ports. The race to the sea created a front line of trenches that stretched from the Channel to Switzerland and it soon became clear that defence was much easier than attack.
The popular image of the trenches is mud and death, and for many soldiers this was their abiding memory. But the strongest memory of all was the smell of decaying bodies, made worse by the fact that battle after battle was fought over the same stretch of ground. The bodies from the previous battles were uncovered in later fighting.
In places the two frontlines could be as little as fifteen metres apart, as at Hooge, near Ypres, in 1915. Even the slightest movement above the parapet resulted in instant death from a sniper's bullet. Elsewhere, the two frontlines could be as much as 1,000 metres apart. Here there was relative safety, even boredom. Opposing units sometimes agreed truces, until their officers found out about. Soldiers normally spent four days in the frontline and were then moved into the support trenches and then into the reserve. For some troops that was all they did for the four years of the war.
But for others it was a very different story. Worst of all were the soldiers who found themselves in the front line at the beginning of a major battle. On the Somme on 1 July 1916, 70 percent of the troops who went over the top in the first wave were either killed or wounded. Many of the troops in the first wave at the Somme were members of 'Pals' Battalions'. They had been recruited from the same areas in big cities or towns and put into the same units to increase morale. But this meant that they were all cut down at the same time, with devastating effects on their locality. The following year, 1917, the horrors of the big push were repeated at Passchendaele. With as little success. All the ground won was lost in 1918 during the German offensive Operation Michael.
The deadlock in the West meant that both armies tried to find ways of breaking through the enemies defences. Gas was first used by the Germans at Ypres in April 1915 and proved a deadly weapon. 9,000 Allied soldiers were killed. Gas could be used in two ways. It could be released from tanks at the front line and allowed to drift over towards the enemy. This depended upon the wind being in the right direction. Gas shells could also be used. These broke open when the hit the ground. Early respirators were clumsy and only fitted into the shirt collar. Later designs proved very effective.
Gas was terrifying, but in the end did not prove to be a decisive weapon. It could blow the wrong way and attackers had to wear respirators, which hindered visibility and movement. Nevertheless, gas continued to be used until the very end of the war. Adolf Hitler was blinded by gas in October in 1918 and spent the last weeks of the war recovering in hospital.
Another methods used to try to break through was mining. Special units were formed to dig under the enemies trenches and put huge mines in place. These were first used near Ypres in early 1915. The biggest mines were dug under the German frontlines at the Somme and then exploded just before the attack. In June 1917 twenty mines were dug under the Messines Ridge near Ypres. The tunnels were nearly 300 metres long and contained more than 20,000 kilos of high explosive. Eighteen of the mines were detonated at the start of the battle, but two were forgotten. One blew up in 1956, but the other is still out there.
In 1916 tanks were used for the first time. At first the Germans were terrified by them, but they broke down far too easily and proved unsuccessful. Despite all of these attempts to break through, by 1915 there was complete deadlock on the Western front. In Britain, there was a demand for an attempt to break the deadlock by opening up a new front in the Eastern Mediterranean. This led to the decision to land troops in Gallipoli in April 1915 and try to knock Turkey, Germany’s ally, out of the war.
|©2005 Nick Hardcastle. All Rights Reserved|