The Western Front was a meandering 700-kilometre frontline, running from the North Sea coastline to the Swiss border and passing through (at various times) Belgium, north-eastern France and southern Germany. It was the main theatre of fighting in World War I and was the location of several major battles, including the Somme, Verdun and Passchendaele.
Though the death toll from Western Front battles will never be accurately known, at least four million men were killed there. Despite frequent and intensive attempts to break the line or push back the enemy, the Western Front remained relatively static until 1918.
The front takes shape
The Western Front began to take shape in the autumn of 1914 after the German advance into northern France was halted at the Battle of the Marne. The Germans then retreated to the Aisne River, where they dug a network of trenches to consolidate and hold their position.
Believing the Germans were awaiting reinforcements and preparing a further assault into French territory, the Allies reciprocated by beginning the construction of their own trench system.
Over the next few weeks, both sides extended their trench systems further north. They attempted to outflank each other by reaching the North Sea coastline first. Their objective was to prevent an enemy advance, secure supply lines and seize control of key ports and French industrial areas.
If the Battle of the Marne gave rise to the Western Front, the First Battle of Ypres (November 1914) was the first real test of the front and its defensive stability.
At the personal order of the Kaiser, German generals launched a massive assault on the Allied line, using divisions of their most experienced infantry and cavalry. The attack was repelled at the cost of more than 40,000 men.
By the end of 1914, Western Front trenchline had grown to more than two-thirds of its eventual length.
The impermeable line
After Ypres, it became clear that the Western Front was not going to be breached or pushed back without considerable effort. Commanders on both sides began to develop grand plans to break the line or to outmanoeuvre and outflank the enemy.
As weeks passed and 1915 began, the rush of enlistments at home allowed hundreds of thousands of reinforcements to be pumped into the area. By early 1915, many parts of the Western Front were thick with soldiers on both sides of ‘no man’s land’. This weight of numbers contributed to the front’s impenetrability and the stalemate that developed through 1915.
Germany’s early defeats in northern France also shaped its tactical approach. Determined to hold their ground in northern France, German military strategists embraced defensive positions. Victory, they believed, would be earned by the side that could better withstand assaults and lose fewer men.
As a consequence, German military planners abandoned the Schlieffen Plan and adopted a strategy of attrition, aiming to inflict death and injury on as many Allied men as possible. (The German chief of staff, Erich von Falkenhayn, famously declared that his goal was to “bleed France white”).
The consequence of this was that Germany launched fewer major assaults in 1915. They instead relied on weapons like artillery and poison gas to weaken and debilitate Allied personnel.
Allied generals, in contrast, wanted to expel German soldiers from northern France and Belgium. Because of this, they more committed to battlefield offensives and attempts to penetrate the front.
Allied troops tried to penetrate the German line at Champagne and Loos during the autumn of 1915. Against positions fortified with artillery and machine-guns, this proved almost impossible.
Falkenhayn changed tactics in early 1916, hoping to lure the French army into a gigantic battle from which it could not retreat or withdraw. His objective was to inflict maximum casualties on the French and to sap this morale.
For this showdown, the German commander chose Verdun, a small town near a heavily-fortified section of the Franco-German border. The Battle of Verdun, which began in February 1916, was the longest and the second-deadliest battle of World War I, claiming between 750,000 and 1,000,000 lives. It ended with no decisive victor or strategic outcomes.
Even more deadly was the Battle of the Somme (July to November 1916). With many French commanders occupied at Verdun, the Somme assault was planned and led by the British, particularly General Sir Douglas Haigh.
This campaign was to be part of a simultaneous three-way offensive, with the Russians attacking on the Eastern Front and the Italians from the south. But the choice of location, the Somme River, was problematic. The Germans were protected by a comprehensive system of trenches and bunkers, along with defences on an elevated position.
The Somme assault began with an artillery barrage that lasted seven days and used more than one million shells. This assault did not wipe out or push back the Germans, who sat it out in deep bunkers. It also failed to destroy the masses of barbed wire strewn in front of German trenches.
At 7.30am on July 1st, more than 120,000 British soldiers leapt from their trenches and advanced on the German line. They expected to find obliterated trenches and dead Germans but were instead met by machine-gun fire, artillery shells, mortars and grenades.
In the coming slaughter, more than 50,000 soldiers were killed in just one 24-hour period. It was the deadliest single day in British military history.
A historian’s view:
“By the end of 1914, fighting on the Western Front had cost Germany 667,000 casualties, the French 995,000, the British 96,000 and the Belgians 50,000. The old professional British army had virtually ceased to exist… The Allies, who were now staging the bulk of the attacks, adopted a strategy of attrition, what General Sir Douglas Haig called ‘wearing out’ the enemy, and Joffre referred to as ‘nibbling’. This strategy, pursued by massive front assaults, resulted in hundreds of thousands of casualties. The Western Front became one great charnel house.”
Priscilla M. Roberts
1. The Western Front was the main theatre of World War I, a 700-kilometre line from Switzerland to the North Sea.
2. It took shape in late 1914, as fighting in northern France stalled and both sides attempted to outflank the other.
3. In time, the Western Front became a long line of trenches, fortifications and defences crossing western Europe.
4. Most of the major battles of the war – and therefore most of its casualties – were fought along the Western Front.
5. Breaking through the Western Front was a critical objective of military planners on both sides. These offensives were often overly ambitious, poorly planned and wasteful of men and resources.