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MAJOR BATTLES OF WWI. Battles - The Western Front. The Battle of the Frontiers, 1914

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battles the western front
Battles - The Western Front
  • The Battle of the Frontiers, 1914

The Battle of the Frontiers comprises five offensives launched under French Commander-in-Chief Joseph Joffre and German Chief of Staff Helmuth von Moltke's initiative during the first month of the war, August 1914.

The battles - at Mulhouse, Lorraine, the Ardennes, Charleroi and Mons - were launched more or less simultaneously, and marked the collision of both French and German invasion plans (Plan XVII and the Schlieffen Plan, respectively), each battle impacting the course of others.

The Battle of Mulhouse: Opened 7 August 
  • The Invasion of Lorraine: Opened 14 August
  • The Battle of the Ardennes: Opened 21 August
  • The Battle of Charleroi: Opened 21 August
  • The Battle of Mons: Opened 23 August

Were the other Battles of the Frontiers

battles the first battle of the marne 1914
Battles: The First Battle of the Marne, 1914
  • The First Battle of the Marne was conducted between 6-12 September 1914, with the outcome bringing to an end the war of movement that had dominated the First World War since the beginning of August.  Instead, with the German advance brought to a halt, stalemate and trench warfare ensued.
  • Having invaded Belgium and north-eastern France, the German army had reached within 30 miles of Paris.  Their progress had been rapid, having successfully beaten back Belgian, French and British forces in advancing deep into north-eastern France.  Their advance was in pursuance of the aims of the Schlieffen Plan, whose primary focus was the swift defeat of France in the west before turning attention the Russian forces in the east.
  • As the German armies neared Paris, the French capital prepared itself for a siege.  The defending French forces (Fifth and Sixth Armies) - and the British - were at the point of exhaustion, having retreated continuously for 10-12 days under repeated German attack until, directed by Joseph Joffre, the French Commander-in-Chief, they reached the south of the River Marne.
With victory seemingly near, Alexander von Kluck’s German First Army was instructed to encircle Paris from the east.  The French government, similarly expecting the fall of the capital, left Paris for Bordeaux.
  • Joseph Joffre, imperturbable in the face of crisis, resolved on 4 September to launch a counter-offensive strike, under the recommendation of the military governor of Paris, Gallieni, and aided by the British under Sir John French.
  • Joffre authorised General Maunoury’s Sixth Army - comprising 150,000 men - to attack the right flank of the German First Army in an action beginning on the morning of 6 September.  In turning to meet the French attack a 30 mile wide gap appeared in the German lines between the First and Second Army, the latter commanded by the cautious General Karl von Bulow.
Nevertheless, the German forces were close to achieving a breakthrough against Maunoury's beleaguered forces between 6-8 September, and were only saved on 7 September by the aid of 6,000 French reserve infantry troops ferried from paris in streams of taxies, 600 in all.
  • The following night, on 8 September, the aggressive French commander General Franchet d’Esperey’s Fifth Army launched a surprise attack against the German Second Army, serving to further widen the gap between the German First and Second Armies.  D'Espery was a recent appointment, Joffre having given him command of Fifth Army in place of the dismissed General Lanrezac, who was deemed too cautious and wanting in 'offensive spirit'
On 9 September the German armies began a retreat ordered by the German Chief of Staff Helmuth von Moltke.  Moltke feared an Allied breakthrough, plagued by poor communication from his lines at the Marne.
  • The retreating armies were pursued by the French and British, although the pace of the Allied advance was slow - a mere 12 miles in one day.  The German armies ceased their withdrawal after 40 miles at a point north of the River Aisne, where the First and Second Armies dug in, preparing trenches that were to last for several years.
  • In a strategic triumph at the First Battle of the Marne, which ended on 10 September, the French forces - assisted by the British - had succeeded in throwing back the German offensive, recapturing lost ground in the process.  More importantly, the battle ended any hopes the Germans had of effectively bringing the war on the Western Front to an early close.
  • Casualties at the battle were heavy.  The French incurred 250,000 losses, and it is believed that the Germans suffered similar casualties (no official figures are available).  The British recorded 12,733 casualties among the BEF.
battles the siege of antwerp 1914
Battles: The Siege of Antwerp, 1914
  • Following the fall of the forts at Liege in Belgium on 16 August 1914, King Albert I ordered a withdrawal of Belgium's remaining 65,000 troops to Antwerp, another fortress city (along with Namur).
  • Together with 80,000 garrison troops, Antwerp's ring of 48 outer and inner forts presented formidable opposition to von Kluck’s German First Army's flank.  Von Kluck had chosen to bypass Antwerp in the Germany army's advance through Belgium and into France.  Nevertheless, the presence of so many troops at its flank presented a constant threat.
This danger transpired into sorties conducted from the forts on 24-25 August and 9 September, designed by the Belgians to distract the Germans from their attack upon the British and French at the Battles of Mons and Charleroi.  Effective to a degree, von Kluck was obliged to detach four divisions solely to face attacks from Antwerp.  Following the attack on 9 September however the German High Command, led by the German Chief of Staff Helmuth von Moltke in Berlin, determined to capture the Antwerp forts.
  • Before this could be done however, action at the Marne distracted all German attention to their advance upon Paris, followed after the Marne action by a retreat to the Aisne.
  • German General von Boseler was given the task of capturing Antwerp.  Assigned a force of five divisions of mostly reserve forces and 173 guns, artillery bombardment began firing upon the outer south-east forts on 28 September.  As at Liege and at Namur, the use of heavy guns such as the powerful Big Bertha (a 420mm siege howitzer), effectively put the forts out of commission.
On 2 October the Germans succeeded in penetrating two of the city's forts.  Churchill was sent to Antwerp to provide a first-hand report on the situation there.  Leaving London that night he spent three days in trenches and fortifications around the city.  He reported to Kitchener on 4 October that Belgian resistance was weakening with morale low.
  • Receiving a request from the Belgian government for more assistance, the British dispatched a further 6,000 Royal Navy troops, 2,000 on 4 October and 4,000 on the following day.  The original division of 22,000 troops were also en route for Ostend.
  • Landing at Ostend on 6 October the British naval forces were too late; the Belgian government relocated from Antwerp to Ostend the same day, with the city itself evacuated the following day under heavy artillery bombardment, formerly surrendered by its Military Governor, General Victor Deguise to the Germanson 10 October
The division of British troops at Ostend had not in any event moved towards Antwerp upon hearing that the French government had declined to add relieving forces of their own.  Nevertheless, British intervention had prolonged the defence of Antwerp for perhaps five days, giving the British valuable time for the deployment of troops in Flanders.
  • German forces continued to occupy Antwerp until its liberation in late 1918.  Most Belgian and Allied forces had however managed to escape the city west along the coast, subsequently taking part in the defence at Ypres in mid-October.
the battle of verdun 1916
The Battle of Verdun, 1916
  • The German siege of Verdun and its ring of forts, which comprised the longest battle of the First World War, has its roots in a letter sent by the German Chief of Staff, Erich von Falkenhavn, to the Kaiser, Wilheim II, on Christmas Day 1915.
  • In his letter to the Kaiser, Falkenhayn argued that the key to winning the war lay not on the Eastern Front, against Russia – whom he believed was on the point of revolution and subsequent withdrawal from the war – but on the Western Front.  He reasoned that if France could be defeated in a major set-piece battle Britain would in all likelihood seek terms with Germany, or else be defeated in turn.
In his letter to Wilhelm Falkenhayn believed that Britain formed the foundation of the Allied effort ranged against Germany and that she must be removed from the war.  To that end he recommended implementation of a policy of unrestricted submarine warfare against merchant shipping, a policy directed squarely at starving Britain.  This combined with a knock-out block to France would, he believed, bring about a successful conclusion to hostilities.
In so doing he agreed to switch focus from the Eastern Front to the Western Front.  This latter strategy was not without its critics: in particular Paul von Hindenburg argued that the opportunity was lost to capture the bulk of the Russian army.  Ultimately the failure of Falkenhayn’s recommendations cost him his position.
  • Falkenhayn’s choice of Verdun as the focus of the German offensive was shrewd.  Although relegated by France to the status of a minor fortress during the early stages of the war, France having lost faith in the value of fortress defences, Verdun maintained a great psychological hold in the minds of the French people.  On a practical level the woods immediately behind Verdun would have proved far easier to defend than the Verdun forts.
The last fortress town to fall to the Prussians in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71, Verdun’s fortifications had been significantly boosted in the 1880s to withstand further attacks.  In addition its status as an important fortress since Roman times guaranteed recognition of the name ‘Verdun’ to most Frenchmen.  In short, it was of greater value symbolically than strategically.  Falkenhayn counted upon this.
Falkenhayn’s stated aim was to “bleed France white” in its defence of the ancient fortress town.  The fact that Verdun formed a French salient into German lines only served to help Falkenhayn, since it meant that it was open to attack from three sides at once.
  • The task of besieging Verdun fell to the German Fifth Army under Crown Prince Wilhelm.  He planned to assault the town from both side of the surrounding Meuse River, a plan vetoed by Falkenhayn, who, cautious by nature, feared heavy losses, ordered the attack to be confined to the east bank of the river.
In the interim between the planned and actual start date French Commander-in-Chief Joffre received intelligence of the imminent attack, hastily deploying reinforcements to the French Second Army.  Meanwhile the fortress commander, Lieutenant Colonel Emile Driant, also a politician and published author, vainly attempted to improve Verdun’s trench systems in time.
  • Driant prepared for the onslaught by posting two battalions, led by himself, at the tip of the Verdun salient on the east bank of the Meuse River.  He faced formidable opposition: one million German troops against 200,000 defenders.
  • The attack finally began at 07:15 on 21 February, Crown Prince Wilhelm opening the battle with 1,400 guns packed along the eight-mile front, the guns well served by good nearby railway facilities.  100,000 shells poured into Verdun every hour, Wilhelm’s intention being to kill the majority of the French defenders before the infantry even started their advance into the fortress.
It is arguable that had Wilhelm chosen to attack at this point the fortress might still have been taken.  Instead, daunted by the apparently formidable defences, Wilhelm chose to renew the bombardment.
  • By the close of the day the German forces had succeeded only in capturing the French front line trenches, much less than planned, although Driant himself had been killed during the battle, and his two battalions demolished.
  • Wilhelm withdrew his forward infantry in preparation for a further artillery bombardment, thus taking the sting out of the momentum that had been generated.  More importantly it allowed the French defenders to position themselves such that they were able to enfilade the advancing German troops from across the river.
  • Verdun remained in French hands, although the defensive situation was dire.  A message was sent to French headquarters on 23 February reporting that Driant had been lost, as had all company commanders, and that the battalion had been reduced from 600 to around 180 men.
The following day, 24 February, German troops succeeded in over-running the French second line of trenches, forcing the defenders to within 8 kilometres of Verdun itself.  Nevertheless, two outer forts, Vaux and Douaumont, continued to hold out.
  • A French division sent in piecemeal that same day was dispersed under heavy German artillery fire.  The next day Douaumont fell to the 24th Brandenburg Infantry Regiment.  The effect on French morale of the loss of Douaumont was marked, both upon the remaining defenders and the reinforcements freshly arrived.  Popular French sentiment within the country demanded its recapture: withdrawal from Verdun was therefore politically impossible.
  • The French Commander-in-Chief, Joffre, remained unflappable.  He issued a statement noting that any commander who gave ground to the advancing Germans would be court-martialled.  He summarily dismissed General Langle de Cary, who was responsible for the defence of Verdun, for deciding to evacuate Woevre plain and the east bank of the Meuse River.
Pledging to Joffre, “Ils ne passeront pas!” – literally “They shall not pass!” – Petain telephoned the commander of the Verdun front line and instructed him to hold fast.  In a sense Petain’s appointment could hardly have better-suited Falkenhayn.
  • His stated aim of the campaign was to bleed the French army at Verdun.  A quick German victory at Verdun would hardly meet this criteria, whereas Petain’s dogged determination to hold out suited his intentions perfectly.  However he could hardly have determined just how effective Petain’s defensive strategies turned out to be.
  • Petain understood that the defence of Verdun would result in many French casualties: the nature of the terrain made this inevitable.  However he was determined to inflict the maximum damage to the German invaders in the course of these losses.  Hence he effectively re-organised French use of artillery, personally taking commanding of this aspect of the defence.
Petain understood that the defence of Verdun would result in many French casualties: the nature of the terrain made this inevitable.  However he was determined to inflict the maximum damage to the German invaders in the course of these losses.  Hence he effectively re-organised French use of artillery, personally taking commanding of this aspect of the defence.
  • He also took action to ensure that an effective supply route to Verdun was maintained, designating a single artery road leading to a depot 50 miles to the west, Bar-le-Duc, and ensuring constant access by assigning columns of troops whose sole duty it was to maintain clearance of the road and to perform repairs as necessary.  The road was christened ‘Voie Sacree’ – the ‘Sacred Road’
On 6 March the Germans began a fresh offensive after receiving fresh artillery supplies, at first making great progress until French counter-attacks pushed back the advancing German infantry.
  • For the remainder of the month Wilhelm launched repeated attacks against the French reinforcements constantly pouring into the fortress.  Of the 330 infantry regiment of the French army, 259 eventually fought at Verdun.
  • Falkenhayn reluctantly committed another corps of men to an attack up the left bank of the Meuse River towards a small ridge named Le Morte-homme (the ‘Dead Man’), a battle that raged continuously without conclusion.
  • Meanwhile the casualties were mounting rapidly on both sides.  The French were certainly losing huge numbers of men, as were their German opposition.  By the time the battle ended almost one million casualties had been incurred in roughly equal numbers on either side.
Meanwhile the casualties were mounting rapidly on both sides.  The French were certainly losing huge numbers of men, as were their German opposition.  By the time the battle ended almost one million casualties had been incurred in roughly equal numbers on either side.
  • April 9 saw the third major German offensive launched, this time on both sides of the salient.  Again Petain’s defences held, the attacks and counter-attacks continuing until the close of May, the German forces inching ever closer to the remaining forts.  During this period Petain received a promotion and was replaced at Verdun by the aggressive Robert Nivelle.
Mort Homme Hill was secured by the Germans on 29 May and finally, on 7 June, Fort Vaux fell.
  • Situated on the east bank of the Meuse River, the fort had held out against constant bombardment since the start of the battle in February.  However, by now out of reserves of water and the fort itself lying in ruins, its French defenders could hold out no longer.  With the capture of the fort Wilhelm offered his congratulations to the fort commander, Major Raynal, for holding out so long.
  • Encouraged by the success in capturing Fort Vaux, German troops almost succeeded in breaking through the French line at the close of June and into early July.  It was at this stage that the latest form of chemical warfare was unveiled by Germany: phosgene gas, which acted by forming as hydrochloric acid once inhaled into the lungs.
  • Joffre, meanwhile, pressed the British government to stage a major diversionary offensive elsewhere on the Western Front to serve as a drain on German manpower.  Originally scheduled for 1 August, the Battle of the Somme was brought forward to 1 July upon the insistence of the French.
Petain, against Nivelle’s recommendation, recommended a withdrawal from the western Meuse line.  Joffre, however, supported Nivelle in dismissing the suggestion, a decision that was fortunately vindicated by a sudden drain upon German resources as a result of a Russian offensive on the Eastern Front, which meant that fifteen German divisions had to be withdrawn from Verdun to aid in the defence on the east. By this stage the German Chancellor, Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, was scathing in his condemnation of Falkenhayn’s lack of success in Verdun, which was proving as costly in terms of manpower to Germany as it was to France.  Falkenhayn was consequently dismissed by the Kaiser and dispatched to the Transylvanian Front on 29 August to command Ninth Army.  Falkenhayn’s arch critic, Paul von Hindenburg, replaced him as Chief of Staff, buoyed by his successes in the east.
A new French commander of the Verdun forts, Third Army’s General Charles Mangin, was also appointed, reporting to Nivelle.  Taking the offensive Mangin managed to retake Douaumont on 24 October, followed by Fort Vaux on 2 November.  Following a rest pause, Mangin renewed his offensive, retaking ground lost since the start of the German attack.  Between 15-18 December alone, when the battle ended, the French captured 11,000 prisoners and with them 115 heavy guns.  Simply put, Hindenburg saw no point in continuing Falkenhayn’s pointless attacks.
  • French casualties during the battle were estimated at 550,000 with German losses set at 434,000, half of the total being fatalities.  The only real effect of the battle was the irrevocable wounding of both armies.  No tactical or strategic advantage had been gained by either side.
battle at gallipoli 1915
Battle At Gallipoli, 1915
  • By the spring of 1915, combat on the Western Front had sunk into stalemate. Enemy troops stared at each other from a line of opposing trenches that stretched from the English Channel to the Swiss border. Neither opponent could outflank its enemy resulting in costly and unproductive direct attacks on well-fortified defenses. The war of movement that both sides had predicted at the beginning of the conflict had devolved into deadly stagnation.
Allied leaders, including Winston Churchill and Lord Kitchener, scoured their maps to find a way around the impasse. The Dardanelles Strait leading from the Mediterranean to Istanbul caught their eye. A successful attack in this area could open a sea lane to the Russians through the Black Sea, provide a base for attacking the Central Powers through what Churchill described as the "soft underbelly of Europe", and divert enemy attention from the Western Front.
The Campaign was a fiasco, poorly planned and badly executed. It began in February 1915 with an unsuccessful naval attempt to force a passage up the Dardanelles. The flotilla retreated after sustaining heavy damage from Turkish guns lining both shores and from mines strewn across the channel
In April, a landing on the Gallipoli Peninsula attempted to secure the shores and silence the Turkish guns.
  • Trouble brewed from the beginning. Amphibious operations were a new and unperfected form of warfare leading to poor communications, troop deployment and supply.
  • The Turks entrenched themselves on the high ground pouring artillery and machine gun fire down upon the hapless Australian, New Zealand, Irish, French and English troops below. The battleground soon resembled that of the Western Front - both sides peering at each other from fortified trenches, forced to spill their precious blood in futile frontal attacks on well defended positions.
  • The stalemate continued through the fall of 1915 until British forces withdrew at the end of the year.
Casualties were high - approximately 252,000 or 52% for the British/French while the Ottoman Turks suffered about 300,000 casualties or a rate of 60%. The failed campaign gained little and badly tarnished both Churchill's and Kitchener's reputations.
the value of the straits
The Value of the Straits
  • But why attempt the Straits in the first place?  The answer lay in the great strategic value control would give the Entente Powers.  The Straits linked the Mediterranean Sea with the Sea of Marmora.  This not only gave ready access to the Turkish capital Constantinople and much of the Turkish Empire's industrial powerhouse, but also provided a lane to the Black Sea.
  • Just as importantly, if not more so, access to the Sea of Marmora was bound to give Britain and France supply route access to their eastern ally, Russia.  Therefore it was quite feasible that should Britain and France gain the Straits they could succeed in not only eliminating Turkey from the war, but in also drawing Greece and Bulgaria into the war against the Central Powers.
the difficulty in seizing control
The Difficulty in Seizing Control
  • Control of the Dardanelles Straits was therefore a prized ambition of the Entente Powers.  As might be expected given the huge tactical and strategic value placed upon the Straits, they were however heavily defended, chiefly by natural geography.
  • To the north they were protected by the Gallipoli Peninsula; to the south by the shore of Ottoman Asia.  In addition, fortresses were well positioned on cliff-tops overlooking shipping lanes.