Reasons for the Stalemate on the Western Front

The Schlieffen Plan (faults in strategy and implementation of)

A J P Taylor

· Unrealistic goals and reliance on speed
¡ 42 days for conquest of France – honestly, what were they thinking?
¡ Failed to take into the account the fact that troop movements are ultimately determined by the speed of soldiers on foot
¡ Unexpected resistance from Belgians and BEF caused delays
¡ Russia mobilised earlier than anticipated

· Von Moltke wouldn’t fully commit
¡ Severely weakened Right Wing (1st and 2nd armies) to strengthen the Left (6th and 7th armies)
¡ Commanders pushed forward in major unauthorised offensives, esp on the left,
Ø Forcing French to retreat to forts, giving them the opportunity to attack the right flank à handing them some of the initiative
· Battle of Marne

· Invasion of Belgium led to British involvement
¡ Who provided key resistance at Mons, Ypres and Marnes

· Failure to secure British Channel Ports
¡ “Race to the Sea”
Ø Left vital lines of communication open between British and French
  • Plan relied on numerical superiority gained from reserve troops to outflank the French.
  • Reserve troops and their officers lacked levels of physical fitness and tactical skills which Schlieffen had anticipated

Schlieffen Plan

· Did not anticipate German advance through Belgium
· Underestimated German troop numbers
· Own forces were insufficient to penetrate
· Too much focus on the offensive, even when heavy losses resulted


Outdated fighting techniques
· Concentrated attacks à Napoleonic strategies
¡ Largely ineffectual àheavy losses and perpetuated stalemate in that these manoeuvres were so easily countered that they failed to penetrate.
British were initally reluctant to use machine guns due to this, this was also due to the weight of machine guns. --> British were marching across Europe and did not want much to carry
· Unable to capitalise on offensive opportunities

New technologies
à Altered the nature of warfare
· Machine guns
¡ A single machine could hold up to two battalions
à Defensive capabilities were much greater than attack

· Inflexible
· Gaps, unlaid track or sabotage let to painfully slow troop movements in muddy conditions with artillery
· Allowed for prompt re-inforcements

· High commands were situated miles from the battle grounds
¡ Molke was located at Luxembourg
· Problems in artillery and troop communications led to friendly fire and ineffectual supportive bombardment
· Runners used à slow
· Messenger pigeions
¡ Delayed by 24-48 hours, lost in flight à useless

More simply, there were several other reasons for the stalemate on the western front.
  1. Very poor conditions. I.e. muddy, wet, poor drainage systems in trenches. very unhygenic etc.
  2. Lack of communications - poor phone lines, which had an effect upon the coordination of attacks.
  3. Lack of food and rations which also had an effect on the home front.
  4. Low morale - US entry changed this.
  5. The attacks were not all that effective and no ground was made or captured.
  6. German Geography, lacked resources and needed shipping, once blockade was set up not much could be made
    • Also affected the way Schlieffen plan was undertaken, without Belgium in the way, Britian would have been more reluctant to join.

The Nature of Trench Warfare and Life in the Trenches

The Trench System

· Temporary in nature
¡ Only way to escape machine gun fire
¡ Result of the inability to continue war of movement
· Allied – Long flat line; German – Zigzag fashion to minimise shell damage
· Frontline system consisted of three parallel lines
Ø Fire trench
Ø Travel Trench
Ø Support lines
· Usually 4 feet in depth, front trench consisting of
¨ A sandbag parapet to allow men to stand
¨ Drainage runnel to sumps
¨ Duckboards to walk on
¨ Firestep
¨ Ammunition niches
· Support line had latrines, stores and dugouts
· To dig a front-line trench system took 450 men six hours per 250 yards

Serving in the trenches

· Individuals served in the front line system relatively rarely
¡ Of the 20 000 in a division, only 2000 were in the front line at a time

· Noakes reckoned a typical month involved
Ø 4 days in the front line
Ø 4 in support
Ø 8 in reserve
Ø The remainder in rest

· The section of trench where a soldier served was crucial
¡ Near Ypres was bad
¡ Serving further South towards the Swiss Alps was the goods
Ø Alec Waugh – North of Baupaume à no-mans land was a mile wide, not a single causalty in a whole month

“If a man served near Festubert after 1915, however, the war passed him by”
– Dennis Winter, Death’s men


· Waves of infantry charge – honerable and traditional
· Artillery bombardments:
- most casulaties during the war were caused by Artillery bombardments
- Bombardments could last for days and weeks
- Purpose was to soften up trench lines for infantry charges

· Night raids
¡ Simplistic
· Prisoners, ammunition, food stores, rank thingies on the shoulder were targets

“Early raids were organised more like night raids on dormitories in public schools than serious exercises of war” – Dennis Winter, Death’s men

· Professionalism increased as the war extended itself.
¡ Ground photographed in advance à
¡ Mortar, machine guns, fields of fire, pre cut wire
¡ Timetables, training

Officer Herd “of the 650 men involved in the raid, just 194 returned safely” à success!!!


· Normal soldier
¡ Rifle à jams, slow loading
¡ Bayonet à 16 inches long, close combat, useful
¡ Hand grenade à preferred

· Machine gun à single gun could wipe out a platoon of 40 men

· Snipers
¡ Very effective, precise and devistating
¡ Worked in nests behind the front line
¡ British –
Ø peripatetic, amateur
¡ German –
Ø Superior
· Mauser – accurate to 1,000 yards
· Specially trained
· Assigned same section of trench

Sergeant Andrews – “87 not out” signboard

Psychological Effect

· Soldiers were unprepared for the strain of prolonged inactivity without the excitement of a “real” battle
· Overwhelming boredom at times

“No one had been prepared for vigilant inaction” – Dennis Winter, Death’s men

Living conditions

· …were intolerable
· Weather – Cold, damp
¡ The mud
Ø Boyd Orr reckoned 40 Englishmen a night were drowned in it
¡ Trench foot
· Sleep deprivation led men to become forgetful, sluggish and dangerously irrational
· Pests
¡ Lice abound à Psychological damage
¡ Rats feed on corpses

Disease and injury

· Infectious diseases widespread
¡ Pneumonia, frostbite, dysentery, TB
¡ Venereal Diseases – 48 508 in 1917 alone – Dennis Winter, Death’s Men

A G Butler, Official History of the Australian Army Medical Services 1914-1918

· Royal Army Medical Corps increased from
¡ 20 000 in 1914 to 150 000 in 1918
· 15 million splints issued
· 108 million bandages used

Overview of Strategies and tactics used to break the Stalemate

Major Offensives “Big pushes”

Battle of Verdun (21st February – 18th December 1916)
à German attempt to break the stalemate

Initial success through use of small group infiltration tactics.
Germans captured Fort Douaumont Feb 25th. Then, “Bleed them white
French rallying cry: “Ils ne passeront” – “They shall not pass” (symbolic importance)
Heroic French Counterattack (use of creeping barrage) à morale à Slogan “on les aura” (we’ll get ‘em) postcards & stamps.

Battle of the Somme (1st July – 18th November 1916)

The Anglo-French attempt to break through the German lines by means of a massive infantry assault” – British Historian Martin Gilbert

24th June 1917 – 7 days artillery bombardment à 1.7 million artillery shells
1st July – 57 000 casualties first day. Walkers vs 100 German machine gun nests.
Debut of tanks (ineffectual, but potential) Key turning point à need to change

Third Battle of Ypres [Battle of Passchendaele] 1917

17 days artillery, explosion of 19 mines à divert attention from disorganised French lines
4 250 000external image call_skype_logo.png4 250 000 shells over 12 days, impassible land
Tactical Innovation: No preparatory bombardment: troops attack as guns fire covered by creeping barrage of shells. 476 Tanks rolled forward in front of infantry.
9km land gained

New Weapons

Planes – 1914: mainly reconnaissance, 20 British pilots à 22 000
1918: 8 000 aircraft in action on Western Front, R planes Ground attack, Schlastas bombing and strafing at Cambrai 1917, devastation and info
Gas – Germans 1914 Neuve Chapelle, Mustard Gas
Flamethrowers – Instilled fear. Eg at Verdun. 20m two men

New Tactics

Defence in depth – yield up to 10 km (lure into killing zones – make up for fewer men with weapons’ fire power) then rapid counter attack
Allies adopt – absorb final German offensives and counter attack with motor vehicles movement.
Attrition – Britain and France à Mass colonies and supplies – naval blockade of Germany
Combined (all-arms) arms assault– Monash used at Hamel: British Tank Brigade, Air support: 198 pilots dropping 1300 25 pound bombs, 100 000 rounds of ammunition to resupply ground troops, 4 waves of troops behind a screen of tanks, covered by a creeping barrage.
Artillery - Used all throughout the war often pre infantry charge to prep the German lines to be finished off by foot soldiers. However due to the distances artillery were located away from the trenches they were often inacurrate and caused friendly casualties.
Trench Raids - During the start of the war they were compared to children having pillow fights, but towards the end of the war became extremely well planned and complex.

War of attrition

British naval blockade of Germany in effect from outbreak of the war
Laid mines – mine barrage of Dover strait, blockade of North Sea

Admiral Sir David Beatty, January 1917:

“Our armies might advance a mile a day and slay the Hun in thousands, but the real crux lies in whether we blockade the enemy to his knees or whether he does the same to us.”

Convoy system preserved vital trade routes fro U boats for British

Portugese Ambassador to Berlin, Sidono Pais, August 1916 :

“The German people are feeling the pinch of war. The lack of butter, bread and other commodities is severely felt”

Changing attitudes of Allied and German soldiers to war over time

Initial patriotism and noble ideals
Quick war, home by Christmas

Julian Grenfell, 1914:
“Like a big picnic”

Idealists flocked volunteer.
By September, 1914, 33 000 men were joining each day


Huge losses. Verdun - almost a million casualties on both sides for an advance of just a few kilometres.

Georges Duhamel, French doctor at Verdun, 1916:
“One eats, drinks, sleeps… one laughs and sings in the company of corpses”

Loss of Romantic Ideals
Nature of trench warfare
War poets, Wilfred Owen: “The old lie: Dulce et Decorum est”

“With crumps and lice and lack of rum,
He put a bullet through his brain” – Siegfried Sassoon, Suicide in the Trenches (1917)

German attitudes

Worried that the war would be over before they could participate

Fatalistic attitude, bolstered briefly by
German student “With what disillusionment I sit here with dread in my heart”
“This is pure murder, not war” – Morrow The Great war and Imperial history

Mutinies and Desertion
1917 May 3 - In the French army, the 21st Division refused to renew Nivelle's offensive on the Chemin des Dames, and its leaders were shot. Next the 120th Regiment refused, then the 128th. From the army 20,000 deserted. By June, 54 divisions or half the French army was in mutiny

1917 Sept. 5-23 British were killed in a mutiny of two companies in Boulogne. On Sept. 11, strikes began in Labor Battalions that would coninue to the end of the year, and mutinies in other British units continued through 1918. On Dec. 9, 1918, the Royal Artillery stationed at Le Havre burned buildings in a full-scale riot. The British army sent 3,894 men to prison for self-inflicted wounds.

1918 - Aug. - In the German army, mutinies were rare until the Allied offensive began to inflict large casualties and the German forces had no chance to win. The German naval mutiny at Kiel in Oct. was caused by the rumor of a suicide atttack planned against the British navy. The mutinies had significant results, producing reforms and new officers.


Key Points
Field Marshal Sir John French
Commander-in-chief, BEF, 1914-1915
· More concerned with problems in his own HQ than fighting with the enemy
· Wary of French allies and determined to minimise his own troop losses until forced by Foch to commit to the Ypres salient
· Heavy losses at Ypres and Loos in 1915 led to being replaced by Haig
General Sir Douglas Haig
Commander-in-chief, BEF, 1915-1918
· Accused of arrogance due to his commitment to the tactic of attrition – believed it was the only way to achieve a breakthrough of stalemate
· Large-scale slaughters of 1916-17 are linked to his command
· Maintain position following the Somme despite bad terms with Lloyd George
· Tactical inflexibility lessened in 1918 leading to some acknowledgement of his architecture of the final victory
Colonel-General Von Moltke
Chief of General Staff, 1906-1914
· Modifications to the Schlieffen Plan made it impossible for its success
· Little control over his field commanders
· Lost first Battle of the Marne, 1914
· Relaced by von Falkenhayn in late 1914
General Von Falkenhayn
Chief of General Staff, 1914-1916
· Key supporter of the Race to the sea that induced stalemate
· Believed that the Western Front was the priority and neglected the east
· Replaced by Hindenburg after failure at Verdun
Field Marshal Von Hindenburg and General Von Ludendorff
1916-18 Chief of General Staff & First Quartermaster General
· Worked together against the Russians and opposed von Falkenhayn’s policy of western priority
· Future tactics largely determined by Ludendorff
· Ludendorff developed the “defence in depth” and realised the tactical advantage of losing ground to the enemy
· German trench system was rebuilt and reinforced as the Hindenburg line
· Failed to recognized tanks as offensive weapons
· Spring offensive
General Joffre
Chief of General Staff 1911-16
· Created Plan XVII
· Early losses in the Alsace-Lorraine region
· Successful counter-offensives (Battle of the Marne)
· Counter-offensives 1915-1916 (lack of success)
General Nivelle
Chief of General Staff 1916-17
· Defence of Verdun
· Tactics of heavy artillery barrages followed by infantry attacks
· Major offensive failed in spring 1917 and further attacks led to mutiny of French forces
General Petain
Chief of Staff, 1917-18
· Successful defence of Verdun by artillery-based defence and effective supply and manpower deployment
· Restored morale within the French Army: improved conditions and limited forces to defensive operations
· Played subordinate role to Foch during the final Allied offensives of 1918.
General Foch
Supreme Allied Commander on the Western Front, 1918
· Convinced that the Germans would only be defeated by offensive tactics
· Co-ordinated overall strategy of the final counter-offensive against the Germans in 1918
Lieutenant-General Sir John Monash
Commander-in-Chief Australian Imperial Force 1918
· Outstanding field commander and tactician – Gallipoli, Messines and Ypres
· ‘co-ordinated assault’ at Hamel: artillery, machine guns, tanks, mortars, aeroplanes, infantry all used to gain maximum territory with minimal losses and without preliminary bombardment
General Pershing
Supreme Commander of American Expeditionary Force 1917-18
· Refused to commit troops until they were fully trained or deployed in sufficient numbers
· US troops would remain under US command alongside Allies

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