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Why Was There A Stalemate On The Western Front

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As the prospect of war drew closer, the people of Britain were confident that if war began, it would all be over by Christmas and they were looking forward to see their troops come back with a victory. The British were very self-assured of their naval supremacy and had not only the largest, most powerful and well-trained navy in the world but also the most experienced in warfare. Everyone thought that the Triple Entente, (consisting of Britain, France and Russia), would be too great for Germany and its allies Italy and Austria-Hungary.

On the other hand, the Germans were so convinced about the effectiveness of the Schlieffen Plan, they failed to anticipate Britain entering the war in defence of “the scrap of paper” as the German Kaiser dismissively called the treaty that Britain had signed to defend Belgium’s neutrality. Germany’s initial plan to move through Belgium for a quick and decisive victory over France was met with strong resistance from Belgium, and British troops, much to Germanys surprise, helped defend them.

This gave Russia time to mobilize her troops and Germany, delayed by resistance and weakened by withdrawals decided to change their original plan, which was a big mistake. They chose to take a shorter route through the East of Paris instead of the West side. This change of plan gave the French and the British armies’ time to catch up with the Germans, and halt the attack on Paris at the Battle of the Marne. The German Army was forced to retreat 60kms where they dug trenches to protect themselves against the advancing Allies. Faced with an impenetrable German line the Allies themselves dug trenches.

The Commanders of the opposing sides realised that the advantage now lay to the North; the Channel Coast. A race began to take control of this position. Without weakening their grip on the defensive line of trenches, each army tried to outflank the other to gain this advantage. The ‘Race for the Sea’ ended at the first battle of Ypres – the bloodiest battle, with 90,000 British casualties and 250,000 French and German casualties. By the end of 1914 the offensive approach had been abandoned in favour of a defensive line of trenches that stretched along the Western Front from the North Sea to the Swiss border.

The result by the end of the year was the stalemate that all had dreaded and the quickly fading hope that the war would indeed be over before Christmas. Consequently, at the beginning of 1915, millions of men on both sides were stuck in an impasse. Neither army could move forward, since both lines of trenches were heavily defended and No Man’s Land was the easiest place to get picked off by enemy fire. The new and improved technologies of the machine gun, heavy artillery and barbed wire all made attacking very difficult, especially when there were no ways of transporting infantry quickly.

But that didn’t stop both armies from trying to end the stalemate. The British and French armies tried to launch a series of attacks designed to bring about a breakthrough. However they failed with horrific casualties. In the face of these loses, politicians and Generals considered that the war had now turned into a war of attrition (wearing the enemy down so that supplies and men ran out first). The Generals soon realised that these attacks were no where near as effective as previously planned so a change of tactic was introduced: new weapons. So the race was on to be the first side to outmanoeuvre the other by finding an effective weapon.

The average soldier carried with them a rifle, a bayonet and a hand grenade – very efficient for handling close-up combat but no use out on No Man’s Land. As a result, the Generals were faced with a problem. What was the best weapon or tactics to use in this situation? Mining under trenches – Both sides used the experience of miners to dig tunnels under the enemy trenches and create a cavern which was loaded with explosive and detonated. This was not always successful but added greatly to the fear and stress factors of life in the trenches and a tired enemy is easier to kill!

Bombard adversary trenches and soldiers with artillery shells – artillery guns fired shells from behind lines. The bombardment of the trenches was supposed to destroy the barbed wire and allow an easy crossing over No Man’s Land. The bombardment of the soldiers was a successful killing method but it called for extreme accuracy or you could end up killing your own men. One and three-quarter million shells were fired by the British alone in the three days “softening up” German positions for the offensive on the Somme. Using Gas – the use of gases such as mustard gas was an option that both sides came to use.

Gas was highly feared but dangerous to use as it was often dependent on the vagaries of the wind. If the wind direction changed it could be blown back upon your own troops. Drive tanks over No Man’s Land towards adversary trenches – the immediate impact of the first tanks terrified the German infantry, who ran away. But after their initial use, the Germans came to realise how vulnerable and slow they were and came to know how to deal with them. Also, the tanks were slow and were too few in number, so they broke down all too easily on the muddy battlefield.

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