WW1 started as a war of quick lightning thrusts and high mobility, but degenerated into an astonishingly protracted war of static battle lines. The Western Front was the name given to the line of trenches stretching from the Belgium coast to Verdun. Following the Battle of Marne and Aisne of 1914, both sides dug in believing trenches to be temporary. The Front stretched for hundreds of miles, meshed with complex trench systems and barbed wire.
The military plans (Schlieffen, XVII…) had established a strict “war by timetable”. However, aside from the quick mobilisation of nations, the plans failed. They were proved to be useless as modern warfare removed the momentum from conflict.
A poverty of strategic thought led to the stalemate. Both the British and French commanders were afflicted by the cult of the offensive. French generals Joffre and Nivelle were obsessed with the philosophy of esprit de corps – mass infantry charges (a reluctance to charge was linked to defeatism). The British generals shared this outlook, as is superlatively demonstrated by Haig’s “Big Push”. The aim to engage the enemy and bleed them proved successful in the end, however it needed time over years to prove so.
The supremacy of defence due to technology helped prolong the war. WW1 was the first total war- a conflict between highly industrialized economies and militaries. Factories churned out ammunition; mass shells and people from both sides were conscripted. Barbed wire, machine guns, gas and rifles held out enemy advances. The absence of super weapons such as the tank and bomber were not yet developed and thus failed to counter these defensive tactics. The ability of the machine gun was equivalent to half a company of riflemen. Thus, sides were able to repel the enemy with relative ease.
The Somme illuminates the verity of the artilleries misjudgements. A massive 8-day bombardment of the Germans did very little, with 1/3 of the shells failing to explode. This also suggests the effectiveness of dugouts. The German dugouts were up to 8 metres deep, thus very few shells hit the troops.
Technology of mass transit systems also prolonged the war. Railroads and roads were used to bring ammunition and troops quickly to the front, to restock losses. Added to the unwillingness of generals to follow up on small victories, this led to neither side being outweighed by the other.
Attempts to break the stalemate
Both sides attempted to end the war quickly, however many of these strategies did the opposite. The development of tanks, gas and aerial support all served the purpose of shortening the war. Both the Battle of the Somme and Verdun represent the respective mass pushes to topple the enemy. However the Somme was left unchecked despite the huge casualties. Generals were set to sacrifice troops, and time for eventual strategic victory. The 1917 Battle of Cambrai also illustrates the successful use of the tank to mobilise the war. Entente tanks pushed through the German lines, giving an indication of how future battles would be fought. Total war- the attempt of both sides to sink all efforts to the waging of war, was for the purposes of breaking the stalemate. Troops were conscripted en masse, while an economic war was being fought. The naval blockades helped starve the enemy.
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