The Stalemate on the Western Front: Causes and Impacts

Explain how the Schlieffen plan was meant to work.

The Schlieffen plan, which was devised by Count Alfred von Schlieffen, Chief of the General Staff of the German Army, had the objective of securing a rapid and successful victory for Germany in case of a war in 1914.

If a war were to occur, Germany would find itself in conflict with both France in the west and Russia in the east. Acknowledging their inability to fight on two fronts simultaneously, German generals devised the Schlieffen plan as a solution.

Germany devised a daring strategy to conquer France before Russia's invasion preparation. They anticipated that Russia's mobilization would be time-consuming, thus Germany planned to focus their troops on assaulting France while neglecting the eastern border's defense. Nevertheless, if Russia were to mobilize rapidly, Germany would become exposed to an invasion.

After the Franco-Prussian war in 1871, France constructed robust defenses on its border with Germany to discourage future invasions. Surprisingly, instead of targeting the heavily fortified Alsace-Lorraine border, the German army opted to invade France via neutral Belgium.

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Their tactic involved encircling Paris within six weeks using overwhelming force and compelling France to surrender. Consequently, Germany could then redeploy their troops to Germany and focus on countering the Russian army in the East.

The success of the Schlieffen Plan relied heavily on multiple assumptions being correct, making it a significant gamble for Germany.

The belief was that Belgium would not be able to resist a German invasion, and no thought was given to the possibility of British intervention.

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Additionally, it was assumed that taking control of Paris would lead to France's defeat. However, the success of the plan relied on Russia's mobilization time, which was a crucial assumption for its implementation.

It was clear before the implementation of the Schlieffen plan that its success depended on certain assumptions. However, these assumptions would have to remain accurate for the plan to be effective, thereby revealing its inherent flaws from the beginning.

Why did a stalemate develop on the Western Front?

Both sides expected a mobile style of fighting at the beginning of the war. However, the introduction of devastating technology and efficient weapons made it challenging for either side to advance, resulting in substantial casualties. As a result, the trench system was eventually developed.

The creation of the deadlock on the Western Front was influenced by unforeseen impacts of modern technology on warfare, along with other contributing factors and events.

The failure of the Schlieffen plan was the main reason for the stalemate. Many assumptions made by Germany were incorrect, such as not anticipating resistance from Belgium or involvement of the British Army. As a result, these factors hindered Germany's advance into France and decreased their chances of defeating France within six weeks as planned.

Despite being outnumbered ten to one, the Belgium army successfully slowed down the rapid German advance, a crucial factor for the success of the Schlieffen Plan. The involvement of the British in the conflict was unexpected, given that the British-Belgium treaty had been established in 1839. The Kaiser doubted that Britain would go to war over a mere "scrap of paper." Nevertheless, Britain upheld their alliance with Belgium and on August 4th, 1914, declared war on Germany. They promptly dispatched 120,000 troops across the channel to confront the advancing German forces.

Surprisingly, the Russian army mobilized faster than Germany had expected. As a consequence, many German soldiers were redeployed from the west to counter the Russian invasion in the east. This significantly diminished the strength of the German invasion into France, which forced the German troops to shift their advance to the east of Paris, diverging from their initial objective. Consequently, this stretched the German supply lines, leading to the eventual exhaustion of the German army after weeks of intense fighting.

At the Battle of the Marne on September 6th, 1914, the German 1st Army encountered French troops who were returning from the unsuccessful Plan XVII. This encounter led to approximately 250,000 casualties for both sides. While the German army was not defeated, their aspirations for a swift and conclusive triumph were shattered. Consequently, the German forces retreated to elevated terrain and proceeded to create a series of trenches as a defensive measure. Subsequently, the British and French forces emulated this approach, but they were compelled to construct their trenches in the flood-prone lower ground.

The commencement of trench warfare on the Western Front initiated a period that would endure for four years. Throughout this time, the opposing factions consistently enhanced and fortified their trench networks, resulting in both Allied and German forces becoming firmly entrenched. The effectiveness of a solitary assault or offensive to dislodge them became exceedingly improbable, leading to minimal territorial advancements. This impasse persisted until the ultimate German offensive in March 1918.

Why was the stalemate broken on the Western Front?

The end of the war was signaled by the German surrender on November 11, 1918. This momentous event was a result of various significant factors and events that played a role in bringing about the armistice. While some factors had more influence than others, their combined impact ultimately led to the conclusion of the war.

The outcome of World War I was significantly influenced by the introduction of modern technology, such as gas shells and tanks. These advancements aimed to break the stalemate and were particularly focused on 1916 when tanks were first used in the Battle of the Somme. However, despite surprising the Germans, there were insufficient tanks to make a significant impact. Many encountered challenges in the dangerous 'no-man's land' or got stuck in shell holes, making them highly unreliable. Furthermore, Allied commanders lacked experience in effectively employing this new form of warfare, resulting in the destruction of numerous tanks.

By 1918, significant improvements had been made to tanks and their importance on the battlefield was widely recognized. These tanks were used to break through German lines and provide protection for troops against machine gun fire. The Battle of Cambrai on November 20, 1917, showcased this significance as 378 tanks advanced six kilometers into German territory. However, the Allies still had not perfected tank usage and often lacked enough infantry support for tank assaults, resulting in gaps in their lines. Despite the losses experienced at Cambrai, it effectively demonstrated the decisive impact that tanks could have in battle.

From 1914 onwards, the implementation of trench warfare resulted in a deadlock where both factions were only able to achieve minor gains. The initial anticipation of a war characterized by movement was quickly proven incorrect within a few weeks of combat. Nevertheless, the utilization of innovative weapons and technology enabled either side to advance and seize enemy trenches. The development of gas shells exemplified this progress.

The Germans employed gas during the Second Battle of Ypres on April 22, 1915. They initially utilized mild tear gas, but quickly switched to chlorine and mustard gas shells. The objective behind the gas attack was to compel the enemy to vacate their trenches, rendering it a hazardous yet lethal weapon. These successful tactics demonstrated that trench warfare could not persist in this fashion, thereby aiding in the eventual resolution of the deadlock.

Breaking the stalemate was crucial, and America's entry into the war played a significant role. Until then, America had remained uninvolved in the fighting in Europe. Nevertheless, Germany took the gamble of attempting to compel Britain to surrender by blocking its supplies and targeting American cargo ships delivering resources across the Atlantic. The German high command understood that this move carried risks but hoped for a German victory before America could have a substantial influence on the conflict.

Germany started unrestricted submarine warfare in February 1917, allowing German U-boats to sink any ships suspected of carrying supplies to Britain.

Germany's attempt to take another risk during the war was unsuccessful because America unexpectedly entered on April 6th, 1917, before Germany could potentially achieve victory.

By March 1918, America was able to deploy over 250,000 American troops to the Western Front despite the lengthy mobilization process.

Germany was at great risk due to America's involvement in the war, as it had both a powerful military and economic strength. This posed a significant danger to Germany's chances of victory, resulting in disastrous consequences for the country.

The British Navy played a vital role in breaking the deadlock of the war by implementing a naval blockade around German ports. This measure sought to hinder the flow of supplies into Germany, leading to economic and military decline. The scarcity of resources would impede Germany's capacity to sustain their troops on the Western Front, as it would limit access to crucial provisions and ammunition for the German army stationed in France.

The Allies, by strategizing to fully exploit the blockade and incorporating the new American force, found themselves in a favorable position to undermine the German army and shift the momentum of the war.

Due to the scarcity of food reaching Germany, the Naval blockade led to furious uprisings in Berlin and other German cities. The British Naval blockade caused more than 250,000 Germans to die from starvation. As a result, the authorities were forced to intervene in order to alleviate the strain imposed on Germany by the blockade and prevent a potential collapse.

Germany initiated a large-scale attack on the Western Front as a reaction to the growing numbers of Allied forces and the pressure from the Naval blockade. The withdrawal of Russia from the war and Lenin's rise to power led to a cessation of hostilities on the Eastern front, resulting in an excess of soldiers who could now be sent to fight in the west. With their forces exceptionally formidable, German commanders were confident that they could effectively repel the Allies before the port blockades and incoming American troops could exert any influence.

General Ludendorff gave orders to train numerous stormtrooper units, which were specialized troops in close range combat. They were employed to assault the entire length of the Allied line.

The Germany army launched a massive attack on the Western Front in March 1918, using most of its military force. Despite being a risky move, there were no other options available to secure a quick victory, as the blockade of ports and the surge in Allied soldiers were already undermining Germany's military power.

The effectiveness of the stormtrooper attacks resulted in a successful advancement of the German front line, with a progress of 60km within a week. By April, the German army came within 80km of their initial target, Paris. Consequently, the Allies were forced to retreat over the territory they had expended years of effort to secure.

Nevertheless, due to their swift progress, the German lines stretched too far, leading to insufficient supplies reaching the German army in France as a result of limited food imports.

The German advance was stopped, and this led to a fierce counter-attack from a combination of British, French, and American forces.

The Hidenburg line, a heavily fortified defense system, was initially retreated by the Germans. However, it was ultimately seized by the overwhelming force of the Allies on September 26, 1918. As a result of this victory, over 400,000 German soldiers were captured.

Germany's offensive had devastating consequences, causing the death of more than 1 million German soldiers. This dire situation ultimately forced Germany to seek peace, prompting the Kaiser to flee to Holland. As a result, an Armistice agreement was signed on November 11th, 1918, officially ending the war.

The end of the stalemate in World War I can be attributed to a series of events and factors, including the German offensive in 1918 that broke the trench system and led to the end of the stalemate. The British counter-attacks also played a role in turning the war into a war of movement again, just before the armistice. However, this offensive would not have happened without other contributing factors discussed earlier such as new technology, strain caused by American entry into the war and port blockades. These factors compelled German commanders to respond with an offensive that ultimately ended the war.

Despite the offensive being the primary factor, the breaking of the stalemate in 1918 would not have occurred without the impact of the other factors. This indicates that all of them played a significant role in breaking the stalemate.

Updated: Feb 16, 2024
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The Stalemate on the Western Front: Causes and Impacts. (2016, Jul 22). Retrieved from

The Stalemate on the Western Front: Causes and Impacts essay
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