Lest We Forget
OVERVIEW OF WORLD WAR 1
These extracts taken from An Illustrated Companion to the First
World War by Anthony Bruce.
The total cost of the war, in terms of military dead and wounded, can only be estimated very imprecisely . because of omissions and inaccuracies in the official records of some of the belligerents. Up to 13 million combatants may have been killed on the battlefield or died from disease, but some authorities give a significantly lower figure
The losses of individual countries between 1914-18 were as follows:
*(includes Australia, New Zealand, Canada and other Empire countries of the time) - see Voluntary Aid Detachment
The failure of the Allies or the Germans to outflank the other during the 'Race to the Sea' (15 September- 24 November) marked the end of the war of movement on the Western Front. Separated by a narrow strip of land, the opposing armies created a line of static trenches that ran from the Belgian coast to the Swiss border, passing across northern France. A strange episode in the history of trench warfare was the Christmas truce of 1914 during which British and German troops left their positions and fraternised for several days. During the first winter both sides consolidated their initial positions by joining unconnected trenches together. The trench system typically consisted of three lines - front, support and reserve trenches - in close proximity; they were linked by communication trenches to the rear areas. Normally about seven feet in depth, the trenches had a parapet of earth or sand bags to protect the defending troops from the enemy's small arms fire.
Accommodation for the rank and tile was very primitive at first and often consisted of no more than a hole in the trench wall. Protection was gradually improved but it was not until 1916 that the Allies provided a shell-proof cover, although the Germans had introduced a concrete dug-out during the previous year. Troops normally spent eight days at a time in accommodation of this kind, with a similar period in reserve before moving into rest camp.
At the front they were in constant danger from artillery shells, mortars and snipers' bullets. They also faced aerial attack as the war progressed. Food was very restricted because of supply problems and disease was rife in the damp, rat-infested conditions. Many troops suffered from 'trench foot', a painful swelling of the feet.
At the heart of this defensive system was the heavy machine-gun, which dominated the battlefield with its continuous fire. The Germans, who pursued a largely defensive strategy until 1918, were the acknowledged masters of machine-gun tactics. Heavy howitzers firing high explosive shells also had an important defensive role, but the principal task of artillery was to prepare the ground for major infantry assaults. Another essential feature of the trench system was the barbed wire that both sides laid in no man's land, separating the opposing armies which were normally no more than 250 yards apart. With troops protected from direct attack from small arms fire, a number of specialist weapons quickly appeared, including hand grenades and mortars.
From 1915 the British and French launched a series of offensives designed to recover the territory lost in 1914. Each attack followed a similar pattern. An artillery bombardment marked the beginning of an offensive. Once it had softened up the enemy's front line, troops cut gaps in the barbed wire, and the infantry moved forward across no man's land. Before 1918 they were rarely able to do more than breach the first defensive line before the momentum of the offensive had been lost. Artillery could not completely obliterate the enemy's forward positions and the superiority of the surviving defensive weapons, when combined with a ready supply of reserves, ensured that the attacking infantry was pushed back with heavy losses. As a result, the temporary trenches of 1914-15 became permanent and a breakthrough did not materialise until 1918.
In the absence of an alternative strategy, the war of attrition continued, with losses mounting rapidly as various methods of overcoming the deadlock were sought. Gas was used by both sides hut soon lost its impact with the development of counter-measures. Tunnelling was an important feature of trench warfare but it was a slow and costly method of gaining ground. The most notable example of the use of tunnelling was the Messines ridge operation (June 1917) when nearly a million pounds of high explosive were detonated.
Artillery bombardments assumed massive proportions as German defences were strengthened, while gunnery techniques were gradually improved. Important use was made of the rolling barrage and aerial reconnaissance. However, defensive measures were also evolving during the war, the most important innovation being the German system of defence in depth. The Hindenburg Line, which was constructed in 1917, replaced the earlier linear trench lines. Consisting of three defensive areas several miles in depth, it constituted a formidable barrier to an attacking force. It did not seek to defend every inch of ground but tried to prevent the enemy advancing through the zones. One of its main features was the removal of the majority of the defending troops out of enemy artillery range.
The Allied equivalent to this flexible system was still under construction when the Germans launched their offensive against the Allied trenches in the spring of 1918. Using new techniques to overcome the power of the defence, including a surprise artillery bombardment, storm troops and highly flexible tactics, the Germans at first seemed to have achieved a breakthrough. However, the effective Allied deployment of reserves and German logistical problems - transport and supply - meant that the Allied line still remained unbroken. The counter-offensive that followed the last German assault in July finally broke the trench barrier. The combined effect of the tank, which presented 'an offensive antidote to defensive strength' and overwhelming Allied numerical superiority together restored the war of movement on the Western Front.
The French were the first combatants to use chemical weapons, firing tear gas grenades as early as August 1914. At Neuve Chapelle, in October 1914, the Germans fired shrapnel shells treated with a chemical irritant and (luring the following January they used tear gas shells on the Eastern Front. However, poisonous gas was not used on a significant scale until 22 April 1915, when the Germans used chlorine against British and French positions on the Ypres salient. More than 500 cylinders were opened and their contents - 168 tons of pressurised chlorine gas -were forced by wind on to the Allied line. Chlorine results in death if inhaled for more than a minute or two and this first operation cost the lives of 5,000 troops, with another 10,000 injured. The attack produced a break in the line but the Germans, without sufficient reserves, were unable to exploit their success; the opportunity for a decisive result did not reoccur because an antidote was soon to be available.
The first chlorine attack led almost immediately to the development of fairly primitive protective measures: within days handkerchiefs soaked in bicarbonate of soda were in use. A more elaborate device - the small box respirator - did not appear until August 1916; it was subject to continuous improvement and in its final form incorporated chemical solutions and charcoal filters to neutralise the weapon.
Following the first British use of chlorine gas - at Artois-Loos, on 25 September 1915 - it was employed frequently by both sides. One of its major disadvantages was the fact that it could be blown back on to the positions of those making the attack, as indeed happened at Loos. This difficulty was overcome when the Germans started, in July 1915, enclosing chlorine in an artillery shell; mortar and projector shells were also used by both sides for this purpose.
There was also a need to respond to improvements in respirator design by introducing new types of gas. Phosgene, which first appeared in December 1915, is, like chlorine, a choking gas, but is more deadly. Mustard gas, first introduced to the battlefield by the Germans in July 1917, was the most widely used toxic substance of the war. Odourless and virtually colourless, it causes severe burning to the skin and respiratory system; it evaporates slowly and effective protection is difficult.
Gas was regarded by the combatants as a useful 'tactical accessory', rather than as a weapon that might itself have ended the deadlock of trench warfare on the Western Front. Germany's reputation was damaged by her first use of gas, although 'both experience and statistics proved it be the least inhumane of modern weapons'. Gas attacks caused at least a million casualties during the war.
WAR IN THE AIR
Military aviation was still in its infancy when the First World War began, only 11 years after the Wright brothers' flight. Its role was expected to be limited to reconnaissance activities in support of ground forces and the number of operational aircraft available to the air forces of the major powers was small. During the initial war of movement on the Western Front, they quickly demonstrated their value in providing ground forces with regular information about enemy troop dispositions. As trench warfare developed towards the end of 1914, the cavalry was unable to carry out its traditional reconnaissance role and aircraft provided the only reliable source of information about the enemy's activities.
Once aerial photography was introduced it was possible to build up a more systematic picture of the enemy's trench system than had been possible by direct personal observation. As heavy artillery became increasingly important in the trenches, the role of the air services was expanded to include the spotting of enemy batteries and the ranging of guns on to targets.
With aircraft demonstrating their value over the trenches of the Western Front, each side sought to protect its own machines and destroy the opposition. The typical two-seater tractor biplane of the period was not designed for air combat and initially fighting in the air was sporadic. Hand-held weapons were widely used at first, although observers were soon equipped with machine-guns. However, real air combat could not begin until specially designed fighter aircraft had been developed. These needed to be equipped with forward-firing machine-guns synchronised to fire through the airscrew. The French had fitted a crude device to the Morane Saulnier L in the spring of 1915, but it was the Germans who produced the first effective synchronising mechanism. It was first used on the Fokker El monoplane and quickly transformed Germany's position in the air.
The RFC's reconnaissance machines were not equipped to deal with this challenge and their opponents had established air superiority towards the end of 1915. The first German fighter aces, notably Boelcke and Immelmann, developed the tactics that were to provide the basis of aerial combat for the remainder of the war. Changes in organisation soon followed as the first specialist fighter units appeared and formation flying was developed. The primary tactical unit was to be the flight of six aircraft.
The British and French responded by developing their own new machines, including the notable Nieuport Scout, and by continuing offensive action over German territory even in the most unfavourable circumstances. As a result, the Germans lost their early dominance and suffered badly at Verdun and during the Battle of the Somme, and Allied reconnaissance machines were able to operate with little risk of interception. In response the German air force was reorganised and re-equipped with fast and manoeuvrable D-type fighters, which were produced in much larger quantities. By the end of 1916 the Allies had again lost the initiative and suffered heavily as a result. 'Bloody April' 1917 was the lowest point in the fortunes of the RFC.
The arrival of the Sopwith Camel, the SE5 and other machines gradually redressed the balance. In the final phase of the war both sides massed large numbers of aircraft together in an attempt to achieve dominance over the battlefields. Despite the introduction of new machines, including the fine Fokker DVII, the Germans were unable to match the Allies' supply of manpower and material in the closing months of the war and they lost control of the skies permanently. In these favourable circumstances, the use of machine-guns and bombs against enemy troops became increasingly important in the Allied offensives of 1918.
The development of strategic bombing was another major feature of the air war. Both Britain and Germany launched air strikes against their opponents' territory during the first few months of the war, although it was not until 1915 that regular sorties by Zeppelins began. There were 51 airship raids on England during the period 1915-18, causing over 550 civilian deaths. When the airship became vulnerable to attack because of improvements in aircraft performance the Germans switched to the new heavy bomber - the Gotha IV - that had been developed. Raids on England began in May 1917 and continued for a year, although improved British air defences forced the enemy to abandon daylight bombing after a few months. The RFC responded with its own strategic bombing programme but the scale of its operations never matched expectations.
Neither side secured any real gains from these campaigns although the future potential of striking directly at an enemy's human and industrial resources had been established. Innovation was also a feature of naval aviation during the war. The British service pioneered strategic bombing and demonstrated the potential of anti-submarine patrols. There were also numerous experiments in operating aircraft from ships, although their immediate operational impact was limited.
During the course of the First World War the role of the air services of the major powers had been transformed: by the end of the war they were separate services operating independently in a variety of roles rather than as the reconnaissance branches of their respective armies. The creation of the Royal Air Force in April 1918 as an independent service in its own right was a recognition of this change. A measure of their impact was the fact that, by 1918, armies could no longer 'operate successfully without air superiority having first been achieved over the battlefield'.
CHRONOLOGICAL LIST OF EVENTS - WESTERN FRONT
Last updated 28 October, 2022