The Western Front
The Schlieffen Plan
At the start of the war Germany found itself surrounded by hostile forces: Russia on its eastern border and France in the west. Germany knew that even with Austria’s help, fighting a war on two fronts would be nearly impossible to win. Therefore, its military leaders decided on a plan called the Schlieffen Plan which basically worked like this. The bulk of German troops would make a surprise assault on France- by going through Belgium- to capture Paris in under six weeks. With France defeated, German military officials believed that Britain would complain about the Belgian invasion but would stay neutral; then all Germany’s attention could be turned to attacking Russia- a large, but very poor and very backward country. With the Schlieffen Plan, Germany was confident that the war would be won in time for the troops to get back to their families in time for Christmas dinner.
However, Britain didn’t stay neutral and France had a secret plan of their own- known by the rather simple name of Plan XVII. Plan XVII worked similar to the German Schlieffen Plan. The French troops would make a quick surge on the Belgian border (without invading) and drive the Huns back to Germany. Many people in Britain were against getting involved in a continental war. They were, after all, the largest empire in the world and had more important things to worry about. However, when reports came in of German atrocities against innocent Belgian citizens (known as the Rape of Belgium) the British couldn’t remain neutral. The British headlines carried stories like that of the university town of Louvain where on August 25th, German troops burned the university library, destroyed 1100 other buildings, and killed 209 civilians.
The result: Both the Schlieffen and Plan XVII failed (or you might say that they worked too well). Neither side could advance and when it became clear that a quick war would not be happening, the Allies and Central Powers dug trench lines to protect themselves from enemy fire. The Allies were able to halt the German advance near the Marne River just east of Paris. With astonishing speed- the French-Belgian border became a series of trenches, topped with barbed wire, and mounted with machine guns.
The problem for both sides is that the trenches made it impossible for to gain any ground, which is necessary if you want to win a war. New technologies would be developed to try to get past the enemies defenses. In August 1914, the French became the first to use poison gas against the enemy. The French gas was essentially tear gas, but by 1915 the Germans had taken it one step further with the development of chlorine gas which causes fluid to fill up in the lungs.
The British and French responded by using phosgene gas which is even more nasty than chlorine. In the beginning of the war gas masks were crude. Not to be outdone, the Germans created the infamous mustard gas in 1917 that causes blisters on the body and blindness. Many soldiers were instructed to use urine soaked rags to cover their nose and mouth. By 1918, better models of gas masks were standard issue for all soldiers.
By November 1914, the Western Front (as the French-Belgium border is better known) was a series of trenches the stretched for 475 miles from the North Sea to Switzerland. Both sides lobbed artillery, bombs, and poison gas at the enemy hoping to drive the enemy back. Territory gains were measured in feet rather miles. Losses with unthinkable. For example, at the Battle of Ypres (1914) 250,000 men on both sides were killed for control of less than a half mile of territory. The Great War would be fought until every last of the enemies soldiers were either killed or too weak to fight on.
The system of trenches were very complex. Most trenches were dug to a depth of ten feet (some German trenches were found to be 50 feet deep). The longer the stalemate on the Western Front dragged out, the more complex the system of trenches became. Trenches were connected by other trenches such as supply trenches or communications trenches. The walls were reinforced with wood to prevent collapse during a shelling. Some trenches had their own latrines, kitchens (not in the same spot, thankfully) medical stations (really just pits in the ground with medical supplies) and some even had electric lights. In between your line of trenches and the enemy was No Man’s Land, a gauntlet of death filled with landmines, mortar holes, barbed wire, and machine gunners trying to mow you down.
Life in the Trenches
Life in the trenches was spent constantly waiting for the enemy to come charging out. Usually, an attack was preceded by an artillery barrage to create confusion and weaken your defenses. Then the enemy would come pouring out of their “fox holes” and if they were lucky they were able to reach your line of trenches before your machine gunners killed the last guy. However, going “over the top” (slang for charging out of your trench) was far less common than you’d think. It might be days before the order was given to go running across No Man’s Land. In the meantime, soldiers spent their time in the trenches singing, playing cards, writing letters to loved ones, or telling stories. The term “BS”, short for, well you know, comes from this time and means to talk about nothing in particular.
However, boredom was often the least of your worries. More men died of illness than enemy fire. The trenches were nothing more than fancy holes in the ground. Quite the trenches always had a few inches of standing water mixed with mud, blood, urine, and other nasty bits. Although soldiers wore boots, it rarely protected them from Trench Foot, an infection caused by dirty water getting into open sores that could very often led to death or a loss of your foot. Of course, if Trench Foot didn’t get you then influenza, dysentery (caused by drinking bad water), and even cooties. No we didn’t just make that up- cooties were slang for the nits that would climb into your hair and clothing. Lice was also a common issue and many men chose to shave their heads to avoid risking infestation. Of course, no trench was complete without rats, lots of rats. The worst was the brown rat that could grow to the size of a house cat. With so many men dying from disease or a snipers bullet, the rats had plenty to feed on.
Check out this interactive
map of the western front.
German troops pose for a quick photo op on their way to the Western Front.
Graffiti on the train reads:
Ausflug nach Paris ("Trip to Paris");
Auf Wiedersehn auf dem Boulevard ("See you later on the Boulevard"); [obscured by flowers] the fight (The obscured part most likely reads Auf in [den Kampf] which means "Into battle"), mir juckt die Säbelspitze "my sabre tip is itching".
Take a Virtual Trench Tour
"The sky is about to become another battlefield no less important than the battlefields on land and sea.... In order to conquer the air, it is necessary to deprive the enemy of all means of flying, by striking at him in the air, at his bases of operation, or at his production centers. We had better get accustomed to this idea, and prepare ourselves."
- Giulio Douhet, Italian Office, 1909.
World War I could be called the first true modern war. New civilian inventions such as the airplane and automobile were fitted to military purposes to try to break the stalemate on the Western Front. Sticking your head above the trench line for a peek into No Man’s Land would likely get you killed. Air balloons and then airplanes were used as reconnaissance to get a better look at the enemy trenches. However, early planes were poorly built, made of wood and metal frames these bi-planes, maxed out at 100 MPH and could only hold one or two pilots- who flew in an open cockpit and no parachute. Being a fighter pilot in those days was truly an act of heroism. Many planes fell apart or caught on fire in midair! Then someone had the bright idea of fitting a machine gun or two onto an airplane and a whole new form of warfare was born. As airplanes began to be used to attack enemy trenches it was a natural leap to the total air warfare where enemy planes engaged in “dog fights” to see which side would be the master of the skies.
The Maxim gun was the main defensive weapon of World War I; Invented in the United States in 1884, the Maxim was stationed at trenches and surrounded by barbed wire (another American invention). Its purpose was to prevent the enemy from “going over the top”. The maxim weighed about 100 pounds (those fitted on fighter planes were lighter) and could fire at a rate of 450-600 rounds per minute.
In 1915, the stalemate on the Western Front inspired another icon of modern warfare-the tank. Vehicles (aka the horseless carriage) had only been around for a few decades and most were slow, clumsy contraptions. Winston Churchill (the future Prime Minster of Britain) had the bright idea of adapting the automobile to the battlefield.
These new machines called land ships, we know them better by their code name “tank”, ran on tracks, were covered in thick steel plates, and had an artillery gun mounted to the front. Most tanks weighed about four tons and could travel at a speed of 20 MPH and were big enough to carry one or two men. The tank could roll across No Man’s Land and crush the barbed wire defenses. For a while the British had the advantage, until the Germans developed their own tanks. In 1918, the first tank-to-tank battle took place. The British won that one.powerful mortars like the French Devil Gun could fire up to four miles!
The invention of the first successful airplane was invented in 1903 by the Wright Brothers just in time for the outbreak of World War One. Soon anyone who knew who to fly were being called up for this ultra- dangerous job. The job of a fighter pilot was the most risky job in the armed forces (after the guy sent out to No Man's Land to collect bodies). Everything could go wrong. These early planes had open cockpits and not too reliable engines. The biggest risk was shooting your own plane down. A poorly calibrated machine gun could rip your propeller to shreds.
The first dogfights came about during World War One. Apparently someone thought that the planes flying in close formation resembled dogs chasing one another's tails. The name stuck and to this day any combat between fighter planes is known as a dogfight.
World War One's a Gas!
Soldier's in the trenches were no dummy's. They knew that to leave the safety of their trench and go racing across No Man's Land meant certain death by machine gun fire. So, a stalemate pretty much took hold with both sides doing a lot of shelling without actually capturing much of anything. That is until the French came up with a deadly new solution: Mustard Gas.
Mustard Gas is a chemical mixture of carbon, sulfur, chlorine and hydrogen that gives off a noxious smell like mustard (hence the name). As soon as it enters the nose and eyes it begins to destroy the DNA effectively turning your cells to liquid goo. Victims of a mustard gas attack suffered horrible chemical burns, blindness, and death. The gas did the trick at first, it routed out the soldiers from the safety of their trenches where they could be mowed down. Of course, then someone came up with the gas mask and the stalemate began anew.
A British nurse treating mustard gas cases recorded:
"They cannot be bandaged or touched. We cover them with a tent of propped-up sheets. Gas burns must be agonizing because usually the other cases do not complain even with the worst wounds but gas cases are invariably beyond endurance and they cannot help crying out"