Major Battles of WWI

The casualties suffered in the First World War were of a scale never before experienced. Great Britain and her Empire lost over 1,000,000 combatants; France, 1,300,000; Russia, 1,700,000; Germany and its allies, 3,500,000. Losses in life per day of the war exceeded 5,500.

Although each soldier would have been involved in some form of continual conflict whilst serving on the front-line (e.g. trench raids, snipers, shelling), it is possible to distinguish major battles (or pushes) whose names have gone down in history as some of the bloodiest conflicts ever waged. Below are details on five of the main battles involving British troops and their allies.

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The Battle of Verdun, 1916

A major military engagement of World War I, the Battle of Verdun was a ten month long ordeal between the French and German armies. The battle was part of an unsuccessful German campaign to take the offensive on the western front. Both the French and German armies suffered incredibly with an estimated 540,000 French and 430,000 German casualties and no strategic advantages were gained for either side. The Battle of Verdun is considered to be one of the most brutal events of World War I, and the site itself is remembered as the "battlefield with the highest density of dead per square yard." (Horne, 1)

In the years preceding World War I, Germany became Europe's leading industrial power. France felt increasingly threatened by German industrialization; and although France ruled the second largest colonial empire in the world (Britain was the largest), French leaders realized that France could not protect itself on its own from the burgeoning power of Germany.

As a response to the German threat of invasion, France built a continuous line of sunken forts in the hopes that an invading army would not be able to manoeuvre through it. The line of fortifications extended from the Swiss frontier to the French city of Verdun, thus making Verdun a vital strong point for the French war effort.

The German attack began on February 21, 1916 with an intense artillery bombardment of the forts surrounding Verdun. The French army retreated to predetermined positions while the German army pounded through the French lines. On February 25 1916, Fort Douaumont, near Verdun, surrendered to German forces. On that same day, General Joseph Joffre, the French Commander and Chief, dedicated to ceasing further French retreat, assigned General Henri Philippe Petain to command the French army at Verdun. Petain fought with the motto " Ils ne passeront pas," which means, "They shall not pass!" While the exhausted German army was lingering at Fort Douaumont, Petain restructured his troops and transported reserves to the region continuously.

On March 6 1916, the German commanders ordered an attack, and on March 22, 1916, another French fort near Verdun, Harcourt, surrendered to the German army. A week later, on March 22 1916, Malancourt, a French fort near Verdun, had fallen to the Germans. Although three French forts near Verdun had capitulated to German forces, Verdun itself remained undefeated.

German attacks ensued, but by April, the French Air Force had secured the sky over Verdun, which would help the French to successfully defend the area. However, the French forts of Thiaumont and Vaux had fallen to the German army in June, although the pressure on France had diminished due to the British attack on German forces near the Somme River. This British attack and a Russian offensive in the east forced the German army to transfer troops away from Verdun. These events put Germany in a defensive mode, and the French quickly took the offensive.

By November of 1916, Fort Vaux, Fort Thiaumont, and Fort Douaumont had been reclaimed for France. By December, the French had advanced to their February 1916 lines, their original position. No new advantage had been gained for either side.

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The Battles of the Marne, 1914, 1918

On September 4, 1914, the rapid advances of the German army through Belgium and northern France caused panic in the French army and troops were rushed from Paris in taxis to halt the advance. Combined with the BEF (British Expeditionary Force) the Germans were eventually halted and the War settled into the familiar defensive series of entrenchment's.

Ironically, by the end of May, 1918, the Germans had again reached the Marne after the enormous successes of Ludendorff's offensives of that year. The intervening four years had cost hundreds of thousands of lives and the armies were still, literally, exactly where they had started.

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The Battles of Ypres, 1914, 1915, 1917

There were in fact three battles fought around the Ypres salient during the War. The first, in 1914 was an attempt by the BEF to halt the rapid advances made by the Germans. The second, in 1915, was notable for the first use of poison gas by the Germans. However, it is the long-planned offensive of July 31, 1917, that holds the most significance. Here, a combination of over-ambitious aims, appalling weather conditions, and misguided persistence by Haig led to horrific losses. By the time the offensive was called off total casualties for both sides had been approximately 250,000. The horrors of the battle, in which men drowned in liquid mud has become synonymous with the images of the War. One of the central objectives, the village of Passchendale (eventually taken on November 6 by the Canadians), lent its name to the whole conflict.

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The Battle of the Somme, 1916

At 0730 hours on the 1st July, 1916, after a weeklong artillery bombardment launched the now infamous "Big Push" attack across the river Somme. With the French Army being hard-pressed to the south at Verdun the British intended to breakthrough the German defences in a matter of hours.

The mistrust that High Command had of the so-called "New Armies" manifested itself in the orders to the troops to keep uniformed lines and to march towards the enemy across no-man's land. This, coupled with the failure of the artillery bombardment to dislodge much of the German wire, or to destroy their machine-gun posts, led to one of the biggest slaughters in military history.

When the attack began the Germans dragged themselves out of their dugouts, manned their posts and destroyed the oncoming waves of British infantry.

After the first day, with a gain of only 1.5km, the British had suffered 57,470 casualties. Despite this, Haig pressed on with the attack until November 19th of the same year. For the meagre achievements, total losses on the British and Imperial side numbered 419,654 with German casualties between 450,000 and 680,000. When the offensive was eventually called off the British were still 3 miles short of Bapaume and Serre, part of their first-day objectives.

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The Battle of Cambrai, 1917

On November 20, 1917, the British launched the first full-scale offensive that was designed exclusively to accommodate the British secret weapon, the tank (so-called because when the first shipment came from England they were described as water tanks to maintain secrecy). A surprise artillery barrage started the offensive and 476 tanks, packed tightly for a mass attack moved against the German lines. Supported by infantry the gains were dramatic, breaching the almost impregnable Hindenberg line to depths of 4-5 miles in some places. However, these gains seemed to surprise British High Command equally as much as the Germans, and the following cavalry failed to take advantage. Nevertheless, Cambrai demonstrated how a well-thought out attack, combining tanks en masse with surprise, could be used to break the trench deadlock.

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Copyright(c) by R.Brouwer 2001
E-mail: Rene.Brouwer@worldwar1.nl