World War I saw fighting on a scale never before seen in history. The number of casualties was staggering. For all of the fighting, however, there was remarkably little progress made on either side. Massive battles that took months to fight ended with little or no territory changing hands. This is partially due to the use of trench warfare. As shown through an examination of the battles of Verdun and the Somme, the First World War commanders overestimated their own ability to win against soldiers who fought from trenches and bunkers, meaning that a situation of stalemate persisted throughout most of the war.
The Western Front took shape in 1914 as those fighting at the battle of the Narme attempted to keep each other from gaining control of key points in France. (Llewellyn, J., Et Al 2014. The Western Front). By the end of the war, it ran for 700 KM from Belgium into Southern Germany, through north-eastern France. Fighting along this front was intense and frequent, though little territory actually exchanged hands. At some points during the war, both sides developed a strategy which meant wearing the other side down rather than fighting pitched battles, (Llewellyn Et Al, 2014. Western Front), meaning that the fighting became drawn out and the cost in lives grew with little noticeable effect. Though both sides of the war through all of their available resources, civilian and military into providing men and weaponry, an effort that was later called Total War, (Llewellyn, Et Al, 2014. Total War), there was little movement as to the territory covered by the western front through the war, though the fighting was intense and the casualty count was massive.
One reason for the periods of stalemate was the use of trench warfare. The trenches were used because new weapons were being developed that could fire at rates that could easily overwhelm poorly armed foot soldiers and cavalry, and they needed a place to retreat from the gun fire. (Llewellyn Et Al, 2014. Trench Warfare). The trenches were so effective at their job that both sides recognized that taking the other would be difficult. (Llewellyn Et Al, 2014. Trench Warfare). The ability for soldiers on both sides to retreat to and hide in trenches made the task of defeat much more difficult, lengthening the war and producing a stalemate at several points during the fighting.
Two battles which show clearly the inability for either side to gain in the war were the Battle of the Somme and the Battle of Verdun. The Battle of Verdun began when a German officer promised to get all of the French forces situated in one place while conducting submarine warfare against the British. The fortress of Verdun was chosen because it was a symbolic landmark and because it was partially situated in German lines, meaning it could be attacked from three sides. (Duffy, 2009, Verdun). The German 3rd army fought against the French 5th Army on an eight-mile front, beginning on February 21, 1916. Because the French army had forewarning, they were able to fight off the Germans, who were expecting a quick victory. (Duffy, 2009. Verdun). By the end of the battle in early summer, there was little strategic or tactical effect, and a million casualties between both sides to show for the effort.
In an effort to draw German forces away from Verdun, the French and British forces teamed up at the River Somme to try and break through the German lines there. North of the river, 23 divisions of French and English soldiers fought 16 divisions of the German Second army. They fought from July 1 to November 18. (Duffy, 2009. Somme). By the end of the battle, the British had taken 12 KM of territory from the Germans. The battle ended due to snow. Casualties from that battle were also estimated to be a million, spread across both sides.
Both the Battle of the Somme and the Battle of Verdun ended in virtual stalemate. The soldiers who fought those and other battles had to fight and live in horrific conditions and died in the millions. In the end, their deaths meant little, because the battles ended, for the most part, with little or no actual strategic or territorial change in the western front.
- http://www.firstworldwar.com/battles/somme.htm. Retrieved July 22, 2016. Information in the Battle of the Somme.
- http://www.firstworldwar.com/battles/verdun.htm. Retrieved July 22, 2016. Information on the Battle of Verdun.
- http://alphahistory.com/worldwar1/trench-warfare/. Retrieved July 22, 2016. Information on Trench Warfare.
- http://alphahistory.com/worldwar1/western-front/ Retrieved July 22, 2016. Information on the Western Front.
- http://alphahistory.com/worldwar1/total-war/. Retrieved July 22, 2016. Information on total war.