The Western Front was always the decisive theatre of the First World War. It was here that the most powerful protagonists – Britain, France and Germany – concentrated the bulk of their resources, and it was here that the war was decided.
When Britain declared war on Germany on 4 August 1914, the small professional volunteer army it sent to France numbered just 80,000. By 1918, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in France and Belgium numbered approximately two million. The scale and intensity of the fighting on the Western Front was completely unprecedented. So too were the casualties – British Empire dead in this theatre numbered more than half a million.
The Western Front was always the decisive theatre of the First World War. It was here that the most powerful protagonists – Britain, France and Germany – concentrated the bulk of their resources, and it was here that the war was decided. Allied forays to Gallipoli, Salonika and elsewhere remained sideshows.
The Western Front solidified into two lines of opposing trenches in the autumn and winter of 1914. The peculiar nature of the trench warfare that evolved there owed its origin to the technology of the time. Machine-guns and accurate, rapid-firing rifles meant dug-in infantry could only be dislodged with great loss to the attacking force. Tanks and aircraft were not advanced enough to break the deadlock. Heavy artillery, supplied with high-explosive and shrapnel shells by rail, dominated the battlefield and decimated units moving across No Man's Land. Battlefield communications, by contrast, remained extremely limited. They relied on telephone lines that were easily cut by enemy bombardments, runners, semaphore, and even carrier pigeons. This made it extremely difficult for commanders to improvise on the battlefield, or exploit temporary advantages once the battle had begun.
The British were responsible for the Western Front's northern flank, from the River Somme to the Channel coast. Around the ancient Flemish city of Ypres, soon known to Tommies as 'Wipers', the front formed a protruding bulge, or salient. This came under sustained German attack in 1914 and 1915 - the First and Second Battles of Ypres. In both battles British Empire and French forces clung on desperately, despite the Germans' first use of poison gas here in April 1915.
In 1916, the focus shifted south to the Somme sector. It was here that General Sir Douglas Haig, commander of the BEF, planned a huge British-led offensive that he hoped would break the deadlock of trench warfare. But despite a week-long, earth-trembling artillery bombardment against the German lines, and the detonation of several vast mines beneath their trenches, the British infantry assault ended in a bloody, horrifying shambles. The Germans survived the British bombardment by sheltering in deep dugouts. When the attack began, they raced to their positions and poured machine-gun bullets and shells into slow moving lines of British infantry. This included many Pals Battalions, drawn from the eager recruits of 1914, experiencing a terrifying baptism of fire. The limited gains made on that first day, 1 July, came at an extraordinary price: 57,000 British casualties, including approximately 19,000 dead. The Battle of the Somme rumbled on for five more months, as the infantry attacked again and again in the same bloody and largely futile manner. The German army too suffered horrendously, as it launched its own pointless and near suicidal counter-attacks to recover lost ground.
In British popular memory 1917 is dominated by one word – Passchendaele. This Belgian village with its strangely evocative name was the last objective of the Third Battle of Ypres, captured by Canadian troops on 6 November. The name became shorthand for three months of nightmarish combat that cost the British 300,000 casualties. The Germans were pushed to breaking point in the course of the battle, in which almost imperceptible rises of ground formed vital objectives that consumed thousands of lives. But the exhaustion of British troops, forced to struggle forward through miles of deep, sucking mud created by early autumn downpours, allowed the Germans to cling on.
Ypres and the Somme remain the two most infamous names from the British experience on the Western Front. The scale of loss remains almost impossible to comprehend. The nature of so many of the deaths – young, patriotic men, slaughtered en masse in the giant abattoir of the Western Front – remains deeply affecting. Yet if one accepts the grim logic of attritional warfare – that victory could be won by killing more of the enemy than your own side lost – these battles were not quite as pointless as is often made out. In addition, for the British Army they proved a hugely costly but valuable learning experience. In 1918, it was able to launch a highly-skilled, co-ordinated counter-attack against a German army that had itself been decimated and exhausted by 4 years of brutal fighting. That summer the British advanced once more across the ruin of the Somme battlefield and finally broke out of the Ypres Salient, as the German army entered a full and final retreat.