World War I and Total War

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War fever gripped the populations of Europe; many felt the war to be just and necessary and all felt that the war would be short and that soldiers would be home by Christmas. Unfortunately, the quick and glorious victories that were expected did not take place. The war was to last four long years, during the time the fighting took place on several fronts. The most important of these fronts is known as the Western Front, and this stretched 320km from the English Channel to the Swiss Alps. Fighting also took place on Germany's Eastern Front involving both Austria-Hungary and Russia, and both sides continued to hope that they would be able to break though on one of the other 'diversionary' fronts that exited in the Balkans, in Italy, and in the Middle East.

How was World War I fought?[edit]

War on land – the Western Front[edit]

Although fighting took place on several fronts throughout the four years of the war, the Western Front nevertheless remained the most important for several reasons:

  • Because of its size and the length of time it remained an operational theatre of war. It was a continuous battlefield stretching for 320km from the North Sea to the French-Swiss border in the south. Across this line, the Allies and the Germans attacked each other continuously for four years without significantly breaking the position of the line.
  • Because of the key role it played in the outcome of the Great War. Many of the other conflicts in the war were 'diversionary fronts', which were created to break the deadlock on the Western Front.
  • Because the fighting on the Western Front was to have a significant impact on the ideas about and attitudes towards war.

Why did trench warfare lead to a stalemate?[edit]

The feature of the Western Front that most affected the way the war was fought was the development of trench warfare. After the 'race to the sea', the conflict settled into static 'positional' warfare. The war of movement was over. In order to hold their positions, and keep out of the line of machine-gun and artillery fire, soldiers had to dig down into defensive positions; thus trenches were dug along the entire length of the front. As it became clear that these hastily dug ditches were to become permanent, they evolved into complex defensive systems on both sides, with the area between opposing trenches known as 'no-man's land'.

The Western Front, according to John Keegan:

...rapidly became a maze of duplicates and dead ends, in which soldiers, sometimes whole units rapidly lost their way. Guides who knew the trench geography were an essential accompaniment in unit reliefs, when one battalion took the place of another at the end of a front-line stint [tour of duty]. So, too were signboards pointing to the more enduring trenches and the ruined remains of human habitation; in the Ypres salient in the winter of 1914–15, there were still traces of the buildings the Tommies had named Tram Car Cottage, Battersea Farm, Beggar's Rest, Apple Villa, White Horse Cellars, Kansan Cross, Doll's House.
—From John Keegan, The First World War, 1999.

Trench warfare was deadlier for attackers than defenders; attackers suffered twice as many casualties during an assault on the enemy trench line. A major attack would begin with an artillery barrage, followed by the attacking troops going 'over the top' – climbing out of their trenches and attempting to reach and capture the enemy trenches on the other side of no-man's land. Soldiers had to walk or run into the direct firing line of the defenders, while mines and thick rolls of barbed wire slowed down their progress and made the chances of being hit by enemy machine-gun fire even more likely.

The nature of this type of warfare is described by John Keegan, who here looks at the battle of the Somme:

Descriptions of zero hour on the 1st of July abound, of the long lines of young men, burdened by the sixty pounds of equipment judged necessary to sustain them in a long struggle inside the German trenches, plodding off almost shoulder to shoulder; of their good cheer and certainty of success, of individual displays of bravado, as in the battalions which kicked a football ahead of the ranks; of bright sunshine breaking through the thin morning mist; of the illusion of an empty battlefield, denuded of opponents by the weight of bombardment and the explosion of twenty-one chambers, laboriously driven under the German front lines, as the attack began. Descriptions of what happened later abound also; of the discovery of the uncut wire, of the appearance of the German defenders, manning the parapet at the moment the British creeping barrage passed beyond, to fire frenziedly into the approaching ranks, of the opening of gaps in the attacking waves, of massacre in the wire entanglements, of the advance checked, halted and eventually stopped literally dead.
—From John Keegan, The First World War, 1999.

Because of the of the difficulties of attacking and taking the enemy's trenches, the Western Front became one of stalemate, with little change in the position of the front over the whole four years. Increasingly, the aim of battles became not so much as to win territory held by the enemy, but to destroy or wear down the opposing army; it was a war of attrition intended to break the morale of the enemy and reduce their numbers.

Clearly the military education and mindset of the generals were inadequate to meet the demands of this new type of warfare. Similarly, the soldiers themselves were ill-prepared in their training to deal with the horrors in which they found themselves.

How did the development of weaponry lead to a change in tactics on the Western Front?[edit]

Both sides in the war utilised a wide range of weapons in order to try and break the deadlock. The infantry charge explained above remained the key battle tactic used throughout the war, and most weapons were applied or developed with the aim of making this strategy more effective.

Machine guns and grenades[edit]

The main weapon of the British soldier was a .303in, bolt-action Lee-Enfield rifle with a magazine that held ten rounds of ammunition; a bayonet could be attacked to the end of the rifle for use in hand-to-hand fighting. Each side had similar types of rifle. The machine gun, however, was far more lethal against mass targets. Whereas an infantryman could fire 25 rounds a minute with a bolt-action rifle, he could fire 600 rounds a minute with a machine gun. The effects were devastating on attackers, as a German machine-gunner here recounts: '... the [British] officers walked in front. I noticed one of them walking calmly carrying a walking stick. When we started firing we just had to load and re-load. They went down in their hundreds. You didn't have to aim, we just fired into them.' Soldiers also used hand grenades – essentially small hand-thrown bombs. The British, for example, use the pineapple-shaped Mills bomb, while the Germans used stick-shaped grenades nicknamed 'potato-smashers.'

Another weapon innovation of World War I was the submachine gun, a lightweight hand-held automatic weapon that fired pistol caliber ammunition. (By using low-power ammunition, the soldier could control the recoil better than if he was using high-power rifle ammunition.) The submachine gun was known as a 'trench sweeper', a weapon that could deliver heavy firepower at close-quarters during a trench assault.

Heavy artillery[edit]

Although machine guns killed many thousands of people during World War I, nevertheless it was artillery that was the real killer. In World War I, artillery inflicted 70 per cent of all casualties. With the war being so static, the huge guns could take up permanent positions in strategically good locations, from where they could launch massive numbers of high-explosive shells. Commanders saw artillery as the key to overcoming the defenses of the enemy and thus every major attack was preceded by a prolonged artillery barrage.

Yet the reality was that artillery was not accurate or effective enough to destroy enemy trench systems completely – unless a shell fell directly into a trench, the occupants were relatively well protected behind their earthen walls. In the battle of the Somme, for example, the British fired more than 1.5 million shells in five days, but these failed to cut the barbed wire or destroy the German trenches. Even if the infantry made a breakthrough, the artillery was not mobile enough to be brought forward to protect the attackers. Another problem with the barrage was that it gave the enemy warning of the attack to come; when the barrage stopped that was the signal for the attack. The effect of the artillery on soldiers was nevertheless grim: brain damage, bleeding ears, shell-shock. It also churned up the land into a see of mud and craters, which made attacking across no-man's land even more difficult.

Artillery attacks and fire-control technologies evolved over the course of the war to become more versatile, using techniques such as the 'creeping barrage' (a steadily advancing wall of fire) and 'artillery ambush' (a sudden storm of shells against a specific target.) It also became possible to locate and attack enemy artillery more effectively; thus British guns could remain silent until the actual attack and then blanket the German guns with fire, bringing back the element of surprise.

Chemical warfare[edit]

The first poison gas attack was made at Ypres by the Germans in April of 1915. Carried on the wind, the chlorine gas caused panic amongst the Allied soldiers and disabled 6.5km of trenches. More lethal gases were soon developed: phosgene gas, which was 18 times stronger than the chlorine gas, and the most feared of all, mustard gas, which burned, blinded or slowly killed the victims over several weeks. Gas, however, although a useful weapon for causing panic among troops, did not actually play any key role in the breaking of the stalemate. Its big disadvantage was that it was dependent on the wind for distribution and so it could blow back towards the side that was dispersing it; this happened to the British at the battle of Loos in 1915. In addition, gas masks were quickly developed by scientists, making gas a weapon much less effective.

Tanks[edit]

The tank was another attempt to break the stalemate. Developed by the British and the French, 49 of them were first used in the battle of the Somme. The tank was able to advance ahead of the infantry, crushing barbed wire fences and attacking the enemy at the same time with a machine-fun and cannon fire. Inside the tank, the crew was protected from small-arms fire by the outer metal armour. Yet the tank was not yet able to break the stalemate. It was slow and unreliable and many tanks broke down before they reached the German trenches. Their armour plating was also not strong enough to resist artillery, and the use of tanks at the Somme did not have any major effect other than causing initial panic amongst the Germans. The conditions for the tank operators were also appalling; the heat generated inside the tank was tremendous and fumed from the engine and gun nearly chocked the men inside.

Large numbers of tanks were used in the battle of Cambrai in 1917, but here the initial successes were not sustained and breakthroughs were quickly reversed.

As a result of the tank's limitations, there was little real agreement within the British Expeditionary Force on whether mechanical warfare truly offered a substitute for manpower. In that sense, tanks during the war remained what GHQ concluded in August 1918, a "mechanical contrivance" with potential usefulness only as an adjunct to combined infantry and artillery assault
— Ian Beckett, The Great War 1914–18, 2001

What impact did the technological advances during World War I have on the nature of fighting?[edit]

As suggested above, none of the technological developments in weaponry or the variations in tactics were ultimately decisive during the fighting on the Western Front. Nevertheless, the developments that did take place during the course of war – artillery, tanks, combat aircraft, and aerial reconnaissance – did not allow for a change of tactics by the final campaigns of 1918.

In 1914 the British soldier went to war dressed like a gamekeeper in a soft cap, armed only with a rifle and a bayonet. In 1918 he went into battle dressed like an industrial worker in a steel helmet, protected by a respirator against poison gas, armed with automatic weapons, and mortars, supported by tanks, and ground-attack aircraft, and preceded by a creeping artillery barrage of crushing intensity. Firepower replaced manpower as the instrument of victory. This represented a revolution in the conduct of war.
—From John Bourne in Charles Townshend (ed.), The Oxford History of Modern War, 2005.

War at sea[edit]

What was the importance of naval warfare in World War I?[edit]

From the beginning of the war, it was clear that the control of the seas was crucial to both sides. Britain needed to be able to transport men (including from places as far afield as Australia and Canada) and supplies to the battlefields of Europe and the Middle East. As an island, Britain's need for food and industrial supplies from other countries, particularly from the USA, was key to the country's survival. Thus Britain was also cautious in its use of its navies; it could not risk losing many ships to mines and submarines or in surface battles. As Winston Churchill (who served as First Lord of the Admiralty for part of the war) said, it would have been possible for Admiral Jellicoe, the commander of the British Fleet, to lose the war in an afternoon.

Germany did not need naval routes to supply and help its allies. However, Germany also needed food and other supplies from overseas. Thus control of trade routes was vital to both sides, both for their own needs and to stop supplies reaching the enemy.

Britain was particularly successful in pursuing the latter objective. Royal Navy vessels went into action against German units stationed abroad, and destroyed one of the main German squadrons at the battle of the Falkland Islands in 1914. The Allies also started blockading German ports; British naval vessels enforced the of search on neutral shipping to ensure that Germany and its allies were not getting supplies via other countries.