The Western Front.
On 28 June 1914 Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife Sophie were assassinated in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina. The shot that killed Ferdinand has been touted as the Shot that Started the Great War. However it was not until 28 July 1914 that Austria declared war on Serbia. Suddenly Russia ordered a total mobilisation of its forces, which, on the 1st of August the Germans demanded be halted. The Russians refused and on that day in 1914 the Germans declared war on Russia. On the 3rd of August Germany declared war on France and the following day invaded Belgium. On behalf of itself and Empire, Britain declared war on Germany, thus dragging Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand and South Africa into the stoush.
Suddenly there was a flurry of diplomatic telegrams flying back and forth across and around Europe with various countries declaring war on each other. By the end of August there were two distinct groups; Germany and Austria-Hungary versus France, Britain and Russia. Or Central Powers versus the Allies.
Between the invasion of Poland and the end of August 1914 the Germans had a series of victories that got them to the outskirts of Paris. The French and the British armies retreated from Belgium and the North of France to the Marne River. The Germans followed sensing a victorious entry into Paris. By now French reinforcements began to arrive and every available French soldier was being rushed forward to strengthen the line along the Marne River. Troops were moved mainly by train except for about 6000 men of a fresh division that had just arrived from Tunis. The train could only shift half of the division. On 7 September the Military Governor of Paris, with the aid of the police rounded up some 600 taxis and transported those men to the front line about 25 miles away. Meanwhile the Commander of the German 1st Army moved to a position to protect himself from an attack from the direction Paris. Unfortunately for the Germans this opened a gap of nearly 30 miles between the 1st Army and the 2nd Army which was along the Marne. The British advanced into the gap between the two German armies. At the Eastern end of the line the French held the Germans, firstly at Charmes then Nancy. The French Garrison at Verdun held firm. The result was the Germans began to withdraw. They withdrew to the Aisne River, blew the bridges and dug in. By 17 September 1914 the front extended and remained static right along the French Frontier.
Now that both sides had settled into their trenches the only way to gain an advantage was for one side to outflank the other. From the sea to the beginning of the trenches was a 200 mile (320 kilometres) gap. The opposing Armies had three objectives, to hold their current positions, to capture the ports of Calais, Dunkirk, Boulogne, Ostend and Zeerbruggen. Antwerp was also part of these plans as a base for later offensives into Belgium by both the British and the French and into Belgium and France by the Germans. By the time the British got to Antwerp, the Germans were already in possession, and the French and British had secured the coastline.
The Allies, using French railways to move their forces northwards to outflank the Germans at the Somme, Arras and Ypres(pronounced Wipers by the Brits) found they could not break the German line. Neither could the Germans breakthrough the British Defences.
One of the Germans attempts was at Langemark. The British saw lines of uniformed men approaching and heard them singing. The men were marching arm in arm straight into British machine guns and shrapnel and were torn apart. It turned out that these people were German student volunteers with only 6 weeks training and had never been in action before. In three weeks, it has been said, 36,000 students died. The Germans referred to this action as kindemord, the Massacre of the Children. The numbers of students involved is subject to conjecture, as is the number of casualties
On 11 November 1914, 18000 Germans broke through the British line and advanced on a placed known as Polygon Wood, defended by 1000 British soldiers. These soldiers forced the Germans into another Wood nearby, Nonnebosschen or Nuns Wood. The German soldiers were hunted out of Nuns Wood and the Brits closed the Gap in the line. The fighting ended this day and after three months of absolute carnage the combatants had fought themselves to a standstill. They now faced each other over a line that stretched from the Swiss border to the English Channel.
During WWI much use was made of Trench Warfare> by both sides. The antagaonists faced each other from behind parapets formed by the earth thrown out of the trench work. Many of the trenches were close enough so that soldiers could throw grenades at each other. The area between the trenches was covered by Machine Gun and Artillery fire. It made attacking the enemy an extremely hazardous and humanly expensive task. It would have been bad enough hearing the small arms fire whistling over the tops of your trench or listening for the whistle of decending Artillery or Mortar Fire upon your trench, but being all lined up, leaning against the front wall of the trench, rifle in hand, bayonets fixed, waiting for the word to go Over the Top and Charge into almost certain death to attack the enemy would have been about the worst feeling imaginable.
Christmas Eve, 1914.
Everything froze along the Western Front. The mud froze solid and the smell of rotting flesh in no-mans land had abated. It was a clear, crisp and mostly quiet night. The Germans started celebrating first swapping Schnapps and cigarettes among themselves and a few candle-lit Christmas Trees and Chinese Lanterns showing above the trenches. The lights drew rifle fire from the British who ceased firing when it was seen that no attack was forthcoming.
The night became quiet again, until the Germans started singing Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht and the British retaliating with the First Noel, then the Germans replying with O Tannenbaum and so it went on, until the British started singing O come all Ye Faithfull and the Germans joining in with the same hymn with the Latin words to Adeste Fideles. This type of activity carried continued at other places along the Western Front. Near Ypers in Belgium a soccer game was played between the German Royal Saxon Regiment and the Scottish Seaforth Highlanders. This truce lasted for up to a week in some places.
The rains came again, the mud softened and the mood changed, the Commanders ordered their men back to the Trenches and the guns began firing again. The men at the front remembered that they and their enemies had, in a time of inhuman horror, reasserted their basic humanity. More
2nd Battle of Ypers
On 22 April 1915, gas was used on the battle field, by the Germans, as a weapon, for the first time. This was the beginning of the 2nd Battle of Ypers. The British, French and Canadians attacked the Germans who responded with Mustard Gas. The first victims of gas were Algerians, fighting with the French, and the Canadians. These men staggered back from the front coughing and pointing to their throats. This left a four mile wide gap in the attacking line which the Germans took and defended. From this narrow projection of land beyond the front the Germans threatened the Allies with future attacks. A counter attack was ordered during which the Canadians suffered appalling losses. The Allied forces withdrew and the battle ended on 27 May with the Allied Forces losing two miles of ground and 60,000 men killed.
GALLIPOLI 0429hours 25 April 1915. Australian and New Zealand Soldiers landed at what was to become ANZAC Cove. Their objective: Invade Turkey. Turkish defenders were entrenched on the cliffs above the beach. Anzac soldiers rushed to the base of those cliffs and secured the beach head. By the end of the first day the ANZACs had taken some of the Turkish positions and also their first Turkish prisoners. This action lasted 8 months before the ANZAC forces withdrew from the Gallipoli Peninsular in December 1915. More
Attempted Breakout on the Western Front.
In the autumn of 1915 the British and the French planned more huge attacks on the Germans. This time at Champagne, near Rheims, by the French. A combined attack by the British and French on either side of Lens, and one by the British at Loos. These attacks were designed to create a general offensive along the Western Front, cause the Germans to retreat and, according to French General Joffre possibly end the war.
Verdun and the Somme 1916.
In 1916 attention turned to the Somme, again. Manpower was 139 Divisions for the Allies and 117 for the Germans. This time the Allies: Britain, France, Italy, Belgium and Russia co-ordinated their efforts with a general assault against the Germans in the summer of 1916. Once again the Germans got in first attacking the French at Verdun. At 0715 hours on 21 February 1916 an artillery shell exploded in the archbishops palace in Verdun which commenced an unprecedented bombardments and a battle of great length. A million shells were fired on day one. For three days French defences crumbled into a mass of mud, shell holes, destroyed wire entanglements and broken concrete. German soldiers advanced with a new weapon, the flamethrower! Another nasty weapon developed for fighting in trenches, towns and fortifications. The German advance quickly captured Douaumont one of two huge fortresses guarding Verdun. The French were informed of the loss of the Fortress by the Germans dropping leaflets from the air. This caused some panic among the French people and the roads became clogged with refugees and wounded soldiers More
My Grandfather was wounded somewhere out there on 18 August 1916 during the Battle for Pozieres. This was part of the Somme Battle Field. One of the bloodiest of WWI.
Things were changing. Commanders changed as did German tactics. The Germans had gone for unrestricted submarine warfare in an attempt to break the British Blockades of the German ports. Again, while nothing was happening on from the Allies side on the Western Front the Germans continued strengthening their defences. This new defensive system was known to the Allies as the Hindenburg Line and to the Germans as the Siegfried Line. This area lay well behind the front and was protected by a dead zone of flattened houses and poisoned wells. With this defence the Germans considered that Germany could not be taken from the West and it allowed more soldiers to be released for duty elsewhere.
At last the Americans were ready. Preparations were ready and American ships were helping to defend convoys from submarine attack. Soon the fresh troops would help in setting up the final battle towards victor in Europe. However the Germans were not going to give up without a fight and decided that their only chance of victory was to beat the Allies before the Americans could be deployed. The Germans reinfoced their front with troops released from the Russian Front. The Allied forces were unable to be re-enforced due to governments being unwilling to commit more as unnecessary cannon fodder. British troops were kept in their positions around the battle field of Ypres and ignored the Somme. The battle commenced on the Somme on 21 March 1918 with the Germans attacking through fog and without the usual prolonged bombardment that usually preceded an attack The day was foggy and in some places so thick that it allowed the Germans to penetrate the British lines without being detected. With the Germans passing through and around the Brits, this was something new the attack came as a complete surprise and very quick. The Brits had no manoeuvring ability and their lines of communication were cut. In the first week of this offensive the British lost around 500 Guns and 40 miles of territory.
The British response was to increase traffic across the Channel and ask the Americans for more help. At this stage General Haig agreed that a unified command was necessary and accepted Marshal Foch as Allied Commander. Foch ordered various counter attacks and encouraged his commanders to get out of the trenches and attack the Germans. As the German offensive ran out of steam, due to lengthening lines of communication and the inability of his supplies to keep up, the attack turned north toward Arras and came against strong British resistance. The Germans now turned South to the river Lys and opened a hole in the Brit defences some 30 miles wide and forcing them out of Passchendale. This attack halted on 25 April. Meanwhile the Americans were reporting of Germans preparing for an attack on the Aisne. This information was ignored by the French as being unreliable, from the newly arrived American Forces. Therefore when the attack came, on 27 May, it was a very great surprise and the Germans successfully occupied 10 miles of French and American territory and took some 65,000 prisoners. Fortunately American Reinforcements were arriving at the rate of some 300,000 soldiers a month. Quickly thrown into battle they caused the German advance to falter and halt on the Marne River some 50 Miles from Paris. Time was running out for the German Commander, Ludendorff, as the Allied lines were being continually reinforced by the American Forces. On July 15 the Germans attacked again, along the Marne. This time everyone was ready and able to hold the line and on July 18 counter attacked and threatened to cut off the German Forces who then began to retreat. On July 21 it was agreed by allied Commanders that it was now time to commence a general offensive against the Germans to retrieve the losses incurred since March 21.
Finally on the Offensive
At last the Allied Forces began what was to be the beginning of the last offensive of the war. It had taken nearly four years, but forces had been re-enforced by the Americans, and using tactics derived from lessons learned during and after previous battles. The Allied frontline had been quietly and methodically re-enforced without the German Forces finding out. The Allied Offensive commenced before sunrise in the 8th August 1918. 460 British tanks began to roll as the Artillery commenced firing a creeping barrage, the Australian and Canadian Infantry followed. This Army, known as the 4th Army moved forward to the defences of the old Somme battlefield. In four days 24,000 prisoners were taken and this time only 20,000 casualties were suffered compared to 240,000 the last time these forces met on this battle field. Meanwhile, the French line stretching between Ypres and Rheims slowly moved forward through places like Thiepval Ridge, Mametz Wood, Deville Wood etc. By this time the Americans had begun to make an impression on their Allied friends, and in their first independent operation around the village of St Mihiel, near Verdun. For this battle the Americans and the French assembled some 300 guns, 40,000 tons of munitions and 65 trains for evacuation of the wounded. When the battle started there were also around 1480 aircraft under American command. As the Americans were moving into position on 12 September the Germans had begun to withdraw, they were a bit slow, being caught by American Artillery fire and being advances upon by the 2nd and 42nd US Divisions. The Americans had moved quickly and by the end of the day had captured the territory that was designated as the next days objective. This success resulted in 15,000 prisoners and 443 Artillery Pieces. On 26 September the assault in the South started well and in the North the British began the 4th Battle of Ypres with about 500 aircraft in support. On the 29th they crossed the Hindenburg line. On a 30 mile front the British had captured 200 guns and taken 10,000 prisoners. On the other end of the line the Americans were advancing through Argonne Forest toward Sedan. This advance cost the Americans 120,000 casualties. By now the war was almost over. The Americans wanted to enter Sedan, even though it was part of the French sector of the Battle Field. Eventually the local American Commander invited the French to enter the town first and thereby liberate a town that had been taken by the Germans in 1870. This entry into Sedan happened on 11 November 1918, the same day the Armistice to end all fighting was signed.