The First World War in France and Belgium was characterized by the static warfare in the long trench system known as the Western Front. However, the first weeks of the war had seen large-scale movements of troops in both France and Belgium. The Western Front was the result of a series of battles in the fall of 1914, and by Christmas the positions of the trenches were more-or-less fixed for the next three years.
No German Breakthrough
Germany’s plan for war with France involved a fast-moving sweep across Belgium and northern France to capture Paris and effectively knock France out of the conflict. The Germans expected this would take just six weeks to achieve, but in reality resistance from the Belgian and French armies slowed the German advance. The German army did reach a point just 30 miles from Paris but lacked the strength to make the final strike. Instead, combined French and British forces stopped the Germans at the Battle of the Marne in early September and forced them to retreat.
Race to the Sea
After the Battle of the Marne, the Germans and Allied forces attempted to gain the upper hand by outflanking each other's forces. They did this by moving north, attempting to get behind their opponents’ defenses in a series of clashes known as the “Race to the Sea.” Although neither side emerged victorious, the battles of fall 1914 largely decided the locations of the 440-mile-long trench system stretching between Switzerland and the North Sea that became known as the Western Front.
The Germans and Allies resisted each other's attacks by digging defensive positions. Having retreated some 45 miles in a matter of days in mid-September, the German army showed the value of trenches as defensive positions at the Battle of the Aisne. The Germans used machine guns and artillery to fend off Allied assaults. Similar defensive positions were constructed all along the emerging Western Front.
As fall drew into winter, both the German and Allied armies found their activities curtailed by worsening weather. The soldiers manning the trenches effectively lived outside in difficult weather conditions, standing in water and mud and exposed to freezing temperatures at night. Writing in February 1915, British commander Sir John French described the difficulties of moving soldiers around in knee-deep mud and using artillery in mist and fog. Attacks proved impossible, forcing leaders to think more defensively.
- The Long, Long Trail: The Western Front
- Charles Sturt University: Modern History, Military Plans and World War I
- BBC History: World Wars, Battle of the Marne
- BBC History: The Western Front 1914-1918
- First World War Centenary: Podcast 10, War in Winter
- The Long, Long Trail: Sir John French’s Sixth Despatch
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