The Western Front

The Western Front: Overview

  • The Western Front is a term used to describe the main theatre of war during World War I along the border between Belgium and France.
  • It stretched 700km from the Belgian coast to the Swiss border, and is best known for the network of trenches that were dug by both sides.
  • The conditions for soldiers on the Western Front were atrocious; with trench warfare, poor sanitation, an abundance of vermin, and the looming threat of death, life was harsh and brutal.

Key Events on the Western Front

  • The Battle of Mons (1914) was the first major engagement between British and German forces on the Western Front. The British managed to delay the German advance, but later retreated.
  • The Battle of the Somme (1916) was a massive Allied offensive aimed at breaking the deadlock that the war had become. It resulted in appalling casualties for little territorial gain and is remembered as a symbol of the futility of trench warfare.
  • The Battle of Passchendaele (1917), also known as the Third Battle of Ypres, saw heavy rain turning the battlefield into a quagmire, causing heavy casualties for both sides.
  • The German Spring Offensive (1918) was a last-ditch attempt by the German military to win the war before American forces arrived in numbers. Though initially successful, it ultimately led to their defeat as they overstretched their supply lines.

Trench Warfare

  • The trench system was a complex network of lines of trenches, communications trenches, and reserve trenches. Barbed wire and machine gun posts protected the front lines.
  • Soldiers suffered from trench foot, caused by the permanently wet conditions, and shell shock, a type of post-traumatic stress disorder.
  • No Man’s Land, a barren wasteland between opposing trenches, was often covered in barbed wire and littered with the bodies of fallen soldiers.
  • Despite the grim reality of trench warfare, soldiers also had periods of relative calm and routine, with time for leisure activities like football matches, letter writing, and even concert parties.

End of the Stalemate

  • The Hundred Days Offensive (August-November 1918) was a series of advances by the Allies that effectively ended the stalemate on the Western Front.
  • This offensive marked the continual erosion of German fighting capacity, and culminated in the signing of the Armistice on 11th November 1918, signalling the end of World War I.
  • The war on the Western Front claimed millions of lives and changed the nature of warfare forever, transforming political landscapes and leaving a lasting impact on the world.

Impact on Britain

  • The overwhelming loss of life and the horrors faced by soldiers led to a massive shift in public perception about the glorification of war, giving rise to a more cynical and pacifist generation in Britain post-war.
  • The war also marked the advent of total war where the civilian population was significantly affected, either through direct attacks or through economic hardship and rationing.
  • The huge demand for manpower led to societal changes, including the enfranchisement of women, who took on roles traditionally held by men, and the start of the dismantling of the class system.