Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Sunday, July 5, 2015

The Battle of the Allies’ Western Fronters Versus the Eastern Fronters

Contributed by Dr. David Payne, Western Front Association


As soon as the military situation on Western Front passed from its mobile and "Home by Christmas" status, and undertook the reality of the static nature of trench warfare from the North Sea to the Swiss border, the minds of some British politicians and commanders, and their Allies, began to dwell on other alternative alignments to the fighting effort. The question to be answered, was, "Would not the deployment, or even re-deployment, of large numbers of troops to the existing Eastern Front, or other Fronts in the East, give a better option for a stalemate ending ‘Breakthrough’* than persisting with maximum effort on the Western Front."

In fact, such were the problems encountered in executing a "breakthrough" attack on a sufficient scale, and at the same time coordinating the "follow-through," that a full scale "breakthrough" was only achieved once on the Western Front. And this was the German Spring Offensive in March/April 1918. Even here the "breakthrough" did not have sufficient momentum to cause the Allies’ front to completely collapse in the manner anticipated.

Westerners, Easterners, and Waverers

The British proponents of the strategy of concentrating the major effort on the Western Front were called the "Westerners." Those who favored initiating, or enhancing, effort on the existing and/or potential fronts in the East — i.e. the flanks of the Great Powers — were called "Easterners."  There were also supporters of both options amongst the French politicians and commanders. However, the main French raison d’etre was always focused on the repossession of its territory in mainland France that was occupied by the Germans — everything was secondary to this. The Italian hierarchy, always uncertain about the stability of their own home front, were almost universally Westerners in outlook and inclination.


General William Robertson

The principal British Westerners were the military High Command as exemplified by General/Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, commander-in-chief of the British Expeditionary Force and General Sir William Robertson, chief of the Imperial General Staff. Throughout their long joint tenure in command they consistently supported each other against the Easterners. They fought a constant battle to keep the emphasis on the supply of men and material to the Western Front and to derail any attempt at diversification to other fronts.

The French Westerners were much better supported throughout the war. This was largely due to the singular power that the French commanders-in-chief exercised over the French state in the conduct of the war, particularly in the early years. The prime such commander was General Joseph Joffre, who was adamant in concentrating all resources into the battle for the recovery of French territory in mainland France, i.e. the Western Front. However, in January 1916, public opinion had forced a reluctant and less dominant Joffre to send forces eastward to Salonika (Greece) to support the British.

In the later years of the war, the French president, Georges Clemenceau, was also a fervent supporter of the Westerners from both his vantage point as a newspaper proprietor (L’Homme libre [The Free Man] cum L’Homme Enchainé [The Man in Chains]) and, after November 1917, as prime minister of France.


Prime amongst the British Easterners was Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty (Navy Minister). It was his energy and persuasive powers that led Sir Herbert Asquith’s government – rather by the nose it must said – into the ill-fated Dardanelles Campaign in 1915. In its early form, the Dardannelles Campaign was seen as an attempt by the Asquith Government to open the Dardanelles Straits to free, unhindered, passage by the Royal Navy. This in turn would neutralise Germany’s ally, Turkey; keep the undecided Balkan nations out of the war; open up free passage to Britain’s eastern ally, Russia; and create another front in the East to divert German resources from the Western Front and the existing Eastern Front.

However, although it cost Churchill his job, the disastrous outcome of the Dardanelles Campaign had little discouraging effect on the efforts of the other Easterners.

David Lloyd George

In early 1915, when David Lloyd George was finance minister and later minister of war in Asquith’s government, he became a noted Easterner and supporter of the Mesopotamian and Salonika Expeditions in1914/15. Once the true implications of the British losses on the Somme in 1916 became evident, Lloyd George was determined that the profligacy of the British generals on the Western Front should be reined in. He felt than any new troops that became available should be used more efficaciously on other fronts under more able commanders.

When he became prime minister in December 1916, Lloyd George became even more unequivocal in his support for the Easterners. As indicated earlier, Lloyd George’s attitude regarding the East and West controversy was largely due to his antipathy toward the views and actions of the arch Westerners Haig and Robertson. Lloyd George felt they were squandering the lives of young British volunteers and conscripts on the Western Front with their policy of "ceaseless attrition" or, as Haig preferred to call it, "wearing down of the enemy," for very little discernible territorial gain.

Lloyd George was of the view that other approaches in different theatres of war in the East should be found to turn the enemies’ flank in places where he was more vulnerable than the Western Front. Indeed, he was proved right to some extent by General Allenby’s astounding success in Palestine and Syria in1917–18, when progress on the Western Front was very slow indeed.

Another important Easterner was Andrew Bonar Law. Although he never held a post that was central to the conduct of the war, as the leader of a minority party he had great influence on both the Asquith and Lloyd George Governments.

There were also outspoken French Easterners of whom Generals Serrail and Franchet d’Esperey were probably the most vocal. Both considered that there should be a diversionary attack on the Balkans Front. Also, a large French naval and military force – over 80,000 men – was sent to the Dardanelles as part of the Dardanelles Campaign. The principal reason for the despatch of this large contingent, when France was sorely pressed on the Western Front in 1915, was the determination of the French government not to be left out of the division of the spoils of the Ottoman Empire in the expectation of a successful conclusion of the Dardanelles Campaign. The French had particular interest in Syria, Lebanon, and part of Iraq.


H.H. Asquith

The ’Waverers’ were those individuals who supported the Western Front exclusively and then, at a later date, also backed action on the Eastern Front as an important factor in winning the war. A few made several reversals, or vacillated between the two options.

Perhaps, the first of the really prominent British Waverers was the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir John Fisher who, after initially supporting Churchill over the Dardanelles Campaign in its early conceptual phase, did a complete volte face and thereafter vociferously condemned it, and its architect, Churchill. Fisher’s principal Eastener idea was to use the Baltic Sea as an invasion route, with the Royal Navy in the van. In the end, Fisher resigned in May 1915 over this dispute.

The next military figure to support the Easterners was Field Marshal Lord Kitchener of Khartoum, the minister for war, who until his death at sea in June 1916, vacillated between the two policies and the carrying out of the Gallipoli, Salonika, and Mesopotamia Expeditions.

From the British political side, the first of the British wartime prime ministers, Sir Herbert Henry Asquith, also veered between the two policies.


Such was the overwhelming effect of the war on the Western Front that those closely caught up in the conduct of it could truly not see much beyond its limited horizons.

Certainly, there was no doubt that the Germans had to be defeated on the Western Front since they occupied vast areas of France and Belgium; there was no hope of any peace in Europe until they were expelled or evacuated these occupied territories of their own will. The latter was unlikely to happen unless they were defeated on the Western Front battlefield or were given their ostensibly unacceptable demands in a peace agreement.

In times of war, the concept of attacking the enemy from his rear, or where his defenses are weakest, is well proven in history. Had the Easterners' Dardanelles Campaign been properly and forcibly executed in almost any of its phases, success for the Allies was a distinct possibility. In that event, it is quite possible that Turkey and the adjacent Balkan countries would have been forced out of the war, a definite reverse for the Central Powers. Unfortunately, the strategic possibilities, limited though they were, were squandered by incompetent leadership and planning by the British, allied with long operational delays that allowed the Turks to reinforce, or deploy, at the critical moment.

A clear illustration of what might have been was the almost faultless, and casualty-free, withdrawal of the entire forces of the Allies in December/January 1916, from the same beaches they had so disastrously invaded nine months earlier.

Dr David Payne is a retired medical scientist who served for 34 years as a staff member with the World Health Organisation in 45 countries across the globe. His field is that of tropical medicine and, in particular, malaria control and diagnosis.  His interest in the Great War was inspired by research he made into his deceased father's army service for the duration (August 1914–July 1919) with the Northamptonshire Regiment on the Western Front and in Egypt.

1 comment: