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

Sunday, April 14, 2019

It Must Have Seemed Like the Nadir of Trench Warfare

1915: Burying the Dead

A little over a year into the war the Allies, whose strategic thinking was firmly guided by Joffre, attempted a d double offensive against the German salient into France, north and east of Paris, in an effort to "rupture" the German position. It couldn't have gone worse and it must have seemed that things were as bad as  they could possibly be.  Looking over history's shoulder, we can see Verdun and the Somme looming just ahead of the peoples of 1915. However, to them, back at the end of 1915, it must have seemed that things could not be looking worse. This is what they were mulling over as the 1916 campaign lay ahead.

In Artois a joint British-French effort, known in some sources as the Battle of "Artois-Loos" (map, locations 1 [British] & 2 [French]), resulted in limited gains and high losses. British losses of 60,000 killed and wounded around Loos alone stunned observers. The French attack to the south captured the key town of Souchez but failed again at Vimy Ridge. 

The accompanying failure—solely a French effort—in Champagne (map, location 3) to sever the main east-west rail line supporting the German front, however, sent greater shock waves through France. The massive national effort made there to provide logistical support, including millions of rounds of heavy artillery shells for a decisive breakthrough, had proved utterly inadequate to the challenge. The advance had moved the front merely four kilometers. 

Politicians' faith in Joffre began to wane and they looked to other theaters of war, like the Balkans, for deploying the nation's forces. For the citizenry, victory now seemed barely perceptible, beyond some distant horizon, and would be most assuredly astronomically costly to attain. For the French Army, the Western Front—France—had to be the decisive front, but what new rabbit could they pull out of the hat? The attritional warfare they had inadvertently fallen into was unsustainable. Official figures (probably on the low side) showed 191,000 French casualties in the double fall offensives, including 31,000 killed. 

The sole remaining option was to look to the British. In the winter of 1915–16 General Joffre would abandon French-only offensive operations and focus exclusively on encouraging and collaborating with his ally. Attacking side-by-side would enable the massing of troops and, more important, the artillery of both armies. Naturally, this had to be in a location adjacent to the British sector. Perhaps, somewhere around the River Somme? Yes, that should work nicely. Thus did the failures of 1915 lead to the "Big Show" of 1916. 


  1. It's hard to grasp just how shocking and unprecedented this war was for Europeans.

  2. One of the reasons to study the Great War is to remind ourselves that all innovations take a long time for us to adapt. The generals of World War One were not donkeys; they were the best their countries had. The entire technology of war had shifted so dramatically in such a short period of time that no one grasped the consequences. The Internet was invented more than forty years ago and still no one has even begun to understand its effects on us. What is remarkable about the generals of WWI is that they began to adjust their tactics within two years of discovering that War was no longer bugle calls and saber charges.
    Those who want to point fingers at a specific group of men at a specific period of time are ignorant of the human condition.