On 3 August 1914, the German army invaded Belgium. Britain declared war the next day. The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) went to France.
For the first two months, the armies fought each other in a ‘war of movement’. The German army came within 30 miles of Paris, then it was defeated at the Battle of the Marne (6–10 September 1914) and pushed back.
Towards the end of September, the Germans dug the first trenches of the war. By November 1914 the line of trenches stretched from Switzerland to the English Channel. The advance of the British and French armies was stopped.
In 1915 the British government – at Winston Churchill’s suggestion – tried to open a ‘second front’ at Gallipoli, in Turkey. It was a bloody disaster. The Allies realised they would have to slog it out on the Western Front.
Conditions in the Trenches
For the soldiers, conditions were terrible. Rain and cold were constant problems. Artillery fire destroyed the drains, so the battlefields became quagmires of mud – often, men drowned in the mud. Sanitary arrangements were unsatisfactory, and disease killed as many men as the enemy. The hundreds of human corpses made disease (and flies) inevitable, and trench rats grew fat on human flesh. And thousands of casualties. Antibiotics had not yet been discovered, and – in the dirt – even a small wound often led to blood poisoning, gangrene and death. Perhaps worse was to recover, profoundly disabled or mutlilated.
The War of Attrition
Both sides realised that they would have to ‘wear down’ the enemy. The war became a deadly stalemate. Any attempt to break through the enemy’s line resulted in slaughter. Men defended with machine guns, and used trains to rush extra soldiers to trouble spots. They advanced on foot, with rifles. At the Second Battle of Ypres (the battle when the Germans first used poison gas) the French lost 70,000 men. In the Artois offensive (May to October 1915) the French lost 100,000 men.
Then, in February 1916, the Germans launched a huge attack on Verdun. The battle lasted 10 months. In all, 280,000 Germans and 315,000 French died in the fighting; the French called the road to Verdun the voie sacrée (holy way), because so many men went down it to their deaths.
Although horrific, British casualties were in comparison relatively light. French commanders, led by General Joffre, began to pressurise the British command to take a bigger part in the war, and particularly to do something to relieve the pressure on Verdun.
That 'something' was the Battle of the Somme.
1. Find FOUR reasons the British came to fight the Battle of the Somme.
2. List the factors which made the First World War particularly unpleasant for the soldiers.
The film All Quiet on the Western Front, based on the book by Erich Maria Remarque. Although about German soldiers, it offers insights into how ordinary soldiers felt.
For the soldiers, the war was, in the words of one observer: ‘mud, sleet, ice, mud, noise, jagged steel, horror piled on reeking horror’.