History Coursework

The years between 1914, when the front trench lines were established in ‘the race for the sea’ and March 1918 when the Allied front lines were broken by the German ‘Spring offensives’ are assumed to be a time of unchanging, attrition trench warfare. The view that many hold is of the powerlessness of the individual soldiers, living in filthy conditions, with the constant threat of being shot. These soldiers would occasionally charge into a firing range where they were cut down, row by row by enemy fire.

These soldiers were put in their impossible position by a command group that consisted of men who were too obsessed with their horses and with the ‘old’ style of war to change and too stop wasting human lives.If you look at the figures that we are given, at the cost of the battles, and the seemingly little gain in land, without looking at the details, it is possible to see how this view is formed. The battle of Neuve Chapelle (1915) cost the British army 13,000 men for only 8 km’s gain, Loos where there were 115,000 casualties, both attacks started with seemingly major breakthroughs which came to a stop due to poor communications between the generals and the front line, resulting in the breaking up of units and the lack of support of reserves where they were needed and a small number of German machine guns which were able to keep the entire British army at bay (supposedly it was only 12 machine guns that stopped the British at Neuve Chappelle). At the Somme in just 5-months there were over 420,000 casualties for only 3 miles gain. As part of the ‘Nivelle Offensive’ Canadian troops used new artillery tactics at the battle of Vimy Ridge to gain a much-needed victory but there were still horrific casualties at points in the line.

Later in the year at ypres (known as ‘wipers’ to the British who struggled with the pronunciation), good victory’s, at Messines Ridge where high explosives had been dug under the enemy trenches was offset by the huge amounts of British troops who died in the oozing mud of the battlefield had become a literal swamp. Here over 250,000 men died for 11km of land. Still later in the year came the ‘tank’ victory at Cambrai, where the British tanks secured the largest change in the front line since 1914, which the Germans then won back and more.

There was no difference between the battles the British fought and those fought by the French, in 1915 two separate assaults on Vimy’s Ridge and the battle of Champagne cost the French a total of 250,000 casualties. In 1916, the French suffered their version of the Somme, where in an elongated attack the area became the mass graveyard for over 700,000 French soldiers. The mutinies that stopped the French fighting for 6 weeks in 1917 were started by the 200,000 casualties suffered during the ‘Nivelle Offensives’.Huge Losses and little land gain or land quickly won back. This is the repeating message to be drawn from the battles almost the entire way through the war, bought around by the effective defence mounted by the Germans. The truth is that the fighting tactics used on the Western front were continually changing and evolving to meet the challenges put up by the enemy.

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New fighting tactics, new weapons and changes in the way the artillery and the infantry were used were the changes in the fighting methods used by the British army 1915-1918 while the horrific casualties for little ground pattern is an example of continuity.The British army at the start of the war was the most effective army in the world; it was made up of the best-armed and most experienced soldiers in the world. The problem was that the army was very small; the British expeditionary Force (BEF) that was sent to France in 1914 (164,000) was extremely small compared to the LOOK HERE! German soldiers on the Western Front and the LOOK HERE! French soldiers, this was because the British army was used to control its empire while Britain’s European partners armies were needed to engage the huge continental army’s. This influenced the fact that Britain was the only country in the war that did not have conscription at the start of the war.The BEF was lost in 1914-1915. During 1916 Lord Kitchener used an affective propaganda campaign to call up a volunteer force which took up the fighting in 1916, the battle of the Somme saw many of these men killed, but the army which emerged afterwards was experienced and knew how to fight this type of war. At the end of 1916 the government began conscription, these men made up the army until the end of the war.

In 1918 the British army numbered almost 5,500,000. The force first sent to France, although well trained was not large enough to have an effect on the war, and the pre-Somme army lacked the experience needed but afterwards the British army came on a par with it’s French and German counterparts. Unfortunately natural causes at 3rd Pyres caused a failure, which hid this effectiveness.

The pre-war British army had never had to deal with an enemy as strong as they were, or any trench warfare. As a result the British army believed that the artillery was useful to ‘soften the enemy up’ thus they had very little artillery and what they did have was geared towards killing troops in the open battlefield rather than blowing out trench systems. The Germans had firstly a larger number of artillery pieces and they also had heavier, longer range and more explosive pieces that were better for trench fighting.

The British were poorly supplied with shells. The company’s producing them was restricted to those that had made them pre-war. This lasted till 1916 when the British economy’s emphasis was changed towards the war. Before this the ‘shell scandal’ had got so bad that at the battle of Loos there was a total of 500,000 rounds to support the attack the change meant that at the Somme the 3rd army alone had 3 million rounds of ammunition.

There were still problems with the artillery. At the Somme 1/3 of the shells fired didn’t explode. The shells were also not destroying the barbed wire. The shells would fall, hit the ground below the barbed wire and detonate, sending the barbed wire into the air only to come down, still intact in a worse mess than before.

This constant shelling also made no-mans land extremely cratered which itself became an obstacle especially when the shells ruptured the water table. The change that the British introduced, to cope with this problem in 1916, was to introduce fuse 106 which detonated on it’s first contact, the barbed wire, this meant that the wire was cut and the ground was easier to move over.As well as with artillery, the British army was extremely short on machine guns and on hand grenades.

This was again because the British had never been involved in a trench style conflict and not know which weapons were useful for this kind of war. Here was another example of change, as the 1,330 pre-war machine guns rose to 24,506 by 1918. The same went with hand grenades. Before the war the British had no working hand grenade and it wasn’t until 1916 that this changed. These new changes over a short period, more, lighter machine guns, grenades, more artillery and more ammunition all happened at the end of 1915 and changed the way the British fought, they no longer had to throw men at strong points, they could now pin them down and bypass them.The obvious evolutionary process during the war was infantry and artillery tactics. The British army started using a short barrage, partly because of the shortage of shells. After the barrage the infantry would go over the top, in waves and attack the German defences.

The German Defences would consist of the front trench and 1or 2-reserve trenches. The front trench would have soldiers standing shoulder-to-shoulder, so even the short artillery barrages had good effect. In the right circumstances the British would break through the front line.

Battles such as this were Neuve Chapelle and at Aubers Ridge. Aubers Ridge was a particular success and it was believed it was because of the prolonged bombardment used there. The British saw this as the key to success and they changed their attacks to have longer bombardments.The reason the British victories at Aubers Ridge and Neuve Chapelle weren’t exploited was because of the breakdown of communications. Once the order to attack had been given there was no way of calling back the troops, the battlefields were too large for voice control as in the past and wireless messaging was 20 years away. The British commanders implemented a change to stop this; they ordered attacks to be in lines, trotting, almost shoulder-to-shoulder, with the equipment the troops needed to carry on the attack carried with them, this seemed like the solution.These new tactics, increased preliminary bombardments followed by 3-5 lines of soldiers were used for the first time at the battle of the Somme. The preliminary bombardment was intended to destroy German resistance before the lines swept into the trenches and killed the remaining Germans before pushing on, remaining in lines, staying organised while being able to push forward.

Unfortunately this didn’t work, 1 in 3 shells didn’t explode and those that did had little effect on the Germans because of changes they had implemented (see below) and because of the affect explained above the wire was not cut and the men trotting forward were mowed down by the enemy machine guns and artillery, the attack was a disaster. Another factor in the defeat was that the Germans had changed their tactics, in direct response to the British heavy bombardment and linear tactics they had changed to a ‘defence in depth’ strategy which was a trench system which was maybe 4 or 5 trenches deep, with strong positions, usually pill box’s and a front line of machine guns while the troops were not packed into the line any more. As a result it took longer for the British to breakthrough the defence and they got stuck in km of trenches and because the Germans were no longer packed shoulder-to-shoulder the artillery had very little effect. The British had to change their tactics again.The changes to the tactics were summarised in a new training manual, SS143, released in early 1917. The new tactic was that every aspect of the army did a specific job that then all came together. The first change was the way the artillery worked. The heavy barrage, which had so little effect was switched with the ‘creeping barrage’, this would not to kill the enemy, but pin them down while the infantry attacked.

It was a wall of shells, dropped 100-200 metres ahead of British infantry. As the infantry pushed forwards the artillery wall would move forward with it, meaning the troops would be safe from counter attacks and that machine gun posts could be pinned down while the troops flanked them.The new artillery tactics were backed by changes in infantry tactics. The old linear attacks were abandoned and troops were put in small attack groups, these attack groups consisted of several riflemen, a grenadier and a Lewis gun team (these were light, manageable machine guns). These assault teams were to act independently. They were ideal for taking enemy strong points as the grenadier and the Lewis gun team were ideal for pinning down machine gun positions while the riflemen flanked the enemy positions.

These tactics gave a greater importance to individual initiative and cunning and should have reduced casualties.At around the same time artillery tactics improved. Changes had improved the accuracy of the guns. Each gun had been removed from the battlefield and were tested for distance. Scientists were introduced to the front, and temperatures, heat of the shell and the wind were all taken into account when the shell was fired.

This increased the accuracy of the British artillery. New developments also made counter-battery fire easier. The British used ‘spot-sighting’ and ‘sound ranging’ these used 3 spotters at known distances from each other to pinpoint where they saw the flash or heard the bang of enemy guns, the distance was then measured by trigonometry, This meant that the British artillery could effectively silence the enemy artillery. The 3rd change to the artillery was ‘now firing’.

This involved British planes flying over the enemy, using a system based on the clock they could accurately pinpoint to their artillery where enemy artillery pieces were, this was the most effective change.These changes to the British attack in 1917 were answered by a change in defensive tactics by the Germans. The defence in depth worked, but by stopping the British the Germans absorbed too many casualties. Unlike Britain and France the German ‘pot’ of possible soldiers had run out. The emphasis on their defence had to be on slowing down the British while taking the smallest amount of casualty’s.

The defence adopted was the ‘elastic defence’. This had a layout of 4 or 5 long trenches, on the back slope of a hill, so it was very difficult for the British artillery to pinpoint German positions. The forward zone was not intended to take much fighting, in fact it would be deserted, the only positions would be machine guns placed to cover as much ground as possible. The soldiers here would not fight to the death; they would aim to hold the British for as long as possible.The next zone the British would come into would be the main fighting zone, here would be German units designed for defensive fighting, they would be in strong positions that were designed to withstand attacks for as long as possible, the next zone would be where the German storm troopers were. These were the elite German units. Once the British had breached the main battle zone, these storm troopers would spring, like elastic back into the zone, and push the British back.

This defence worked, but the changes the British made with methods like now firing (see above) and the tactics used by the infantry made even this kind of defence hard to work. The Germans were pushed back. For example, it became very hard for the storm troopers to counter-attack, when the creeping barrage was left, covering the main fighting zone, giving the British the time they needed to consolidate their positions, meaning the Germans were attacking the British against their own defensive positions.In early 1918 the British again had to change the way they were fighting the war. By now the Americans had declared war on Germany and fresh American troops were coming to the continent. The Germans saw that if they didn’t change, and go on the attack they would be overwhelmed by the numbers the Americans could field. The ‘Spring Offensives’ were launched. The Germans attacked the line, all the way along the line.

They were able to swing 1 million troops fresh from their victory on the Eastern Front in. This sudden attack meant that the British had to change from attacking, which they had been doing most of the war to defending which they were inexperienced at.In fact when the attack came, within 10 days the front had been pushed back 40 miles, this was the biggest movement of the war so far. The British weren’t given time for their defensive tactics to evolve.

They were at the stage where they changed, or lost the war. There wasn’t time to dig elastic defences, so instead the order was given for every man to fight to the death. Eventually the German attack ran out of steam. Reserves were sent to where the British line was strongest rather than weakest, and the growing amount of American troops meant that the Germans were attacking against an enemy that outnumbered them.For the last few months of the war the British again changed their tactics and went on the attack. The ‘100 day victories’ were the biggest success in British history. The Germans were pushed back into Belgium. The British used all the tactics they had slowly learned during the past 3 years to fight a war using all arms of the military to win decisive victories.

The tank is a good example of the problems faced by new weapons used in the first word war. By 1918 the tank was formidable, they could crush enemy trenches, turn barbed wire into Brilo pads, and strike fear into the heart of enemy ranks. They were introduced at the Somme in 1916 and between then and the battle of Cambrai tanks seemed to have limited effects on battles. Much like the fighting methods the British used, the mechanics and the tactics used with tanks needed an evolutionary learning curve with crews who were learning how to use the machines effectively.

The first tanks used were slow and were not bulletproof; they were used in too small numbers and with little support. As a result they had little effect in their battles. The first change was the introduction of the Mark II; these tanks were still used poorly in unfavourable conditions, especially in the swamp of 3rd Ypres where they sunk.

However where the land was downhill and flat they could be used effectively such as at St. Julian away from Ypres where they headed a successful attack on a line of pillboxes. Despite their poor start the people in charge of the British army kept their confidence in their ability’s and the next change occurred; the Mark IV was introduced, this was more bullet-proof, and by now the tactics had been changed to suit the tanks.

They were used in large numbers on un-cratered land that was sloping towards the German trenches at the battle of Cambrai. The tanks quickly broke through the German lines and pushed out into open space Unfortunately the tanks could not carry enough fuel to go for more than 8 hours so these tanks could only go so far before they had to stop. The infantry reserves did not follow the tanks so they were left stranded deep in ‘enemy’ territory. The Germans quickly won the land back. This was a good demonstration of how tanks had their strong points and could be very effective if used correctly, but they also had their weaknesses that could be exploited.

From this, the evidence leads me to believe that there was considerable change in the Fighting methods used by the British army on the Western front; there was also considerable continuity, especially in the end results of the battles. Both sides managed to change their industrial capabilities towards being a war of total war. Unfortunately the changes made by one side were quickly countered by a change made by the other side, this is what lead to the continuation (which was the continuity) of the war and it wasn’t until their was no way for the Germans to change to counter the British and French tactics that the war was won.


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