First World War

Following the battle of the Marne and the race to the Sea a trench line was set up from Switzerland to the North Sea. This trench line was in place by the end of 1914. In March 1918 the Germans launched a major attack under the code name “Operation Michael”. Was there much change in warfare on the Western front between the end of 1914 and March 1918? Explain your answer. The period of World War One was a time of great change. Transformations occurred in many fields of life, but in other ways many things stayed the same. Technology was greatly improved upon during the course of the war.

Aeroplanes, tanks, artillery, gas and machine guns were all created or significantly improved upon. Possibly the biggest advance of these was that of aircraft. Blacks sent over from British colonised Africa were amazed by them, calling them “Steam engines of the air”. The plane had only been created eleven years earlier by the Wright brothers and, at the beginning of the war, was still temperamental and deemed of limited use by Commanders. The early machines were weak and fragile and none of the great powers possessed a significant amount of them.

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They were first used as reconnaissance planes because they were unable to inflict enough damage to major enemy targets to change the course of a battle or campaign. During the war, air power made huge technological advances. Air forces of the different powers increased intensely in size and power, and the planes grew stronger, being able to travel further distances, achieve greater heights and hold more firepower. These advances were mainly due to the nature of the war itself. Trench warfare, being mostly stationary, gave planes many chances to prove their worth.

Planes began to be used for observation and bombing missions over enemy territory. But as these missions became more frequent, so did the enemy’s efforts to stop these missions. After 1916, the intensity of air-to-air combat rose greatly as both sides tried to gain air supremacy. By the time the war ended in 1918, over 10,000 planes were in operation at the front lines. The Tank, so called because of the name secret operatives gave it when it was first shipped over to France, was created by British army journalist Lieutenant-Colonel Ernest Swinton, and, he believed, was a way of breaking the stalemate on the Western front.

The first tanks were based on tractor designs, and, in spring 1916 a working tank was produced. Due to its all-round caterpillar tracks it was excellent at covering rough terrain, was unaffected by machine gun and rifle fire and could crush the ‘gooseberries’ of barbed wire that guarded trenches. These tanks however were very slow – with a top speed of around 3-mph, difficult to steer, and often sank on soft ground and mud. They were used to limited effect at the Somme, mid 1916, and Haig – The Commander in chief of the British armies stated that the tank was a useful toy, but not powerful enough to win the war.

On the 20 November 1917, 400 new Mark IV tanks were used in formation at the battle of Cambrai and 5 miles of the Hindenburg line were captured at limited cost of lives to the attacking British. Artillery was another factor that advanced during the First World War. But, it wasn’t on the technological front. In that factor, the artillery guns themselves only changed marginally (with the development of bigger, more powerful weapons and rail-mounted guns), but the tactics that they employed changed and became dramatically more effective.

Early in the war, for example at the battle of the Somme – which started July 1916 – artillery was fired for a week beforehand to “destroy” the enemy’s fortifications, barbed wire and defending force. But, at 7:30 on the 1st of July, when the guns stopped – the signal for the British to get out of their trenches and walk to the enemy lines – the Germans knew that the attack had begun, and simply crawled from their dug-outs to man their machine gun posts.

This problem was averted with the creation of the “creeping barrage” which was used first with the 7 and 18 division on the British XV corps on one area on the first day of the Somme with great success. The idea was that the artillery would fire upon the enemy front line, and then progressively further and further away, with the advancing soldiers close (ideally100m) behind the line of fire. Then when the enemy finally rose from its trench, the British attackers were less than 100 metres from their position.

This was, however, tricky because communication was difficult between the attacking force and the artillery commanders, and there was the constant risk of the falling shells blowing-up their own soldiers due to errors, and so very accurate guns were needed. The type, and attitude, of the British army also changed over the course of the war. The type of army can be separated up into four groups. When Germany first attacked France in 1914 with the use of the flawed Schlieffen plan, Britain sent over her standing army – the BEF (British expeditionary force).

At the beginning of 1915 the British needed more men to man the trenches, so the reservist or Territorial Army was sent over. Then, in mid 1916, with the need for more manpower to break the stalemate on the Western front, the ‘Kitchener armies’ were introduced. Using the now well known poster of Horatio Herbert Kitchener (The secretary of war – appointed 1914, the Commander of the British army in South Africa (during the Boer war), Egypt and India, and a celebrated hero) and the slogan “Your country needs you”, the effect on the population was substantial.

Whole streets of men between the right ages signed up. The Government created the idea of “Pals” brigades – were every man came from the same town and knew each other. This was supposed to increase the moral of the army, but instead meant that when the brigades were used in the “Big Pushes” whole neighbourhoods of young men were wiped-out. As support for the army diminished at home, in late 1916 Britain was forced to introduce conscription to the population. Britain also pulled support in from around her Empire from India, Africa, Australia, Canada and New Zealand.

This forth group became known as the Conscript army, and it shows that the final, crucial battles of World War One were fought by people who didn’t even want to be there. The attitudes of the soldiers also passed through stages. To begin with there was an overall feeling of patriotism by the powers going into war. Soldiers on both sides believed “that the war would be over in time for Christmas”. This feeling soon diminished as the war went through winter and into its second and third years. The feeling then was that they were doing a job that had to be done.

Toward the end of the war the full horror of the trenches was exposed to the men and morale became very low. The strategy of offensives in some respects changed, and in others did not. To illustrate this change is the idea of “punching the line” – created in 1917 – as a compromise to the “Big push”. “Punching the line” was when there were a series of little attacks along a large area of the enemy’s front line instead of a huge attack on a small area – the idea of pricking a plastic sheet many times with a pin to weaken it, rather than trying to punch your fist through it.

This shows a change in strategy from some of the attackers. Unfortunately Haig believed that after many successes from this tactic (e. g. at Messines hill), it was time for another big push to finish the “Huns” off. This led to the massacre at Passchendaele, which shows that the strategy of Commanders didn’t change during WW1 due to their outmoded and old-fashioned views on warfare. The last thing that didn’t change was the geography of the front.

Although attacks won ground in places – creating ‘bulges’ in the line, the enemy would eventually win it back and a ‘salient’ would be created. Throughout the war, the trench line writhed like a snake, but mostly stayed in the same position. Overall, there were massive changes in all fields of life during the First World War. Some aspects changed quickly, and some changes took a long time, for example, it took the allies three years to understand what tactics to use against the enemy in the trenches. But, on the other hand, many aspects did not change at all.