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20 October 2014
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How did the leaders try to break the stalemate?

After the failure of the Schlieffen Plan at the Battle of Marne, September 1914, a quick German victory was unlikely. Instead the German army took the opportunity to select the best available defensive positions and dug themselves in behind the River Aisne where they waited for the Allied advance. Here they held the higher ground that would overlook their enemies' positions. Faced with an impenetrable German line of trenches, the Allies' initial offensive approach was abandoned in favour of a defensive one. This stalemate characterized fighting on the Western Front for the next four years. Both sides were fighting a war of attrition.

The decision makers in the First World War have been criticized for their actions throughout the conflict. Generals such as Haig have been branded 'moustachioed donkeys', inflexible, tactically stupid men, who cared little for the thousands of men they sacrificed for little territorial gain. Before condemning their actions it is important to understand who were the real decision makers and the difficulties they faced on the battlefield.

Unlike previous wars, where Generals of the British Expeditionary Force (B.E.F.) had exercised a great deal of independence in their command, the nature of 'total war' meant that the Government had much more input in the way war was conducted. One of the big conflicts in leadership was the argument over the Eastern Front as a possible theatre of war. Influential figures such as Lloyd George and Churchill favoured action in the Eastern Front believing it would weaken Germany's ability to conduct the War in the West. For example, in 1915, the Russians appealed for help when they found themselves under pressure from Turkey.

Gallipoli penninsula, © IWM

The plan was to mount an expedition in the Dardanelles off the Gallipoli peninsula. It was hoped that the Allies could capture Constantinople and Turkey could be knocked out of the war. Having failed to break the Dardanelles' defences, plans were made to capture the shoreline of the Gallipoli peninsula. In March 1915 the allies made landings at Cape Helles and 'Anzac cove'. However the attack, which was quickly contained by strong Turkish defences, ended in stalemate.

In reality Gallipoli and other Eastern Front campaigns such as Salonika failed to achieve what the likes of Lloyd George hoped. Haig was right to believe that the war could only be won on the Western Front. Moreover the difficulty of shipping allied troops over there, made effective war on the Eastern Front impractical.

'there is no evidence that an indirect approach through the Balkans or Italy would have had any noticeable effect on Germany's ability to wage war, but would have left France dangerously vulnerable.'

The nature of coalition warfare made it difficult for the Generals to make independent decisions. Britain was the lesser partner in a coalition with France. The coalition was also used by Lloyd George to keep a check on the movement of British generals, like Haig, who he considered to be incompetent. The plans for the Battle of the Somme are a good example of this. Due to the French losses at Verdun, General Joffre forced Haig to bring the date of his major offensive forward by a month. Haig had wanted the extra time to train his army more fully and he had wanted to fight the battle on the open plains of Flanders.

What factors made it difficult for the Generals to conduct War?

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A - The Generals were new to the demands of modern warfare and technology, and they were also in command of a largely unprofessional volunteer army.

B - Conflict with those in Government and the difficulties of coalition warfare.

C - Poor communication – the British army was ill equipped to deal with the size and scale of modern warfare.

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