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

It was believed that the only way to win the War was by killing enough enemy soldiers and destroying enough of their resources to force them to surrender. Each side mounted huge offensives in the hope of making a great breakthrough. This approach is evident in infamous Allied attacks such as the Somme, Nivelle and Passchendaele. The German army also launched offensives, such as Verdun, where they tried to 'bleed France white'.

Mass amounts of shells were used, © IWM

Typically, an Allied offensive would start with a preliminary artillery bombardment to damage enemy defences and resources before the infantry advanced. Both sides were fairly equally matched and the use of rapid machine gun fire and the deadlock on the front made these 'over-the-top' offensives effectively pointless.

Faced with war on a scale and size that had never before been experienced, mistakes and poor decision-making were to be expected. However, it would be misguided to believe that the armies did not grow in experience, become tactically stronger and utilise new technology open to them wherever possible. They did not simply repeat their mistakes.

From the Marne in 1914 to the 'hundred days' battles in the closing stages of the War in 1918, new weaponry, chemicals, aerial and armoured technologies had been tried and tested to break the deadlock.

'In 1914 tactics had yet to catch up with the range and lethality of modern artillery and machine guns... by 1918 much had changed.'
Dr. Gary Sheffield

Thinking Point: What advances in weaponry affected the nature of the fighting on the Western Front?


Gas could blind a man, as well as causing chronic breathing problems, © IWM

The first use of poison gas at the second battle of Ypres, April 1915, indicated an interesting development in trench warfare. Gas could cause burns, temporary blindness, or cause the lungs to dissolve. As Dr. Noel Chavasse said 'they [the German army] have no excuse for breaking the conventions which they had signed, yet I do admire their skill in making and using the gas. It certainly is a fine way of taking trenches.' Although used to great effect at first, gas masks were developed to help prevent its effects and gas could only really be used in the right weather conditions. For example when the British Army launched a gas attack, on 25th September 1915, the wind blew it back into the faces of the advancing troops.

Changes in tactics

Major offensives continued to be launched and while there was an awful loss of life incurred in these bloody battles of attrition they did serve a purpose and they did make use of lessons learned from past experiences. Passchendaele, which dragged on needlessly into a winter dogged by awful weather, turning the battlefield into a bloody mud bath, has often been criticised as another futile battle, but

'the early stages of this offensive demonstrated exactly how much progress the BEF had made in developing battlefield tactics.'

'For example, the battle opened with the successful capture of Messines Ridge, where mines were used as a means of dislodging the enemy from a vantage point which he had used to great effect since seizing it in late 1914.'
Malcolm Brown

Moreover, after the failure of the Nivelle Offensive and the mutinies in the French army that followed, it was vital to hold the Germans off so they could not take advantage of the Allied weaknesses.


First used unsuccessfully at the Somme, tanks proved their worth at the Battle of Cambrai © IWM

In November 1917 tanks were used at Cambrai. After their very limited success at the Somme in 1916 tactical lessons were learned. This time there was no great preliminary artillery bombardment as this churned up the battlefield and tanks manoeuvred best on flat ground. With an element of surprise retained, the infantry followed a tightly packed mass of tanks to crush the Hindenburg line and advance a distance of roughly four miles on the first day. Although the British failed to follow up this initial success it does show how the tank could be used with well thought out tactics to break the stalemate.

By Amiens, August 1918, the BEF had four years experience of modern warfare. The battle started with a surprise attack of very accurate shelling, which destroyed key German positions. Then, following a 'creeping barrage' of shells, the infantry advanced behind a mass of tanks with aerial support from the Royal Air Force. The effects were devastating prompting Ludendorff to call it the 'Black Day of the German Army'.

'Amiens demonstrated the extent of the military revolution that occurred on the Western Front… by 1918 the British army was second to none in its modernity and military ability.'

What else did the British do off the main battlefield to try and break the stalemate?

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A - A great naval victory was not a valid option but Britain did use the strength of the Royal Navy to inflict a serious distant blockade on Germany, effectively cutting off food and supplies.

B - War in the Air was not a decisive factor in breaking stalemate, but advances in technology meant that it played a more valuable role in strategic bombing and ground attacks than it had previously been capable of.

C - A series of 'sideshows' were launched in an attempt to make a breakthrough elsewhere other than the Western Front.

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