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Reading the answers to this question about WW1 Western Front, it appears that breaking through the trenches was a very difficult task to do. How did the Allies finally make it? Was it the invention of new tactics and technology? Or was it just the numerical advantage caused by the entry of the Americans?
World War One was at the dawn of the modern military age. Military leaders had to adapt to new technologies with new strategies. Near the beginning of the war, soldiers would just stand up out of their trenches and shoot each other. Later, elaborate tactics and new technologies were employed. The battle of Vimy Ridge details the adoption of no less than six strategic firsts: creeping barrage, units of 10-15 men each with their own map (instead of 50 men with one map), suppressive gunfire, flash spotting, and others. Here is a brief look at some of the tactics.
The tactics employed at Vimy Ridge allowed for the attacking Canadians to lose only 10k casualties while taking a heavily fortified ridge from the Germans and inflicting 30k casualties on the defenders. Strategy played a huge role.
I highly recommend reading both of the linked articles in their entirety. They are exciting and informative.
The Allies never did make a real breakthrough in the West. At the end of the war, they were pushing the German Army back, but never breaking through.
The Germans did, against the Allies, but it's a matter of question whether German offensive practices were better than Allied, or Allied defensive practices were worse than German. Given that the British and French were usually attacking, and that the areas the Germans hit were generally the more lightly defended, my guess is that it's a matter of worse Allied defense.
The main problems the offensive faced were communications and logistics. Breaking through trench lines was a matter of coordinating infantry and artillery, and as the infantry advanced it lost all contact. The infantry would hit later trench lines at more and more variable times, so the artillery couldn't coordinate. Moreover, it was almost impossible to supply forces as they advanced; this is what caused the failure of the German Spring 1918 Offensive.
At the very end of the war, the Allies were experimenting with putting radios on tanks, to keep contact with the rear (including the artillery), and that might have made breakthroughs possible. Tanks were also useful for fire support, although very unreliable in those days, so breakdowns were very frequent.
Defensive positions in WWII were often deeper and better held than those of WWI, and were often broken through by well-planned attacks. Aircraft and tanks provided mobile firepower, there were good cross-country trucks, and radios allowed artillery to support the attack effectively until the limits of its range.
A multitude of approaches were taken, not just by the Allies but by the Germans as well:
- Fire and move tactics (akin to modern infantry tactics).
- Lighter, more portable machine guns that could be carried forward to support the attack
- Better artillery tactics, particularly to support the infantry attack.
- Penetration tactics (on the German side in particular), attacking through the weakest points and leaving follow up units to deal with outflanked strong points.
- Various technological advances (tanks, planes, gas)
Most attacks were initially successful; however, it was extremely difficult to bring up support to maintain the ground taken, and counter attacks would defeat gains made.
The Allied forces had more or less developed a pretty successful system of attacking by the end of the war. It did rely on having greater material resources than the Germans. Constant pressure and a large number of well resourced "bite and hold" attacks. This concentrated of wearing down the German army in a pretty brutal war of attrition. Each attack was limited, kept in range of the supporting guns, the objective was not to breakthrough but break in.
Given the limitation and problems 'exploiting' or attempted 'breakthrough' , Allied strategy was not aimed at these. (the problems just could not be solved). The quick succession of bite and hold attacks would eventually wear down the German reserves, and them there would be some sort of breakthrough.
The tank was one major development that helped break through the trenches. The British Mk1 tank was employed with some degree of success at the Battle of Cambrai for example:
The British gained more ground here in six hours than they gained in three months at Ypres for example.
However, due to lack of infantry support most of the ground gained was lost to a German counter-attack soon afterwards.
In the early weeks of the First World War (late in the summer of 1914), both German and French commanders anticipated a war that would involve a large amount of troop movement, as each side sought to gain or defend territory. The Germans initially swept through parts of Belgium and northeastern France, gaining territory along the way.
During the First Battle of the Marne in September 1914, the Germans were pushed back by Allied forces. They subsequently "dug in" to avoid losing any more ground. Unable to break through this line of defense, the Allies also began to dig protective trenches.
By October 1914, neither army could advance its position, mainly because war was being waged in a very different way than it had been during the 19th century. Forward-moving strategies such as head-on infantry attacks were no longer effective or feasible against modern weaponry such as machine guns and heavy artillery. This inability to move forward created the stalemate.
What began as a temporary strategy evolved into one of the main features of the war at the Western Front for the next four years.
The last offensives and the Allies’ victory
As the German strength on the Western Front was being steadily increased by the transfer of divisions from the Eastern Front (where they were no longer needed since Russia had withdrawn from the war), the Allies’ main problem was how to withstand an imminent German offensive pending the arrival of massive reinforcements from the United States. Eventually Pétain persuaded the reluctant Haig that the British with 60 divisions should extend their sector of the front from 100 to 125 miles as compared with the 325 miles to be held by the French with approximately 100 divisions. Haig thus devoted 46 of his divisions to the front from the Channel to Gouzeaucourt (southwest of German-held Cambrai) and 14 to the remaining third of the front from Gouzeaucourt past German-held Saint-Quentin to the Oise River.
On the German side, between Nov. 1, 1917, and March 21, 1918, the German divisions on the Western Front were increased from 146 to 192, the troops being drawn from Russia, Galicia, and Italy. By these means the German armies in the west were reinforced by a total of about 570,000 men. Ludendorff’s interest was to strike from his temporary position of strength—before the arrival of the major U.S. contingents—and at the same time to ensure that his German offensive should not fail for the same reasons as the Allies’ offensives of the past three years. Accordingly he formed an offensive strategy based on taking the tactical line of least resistance. The main German attacks would begin with brief but extremely intense artillery bombardments using a high proportion of poison gas and smoke shells. These would incapacitate the Allies’ forward trenches and machine-gun emplacements and would obscure their observation posts. Then a second and lighter artillery barrage would begin to creep forward over the Allied trenches at a walking pace (in order to keep the enemy under fire), with the masses of German assault infantry advancing as closely as possible behind it. The key to the new tactics was that the assault infantry would bypass machine-gun nests and other points of strong resistance instead of waiting, as had been the previous practice on both sides, for reinforcements to mop up the obstructions before continuing the advance. The Germans would instead continue to advance in the direction of the least enemy resistance. The mobility of the German advance would thus be assured, and its deep infiltration would result in large amounts of territory being taken.
Such tactics demanded exceptionally fit and disciplined troops and a high level of training. Ludendorff accordingly drew the best troops from all the Western Front forces at his disposal and formed them into elite shock divisions. The troops were systematically trained in the new tactics, and every effort was also made to conceal the actual areas at which the German main attacks would be made.
Ludendorff’s main attack was to be on the weakest sector of the Allies’ front, the 47 miles between Arras and La Fère (on the Oise). Two German armies, the 17th and the 2nd, were to break through the front between Arras and Saint-Quentin, north of the Somme, and then wheel right so as to force most of the British back toward the Channel, while the 18th Army, between the Somme and the Oise, protected the left flank of the advance against counterattack from the south. Code-named “ Michael,” this offensive was to be supplemented by three other attacks: “St. George I” against the British on the Lys River south of Armentières “St. George II” against the British again between Armentières and Ypres and “Blücher” against the French in Champagne. It was finally decided to use 62 divisions in the main attack, “Michael.”
Preceded by an artillery bombardment using 6,000 guns, “Michael” was launched on March 21, 1918, and was helped by an early morning fog that hid the German advance from the Allied observation posts. The attack, which is known as the Second Battle of the Somme or the Battle of Saint-Quentin, took the British altogether by surprise, but it did not develop as Ludendorff had foreseen. While the 18th Army under von Hutier achieved a complete breakthrough south of the Somme, the major attack to the north was held up, mainly by the British concentration of strength at Arras. For a whole week Ludendorff, in violation of his new tactical emphasis, vainly persisted in trying to carry out his original plan instead of exploiting the unexpected success of the 18th Army, though the latter had advanced more than 40 miles westward and had reached Montdidier by March 27. At last, however, the main effort of the Germans was converted into a drive toward Amiens, which began in force on March 30. By that time the Allies had recovered from their initial dismay, and French reserves were coming up to the British line. The German drive was halted east of Amiens and so too was a renewed attack on April 4. Ludendorff then suspended his Somme offensive. This offensive had yielded the largest territorial gains of any operation on the Western Front since the First Battle of the Marne in September 1914.
The Allies’ cause at least derived one overdue benefit from the collapse of one-third of the British front: at Haig’s own suggestion, Foch was on March 26 appointed to coordinate the Allies’ military operations and on April 14 he was named commander in chief of the Allied armies. Previously, Haig had resisted the idea of a generalissimo.
On April 9 the Germans began “ St. George I” with an attack on the extreme northern front between Armentières and the canal of La Bassée, their aim being to advance across the Lys River toward Hazebrouck. Such was the initial success of this attack that “ St. George II” was launched the next day, with the capture of Kemmel Hill (Kemmelberg), southwest of Ypres, as its first objective. Armentières fell, and Ludendorff came to think for a time that this Battle of the Lys might be turned into a major effort. The British, however, after being driven back 10 miles, halted the Germans short of Hazebrouck. French reinforcements began to come up and, when the Germans had taken Kemmel Hill (April 25), Ludendorff decided to suspend exploitation of the advance, for fear of a counterstroke against his front’s new bulge.
Thus far Ludendorff had fallen short of strategic results, but he could claim huge tactical successes—the British casualties alone amounted to more than 300,000. Ten British divisions had to be broken up temporarily, while the German strength mounted to 208 divisions, of which 80 were still in reserve. A restoration of the balance, however, was now in sight. A dozen U.S. divisions had arrived in France, and great efforts were being made to swell the stream. Furthermore, Pershing, the U.S. commander, had placed his troops at Foch’s disposal for use wherever required.
Ludendorff finally launched “ Blücher” on May 27, on a front extending from Coucy, north of Soissons, eastward toward Reims. The Germans, with 15 divisions, suddenly attacked the seven French and British divisions opposing them, swarmed over the ridge of the Chemin des Dames and across the Aisne River, and, by May 30, were on the Marne, between Château-Thierry and Dormans. Once again the attack’s initial success went far beyond Ludendorff’s expectation or intention and, when the Germans tried to push westward against the right flank of the Allies’ Compiègne salient, which was sandwiched between the Germans’ Amiens and Champagne bulges, they were checked by counterattacks, which included one sustained for a fortnight from June 6 by U.S. divisions at Belleau Wood (Bois de Belleau). An attack from Noyon, against the left flank of the Compiègne salient, came too late (June 9).
Overtaken by the inordinate fruition of his own offensives, Ludendorff paused for a month’s recuperation. The tactical success of his own blows had been his undoing yielding to their influence, he had pressed each too far and too long, using up his own reserves and causing an undue interval between blows. He had driven three great wedges into the Allied lines, but none had penetrated far enough to sever a vital rail artery, and this strategic failure left the Germans with a front whose several bulges invited flanking counterstrokes. Moreover, Ludendorff had used up many of his shock troops in the attacks, and the remaining troops, though strong in numbers, were relatively lower in quality. The Germans were to end up sustaining a total of 800,000 casualties in their great 1918 offensives. Meanwhile, the Allies were now receiving U.S. troops at the rate of 300,000 men per month.
The next German offensive, which opened the Second Battle of the Marne, was launched in Champagne on July 15. It came to nothing: a German thrust from the front east of Reims toward Châlons-sur-Marne was frustrated by the “ elastic defense” that Pétain had recently been prescribing but that the local commanders had failed to practice against the offensive of May 27. A drive from Dormans, on the left flank of the Germans’ huge Soissons–Reims bulge, across the Marne toward Épernay simply made the Germans’ situation more precarious when Foch’s long-prepared counterstroke was launched on July 18. In this great counterstroke one of Foch’s armies assailed the Germans’ Champagne bulge from the west, another from the southwest, one more from the south, and a fourth from the vicinity of Reims. Masses of light tanks—a weapon on which Ludendorff had placed little reliance, preferring gas instead in his plans for the year—played a vital part in forcing the Germans into a hasty retreat. By August 2 the French had pushed the Champagne front back to a line following the Vesle River from Reims and then along the Aisne to a point west of Soissons.
Having recovered the initiative, the Allies were determined not to lose it, and for their next blow they chose again the front north and south of the Somme. The British 4th Army, including Australian and Canadian forces, with 450 tanks, struck the Germans with maximum surprise on Aug. 8, 1918. Overwhelming the German forward divisions, who had failed to entrench themselves adequately since their recent occupation of the “Michael” bulge, the 4th Army advanced steadily for four days, taking 21,000 prisoners and inflicting as many or more casualties at the cost of only about 20,000 casualties to itself, and halting only when it reached the desolation of the old battlefields of 1916. Several German divisions simply collapsed in the face of the offensive, their troops either fleeing or surrendering. The Battle of Amiens was thus a striking material and moral success for the Allies. Ludendorff put it differently: “August 8 was the black day of the German Army in the history of the war.…It put the decline of our fighting power beyond all doubt.…The war must be ended.” He informed Emperor William II and Germany’s political chiefs that peace negotiations should be opened before the situation became worse, as it must. The conclusions reached at a German Crown Council held at Spa were that “We can no longer hope to break the war-will of our enemies by military operations,” and “the objects of our strategy must be to paralyse the enemy’s war-will gradually by a strategic defensive.” In other words, the German high command had abandoned hope of victory or even of holding their gains and hoped only to avoid surrender.
Meanwhile, the French had retaken Montdidier and were thrusting toward Lassigny (between Roye and Noyon) and on August 17 they began a new drive from the Compiègne salient south of Noyon. Then, in the fourth week of August, two more British armies went into action on the Arras–Albert sector of the front, the one advancing directly eastward on Bapaume, the other operating farther to the north. From then on Foch delivered a series of hammer blows along the length of the German front, launching a series of rapid attacks at different points, each broken off as soon as its initial impetus waned, and all close enough in time to attract German reserves, which consequently were unavailable to defend against the next Allied attack along a different part of the front. By the early days of September the Germans were back where they had been before March 1918—behind the Hindenburg Line.
The Allies’ recovery was consummated by the first feat executed by Pershing’s U.S. forces as an independent army (hitherto the U.S. divisions in France had fought only in support of the major French or British units): the U.S. 1st Army on September 12 erased the triangular Saint-Mihiel salient that the Germans had been occupying since 1914 (between Verdun and Nancy).
The clear evidence of the Germans’ decline decided Foch to seek victory in the coming autumn of 1918 instead of postponing the attempt until 1919. All the Allied armies in the west were to combine in a simultaneous offensive.
Allied forces break through the Hindenburg Line
On September 29, 1918, after a 56-hour-long bombardment, Allied forces breach the so-called Hindenburg Line, the last line of German defenses on the Western Front during World War I.
Built in late 1916, the Hindenburg Line—named by the British for the German commander in chief, Paul von Hindenburg it was known to the Germans as the Siegfried Line—was a heavily fortified zone running several miles behind the active front between the north coast of France and Verdun, near the border of France and Belgium. By September 1918, the formidable system consisted of six defensive lines, forming a zone some 6,000 yards deep, ribbed with lengths of barbed wire and dotted with concrete emplacements, or firing positions. Though the entire line was heavily fortified, its southern part was most vulnerable to attack, as it included the St. Quentin Canal and was not out of sight from artillery observation by the enemy. Also, the whole system was laid out linearly, as opposed to newer constructions that had adapted to more recent developments in firepower and were built with scattered “strong points” laid out like a checkerboard to enhance the intensity of artillery fire.
The Allies would use these vulnerabilities to their advantage, concentrating all the force built up during their so-called “Hundred Days Offensive”—kicked off on August 8, 1918, with a decisive victory at Amiens, France𠅊gainst the Hindenburg Line in late September. Australian, British, French and American forces participated in the attack on the line, which began with the marathon bombardment, using 1,637 guns along a 10,000-yard-long front. In the last 24 hours the British artillery fired a record 945,052 shells. After capturing the St. Quentin Canal with a creeping barrage of fire shells for each 500 yards of German trench over an eight-hour period—the Allies were able to successfully breach the Hindenburg Line on September 29.
WWI: Technology and the weapons of war
One of the saddest facts about World War I is that millions died needlessly because military and civilian leaders were slow to adapt their old-fashioned strategies and tactics to the new weapons of 1914. New technology made war more horrible and more complex than ever before. The United States and other countries felt the effects of the war for years afterwards.
The popular image of World War I is soldiers in muddy trenches and dugouts, living miserably until the next attack. This is basically correct. Technological developments in engineering, metallurgy, chemistry, and optics had produced weapons deadlier than anything known before. The power of defensive weapons made winning the war on the western front all but impossible for either side.
When attacks were ordered, Allied soldiers went “over the top,” climbing out of their trenches and crossing no-man’s-land to reach enemy trenches. They had to cut through belts of barbed wire before they could use rifles, bayonets, pistols, and hand grenades to capture enemy positions. A victory usually meant they had seized only a few hundred yards of shell-torn earth at a terrible cost in lives. Wounded men often lay helpless in the open until they died. Those lucky enough to be rescued still faced horrible sanitary conditions before they could be taken to proper medical facilities. Between attacks,the snipers, artillery, and poison gas caused misery and death.
Airplanes, products of the new technology, were primarily made of canvas, wood, and wire. At first they were used only to observe enemy troops. As their effectiveness became apparent, both sides shot planes down with artillery from the ground and with rifles, pistols, and machine guns from other planes. In 1916, the Germans armed planes with machine guns that could fire forward without shooting off the fighters’ propellers. The Allies soon armed their airplanes the same way, and war in the air became a deadly business. These light, highly maneuverable fighter planes attacked each other in wild air battles called dogfights. Pilots who were shot down often remained trapped in their falling, burning planes, for they had no parachutes. Airmen at the front did not often live long. Germany also used its fleet of huge dirigibles, or zeppelins, and large bomber planes to drop bombs on British and French cities. Britain retaliated by bombing German cities.
Back on the ground, the tank proved to be the answer to stalemate in the trenches. This British invention used American-designed caterpillar tracks to move the armored vehicle equipped with machine guns and sometimes light cannon. Tanks worked effectively on firm, dry ground, in spite of their slow speed, mechanical problems, and vulnerability to artillery. Able to crush barbed wire and cross trenches, tanks moved forward through machine gun fire and often terrified German soldiers with their unstoppable approach.
Chemical warfare first appeared when the Germans used poison gas during a surprise attack in Flanders, Belgium, in 1915. At first, gas was just released from large cylinders and carried by the wind into nearby enemy lines. Later, phosgene and other gases were loaded into artillery shells and shot into enemy trenches. The Germans used this weapon the most, realizing that enemy soldiers wearing gas masks did not fight as well. All sides used gas frequently by 1918. Its use was a frightening development that caused its victims a great deal of suffering, if not death.
Both sides used a variety of big guns on the western front, ranging from huge naval guns mounted on railroad cars to short-range trench mortars. The result was a war in which soldiers near the front were seldom safe from artillery bombardment. The Germans used super–long-range artillery to shell Paris from almost eighty miles away. Artillery shell blasts created vast, cratered, moonlike landscapes where beautiful fields and woods had once stood.
Perhaps the most significant technological advance during World War I was the improvement of the machine gun, a weapon originally developed by an American, Hiram Maxim. The Germans recognized its military potential and had large numbers ready to use in 1914. They also developed air-cooled machine guns for airplanes and improved those used on the ground, making them lighter and easier to move. The weapon’s full potential was demonstrated on the Somme battlefield in July 1916 when German machine guns killed or wounded almost 60,000 British soldiers in only one day.
At sea, submarines attacked ships far from port. In order to locate and sink German U-boats, British scientists developed underwater listening devices and underwater explosives called depth charges. Warships became faster and more powerful than ever before and used newly invented radios to communicate effectively. The British naval blockade of Germany, which was made possible by developments in naval technology, brought a total war to civilians. The blockade caused a famine that finally brought about the collapse of Germany and its allies in late 1918. Starvation and malnutrition continued to take the lives of German adults and children for years after the war.
The firing stopped on November 11, 1918, but modern war technology had changed the course of civilization. Millions had been killed, gassed, maimed, or starved. Famine and disease continued to rage through central Europe, taking countless lives. Because of rapid technological advances in every area, the nature of warfare had changed forever, affecting soldiers, airmen, sailors, and civilians alike.
A. Torrey McLean, a former United States Army officer who served in Vietnam, studied World War I for more than thirty years, personally interviewing a number of World War I veterans.
Fitzgerald, Gerard J. 2008. "Chemical warfare and medical response during World War I." American Journal of Public Health. April 2008. 98(4): 611-625. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2376985/. Corrected July 2008. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2424079/
North Carolinians and the Great War. Documenting the American South, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Libraries. https://docsouth.unc.edu/wwi/
Rumerman, Judy. "The U.S. Aircraft Industry Durin World War I." U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission. #
"Wildcats never quit: North Carolina in WWI." State Archives of North Carolina. N.C. Department of Cultural Resources. http://www.history.ncdcr.gov/SHRAB/ar/exhibits/wwi/default.htm (accessed September 25, 2013).
WWI: NC Digital Collections. NC Department of Cultural Resources.
WWI: Old North State and the 'Kaiser Bill.' Online exhibit, State Archives of NC.
First Battle of Ypres: October 19 to November 22, 1914
The 2nd battalion of the Royal Warwckshire regiment being transported by English busses from Dickebusch to Ypres, November 6, 1914 during the First Battle of Ypres.
Photo12/Universal Images Group/Getty Images
In what would become known as the “Race to the Sea,” the First Battle of Ypres begins, the first of three battles to control the ancient Flemish city on Belgium’s north coast that allows access to English Channel ports and the North Sea. The massive conflict—involving an estimated 600,000 Germans and 420,000 Allies𠅌ontinues for three weeks until brutal winter weather brings it to an end. Typical of so many World War I battles, both sides engage in trench warfare and suffer massive casualties, but neither makes significant gains.
All Disquiet on the Western Front
Why did World War I turn into a trench war on the Western Front? Was it the same on the Eastern Front?
Trench warfare was not an innovation of World War I, but it was never so prevalent in any other war before or since.
One reason that World War I became a massive trench war on the Western Front was that western Europe was densely populated. The opposing armies in the west were so vast that they could be deployed across the entire European continent, forming a continuous front. Early in the war, the opposing armies engaged in mobile tactics in an effort to outflank each other, but were countered as opposing troops were brought in to extend their lines.
Throughout late 1914, after the first battle of the Marne, units of the opposing sides were deployed north and south of the already-entrenched armies and attempted to outrace each other and, in so doing, to turn their enemies' flank before the extending lines reached the sea. These attempts resulted in a series of battles, but neither side achieved a decisive breakthrough. From that point, the war on the Western Front devolved into filling in gaps in the lines, fortifying them, and experimenting with new tactics and weapons in order to break through.
The trench lines had the effect of turning Western Europe into two fortresses whose armies laid siege to each other along a single border.
In the east, the geography worked against entrenchment. The battle lines were much longer and the ground was harder. Trenches were more difficult to dig, and they could not be easily defended because forces could not be deployed along vast distances without making defensive lines easy to break. In the west, railroad lines were well established and could be used to shuttle forces back and forth rapidly in order to meet challenges along the front, but the transportation infrastructure in the east was much less developed.
The other reason that trench warfare dominated the conflict in World War I had to do with technological developments in weaponry, communications, and transportation, whose net effect was to strengthen the ability to conduct defensive operations and to make successful offensive operations much more difficult.
In previous wars, massed infantry and cavalry forces advanced or defended against each other across open ground. The small arms and other field weapons that had been available could certainly inflict losses on an advancing force as it came into range, but with enough men and horses, an advancing commander could hope to reach the defending army's lines and overwhelm them.
By World War I, however, small arms were much more lethal. They could fire accurately at far greater distances and they could be fired much more rapidly. Soldiers were now equipped with bolt-action rifles, hand grenades, and machine guns, and their field artillery was equipped with high explosive shells. The advancing army could also be slowed through quickly deployed lines of barbed wire, or through the use of flamethrowers or poison gas.
The advancing army's movements could also be tracked more efficiently. Airplanes did this job, and details of opposing troop movements were relayed to line commanders by rapidly strung phone lines.
The result was that an attacking force could no longer have much hope of surviving an advance over open ground against a defending force, especially an entrenched one. The opposing armies therefore fell into defending their territories along roughly parallel lines separated by a lethal "no man's land" between them.
The technology and tactics that could break this stalemate were not fully developed until the very end of the war and so were not effectively employed until the outbreak of World War II. They resulted in the use of highly mobile offensive forces that integrated infantry troops with newly improved tanks and close air support. This allowed an attacking force either to penetrate a defender's lines or to bypass entrenched fortifications altogether.
For more information
Tony Ashworth. Trench Warfare, 1914-1918: The Live and Let Live System. New York: Holmes & Meier, 1980.
Stephen Bull. Trench Warfare. New York: Sterling, 2003.
John Ellis. Eye-Deep in Hell: Trench Warfare in World War I. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989.
Paddy Griffith. Fortifications of the Western Front 1914-18. Oxford: Osprey, 2004.
Nicholas J. Saunders. Killing Time: Archaeology and the First World War. Stroud: Sutton, 2007.
Gary Sheffield, ed. War on the Western Front.: In the Trenches of World War I. New York: Osprey, 2007.
"German machine gunners in a trench," Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.
"Our Boys in France Learning to Correctly Use Gas Masks," Keystone View Company.
What new technology/tactics allowed the breakthrough of the trenches in WW I western front? - History
Stormtrooper Tactics of World War I
The innovative new German stormtrooper tactics of 1918 were very successful and foreshadowed the blitzkrieg tactics of the Second World War, but their very success contributed to German defeat.
The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, with Russia defeated, allowed Germany to concentrate on the Western Front. Ludendorff, the co-dictator of Germany and supreme military commander, insisted on occupying Russia. Over one million troops were tied up in Russia and Romania. Another million troops and 3,000 artillery pieces were shipped to the western front. From November 1917 to March 1918, German strength on the Western Front increased from 150 to 208 divisions and included 13, 832 artillery pieces. (Terraine 45)
At this time in the war, military formations of the belligerents were similar. German divisions consisted of about 10,600 men, British 12,000, and French 13,000. The newly arriving American divisions were over twice as large at 28,105 men. Eventually, the American troops would be vital in saving the Allied cause and winning the war. (American 267)
By this time in the war, a complex system of trenches and machine gun posts arranged in depth had evolved. All battle trenches were connected together with communications trenches which led to the rear areas. In front of the trenches were deep belts of barbed wire. (Hogg 124) The British defense system was based on a captured German manual. (For this essay "British" will include their allies, including the Anzacs, Canadians, and Portuguese.) They copied the letter and not the spirit of the German system. The British believed the machine gun supported the infantry while the Germans more realistically believed the infantry supported the machine gun. The new defense system had a Forward Zone manned by one-third of the troops. Two to three miles back, and manned by one-third of the infantry and two-thirds of the artillery, was the Battle Zone of a depth of 2,000 to 3,000 yards. The Rear Zone was four to eight miles behind the Battle Zone. This system was not as efficient as the German system which allocated two-thirds of the troops for counterattacks. (Barnett 298) France was nearing the end of its manpower resources, so the artillery was their most important arm. The French wisely held their front lightly and kept most of their troops in the main position out of artillery range. (Barnett 295)
While defenses were evolving, the German army was developing new assault tactics to deal with the defenses. The new German stormtroopers, or Stosstrupp, were first used experimentally in 1915. Groups of three, one with a large shield, and two on either side would toss grenades to spearhead attacks. (Koch 503) Later, Gen. Oskar von Hutier developed tactics of massed artillery and infiltration at Riga in Russia. (Livesey 178) For the new offensives in France, the rigid chain of command was made more flexible. Army commanders could direct the actions of battalions, thereby potentially relegating corps and brigades to reinforcement and supply functions. (Barnet 291)
Because of the loss of non-commissioned officers in 1917, all German divisions were not converted into assault divisions. Divisions were categorized as assault or trench divisions and given different priorities of supply. Assault divisions were given stormtroopers and four weeks training in mobile warfare. (Terraine 23) The elite stormtroopers were in top condition and were commanded by non-aristocrats, thereby increasing their comradery. (Koch 506)
Each offensive was preceded by the concentration of vast numbers of troops and artillery. In Operation Michael, 69 German divisions were massed against 32 British divisions, and in some places the British were outnumbered four to one. (Hart 370) In the Lys Offensive, 9 German divisions attacked 3 British divisions. Twenty-two divisions were massed against five in the Second Battle of the Marne. (Hart 414) Artillery was massed in levels never before seen. For comparison, in 1915 at Loos, artillery pieces averaged one per 60 yards. In the 1918 Operation Michael, one gun was placed on average every 12 yards. Continuing this trend, the Soviets in World War II massed artillery one gun per every 3 yards. (Hart 190, 415) In contrast to earlier offensives, artillery bombardments were brief and shocking. The enemy artillery was first eliminated with shells and poison gas. Enemy headquarters, communication centers, and supply depots were targeted. Forward trenches were then devastated, machine gun posts being prime targets. Trenches of the Battle Zone were then bombarded. (Toland 16)
During Operation Michael, the British massed 30% of their troops on the front line. Instead of the desired effect of stopping the attack with overwhelming firepower, the troops were annihilated by artillery fire. In the sector of the XVIII Corps, only 50 of 10,000 front line troops survived the bombardment and subsequent attack. (Cavendish 2645)
The stormtroopers attacked immediately after the bombardment. In contrast with the standard infantry units used at the beginning of the war, the men were equipped with a wide variety of weapons, not just the standard bolt-action rifle. Wire cutters and explosives engineers created gaps in the barbed wire belts. Grenade throwers, flame throwers, machine gunners, and mortar crews infiltrated enemy positions. Three or four waves of infantry followed. (Koch 506) The attacking troops had no fixed objectives and left pockets of resistance for supporting troops to deal with. (Barnet 290) Success, not failure, was reinforced. The stormtroopers carried with them the first widely used sub-machine gun, the MP-18. The new sub-machine gun was light and easy to handle, and had much greater firepower than a rifle. (Reid 10) Infiltrating troops often advanced beyond artillery range, leaving their flanks vulnerable. Since most artillery was too bulky to be brought forward in the attack, light trench mortars and machine gunners protected the flanks. (Koch 506) The great German offensives were also supported by air power. Seven hundred thirty German planes were massed against 579 Allied planes in Operation Michael. (Toland 26)
By the standards of the First World War, Operation Michael was a great success. The Germans penetrated 40 miles, took 975 guns, and inflicted 300,000 casualties, but eventually the German attacked stalled from exhaustion. (Hart 373) The allies eventually found some antidotes to the new tactics. For example, on July 15, 1918 the French Fourth Army was attacked by three German armies. The front was held lightly and the main resistance was met two to three miles back. The French kept their command posts and ammunition depots beyond artillery range. The night before the attack, the German assembly points were bombarded, and the assault was stopped at the Battle Zone.
Despite their success, the spring 1918 offensives ended in exhaustion, and the summer offensives were halted. "The German Army in the west was short of men and had no genuinely motorised infantry, which alone would have given the German forces operational liberty." (Koch 519) "The very speed of the advance had brought the armies to exhaustion." Further, 20% of the men suffering from influenza. "When Ludendorff opened his campaign he had a credit balance of 207 divisions, 82 in reserve. Now he had only 66 fit divisions in reserve."
With German morale sagging after the failure of the offensives, and with many of the reserves committed, compounded further by the economic devastation caused by the blockade, Germany teetered on the verge of collapse. The allies learned from the German attack methods, and the British counterattack of August 8, 1918 was decisive. The Germans couldn't stop the Allied advance, and on November 11, 1918 the Armistice was signed. The new assault tactics had broken the stalemate. In the next war, tanks and other armored vehicles allowed decisive exploitation of a breakthrough, deep into the enemy's rear areas. The sensational methods of blitzkrieg had their roots in the stormtrooper tactics of 1918.
A Guide to the American Battle Fields in Europe., prepared by the American Battle Monuments Commission., United States Government Printing Office. 1927.
Barnett, Cornelli., The Swordbearers., William Morrow and Company: New York, 1964
Hart, B.H. Liddell, The Real War. Little, Brown and Company: Boston, 1930.
Hogg, Ian V. A History of Military Defense, St. MArtins Press: New York,1927.
Koch, H. Wolfgang., History of Warfare, Gallery Books: New York, 1981.
Livesey, Anthony, Great Battles of World War I, Macmillan Publishing Company: New York, 1989.
Reid, Kevin B., Armament Section, January 1990, World War II Magazine: Empire Press.
Terraine, John, To Win a War, Doubleday and Company, Inc. Garden City, New York, 1981.
Toland, John, No Man's Land, Doubleday and Company, Inc.: Garden City, New York, 1980.
Young, Peter The Marshall Cavendish Illustrated Encyclopedia of World War I, Marshall Cavendish New York, 1984.
Despite the optimistic appraisal of Field Marshal Haig, the First World War saw cavalry fall swiftly into obsolescence. The stopping power of machine guns, artillery, and modern rifles meant that cavalry charges were mown down before they came close to their targets. The superiority of defensive equipment and tactics brought the war to the stalemate for which it is best remembered, with two sides facing each other for months on end across the ruin of No Man’s Land.
German Fighter Pilot “The Red Baron,” Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen.
In Britain, politicians, and investors set to work on finding a way to break the stalemate and gain an advantage. The solution they found brought together a range of different technologies. Heavy armored plating from shipyards. The powerful engines of farming machines. The tracked wheel system patented in 1910 by a Californian company under the trade name of “Caterpillar”. When combined, these became an entirely new engine of war – the armored tank.
A captured British tank in German hands destroying a tree. Bundesarchiv – CC BY-SA 3.0 de
Their first use on the 15 th of September, 1916, had limited impact. All but two of the vehicles became bogged down and there was no effective plan to coordinate with the infantry. Any advantage they brought went unexploited. But their very presence, previous only foreseen in one of H. G. Wells’s science fiction novels, shook the Germans facing them. All sides accelerated their plans for armored fighting vehicles. Like planes, they would become a regular feature of later wars.
The Scientific and Technological Advances of World War II
The war effort demanded developments in the field of science and technology, developments that forever changed life in America and made present-day technology possible.
Of the enduring legacies from a war that changed all aspects of life—from economics, to justice, to the nature of warfare itself—the scientific and technological legacies of World War II had a profound and permanent effect on life after 1945. Technologies developed during World War II for the purpose of winning the war found new uses as commercial products became mainstays of the American home in the decades that followed the war’s end. Wartime medical advances also became available to the civilian population, leading to a healthier and longer-lived society. Added to this, advances in the technology of warfare fed into the development of increasingly powerful weapons that perpetuated tensions between global powers, changing the way people lived in fundamental ways. The scientific and technological legacies of World War II became a double-edged sword that helped usher in a modern way of living for postwar Americans, while also launching the conflicts of the Cold War.
When looking at wartime technology that gained commercial value after World War II, it is impossible to ignore the small, palm-sized device known as a cavity magnetron. This device not only proved essential in helping to win World War II, but it also forever changed the way Americans prepared and consumed food. This name of the device—the cavity magnetron—may not be as recognizable as what it generates: microwaves. During World War II, the ability to produce shorter, or micro, wavelengths through the use of a cavity magnetron improved upon prewar radar technology and resulted in increased accuracy over greater distances. Radar technology played a significant part in World War II and was of such importance that some historians have claimed that radar helped the Allies win the war more than any other piece of technology, including the atomic bomb. After the war came to an end, cavity magnetrons found a new place away from war planes and aircraft carrier and instead became a common feature in American homes.
Percy Spencer, an American engineer and expert in radar tube design who helped develop radar for combat, looked for ways to apply that technology for commercial use after the end of the war. The common story told claims that Spencer took note when a candy bar he had in his pocket melted as he stood in front of an active radar set. Spencer began to experiment with different kinds of food, such as popcorn, opening the door to commercial microwave production. Putting this wartime technology to use, commercial microwaves became increasingly available by the 1970s and 1980s, changing the way Americans prepared food in a way that persists to this day. The ease of heating food using microwaves has made this technology an expected feature in the twenty first century American home.
More than solely changing the way Americans warm their food, radar became an essential component of meteorology. The development and application of radar to the study of weather began shortly after the end of World War II. Using radar technology, meteorologists advanced knowledge of weather patterns and increased their ability to predict weather forecasts. By the 1950s, radar became a key way for meteorologists to track rainfall, as well as storm systems, advancing the way Americans followed and planned for daily changes in the weather.
Similar to radar technology, computers had been in development well before the start of World War II. However, the war demanded rapid progression of such technology, resulting in the production of new computers of unprecedented power. One such example was the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC), one of the first general purpose computers. Capable of performing thousands of calculations in a second, ENIAC was originally designed for military purposes, but it was not completed until 1945. Building from wartime developments in computer technology, the US government released ENIAC to the general public early in 1946, presenting the computer as tool that would revolutionize the field of mathematics. Taking up 1,500 square feet with 40 cabinets that stood nine feet in height, ENIAC came with a $400,000 price tag. The availability of ENIAC distinguished it from other computers and marked it as a significant moment in the history of computing technology. By the 1970s, the patent for the ENIAC computing technology entered the public domain, lifting restrictions on modifying these technological designs. Continued development over the following decades made computers progressively smaller, more powerful, and more affordable.
Along with the advances of microwave and computer technology, World War II brought forth momentous changes in field of surgery and medicine. The devastating scale of both world wars demanded the development and use new medical techniques that led to improvements in blood transfusions, skin grafts, and other advances in trauma treatment. The need to treat millions of soldiers also necessitated the large-scale production of antibacterial treatment, bringing about one of the most important advances in medicine in the twentieth century. Even though the scientist Alexander Fleming discovered the antibacterial properties of the Penicillium notatum mold in 1928, commercial production of penicillin did not begin until after the start of World War II. As American and British scientists worked collectively to meet the needs of the war, the large-scale production of penicillin became a necessity. Men and women together experimented with deep tank fermentation, discovering the process needed for the mass manufacture of penicillin. In advance of the Normandy invasion in 1944, scientists prepared 2.3 million doses of penicillin, bringing awareness of this “miracle drug” to the public. As the war continued, advertisements heralding penicillin’s benefits, established the antibiotic as a wonder drug responsible for saving millions of lives. From World War II to today, penicillin remains a critical form of treatment used to ward off bacterial infection.
Penicillin Saves Soldiers Lives poster. Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration, 515170.
Of all the scientific and technological advances made during World War II, few receive as much attention as the atomic bomb. Developed in the midst of a race between the Axis and Allied powers during the war, the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki serve as notable markers to the end of fighting in the Pacific. While debates over the decision to use atomic weapons on civilian populations continue to persist, there is little dispute over the extensive ways the atomic age came to shape the twentieth century and the standing of the United States on the global stage. Competition for dominance propelled both the United States and the Soviet Union to manufacture and hold as many nuclear weapons as possible. From that arms race came a new era of science and technology that forever changed the nature of diplomacy, the size and power of military forces, and the development of technology that ultimately put American astronauts on the surface of the moon.
The arms race in nuclear weapons that followed World War II sparked fears that one power would not only gain superiority on earth, but in space itself. During the mid-twentieth century, the Space Race prompted the creation of a new federally-run program in aeronautics. In the wake of the successful launch of the Soviet satellite, Sputnik 1, in 1957, the United States responded by launching its own satellite, Juno 1, four months later. In 1958, the National Aeronautics and Space Act (NASA) received approval from the US Congress to oversee the effort to send humans into space. The Space Race between the United States and the USSR ultimately peaked with the landing of the Apollo 11 crew on the surface of the moon on July 20, 1969. The Cold War between the United States and the USSR changed aspects of life in almost every way, but both the nuclear arms and Space Race remain significant legacies of the science behind World War II.
From microwaves to space exploration, the scientific and technological advances of World War II forever changed the way people thought about and interacted with technology in their daily lives. The growth and sophistication of military weapons throughout the war created new uses, as well as new conflicts, surrounding such technology. World War II allowed for the creation of new commercial products, advances in medicine, and the creation of new fields of scientific exploration. Almost every aspect of life in the United States today—from using home computers, watching the daily weather report, and visiting the doctor—are all influenced by this enduring legacy of World War II.