World War I: A Stalemate Ensues

Industrial War

French troops wearing an early form of gas mask in the trenches during the 2nd Battle of Ypres.
French troops wearing an early form of gas mask in the trenches during the 2nd Battle of Ypres.

Hulton Archive / Stringer / Getty Images

With the outbreak of World War I in August 1914, large-scale fighting commenced between the Allies (Britain, France, and Russia) and the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire). In the west, Germany sought to utilize the Schlieffen Plan which called for a swift victory over France so that troops could then be shifted east to fight Russia. Sweeping through neutral Belgian, the Germans had initial success until being halted in September at the First Battle of the Marne. Following the battle, Allied forces and the Germans attempted several flanking maneuvers until the front extended from the English Channel to the Swiss frontier. Unable to achieve a breakthrough, both sides began digging in and constructing elaborate systems of trenches. 

To the east, Germany won a stunning victory over the Russians at Tannenberg in late August 1914, while the Serbs threw back an Austrian invasion of their country. Though beaten by the Germans, the Russians won a key victory over the Austrians as the Battle of Galicia a few weeks later. As 1915 began and both sides realized that the conflict would not be swift, the combatants moved to enlarge their forces and shift their economies to a war footing.

German Outlook in 1915

With the beginning of trench warfare on the Western Front, both sides began assessing their options for bringing the war to a successful conclusion. Overseeing German operations, Chief of the General Staff Erich von Falkenhayn preferred to focus on winning the war on the Western Front as he believed that a separate peace could be obtained with Russia if they were allowed to exit the conflict with some pride. This approach clashed with Generals Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff who wished to deliver a decisive blow in the East. The heroes of Tannenberg, they were able to use their fame and political intrigue to influence the German leadership. As a result, the decision was made to focus on the Eastern Front in 1915.

Allied Strategy

In the Allied camp there was no such conflict. Both the British and French were eager to expel the Germans from the territory they had occupied in 1914. For the latter, it was both a matter of national pride and economic necessity as the occupied territory contained much of France's industry and natural resources. Instead, the challenge faced by the Allies was the matter of where to attack. This choice was largely dictated by the terrain of the Western Front. In the south, the woods, rivers, and mountains precluded conducting a major offensive, while the sodden soil of coastal Flanders quickly turned into a quagmire during shelling. In the center, the highlands along the Aisne and Meuse Rivers too greatly favored the defender.

As a result, the Allies focused their efforts on the chalklands along the Somme River in Artois and to the south in Champagne. These points were located on the edges of the deepest German penetration into France and successful attacks had the potential to cut off the enemy forces. In addition, breakthroughs at these points would sever German rail links east which would compel them to abandon their position in France (Map).

Fighting Resumes

While fighting had occurred through the winter, the British renewed the action in earnest on March 10, 1915, when they launched an offensive at Neuve Chapelle. Attacking in an effort to capture Aubers Ridge, British and Indian troops from Field Marshal Sir John French's British Expeditionary Force (BEF) shattered the German lines and had some initial success. The advance soon broke down due to communication and supply issues and ridge was not taken. Subsequent German counterattacks contained the breakthrough and the battle ended on March 13. In the wake of the failure, French blamed the result on a lack of shells for his guns. This precipitated the Shell Crisis of 1915 which brought down Prime Minister H.H. Asquith's Liberal government and forced an overhaul of the munitions industry.

Gas Over Ypres

Though Germany had elected to follow an "east-first" approach, Falkenhayn began planning for an operation against Ypres to begin in April. Intended as a limited offensive, he sought to divert Allied attention from troop movements east, secure a more commanding position in Flanders, as well as to test a new weapon, poison gas. Though tear gas had been used against the Russians in January, the Second Battle of Ypres marked the debut of lethal chlorine gas.

Around 5:00 PM on April 22, chlorine gas was released over a four-mile front. Striking a section line held by French territorial and colonial troops, it quickly killed around 6,000 men and forced the survivors to retreat. Advancing, the Germans made swift gains, but in the growing darkness they failed to exploit the breach. Forming a new defensive line, British and Canadian troops mounted a vigorous defensive over the next several days. While the Germans conducted additional gas attacks, Allied forces were able to implement improvised solutions to counter its effects. Fighting continued until May 25, but the Ypres salient held.

Artois and Champagne

Unlike the Germans, the Allies possessed no secret weapon when they began their next offensive in May. Striking at the German lines in Artois on May 9, the British sought to take Aubers Ridge. A few days later, the French entered the fray to the south in an effort to secure Vimy Ridge. Dubbed the Second Battle of Artois, the British were stopped dead, while the General Philippe Pétain's XXXIII Corps succeeded in reaching the crest of Vimy Ridge. Despite Pétain's success, the French lost the ridge to determined German counterattacks before their reserves could arrive.

Marshal Joseph Joffre
Marshal Joseph Joffre. Photograph Source: Public Domain

Reorganizing during the summer as additional troops became available, the British soon took over the front as far south as the Somme. As troops were shifted, General Joseph Joffre, the overall French commander, sought to renew the offensive in Artois during the fall along with an assault in Champagne. Recognizing the obvious signs of impending attack, the Germans spent the summer strengthening their trench system, ultimately constructing a line of supporting fortifications three miles deep.

Opening the Third Battle of Artois on September 25, British forces attacked at Loos while the French assaulted Souchez. In both cases, the attack was preceded by a gas attack with mixed results. While the British made initial gains, they were soon forced back as communication and supply problems emerged. A second attack the next day was bloodily repulsed. When the fighting subsided three weeks later, over 41,000 British troops had been killed or wounded for the gain of a narrow two-mile deep salient.

To the south, the French Second and Fourth Army attacked along a twenty-mile front in Champagne on September 25. Meeting stiff resistance, Joffre's men gallantly attacked for over a month. Ending in early November, the offensive at no point had gained more than two miles, but the French lost 143,567 killed and wounded. With 1915 coming to a close, the Allies had been bled badly and had showed that they had learned little about attacking trenches while the Germans had become masters at defending them.

The War at Sea

A contributing factor the pre-war tensions, the results of the naval race between Britain and Germany were now put to the test. Superior in numbers to the German High Seas Fleet, the Royal Navy opened the fighting with a raid on the German coast on August 28, 1914. The resulting Battle of Heligoland Bight was a British victory. While neither side's battleships were involved, the fight led Kaiser Wilhelm II to order the navy to "hold itself back and avoid actions which can lead to greater losses."

Off the west coast of South America, German fortunes were better as Admiral Graf Maximilian von Spee's small German East Asiatic Squadron inflicted a severe defeat on a British force at the Battle of Coronel on November 1. Touching off a panic at the Admiralty, Coronel was the worst British defeat at sea in a century. Dispatching a powerful force south, the Royal Navy crushed Spee at the Battle of the Falklands a few weeks later. In January 1915, the British utilized radio intercepts to learn about an intended German raid on the fishing fleet at Dogger Bank. Sailing south, Vice Admiral David Beatty intended to cut off and destroy the Germans. Spotting the British on January 24, the Germans fled for home, but lost an armored cruiser in the process.

Blockade and U-boats

With the Grand Fleet based at Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands, the Royal Navy imposed a tight blockade on the North Sea to halt trade to Germany. Though of dubious legality, Britain mined large tracts of the North Sea and stopped neutral vessels. Unwilling to risk the High Seas Fleet in battle with the British, the Germans began a program of submarine warfare using U-boats. Having scored some early successes against obsolete British warships, the U-boats were turned against merchant shipping with the goal of starving Britain into submission.

While early submarine attacks required the U-boat to surface and give warning before firing, the Kaiserliche Marine (German Navy) slowly moved to a "shoot without warning" policy. This was initially resisted by Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg who feared that it would antagonize neutrals such as the United States. In February 1915, Germany declared the waters around the British Isles to be a war zone and announced that any vessel in the area would be sunk without warning.

German U-boats hunted throughout the spring until U-20 torpedoed the liner RMS Lusitania off the south coast of Ireland on May 7, 1915. Killing 1,198 people, including 128 Americans, the sinking ignited international outrage. Coupled with the sinking of RMS Arabic in August, the sinking of Lusitania led to intense pressure from the United States to discontinue what had become known as "unrestricted submarine warfare." On August 28, Germany, unwilling to risk war with the United States, announced that passenger ships would no longer be attacked without warning.

Death From Above

While new tactics and approaches were being tested at sea, an entirely new military branch was coming into existence in the air. The advent of military aviation in the years prior to the war offered both sides the opportunity to conduct extensive aerial reconnaissance and mapping over the front. While the Allies initially dominated the skies, the German development of a working synchronization gear, which allowed a machine gun to safely fire through the arc of the propeller, quickly changed the equation.

Synchronization gear-equipped Fokker E.Is appeared over the front in the summer of 1915. Sweeping aside Allied aircraft, they initiated the "Fokker Scourge" which gave the Germans command of the air on the Western Front. Flown by early aces such as Max Immelmann and Oswald Boelcke, the E.I dominated the skies into 1916. Quickly moving to catch up, the Allies introduced a new set of fighters, including the Nieuport 11 and Airco DH.2. These aircraft allowed them to regain air superiority prior to the great battles of 1916. For the remainder of the war, both sides continued to develop more advanced aircraft and famous aces, such as Manfred von Richthofen, The Red Baron, became pop icons.

The War on the Eastern Front

While the war in the West remained largely stalemated, the fighting in the East retained a degree of fluidity. Though Falkenhayn had advocated against it, Hindenburg and Ludendorff began planning an offensive against the Russian Tenth Army in the area of the Masurian Lakes. This attack would be supported by Austro-Hungarian offensives in the south with the goal of retaking Lemberg and relieving the besieged garrison at Przemysl. Relatively isolated in the eastern part of East Prussia, General Thadeus von Sievers' Tenth Army had not be been reinforced and was forced to rely on General Pavel Plehve's Twelfth Army, then forming to the south, for aid.

Opening the Second Battle of the Masurian Lakes (Winter Battle in Masuria) on February 9, the Germans made quick gains against the Russians. Under heavy pressure, the Russians were soon threatened with encirclement. While most of the Tenth Army fell back, Lieutenant General Pavel Bulgakov's XX Corps was encircled in the Augustow Forest and forced to surrender on February 21. Though lost, XX Corps' stand allowed the Russians to form a new defensive line further east. The next day, Plehve's Twelfth Army counterattacked, halting the Germans and ending the battle (Map). In the south, the Austrian offensives proved largely ineffective and Przemysl surrendered on March 18.

The Gorlice-Tarnow Offensive

Having sustained heavy losses in 1914 and early 1915, the Austrian forces were increasingly supported and led by their German allies. On the other side, the Russians were suffering from severe shortages of rifles, shells, and other war materials as their industrial base slowly retooled for war. With the success in the north, Falkenhayn began planning for an offensive in Galicia. Spearheaded by General August von Mackensen's Eleventh Army and the Austrian Fourth Army, the attack commenced on May 1 along a narrow front between Gorlice and Tarnow. Striking a weak point in the Russian lines, Mackensen's troops shattered the enemy position and drove deep into their rear.

By May 4, Mackensen's troops had reached open country causing the entire Russian position in the center of the front to collapse (Map). As the Russians fell back, German and Austrian troops moved forward reaching Przemysl on May 13 and taking Warsaw on August 4. Though Ludendorff repeatedly requested permission to launch a pincer attack from the north, Falkenhayn refused as the advance continued.

By early September, the Russian frontier fortresses at Kovno, Novogeorgievsk, Brest-Litovsk, and Grodno had fallen. Trading space for time, the Russian retreat ended in mid-September as the fall rains began and German supply lines became over-extended. Though a severe defeat, Gorlice-Tarnow greatly shortened the Russian's front and their army remained a coherent fighting force.

A New Partner Joins the Fray

With the outbreak of the war in 1914, Italy elected to remain neutral despite being a signatory of the Triple Alliance with Germany and Austria-Hungary. Though pressed by its allies, Italy argued that the alliance was defensive in nature and that since Austria-Hungary was the aggressor it did not apply. As a result, both sides actively began courting Italy. While Austria-Hungary offered French Tunisia if Italy remained neutral, the Allies indicated they would allow the Italians to take land in the Trentino and Dalmatia if they entered the war. Electing to take the latter offer, the Italians concluded the Treaty of London in April 1915, and declared war on Austria-Hungary the following month. They would declare war on Germany the following year.

Italian Offensives

Due to the alpine terrain along the frontier, Italy was limited to attacking Austria-Hungary through the mountain passes of the Trentino or through the Isonzo River valley in the east. In both cases, any advance would require moving over difficult terrain. As Italy's army was poorly equipped and under-trained, either approach was problematic. Electing to open hostilities through the Isonzo, the unpopular Field Marshal Luigi Cadorna hoped to cut through the mountains to reach the Austrian heartland.

Already fighting a two-front war against Russia and Serbia, the Austrians scraped together seven divisions to hold the frontier. Though outnumbered more than 2 to 1, they repelled Cadorna's frontal attacks during the First Battle of the Isonzo from June 23 to July 7. Despite severe losses, Cadorna launched three more offensives during 1915, all of which failed. As the situation on the Russian front improved, the Austrians were able to reinforce the Isonzo front, effectively eliminating the Italian threat (Map).

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Hickman, Kennedy. "World War I: A Stalemate Ensues." ThoughtCo, Jul. 31, 2021, Hickman, Kennedy. (2021, July 31). World War I: A Stalemate Ensues. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "World War I: A Stalemate Ensues." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 8, 2023).