Introduction.

The creation of the long military defence line that became known as the Western Front in the Great War (1914–18) had no prepared master plan – indeed schlieffenthere was no overall plan at all. It does not appear as a concept in either the pre-war German Schlieffen or French XVII Plans for war in Europe, and it certainly was no glint in the eye of any British general before the outbreak of war in August 1914.

Perhaps the longest continuous defence lines of modern times before this date were those of the American Civil War (1861-5). But these trench lines and obstacles only extended for tens of miles in splendid isolation across relatively short swathes of the North American landscape. The longest of these was probably that at Petersburg, Virginia (1864); it was about 50 miles in length.

Although, overall, the Western Front varied somewhat in length at different operational phases of the Great War, it was at its maximum around 460 miles (740km) and extended from Nieuport on the North Sea coast of Belgium to the border of Switzerland, near Belfort (France) in the south. It was a virtually contiguous line of parallel defences (trenches, fortifications and concentrations of barbed wire) from one end to the other.

In its northern part, through Flanders and Northern France, the Western Front ran roughly north to south, whilst in its southern part, down to the Swiss border, it veered in a more easterly direction. Its form has been likened to a flattened ‘S’.

Origins of the Western Front.

The British Army, in the form of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), began to disembark in France on the 12th August 1914, after a secret crossing of the English Channel guarded by 19 Royal Navy battleships. Meanwhile, the French and German Armies were engaged in heavy fighting on the Franco/Belgian border, in Alsace/Lorraine and the Ardennes in ‘warfare of manoeuvre’ that was to become known as the Battle of the Frontiers. Post-haste, the BEF moved north-east  from the French coast into Belgium to join the fighting, taking up their pre-ordained position on the left flank of the French Fifth Army at Casteau, near Mons on the 22nd August 1914. After making a spirited defence on the 23rd August against two German army corps, the BEF was forced on the 24th August 1914 to follow the French Fourth and Fifth Armies into a southerly, dogged, fighting retreat and crossed the Marne River on the 3rd September 1918. There, on the 5th September, reorganised and 125,000 strong, they joined 1 million French troops in successfully resisting the German onslaught by 1,275,000 men. Eventually the Germans withdrew for a total of 60 miles to the River Aisne where they dug in to bring about the era of static trench warfare. However, the reality of a generally fixed and static Western Front only came about after the First Battle of Ypres and the ‘Race for the (North) Sea’ as the belligerents vainly tried to out-flank each other. Thus, eventually, was created the continuous line of defence from the North Sea to the Swiss frontier that persisted unbroken, but with some limited changes, until a second ‘war of manoeuvre’, or ‘open warfare’, began in 1918.

Manpower densities.

Since the Western Front overall was about 460 miles long, and was occupied along its entire length by a maximum of approximately 2 million combat troops from each of the two belligerent alliances, the potential density of troops of each alliance per mile of front was only 2.5 men per yard. If it is assumed that at best only half of these troops could be deployed in the front line at any time, then the defensive line was potentially a single line of troops from end to end.  Obviously, no military force could deploy all it troops at combat readiness all the time, so there was always a tendency for there to be active and quiet sectors as the various plans of war were developed and deployed and enemy assaults resisted. Another inevitable outcome of this was that there were also heavy concentrations of troops at what were considered at the time to be strategically important points.

The principle of a single line of trenches in 1914, quickly succumbed to the realities of a possible ‘break-through’ by a massed infantry and artillery assault on a limited front, as experienced by the Germans at Neuve Chapelle in the Spring of 1915. And the belligerent armies were quick to react to this near break-through by creating multiple, parallel trench lines and fortifications. So much so that by the end of the Anglo/French Somme Offensive in 1916, the Germans had as many as seven lines of defence extending back over 10 miles behind their front-line trench. The British and French similarly increased the depth of their defences but rarely to the same extent, two, or three, trench lines being more the norm.

This organisation of the respective trench systems of the Allies and the Great Powers reflected the mental attitude of the belligerents. The British and French tended to consider their trenches and fortifications as temporary structures; mere stepping stones in the grand campaign of repulsing the Germans out of Occupied France and Belgium and back behind their own borders. On the other hand, the Germans considered they were holding onto captured French and Belgian territory until such time as the Allies exhausted themselves. Thus, an agreement to end the war would be reached on terms entirely satisfactory to Germany’s territorial and political requirements with the occupied territory of France and Belgium as their ace negotiation card. The Germans were in it for the long haul, if necessary, and willingly ceded occupied territory if this best suited their overall strategy. The Allies wanted a short sharp war, and fiercely resisted the loss of any more territory to the Germans whilst all the while being desperate to challenge the status quo of the current front line.

British contribution.

The extent of the British contribution of both men and material to the war on the Western Front when compared with that of the French, (particularly in the first half of the Great War) was, and still is, often grossly overstated. Unfortunately, the concentration of the British war graves in Flanders (Belgium) and Northern France contributes to this illusion. Likewise, the respective concentration of the French war graves in Alsace/Lorraine, Champagne and Verdun similarly compounds the issue since relatively few British visitors to the Western Front venture this far across the Channel and see the vast extent of the French sites, cemeteries and memorials in the south and east.

A clearer appreciation of the relative contribution of the numbers of French and British troops, including colonials, on the Western Front can be made if the frontage occupied by the British Army is calculated from the military statistics that are available. Firstly, it is necessary to delete the Belgian contribution in the north throughout the war – they covered a constant 15 miles of frontage – and the Americans in the south with 80 miles of frontage in 1918. This gives a joint Franco/British frontage of 445 miles in 1914-17 and 365 miles in 1918. 

In rough figures, calculations can be made based on the annual mean length (in miles) of the frontline occupied by the British in each of the 51 months of the war, as follows:

Year. Monthly mean British Frontage. British as % of total French + British Frontage        Maximum length of British Frontage
1914

21 miles

4.7%

25 miles

1915

43 miles

9.7%

70 miles

1916

80 miles

18.0%

90 miles

1917

87 miles

19.6%

110 miles

1918

87 miles

23.8%

123 miles

Accordingly, it will be seen that in all of the five years of the war on the Western Front, and particularly in the first two years, the French contribution in frontage covered vastly outweighed that of the British. Even at its highest level - post the 1917 French Army mutiny - the British Army never occupied more than 27% (123 miles) of the Western Front battle lines. Of course, it can be argued that the majority of the British frontage involved sites of very heavy fighting – Ypres/Passchendaele and The Somme – where large numbers of troops were heavily concentrated for long periods - but equally the French had their Verduns with their even more enormous concentrations of men and material.

However, consideration must also be given to the British contribution in terms of military effort and morale. Whilst at first in 1914 some senior French officers were rather dubious about how serious the British were about the war, subsequent events on the early battlefields - e.g. Mons, Le Cateau and The Marne - very quickly confirmed this commitment. This was despite the relatively small numbers of the BEF: it was, initially, only 100,000 strong compared with the 3.8 million men of the French Army.  Even so, Field Marshal Sir John French, the BEF commander felt it necessary several months later to state that British full participation in certain military operations, e.g. Neuve Chapelle,1915, was essential to demonstrate to the French the BEF’s firm commitment to the cause,.

It should also be acknowledged that after the French Army mutiny in 1917, the leading role was firmly put in the British court. And although both the French and American armies played important roles in the 1918 German Spring Offensive andfoch the Final Hundred Days Campaign, the British Army, with the sterling help of the Dominion Corps, albeit under a French Allied Commander-in-Chief – Field Marshal Ferdinand Foch - did much of the fighting, incurring huge casualties (845,000 officers and men) in the process.

Apart from an incident at a military transit camp at Etaples, Northern France, in September 1917, and another in Singapore in 1915 by Sikh troops, which were both officially classified as mutinies, the British were faced with small incidents – particularly among Dominion troops – of what the authorities chose to call ‘loyal indiscipline’. But, in general British military morale remained good throughout the war and personal and regimental loyalty were important factors in this.

No man’s land.

The anvil on which the nitty-gritty of the infantry war on the Western Front was largely fought over was the continuous strip of neutral land that separated the front-line trenches of the belligerents; the so-called ‘No man’s land’.

No man’s land varied in depth from around 10 to 1,000 yards, or more. Obviously, two occupied trenches located only 10 yards apart could only exist for any length of time if a very positive degree of ‘laissez-faire’, or ‘live and let live’, existed between the two combatant armies. Generally, however, an intense 24 hours/day, 365 days/year, war of offensive action and human attrition was waged across No man’s land with both sides seeking to find and exploit any weaknesses of the other side. Nevertheless, a degree of ‘live and let live’ developed in many sectors of the Western Front over time and, indeed, certain troops (e.g. the Portuguese) became noted for it.

The British were particularly partial to tunnelling and digging saps (probing trenches) under and across No man’s land and through the concentrations of barbed wire that defined the individual boundaries. Both sides organised raiding and reconnaissance parties – usually under of cover of darkness – to keep the enemy on the alert and under pressure, both physical and psychological.

Mining operations to place high explosives beneath the enemy’s trenches and fortifications were employed by both sides with the British being particularly active and effective. At Messines Ridge (Ypres sector) in 1916-17, the British dug 22 such mines of which 19 containing 600 tons of high-explosive were successfully fired on the 7th June 1917, killing an estimated 10,000 Germans.

But there were variable degrees of military activity in the various sectors of the front line, and active and quiet (rest) zones developed at different times. Certain elite infantry units of both sides made much of their continuous pressure and aggressive action across No man’s land. These units were usually strongly commended on their aggressive stance and were marked out as exemplars by their respective high commands who firmly believed such hyper-activity kept the enemy off-balance. It also added considerably to the daily toll of day-to-day casualties.

Post-scriptum.

The phenomenon that was the Western Front for 51 months from 1914 to 1918 was assuredly one of the most vile abominations that the human race has inflicted on itself; a bizarre world of extreme physical and mental danger, discomfort, disease and vermin. It truly deserved the name given to it by the British troops who were unfortunate to have experienced it, ‘The Frightfulness.’

However, paradoxically, it was the decision of the belligerents to take the war underground into the muddy trenches and the dug-outs that did much to facilitate its long duration. The extremely high casualty rates that were sustained in the open warfare of the early months of the war from rifle, machine gun and artillery fire could probably not have been sustained in the long term as the armies would have eventually simply have run out of men fit to fight. (The French Army alone lost 75,000 dead on the Western Front in the month of August 1915.) Thus, in the absence of this subterranean protection, sooner rather than later, the leaders of the two alliances would have been forced to negotiate for peace. It was, therefore, to a considerable extent, the sheer endurance and adaptability of the unfortunate troglodyte soldiers themselves that permitted the war to drag on to its eventual cataclysmic and ultimately unsatisfactory conclusion.

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