|First World War - Belgium & France|
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The Western Front - north-east France and Belgium - was the main theatre of action during the First World War. This was the place where both sides believed that one decisive breakthrough would win them the war; the place that set the iconic First World War image of men living and dying in filthy trenches in the midst of mud-swamped, shell-torn desolation.
Stretcher-bearers struggling through mud during the Third Battle of Ypres August 1917
© Imperial War Museum
When the Germans overran Belgium in August 1914, British and French Allied forces - including some 30,000 Indians - rushed to north-east France to halt their advance. The Allies were pushed back, almost to the gates of Paris. They, in turn, pushed back the Germans at the Battle of the Marne in September. The Germans made a fierce effort to capture the ports along the English Channel, so vital to the supply of the Allied armies: they never broke through, thanks in great part to the bravery of the Lahore Division of the Indian Corps (See Khudadad Khan (India)). The Allies drove east around Verdun and in the Champagne country: they, too, were stymied. By the end of 1914 a million men had become casualties, and both sides were dug deep into opposing lines of trenches that were soon to stretch from the English Channel to the Swiss Alps. Strongly fortified by machine guns, artillery and barbed wire, the dug-in defenders held all the advantages over attackers. It was a stalemate that would not be resolved for the next four years.
On 10 March 1915 the British effected a breakthrough at Neuve-Chapelle, but could not consolidate it. The breakthrough was due in large measure to the Indian Corps, who captured the village while sustaining large numbers of casualties (See Manta Singh (India)). Throughout May the Germans attacked at the Second Battle of Ypres. Again they were repulsed, with the loss of 35,000 men. It cost the Allies twice that number to hold their enemy off. An autumn offensive by the British at Loos and the French towards Vimy Ridge proved likewise fruitless. After Loos the Indian Corps was withdrawn from France; the casualty rate was so high that sufficient numbers of fresh Indian replacements could not be found. 1915 cost the British 279,000 casualties, the Germans 612,000. The French lost well over a million men. The armies that had begun the fighting had been destroyed in little over a year.
In 1916 the British introduced conscription. Both sides decided to go over to the offensive on the Western Front, seeking that elusive Big Push to victory. German attacks early in the year were directed into a salient or bulge in the front line around Verdun. In the summer they backed up their attacks with phosgene gas, but they couldn't break through. When the British and French in their turn attacked the entrenched Germans on the Somme in 1 July 1916, it was not with poison gas but with their own massed bodies. 19,000 British died on that first day; 40,000 were wounded. On 15 September a second offensive opened, with tanks as support - the first time these had been used in battle. When winter put an end to the Allies' Somme push, the ultimate gain after nearly five months of attacks was about 8 miles of ground. 195,000 Frenchmen were killed or wounded; 420,000 British; 650,000 Germans, including the cream of the young officers and experienced NCOs. There was no breakthrough.
Indian cyclists at the cross roads on the Fricourt-Mametz Road, Somme area, July 1916
© Imperial War Museum
Early in 1917 the Germans withdrew some 20 miles eastward to the even better fortified Hindenburg Line. In April the British advanced beyond Vimy Ridge at the Battle of Arras. The French were held up along a 40-mile front and lost 120,000 men - one in ten combatants - in five days. The consequence was a general mutiny by French troops. If the Germans had been aware that the French had downed weapons all along the front line, they could have stepped through to victory. Summer drained into autumn at the Third Battle of Ypres, known as Passchendaele, during which the Germans used mustard gas as a pioneering move to hold back a long, creeping Allied advance of five miles. By the end of the year the Allies had lost half a million men. At this stage in the war there were some 7 battalions of the British West Indies Regiment in France, often under fire as they built roads and railways and served the front-line troops and guns with ammunition.
The Germans knew that the United States of America was about to enter the war, and that early 1918 would be their last realistic chance to make the great breakthrough. They tried on the Somme, and got within bombarding range of Paris. They tried in Flanders in April, in May on the Marne outside Paris, in June towards Compiegne, in July in Champagne. Nothing they tried achieved that breakthrough.
In July and August 1918 a newly unified Allied command saw French, British, American and Italian troops in battle together for the first time. They threw the Germans back from Paris, then launched a surprise attack on the Somme. By September the Germans were back on the Hindenburg Line with the loss of 100,000 men; by October the Allies had finally broken through and were advancing all along the Western Front. In hugely costly frontal attacks, French and American soldiers took unprecedented amounts of ground. German resistance began to crumble. Back in Germany there were mutterings that grew to a roar of dissent. With the shadow of Bolshevik revolution flickering on the walls of Berlin, the Kaiser fled to Holland on 10 November. Next day, at 11 a.m. on 11 November 1918, the Armistice came into effect, and the massed armies finally put down their guns.