The Great War
James Mowbray

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The Western Front

1914 | 1915 | 1916 | 1917 | 1918
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1. The Western Front (France and Flanders; from Switzerland to the North Sea)

1914 .. return to top

    3-20 August
    German forces overrun Belgium; Belgian Army is driven into the southwestern corner of the country behind the Yser River.

    14-25 August
    Battles of the Frontiers; German armies run into the Anglo-French armies in four nearly simultaneous engagements along the Franco-Belgian and Franco-German borders.

      14-22 August
      Battle of Lorraine in southeastern France on the German border.

      20-25 August
      Battle of the Ardennes; French 3rd and 4th Armies strike the pivot of the Schlieffen Plan turning movement formed by the 4th and 5th German Armies; French forced to retire.

      22-23 August
      Battle of the Sambre [River]; French 5th Army is repulsed while attempting to move into the Sambre-Meuse angle by the German 2nd and 3rd Armies; French forced to retreat.

      22-23 August
      Battle of Mons; British Expeditionary Force [BEF] is struck head on by German 1st Army, which it stops in its tracks, but for only one day; retreat of French 5th Army from the Sambre uncovers British right; BEF withdraws towards the Marne River; Field Marshal Sir John French, the British commander, is incensed by the unannounced French retreat and Franco-British relations remained strained over this episode as long as French remains in command of the BEF.

    25-27 August
    Battle of Le Cateau; German 1st Army struck the BEF's rearguard II Corps and attempted a double envelopment, which Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien checked long enough to slip away after nightfall on the 27th.

    29 August
    Battle of Guise; In an effort to assist the heavily outnumbered BEF to the west, French 5th Army counterattacked German 1st and 2nd Armies and checked their pursuit, if only briefly.

    30 August-2 September
    von Kluck's first great decision was taken to turn inside Paris, placing it on his right, unaware of the French 6th Army being formed there.

    1-2 September
    Joffre reacts to von Kluck's change of direction by concentrating 6th Army in Paris, continuing 5th Army's retreat to avoid envelopment, and preparing to stand on the Marne; lack of British cooperation led to Minister of War visiting from London to straighten out the field commander, Sir John French, who then began to cooperate with Joffre's orders.

    3-4 September
    von Kluck receives Moltke's approval of his move to the southeast of Paris, but with orders to guard the right flank of 2nd Army; Moltke has no idea how far south of Paris the hard-driving von Kluck is already; von Kluck decides to press ahead rather than halt for the two days it would take 2nd Army to catch up to him.

    4 September
    Joffre orders general Allied counterattack on German 1st and 2nd Armies on the Marne River.

    5-10 September
    French 6th Army hits the open right flank of von Kluck's 1st Army while the French 5th Army struck the 2nd Army of von Buelow; the BEF marched into the gap between the two and created consternation on the German side, leading to a general retirement to the Aisne River; Moltke's offensive back was broken; he was relieved on the 10th by the Kaiser.

    14 September
    General Erich von Falkenhayn replaced Helmut von Moltke as the German commander in the field.

    15 September-24 November
    The Race to the Sea; in a new effort to break the Allies the German armies make successive attempts to turn the Allied left, each of which is met by Allied troops "scrounged" from some corner to meet the next turning movement, until the North Sea is reached and the war on the Western Front begins to settle into a trench grid-lock.

      15-18 September
      First Battle of the Aisne

      22-25 September
      Verdun successfully defended by the French, but the Germans seize the St. Mihiel salient which they will hold until taken by the Americans in 1918.

      22-26 September
      Fighting in Picardy

      27 September-10 October
      Fighting in Artois

      8 September
      Fortress Maubeuge fell to the Germans

      1-9 October
      Antwerp taken by the Germans

      18 October-30 November
      Battles in Flanders

        18 October-30 November
        Battle of the Yser

        30 October-30 November
        First Battle of Ypers

1915 .. return to top

    1 January-30 March
    Allied Offensive in Artois and Champagne.

      10-13 March
      Battle of Neuve Chappelle produces a British breakthrough, for which adequate follow-up is not available, allowing the Germans to quickly seal off the hole.

    19-20 January
    First German Zeppelin Raids on London anger the British, and are followed by eighteen more such raids over the course of the year. (First bombs fell on Lincoln's Inn--consistent with Shakespeare's, "first let's kill all the lawyers." But the Germans missed, too!)

    6-15 April
    Battle of Woevre The French attempt to reduce the St. Mihiel salient, without success.

    22 April-25 May
    Second Battle of Ypres German offensive, preceded by clouds of Chlorine gas for the first time in the west, yields a German breakthrough, which they are unprepared to exploit.

    9 May-30 June
    Battles of Festubert and Souchez (Second Artois) were a partially coordinated Anglo-French series of efforts to break open the front, without success.

    25 September-6 November
    Allied offensives in Artois and Champagne, after a summer of rest and rehabilitation, including Second Battle of Champagne, Third Battle of Artois, Second Battle of Vimy Ridge, and Loos; all with no appreciable gains.

    17 December
    Field Marshal Sir John French goes home to command the Home Forces and General Sir Douglas Haig replaces him as Commander-in-Chief, British Expeditionary Forces, now three armies strong, and growing.

1916 .. return to top

    21 February-18 December
    The Battle of Verdun The Germans, under von Falkenhayn decide on a strategy of bleeding the French to death at a location they "must defend." Verdun is that place, and the German offensive opens on 21 February and runs sporadically until 29 August when Falkenhayn is relieved. The French counterattack in the autumn, until 18 December, by which time they have recovered most of the ground lost to the Germans February to August.

    29 August
    Hindenburg and Ludendorff arrive on the Western Front to assume command; they go on the defensive to cut their losses, while looking elsewhere for offensive opportunities.

    31 December
    Joffre retires, being replaced by General Nivelle, a hero of Verdun, charming, and English-speaking.

1917 .. return to top

    31 January
    Germans renew unrestricted submarine warfare.

    3 February
    US breaks diplomatic relations with Germany, followed by Latin American nations and China.

    1 March
    Zimmermann Note published by the US State Department, thanks to British naval intelligence; substance of it is a German offer to give Mexico parts of the US if she will enter the war on Germany's side; US fury rises to new heights.

    13 March
    US merchant vessels armed.

    6 April
    US declares war on Germany pursuant to the sinking of several US ships, and Wilson's war message of 2 April; war not declared against Austria-Hungary until 7 December.

    23 February-5 April
    German Army withdraws more than 20 miles along the Arras-Soissons front in Flanders, to a preprepared position called the Hindenburg Line, or Siegfried Zone, to free up troops for operations elsewhere in Europe.

    9-15 April
    Battle of Arras British offensive which is a tactical victory, but of very limited size and aims.

    16-20 April
    Nivelle Offensive Nivelle promised a breakthrough and victory, but failed completely in every detail in the course of what has come to be called the Second Battle of the Aisne and Third Battle of Champagne, based on the location of the French drives into the German positions.

    29 April-20 May
    Outbreak of mutiny in the French armies as a direct result of Nivelle's boasting and then complete failure, with high casualties (120,000 French kia in 5 days!).

    7 June
    Battle of Messines Ridge British 2nd Army under perhaps their ablest general, Sir Herbert Plumer, blew up an enormous section of the German line with 1 million pounds of ammonal (high explosive); the blast awoke a student sleeping in Dublin, Ireland, 500 miles away, as the crow flys! This successful assault gained elbow room for the ensuing major offensive-

    31 July-10 November
    Third Battle of Ypres (Passchendaele) was a disasterous, bloody debacle for the British; Haig, knowing the condition of the French armies insisted in keeping the pressure on the Germans, least they learn of the French mess and gain a great, perhaps decisive, victory, (to Haig and the British go much of the credit for the survival of France through the second half of 1917); this led to-

    20 November-3 December
    Battle of Cambrai saw the introduction of large scale tank employment, with 200 British tanks leading the attack, which they led so far that the infantry couldn't keep up, and almost all were lost through fuel exhaustion and lack of supports.

    3 December
    Negotiations for an armistice began at Brest-Litovsk between Russian and Germany

1918 .. return to top

    9 February
    Russo-German peace as a result of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk; Russia permanently out of the war

    21 March
    Operation Michael The German offensive to end the war before the arrival of the Americans opened with slashing attacks without the usual preparatory artillery barrages, and using infiltration tactics brilliantly. The Germans broke open the Allied front, created a crisis in command, and threatened to end the war abruptly, leading to-

    26 March
    Foch appointed Allied coordinator in France.

    3 April
    Foch elevated to command of all Allied armies on all fronts, but in fact was the generalissimo for the Western Front, where the war was clearly to be decided, in the view of most participants and observers. The German failure was at the strategic level, for after the creation of a unified Allied Command structure the Entente powers could bring their greater resources to bear efficiently and effectively when and where required. The German offensive ended on 5 April chiefly due to (1) logistical failure to resupply their armies on the move; (2) lack of strategic mobility, which prevented the reinforcement of success in a timely way; (3) lack of mobile tactical fire support which left troops beyond the range of their artillery once they broke through a section of the front.

    9-17 April
    Ludendorff's second offensive struck the British and led to Haig's famous "Backs to the Wall" order to the BEF and the Imperial Forces to fight and die where they stood; this galvanized the British and Empire forces, who stopped the Germans in the next five days. The attack of the Canadian Cavalry Brigade at Morieul Woods and the counterattack of the ANZACS in front of Amiens were critical features of the defensive operations that March and April in Flanders. The British forces endured 100,000 casualties, but so did the Germans; Ludendorff's carefully trained and prepared "shock troops" were badly depleted and the survivors' morale was shaken.

    27 May-4 June
    The Aisne Offensive by the Germans was the third major effort to win before the Americans became too great an influence. The German First and Seventh Armies struck the French Sixth Army in the Chemin des Dames where the French trenches were lightly held and not strongly prepared. The Germans, in three days fighting reached the Marne River, the first time since 1914.

    28 May
    The US 1st Division launched the first successful American offensive action of the war in the Battle of Cantigny, against the 18th Army (Hutier) with substantial success; a purely tactical victory, but a boost to Allied morale.

    30 May-17 June
    Battles of Chateau-Thierry and Belleau Wood in which the US 2nd and 3rd Divisions reached the French Sixth Army on the Marne, and checked the German drive, which Ludendorff terminated on 4 June. Allied counterattacks continued until 17 June.

    9-13 June
    Noyon-Montdidier Offensive was the German fourth offensive of the year by 18th and 7th Armies which were checked, respectively on the 11th and 12th.

    15-19 July
    Champagne-Marne Offensive was the fifth and final effort of the Germans, and it was broken in five days of heavy fighting east and west of Reims.

      In five months of heavy fighting the Germans had lost 500,000 casualties, with Allied losses somewhat heavier; however, there were now 25 American divisions in France, with 7 of them at the front; in addition, 300,000 American troops were arriving each month in France.

    18 July-5 August
    The Allied Aisne-Marne Offensive was the first drive of Foch's "roulement strategy"; it flattened the Marne salient and led to Clemenceau promoting Foch to Marshal of France on 6 August.

    8 August-4 September
    The Amiens Offensive opened with a

      First Phase 8-11 August
      in which the Canadian and ANZAC Corps led the British 4th and French 1st Armies, catching the German 18th and 2nd Armies completely by surprise, taking 15,000 prisoners, 400 guns, and gouging a 10-mile deep intrusion into the German Marne salient; Ludendorff described the 8th of August as the "Black Day" of the German Army, the morale of which was now shattered; Ludendorff and Hindenburg directed the German Government to sue for peace, essentially on any terms!

      Second Phase 21 August-4 September
      in which open warfare was now restored to the Western Front with the Germans in retreat most of the time. These Allied offensives cost the German Army 100,000 casualties, including 30,000 POWs; the Allies lost 22,000 British and Imperial troops and the French lost 20,000 men, metropolitan and colonial.

    26 September-11 November
    The Meuse-Argonne Offensive conducted by Franco-American forces in three phases battered the Germans, while further north

    27 September-17 October
    Anglo-French and Belgian forces stormed the Hindenburg Line, and

    28 September-14 October
    Anglo-Belgian forces under King Albert retook much of Flanders, and

    17 October-11 November
    The British 3rd (Byng) and 4th (Rawlinson) Armies forced the Selle River, while the Anglo-Belgian army group continued the drive in Flanders.

    6 October-11 November
    The German Army collapsed in the face of the continuous Allied pressure all along the front; they asked for an armistice on 6 October, Ludendorff resigned on 27 October, the High Seas Fleet mutinied in October, and a revolution broke out in Germany giving a socialist government power on 9 November; the Kaiser fled by train to Holland on 10 November; 7-11 November the German delegation headed by Matthias Erzberger negotiated an end to the fighting, which became effective at 1100 hours on 11 November 1918.

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