In mid-September 1914 German troops dug into the high ground over looking the river Aisne, in northern France. After heavy losses in vain attempts to take the German line, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was forced into a deadlock; they could not get to the enemy.
This was the beginning of the Western Front. What followed was ‘The race to the sea’ as the BEF, the French, and the German Armies tried to outflank each other, northward, until they reached the English Channel. All three armies left complex trench systems behind them and as they became grounded, a ‘war of movement’ became a ‘war of position’. Trenches stretched from Switzerland all the way to the Channel. Sir John French, Commander of the BEF, stated in a letter to King George V, “the spade will be as great a necessity as the rifle”.
In the early stages of the war, the conflict was fluid and fast moving with charges and counter-charges, in the way that previous European wars had been fought. Tactics such as outflanking and pincer movements could be used effectively. Trenches and the introduction of fixed positions turned this all on its head. In trench warfare there was very little room for manoeuvre, no flanks were exposed and no circling or pincer movements could be carried out. Nothing had prepared the BEF’s troops for this new type of warfare. This contributed in a large way to the development of the stalemate, for among the commanders and the troops there was a general sense of confusion.
All of the opposing armies had been produced from a 19th century mould and initially the war was fought in a 19th century fashion. What this conflict rapidly developed into was the industrial slaughter of millions of men inflicted by changing weaponry.
Early in the war the machine gun became widely available and soon both sides had a vast number of these deadly weapons which were used to great effect. Long lines of advancing infantry could be mowed down at an alarming rate. Both sides used this new weapon to successfully defend themselves, but in doing so they simply perpetuated the deadlock. As with machine guns, the Allies and the Germans matched each other in terms of troop numbers, rifles and military technology. This was an important factor in the development of the stalemate.
Artillery became the backbone of any infantry assault on the enemy lines. Short-barrelled howitzer guns could now accurately pound enemy trenches, or stop infantry charges. The weaponry turned no-man’s land into a crater-filled bog which hampered movement and communication. At Neuve Chapelle in 1916, for example, the artillery showed its devastating power when 340 British guns obliterated the German line in a few hours. However, orders did not get through to the troops who were advancing, and so the gap in the line was not exploited. This was typical along much of the Western Front; as troops advanced their only contact would be through wire-connected phones. The wires were more often then not cut by exploding shells, so the communication between the trench and advancing troops was poor.
The sturdy Lee-Enfield .303 was standard issue to all soldiers of the BEF. It held ten rounds and could be accurately sighted up to two thousand yards which meant it was an impressive defensive weapon. Despite this, the rifle was an impractical weapon during a charge, and almost useless in fighting in trenches at close quarters. In fact many men took knives, revolvers or swords on assaults of enemy trenches, rather than a rifle. There would have been no stalemate if it were not for the trenches. They were fortified with sandbags and protected by barbed wire which trapped oncoming infantry, and exposed them to gunfire. Even the term ‘digging in’ carries a connotation of permanence. Soldiers were expecting to fight for a long period of time, and therefore this contributed to the stalemate.
Not only physical factors were important in the development of a deadlock, there was a psychological side to the conflict as well. A large number of unwritten arrangements came into being. Many men saw that they were in permanent positions that would rarely move. They therefore concentrated on making life for themselves as bearable as possible rather than committing themselves to almost certain death. An example of this can be seen in the reluctance of all armies to fire shells at mealtimes. This etiquette was also demonstrated in the Christmas truces in 1914 up and down the Western Front.
All these factors combined to create a stalemate on the Western Front which was only to be lifted in 1917-18.