The Western Front
The Western Front, 1915-1916
Public DomainThe Western Front, 1915-1916 - Credit: US Military Academy West Point

The Western Front was a World War I battle line established in August of 1914 following Germany’s invasion of France via Belgium and Luxembourg.  After the French and British armies blocked the German advance on Paris at the Battle of Marne, the Germans began digging trenches through eastern France to defend their position.  The French and British followed suit, and soon there was a great line of fortifications stretching through the flat landscape of northeastern France.  The gaps between trench-lines became known as “no-mans-land.”  Fields once filled with wild flowers and crops became choked with corpses, shrapnel, and ruined vehicles.  The opposing positions remained more or less fixed for four years, despite major offensives that cost millions of lives. 

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How it all began

The 19th century saw a number of key geopolitical developments in Europe, including the Congress of Vienna (1814-1815) which determined a new balance of power for the continent, and the unification of Italy in 1861 and Germany in 1871. The Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71 left Prussia and the new Germany victorious, and France shattered by the siege of Paris and the loss of Alsace-Lorraine. Following a mutual defence alliance formed between Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy in 1882, France and Russia signed a similar alliance in 1894.  This was extended to include Great Britain in 1907, forming a Triple Entente. With the two opposing military alliances established, and with an industrial arms race gathering speed, European peace was vulnerable to any kind of significant disruption.  Just such a disruption came as a consequence of the growing nationalist movement against Austrian imperial rule in the Balkans.

On 28 June 1914, the heir to the Austrian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and his wife Sophie, were shot dead in Sarajevo. Austria-Hungary suspected Serbian involvement and, following an impossible ultimatum, declared war on Serbia, a key ally of Russia. In response, Russia mobilised against Austria-Hungary, triggering the mutual defence alliance and bringing Germany into the war.  France, keen to recapture her lost territory and mindful of the her own pact with Russia, declared war on Germany.  Britain entered the war alongside her Triple Entente allies two weeks later.

This first World War was known as the Great War and the war to end all wars, in part because of the scale of operations: over 65 million men were mobilised.  But it was also because of the new industrial capacity of the main belligerent nations.  Germany and Britain in particular had developed industrial production in the years prior to the war to a level never seen before.  The new war machines and munitions that rolled off the production lines made possible killing on an industrial scale.  By the end of the war, 10 million men were dead, another 8 million were missing and 20 million were wounded.


The Trenches

The fortified trenches that marked the Western Front were protected by barbed wire and were deep enough for soldiers to stand without being seen by the enemy. Behind the front line trenches were secondary lines, and sometimes even a third line, in case the enemy captured the front line.

The trenches were dug in zigzag formation for defense. If enemy soldiers entered the trench, they would not be able to fire straight down the line. Every section of the trenches could be defended separately.


The Home Front

Away from the trenches, governments took on greater powers to detain without trial, use propaganda, censor the press, and otherwise control the lives of their citizens. Nearly everything was rationed, with food and other common products being diverted to the battlefield. The aerial bombing of cities, with the first bombs dropped by zeppelin in England in January 1915, brought the war much closer to home for civilians.

With so many men at war, women took over their work on farms and elsewhere, and gained rights that they had previously been denied.  This led to a significant change in perspectives on the place of women in society, and contributed to women's suffrage in several key countries straight after the war.


German trench
Public DomainGerman trench - Credit: Library of Congress