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Major Battles Of World War I (WW1)

While the Great War wouldn't prove to be the war to end all wars, it did bring devastation on a scale never seen before alongside a new generation of modern warfare technology.

The World War I battles fought between major global super powers opened up new frontiers in international warfare. These battles also claimed many casualties unprecedented before between the warring superpowers. Behind these wars were generals who schemed the best ways to get victory over their enemies. Victory and defeat in World War One battles determined which of the Generals' plans were effective or flawed.

10. Battle of Tannenberg (August of 1914) -

The August of 1914 Battle of Tannenberg was spearheaded by the Russian army under the command of Grand Duke Nicholas. He came to the aid of the French who were under attack from the Germans. Two Russian armies invaded German East Prussia. On August 20th Russian General Paul von Rennenkampf’s first army defeated eight divisions of the German’s 8th army on its eastern front. By then the other Russian army led by General Samsonov had crossed the southern frontier of East Prussia, and was threatening three German army divisions. With threat imminent, General Maximilian Prittwitz of the German’s 8th army authorized Lieutenant Colonel Hoffman’s idea to attack Samsonov’s army left flank. The Germans got lucky and intercepted an uncoded Russian message showing Rennenkampf was not in a hurry to advance. The 8th army then led by General Erich Ludendorff clustered 6 divisions to attack Samsonov’s left flank and the rest, to attack the right. Then General Ludendorff ordered the attack on August 26th of Samsonov’s left flank near Usdau forcing the Russians to retreat towards Neidenburg.

A Russian counterattack from Soldau aided the two Russian armies in their escape to the southeast, with the Germans remaining in pursuit. But by nightfall of August 29 the Russians army got surrounded by the German army with no way to escape. The Russian army disintegrated and got defeated and General Samsonov shot himself. By end of the month the German’s took 92,000 prisoners and destroyed half of Russian 2nd army. The Germans then turned on General Rennenkampf army in September and drove it out from East Prussia. In total the Russians lost about 250,000 men as well as military equipment. The only positive from the Battle of Tannenberg was diverting the Germans from attacking France. That allowed the French to counter attack at the First Battle of Marne. The Battle of Tannenberg has been immortalized in the 2015 Estonian movie, 1944.

9. First Battle of Marne (September of 1914) -

In September of 1914, the First Battle of Marne was the end of German incursion into France and the beginning of the trench warfare so widely associated with World War One. German Field Marshal, Alfried Von Schlieffen devised a plan to conquer France by his armies invading it from Lille. Then army would turn west near the English Channel then south and cut off the French retreat. If the plan worked German armies would encircle the French Army from the north and capture Paris. But a French offensive in Lorraine caused the German’s to counter attack, and threw the French to a fortified barrier. The French defense strengthened and they sent their troops to reinforce the left flank. The German northern wing troops got weak after removal of 11 divisions to fight in Belgium and East Prussia.

When the German 1st Army under General Alex von Kluck targeted points to the north of Paris, they had to pass into the valley of the River Marne and thus across the French defenses, and were exposed in doing so. On the 3rd of September, French General Joseph Joffre ordered a halt to French retreat but three days later he reinforced the left flank, and began an offensive. That compelled General Kluck to stop his advance to support his weak flank at Meaux. When on 9th September the German ambassador Bernhard Bullow learned the British force was advancing between his 2nd army and 1st army he ordered Kluck’s men to retreat. A counterattack by the 5th and 6th French and British armies resulted in the First Battle of the Marne. That forced the battle worn Germans shorn of supplies to full retreat by 11th September and withdrew northwards along Lower Aisne River. By saving Paris from German capture and pushing them 45 miles away, it was a great strategic victory for France, and enabled them to continue the war.

8. Battle of Gallipoli (1915-1916) -

Lasting eight months, the 1915-1916 Battle of Gallipoli was launched by the combined British, French, Indian, New Zealand, Australia, and Canadian forces to knock out those of the Turkish Ottoman Empire that sided with Germany. The British and her allies planned to sail a huge fleet at the 65-mile Dardanelles water strait that linked the Mediterranean and Istanbul, the Ottoman capital they planned to capture. The plan aimed to force the Ottoman Empire to surrender. The plan failed miserably in part due to the outdated allies’ fleet, and many ships that were sunk by Ottoman cannons and mines. Then a young admiral named Winston Churchill who had planned the attack was left humiliated.

The Battle of Gallipoli saw 58,000 Allied soldiers’ casualties. These included 29,000 British and Irish soldiers, and 11,000 Australians and New Zealanders. There also were about Ottoman Turkish troops that died and about 300,000 wounded troops from either side. The battle of Gallipoli was immortalized in the 1981 Gallipoli film starring Mel Gibson. The Ottoman victory propelled lieutenant colonel of the 19th Turkish division Mustafa Kemal Ataturk to prominence. He later became the founding father of the modern day Turkish Republic in 1923.

7. Battle of Jutland (Spring of 1916) -

Believed to be the biggest naval battle of the First World War, on the 31st of May and the 1st of June in 1916 the Battle of Jutland pitted the British against the German fleet with their so-called "dreadnought" battleships. It was a bloody battle that involved 250 ships and about 100,000 troops. The battle occurred in the North Sea, and German Admiral Reinhard Scheer planned to draw in both Admiral Sir David Beatty Battlecruiser Force, and Admiral Sir John Jellicoe’s Grand Fleet. Scheer’s plan was to destroy Beatty’s force before Jellicoe’s arrived. That was thwarted when the British were alerted by their code-breakers and they placed their forces early to sea, according to the Imperial War Museum’s records. Those first encounters between Beatty’s force and German high seas fleet caused losses of several ships.

The Germans destroyed Beatty’s flagship, the HMS Lion, and also sank HMS Indefatigable and HMS Queen Mary. They blew up after German shells hit their ammunition magazines. Staring defeat Beatty withdrew until Jellicoe arrived with the main fleet. The outgunned Germans retreated to home. The British lost 14 ships and had 6000 in casualties, while the Germans lost 11 ships and over 2500 men. From then on, the Germans never seriously challenged the British control of the North Sea. It also secured for the British control of shipping lanes which ensured Britain put in place a blockade that caused Germany to be defeated in 1918. The Battle of Jutland was depicted in several documentaries, most notably by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in 2016.

6. Battle of Verdun (1916) -

Beginning on February 21st and ending on the 19th of December in 1916, the Battle of Verdun was one of the longest and most savage of all World War One battles. Nearly three quarters of the French army fought in this battle. It began when the German army under General Erich Von Falkenhayn command, began attacking French forts and trenches with artillery fires from 1200 guns, according to Verdun Memorial Museum reports. The General intended to end the trench warfare that begun in 1914 to enable his troops to move. In the initial days, the Germans breached the French front lines and took over Fort Douaumont without a fight. Still the French infantry in spite of heavy shelling were unmoved from their positions, and repelled the Germans. French General Henri Petain was appointed to defend Verdun and command the troops. He raised the traffic volume on Bar-le-Duc to Verdun route which took men, basic supplies, and artillery to the battlefield. About 4000 trucks, 2000 cars, 800 ambulances, 200 buses and vans used this route. This ensured when on 6th March 1916 when the Germans attacked on the left bank of River Meuse regardless of intense battles on Le Mort Homme that spread to April, they couldn’t breach the French front line. But by June end the Germans had captured Fort Vaux.

On July 1st, the French and British launched an offensive on Somme, thereby relieving the German pressure on French troops at Verdun. The Germans tried to take over Verdun on July 11 and 12 and failed. In 1916 autumn the French counter attacked and recaptured Fort Douaumont, and few days later entered Fort Vaux which the Germans had deserted. From December 15th to 18th, the French attacked and nearly retook territory they had lost since February 21st. After the battle ended there were over 700,000 victims - 305,000 dead or missing and about 400,000 wounded on both warring sides. Around Verdun fighting continued until 1918 according to Verdun Memorial Museum reports. Battle of Verdun’s violence was unprecedented and still resonates as one of the major World War One battles.There have been documentaries made about this battle in modern day.

5. Battle of Passchendaele (1917) -

Also called the Third Battle of Ypres, the Battle of Passchendaele gained notoriety not only for its many casualties, but also for the widespread mud. This battle was fought in Ypres a town along the British lines. Field Marshal Douglas Haig longed for a British offensive in Flanders after a warning that a German blockade, would cripple the British war efforts. He wanted to get to the Belgian coast and destroy German submarines stationed there. The British were further spurred on by success of an attack on the Messines Ridge on June 1917, and its capture. The British infantry began attack on the 31st of July at Ypres. The constant shelling turned the clay soil and destroyed drainage systems. The left wing of the attack was successful unlike the right wing. In the few following days the heaviest rains in 30 years turned the turned the loose soil into mud which clogged rifles, and halted tanks’ movements. The depth of this mud made even the horses and men to drown in it.

On the 16th of August, British attacks resumed with no results. There was a stalemate for a month but when weather improved attacks resumed on 20th September. The battles of Menin, Road Ridge and Polygon Wood on 26th September as well as the Battle of Broodseinde on October 4th had the British capture the ridge east of Ypres. On November 6 the little of what remained of Passchendaele village was captured by the British and Canadian forces. That gave Haig an excuse to halt the offensive and claim victory. That despite the fact that Passchendaele was less than five miles beyond where the Haig led offensive had begun. The three month battle of Passchendaele had 325,000 British and allied casualties and 260,000 German casualties.

4. Battle of Caporetta (Fall of 1917) -

Also called the 12th battle of the Isonzo, the Battle of Caporetta saw Austro-Hungarian and German forces break through the Italian defenses in northern Isonzo after catching the Italian soldiers by surprise. The Italian defeat, resulted in dismissal of Luigi Cadorna as Chief of Staff, and a change of government. When depleted Austria and Hungarian allies faced collapse at Gorizia after the 11th battle of Isonzo, led by Cadorna, their commander Arz Von Straussenberg sought help from the German Third Supreme Command led by Paul Von Hindenbrug, and Erich Ludendorff to have a combined operation. When Cadorna through deserters and aerial reconnaissance learned of German involvement, he called off his own attacks in mid September 1917, and assumed a defensive stance. Six German divisions under the command of Otto vob Below, supplemented the Third Supreme nine Austrian army divisions.

The Germans chose a 25-kilometer-long line in front of Caporetta, north of Gorizia along Isonzo, as the preferred point of attack where the Italians were weak for the combined offensive. The Italian commander Luigi Capello was ordered to prepare a defensive line but massed his troops to attack the southern flank of Von Below’s army, to the east of Gorizia. At 2 am on the 24th of October, 1917 at Tolmino, the combined Austrian, Hungarian and German forces attacked and surprised the Italians. The assault broke through the Italian Second Army lines immediately. By close of day, the German, Austria, and Hungary forces had progressed 25 kilometers, and breached the Italian lines using of grenades and flamethrowers, and adopting infiltration tactics. Below attacks at River Tagliamento endangered a bulk of Italian forces which led to Capello recommending a withdrawal there, but was overruled by Cadorna. Cadorna made most of Italian forces to cross the river which took four days culminating on the 30th of October, 1917. Supplies to Austrian, Hungarian, and Germans had began to be depleted and they couldn’t launch a fresh offensive. As a result, Cadorna ordered Italian forces to withdraw to the River Piave. The Italians incurred 300,000 casualties of which 90 percent were prisoners. As a result Cadorna was dismissed and Marshal Armando Diaz replaced him. A new Prime Minister Vittorio Orlando assumed office, and replaced incumbent Paolo Boselli.

3. Battle of Cambrai (1917) -

Fought from the 20th of November until the 4th of December in 1917, the Battle of Cambrai in northern France between the British and Germans marked the first time battle tanks were used on a mass scale in battle. Use of tanks was combined with air power and heavy artillery. The nineteen British divisions assembled had about 476 tanks of which 324 were fighting tanks, the rest supply and service vehicles. The battle commenced on the dawn of 20th November 1917, when the British Third Army launched an attack aimed to the Germans towards Cambrai. Initially eight British divisions attacked three German divisions by surprise and took 7500 prisoners. The third army commanded by General Julian Byng, attacked the German’s Hindenburg defensive line, to relieve pressure on French forces. Though the British made gains at first, they were overrun by German counter attacks, in part due to bad weather.

The British forces had advanced 5 miles and taken a series of villages. But by the end of the first day over half of the British tanks were destroyed. That slowed the British progress even as fighting intensified. On October 28th the British reached on the crest of Bourlon Ridge. But two days later German forces launched a counter offensive using heavy artillery and utilizing infantry tactics. That made the British army to retreat having captured only the Havrincourt, Ribécourt and Flesquières villages, according to the Imperial War Museum. The Battle of Cambrai opened the way for use of sophisticated arms tactics and armored warfare in years that followed. Both the German and British each had casualties of about 45,000.

2. German Spring Offensives on the Western Front (1918) -

During the spring of 1918, German General Erich Ludendorff ordered his forces to attack the Western Front, an over 400-mile-long strip of land stretching through France and Belgium, and from the Swiss border to the North Sea. The Russians contributed to the 500,000 troops, the confident Ludendorff commanded. Knowing a German attack was imminent the British reinforced their coasts as did the French to the south of the British. But in Cambrai an incomplete British trench system left a weakness in the British line, manned by the fifth army commanded by General Hubert Gough. On March 21st 1918, the Germans attacked, and in five hours fired a million artillery shells at the fifth army. The Germans intensified their attacks with elite storm troopers armed with loud flame throwers that panicked the British. The first day of the attack resulted in 21,000 British soldiers taken prisoner as the Germans advanced through the Fifth Army lines. This German attack was the biggest breakthrough in three years of warfare on the Western Front, and Gough ordered the Fifth Army to withdraw. The British also surrendered the Somme region to the Germans. This put Paris within the German’s target as they moved their three Krupps cannons they used to shell Paris 120 kilometers away. About 183 shells landed in Paris and residents began to desert the city. Their push to Paris made German emperor Friedrich William II, declare March 24th a success with many Germans assuming the war was over. But their Paris advance by the Germans experienced hitches due to few supplies they had, bar weapons.

Ludendorff ordered the highly effective German 18th Army to advance on Amiens, an important railroad city, thinking it would hamper the British and their allies. But the 18th army ran out of supplies, and horses that were to be used in Amiens advance and transport were killed for food. Heading towards Amiens the Germans passed by Albert where hell broke loose among them as they looted the shops there due to hunger. With their discipline gone, the advance to Amiens stopped, which shocked the exhausted Ludendorff. The German Spring Offensive conquered much territory but in March and April, the Germans had 230,000 in casualties. Those numbers were too much for the German Army. By the end of March 1918, 250,000 Americans poured into the Western Front to join their British allies. Their effectiveness was however hindered by their General John Pershing, refusal to have his forces commanded by French or British officers. In spite of these allies conflicts, the German army by June 1918 had been weakened by many casualties it suffered. When disillusioned Ludendorff ordered a last World War I German offensive on July 15 1918, the Germans suffered huge losses at Marne after a French ambush and counter attack. From March to July 1918 the Germans had lost a million men.

1. Battle of the Somme (1916) -

From the 1st of July until the 18th of November in 1916, a massive joint operation between British and French forces against the Germans occurred in the Somme area in northern France. Dubbed the Battle of the Somme, it had been planned in December 1915 by allied commanders the French Joseph Joffre, and the British General Douglas Haig, to counter German offensive at Verdun. The British spearheaded the offensive and faced a German defense developed for many months, according to the Imperial War Museum’s records. Despite a seven day bombardment before the 1st July attack, the British did not achieve success the military leadership of General Haig anticipated, having sent 100,000 men to capture the German trenches. Somme resulted to being a battle of attrition, and for 141 days the British advance captured only three square mile of territory.

Collectively, the opposing sides saw over a million casualties wounded, captured, or killed. But what stuck the psyche of the British were the 57,470 casualties suffered on first day of battle of the Somme, which 19,240 army men were killed. That made it the bloodiest day in British military history. On that first day the German army also suffered 6000 casualties many at the hands of French forces stationed on the southern part of the Somme. According to experts, losses incurred by the British on the battle of the Somme were due to use of untrained volunteers as soldiers, and inadequate artillery used in the seven day bombardment as it didn’t affect German soldiers who were lay safe, in deep trenches. The British also underestimated the well drilled and armed, battle hardened German forces tucked in those trenches. As a result the German forces were able to regroup, counter attack and retake much of lost territory. In five months, over a million soldiers from the French, British and German armies had been killed or wounded.

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