Due to the complexity of this question, it must be broken down before an attempt at answering it can be made. Following this, it will be easier to understand the exact context in which this article will consider this question. By asking Why was there stalemate on the Western front two questions are actually being asked. Firstly, why did a stalemate start and secondly why did the stalemate continue between 1914 and 1918. The second issue within the question is the section that specifically refers to stalemate between German and France.
It is debatable whether this refers to conflict between German and French armies or German and French territories. Since British and Belgian forces had a significant impact to conflict on the Western front and the inclusion of facts concerning these forces is necessary to answer in full the question Why was there Stalemate on the Western front. This article will take the opinion that the question asks for the inclusion of all relevant events leading to and sustaining deadlock on the Western front.
The structure of this article will look chronologically at the start of the deadlock followed by an analysis of the continuation and eventual end of the stalemate. When war began in the summer of 1914 both Germany and France had distinct ideas about how war should proceed. Germany, being the initiator of conflict, had the advantage of putting its Schlieffen Plan into action first. The plan called for a large-scale invasion of France with a large proportion of the German army moving into France through Belgium. Paramount to the German plan was speed.
In order for Germany to be able to invade Russia without worrying about France, Germany needed to defeat the French in a matter of weeks. Due to a number of unforeseen factors, the German plan failed and led directly to the deadlocked situation that would continue for over four years. As a result of alteration to the Schlieffen Plan, the complete failure of the French plan XVII and the intervention of British, Belgian and French forces, a situation that could only be described as stalemate was firmly established by November 1914.
The events leading to this began on 4th August 1914 when around a million German troops poured into Belgium according to the Schlieffen plan. This when Germany met its first major setbacks as Britain, quite unexpectedly from Germanys perspective, immediately declared war on Germany to honour an old treaty with Belgium. Also, the Belgian army and people put up a much greater resistance than had been expected. The Germans, wasting valuable time and causing large numbers of troops to be left behind to counter continuing Belgian resistance, could not quickly seize strong Belgian forts or crush the Belgian army.
As half the German army was caught up in Belgium, France put its plan into action. French attacks got nowhere, however, and French were in fact pushed back across their own border and deep into France very quickly. By pushing the French attackers back into France the Germans were, in fact, forcing the French army out of the trap into which Schlieffen had intended them to fall. The German troops who had fought through Belgium were exhausted and short of supplies. Their numbers had been reduced by Belgian resistance, a battle with the BEF and part of their force being diverted to the fast developing Eastern front.
When this was combined with the French troops who were being rushed to defend Paris, the German army no longer possessed the resources to successfully capture Paris. General Moltke, therefore, ordered the German first and second armies to swing East of Paris in an attempt to catch the retreating French army between the Germans swing back from the West and those who had repelled the French invaders in the East. General Joffre had, however, prepared the French for this kind of move and thanks to aerial reconnaissance he knew exactly where the German armies were.
The culmination of this huge change of events had placed the entire French and German armies in the same place and would inevitably lead to a huge confrontation that was followed by the deadlocked situation with which this article is concerned. The battle of the Marne, between 5 and 10 September 1914, completely halted the German advance and ensured that the First World War would not be over by Christmas. The battle began with a massive French strike forcing a gap in between the first and second German armies. The First army was forced to face west whilst the Second army faced east, resulting in a kind of spike in the German lines.
The Germans had marched hundreds of miles non-stop and were completely exhausted. One German officer noted: We can do no more. The men fall in the ditches and lie there just to breathe. The order comes to mount. I ride bent over with my head on the horses mane. We are thirsty and hungry. Indifference overcomes us. The German general staffs representative, Colonel Richard Hentsch recognised the makings of a disaster and ordered a retreat to the river Aisne. Allied reaction to the German position was slow and the BEF missed a chance to move through the gap and destroy the German right wing, but despite this the Germans were in retreat.
The Schlieffen plan had finally failed and France was saved. Also, the retreating Germans moved quickly enough to allow themselves time to dig in at the Aisne and make preparations to halt the allied advance. The foundations were now very strongly laid for the lines that would hardly move for the rest of the war. The rest of the trenches were established as both sides raced to gain freedom of manoeuvre in order to find a way round their opponents. Both sides rushed north in a race to the sea. If one army got there first it could take control of crucial channel ports and also move to encircle the armies of its rival.
Incidentally, neither army moved south as both French and German borders were intact and heavily fortified all the way to the Swiss border. As both sides moved north at an even pace and neither wanted to lose any ground, a line of deeply dug trenches appeared all the way the way through Belgium and Northern France. These trenches were extremely well designed defensive positions and were almost impenetrable by conventional means. The beginning of the war was now over, deadlock had been established and the long bloody middle was about to begin.
It would be this trench warfare that would be the key factor behind the failure for either side to advance over the coming years. In explaining how stalemate on the Western front started, the information has been fairly factual, not opinionated and containing no obvious argument. This is because the evidence was fairly factual and linear; there was only one way things could have happened. When the reasons for continuing stalemate are now examined, quite the opposite will occur as many factors contributed to this and it is arguable as to which were more important than others.
The most obvious factor in stopping an advance through a line of trenches, are the trenches themselves. These were ditches dug with no other purpose than to repel attacking armies. They contained dugouts to protect men from shell bombardment, barbed wire to slow down advancing men, and machine gun posts to mow down attacking forces. Also there were not just two lines of trenches. Each side had forward trenches, support trenches and reserve trenches. This meant that even if an army were pushed back, it would only be a few feet, to the trench behind them.
As trench lines stayed in one place for long periods they became even harder to attack successfully as the no mans land in between them became a soggy, marshy, shell cratered bog through which it was difficult to walk let alone run. This became particularly bad in winter or after a prolonged shell bombardment, as so often preceded an attack. Trenches and barbed wire proved to be highly resistant to shellfire and it became clear that a defending force could wipe out an attacking force twice its size if the attackers used standard traditional military tactics.
This is the point at which the main debate concerning the importance of trenches appears. Were trenches truly an unbreakable defensive weapon or were the tactics use to attack them unsuitable an antiquated? There is no doubt that some glaring tactical errors were made during the war, but it would seem that the situation before late 1916 made it almost impossible to break through trenches using the technology of the time. After 1916, however, both sides had chances to break through trenches that were not taken. The Germans, after on the Eastern front, were superior numerically and the allies had developed the tank.
Although some advances were made it is clear that better tactics could have gained more from some situations. All in all, it is clear that trenches were crucial to the stalemate on the Western front and that without them, armies would have moved around a lot more, probably resulting in an earlier end to the war. Having already discussed the possible relevance of tactics to the deadlock it seems crucial to look at the highly controversial men who were making the decisions on how human resources would be used. Generals had a massive influence on events during the First World War.
War might not have occurred had it not been for their influence. Despite this, however, the ability and competence of these men in leading their armies is one of the most debated points in the history of World War One. Over the years many have taken both sides of the argument and both put forward a strong case. On the one hand the generals are portrayed as ignorant men who were not aware of what was really happening at the front and, therefore, sent thousands to their deaths unnecessarily. They are part of an outdated army and obtained their positions through status and wealth, not military success.
They used tactics that were suitable for a cavalry charge across grassy fields against a line of men armed with muskets and swords, not a charge across muddy swamps against machine guns and bolt-action rifles. The other view is that they were men who were doing their best to come to grips with a new kind of warfare and were having to resort to tactics that cost a lot of human life in order to break through enemy lines and win the war. They even managed sometimes to achieve their goals and win against large odds.
Taking both these views and all available evidence into account one conclusion must be reached. Generals such as Haig, Moltke and Joffre faced many new and challenging problems. They made mistakes and these were sometimes costly. They were, however, not entirely incompetent. There is some evidence to suggest that they learned from their mistakes and modified their tactics in order to formulate successful ways of breaking through enemy lines. No general did, however, seem to come up with any brilliant ideas clinching tactics and this helped to keep the stalemate.
The most interesting thing is, however, that al the generals come under one analysis. There was very little difference between German, French and British tactics and this may well have contributed to the deadlock. This, of course, speaking in general terms, ignoring one off, although sometimes effective, developments such as the tank, surprise attack and creeping barrage. With neither side having superior generals or excellent tactics there was little chance a decisive victory or a break of stalemate being achieved by the generals of each side during World War One.
With the exception of the undeniable fact that the technological and numerical strength of both sides on the Western front was similar, these are the only real reasons why the deadlock was not broken. In the interests of completeness it is necessary to look at technological issues and developments that occurred later on in the war, but these are factors that explain why the stalemate was broken, not why it was sustained. The first, and undoubtedly most important changes that broke the deadlock were political.
Once Germany had defeated Russia it had a huge amount of men to use to push through allied lines using brute force. The allies were in a similar position once America had entered the war and American troops began arriving. Even with the trench system, it was proved that an army vastly superior in number could break through and win in the end. It is probably this conclusion that helped Germany decide that it was certain to lose the war and that an armistice was the only option. Other factors used to break the stalemate included technological advance like the tank.
The tank was a British invention that was impervious to small arms fire and could smash through barbed wire and cross trenches with ease. These machines had some success wherever they were used, although they were used in too small a numbers, were too unreliable, and were perfected too late in the war to have maximum effect. It is argued that if, as the tank designers had wanted, the tanks had been kept secret and unused until a thousand were made they could have smashed through German lines and won a decisive victory early in 1917.
As it was, a handful of tanks were used during the battle of the Somme and their secrets were revealed. The Germans had chance to prepare defences against them so that they could never be used unimpeded again. Other minor developments that helped to break the deadlock revolved around the development of new tactics such as the creeping barrage. In early major assaults, a huge artillery bombardment designed to destroy enemy trenches would precede any attack by infantry. All these artillery bombardments really achieved, was sending a message to the enemy that an attack was imminent.
The creeping barrage tried to get around this. The infantry would start advancing soon after the guns started firing and the positions where the shells landed would be moved forward in front of the infantry. This meant that whatever position the infantry were advancing on would be under fire making it difficult for defenders to attack the infantry. These kinds of changes to tactics did, however, only have a minor effect on the stalemate and were not nearly as effective as the advantage given by superior number.
All in all, stalemate was sustained as long as anti-trench tactics and technology was poor and both sides possessed roughly equal numbers. When these factors were changed, breaks in the deadlock started to occur. In conclusion, this entire article can be summarised in some basic statements. When the warplanes of both sides went badly wrong, a large and unexpected confrontation resulted in all armies digging in to hold their ground.
Despite numerous attempts to break through these positions, good defensive weapons and positions combined with equally adversaries resulted in a deadlock that could not be broken until the sides were no longer equal and better offensive methods had been developed. Deadlocked trench warfare seems the only logical method for which a prolonged war between powerful European countries could take place at the time. The weapons, technologies and tactics of the time were ideally suited to a defensive war and both sides exploited these when their ambitious plans for a quick war failed.
In hindsight, these plans may seem silly, as it is obvious that the French and German plans could not both succeed and it is now known that the war lasted more than four years when the people who conceived these plans envisaged a war of only two or three months. But it must not be forgotten how close Germany came to victory in the early stages. If just a few small things had happened differently then Germany may well have won and the world may well be a very different place today.