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Major Battles

BATTLE OF MONS

The Battle of Mons was the first British battle of the First World War and the last of four ‘Battles of the Frontiers’ on the Western Front between Allied and German forces. 

On 22nd August 1914 the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), led by Sir John French, dug defensive positions near the Mons Canal as a result of British intelligence warning that the size and vicinity of the German army was not known. 

Von Kluck, commander of the German First army, engaged the British in battle on 23rd August and although the BEF were heavily outnumbered, they withstood six hours of constant shelling and infantry assault. 

By evening, French ordered his army to retreat after realising the size of the German army.  


BATTLE OF THE SOMME

© IWM q1580 lieutenant ernst brooks. british soldiers eating hot rations in the ancre valley during the battle of somme, october 1916

The Battle of the Somme started on 1st July 1916 and lasted until November of the same year. The British planned to attack German trenches along a 15 mile front north of the Somme with French divisions attacking along an 8 mile front south of the Somme. The battle started with a weeklong artillery bombardment of German lines – a total of 1.6 million shells were fired – in an attempt to destroy the German trenches. However, all did not go to plan. Many of the British shells failed to explode and German troops moved to the deep dugouts in their trenches when the bombardment began which offered them relative safety from attack. Germans waited for the shelling to end and set up machine guns ready for their counterattack. The British suffered 60,000 casualties, of whom 20,000 died, on the first day marking it as one of the biggest defeats the British army had ever suffered. Over the course of the next few months, the British suffered around 420,000 casualties.

Did you know…? 

Trenches were dug in zig-zag lines, so the blast of an artillery shell landing in them could only affect a short length of the trench.


FIRST BATTLE OF THE MARNE

© IWM art 2676 richard carline. a battle scarred landscape with a road running horizontally across the composition in the foreground. there are two trucks, one marked with a red cross and four soldiers on horseback moving along the road.

© IWM art 2676 richard carline. a battle scarred landscape with a road running horizontally across the composition in the foreground. there are two trucks, one marked with a red cross and four soldiers on horseback moving along the road.

Sir John French and the BEF retreated from Mons alongside the French Army as far as the River Marne, just outside Paris. On the 6th September 1914, French Commander-in-Chief Joseph Joffre ordered an attack on the advancing German forces.

The offensive managed to increase the gap between the German First and Second Armies which was exploited by the BEF and French Army, who advanced in a counter-attack against the Germans.

The attack succeeded and German forces were in full retreat by 11th September. When they reached an area near the River Aisne they dug defensive trenches to repel the attack from the Allied forces, marking the beginning of the trench warfare that dominated much of the First World War.


 BATTLE OF CAMBRAI 

The Battle of Cambrai is noted as the first battle to use tanks en masse combined with heavy artillery, infantry, cavalry and air power. The Allies started their coordinated attack on 20th November 1917 and proved successful at surprising the Germans. Bombs were dropped on German anti-tank guns to clear the path for the Allied tanks and ground troops, and artillery was used to cover the troops from a German counter-attack.


The initial attack gained considerable distance, however the success of the attack did not last long, for example a strategic bridge collapsed under the weight of a tank which halted the advance of cavalry into Cambrai. There was a breakdown in command which opened the Allies up to the German counter-attack resulting in the Germans recovering much of the land that was lost. There was 44,000 British casualties by the time the battle ended on 6th December.


BATTLE OF JUTLAND

The German commander, Admiral Reinhardt von Scheer, hoped to lure out Admiral Beaty’s Battlecruiser and Admiral Jellicoe’s Grand Fleet from major British naval bases to waiting submarines and surface boats. Scheer hoped to destroy Beatty before Jellicoe arrived, however the British were warned by their codebreakers and Jellicoe ordered the Grand Fleet to put to sea early.

The Battle of Jutland started on 31st May 1916 when Beatty encountered Admiral Hipper’s German battlecruisers starting an artillery duel at fifteen thousand yards. The Germans were successful in damaging HMS Lion and sank HMS Indefatigable and HMS Queen Mary. After this initial encounter, Beatty turned north and lured the Germans onto Jellicoe’s Grand Fleet.

The Germans thought Jellicoe’s fleet were too far north to intervene and so received a nasty surprise when they found themselves under bombardment from the Grand Fleet. Scheer ordered a retreat and after a night of intense fighting the German battleships successfully made it to harbour. 

The Battle of Jutland was the only major encounter between the British and German fleets in the First World War. Admiral Jellicoe had 24 dreadnoughts ready for sea just a few hours after his return to Scapa Flow. Admiral Scheer had only ten, and repairs to his ships took considerably longer to complete leaving the German Fleet effectively blockaded into port after Jutland.


THE THIRD BATTLE OF YPRES

© IWM art 3819 gilbert rogers mbe, gassed. in arduis fidelis. the body of a dead soldier lying on his back on a battlefield. the body rests rigidly on a thick mound of much, the feet hanging into a small rain-filled crater

© IWM art 3819 gilbert rogers mbe, gassed. in arduis fidelis. the body of a dead soldier lying on his back on a battlefield. the body rests rigidly on a thick mound of much, the feet hanging into a small rain-filled crater

The Third Battle of Ypres, better known to many as Passchendaele due to the heavy fighting and loss of life near that village, was launched by the Allies region of Belgium on 31st July 1917. The aim of the campaign was the destruction of German submarine bases on the Belgian coast, thus requiring clearance of the bases on the Belgian coast. British forces and Australian and New Zealand (ANZAC) forces launched a heavy artillery attack on the Germans; however the main targets of the Allied offensive remained out of reach due to the poor conditions of thick mud caused by heavy rainfall in early August.

By October the Allied attackers were nearing exhaustion as German forces were reinforced by reserves released from the Eastern Front. The Germans used mustard gas to aid their defence which resulted in chemical burns.

The Canadians were sent to relieve the ANZAC forces early in October and take part in the push to capture Passchendaele. The eventual capture of Passchendaele village by British and Canadian forces came on 6th November and finally allowed Haig to cut off the offensive. Although the Battle of Passchendaele was claimed as a victory, it came at the cost of 245,000 British casualties as opposed to 215,000 on the German side.

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DID YOU KNOW...?

The area in Flanders was saturated with the heaviest rainfall for 30 years and constant artillery bombardment by the Allies had churned the clay soil and smashed the drainage systems. Shell craters filled with water producing thick mud that clogged up rifles and immobilised tanks. The swamp like conditions became so deep in many places that men and horses drowned in it.