Historical War: The Horrors of the Western Front in Photographs, 1914-1918


Looking out across a battlefield from an Anzac pill box near the Belgian city of Ypres in West Flanders in 1917. When German forces met stiff resistance in northern France in 1914, a “race to the sea” developed as France and Germany tried to outflank each other, establishing battle lines that stretched from Switzerland to the North Sea. Allies and Central Powers literally dug in, excavating thousands of miles of defensive trenches, and trying desperately to break through the other side for years, at unspeakably huge cost in blood and treasure.

Looking out across a battlefield from an Anzac pill box near the Belgian city of Ypres in West Flanders in 1917

Late during the summer of 1914, train stations all over Europe echoed with the sound of leather boots and the clattering of weapons as millions of enthusiastic young soldiers mobilized for the most glorious conflict since the Napoleonic Wars.

In the eyes of many men, pride and honor glowed in competition with the excitement of a wonderful adventure and the knowledge of righting some perceived infringement on the interests of their respective nation.

Bombardment of the Cathedral of Reims, France, in September of 1914, as German incendiary bombs fell on the towers and on the apse during the German invasion of northern France.

Within weeks however, the excitement and glory gave way to horror and anonymous death, brought on by dangerous new machines of war which took control of the old fields of honor and turned them into desolate moonscapes littered with corpses and wreckage.

This new great war, called World War One, began as a local disturbance in Southern Europe but eventually spread into a worldwide struggle which produced two of the greatest bloodlettings in history; the battles of the Somme and Verdun.

French soldiers on horseback in street, with an airship “DUPUY DE LOME” flying in air behind them, between ca. 1914.

The western portion of this conflict took place mostly in Belgium and France, and started as a war of “grand maneuvers” as had been theorized before the fighting began.

But when more troops were poured into an increasingly cramped area, there came a time when the antagonists could no longer maneuver against each other in any operational sense.

When this occurred, the forces involved began entrenching in the face of more and more lethal concentrations of firepower, and the war of the machines and trenches had begun.

A French pilot made an emergency landing in friendly territory after a failed attempt to attack a German Zeppelin hangar near Brussels, Belgium, in 1915. Soldiers are climbing up the tree where the biplane has landed.

Bombardment of the Cathedral of Reims, France, in September of 1914, as German incendiary bombs fell on the towers and on the apse during the German invasion of northern France.

The main theatre of fighting in World War I was the Western Front, a meandering line which ran from the Swiss border in the south to the North Sea.

Most of the Western Front’s 700 kilometre length traversed the north-east of France, with its ends in Belgium and southern Germany. The largest battles of the war – Marne, Ypres, Verdun, the Somme, Passchendaele and others – were fought along the Western Front.

Though the death toll from Western Front battles will never be accurately known, at least four million were killed there. Despite the size, frequency and ferocity of attempts to break through the line or push back the enemy, the Western Front remained relatively static until 1918.

German officers in a discussion on the Western Front. (The man 2nd from right, in fur collar is possibly Kaiser Willhelm, the caption does not indicate). The German war plan had been for a swift, decisive victory in France. Little planning had been done for a long-term, slow-moving slog of a battle.

Many aspects of the Western Front have become symbolic of World War I: mud-filled trenches, artillery bombardments, appalling tactical blunders, futile charges on enemy positions, periods of stalemate, high death rates and atrocious conditions.

The Western Front began to take shape in the autumn of 1914, after the German advance through northern France was halted at the Battle of the Marne.

The Germans then retreated to the Aisne River, where they dug a network of trenches to consolidate and hold their position. The Allies, believing the Germans were awaiting reinforcements and preparing a further assault into French territory, reciprocated by constructing their own trench system.

Over the next few weeks both sides extended their trench systems further to the north, racing to outflank each other and to reach the North Sea coastline. Their aim was to prevent an enemy advance, to secure supply lines and to seize control of key ports and French industrial areas.

As the Allies and Germans carried out this ‘race to the sea’, a major battle erupted at Ypres in Belgium. At the personal order of the Kaiser, German generals launched a massive assault on the Allied line, using divisions of their most experienced infantry and cavalry – but the attack was repelled at the cost of more than 40,000 men. By the end of 1914 the Western Front trenchline had grown to more than two-thirds of its eventual length.

French soldiers in a bayonet charge, up a steep slope in the Argonne Forest in 1915. During the Second Battle of Champagne, 450,000 French soldiers advanced against a force of 220,000 Germans, momentarily gaining a small amount of territory, but losing it back to the Germans within weeks. Combined casualties came to more than 215,000 from this battle alone.

Commanders on both sides developed grand plans to outmanoeuvre and outflank the enemy, or to break through the front. But as weeks passed, home-front enlistments pumped hundreds of thousands of reinforcements into the area.

By early 1915 many parts of the Western Front were thick with soldiers on both sides of ‘no man’s land’. This weight of numbers contributed to the front’s impenetrability and the stalemate that developed through 1915.

Germany’s early defeats in northern France also shaped its tactical approach. German military strategists embraced defensive positions, determined not to be forced out of France.

Victory, they asserted, would pass to the side that could better withstand assaults and lose fewer men. German military planners abandoned the Schlieffen Plan and adopted a strategy of attrition, aiming to inflict death and injury on as many Allied men as possible. (The German chief of staff, Erich von Falkenhayn, famously declared that his goal was to “bleed France white”).

A downed German twin-engined bomber being towed through a street by Allied soldiers, likely from Australia, in France.

The consequence of this was that Germany launched few major assaults in 1915; they instead relied on weapons like artillery and poison gas to weaken and debilitate Allied personnel.

In contrast, British and French generals were more committed to battlefield offensives and attempts to break through the front. They tried to penetrate the German line at Champagne and Loos during the autumn of 1915, but against positions fortified with artillery and machine-guns this proved almost impossible.

Falkenhayn changed tack in early 1916, hoping to lure the French army into a gigantic battle from which it could not retreat or withdraw; his aim was to inflict maximum casualties and to sap French morale.

Six German soldiers pose in a in trench with machine gun, a mere 40 meters from the British line, according to the caption provided. The machine gun appears to be a Maschinengewehr 08, or MG 08, capable of firing 450-500 rounds a minute. The large cylinder is a jacket around the barrel, filled with water to cool the metal during rapid fire. The soldier at right, with gas mask canister slung over his shoulder, is peering into a periscope to get a view of enemy activity. The soldier at rear, with steel helmet, holds a “potato masher” model 24 grenade.

For this showdown the German commander chose the town of Verdun, near a heavily-fortified section of the Franco-German border. The Battle of Verdun, which began in February 1916, was the longest and the second-deadliest battle of World War I, claiming between 750,000 and 1,000,000 lives.

It ended with no decisive victor: neither army was able to achieve their objective. Even more deadly was the Battle of the Somme, from July to November 1916. With many French generals occupied at Verdun, the Somme assault was planned and led by the British, particularly General Sir Douglas Haigh.

It was to be part of a simultaneous three-way offensive: with the Russians attacking on the Eastern Front and the Italians from the south. But the choice of location, the Somme River, was problematic.

German defences there sat on an elevated position; they had seen minimal action since late 1914 so had been able to construct a comprehensive system of trenches and bunkers.

The Somme assault began with an artillery barrage that lasted seven days and used more than one million shells. This assault did not wipe out or push back the Germans, who sat it out in deep bunkers; it also failed to destroy the masses of barbed wire strewn in front of German trenches.

At 7.30am on July 1st 1916, more than 120,000 British soldiers leapt from their trenches and advanced on the German line. Expecting to find obliterated trenches and dead Germans, they were instead met by machine-gun fire, artillery shells, mortars and grenades.

In the coming slaughter, more than 50,000 soldiers were killed in just one 24-hour period – the deadliest single day in British military history.

Harnessed dogs pull a British Army machine gun and ammo, 1914. These weapons could weigh as much as 150 pounds.

German captive balloon at Equancourt, France, on September 22, 1916. Observation balloons were used by both sides to gain an advantage of height across relatively flat terrain. Observers were lifted in a small gondola suspended below the hydrogen-filled balloons. Hundreds were shot down during the course of the war.

French Reserves from the USA, some of the two million fighters in the Battle of the Marne, fought in September of 1914. The First Battle of the Marne was a decisive week-long battle that halted the initial German advance into France, short of Paris, and led to the “race to the sea”.

Soldiers struggle to pull a huge piece of artillery through mud. The gun has been placed on a track created for a light railway. The soldiers are pushing a device, attached to the gun, that possibly slots into the tracks. Some of the men are in a ditch that runs alongside the track, the rest are on the track itself. A makeshift caterpillar tread has been fitted to the wheels of the gun, in an attempt to aid its movement through the mud.

Members of New Zealand’s Maori Pioneer Battalion perform a haka for New Zealand’s Prime Minister William Massey and Deputy Prime Minister Sir Joseph Ward in Bois-de Warnimont, France, during World War I, on June 30, 1918.

In France, a British machine-gun team. The gun, which appears to be a Vickers, is mounted on the front of a motorcycle side car.

A German prisoner, wounded and muddy, helped by a British soldier along a railway track. A man, possibly in French military uniform, is shown behind them, holding a camera and tripod, ca. 1916.

Dead horses are buried in a trench after the Battle of Haelen which was fought by the German and Belgian armies on August 12, 1914 near Haelen, Belgium. Horses were everywhere in World War I, used by armies, and caught up in farm fields turned into battlefields, millions of them were killed

Ruins of Gommecourt Chateau, France. The small community of Gommecourt sat on the front lines for years, changing hands numerous times, and was bombed into near-oblivion by the end.

British soldiers standing in mud on the French front lines, ca. 1917.

German soldiers make observations from atop, beneath, and behind large haystacks in southwest Belgium, ca. 1915.

Transport on the Cassel Ypres Hoad at Steenvorde. Belgium, September, 1917. This image was taken using the Paget process, an early experiment in color photography.

Mountains of shell cases on the roadside near the front lines, the contents of which had been fired into the German lines.

Battlefield in the Marne between Souain and Perthes, 1915.

Soldiers in trenches during write letters home. Life in the trenches was summed up by the phrase which later became well-known: “Months of boredom punctuated by moments of extreme terror.”

At Cambrai, German soldiers load a captured British Mark I tank onto a railroad, in November of 1917. Tanks were first used in battle during World War I, in September of 1916, when 49 British Mark I tanks were sent in during the Battle of Flers-Courcelette.

At a height of 150 meters above the fighting line, a French photographer was able to capture a photograph of French troops on the Somme Front, launching an attack on the Germans, ca. 1916. The smoke may have been deployed intentionally, as a screening device to mask the advance.

British soldiers on Vimy Ridge, 1917. British and Canadian forces pushed through German defenses at the Battle of Vimy Ridge in April of 1917, advancing as far as six miles in three days, retaking high ground and the town of Thelus, at the cost of nearly 4,000 dead.

An explosion near trenches dug into the grounds of Fort de la Pompelle, near Reims, France.

Canadian soldiers tend to a fallen German on the battlefield at the Battle of Vimy Ridge in 1917.

French soldiers make a gas and flame attack on German trenches in Flanders, Belgium, on January 1, 1917. Both sides used different gases as weapons during the war, both asphyxiants and irritants, often to devastating effect.

rench soldiers wearing gas masks in a trench, 1917. gas mask technology varied widely during the war, eventually developing into an effective defense, limiting the value of gas attacks in later years.

Gassed patients are treated at the 326th Field Hospital near Royaumeix, France, on August 8, 1918. The hospital was not large enough to accommodate the large number of patients.

French soldier in gas mask, 1916.

British soldiers and Highlanders with German prisoners walk past war ruins and a dead horse, after the Battle of the Menin Road Ridge, part of the Third Battle of Ypres in September of 1917. The sign near the railroad tracks reads (possibly): “No Trains. Lorries for Walking Wounded at Chateau [Potijze?]”.

A gigantic shell crater, 75 yards in circumference, Ypres, Belgium, October 1917.

A horse is restrained while it is attended to at a veterinary hospital in 1916.

Cleaning up German trenches at St. Pierre Divion. In the foreground a group of British soldiers are sorting through equipment abandoned in the trenches by the Germans when St Pierre Divion was captured. One soldier has three rifles slung on his shoulder, another has two. Others are looking at machine gun ammunition. The probable photographer, John Warwick Brooke, has achieved considerable depth of field as many other soldiers can be seen in the background far along the trenches.

Bringing Canadian wounded to the Field Dressing Station, Vimy Ridge in April of 1917. German prisoners assist in pushing the rail car.

On the British front, Christmas Dinner, 1916, in a shell hole beside a grave.

British MkIV “Bear” tank, abandoned after battle near Inverness Copse, on August 22 , 1917.

A mine tunnel is dug under the German lines on the Vosges front, on October 19, 1916. The sappers worked at a depth of about 17 meters, until they reached a spot below enemy positions, when large explosives would be placed and later detonated, destroying anything above.

Men wounded in the Ypres battle of September 20th, 1917. Walking along the Menin road, to be taken to the clearing station. German prisoners are seen assisting at stretcher bearing.

Soldier’s comrades watch him as he sleeps, near Thievpal, France. Soldiers are standing in a very deep, narrow trench, the walls of which are entirely lined with sandbags. At the far end of the trench a line of soldiers are squashed up looking over each others’ shoulders at the sleeping man.

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