The World on Edge: 7 Major Battles That Changed The Outcome of World War I

The World on Edge: 7 Major Battles That Changed The Outcome of World War I

Kurt Christopher - July 2, 2017

In 1914 Europe was on the brink. Tensions over the control of colonies, trouble in the Balkans, and a system of interlocking alliances had destabilized the continent. The bulk of the public on all sides expected war, but most clung to the fanciful belief that the coming war would be short and glorious. Instead, the Great War introduced the horrors of industrial slaughter to the world, traumatizing a generation and unleashing a string of revolutions that would transform Russia, Germany, and the Ottoman Empire. These are the battles that defined that conflict and determined its ultimate conclusion.

The World on Edge: 7 Major Battles That Changed The Outcome of World War I
Scottish Highlanders fighting on the Marne.

The Battle of the Marne

The German Supreme Army Command was terrified by the prospect of having to fight a war on two fronts against both France and Russia. They knew, though, that if it came to war Russia, with its vast size and underdeveloped transportation infrastructure, would be much slower to mobilize its military than either France or Germany. Consequently, the Germans settled on a war plan that called for the commitment of the vast majority of their military to an attack on France right at the outset of the war in order to knock them out of the fight before the Russians could fully field their army.

Once Russia began its mobilization at the end of July 1914, the Germans put their plan into action, declaring war on Russia and France. They did not invade France across their shared border, however, electing instead to strike through Belgium in order to bypass French fortifications. Much to the Germans’ surprise, the Belgians managed to hold them up for the better part of a month, burning precious time. Worse still, the British, who had guaranteed Belgian neutrality, honored their commitment and entered the war against Germany following the invasion of Belgium.

Despite these setbacks, after conquering Belgium the Germans bore down on France, pushing the French and their new British allies into a rapid retreat. The French and British, recognizing that they would have to stop and make a stand or risk losing Paris, chose the River Marne as the place where they would contest the German invasion. As the Germans approached the Marne in early September, reconnaissance aircraft spotted a hole in the German lines, and on September 6 the French and British threw everything that they had at that weak point. They even requisitioned Parisian taxis to shuttle troops to the front.

The attack was largely successful, breaking through the German line and threatening two German armies with encirclement or destruction. The Germans were forced to pull back forty miles in order to avert catastrophe, and as they began to dig trenches to defend against the French and British advance their commander, Helmuth von Moltke, suffered a nervous breakdown and had to be replaced. “The miracle of the Marne,” as the French and British would call it, saved Paris and was the first step in transforming the First World War from a war of movement into one characterized by bloody trench warfare.

The World on Edge: 7 Major Battles That Changed The Outcome of World War I
A depiction of the Battle of Tannenberg.

The Battle of Tannenberg

Contrary to German expectations, the Russians had managed to get a good portion of their army into the field quite quickly following the German declaration of war. Already by the second week of the war, while the Germans were still caught up in Belgium, the Russians had dispatched a force of 500,000 men into eastern Prussia. The approach of this Russian force so frightened German Supreme Command that they would pull some of their forces off of the western front and send them to Prussia, when these same forces may have been decisive had they remained in the west and participated in the Battle of the Marne.

The Russian forces threatening Prussia were led by Paul von Rennenkampf and Alexander Samsonov, two otherwise competent commanders who thoroughly despised one another. The Germans fielded their own duo to oppose the Russians: Erich von Ludendorf, who had recently proved himself in Belgium, and Paul von Hindenburg, a veteran of the German wars of unification who had been called out of retirement to face the Russians.

When the Battle of Tannenberg began on August 26, the Russians outnumbered the Germans two to one, but Ludendorf and Hindenburg had some advantages nonetheless. This was Prussia, after all, the homeland of the German officer corps. They knew the terrain, they had an impeccable railroad network, and they had airplanes and zeppelins for reconnaissance while the Russians were advancing blind. The territory through which the Russians advanced was also broken up by the Masurian Lakes, forcing Rennenkampf and Samsonov to divide their forces.

Hindenburg and Ludendorf, having intercepted Russian radio transmissions, knew that Samsonov was advancing in the south on his own and that he was not interested in linking back up with Rennenkampf. The Germans elected to lay a trap for Samsonov, moving the entirety of their force south and allowing Samsonov to continue to advance until he became encircled. The Germans then sprung their trap, destroying Samsonov’s army before turning to face Rennenkampf, eventually driving him off. As a result of the battle Prussia was saved and the Russians lost 300,000 men. Samsonov, unable to handle the shame of defeat, committed suicide shortly thereafter.

The World on Edge: 7 Major Battles That Changed The Outcome of World War I
Depiction of Ottoman Turks repulsing an ANZAC attack at Gallipoli.

The Gallipoli Campaign

As the war in Europe settled into the trenches, each of the major powers began to look for an opportunity to break the stalemate. The then British Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, thought that he saw just such an opportunity in the Ottoman Empire, which had joined the war on the side of Germany and Austria-Hungary in October 1914. Churchill believed that if he could take the Turkish Straights and the Ottoman capital at Constantinople that he could open a new supply route to relieve an embattled Russia and force the Germans and Austrians to move troops to aid the Ottomans, thus weakening the Western front.

Churchill’s plan was to amass an armada of obsolete British warships, along with a handful of modern battleships, and force the straights. He expected that even these older ships would be more than a match for the Ottomans, and that once they reached Constantinople they could bombard the city into submission. When the fleet arrived at the Dardanelles in April 1915, though, things began to go wrong right from the start.

The approaches to the Dardanelles are dominated by the Gallipoli Peninsula, and the Ottomans deployed batteries of artillery all along the peninsula. When the British fleet appeared, Ottoman artillery opened fire. The British minesweepers, which were particularly vulnerable, withdrew but the remainder of the force pressed on. In short order one of the battleships struck a mine and sunk, several more were damaged by mines, and the fleet was forced to pull back.

Having failed in its first attempt, the British decided to attempt a landing on the Gallipoli Peninsula in order to clear it. The British would task Indian colonial troops for the mission, as well as ANZAC soldiers from Australia and New Zealand. The Ottomans were prepared for the landing, though, and proved themselves to be quite capable soldiers under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal, the future leader of Turkey. The ANZAC forces never got far off the beaches, and like the Western front, the Gallipoli Campaign soon degraded into trench warfare. By the end of 1915, the British recognized that the effort to take the straights had failed, and they pulled their forces off of the Gallipoli Peninsula.

The World on Edge: 7 Major Battles That Changed The Outcome of World War I
Germans storming Verdun with flamethrowers. Pinterest

The Battle of Verdun

By 1916 the German commander, Erich von Falkenhayn, recognized that this war heavily favored the defensive and that working for a breakthrough was not likely to succeed. Consequently, he decided upon a new strategy. Rather than trying to break the enemy lines he wanted to simply inflict so many casualties that Britain and France would no longer want to continue fighting. He reportedly said that he saw his new objective to be to “bleed France white.” To achieve this, though, he would need to provoke the British and French into attacking him at a prepared position.

Falkenhayn decided that if he could capture Verdun, a fortress city with psychological and symbolic significance to the French, then they would have no choice but to try to retake it, giving him his opportunity to bleed the French. So in February 1916 he massed his troops in front of Verdun and prepared for the attack. Falkenhayn opened his offensive with the largest artillery barrage that the world had ever seen, lobbing a million shells into the city in ten hours.

When the bombardment subsided, the Germans sent in their infantry, led by the crack German shock troops. It was also at the Battle of Verdun that the Germans would debut a new weapon, the flame thrower, which they hoped would allow them to easily clear the bunkers of the French fortresses. Despite the intensity of the opening attack, most of the French defenders of Verdun had survived and they still held the city.

After Falkenhayn’s plan to quickly take Verdun with overwhelming force and to defend it against counterattack had failed, the Battle of Verdun would stretch into the longest battle of the war. The French were indeed bled white, but the Germans suffered the same fate. The ten-month slog at Verdun would result in nearly a million casualties on all sides and drive home the point that this was now a war of attrition in which the objective was not just to break the enemy militarily but also to break their will to continue fighting.

The World on Edge: 7 Major Battles That Changed The Outcome of World War I
Russian cavalry charging during the Brusilov Offensive. Wikipedia

The Brusilov Offensive

While the Germans and the French held each other by the throat at Verdun in the west, in the east Russia was foundering following a series of defeats. Turned back at Tannenberg, denied relief with the failure of the Gallipoli Campaign, and harassed by a joint German-Austrian offensive in 1915, it seemed the Russians had little prospect of turning the tides. Nonetheless, in June 1916 Russian commander Aleksei Brusilov would shock the Central Powers by orchestrating one of the most effective offensives of the entire war.

Brusilov had observed the repulsion of one offensive after the next on all fronts during the war, and he concluded that previous campaigns had failed because massing forces for a breakthrough in a small space allowed to enemy to concentrate defensive artillery and reserves to stop any breach in the lines. To overcome these defensive advantages, he planned for an offensive against the Austrians on a broad front, which he hoped would disperse Austrian artillery and reserves. He also called for the digging of saps as close to the enemy lines as possible so as to reduce the time that his troops would be exposed to no man’s land after going over the top.

On June 4, 1916, Brusilov unleashed his 650,000 men upon the slightly smaller Austrian force at the southern end of the front. The attack began, as most did, with an artillery barrage designed to destroy defensive obstacles and make way for the advance of Brusilov’s stormtroopers. The Russians captured a tenth of the Austrian defenders on the first day, and when the Austrians committed their reserves Brusilov opened the offensive along the rest of the front, enveloping them. The next day the Russians began a similar push in the north.

The Austrians were soon in full retreat, entreating Germany to send troops to assist them. The Germans, engaged in Verdun, at first refused aid, prompting the Austrians to cannibalize forces from their Italian front. This infusion of new blood slowed but did not stop the Russians, and eventually, the Germans would relent and pull some of their soldiers out of Verdun to prevent an Austrian collapse. The delay provided the Russians with a remarkable opportunity, but they were not prepared to follow up their success as no one but Brusilov had ever really expected that a breakthrough was possible.

The World on Edge: 7 Major Battles That Changed The Outcome of World War I
British soldiers on duck boards at Passchendaele.

The Battle of Passchendaele

Despite the Russian successes in 1916, by early 1917 Russia would find itself in the throws of a full-blown revolution that would sweep the Tsar from power and replace him with a new Soviet regime by the end of the year. German unrestricted submarine warfare was threatening to choke off supplies to the British home islands, and in France, mutinous murmurs within the army were only silenced by promises that they would not have to conduct an attack for six months.

Faced with the prospect of a million new German troops freed up from the eastern front, and the danger of internal collapse in the west, in July 1917 the British would launch the last great set-piece battle of the war at Passchendaele in Belgium in the hopes of ending the war immediately. Though the British did gain some ground early in the battle, the offensive ground to a halt when weather conditions turned.

The month of August saw the worst rains in thirty years. Situated as it is in the Low Countries, the water table at Passchendaele was in places only a few feet below the surface, and it became saturated by the rains. The earth, churned by artillery, turned to a literal quagmire in which soldiers who stepped off duckboards laid over the ground could simply be swallowed up by the mud. The British commander, Douglas Haig, persisted all the same.

As the battle dragged on into the fall, the British gained support from Canadian forces, who renewed the offensive in October. The Canadians would manage to do in ten days what the British had failed to accomplish in three months, taking the ridges overlooking Passchendaele. German general Ludendorf would later write that the defeat of Germany began at Passchendaele, but they had not yet given up and a year of bloody fighting still remained.

The World on Edge: 7 Major Battles That Changed The Outcome of World War I
Surrendered Germans at Amien carrying Canadian wounded.

The Kaiserschlacht

By 1918 all of the Great Powers of Europe were exhausted by four years of war. However, a fresh power outside of Europe had recently committed itself to join the fight as well: the United States. Provoked by German unrestricted submarine warfare and the discovery of a German plot to induce a Mexican attack on the United States, President Woodrow Wilson asked Congress to declare war on Germany in April 1917. It would take some time, though, for the United States to mobilize and deploy significant forces to Europe.

In March of 1918 the Germans, drawing upon troops freed up from the eastern front following the Russian revolution, would attempt to break the French and British before the Americans could arrive. This attack, the Kaiserschlacht or Emperor’s Battle, was made up of four separate offensives. Three were to serve as diversions, while the fourth offensive, code-named Michael, was to drive through the British at the Somme and make for the sea to cut them off.

Early on Michael saw stunning success, advancing at a rate not seen since the beginning of the war. The Germans came to within seventy-five miles of Paris, close enough to begin shelling the city with their sixteen-inch guns. The advance had been too rapid, though, as the Germans outran their supply lines. As Michael was running out of steam American troops began to arrive on the battlefield, tipping the balance and halting the Kaiserschlacht for good.

By August, with nearly two million fresh American troops had arrived on the continent, the Allies would counterattack against the Germans. This so-called Hundred Days Offensive hurled the Germans back, undoing all of their gains from the spring and pressing toward Germany. Recognizing that Germany could no longer win the war, Hindenburg and Ludendorf told the Kaiser to maneuver for a favorable peace. When the Kaiser called for the German Navy to take to the sea to strike a blow to the British that might improve their bargaining position the sailor mutinied. The mutiny expanded and turned to a revolution that would sweep the German Kaiser from power and replace him with a new government that sued for peace. The war was over.