British sector of the Western Front 1914-1918

Andrew Burke
Note by , created over 2 years ago

To begin our series of learning material on the Western Front in World War 1, we present a study note giving the context of the Western Front and an overview of the trench system. The ideal way to start learning about this monumental period.

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Andrew Burke
Created by Andrew Burke over 2 years ago
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Page 1

Context

From 1914-1919, British and French forces fought a war against Germany. This war involved very little movement of troops on a large scale, however, it was fought over a small restrained piece of land. Generals of the time were forced to develop new tactics which led to intense fighting like never before. In order to gain advantages over one another, new weapons and technologies were developed that caused death and injury on a scale not previously experienced in war. With high casualty rates, and different types of wounds and injuries being inflicted, medical services had to develop new methods for caring and treating soldiers. This case study of the British sector along the Western Front will highlight the changes of methods and procedures regarding the treatment and caring for the wounded in battle. 

Page 2

Context

In July 1914, war broke out in Europe and spread to become a World War. The war lasted four years and caused death and injury on a scale that had never been seen before in history.  Conventional warfare:  Before 1914, wars had traditionally been of movement Field guns were utilised to weaken enemy lines Then the infantry, assisted by cavalry, would move forward in attack and capture the weakened position  Eventually, leading to enemy surrender or retreat 

Stalemate and trench warfare:  This new type of warfare that emerged in Western Europe by the end of 1914 was the opposite of a war of movement  Fighting now had become bogged down in one spot, with neither side capable of achieving decisive victory  In these stalemates, both sides were forced to oppose one another on a narrow stretch of no-man's land This new type of warfare was a war of attrition Conflict developed into defensive measures, where the priority was to kill or wound as many of the enemy as possible Also, destroy as much equipment as one could This type of conflict is called trench warfare  

Planning Medical Aid:  This type of conflict had serious consequences for medical planning Medics had to deal with high incidence rates of wounds, injuries and illnesses  Medical aid had to develop in three main areas to adapt to this new style of fighting  Treatment of high number of casualties  Immediate treatment of soldiers on the front line Longer-term care and treatment for wounded soldiers 

Development of trench warfare:  One of the most intensive areas of fighting was the Western Front where the Allied forces of Britain, France and Belgium fought against the Kaiser's Imperial German army  The Western Front stretched 700 km from the coast of the English Channel in Belgium to the French border with Switzerland  As the war went on, trenches became more sophisticated and effective defensive networks, compared to their initial construction 

Page 3

The Trench System

Trench systems consisted of three lines of defence. The front-line trench was supported by a support trench and behind that a reserve trench. Each one of these trenches was connected to one another by communication trenches. The zig-zagged pattern of trenches was a defensive feature that protected against enemy fire and shell explosion.  The features of a trench:  Typically several metres deep with sand bags above head height to protect against sniper fire The fire step was used by soldiers to peer over no-man's land and used for shelter during shelling or bad weather  At regular intervals there would be a machine-gun post There was coils of barbed wire laid out across both sides, to slow opposition  The guns of the heavy artillery were located behind the reserve line; used to bombard enemy trenches before an attack  Typically over a 32-day period a soldier would spend:  8 days in a front-line trench  8 days in a reserve trench in case of an attack  16 days away from the front (usually in the nearest town or village)  Below is a cross-section of a trench. 

Page 4

The Nature of Trench Warfare

Generals believed that the main means of breaking through the stalemate in war was through a war of attrition. They were convinced with the right concentration of troops along a narrow sector of the front the enemy's line would break. However, the enemy was always quick to bring in new troops and plug any gaps in the front line. Conflict casualty figures were extremely high and highlighted by:  Weapons capable of mass killing (e.g. machine guns)  Gas (used for the first time in 1915)  Heavy artillery - big, powerful guns used to kill and wound hundreds of soldiers Problem of no-man's land - made soldiers easy targets for snipers and machine gunners The infantry was now the main fighting weapon  Trench warfare led to the radical rethinking of provision in medical care and treatment of those wounded in battle.