The Fronts of World War I in 1915 & 1916

After Turkey’s entry into the war towards the end of 1914, the Dardanelles was closed to allied shipping and thus the only warm water route to Russian ports was closed.   The allied solution to this dilemma was to use the powerful British Navy in concert with a French battle group to force the Dardanelles and reopen the route to the Black Sea.   This operation gained added impetus with the massive Russian losses suffered in the previous year and because of the Turkish opening of a new front against Russia along their common frontier in the Caucasus.

The first naval attempt to force the Dardanelles in February 1915 ended inconclusively because of bad weather.   The allies renewed their assault in March with the culminating battle fought on March 18.   The attempt to force the Narrows ended with the loss of three battleships to a previously undetected line of Turkish mines laid perpendicularly to the Asian shore.   After the failure of March 18, the planning for a land offensive on the Gallipoli Peninsula was definitively decided upon and a tentative date in late April was set.

The landings on Gallipoli began on April 25 at several locations around the tip of the Gallipoli peninsula with the main effort coming at Cape Hellas on the southern tip.   Subsidiary and supporting landings at “y” Beach and what would come to be known as ANZAC Cove just south of Suvla Bay on the European side of the peninsula.   There was limited initial success and almost none of the first day’s objectives were met.

Over the next few months, there were periodic renewals of the offensive by the allies in an effort to reach the heights of Achi Baba, which not only dominated the landing beaches but also dominated the Narrows; the allied failure to capture this key objective on the first day doomed the expedition to ultimate failure.   After the initial advances, the fighting at both Cape Hellas and ANZAC subsided into stalemate.  In August the British commander General Ian Hamilton landed another force north of ANZAC Cove at Suvla Bay in an attempt to break the stalemate.   The attack at Suvla bogged down into stalemate as well, and in November 1915, the decision was made to evacuate the beachhead.   The evacuation was completed by January 9 1916, which ended the allied attempt to force the Dardanelles during the war.[1]

After the failure of the Gallipoli campaign, the allies turned elsewhere in an effort to bolster their allies and one place they chose to do this was to reinforce their garrison in the Greek port town of Salonika.   The Salonika front was seen as a way for the allies to support the Serbs against the Central Powers, but the support came too late to help the Kingdom as the combined Austrian and Bulgarian armies invaded in October 1915, and quickly routed the tiny Serbian army.[2] Salonika shortly became stalemated just like most of the other theaters of the war, a stalemate that would not substantially change until 1918.

The New Year would bring many battles on all the fronts and also at sea.   The navies of the world, but especially those of Britain and Germany had embraced technology during the nineteenth century and these technologies had borne fruit in the battleship, typified by the HMS Dreadnought commissioned in 1906.[3] The all big-gun battleship was to become the queen of the seas and pride of the navies that possessed them.   Other ship types that multiplied prior to the outbreak of war were the battlecruiser, armed like a battleship, but faster and with less armor, and the destroyer, initially designed to counter torpedo boats but increasingly being used in other roles as escorts and pickets.

The year 1916 would see the largest surface naval engagement of history comprising the most heavily armed and armored ships that have ever put to sea between the British Grand Fleet and the German High Seas Fleet on June 1 1916.   Jutland as the battle would be named was not the only battle fought at sea during the war, only the most dramatic and decisive.   Earlier engagements such as the Heligoland Bight and Dogger Bank had been German defeats but had also been costly to the British.   The new German commander in 1916, Admiral Scheer chose to use his fleet aggressively in hopes of provoking a fleet action against an inferior British force, which could then be overwhelmed.

The British, who had broken the German codes, were forewarned of the German sortie into the North Sea, which was planned for the end of May.[4] The British knew as soon as the High Seas Fleet sortied and promptly left port in a bid to intercept them before the Germans could escape.   The Grand Fleet engaged the Germans on June 1 and through the night into the morning of June 2 when the Germans finally escaped.   The British suffered the loss of three battlecruisers, four armored cruisers, eight destroyers, and 6,094 British sailors died.   The Germans by contrast suffered the loss of one battlecruiser, one pre-Dreadnought, four light cruisers, five destroyers, and 2,551 sailors.   Though German Navy lost less ships and men than the British did, their confidence suffered, and that loss of confidence they suffered ultimately decided the Battle.   The German navy would not challenge the British for control of the sea again in the First World War.

At the end of 1915, it was clear that the allies had failed in their endeavors to weaken the Central Powers through attacks in subsidiary theaters.   The Allied commanders met at Chantilly on December 6, 1915 to discuss strategy for the upcoming year.[5] Despite the setbacks suffered in the previous year, the allies felt that there power was on the rise and all the combatants committed themselves to renewed offensive action.

The British army resolved to launch an offensive in the Somme sector in an attempt to pierce the Western Front and restore mobility to the battlefield, while the French would attempt the same in the vicinity of Champagne.   The Italians pledged a renewal of their attacks along the Isonzo while the Russians pledged offensives on the Eastern Front.

The Central powers had plans of their own as well and the German commander in the West, Erich von Falkenhayn, planned an offensive near Verdun that was supposed to bleed the French army white, given their relative paucity of available reserves of manpower.   The French and British offensives were planned for late spring and summer and the Germans beat them both to the punch, launching the attack against Verdun on 19 February 1916.

Verdun had become a quiet sector for the French and there were only three divisions holding the sector when the Germans attacked and only one was a regular formation the other two being reservists.   The Germans by contrast had concentrated ten divisions supported by 1200 guns for the opening assault. [6] The German army also changed their artillery scheme for the attack; instead of a massive prolonged bombardment, they would open the attack with a short intense cannonade before the infantry went in.

Despite the initial successes in the attacks at Verdun, the French doggedly defended the sector and poured reinforcements in to stem the German tide.  After the appointment of General Petain to command of the French Fifth Army, the French defense stiffened even further.   The battle would drag on in attack and counter-attack until December when the winter weather forced a halt to offensive action.   The ferocity of the attacks led Joffre to call on the British to start their attack at the Somme early in an effort to relieve the French army of some of the pressure at Verdun.

The Battle of Verdun failed in its intention of breaking the French army and cost Falkenhayn his reputation.   The losses on both sides were staggering, by June, each side had suffered over 200,000 casualties, and the battle continued to rage unabated.[7] Some estimates of the losses at Verdun total more than 1,000,000 combined though the true cost will never be known.

In response to French pleas for assistance, Douglas Haig, commanding the British Expeditionary Force agreed to both increase British participation in, and to move up the date for the Somme offensive.   Haig felt compelled to do all he could to support the French who were being relentlessly ground down at Verdun.

Haig had meticulously planned the offensive and the artillery preparation was impressive.  The opening bombardment was to last a week and use 1,500 guns firing almost 1,000,000 shells with a further 2,000,000 shells in reserve to support the attack after it went in.[8] The British attack on the Somme began on 1 July 1916 and none of the first days objectives were met.   The Tommies going over the top were met by a veritable storm of German machine gun and rifle fire.   The Germans had weathered the bombardment in dugouts that were virtually indestructible against anything but a direct hit by the heaviest guns; as soon as the bombardment lifted, they rushed to their parapets to repel the attack.

The British attack was a colossal failure and though it would continue until October and advance the British lines by almost six miles, it is debatable whether the meager territory gained was worth the cost.   Total British dead during the four month battle amounted to 95,675 while the French lost 50,729.   The Germans suffered more dead than the British and French combined at 164,055 dead but their line had held.[9] The Somme ended like most Great War battles, a fruitless struggle for a few yards of ground at a frightful cost in lives and blood.

The most successful offensive of the year was in the east where the Russian General Alexei Brusilov attacked the Austrians in Galicia on 4 June and by October had made gains of almost 60 miles in some places.   The Brusilov offensive cost the Austrians 400,000 casualties and 600,000 prisoners of war and required German intervention along with lengthening Russian supply lines to stem the Russian tide.   It also cost the German General Falkenhayn his job as he was dismissed and the hero from the east, Hindenburg was appointed to replace him.

The year 1916 ended very much as it had begun, with the major fronts both East and West locked in stalemate.   Millions of lives had been spent to little gain; even the Russian victory in Galicia could not appreciably affect the outcome of the war as the Austrian still held the Carpathian passes.   In France, a way to break free of the trenches was still wanting, but none of the combatants felt they were ready to quit.   As 1917 opened, more offensives were planned on all the fronts as the search for decision continued.

Sources Cited 

[1] Keegan, John. The First World War, p. 248

[2]. Ibid. pp. 253-254

[3] Ibid. p. 258

[4] Ibid. pp. 263-264, 269

[5] Ibid. pp. 274-275

[6] Ibid. p. 279

[7] Ibid. p. 285

[8] Ibid. p. 291

[9] Gilbert, Martin. The First World War: A Complete History. p. 299