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World War I: A War of Attrition

1916

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World War I: A War of Attrition

HMS Lion is hit during the Battle of Jutland

Photograph Source: Public Domain

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Planning for 1916

On December 5, 1915, representatives of the Allied powers gathered at the French headquarters in Chantilly to discuss plans for the coming year. Under the nominal leadership of General Joseph Joffre, the meeting came to the conclusion that the minor fronts that had been opened in places such as Salonika and the Middle East would not be reinforced and that the focus would be on mounting coordinating offensives in Europe. The goal of these was to prevent the Central Powers from shifting troops to defeat each offensive in turn. While the Italians sought to renew their efforts along the Isonzo, the Russians, having made good their losses from the previous year, intended to advance into Poland.

On the Western Front, Joffre and the new commander of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), General Sir Douglas Haig, debated strategy. While Joffre initially favored several smaller assaults, Haig desired to launch a major offensive in Flanders. After much discussion, the two decided on a combined offensive along the Somme River, with the British on the north bank and the French on the south. Though both armies had been bled in 1915, they had succeeded in raising large numbers of new troops which allowed the offensive to move forward. Most notable of these were the twenty-four New Army divisions formed under the guidance of Lord Kitchener. Comprised of volunteers, the New Army units were raised under the promise of "those who joined together would serve together." As a result, many of the units were comprised of soldiers from the same towns or localities, leading to them being referred to as "Chums" or "Pals" battalions.

German Plans for 1916

While Austrian Chief of Staff Count Conrad von Hötzendorf made plans for attacking Italy through the Trentino, his German counterpart, Erich von Falkenhayn, was looking to the Western Front. Incorrectly believing that the Russians had been effectively defeated the year before at Gorlice-Tarnow, Falkenhayn decided to concentrate Germany's offensive power on knocking France out of the war with the knowledge that with the loss of their main ally, Britain would be forced to sue for peace. To do so, he sought attack the French at a vital point along line and one that they would not be able to retreat from due to issues of strategy and national pride. As a result, he intended to compel the French to commit to a battle that would "bleed France white."

In assessing his options, Falkenhayn selected Verdun as the target of his operation. Relatively isolated in a salient in the German lines, the French could only reach the city over one road while it was located near several German railheads. Dubbing the plan Operation Gericht (Judgment), Falkenhayn secured Kaiser Wilhelm II's approval and began massing his troops.

The Battle of Verdun

A fortress town on the Meuse River, Verdun protected the plains of Champagne and the approaches to Paris. Surrounded by rings of forts and batteries, Verdun's defenses had been weakened in 1915, as artillery was shifted to other sections of the line. Falkenhayn intended to launch his offensive on February 12, but it was postponed nine days due to poor weather. Alerted to the attack, the delay allowed the French to reinforce the city's defenses. Surging forward on February 21, the Germans succeeded in driving the French back.

Feeding reinforcements into the battle, including General Philippe Petai's Second Army, the French began to inflict heavy losses on the Germans as the attackers lost the protection of their own artillery. In March, the Germans changed tactics and assaulted the flanks of Verdun at Le Mort Homme and Cote (Hill) 304. Fighting continued to rage through April and May with Germans slowly advancing, but at a massive cost (Map).

The Battle of Jutland

As fighting raged at Verdun, the Kaiserliche Marine began planning efforts to break the British blockade of the North Sea. Outnumbered in battleships and battlecruisers, the commander of the High Seas Fleet, Vice Admiral Reinhard Scheer, hoped to lure part of the British fleet to its doom with the goal of evening the numbers for a larger engagement at a later date. To accomplish this, Scheer intended to have Vice Admiral Franz Hipper's scouting force of battlecruisers raid the English coast to draw out Vice Admiral Sir David Beatty's Battlecruiser Fleet. Hipper would then retire, luring Beatty towards the High Seas Fleet which would destroy the British ships.

Putting this plan into action, Scheer was unaware that British codebreakers had notified his opposite number, Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, that a major operation was in the offing. As a result, Jellicoe sortied with his Grand Fleet to support Beatty. Clashing on May 31, around 2:30 PM on May 31, Beatty was roughly handled by Hipper and lost two battlecruisers. Alerted to the approach of Scheer's battleships, Beatty reversed course towards Jellicoe. The resulting fight proved the only major clash between the two nation's battleship fleets. Twice crossing Scheer's T, Jellicoe compelled the Germans to retire. The battle concluded with confused night actions as the smaller warships met each other in the dark and the British attempted to pursue Scheer (Map).

While the Germans succeeded in sinking more tonnage and inflicting higher casualties, the battle itself resulted in a strategic victory for the British. Though the public had sought a triumph similar to Trafalgar, the German efforts at Jutland failed to break the blockade or significantly reduce the Royal Navy's numerical advantage in capital ships. Also, the result led to the High Seas Fleet effectively remaining in port for the remainder of the war as the Kaiserliche Marine turned its focus to submarine warfare.

Previous: 1915 - A Stalemate Ensues | World War I: 101 | Next: A Global Struggle

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