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WWI - Strategies and Tactics to break the Stalemate

An overview of strategies and tactics to break the stalemate including key battles: Verdun, the Somme, Passchendaele.
by

Kait Shirley

on 28 January 2013

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Transcript of WWI - Strategies and Tactics to break the Stalemate

Overview of strategies and tactics to break the stalemate including key battles: Verdun, the Somme, Passchendaele Verdun 1916 One of the first attempts to break the stalemate. It lasted from the 21st of February to the 18th of December, 1916. It was engineered by the German commander General Erich Falkenhayn with the belief that this tactic of attrition would be successful enough to break the stalemate, causing Germany to either win the war or atleast prompt peace negotiations. The Somme 1916 The Battle of the Somme, fought between July and November 1916. It was a British-led attempt to break through Germany's defenses, partially as attrition, partially in the quest of a decisive victory. Spread along a 40-kilometre front, it was placed on both sides of the River Somme, located north of Paris. Passchendaele 1917 Goals and Tactics
In 1917, British and British colony soldiers attempted to break through German lines located in Belgium and capture the German railway junction at Roulers. If successful, the following plan was to then move on to capture the German naval bases at Ostende and Zeebrugge. Engaging the Germans here would also help to draw pressure off the French army, since the Nivelle Offensive earlier in 1917, the French army had been trying to address problems that were severely threatening their ability to fight. Goals and Tactics
Verdun was home to a fortified historic French garrison and was deemed a source of national pride, despite the fact that earlier, commanders had decided that it would be of little military importance and value. Falkenhayn decided to exploit the garrison and and use it against the French in order to initiate a battle that would hopefully destroy France's ability to fight through a campaign of attrition.
Due to Verduns location, Germany had the advantage to approach Verdun from three sides. Nature of fighting
The French had received intelligence reports beforehand and began preparing for the attack by calling in additional divisions and began reinforcing the trenches.
The differences in the amount of troops that the French had in comparison to the Germans was so astounding that many were certain that Verdun would be taken in a matter or days.
The attack began on the 21st of February, 1916 with the French retreating approximately eight kilometres by the third day.
Despite this, they still retained control over the areas and forts of Douaumont and Vaux. In response to German orders, General Henri-Philippe Petain assumed the command of Verdun on the 24th of February.
Ultimately, 78% of French troops served at Verdun, earning the titled of the 'mincing machine' of the French army.
The only link between those in Verdun and their supplies, (known as La Voie Sacree, the 'Scared Way') was kept organized and maintained due to General Petains efforts, allowing the French to battle effectively as possible.
By the end of February, the French had been successful in halting the German advances, despite only having lost Fort Douamont. However, the Germans were advancing at such a rate that any gains that were made were often made at the cost of high amounts of casualties. Despite these major advances by the Germans during April and May, the French continued to fend off German troops. General Pertain received a promotion for this extended efforts and was replaced by General Robert Nivelle. In fact, due to the French strength of resistance in Verdun, a slogan was created (Ils ne passeront, ''They shall not pass'') which was then later used in many pieces of French wartime propaganda. With the introduction of diphosgene gas by the Germans, the battle in Verdun became increasingly more difficult with each passing day. They seized control of Fort Vaux on June the 7th as a result of a three month siege and continued their efforts in trying to break the French life of offense.
Defending Verdun was not only draining of French forces, but German forces as well. Despite their great successes, the French were reaching a breaking point and greatly in need of a diversion.
From July 1916 onwards, Germany faced more difficulties at Verdun, with the need to send 15 German divisions to counter Russian offensives on the Eastern Front along with the need to send additional troops to counter the British on the Somme.
The battle ended on 18 December 1916 with neither side having made any military
gains and both having sustained a very high cost in casualties. Goals and Tactics
The French Commander-in-Chief, General Joseph Joffre had planned initially to attack in the Somme area as a French offensive with additional British support; a part of the strategy that the Allies agreed to at a conference at Chantilly in December 1915.
However, the demands on the French at Verdun changed this. General Haig and General Henry Rawlinson , took over the planning and manning of the battle, with French troops in a comparatively minor role. In addition to British forces, there were othere Allied forces at the Somme. The main aim of the campaign was to force the Germans to withdraw troops from Verdun. Tactics included a mixture of frontal assaults aimed at achieving a breakthrough and attrition. The Nature and Consequences of Fighting
On the 7th April 1916, Germany's aerial reconnaissance were taken as the start of Allied preparations. However, these were not taken seriously, due to Germany's lowly opinion of Brittans fighting ability. Germany started to take these seriously when further warnings, in the forms of movements of British reconnaissance aircraft along with overheard telephone messages, leading the Germans to take up action in their defense.
It was decided that by the 2nd of June, Germany needed additional troops at the Somme in order to reinforce the pre-existing troops located there. Four divisions and some heavy artillery were sent for, giving them up to 16 divisions divided between front line and reserve line trenches. Having located their trenches on high ground and building extra reinforcement, the German troops were well positioned, giving them a strategic advantage. On the 24th of June 1916, prior to sending men over the top, the Allied troops started what was to be a five-day massive artillery bombardment of German position. The attack increased to seven days due to poor weather. At 7.30 am on 1 July, British and French infantry divisions went over the top on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. General Haig commanded soldiers to advance at walking pace in wave formations along the front towards the supposedly destroyed German trenches from an earlier attack. Unfortunately, a British mine exploded 10 minutes early, thus alerting the Germans that attack was imminent.
Artillery bombardment failed to achieve its goal and while it had launched 1.5 million shells at the German lines, they failed to destroy the barbed wire protecting the German trenches. With many poor quality shells failing to explode, the German defenses remained unaffected in many places, When Allied soldiers advanced into the churned-up ground of no man’s land, they advanced into a non-stop barrage of prepared German fire. They became easy targets as their attempts to pass through the German barbed wire only made them become more entangled in it. The Allied troops did not have the machine gun power needed to respond effectively. Battlefield communications were poor and it was hours before leaders learned ofthe scale of the disaster they had unleashed. It was known as a total disaster,
with nearly 20 000 Allied troops killed on the first day and 40 000 were wounded. Nature and Consequences
To gain their objective, the Allies had to gain control of the village of Passchendaele (Passendale), near Ypres, which laid close to German territory.
A preliminary attack began on 7 June 1917 with massive and carefully targeted artillery bombardment. The Allies gained a foothold on the German-controlled Messines Ridge and control of territory. On 18 July, the Allies resumed artillery shelling of German defences in advance of the attack scheduled for 31 July. The land around the village of Passchendaele was reclaimed swamp which,
after heavy artillery bombardment, became waist-high liquid mud, with the rain making the problem worse. The mud and general nature of the area made many tacitcal advancements and attacks next to impossible to perform. Over a 14-week period, Allied troops made 10 attempts to break through to Passchendaele. By late August, despite huge numbers of casualties, there was little gain. By mid October, casualties had reached 100 000 and Allied forces were exhausted. German troops seemed to have the upper hand with the use of mustard gas and extra reinforcements. On the 6th of November 1917, the Canadians took Passchendaele, beginning their advance in this area in late October, where they gained of only a few hundred metres at the cost of 12 000 and by early November, they had lost 80 per cent of two divisions. Significance
The Battle of Passchendaele, also known as the third battle of Ypres, was the last major campaign of attrition tactics in WWI. It came to symbolise the futility of much of the fighting on the Western Front. Allied forces suffered over 300 000 casualties, with Germany suffering 260 000. Tactically, the Allies suffered too, with the Battle of Passchendaele costing the Allies the opportunity to send reserves in to exploit the success that the Allied Tank Corps had achieved in a breakthrough at the later Battle of Cambrai.
The stalemate continued at the end of 1917 and in 1918, the German army launched an offensive which ultimately broke the stalemate.
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