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Describe the conditions that soldiers experienced on the western front in the years 1915-1917.

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Question One: Describe the conditions that soldiers experienced on the western front in the years 1915-1917. The First World War was a different type of warfare in all aspects. The original idea of the war was that it would be a fast moving one lasting for a few months rather than years. However, the advances of the Allied and German forces, soon slowed to a sudden and unexpected halt. The result was both sides were forced to dig trenches to defend their positions. For many soldiers the trenches would be their homes. They would eat and sleep in them from 1915 to when the war finally ended. "There, much like animals, they would die, in the miseries and dangers of the trenches" Lyn McDonald, 1987. Trenches however were not a new type of warfare, they had already been used in the American Civil war, and proved to be a disaster, this information however, was not taken into account by the Generals of the war. One historian describes the trenches: "think about the basic requirements you need for a decent life...then take that away and add someone as little as 50 metres away trying to kill you and you've got a fair idea." Trenches varied in size, but were often two metres deep and about two metres wide. It had duck boards on the floor to prevent a form of gangrene known as 'trench foot' and a fire step which soldiers would stand on when looking out in to no man's land. Soldiers in the trenches had to endure the worst living conditions, they had to share the trenches with rats who thrived on the everlasting decomposing bodies. "...the trenches were alive with rats. The knowledge that the gigantic trench rats had grown fat through feeding on the dead bodies...made the soldiers hate them..." S. Case, 1976. Soldiers would have to sleep in the trenches were there was space. ...read more.


A. J. P Taylor, 1979. Army generals were so obsessed with previous war tactics, which was often a simple infantry and cavalry charge, that they misunderstood the significance of new weapons such as the machine gun, this was connected to the 'big wave theory.' Sir Douglas Haig a military commander said, "we must wear the enemy down as much as possible." Generals thought that they could use old and traditional techniques which had been successful in previous wars such as the Boer war in South Africa, however these techniques could not be successful in a completely different type of warfare. Sir Douglas Haig misunderstood the machine gun and paid heavily with the loss of thousands of British soldiers on the first day at the battle of Somme. Haig, before the war said, "The machine gun is a much overrated weapon." Generals were also not in touch with what was going on at the front line, so they failed to intervene when attacking tactics were clearly not working; "...tried out all the polo ponies to see if any would play. Going, Hadness Lloyd, Pennyman, Spencer Smith & Morgan Dien, Gillian played the piano & sang and we played bridge until 1:15am." 12th September 1916, from the diaries of General C. H. Lucas. This quote shows that generals were continuing their social life as normal despite the war entering an important phase. If attacks were failing it would be unlikely that they would be altered due to incompetent leadership. Inventions such as the Tank were beneficial at attacking in the later stages of the war. They were first used in the battle of the Somme in 1916, but they were easy targets for the Germans who had developed armour-piercing bullets or, more likely, suffered mechanical failure. "...bullet-proof armour [for the tanks] turned out to be no such thing against the German armour-piercing bullets." J. Terraine, 1982. ...read more.


Among other indiscretions...a speech made by a member of the government requesting workers...not to question why the Whitsun Bank Holiday was being suspended. A German commander commented that it was 'the surest proof that there will be a great British offensive before long..." A. J. P Taylor, 1979. This evidence intercepted was an instrumental factor in the Somme failing to reach British and allied objectives, as the Germans were prepared. The failure of the Somme offensive was particularly highlighted in the government. "Should I have registered rather than agree to this slaughter of brave men [at the Somme]? I have always felt there are solid justifications for criticism of me in that respect. My sole justification is that Haig promised not to press the attack if it came clear that he could not obtain his objective by continuing..." Lloyd George, British Prime Minister. The quote shows that the battle was a huge morale dent in Britain as well as the front line in France. The public was also very angry when information surrounding the battle leaked out and Haig earned the title 'Butcher of the Somme.' Haig however was pleased with the first day of the battle, writing in his journal 'all was well.' Prior to the attack Haig said "The nation must be taught to bear losses...the nation must be prepared to see heavy casualty lists." Perhaps Haig never thought that the Somme was a failure as it did eventually reach some of its objectives, and he had expected heavy British casualties even before the attack. Despite the appalling death toll the British army did manage to reach some of its objectives. In the long term the French army and Verdun were saved as they were on the verge of total collapse. The battle had lasted for five months and the Germans had finally lost, as a result of having over 400,000 casualties. German morale was severely dented at the end of the battle. It was important that the allies won at the battle of Somme, as it was a step closer in Germany surrendering the war. ...read more.

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