How The Great War Became a Defensive War | History Hit

How The Great War Became a Defensive War

Alex Browne

11 Nov 2018
File source:
Image Credit: File source:

As The Great War continued, it became clear that those in defensive positions had the advantage and as more and more leaders became aware of this, they rushed to establish strong defences.

Trenches grow

Trench warfare had been the norm on the Western Front for a few months by November 1914. The trenches now extended along the western front, reaching from the Channel Coast all the way down to the Alps. In most places the situation stood at a stalemate and the winter weather only made this worse.

In the snow, rain and high winds it was hard to launch an attack or move large groups of men, therefore the winter months were used to strengthen the defensive positions established earlier in the war.

On 7th May 1915, the ocean liner RMS Lusitania was sunk by a German U-boat off the coast of Ireland with more than half the passengers and crew being killed. Some of those lost were Americans and the sinking hardened opinion in the United States against Germany and marked the beginning of the process which led to the USA entering the First World War on the side of the allies. To mark the anniversary of the sinking Stephen Payne joins the podcast. Stephen is a British naval architect and worked on designing passenger ships for over 40 years and is an expert both in their construction and their history. He and Dan discuss the circumstances of the sinking, whether there was any justification for it and the effect it had on public opinion and naval policy.
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Importance of Ypres

The First Battle of Ypres concluded in this period with the Anglo-French force emerging as victors after suffering the heaviest artillery bombardment of the war on 11 November. Throughout the battle, which was 34 days long, they had been outnumbered and were not as well equipped as their opponents.

Ypres’ natural height advantage as well as the defensive advantages conferred by machine guns, however, had allowed them to hold out. On 20 November the Germans began to back off from the offensive.

Nevertheless the natural defensive advantage it had exhibited as well as its good road connections ensured that Ypres would be a contested strategic site for the remainder of the war.

Russian setbacks

100,000 Austrians barricade themselves once more into Przemyśl, the fortress where they had previously sustained a long siege from the Russians. The second siege went on even longer and would be the longest of the whole war.

In their front against the Germans they were attacked unexpectedly on their right flank by General Ludendorff.

A painting of General Erich Ludendorff at the Battle of Tannenberg, 1914.

They were part way through and invasion of Germany at the time after deterring a German offensive toward Warsaw and had paused to regroup and strengthen their supply lines. Ludendorff’s attack was successful and the Russians fell back to the Polish city of Łódź.

At the same time as all of this in the Caucasus, Russia was nearly defeated by the Ottoman Empire. The Bergman offensive into Turkey narrowly avoided being surrounded by the Ottomans but still suffered something in the region of a 40% casualty rate.

Suzie Grogan talks about the 'hidden illness' of World War One, now better known as shellshock or PTSD. Dan chats with her about the initial reception to cases of shellshock and how diagnoses changed as we understood the problem better over time.
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War escalates in the Middle East

Ottoman Sultan Mehmed V attempted to incite the rest of the Islamic world to war against the Entente powers by declaring a jihad against them on 11 November. He did not, however, receive any support from other Islamic leaders.

Sultan Mehmed V of the Ottoman Empire.

War did come to the Middle East though when the British, fearing for their oil supplies, took the Fao fortress in Ottoman controlled Mesopotamia (present day Iraq). The Fao Fortress was an essential defensive position for transporting oil out of the Persian Gulf.

The British began their attack on 6 November and by 8 November it was under British control.


Main Image: ‘Reinforcing the Fortresses: Arming Battalion during the construction of trenches.’ Postcard; Issue of the War Welfare Office Vienna IX.

Alex Browne