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Famous Battles of the First World War

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  • 0:51 The Battle of Tannenberg
  • 2:33 The Battle of the Marne
  • 3:36 The Battle of Verdun
  • 5:36 The Battle of the Somme
  • 6:52 The Battle of Ypres
  • 8:04 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, former middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will learn about some of the famous battles of World War I. We will learn why these battles are important and how they affected the course of the war.

Major Battles of World War I

The First World War was a brutal conflict resulting in unprecedented destruction and loss of life. While there were many critical battles throughout the war, some stand out as being more important than others. The battles of Verdun and the Somme are probably the most famous engagements of the war, although there were several other key battles.

As we go along, please remember the difference between an Eastern Front battle and a Western Front battle. Eastern Front battles typically involved combat between Germany and Russia, while Western Front battles were fought on Germany's western border, against countries like France, Great Britain, and Belgium. Let's take a look at a few famous battles of World War I.

The Battle of Tannenberg

The Battle of Tannenberg was fought between the Russian Second Army and the German Eighth Army from August 26-30, 1914. This Eastern Front battle resulted in a decisive defeat for the Russians, who were led by General Alexander Samsonov. Samsonov's plan was to invade East Prussia, with the help of General Paul von Rennenkampf's First Army. Initially, things were going well for the Russians. They held a 2:1 numeric superiority. Under General Maximilian von Prittwitz, the Germans were retreating.

The German high command determined this was unacceptable and replaced Prittwitz with Generals Erich Ludendorff and Paul von Hindenburg. Under their leadership, the Germans went on the offensive and encircled the Russian Eighth Army. The complete destruction of the Eighth Army handicapped Russia's ability to wage effective war in Prussia for the next year. So significant was this loss that General Alexander Samsonov committed suicide. Generals Erich Ludendorff and Paul von Hindenburg emerged from the battle as national heroes.

Two important factors led to a decisive German victory at Tannenberg. Firstly, the Germans were able to intercept messages between Russian Generals Rennenkampf and Samsonov, and therefore anticipate their maneuvers. Secondly, the Germans excelled in transporting men and supplies via rail. The Battle of Tannenberg was thus an early indicator of the role rapid troop movements would play.

The Battle of the Marne

The Battle of the Marne, or sometimes called the First Battle of the Marne, halted the German advance through Belgium and Northern France. This Western Front battle was fought between the French and British on one side, and the Germans on the other. It was fought September 5-12, 1914 along the Marne River, which is east of Paris. The battle was immensely important because it prevented a swift German victory. The Allied victory prevented the Germans from advancing into Paris, and it forced a four-year entrenched war along the Western Front. Had the Germans not been stopped at the Battle of the Marne, they very well may have won the war.

One of the most enduring legacies associated with the battle involves the use of taxi cabs to transport troops to the front. 'The Taxis of the Marne,' as they have been called, consisted of 600-some Parisian taxi cabs that were commandeered for military use. In French memory and history, they hold an almost mythical status.

The Battle of Verdun

The Battle of Verdun is one of the most well-known battles of World War I. This devastatingly brutal Western Front engagement was fought throughout most of 1916: between February 21 to December 18. It was fought between the French and Germans in the French city of, you guessed it, Verdun! Verdun was of critical strategic importance to the French. Hosts of major forts protected the city, with Fort Douaumont being the most important. Verdun also had tremendous symbolic significance among the French - for centuries the region had been a bulwark against the threat of invasion.

Realizing the value of Verdun, Erich von Falkenhayn, the German Chief of General Staff, constructed a plan to 'bleed the French white' by assaulting Verdun. He knew the French would fight ferociously for Verdun, to the last man if necessary. By assaulting Verdun, Falkenhayn believed he could destroy a significant portion of the French Army.

A few days after the battle began, Fort Douaumont fell, shocking the French. As time went on, however, the French resistance stiffened under the leadership of General Philippe Pétain. In October, the fort was recaptured by the French. As the battle dragged on month after month, German casualties became greater than expected. Furthermore, the Battle of the Somme, which began in July, diverted German forces away from Verdun.

Finally, in December, the Germans were forced to retreat, enabling a French victory. By most accounts, roughly 700,000 combined casualties resulted from the Battle of Verdun, although some historians believe it could be as high as one million. On a side note, General Philippe Pétain emerged from the battle as a national hero.

The Battle of the Somme

The Battle of the Somme was fought between the French and British on one side and the Germans on the other. This Western Front battle was fought between July to November, 1916, along the Somme River in Northern France. Like other World War I battles, the Battle of the Somme was a dreadfully bloody engagement, with over one million casualties. Historians regard it as one of the bloodiest battles in history.

The Battle of the Somme was intended to be a decisive break through German lines. The Germans, however, had better defensive positions than expected, and British and French forces became bogged down amid torrential rainfall. The Battle of the Somme is generally considered a stalemate, although, we should understand, it did help relieve pressure on the French by diverting German forces from the Battle of Verdun.

The Battle of the Somme, or the Somme Offensive as it has been called, was noteworthy because it was the first battle in which the combat tank was used. The battle has also come to be understood as the quintessential World War I battle because it was characterized by muddy trench warfare and futile loss of life.

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