Back To CourseHistory 102: Western Civilization II
16 chapters | 122 lessons | 11 flashcard sets
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Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.
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 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 Second Army. The complete destruction of the Second 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, 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 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 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.
There were actually three Battles of Ypres. The First Battle of Ypres was fought in October and November 1914. The Second Battle of Ypres was fought through April and May 1915. The Third Battle of Ypres, and probably the most well-known, is also called the Battle of Passchendaele. It was fought between July to November 1917. Just so we're clear, Ypres is a city in the Flanders region of Western Belgium, not too far from the Atlantic coast.
The Third Battle of Ypres began as an Allied offensive under the leadership of British General Douglas Haig. The plan was to break through the German defensive line and sweep north toward the coast. After initial success, Allied armies eventually became bogged down due to heavy rain. Although General Haig claimed victory, the offensive failed to break through German lines and resulted in little change in momentum for the Allies. Like other battles of World War I, it was characterized by futility. It is believed over half a million casualties ensued from the Third Battle of Ypres.
Please remember this lesson only covers five of the more well-known battles. There are plenty of other battles that could be discussed in detail. Let's review what we have covered.
The Battle of Tannenberg was an early battle in World War I. It was fought between the Germans and the Russians in August 1914. Under the leadership of Generals Erich Ludendorff and Paul von Hindenburg, the Germans defeated the Russians. Railway movement played a critical role in this battle. Russian General Alexander Samsonov committed suicide following the Russian defeat.
The Battle of the Marne in September 1914 was important because it halted the German advance through Belgium and France. The battle brought about four years of entrenched stalemate along the Western Front. Taxi cabs used to transport troops from Paris to the front became mythologized as the 'Taxis of the Marne.'
The Battle of Verdun was a costly battle in which Germans attacked the French city of Verdun and its ring of fortifications. Under the leadership of General Philippe Pétain, the French put up a stiff resistance and eventually held out.
The Battle of the Somme, or the Somme Offensive, was another costly battle. This Western Front battle between the British and French against the Germans resulted in over one million combined casualties. The battle was intended to break through German lines, but it devolved into months of muddy trench warfare. This battle is important because it was the first in which the combat tank was used.
The Third Battle of Ypres was a Western Front battle between the Allies and the Germans between July to November 1917 in Western Belgium. The battle was intended to be an Allied thrust though German defensive positions, but in the end, little substantial progress was made. Over half a million casualties resulted from this futile engagement.
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Back To CourseHistory 102: Western Civilization II
16 chapters | 122 lessons | 11 flashcard sets