WAR OF ATTRITION
How Germany’s goal of a swift victory turned into stalemate along the Western Front.
Soon after the war broke out in August 1914, both sides dug in. The ensuing trench warfare would cost millions of lives on both sides of the conflict.
Germany entered the First World War with the expectation that it could quickly knock France out of the conflict and then turn its attention to its other major enemy, Russia.
Doing so was crucial to avoiding what Germany’s military command most feared — simultaneously waging a two-front war against France in the west and Russia in the east.
In the years leading up to the Great War, the Germans devised an attack plan aimed at capitalizing on the perceived weakness of the French army and on Russia’s logistical and technological challenges when it came to mobilizing its troops. The Schlieffen Plan, devised by Germany’s chief of staff Alfred von Schlieffen, called for Germany to strike France via Belgium, thereby avoiding the strongly defended French border fortifications further to the south. The key to victory was capturing Paris before France’s allies could join the battle. Then, Germany would focus its full military might against Russia.
However, the Schlieffen Plan quickly went awry. Russia mobilized faster than expected, and Belgium refused Germany’s request to march its troops through Belgian territory. Forced to invade Belgium, Germany’s advance was slowed. Meanwhile, Great Britain, Belgium’s ally, declared war on Germany.
British and French forces stopped the German advance in northwestern France, and both sides began to dig in. This marked the start of the ghastly trench warfare that, over the course of the conflict, would maim or kill millions of soldiers on both sides.