After the French and British forces tried and failed to break through the German lines in the spring, they sought to organize a series of new offensives with the same goal in mind. Using a variety of tactics, depending on the battlefield, they tried to break the deadlock on the Western Front of World War 1. While none of the approaches was wrong per se, they did not offer a coherent solution to the problems of waging a successful offensive in the conditions on the Western Front. Week by week the German lines became stronger, with more trenches and barbed wire, and with the advent of deeper dugouts, concrete fortifications and self-contained redoubts.
After an analysis of the options by his staff, Joseph Joffre decided to launch the offensives in the Artois and Champagne. The lure of the Vimy Ridge in Artois and the railway junctions tucked just behind the German lines at Mézières in the Champagne region was as strong as ever. This time the main attack would be carried out by the Fourth Army in Champagne, with significant ‘secondary’ attacks to be launched on the same day by the Tenth Army in the Artois and by the British First Army at Loos. Ultimately, Joffre had his eye on the Artois and Champagne offensives squeezing out the so-called Noyon Salient pointing towards Paris.
At a conference held at Chantilly with the intention of establishing a common Entente policy, Joffre expressed his strategic preferences. The British, while refusing on principle to accept his direct command, nonetheless eventually fell into line. The British Secretary of State for War, Field Marshal Lord Kitchener, and Sir John French, the British Expeditionary Force commander, would have preferred to have waited until 1916 when they believed all the Allies would be ready to attack at full strength. But such prevarications were overwhelmed by the continuing deterioration of the Russian position.
A whole second trench system was established, a couple of miles behind the first, out of field artillery range and, where possible, sited on a reverse slope to avoid direct observation. The German artillery had also begun to refine its tactics, preparing different types of barrages to counter the different stages of the French attacks. Thus there was a barrage ready to fall on the forming-up trenches, the whirlwind bombardment of the French front line and finally a curtain barrage across No Man’s Land to break up the attack and isolate any troops fortunate enough to break into the German front line.
The German defences facing the French Tenth Army in the Vimy Ridge area were exceptionally strong and the attacks launched there had little success. It was an excruciating business for the advancing French infantry, coming to terms with their own mortality in a matter of moments.
The focal point of Joffre’s plans was the assault by the Second and Fourth Armies in the Champagne area on a front once again stretching from Auberive to Massiges and with supporting attacks with the center facing the grim killing ground of the hills of the Bois de Perthes. An enormous force of eighteen divisions attacked the German positions. Wave upon wave of troops advanced across No Man’s Land. In places the German lines were overrun and there were genuine hopes of a real breakthrough. But lurking behind this front line system was the second set of German trenches, inviolate on reverse hill slopes, providing an obstacle to further advances.
The BEF lacked the guns and shells for a bombardment on such a wide front as that at Loos. In desperation, it was decided to use a release of poison gas for the first time to cover the gaping chasm between ambition and reality. There could be no hurricane bombardment as at Neuve Chapelle; that was simply impossible. Instead, a four-day preliminary bombardment to grind down the German defences would precede the release of gas and the infantry assault across No Man’s Land. Soon preparations were underway for the gas attack. The gas largely failed in the center and on the left, drifting back over the British trenches in places.
As part of the French autumn offensive, the British were required to launch a full-scale attack on the widest possible front at Loos. The attack would be carried out by the IV Corps, led by Henry Rawlinson, and the I Corps, led by Sir Hubert Gough, of General Douglas Haig’s First Army. Although the British had some early success, capturing the town of Loos, they could not break through the German second line. Also, the deployment of the reserve divisions was disrupted by problems in command and control. Sir John French held them too far back to be deployed when needed, causing a loss of momentum.
The failure of the British 1915 offensives – and in particular the debacle at Loos – demanded a guilty party, and Field Marshal Sir John French was the obvious candidate. Above all, Sir John French had lost the confidence of his political masters and, after some unsavoury maneuvering, he was replaced as Commander in Chief by General Sir Douglas Haig. In truth, French, although an able cavalry leader in the Boer War, had never been up to the demands of his role in this frightening new military landscape. He had floundered tactically, failed to establish the necessary rapport with his French counterparts, lacked the administrative grip required in such a nightmarish logistical situation, and had no underlying vision of the war to guide him through the horrendous challenges his troops faced on a daily basis.
It was now evident to Entente generals that protracted operations were the prerequisite of decisive victory. The battles of 1915 had established that methodical planning, intense bombardments and furious infantry assaults would usually lead to the capture of enemy front positions but the problems of exploiting the 'break-in' seemed intractable. With the German positions becoming stronger and deeper, the Entente had yet to surmount the difficulties of launching a series of attacks on successive positions, with each requiring fresh reserves and artillery preparation.
At an inter-allied conference at Chantilly in December it was concluded that to counter the Central Powers' ability to shift reserves rapidly from theater to theater on interior lines of communication the Entente should launch simultaneous offensives in 1916 on the Italian, Eastern and Western fronts. Even as the Allies were formulating their plans for 1916, the Germans were preparing to beat them to the punch. There were currently no serious threats to the Central Powers in the east, so Falkenhayn could at last think again about attacking in the west. 1916 would be an even more bloody year than 1915 proved to be.
The French had fired nearly 5 million shells in pursuit of the elusive breakthrough, with their combined losses in the Artois and Champagne offensives totalling a vast 191,795. Yet all for nothing, when confronted with the vastly improved German defence works and tactics. As the year ended it was evident that, although the Entente had made considerable advances in their tactical thinking, the Germans had made substantial defensive developments which trumped that progress. In France, whisperings had begun about the command of Joffre. As in 1914, the French still did the heavy fighting throughout the year.