1915 Autumn offensives
The Entente tries to break through the German lines
author Paul Boșcu, March 2018
During the autumn of 1915 the French and British organized a series of new offensives against the German army designed to break the German lines. However, because they lacked sufficient artillery ammunition and could not move the reinforcements quickly enough these offensives were doomed to failure, especially when considering the well organized German defense.

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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.

In planning for his autumn offensives, General Joseph Joffre tweaked his operational ideas to reflect what had been learned in the earlier campaigns. The lessons were by no means clear. There was wide disagreement within the French High Command as to the best way to proceed. Joffre now sought, not an easily plugged breakthrough on a narrow front, but a wide-ranging series of mutually supporting major offensives to promote confusion in the German High Command, prevent the concentrated deployment of German reserves and precipitate a wholesale rupture of the lines at the decisive point.

Joffre warned of the dangers of allowing the Germans to pick off one power at a time: ‘An energetic combined offensive, involving all the allied armies other than the Russian, is the only means of warding off this danger and of beating the enemy.’ Attacking on the Western Front was vital not just for strategic reasons: if on the defensive, he argued, ‘our troops will little by little lose their physical and moral qualities.’

The great Artois and Champagne Offensives were both ignominiously closed down, achieving nothing but more casualties. The battlefields of Champagne had become places of dread to the French troops, as its desolate landscape bleached of hope sucked them in and surrounded them.

To deliver the principal blow in the more thinly populated Champagne region, the French had to construct additional light railways and roads, causing the postponement of the offensive. The Germans, however, were not idle and hastened to build a new second defensive position behind the first. They employed prisoners of war and French civilians to speed up the work.

Both British and French generals were agreed that the breakthrough would be achieved not by the first wave of troops, who would break into the enemy front line, but by the second. Traditional notions of generalship dictated that the reserve should be in the hands of the supreme commander, who would decide when to commit it in the light of the overall situation. But the delays in communication and in getting forward over a shelled and fractured battlefield in muddy weather argued that control of the reserves – and therefore command authority – should be delegated.

The year 1915 came to a gloomy close with the failure of the grand French offensives in Champagne and Artois, the collapse of Serbia, and bad news from the Balkans and the Eastern Front. The only concrete achievement was a string of government press releases alleging the recapture of obscure pieces of French real estate such as Hartmannswillerkopf, Les Éparges, and the Vauquois, together with a few hectares of meaningless ground in the Champagne and Artois.

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.

General Ferdinand Foch favored more restrained processes of methodical attack, somewhat similar in concept to ‘bite and hold’, consisting of a series of carefully planned and prepared steps, delineated by the range of the field artillery batteries.

The far less senior, but increasingly highly respected Philippe Pétain saw the war in terms of attrition. For him, victory would belong to the last man standing. As such he advocated a largely defensive strategy designed to conserve manpower with only limited well-prepared attacks to avoid excessive losses.

Joffre had his own answer to the augmented German defences: to blast them from the face of the earth. He demanded ever more heavy artillery, with the intention of achieving a rough parity of numbers with his field artillery. As a result, by the summer of 1915 the French had thousands of artillery pieces. These were intended to act like an old fashioned battering ram in the new version of siege warfare.

The president of the French Republic, Raymond Poincaré, was among those opposed to further offensives. But the eventual British support gave Joffre the leverage over his political masters that he needed in order to go ahead.

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.

For the British the Loos Offensive would be characterized as the ‘Big Push’, the moment when their ‘New’ Armies would at last begin to play a major role in the war; for the French it was just more of the same.

The late summer months had featured a good deal of attempted backsliding by the British, using a variety of excuses. But Sir John French was kept to the mark by the obdurate Joffre, who was resolute that the BEF would attack alongside the French army. Yet there were plentiful causes for concern.

Both Sir John French and Haig, keenly aware of their weaknesses in heavy artillery, were unhappy about the role assigned to the BEF. In particular, the First Army was expected to advance across a difficult area of villages, mines and slag heaps – precisely the sort of terrain that had persuaded Joffre to switch the main blow from Artois to Champagne. Then, the deteriorating strategic situation – following Entente setbacks in Italy and Gallipoli and on the Eastern Front – prompted Kitchener to modify his own views. He ordered French and Haig to accept Joffre's plan, 'even though by so doing we may suffer very heavy losses'.

The British government, in which the Conservatives had joined the Liberals to form a coalition, recognized that the autumn offensive was a test of confidence and withdrew its opposition. Practical difficulties nevertheless persisted. The British takeover on the Somme took time; so did the preparation of the Champagne battlefield. Both allies were learning that a large-scale attack against trenches could not be launched on the spur of the moment; roads had to be built, stores dumped, battery positions dug.

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 numbers may have fallen on the Western Front, thanks to the dispatch of units to bolster the Eastern Front offensives, but those that remained were increasingly well dug in. As experience was already demonstrating that a forward movement of three miles against enemy fire tested an individual burdened with battle gear to the limit of his physical, let alone moral powers, the German positions in the Western Front were becoming impregnable, certainly against an offensive planned to achieve breakthrough on the first day.

Despite a series of alarmist reports from the German Third Army commander, Karl von Einem, concerning French preparations in Champagne, the Chief of the German General Staff, General Erich von Falkenhayn, remained sufficiently unruffled to undertake a tour of the front with the Kaiser just a few days before the offensives started. Karl von Einem got Falkenhayn to come to the telephone: ‘I spoke to him for a moment, and so was able to tell him that personally everything was going very well. One must always show these people a serene countenance and a confident spirit, otherwise one would be deemed nervous – whether with good reason or not would not matter.’ On the following morning, von Einem spoke to Falkenhayn again. Von Einem had just been told that the French had broken in at Souain, and asked for at least four divisions as reinforcements. ‘He answers me that the British are attacking in the north, and that His Majesty therefore relies on every man to do his duty.’

German defensive doctrine required that the second position be constructed on the reverse slope of any height occupied so that it was protected from the Entente artillery fire designed to destroy it. And the Germans, by careful choice during the retreat of 1914, occupied the high ground. The role of the German artillery was, by contrast, not to bombard trenches but to attack the enemy infantrymen as they assembled and then to lay a barrage in No Man's Land once they moved forward; those who penetrated that barrier of fire were to be left to the machine gunners.

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.

‘“En avant!” The command was passed rapidly as if transmitted by an electric current. Without hesitation we leapt over the parapet. Immediately men were hit and fell back heavily into the trench. Straining every sinew, the survivors threw themselves towards the enemy, screaming. The firing redoubled in intensity; a roaring fire of rifle and machine guns. The bullets come from everywhere. I hear the rattle in my ears, an endless banging. One bullet cuts the ‘Zero’ from my tunic collar, others pierce my greatcoat and shred the handkerchief in my trousers. The barrage of artillery shells fall close around us. The noise was indescribable, terrifying explosions erupt everywhere, and acrid smoke rises up. All around me, our assaulting wave is crumbling, falling apart; men tumbling on top of each other. The Adjutant ran behind me, he was wounded in the forehead and blood trickled down his cheek. He shouted, “The bastards! They’ve punctured my brandy flask! En avant! En avant!” brandishing his revolver, apparently indifferent to his wound, but another bullet finishes him off. For a few appalling seconds, I run on, with fixed bayonet. How far have I got: 50 metres, 100 metres? I don’t know. Suddenly, I am brutally brought up short and fall full length to the ground without letting go of my rifle, A bullet or shrapnel ball has hit me, but at the time, I don’t know what it was, or where I have been hit. I got up immediately and went forward looking for a hole in which to hide. At the same time I did not let go of my rifle. How could I go on? I un-sling all my kit, my belt, my bandolier and threw myself into a shell hole. This will save me. Barely hidden behind in this shallow hole, I can draw breath and reflect. I can feel that I have been wounded in the left buttock; blood flows but it doesn’t bother me – I want to save my skin and completely forget the pain. The bullets continue to hiss past, the shells fall and the last remnants still standing are soon killed.’ (Sergeant Émile Morin, 60th Infantry Regiment)

While some gains were made on the Lorette Spur towards Souchez, further south the tale was one of unrelieved slaughter with nothing gained. Further thrusts brought the capture of Souchez and significant gains on Vimy Ridge. But Joffre was losing faith in the operations and came to consider them as more of a demonstration to encourage the British attacking further north at Loos before the operations were suspended.

Charles Mangin, commanding a French division at Vimy on 25 September, waited thirty-five hours for two battalions to get forward: ‘For fifteen days I have said that it is necessary’, he fulminated three days later, ‘not only to place the reserves near the front, but to put them in the hands of those who have to employ them, the divisional commanders.’

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 autumn offensive in Champagne began in a downpour. Advancing with colours held aloft and bands playing the Marseillaise, the French infantry of Central Army Group made good initial progress. The German front trenches were badly damaged and their defensive barbed wire had been cut in many places by the four-day preliminary bombardment; this helped the French infantry arrive at the first enemy position in reasonably good order. They broke through in four places.

At noon on the first day Falkenhayn – still touring the front – reached the German Fifth Army headquarters and was briefed on the situation. He reacted by switching a division from the Vosges to the German Third Army and directed units of X Corps, recently transferred from the Eastern Front, towards von Einem's battle area. These reinforcements, along with the second line of trenches, would prove important in stopping the French offensive.

The early French successes encouraged Joffre to give the French troops in the area two extra reserve divisions. In fact, the German positions in Champagne were not seriously threatened. Having clearly seen the preparations for the offensive, the Germans had withdrawn most of their artillery behind their second position. There, protected by relatively uncut wire, they intended to base their main defence.

Closing up to the German second position, the French won only a shallow foothold in the defences, and the offensive lost momentum. The French artillery lacked direct observation over the next series of German trenches, which were sited on reverse slopes. A succession of desperate French attacks secured just a few small lodgements in the second position.

The French tried to break through, but found it difficult to move sufficient artillery forward, while the Germans brought up their reserves to allow them to launch stinging counter-attacks whenever and wherever lodgements were made. Further attacks brought sharply diminishing returns and vastly increased casualties. Joffre was again forced to suspend the offensive. A resumption of attacks in October had no better outcome. The Champagne offensive had obviously fallen short of Joffre's promises, and its slender gains could scarcely be justified, even by the grim standards of a long-term policy of attrition.

‘The Champagne battlefields had a strange appearance! Moist soil, chalky, white and grey. A little vegetation at the camp exit – some clumps of meagre trees – followed by the great sad and desolate plain, like a vast cemetery for the living. After an hour’s march in the open, we advanced in single file through communication trenches filled with water and white mud, freezing cold and glutinous. Ever since we set off it rained non-stop, like melted snow. After marching for 3 long hours we at last reached the trenches, but what a pitiable state of utter filth! The rain never stopped falling. We occupied the front line trench and found the Germans were about 100 metres from us. Apart from surprise attacks, it was no longer a war of bombs and grenades; the artillery was the real threat. The sector, for the moment, was pretty quiet. The temperature was totally freezing, the rain had stopped, but what mud! We were covered from head to foot! That evening, my half-section was not on duty. When night fell, we divided into ten two-man dugouts about 2 metres deep underneath the parapet. We were obliged to bail out the water that flooded our shelters, to a depth of about 50 centimetres: water seeping down the chalk walls. We used a canvas bucket and made a chain, passing it back to throw the water behind the parapet. After half an hour of this toil, we wrapped ourselves in our soaking wet blankets, heads resting against the walls – luckily our helmets protected us from some of the damp. We tried to get some sleep, but the cold made it impossible. Moreover, the water seeped in and soon forced us to repeat the operation. A few shells bursting from time to time reminding us of the reality of our position.’ (Corporal Henri Laporte, 2nd Battalion, 151st Infantry Regiment)

As Serrigny, Pétain’s adjutant, remarked, ‘Champagne had serious consequences: it caused thousands of men to be murdered and it deceived the public, who were led to believe that the few hectares of ground gouged out represented yet another French victory.’

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.

‘On the 19th the gas cylinders were brought up: no vocabulary could express the men’s thoughts of those cylinders as they struggled and sweated up the narrow trenches, festooned with detached telephone wires that gripped sometimes the throat, sometimes the feet. The men were then instructed in the method of working the gas cylinders, in what to do in case they became casualties, or in the case of a direct hit on one of the cylinders both prior to and during that attack. By the 20th everything was ready. The cylinders were all in position. The long, double, rectangular nozzles that were to discharge the gas clear of the parapet were ready to be joined up. With the approach of Zero Hour on the 25th September we were ready. The nozzles had been screwed on to the cylinders, and we were standing by in our gas masks. At 5.30 am the gas was released. On the front of our division the wind was in the right direction and the right strength – the gas went over well. When the cylinders were exhausted, a smoke screen was put down, the trenches were bridged over with duckboards, and the infantry, wearing their gas masks, went over at 6.30 am.’ (Lieutenant H. G. Picton Davies, 4th Royal Welsh Fusiliers)

The British infantry, wearing their ‘P’ gas helmets to protect them from their own gas, were generally inexperienced and their accounts of going over the top often betray a certain casualness borne of naivety: ‘I remember having difficulty in breathing and was stumbling along. After a few minutes of this I thought I would sniff the air, it didn’t seem too bad to me so I took my helmet off. I thought I was completely alone in No Man’s Land but then I started to stumble on wounded men – three of them. From them I collected a shovel, a pick and an artillery disc. So, weighed down with all this extra kit I carried on towards the German lines, then when I got to within about 20 yards of their wire, I realised there may still be some Germans there and I wouldn’t be able to fight with all this extra kit so I threw it aside. I got to the German front line and it seemed much deeper than our trenches and I thought it was unoccupied, although very quickly other members of ‘D’ Company appeared and we started work in consolidating the position. There was soon a shortage of sandbags so a working party was organised to scrounge these from men in the old No Man’s Land. Then one of my soldiers said to me, “Corporal, there’s some Germans in this dugout!” So I said, “Well, get them out!”. The reply came back, “Corporal, they won’t come out!” So I then said, “Well, we’ll see about that!” It seemed that there were two entrances/exits to this particular dugout so I posted two men at one of them and I went down the other with one other man. I led with my bayonet fixed and he had a grenade ready. I shouted down, “Anybody there?” A reply came in reasonable English, “Yes!” I said, “How many?” The response to this question was “Two!” So I ordered them to come out one at a time and we retired to the dugout entrance. Eventually nine Germans appeared and we took possession of their very fine helmets.’ (Lance Corporal Reginald Thorpe-Tracey, 1/6th London Regiment)

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.

Rawlinson advocated 'bite and hold' tactics, drawing the Germans into expensive counterattacks. But Haig – visualising the possibility of something more than a subsidiary success – hoped to break through the German first and second positions between Loos and Haisnes, then advance east to the Haute Deule Canal.

The battle had been a terrible and frustrating initiation to combat for the soldiers of the New Armies. Major John Stewart, of the 9th Black Watch, wrote to his wife after the battle, ‘the main thing is to kill plenty of Huns with as little loss to oneself as possible; it's a great game and our allies are playing it top hole.’ His was not a lone voice. Yet Loos, in strategic terms, was pointless.

Sir John French, who remained nervous about the coming operations, wanted to retain the reserves under GHQ's control until the attack developed, although he did accede to Haig's request that the heads of the two leading divisions of XI Corps should be within four to six miles of the start line on the morning of the assault. The choice of XI Corps for this role was in itself curious, since two of its three divisions had been in France less than a month.

Receiving Haig's request for the reserves, Sir John French freed the two inexperienced divisions. However, the slow transmission of orders and congestion in the rear delayed their arrival. They were forced to march at night, over unknown and debris-strewn terrain, for an attack the next morning, without artillery support, against the uncut wire of the German second position between Lens and Hulluch. It’s small wonder that their attack dissolved into a disorganized retirement. The Germans soon recaptured many of the earlier British gains, including the Hohenzollern Redoubt.

The fighting lasted several days, but even as fresh British troops were brought into battle, so the Germans moved in their own reserves. The battle degenerated into the usual round of attacks and counterattacks. Final British casualties at Loos approached 50,500, while Germans losses stood at around, 20,000. Continental warfare was finally beckoning for the BEF.

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.

Historians disagree about the extent to which Haig manipulated the situation to his own advantage. Increasingly disenchanted with his superior since Mons, Haig had certainly taken care to ensure that his feelings about French were known in the corridors of power. One should note, however, that, within a few months Haig's blend of single-minded professionalism and growing pragmatism had helped to generate fundamental improvements in the infrastructure, organization, equipment and tactics of the BEF.

Haig’s influence was apparent in the appointment of Lieutenant-General Sir William Robertson as Chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS). Before accepting that post, Robertson insisted that the CIGS should be the Cabinet's only authoritative source of advice on operations. Though not uncritical of Haig, Robertson broadly supported the latter's opinion that the war would be won in France. The decision to evacuate Gallipoli having already been reached, the elevation of Haig and Robertson virtually guaranteed the primacy of the Western Front in British strategic policy in 1916.

Robertson is too often remembered simply as the doughty defender of Haig and the supporter of the western front. He was both those things, in that he saw it as his job to enable the commander-in-chief of the principal British army in the field to get on with the conduct of operations in Britain’s major theater of land war. But he was far from being simply Haig’s puppet. Robertson had joined the army as a private soldier and lacked the obvious social graces of those with whom he now had to deal: ‘Arrogant, aitchless when excited, and flat-footed (figuratively and physically), he lurched down Whitehall, an ambulating refrigerator’. His difficulties were compounded by the fact that he said not what the politicians wanted to hear but what his professional judgement indicated was right. He could not promise a quick victory.

Haig brought to the responsibility he now exercised more than royal favor and a capacity for intrigue. He possessed an inner certainty which gave him resolve and direction. His biggest difficulty was that which confronted all his colleagues in an army which had expanded so quickly: used to exercising personal command in small formations, he did not know how best to lead a mass army or how to get the best from his staff. He nonetheless created a team at General Headquarters in France to whom he proved exceptionally – and even excessively – loyal.

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.

While acknowledging the necessity of attrition, Entente commanders had not relinquished all hopes of a breakthrough. They did not entirely appreciate that attrition worked best when the ground seized was not itself of great importance except as bait to lure in and eliminate as many enemy troops as possible. Indeed, many senior commanders remained wedded to the idea of seizing particular objectives rather than conceiving limited offensives to kill the maximum number of Germans.

It had been a doleful year for the Allies on the Western Front, with much blood spilt for little gain, and any prospect of success postponed until 1916. The Germans had shown that they had learnt much about the methods of defending an entrenched front. It was a bitter lesson for the French, all the more so because, in a widening war, their allies seemed bent on seeking solutions elsewhere, leaving the main body of the enemy implanted in their territory.

By the end of the year the Germans were moving away from the columns and skirmish lines of 1914 and were training special assault detachments, or 'storm troops'. These had their own flamethrowers, light artillery and mortars for close fire support and advanced independently to deal with enemy strong points. In France, flexible infantry tactics were similarly promoted by Captain Andre Laffargue, who wrote a seminal pamphlet on The Attack in Trench Warfare. The British – struggling to cope with the huge influx of citizen soldiers in the expanding BEF – were currently less progressive in tactical thinking.

The defeat of the enemy through victories outside France looked no closer a prospect than breakthrough towards the Rhine. In Russia, where German intervention had rescued Austria from collapse, on the new Italian front which had opened in 1915, in the Balkans, on the Turkish battlegrounds, the course of events favored the enemy. Only at sea and in Germany's distant colonies had the Entente established an advantage. But, as they knew, in neither the naval nor the colonial theatres could success bring them victory.

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 events of 1915 had shown that a mass breakthrough was unlikely, so Falkenhayn decided instead to order a limited offensive in a specially selected sector which the French would defend at any cost. In such an action, Falkenhayn reasoned, 'the forces of France will bleed to death' as successive waves of French reinforcements were lured within range of a gigantic concentration of German artillery.

Central to Robertson’s thinking about the exhaustion of the German army was the nature of the intelligence that the War Office in London received. Most of it concerned train movements across Europe, showing the deployment of German divisions between east and west, and enabling him to build up a clear order of battle for the German army and its reserves. For Robertson, as a classically trained staff officer, the Germans were operating on ‘interior lines’, able to shift their troops across short chords to meet different threats with rapidity. The Entente, by contrast, were ranged round the Central Powers and had to move greater distances and on ‘exterior lines’, often by sea and certainly slowly.

Robertson’s belief that Britain’s principal contribution should be on the Western Front did not prevent him realizing that each of the allied fronts had the potential to support the others if only their efforts could be concentrated in time. If the Central Powers were attacked simultaneously in the west and in the east, and also in Italy, the Germans would not be able to shuttle their reserves along the chords to the circumference.

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.

Relatively speaking, the German tactical roller coaster was in the ascendant: multiple lines of well-constructed trenches; the introduction of deep dugouts; the depth and complexity of barbed wire entanglements; the deployment of more machine guns with deadly interlocking fields of fire; the use of villages and farms to form strong points; the massed artillery batteries waiting to destroy anything and everything that showed itself above ground.

As the BEF moved forward into 1916, it was clear that the battles in which it was involved were mere skirmishes when compared with the battles fought by the French Army in 1915. The French had continued to bear the brunt of the strain of facing the German Army on the Western Front and their casualties had been excruciatingly high. It was only their blood sacrifice that had given the BEF the time to gather its resources and train its men in the basic language of war.

By the end of 1915 the French had suffered over 2 million casualties, of which 730,000 were dead. Joffre’s failure to gain success despite the sacrifice of so many French lives had done his reputation serious damage. His status as the victor of the Marne protected him for the moment. Foiled in his attempt at breakthrough, Joffre fell back on another rationale for his attack: ‘We shall kill more of the enemy than he can kill of us’. It was to become a familiar justification for the failure to break through.

Great strides in expanding the BEF had been instituted back in 1914 by Kitchener. Right from the start, he had been convinced that the war would be a long, hard fought endeavour, to be measured in years and certainly not ‘all over by Christmas’. An independent figure, he was not enamoured of the idea of expanding the Territorial Army, which he rather distrusted as ‘amateur soldiers’. Instead, he sought to start anew, raising hundreds of thousands of men with a new improvised structure of volunteer ‘Service Battalions’ linked to the county regiments.

Kitchener launched a successful recruiting campaign in which by far the most long-standing image proved to be a poster of himself with the caption ‘Your Country Needs You!’ The response from the British public was unparalleled. Soon the new legions of ‘Kitchener’s Army’ offered the chance to expand the BEF into a truly continental army. But these masses of new young soldiers were terrifyingly inexperienced. Would the Germans allow them the chance to attain full maturity as fighting units?