By the end of the First Battle of Ypres, both the German and Entente forces were exhausted from heavy fighting and suffered from a shortage of ammunition and low morale. The combatants tried to consolidate their trenches as much as the winter weather and lack of supplies allowed. In December both sides tried exploratory attacks, often designed to straighten the line or to secure a tactically significant position, but to little real effect.
For the Germans, 1915 was a year of war that should not have been: their whole strategy had been based on a quick war. Now they found themselves embroiled in a two-front war, with two enemies – France and Russia – fully mobilized and another – Britain – slowly amassing her strength and standing relatively invulnerable behind her navy. The Chief of General Staff, General Erich von Falkenhayn, faced a grim situation.
The French and British had little option but to attack on the Western Front. The Germans were poised only some sixty or so miles from Paris. The challenge facing British and French generals in early 1915 was immense. How could they get enough troops across No Man’s Land to overrun the German front line? In the first engagements the problem was largely seen as how to take the German front line; after which, the presumption was, things would just sort themselves out and all would be well. But there was far more to it than that.
The French had a winter of heavy fighting as they sought to test the limitations of trench warfare with a series of major offensives. The first attack was by the Tenth Army in the Artois region, with the objective of gaining control of the heights of the Vimy Ridge that dominated the Lens–Douai plain. They had made only trivial gains by the time the offensive ended.
Further south, an offensive in the Champagne area opened up. The Fourth Army, commanded by General Fernand de Langle de Cary, was attacking along a 25-mile stretch from Auberive to Massiges in an attempt to break through to the vital Mézières rail junction, for which purpose some 258,000 troops had been amassed, backed up by over 700 guns. The Champagne fighting was starkly attritional, as tactically significant positions were taken, lost, taken, and lost again.
There had been a village on the butte of the Vauquois since the Middle Ages. The Germans lost no time in making their presence known. Since in 1914 the Vauquois butte was sitting astride a series of major road intersections, the Germans had a good piece of that as well. The butte was not a salient, but part of a continuous German defensive position. Nonetheless, the French Army would mount five separate attacks on the butte. The line across the top of the butte never moved. Essentially, except for a few square meters, it remained the same until the Americans took the Vauquois in 1918.
Les Éparges, a hillock to the southeast of Verdun, is roughly the companion butte to the Vauquois. But it is larger, higher, and more irregular. There was no village on top, nor does the butte dominate the region as does the Vauquois. The Crête de Combres, which the Germans had grabbed during the Bavarian offensive towards Saint-Mihiel, was 340 meters high, and only some 700 meters distant. The butte was roughly shaped like a kidney. The Bavarians had spent the fall entrenching themselves, with a bastion at each of the three key points of the kidney. From Point X, the east-end bastion, to Point C, the west-end bastion, there was a double line of trenches.
Today, one curious anomaly has attained great renown: the Christmas Truce. In some sectors of the line the opposing forces momentarily decided to abandon fighting. Although often represented as some kind of triumph of humanity, the truce can equally be seen as an indictment of men who were all too willing to return to the killing despite seeing for themselves that their enemies were men just like themselves. The reality was that many were willing participants in the war, a war that at this time still satisfied popular opinion among all the combatant nations.
The strategic geography of the Western Front is easy to read now, was easy to read then and largely dictated the plans made by each side at the start of trench warfare and in the years that followed. The geographical advantage enjoyed by the French disposed them to attack. Geography did not, however, supply the only argument for such a decision. France, as the major territorial loser in the outcome of the campaign, was bound to attack. Germany, by contrast, was bound to stand on the defensive, since the setbacks she had suffered in the east, in its two-front war, demanded that troops be sent from France to Poland for an offensive.
It was evident that General Alfred von Schlieffen had been both right and wrong. He was right that if the war continued for a substantial time Germany’s enemies would use their sheer press of numbers to defeat her. But in seeking a swift victory the Germans had lost their best chance of maximising lesser tactical gains and then negotiating peace from a position of relative strength. In seeking outright victory in the summer of 1914 the Germans had in the end fallen short. Despite Joffre's assurances in March 1915 that French soldiers had 'an obvious superiority in morale', his winter offensives had been expensive failures.