1915 Spring Offensives
Entente forces attack the German Army
author Paul Boșcu, July 2016
During the spring and summer of 1915 the Entente forces, under the command of French General Joseph Joffre, launched a series of attacks against the German lines. These attacks would ultimately prove costly failures in terms of human lives, while failing to capture any significant portion of the front from German hands.

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After the winter and early spring battles on the Western Front, French General Joseph Joffre was determined to launch another great offensive. He was confident that France had learned the lessons of the earlier winter offensives. He sought to take advantage of the German reduction in strength on the Western Front while at the same time alleviating pressure on the Russians and the Serbs.

Trenches were being strengthened to resist artillery bombardments, with special well-protected machine gun posts carefully sited to attain the best possible sweeping fire across No Man’s Land. Meanwhile, ever thicker belts of barbed wire were built for attackers to contend with. This was not a single learning curve; no simplistic story here of unremitting progress as one side mastered the problems of trench warfare and moved seamlessly towards victory. Thus a tactic that seemed to work well one month might result in disaster just a few weeks later.

Events on the Eastern Front, where the Central Powers had launched a devastating offensive between Gorlice and Tarnow, made the projected Allied spring offensive in Artois even more significant as a means of giving indirect help to the Russians.

Even when no big offensives were in prospect, the Western Front was by no means quiet. In April the French made an abortive attempt to eradicate the potential threat posed to the eastern flank of Verdun by the German-held St. Mihiel salient, incurring 64,000 casualties in the process.

Although the French had artillery and ammunition available in large quantities while the British did not, the difference between their achievements was negligible.

At the first interallied conference of the war, held at Chantilly, the French, British, Belgians, Serbs, Russians and Italians, who had joined the alliance, pledged themselves to common action.

The BEF's part in the offensive operations was a larger-scale version of its own March assault, with Douglas Haig's First Army attacking either side of Neuve Chapelle in a fresh effort to secure Aubers Ridge. The success of the short bombardment in March was borne in mind, but the BEF's worrying shortage of heavy guns and ammunition limited the preliminary bombardment to 45 minutes.

In 1915 Entente strategy had an ad hoc quality. The Western Front represented an irreducible minimum. That was particularly the case for France. The British seemed to still have a measure of choice. Some Liberals, particularly Reginald McKenna, held to the notion that Britain’s primary contribution should be naval and economic: it should be the arsenal and financier of the Entente. Herbert Kitchener suggested Britain should delay its major effort until 1917 so as to allow further attrition of the German Army. But the reality was that Britain was closely linked to the actions of its allies, particularly France: it could not afford to wait.

McKenna argued that British manpower would be best used if it sustained home production and thus ensured the flow of exports that would fund Britain’s international credit and its ability to buy arms overseas and supply them to its allies. But McKenna’s hopes were ill founded. Many of the men McKenna wanted on the factory floor were needed by the army, and the produce of those that remained went to equip that army, not to support Britain’s overseas balance of trade.

When Kitchener was appointed secretary of state for war, he set about the creation of a mass army for deployment on the continent of Europe. By July 1915 the War Office was talking of seventy divisions, a tenfold increase on the army’s size a year before. Although originally raised through voluntary enlistment, such an army could be kept up to strength only by conscription. The retreat of the Russian armies in the summer of 1915 and the defeat at Gallipoli confirmed that Kitchener’s notion of choice was as illusory as McKenna’s. The Russians now had even greater need of British munitions, but they were also desperate for direct military support from the west to draw off the Germans.

In France, Joffre faced hardening political opposition. By sacking the most republican of his army commanders, General Maurice Sarrail, for perfectly proper military reasons, he provided a focus for the left’s criticisms of the army’s independence of political control. The government of René Viviani came under threat, and with it French national cohesion.

Britain feared the upshot of a domestic political crisis in France. Their worst nightmares embraced a government under Joseph Caillaux and the possibility that he might seek an accommodation with Germany. Kitchener reversed his views of Britain’s role on the western front: he told Haig that ‘we must act with all our energy, and do our utmost to help the French, even though by so doing, we suffer very heavy losses indeed’. Thus, as the Central Powers began to pull apart, those of the Entente converged.

As far as strategy and tactics went, the choices were simple. Joffre and the French General Staff, like their British colleagues, had only one concept of attack: the coup de bélier, the massive blow of the battering ram, which would break the front open and run the Germans out of France.

The French General Staff was still counting men, as though the war would be decided by soldiers blasting away at each other with bolt-action rifles. As German divisions got smaller, this was seen as proof that Germany was running out of men; but in terms of firepower — which was the more important measure — the divisions were becoming more and more powerful, as machine guns replaced rifles and the standard field gun was replaced by howitzers. Firepower was the real measure, and in the spring of 1915 the Allies were worse off in every way than their opponents.

Eight months into the war, they still had much fewer heavy weapons than the Germans had when the war had begun, and hardly any of the indispensable modern howitzers were in service: in June 1915 the army had only seventy-eight samples of the new 105 mm howitzer, which had been in the planning stages for years. Prewar, the French had counted on the 75 mm field gun to fulfil all their artillery needs. It was hardly the best gun for the kind of warfare they had been forced into.

The Germans began to reconfigure their basic units. The prewar four-regiment infantry division disappeared, to be replaced by a three-regiment division of three battalions each. This meant fewer infantry per division. The Entente seized on this shift as a sign that the Germans were running out of men, and thus cannibalizing their units. But the new units possessed superior firepower. With their increased firepower, the new smaller divisions were more potent than their ancestors, and easier to manage.

The Entente made errors in calculation on two different levels. At one level, that of manpower estimates, they interpreted the data to mean that the Germans were steadily getting weaker, when in fact they were steadily getting stronger. At another level, the increasing German reliance on battalions meant that the Allies had more and more difficulty determining the actual strength of the forces arrayed against them. Since they were fixated on divisions and brigades, they interpreted the presence of a battalion to mean the presence of the larger unit, when in reality it meant nothing of the sort.

These Entente errors help to explain moves that otherwise seem preposterous. If the model Joffre had been given was right, then a combined offensive on a massive scale would probably succeed. It would be particularly sure of success if it was synchronized with activities on the other fronts. If the enemy was this weak, then the entry of another country into the war, even a marginal one like Romania, might be the last straw. In reality that was simply not the case. For example, when Romania entered the war a year later, the country's army was utterly defeated by the Central Powers, with the capital, Bucharest, occupied by the Germans.

The Entente were not simply counting wrong; they were counting the wrong things. The constant lament that runs through all personal accounts by combat veterans is not that the Entente were outnumbered, but that they were outgunned. It didn’t make any difference how many British infantrymen there were, given the German superiority in firepower. So long as the Germans maintained their superiority in modern artillery, any French attacks would be costly failures.

Since the French General Staff remained oblivious both to the actual numbers and to the German superiority in weapons and tactics, the Entente thought it obvious that one massive blow would knock the Germans out of France. Certainly if the French General Staff’s estimates were anywhere near being true, the German Army would soon be exhausted.

The Germans had begun to realize that the best way to deal with enemy offensive operations was to launch an attack of their own. It was only necessary to shift the front a few thousand meters for the rigid Allied offensive plans to be completely disrupted. The German General Staff began sponsoring several different approaches to combat. Personnel were shifting from one side of the front to the other, cross-fertilizing the new tactics. At the same time, command and control became more decentralized. Although it remained a mantra that the front line was to be defended to the death, and that every inch of ground must be regained through immediate counterattacks, there was also a widespread acceptance of the need for multiple defensive lines. These were connected by communication trenches, with deep dugouts to protect the troops under artillery bombardment.

Consider the example of the young Erwin Rommel, who started the war as an officer in the 124th Infantry Regiment. Rommel fought in the Argonne from September 1914 until the end of 1915. Then he was transferred to a new alpine unit being formed. The first active-duty assignment of the newly formed battalion was the Vosges, where Rommel remained until October 1916, when the unit was shipped out to Romania and fought in the Carpathians.

The switch to the three-regiment division had another important benefit. It meant the disappearance of the brigade, and hence the elimination of an entire layer of command. Even though the regimental affiliations were still maintained, the regiment was rapidly ceasing to become the basic tactical unit, which was now the battalion. As command decentralized, the army became an even more potent fighting force.

The Germans had begun the war with the realization that ad hoc task forces would integrate the various branches of the army into one unified strike force. By March 1915, they were well down the road to the idea of simply giving the infantry more firepower and letting them go about their task on their own. At the next level up, the Germans were systematically increasing the firepower of their infantry at the division level.

On the offensive, units were combined into the ad hoc groups that would become the famous Sturm Abteilungen, or storm troops. On the defensive, company commanders would operate with more and more autonomy. Already by the middle of 1915 they had the authority to pull back from their positions during heavy bombardments — only to return in force in time to massacre the advancing infantry.

Joffre was intent on another attack on Vimy Ridge in the Artois. The assault on Vimy Ridge would be made by the French Tenth Army, now commanded by General Victor d’Urbal, while the BEF launched a supporting attack in the Aubers Ridge sector. On the left the Tenth Army would attack along the hill of Notre Dame de Lorette while the main thrust on the right would push for Vimy Ridge itself. The result of this line of thinking was the Artois offensive, also known as the Second battle of Artois. The failure to break through led to incriminations against Joffre.

Joffre conceived of a massive, continuous, unrelenting offensive: ‘Attackers at all echelons will be imbued with the idea of breaking through, of going beyond the first trenches seized, of continuing to attack without stopping until the final result.’ This was an ambitious plan as the Germans had made considerable headway in creating a strong defensive system.

The problem was becoming increasingly evident: the methodology employed to seize a tactical feature could also be used by the other side to reclaim it. The fighting degenerated into a murderous slog as the French battered their way slowly across the Notre Dame de Lorette Spur. This was a true slaughterhouse. The offensive degenerated into a bitter close-quarter struggle in the labyrinth of German strong points and trenches on or below the ridge.

The French preparations were extensive, with aerial photographic reconnaissance used to pinpoint targets for what was then considered a heavy artillery bombardment by over 1,000 guns. When the infantry went over the top, only the XXXIII Corps, commanded by General Philippe Pétain, made any real progress in the center, smashing their way up onto Vimy Ridge. The French attack triggered a strong German counterattack which hurled them back before nightfall.

In 90 minutes Petain’s troops moved forwards two-and-a-half miles on a four-mile front and reached the crest of Vimy Ridge between Souchez and La Folie Farm. The drawback was that because d'Urbal had not anticipated such a swift advance, his nearest reserves were over seven miles away and could not be brought up in time to exploit these successes. Inevitably, by nightfall the Germans had counterattacked and pushed Petain's troops off the crest.

The French again reached the top of Vimy Ridge, but as before could not hold on to all its gains. Five weeks of fighting had cost an additional 100,000 French casualties while German losses totalled some 60,000. All that Joffre could show for this sacrifice was the recapture of five more miles of French soil and a precarious toe-hold on Vimy Ridge.

Meanwhile the British contribution was the Battle of Aubers Ridge, in which Douglas Haig’s First Army launched two attacks converging on the ridge. His infantry attacked after a 40 minute bombardment. This proved inadequate to deal with the German defensive preparations which nullified the British tactical advances tested at Neuve Chapelle just two months before. The infantry were for the most part slaughtered in No Man’s Land. Haig called off the attack after the failure of a second attempt.

It was evident the war was gaining in depth. Now, not only were the Germans digging more lines but their artillery was gaining the expertise to pound the front line or splatter communication trenches with shells. The reinforcing troops were in danger long before they arrived at the front.

Haig’s First Army was soon in dire trouble: not enough guns, not enough ammunition, defective shells, but worst of all the German trenches were improving. The German artillery was beginning to act in concert, with the capability to generate impenetrable barrages which could seal off the front, rendering the British assaulting infantry even more likely to be overwhelmed by German counterattacks.

‘High explosive shrapnel and common shrapnel was sweeping the 500 yards of communication rampart leading up to the front line. A solid wall of shells seemed to be everywhere. The enemy’s ramparts and all the country for further than 800 yards was in a fog of yellow smoke, through which flashes appeared. These fumes literally darkened the sun. All around were crashing branches and trees being felled. Occasionally a huge shell would land in a ruined house and the brick dust would form a London fog in itself. Every now and then a huge black smoke shell would blow up in our rampart, killing and maiming people. Campbell, Merrilees’s servant, was unrecognisable minus two arms, head and one leg. Carson in my platoon was worse off as his remains could have been buried in a cigarette case. Meanwhile heavy German rifle fire was sweeping overhead so I kept under the parapet. It seemed impossible to me that we could ever reach the first line. At last we marched off. We rushed along the communication [trench] at awful speed. The wounded were crawling about in the passage and dead there were innumerable. At last we reached the front line.’ (Second Lieutenant Lionel Sotheby, 2nd Black Watch)

The combination of the exploding shells and the bodies of the dead, the dying and the wounded littering the trenches made it almost impossible for reinforcements to get forward. For example when the 2nd Black Watch finally charged over the top, they suffered some 500 casualties in a few hours – and that pattern was being repeated up and down. It had a severe psychological effect on the troops. Lt. Kional Sotheby’s account of the battle speaks volumes: ‘I feel a changed person at present and unable to laugh, or smile, or anything, feeling almost in a dream. Next time the Germans will get it. Given a chance with wire down and at close quarters, they will be slaughtered, and I feel quite mad at it, and long for a decent smash at them. I shall get the chance yet with any luck.’

As the German defences in this sector had been strengthened since March, the bombardment was simply not heavy enough. With plenty of time to emerge from their dug-outs and man their trench parapets relatively unscathed, the defenders inflicted 11,000 casualties for only tiny British gains.

The British had failed to make a significant contribution to the main Artois battle still raging to the south. Pressure from the French forced another attempt at the Battle of Festubert. It was a disaster for the Entente forces. The relatively inexperienced British had still not mastered the complexities of artillery support, the detailed command and control arrangements or the multi-layered briefings and special training required to carry them out.

Bowing to Joffre's calls to maintain the pressure, Sir John French approved a further First Army attack at Festubert, about two miles north of the La Bassee Canal. A notable shift towards an attrition policy was signalled by GHQ's guidance to Haig that the enemy should be relentlessly 'worn down by exhaustion and loss until his defence collapses'.

The preceding bombardment, lasting 60 hours, had been much longer than at Aubers and the objective line was deliberately less ambitious, being only 1,000 yards away. The BEF incurred 16,000 casualties for a maximum advance of some 1,300 yards - just enough to encourage future reliance on longer artillery bombardments before infantry attacks.

In the Arras area, step by miserable step the French tried to grind their way forwards, seeking to capture valuable tactical vantage points before launching the next big phase of the Artois Offensive. The barrage opened some six days before the main attack, a wide-ranging affair which attempted to conceal what was going on by switching between targets. Every barrage seemed to dwarf its predecessor, but there never seemed to be enough. The offensive was formally suspended after heavy fighting. France was bleeding herself dry.

It was already becoming evident that, although a long barrage might guarantee the destruction of the German defences, it also alerted the Germans to where and when the next blow was going to fall, allowing them to make their own preparations. When the assault finally went in, the gains were derisory for another swathe of terrible casualty figures.

Of much greater long-term significance was the fact that the 'Shells Scandal' - generated in Britain by disclosures of ammunition shortages at Aubers Ridge - contributed directly to the creation of a Ministry of Munitions and to the formation of a coalition Government.

When the British attack at Aubers Ridge failed, Sir John French deflected blame from the army to the government by attributing the defeat to the lack of high-explosive shells for the British 18-pounder field gun. This refrain was picked up by The Times and was in flat contradiction to statements which the prime minister, Asquith, had given in a speech to munitions workers in Newcastle.

The Times headline of 14 May 1915 read: ‘Need for shells: British attacks checked: Limited supply the cause: A Lesson From France’. It commented: ‘We had not sufficient high explosives to lower the enemy's parapets to the ground... The want of an unlimited supply of high explosives was a fatal bar to our success’. The blame for the situation was clearly directed towards the government.

When the shells crisis broke, Britain’s last Liberal government was already under challenge. It coincided with the resignation of the First Sea Lord, Jackie Fisher, who opposed ‘further depletion of our Home resources for the Dardanelles’ and now regarded his political superior, Winston Churchill, as ‘a bigger danger than the Germans’. The upshot was the formation of a coalition government, albeit still headed by Asquith.

The Shells Crisis had long term political effects. Prime minister Asquith asked for the resignations of several of his ministers, and appointed David Lloyd George as Minister of Munitions. The Asquith government would fall in December 1916 and George would succeed him as prime minister. The new systematic policy of munitions production was far better tailored to the demands of modern war, even though the real benefits of this were not fully evident until mid-1917.

Britain was not the only country where shell shortage generated civil-military conflict. In France the invasion and the evacuation of the government to Bordeaux vastly increased the powers of Joffre and his headquarters. However, here too, the failures of spring 1915 prompted the generals to seek scapegoats outside the army. Abel Ferry, a reserve officer and junior minister, attended the Council of Ministers on 4 July 1915: ‘One feels that the military, becoming less optimistic, are preparing themselves to point the finger at the civilians and say: “It is your fault.”’ Albert Thomas, ‘a killing, fat little man, all round with shaggy hair, spectacles, an impossible tan-colored beard ending in two impossible curls’, had been appointed under-secretary of state for war with particular responsibility for artillery and munitions. Just as Lloyd George did in Britain, the government responded to the generals’ accusations by pinning the failures in munitions procurement on the army itself.

The fact that shell production rose in 1915, and did so for all the belligerents regardless of political complexion, confirms that the phenomenon of shell shortage had some common characteristics. First was the issue of raw materials. It was particularly acute for Germany, whose imports from overseas were cut off by the Entente blockade. More pressing for the French and British than the issue of raw materials was that of labor. One solution to the manpower needs of the munitions factories was to ‘dilute’ labor, replacing skilled workers with unskilled. The result was that in Britain, as in France, women were engaged in the manufacture of armaments.

During the spring and summer of 1915, the expansion of the British Expeditionary Force gained impetus. From February to September the BEF was augmented by 15 New Army and six Territorial divisions. The 2nd Canadian Division also arrived in September, permitting the formation of the Canadian Corps. As its strength grew, the BEF took over more of the Allied line. In June the French created three Army Groups - the Northern, Central and Eastern.

The BEF took over a five-mile stretch between the La Bassee Canal and Lens in May and an additional 15 miles on the Somme in August. The latter sector became the responsibility of a new Third Army, under General Sir Charles Monro.

Petain's efforts in Artois were rewarded by promotion to the command of the French Second Army. The Entente forces were growing.

The failure of his spring offensives did not alter Joffre’s overall perspective of the war. In his view, the situation had not changed: the French and British still had to bear their burden on the Western Front in order to help Russia on the Eastern Front. He saw the British fixation with the Gallipoli Campaign, which had begun in 1915, as a costly distraction which contributed nothing to the fight against the real prime enemy, Germany. Russia was different: she was deploying hundreds of thousands of troops against the Germans and must be supported, as the French Minister of War made clear.

‘The Russian Army has now been retreating for 3 months, during which the daily battle losses have been stupendous. All the officers returning from the front state that it is impossible to picture the horrors of this continual struggle, in which the artillery is without ammunition and the infantry without rifles. Our offensive is, therefore, awaited with utmost impatience. I am assured that the same question is being asked everywhere: what are the French doing?’ (Minister of War Alexandre Millerand).

The year 1915 was a formative experience, one in which the lines of development which would be followed through into the battles of 1918 were put in place. Although the front was static, the thinking of the armies was not. The Western Front was an intensely competitive environment, where the innovation of one side was emulated, improved upon or negated by the other. Ironically, it was this very cycle of action and reaction, designed to break the deadlock, which confirmed it.

The structure of the battles was one of the exigencies of alliance warfare, and Joffre was determined that France could not – and would not – let Russia down. The British were dragged along on the coattails of the French, their contribution generally unenthusiastic in tenor, distracted, still largely symbolic and of peripheral importance.

Haig’s strategy created new problems more than it resolved old ones. ‘In this siege war in the open field, it is not enough to open a breach,’ General Marie-Emile Fayolle confided to his diary on 1 June 1915, ‘it is necessary that it is about 20 km wide, at the least, or one cannot fan out to right and left. To do that needs a whole army and there has to be another one ready to carry on.’ But in 1915 neither the British nor the French had enough guns or shells, let alone heavy artillery, to be able to attack on a broad front.

In coming to believe that wearing-out fights, longer and heavier bombardments and wider attack frontages would be needed for any breakthrough, the French and British alike had drawn several misleading conclusions from the May battles and would then follow a series of costly and false tactical trails over the next two years.

The concentration of artillery, together with its preliminary and increasingly extended bombardment, forfeited the element of surprise. Most attacks succeeded in breaking into the enemy’s position. The problem was that of reinforcing and exploiting success, and that in turn depended on immediate support from troops to the rear.

The static nature of the front line enabled the armies to lay down light railways to transport shells and other supplies to the front lines. But horses were still basic to their transport systems. Britain sent more oats and hay (by weight) to France than ammunition.