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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.