VI. The World Wars and the Interwar Period, 1914–1945 > B. World War I, 1914–1918 > 7. The Western Front, 1916–1917
  The Encyclopedia of World History.  2001.
(See Sept. 25–Oct. 15)
7. The Western Front, 1916–1917
Both Joffre and Falkenhayn were still convinced, at the end of 1915, that a military decision could be reached only on the French front. Joffre planned for a great Anglo-French offensive to begin in the summer, to be supported by simultaneous Russian and Italian offensives. Sir Douglas Haig (who succeeded Sir John French as commander in chief of the British forces, Dec. 19, 1915) would have preferred to arrange for an offensive in Flanders, but Joffre insisted on operations in the Somme area, where the British and French could collaborate more easily.  1
Meanwhile Falkenhayn, having disposed of the threat from the east, was able to bring almost half a million men to the western front. The plan was not so much for a breakthrough as for mere attrition. The French were to be bled white at Verdun, a salient with poor communications and hard to hold and yet a place that, for sentimental reasons if for no other, would have to be fought for to the end. The French, having lost faith in forts, had taken away most of the guns about Verdun, and Joffre, intent on preparations for the Somme offensive, ignored the warnings of danger in that area.  2
1916, Feb. 21
THE BATTLE OF VERDUN. The immediate effect of the assault on Verdun was felt in the preparation for the Somme offensive. The French were obliged to reduce their contribution from 40 divisions to 16 and their front attack from 25 miles to 10, so that the operation was in the main a British one.  3
July 1–Nov. 18
THE BATTLE OF THE SOMME. The Allies conquered about 125 square miles of territory but nothing of prime strategic importance. The maximum advance was about seven miles. British losses were over 400,000, and French almost 200,000. The German losses were between 400,000 and 500,000.  4
The British first used tanks (Sept. 15). These had been suggested long before, but the military authorities had been hostile to the idea, and even when they were finally used there were far too few (only 18 on the field) to gain the fullest advantage.  5
Oct. 24–Dec. 18
The French counterattacked at Verdun, making a total advance of about two miles.  6
The operations of 1917 were prefaced by important changes in the German and French high commands. On Aug. 29, 1916, Hindenburg succeeded Falkenhayn as chief of staff of the German field armies, with Ludendorff as quartermaster-general. Despite their constant advocacy of a concentration of forces on the eastern front, both Hindenburg and Ludendorff now came to share the opinion of Falkenhayn that a decision could be reached only on the French front.  7
On Dec. 12 Nivelle succeeded Joffre as commander in chief of the French armies. Nivelle had distinguished himself in the fighting at Verdun. His energy and dash made a profound impression, and it was hoped that his appointment would lead to a more fruitful campaign.  8
Nivelle, like his predecessor, hoped to effect a breakthrough and planned a great French offensive in the direction of Laon, to be introduced by a preliminary Franco-British advance on both sides of the Somme. The execution of this plan was delayed by disagreement between Nivelle and Haig, who himself would have preferred an offensive in Flanders and resented being put more or less under Nivelle.  9
In the interval Ludendorff had decided that the western front could be made stronger and more defensible if some of the bulges were eliminated. A strong new position was therefore constructed, which became known as the Hindenburg Line. After completely destroying the area between, and after mining the roads, the Germans withdrew.  10
The Encyclopedia of World History, Sixth edition. Peter N. Stearns, general editor. Copyright © 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Maps by Mary Reilly, copyright 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.