The war in the west began with the German attack on Belgium, a neutral state. The attack on Belgium was in line with longer-standing military planning that called for Germany to sweep through France via Belgium rather than a straight-ahead attack against the heavily fortified center of France. The German plan was to enter Belgium, advance west, and then south toward Paris, flanking the French lines. Unlike the similar “Schlieffen Plan” that called for a flanking maneuver to stay as close to the English Channel as possible, the German attack focused more on a direct path to Paris. In a matter of a month during August, 1914, the German army captured and occupied Belgium. The violation of Belgian neutrality immediately drew the British into the war.
The German occupation of Belgium is one of the focal points of the early war, as the Germans applied a “total war” philosophy, terrorizing civilians, stripping the inhabitants and region of goods, forcing people into labor, killing innocents. Indeed, this initial phase of WWI created much of the template of German thinking about war and occupation that would last for the next thirty years.
The successful conquest of Belgium launched the German army into France, where it advanced swiftly and steadily to within 30 miles of Paris. This was not yet the trench warfare that would be the signature of WWI. Rather, the advance and retreat were mobile and dynamic, with both the Germans and the Western entente powers relying on mobility and supply. Eventually, the German advance outstripped readiness and supply, and encountered a force larger than itself. Along the Marne River, the French and British held and counter-attacked, issuing Germany its first military defeat in WWI and necessitating a retreat and the first major entrenchment of the German army in the West. Once the French and the British were dug in some half a mile away, the era of true trench warfare began. The subsequent attempt by the German army to flank the allied position, the so-called “race to the sea” extended the entrenched front to the English Channel. It would snake its way south all the way to Switzerland.
By the end of 1914, after only five months of war, the stalemate in the Western front was reached that would remain—though repeatedly tested—until the collapse of the German front in the wake of the last great German attack of the war (so-called Michael Offensive) in early 1918. From 1915 until the victorious allied push in the spring of 1918, the war was one of bloody attrition, full of battles that would become famous or notorious for unfathomable loss of life: Ypres, Verdun, the Somme, Arras, Passchendaele.
How was the stalemate broken? And why was it ultimately broken to the disadvantage of the Germans despite the fact that they were victorious against the Russians on the eastern front, pushing Russia out of the war following the Bolshevik Revolution. The simple answer to this question has three elements. First, the introduction of American men and material into the western front increased the supply advantage decisively in the favor of the allies. Second, the technological advantage tipped toward the allies with the invention, production and deployment of the British tank. Third, the German sea challenge had been totally defeated by the second half of the war. This allowed the allies to take full advantage of their global empires while the Germans became increasingly strained by the allied blockades. Autaky had failed. The Central Powers starved, their productive capacity dwindled into nothing. We will see a similar pattern toward the end of WWII.
The end the war in the west began with the last massive German attack of the war from March to July 1918. With the Americans entering the war in increasing numbers, the German high command knew time was not on its side. Though the attacks were successful in punching a hole in the British line, they had no true strategic objectives and failed to achieve a decisive breakthrough. The Entente counterattack broke through the famed “Hindenburg line” and pushed the Germans far to the east. This counterattack broke the fighting capacity of the German army. Defeat was clear. The Germans chose to surrender rather than to witness desperate fighting on German soil, a fight that would end in inevitable defeat. The same would not be repeated in 1945. The Nazis would fight to the bitter end, with disastrous results for the world.