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Stalemate and change : the war 1916 - 18
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Stalemate and change, 1916-17


The year 1916 began in much the same vein as 1915 had passed. On 9 January, the last Allied troops were evacuated from the Gallipoli peninsula. The bold plan for defeating the Turks had backfired disastrously. Its political father, Glossary - opens new windowWinston Churchill, who had already resigned from the government over the initial failure of the Gallipoli campaign in May 1915, was by this time a battalion commander in France.

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Small gains, horrific losses

The war on the Western Front was characterised by particularly bloody and brutal stalemates in 1916. Between February and December, French forces repelled an intense and sustained German attack on the fortress of Glossary - opens new windowVerdun, an important staging post for invading armies on the road to Paris. Anglo-French forces launched a massive offensive of their own against German lines around the Glossary - opens new windowRiver Somme in July.

Neither attack achieved its objective. German troops failed to take Verdun, just as Anglo-French forces made only small gains in the Somme offensive. In both cases, the loss of life was horrific: over 300,000 men on the Somme by November, and in the region of 370,000 Allied and 350,000 German soldiers at Verdun. By the end of the Somme campaign, more than a million men had been killed: around 420,000 British and Dominion soldiers, over 200,000 French, and probably around 450,000 German.

Winston Churchill - opens new window
Winston Churchill

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The strains of the war showed on all sides. Britain, the only major combatant with a volunteer army, introduced conscription in early 1916. Depleted manpower resources forced governments throughout Europe to begin deploying women in various hitherto male-only jobs on the home front. Signs of popular disillusionment with the ongoing conflict, such as labour unrest and food riots, were increasingly common. Anti-war voices, from the Quaker-led Glossary - opens new windowNo-Conscription Fellowship in Britain to the Glossary - opens new windowBolshevik Party in Russia, gained influence.

Different countries sought different political solutions to the military impasse. Asquith was finally replaced as British prime minister in December 1916 by Glossary - opens new windowDavid Lloyd George. He rejected outright the German offer of peace negotiations made in the same month and called for the Allies to redouble their efforts against the Central Powers. In Russia, the war brought revolution in its wake. The bold successes of the Glossary - opens new windowBrusilov offensive in the summer of 1916 were short-lived. By Christmas, the Germans had counter-attacked successfully in Romania - which had joined the war against the Central Powers in August - and occupied Bucharest. Less than three months later, the tsarist regime collapsed.

David Lloyd George - opens new window
Lloyd George's
Cabinet memorandum (243k)

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The USA enters the war

Under the leadership of Glossary - opens new windowWoodrow Wilson, the United States had adopted a position of neutrality when war broke out in August 1914. However, as the conflict dragged on, voices within the American political establishment, such as former president Glossary - opens new windowTheodore Roosevelt, grew increasingly critical of its aloof 'pacifism'.

Germany's declaration of Glossary - opens new windowunrestricted submarine warfare in February 1917 and the subsequent torpedoing of numerous American ships finally forced Wilson to reassess his country's position. The USA declared war on Germany on 6 April - although the full impact of American intervention was not really felt until the following year.

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Further research

The following references give an idea of the sources held by The National Archives on the subject of this chapter. These documents can be seen on site at The National Archives.

CAB 32/1: Minutes of the War Cabinet, 9 Dec 1916-28 Feb 1917.
CAB 45/176: CID Historical Section, 1935: various material on the German peace proposal, Dec 1916.
HW 3/179: Diplomatic telegrams between London and Washington on American entry into the war, Feb-Apr 1917.
PRO 30/57/53, 57: Kitchener papers (various) on Verdun, Mar-May 1916.
WO 33/770: Report on the employment of German heavy artillery in counter-battery, demolition and barrage fire during the Battle of Verdun, 1916.
WO 153/865: Various maps showing German and French positions at Verdun, 1916-17.

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