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The Western Front, 1914 - 1918
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The Western Front, 1914-18

The First World War was both a European civil war and a clash of global empires. Its impact stretched from the muddy battlefields of Belgium and France to the deserts of modern-day Iraq.

British perceptions of the war are dominated by the Western Front. Soldiers and civilians regarded it at the time as the decisive theatre of military operations. It was likewise the central component of Allied memorialisation of the war after 1918. This was hardly surprising. The number of British dead and wounded in northern France and Belgium - just over two million between 1914 and 1918 - dwarfed the number of British casualties on any other military front.

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Trench warfare

Both the Allies and the Central Powers tried various means to overcome the stalemate of trench warfare that characterised the fighting on the Western Front from the autumn of 1914 onwards. In April 1915, for example, German forces at the 2nd Battle of Glossary - opens new windowYpres released 168 tons of poisonous chlorine gas against French and Canadian troops. But this dangerous new weapon did not have the intended decisive impact. Within days, Kitchener had secured Cabinet agreement for Britain to respond in kind.

In 1916, while German forces unsuccessfully laid siege to the French fortress of Glossary - opens new windowVerdun (February-August), the British launched a major set-piece offensive of their own. The BattlesBattle of the Somme began on 1 July 1916 and lasted until 17 November. Nearly 20,000 British officers and men were killed on the first day of fighting - more than on any other day during the war or on any day in any other conflict. Yet, during the five-month offensive, Allied troops made only small territorial gains.

The majority of the British forces on the Western Front came from Britain itself, but there were also large numbers of Indian combat troops as well as soldiers from the Dominions (Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa). Black soldiers from the Caribbean and parts of Africa worked as labourers, often under fire.

First use of gas - opens new window
Ypres: telegram re use of gas

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Verdun medal - opens new window
Verdun: German satirical medal
The German offensive, 1918

By early 1918, with the French army impeded by a series of mutinies, British troops were shouldering the burden of offensive operations (such as the bloody Battle of Glossary - opens new windowArras in April 1917). The initiative lay with the Germans. Russia's departure from the war after the signing of the Glossary - opens new windowTreaty of Brest-Litovsk on 3 March 1918 allowed strengthened German forces under Glossary - opens new windowLudendorff to launch a new offensive in the West later in the same month. With American troops still to join battle, they advanced rapidly in March and April 1918, crossing the River Somme and pushing the French back towards the Glossary - opens new windowMarne.

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The turn of the tide

However, as on many occasions before, the German army failed to drive home its advantage, and in July, the tide began to turn rapidly. A concerted BattlesAllied counter-offensive drove the Germans back beyond the starting point of their March offensive. German military morale crumbled - particularly after the army's 'black day' at the Battle of Glossary - opens new windowAmiens on 8 August, when almost 28,000 men were either killed or captured. Within two months, Allied troops had decisively broken through Germany's defensive shield on the Western Front, the Glossary - opens new windowHindenburg Line. Fighting continued until early November, but the war in the West had finally been decided in the Allies' favour.

Film of soldiers going 'over the top' - opens new window
Watch film of soldiers
going 'over the top'.
Stills from film - opens new window

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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.

PRO 30/57/49-53: Kitchener papers on the Western Front, 1914-16.
WO 32/5600: Request for more British divisions to return to Western Front in anticipation of German offensive, 1918.
WO 151/118: Four maps of the Western Front, 1914.
WO 256: War diaries of Sir Douglas Haig, 1914-18.
WO 297/5907: Map of the Battle of Arras, 1917.
WO 316/19: Photographs from the Canadian Corps at Arras, 1917.

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