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Campaigns of World War One:
The Western Front  1915-1916


1915


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In January the French planed to expand on their capture of the Hartmannswillerkopf to include all the Vosges Mountains but the Germans attacked first and recaptured this strategic peak. By February the French had recovered enough to prepare for a new offensive against Munster in the heart of the Vosges, but the Germans struck first throwing the French further back again in fierce winter fighting.

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The Battles for the Vosges are not well remembered, for although intense fighting took place here between large groups of men that produced many casualties until the very end of the War, it was basically a side show that did not effect the outcome of the conflict. It was perceived very differently by the public at that time who hung onto all war news. Whether consequential or not, the fighting in the Vosges caused German publishers to generate a vast amount of postcards covering this front throughout the War.

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The French did little to publicize these early campaigns in the Vosges on postcards as they were not only a defeat but a humiliating defeat considering the combatants. The French had employed their elite mountain troops (chasseurs alpins), who had largely been driven back by the German home guard (Landwehr). Landwehr troops can be considered reservists. They received basic training but were only to be called up for military service in the event of war. They were considered second line troops that were usually assigned to less vital fronts where first line troops could not be spared. While all Germans were supposed to participate in compulsory military training, there was never enough funds available to make this happen, and there was also much reluctance to take in those from the urban working class because of their socialist ideas. When the War started there were far less Landwehr troops available for service than might be expected. They were older than most recruits and often served closer to home, which gave them the reputation of living the easy life. They are stereotyped on postcards by their smoking pipes and are often shown laden down with excess equipment and the rare commodity of food.

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Joffre’s winter offensive that began at Champagne in December 1914 continued into the new year in hopes of breaking through the German line, which might precipitate a general withdrawal. If the Germans fell back to protect their extended supply lines, the stalemate would end and open warfare could begin again. Though the intense fighting lasted into March, the only results were high casualties.

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The French also tried to relieve pressure on Verdun by trying to regain control over the butte of the Vauquois at the edge of the Argonne Forest, and Les Eparges butte overlooking the Woevre plain. The struggle for both resulted in intense fighting but they could not gain full control over either position. A major French offensive was launched into the Woevre in April in an attempt to pinch off the Germans holding the St. Mihiel salient. This operation was not only a costly failure, even more ground was lost to German counterattacks.

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As the British presence in Flanders grew they began making coordinating their strategic plans with the French. Joffre need more men before he could launch another offensive in Champagne, so General French began repositioning British forces to take up more of their line. This movement eventually led to an attacked on the Germans line at Neuve Chapelle in March, in an attempt to cut the rail line supplying this sector. Catching the Germans off guard, they broke through their defenses capturing the town, but they lacked the means to exploit the gap further and they were quickly pushed back in a counterattack. While this battle proved to be a costly defeat, the failed tactics employed became a model for the Allied armies.

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Before the Allies finished preparing for their offensive, the Germans launched one of their own in April against the British holding the Ypres salient. It was meant to disguised a large transfer of German troops to the Eastern Front, but this in turn left them undermanned to carry out an attack. To compensate for their low numbers they would try using a brand new weapon, poison gas. As the gas flowed down into the packed British trenches it had an effect so devastating it even surprised the Germans. Unprepared to follow up on the havoc they created, the Second Battle of Ypres only provided the Germans with some modest gains before resistance stiffened.

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The Artois offensive finally began in May with a British attack against Aubers Ridge, but the assault quickly stalled. In the following attack at Vimy Ridge and Notre Dame de Lorette the French took the fortified heights in desperate fighting. In places the German built elaborate defenses and it took much hand to hand fighting in these mazes and underground tunnels to clear them out. The rail line at Lens was now within sight, but before they could advance on it they were forced back by counterattacks. When the campaign ended the Allies were back from where they had started despite the tremendous casualties they suffered.

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It took some time for the Allies to prepare for a new offensive, but by September they were ready. The main attack came at Champagne where the French launched a very well planned out assault. Though the German trenches had been continually upgraded, the French broke through multiple defense lines. Only the timely arrival of German reserves prevented a complete breakthrough. Nothing was gained in the Second Battle of Champagne though both sides suffered very high casualties.

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The largest battle of the Artois offensive was directed toward the German defenses at Loos in September. Here the British detonated mines and used poison gas to open up gaps in the German trench line but much of it drifted back into their own positions disrupting attacking units. The British would take heavy casualties in subsequent attacks, and though German positions were traded back and forth, no breakthrough was made. This failure finally cost General French his position and the command of the British Expeditionary Force was turned over to General Haig in December.

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The French had also planed to assail the Germans in the Argonne Forest in a summer campaign but the Germans struck first in June. Despite these attacks, the French managed to launch their offensive in July but it accomplished nothing. The Germans continued to slowly grind down the French through the use of new tactics and weapons. These were not large battles but small concentrated encounters that forced the French back one position at a time until they had lost most of this Argonne by the fall.

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There had been fighting in the Argonne since the beginning of the war but now the public’s fascination with it seemed to grow. Combat did not traditionally take place in rugged forested terrain for it was difficult to maneuver in, bring up supplies, and keep command control during combat. Its very uniqueness created a greater audience for such scenes. While publishers did not usually produce cards of its nation’s defeats, the propaganda war had turned many of them into victories and thus suitable subjects for publication. Most of these cards depicted generic scenes of fierce fighting in forests that could represent any number of events. The lack of specifics helped to romanticize this front, which only made it a more popular subject. Even today the Argonne Forest is easily associated with the Great War, but few can say why.

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Though their winter campaign to occupy the Vosges had failed, the French never gave up trying to take the mountain summits. Heavy fighting erupted again in March for control over the heights of Hartmannswillerkopf, but the front would not be stabilized until June. After receiving reinforcements in July the French launched another offensive against all German held positions in the Vosges. This resulted in extremely heavy combat but the French could only gain a toe hold on each peak.

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The Vosges front, which had seen quite a bit of attention on early German postcards, became an even more popular subject among French and German postcard publishers as the fighting there grew more intense. While the public’s interest in this front may have retested on the unusual mountain terrain, it wasn’t prone to exaggerated rendering like the Alps. Its heavily forested slopes created difficulties in creating action scenes. While some artists managed to overcome these hurtles, few compositions are as dramatic as one might expect.

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Heavily armed Jagar battalions trained in stormtrooper tactics had been reinforcing the German Landwehr in the Vosges, and by the end of August they launched intense but limited counterattacks against the French positions. Inching forward the Germans regaining full control of all the peaks by October. In December the French would launch one last attack to retake the Hartmannswillerkopf, but it met head on with an oncoming German offensive resulting in massive French casualties. Although no major offensives would be launched in this region again, fighting would continue here until the end of the War. The French alpine troops initially deployed here had taken tremendous casualties, which later turned this front into a dumping ground for colonial regiments.

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Though Portugal had a military alliance with Great Britain, it did not enter the war in 1914 due to political instability. Tension however grew between Portugal and Germany as the U-boat war interfered with its trade, and conflicts arose between their colonies. In February when Britain eventually persuaded them to confiscate German ships interned in their ports, Germany declared war on Portugal. By August the first elements of the Portuguese Expeditionary Force began arriving on the Western Front, but they did not start manning the front lines until January 1917. While there were many duel language English-French postcards published on the Western Front, Portuguese-French cards were made as well to appeal to these new soldiers.

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At the end of September the Allies launched a series of new offensives against the German lines, with the main thrust being made by the French at Champagne. General Nivelle’s strategy of using an intense creeping artillery barrage just ahead of his advancing infantry was anticipated by the Germans. Though they were pushed back they still had deep defenses to fall back on, well out of the range of the French Artillery. By the end of the Battle the Germans regained most of the front they had lost through limited counterattacks. Supporting attacks by the French at Artois and the British at Loos also gained only modest territory at a high cost in casualties. The Allies were not able to make a strategic breakthrough anywhere along the German trench line.



1916


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With the Germans firmly entrenched on both flanks of the Verdun salient there was no logical military reason for the French to hold on to it. Though the most fortified city in France, many of its defenses had already been abandoned and some moves were being made to evacuate the entire salient. Its propaganda value however had grown well out of proportion to its military value as it had come to symbolize all French resistance to aggression. The slogan They Shall Not Pass! resounded on postcards depicting this sector. If Verdun was lost it would cause a severe blow to the republic’s morale, especially in the face of the lies being fed to them through the propaganda war. Politicians could not afford to lose Verdun and the French army stayed put. All of this did not go unnoticed by General von Falkenhayn, which inspired what he thought was a wining strategy. He would launch a powerful offensive against Verdun, not seek a grand win all battle, but to create an internal situation within France that would make them realize they could not win the War.

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The German attack on Verdun was scheduled to open in January, but bad weather caused a delay. This allowed Joffre to reinforce this front when he noticed something was brewing. It seemed to hardly matter for when the attack came in February it rolled over the French defenses atop the heights of the Meuse. General Philippe Petain was then dispatched to take command of the crumbling French line. He managed to stabilize the situation but the Germans managed to continue their advance until they took control of most of the heights overlooking Verdun.

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Von Falkenhayen hoped that the French would launch suicidal attacks against his position as were their tradition, but Petain was cut from a different cloth and he stayed on the defense. Politics however intervened and Petain was replaced by General Nivelle who was ordered to go on the offensive. In May he attempted to recapture Fort Douaumont, the largest of all French fortifications that had been seized early in the campaign but this effort failed. The Germans then renewed their offensive in June capturing Fort Vaux, another major defensive position. French attempts to reinforce its garrison also failed.

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The most publicized part of the Battle of Verdun revolved around Fort Douaumont, the largest and most modern fort of Verdun’s defenses. Unlike the antiquated forts in Belgium, it could not be reduced by heavy guns, but it quickly fell to a handful of Germans because it was left only lightly garrisoned. Its capture was not a major military setback but it became a huge political scandal, which greatly contributed to the fall of General Joffre who was removed by the end of the year. Much effort was placed in the recapture of this fort, again for symbolism rather than military necessity. Its strength served the new German defenders well, holding out until October. Even though it had slowly been pounded into useless rubble, its recapture was considered a great victory and celebrated on postcards. By the time the war had ended, Fort Douaumont had achieved mythical status. The public’s fascination with this place remained intact and its ruins found their way onto many more postcards oriented to war tourists.

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The battle for Verdun came to have as much if not more significance in the propaganda war than as a military campaign. Since German motives were much more complicated than seizing territory, most of the interpretation or rather misinterpretation of events fell to the Allies. Numerous political cartoons were placed on postcards well beyond the borders of France that described the futility and high cost of the German offensive. Even to this day the name Verdun remains highly recognizable, though few could recite any facts concerning it. Postcards add little to our understanding apart from demonstrating the power of propaganda, which continues to shape common perceptions.

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In July the French renewed their counterattack at Verdun, but after suffering severe casualties with no gains to show for it, the attack was called off. A good portion of the German army had been dispatched to deal with the developing crisis on the Eastern Front, and with the remaining troops exhausted, the great battle drew to a close. Though the French army suffered immeasurable losses, it failed to have the effect on French leadership that von Falkenhayen had expected. No peace was sought, and von Falkenhayen would be forced to resign as Chief of Staff. General Joffre would also lose his command when his lies about what actually took place at Verdun caught up with him.

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Joffre’s strategy for 1916 had also coalesced at the beginning of the year, concluding that the only chance for victory was if the Allies delivered heavy smashing blows to the enemy. Though the French had taken serious losses the previous year, the growing presence of British soldiers was making this idea possible. While the sector surrounding the Somme did not offer any strategic value, it was where British and French lines met so it was chosen for his grand offensive that was designed to break a hole so large in the German line that it could not be closed. Though it would take time to get all the preparations in place for such a mammoth undertaking, the German offensive at Verdun was creating a vast amount of pressure that demanded a distraction. When the attack came at the Somme, it was launched earlier than expected out of desperation and without all the French troops that were originally scheduled to take part in it.

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While fighting on the Somme would be near continuous for almost five months, it is better characterized as a series of battles aimed at achieving different objectives. The main thrust was undertaken by the British under General Haig at the Battle of Albert in early July. The battle began with a long heavy bombardment followed by a massive lines of infantry walking forward. The artillery failed to adequately cut the wire entanglements and destroy the defenders who took refuge in deep bunkers, which resulted in the most costly single day of fighting in British history. Smaller attacks continued to be fought throughout the summer with the Germans slowly falling back from one stronghold to the next.

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While the French made some gains during the initial fighting on the Somme, the lack of progress on the British front created a disjointed line that made it difficult to launch another large scale attack. To straighten the Allied line a nearly month long battle was fought to capture Guillemont and then Ginchy. After these fell in early September the British and the French were poised to launch a new joint attack on the fortified German supply base at Combles, the largest village on the Somme. British tanks were used here for the first time, but after months of fighting the terrain was too chewed up by constant bombardment for them to work effectively and so they provided little advantage.

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Even though the British discovered that the German defenses were far deeper than they expected, and that no breakthrough here was possible, they continued to attack through October and November with the aid of large numbers of aircraft and reinforcements from Anzac, Canadian, and South African troops. In many ways they had fallen victim to their own propaganda, believing German casualties were so high that another strong push would break them. This was far from true as the Germans had also been reinforcing their defenses throughout the battle with troops withdrawn from Verdun. When the onset of winter closed the battle in November, the Allies had only made modest gains of no importance at the expense of extremely high casualties.

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The battle of the Somme has come down to us largely through myth and as such it is the most common representation of the Great War in most peoples minds. It is generally perceived as the throwing away of a massive amount of lives in futile attacks due to incompetence and indifference, but it must be remembered that these are postwar attitudes. While total casualties in this four month long battle were in the hundreds of thousands, the execution of most battles of this war went just as badly. Even though the news received on the home front from the Allied General Staff tended to proclaim victories that were not there along with highly exaggerated enemy loses, the large body count could not be hidden from grieving families. The British government then took the risky move of allowing a bit more realistic images to reach the public. Those at home wanted to better understand the lives of loved ones fighting at the front, and these more honest pictures, though never really gruesome, gave a better idea of the sacrifice their soldiers were making. This reinforced the feeling that they were all fighting for a noble cause, and public support for the War increased. The photographs that reached the public were of course all from official sources.

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After General von Falkenhayn failed to achieve a decisive victory at Verdun his influence on the War was greatly diminished. When Romania unexpectedly declared war on Austria-Hungary in August, General von Falkenhayn resigned as Chief of Staff to take over the crisis there, and was replaced by Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg and General Erich Ludendorff. They did not just take command of the Western Front but as head of the Supreme Army Command they controlled all military affairs and the war economy as well. While the Kaiser remained the focus of Allied propaganda, real control over the War was within the hands of his generals. Though headquartered in Spa, Belgium, Hindenburg and especially Ludendorff took more and more control over Germany’s affairs and reoriented their attention toward Russia. Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg, who was always too much the traditionalist to accept the necessities of modern warfare was brushed aside by the summer of 1917. They even usurped all the authority of the Kaiser to become military dictators in every way except name. Kaiser Wilhelm was now nothing more than Germany’s symbolic figurehead.

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The Germans had been using northern Belgium as a base to send Zeppelins on bombing raids over England since January of 1915. While other places such as Paris were also bombed, airships on rout to the English coast did not have to pass over enemy territory and thus Great Britain became their main area of focus. At first they only bombed military targets, but within months civilians were targeted as well. The largest raid over England took place in September 1916 involving fourteen airships. While the amount of damage they could cause was not nearly as much as the Germans had hoped for, they did inspire much fear. British aircraft that could have been used at the front were held back to protect cities. When the British finally learned how to shoot Zeppelins down, these raids stopped, but attacks would continued in 1917 with the introduction of large bombers. Zeppelins truly captured the public’s imagination, and both British and German publishers produced large quantities of cards of these raids from their own perspective.

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As winter approached the Germans began construction on a new defensive line behind the one they currently held. The Hindenburg Line (Siegfriedstellung) was built as a precaution in the face of pending Allied offensives at a time when many German troops needed to be transferred to the East. While some captured territory was abandoned to man the improved defenses, the move straightened out the huge bulge in their line making it easier to defend with less troops. It also spared men to create greater reserves that could be deployed where ever emergencies arose. These new defenses were over five miles deep in places and placed on the best defensive ground. In addition it was supported with concrete bunkers for weapon placement and bombproof shelters. It fit into their general tactics of strategic withdrawal before enemy attacks, thus avoiding punishing bombardments while forcing the enemy to traverse difficult devastated terrain to meet them. By March 1917 most of the German army had withdrawn to the Hindenburg line.

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In October General Nivelle renewed his attack on the German lines at Verdun with great intensity. The Germans having transferred their best troops to fight in Romania and at the Somme were not well prepared to receive it. The French managed to recapture Fort Douaumont and Fort Vaux in the process. By this time these forts had been so battered down they could barely be described as defensive works, but their capture was celebrated in France as a great victory whose significance was greatly exaggerated by propaganda. In December of 1916, Joffre was replaced by General Robert Nivelle as French Commander-in-Chief.




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