The Road To Victory On The Western Front In The Great War

(O.E.D: Logistics = the art of moving troops and, especially, the organising of supplies)

In the final analysis, the war on the Western Front was won by the Allied Powers (principally, The British Empire, France and the United States) by dint of the martial skill of its service men and women. They overcame with courage and determination the renowned martial skills of the Central Powers (principally, Germany and Austria-Hungary).

But, that said, to paraphrase a well-known saying that 'The way to Hell is paved with good intentions', it is equally valid to say that 'The road to victory on the Western Front was paved by good logistics'. And the victory on the Western Front was only made possible by the extraordinary logistical support that was provided, often under extremely difficult and hazardous conditions, by a whole spectrum of sources. The principal sources of this support were:

For most of its long history, the British Royal Navy has borne the major burden for the protection of the Motherland and the Empire from its enemies. In the Great War it again achieved this aim in four time-tested ways.

Firstly, it once again protected the Motherland and the countries of the Empire from invasion by its enemies.

Secondly, it sought to protect the ships of the Merchant Navy from attack by its constant presence on, and reach across, the Seven Seas.

Thirdly, it blockaded the ports of its enemies - principally Germany - to prevent the ships of its enemies having access to the High Seas, and to exclude the entry of supplies that would have assisted them in the prosecution of war against Great Britain, its Empire and it Allies.

And, finally, it maintained a fleet of warships at least numerically equal to those navies which were singularly, or collectively, ranged against it and its Allies: the British Grand Fleet had 150 warships and the German High Seas Fleet 101.

In pursuance of these objectives, at the outbreak of the Great War in August 1914, the Royal Navy immediately began to blockade the German ports and sought out the German Navy on the High Seas. It also seized, or sunk, its Merchant Fleet. The free flow of Allied troops, equipment and supplies, across the English Channel to the Western Front was assured, as was the movement of the British Merchant Navy and the troop carriers and transports for the Empire armies.

This control of the High Seas was maintained despite determined efforts by the German Navy to thwart it in various ways; one of the principal strategies being the unrestricted warfare waged by the German U-boat fleets in the Atlantic and elsewhere.

a). Military
Due to its reliance on the Royal Navy, in 1914 Britain had, relative to other European nations, only a small Standing, or Regular, Army of 250,000 professional soldiers. It also had an active Army Reserve, but the majority of these were Territorials and Yeomanry who were only committed to service in the Motherland. Accordingly, when the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) left for The Western Front in August 1914, it only numbered 100,000 men - four infantry and one cavalry divisions. It was also fairly lightly armed with no really heavy artillery.

At the end of 1914, the by then six infantry and one cavalry divisions of the BEF had suffered 86,000 casualties (54%). In the process, the British Regular Army - The Old Contemptibles - had been reduced to a shadow of its former self, and any hope that these war experienced troops would provide the wherewithal for a training cadre was largely lost.

Back in Britain, it had been clear from the outset of the War that, if the British Army and its Empire troops were to play a significant role in the European part of the War, a large new army had to be recruited and trained.

Immediately after the British Declaration of War, on 4th August 1914, a charismatic Field Marshal - Lord Kitchener of Khartoum - was given the responsibility for raising and training a volunteer army - the so-called New Army, or Kitchener's Army. By the end of 1914, 1.2 million men had volunteered and were in training to join the BEF on the Western Front. Meanwhile, recruitment continued apace. In the Empire - India, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and other British territories - new divisions of volunteers were raised. The Empire countries soon began sending large cohorts to fight on the Western Front, as well as in the other theatres of war. In all, 700,000 men from the 'White' Empire countries, and a million Indian volunteers, served overseas in the Great War, nearly half of them on the Western Front.

The early British New Army volunteers were largely drawn from the middle-class professionals and quasi-professionals, and the skilled workers and artisan classes. Physically and educationally these volunteers were generally superior both physically and educationally to the conscripts who were drafted from 1916 onwards.

By comparison, the French poilus (= the bearded ones), were mainly conscripted peasants. Thus, they were generally fit, but of poor education and not always well nourished. However, they became renowned for their stoic acceptance and endurance of the hardships of war. The German conscripts and their NCO's were generally fit, well trained, motivated and strictly disciplined. Though it has been frequently observed that the Germans from the more Southern states - Saxony and Bavaria - were rather less martial-minded than their northern - Prussian - countrymen, and pursued a more 'Live and Let Live' attitude to war.

All the officers of the three major armies were largely drawn from the upper classes of society; 'Officers and men' and 'Messieurs les officers et la troupe' being the sort of class distinctions that were the norm.

British officers (at least the junior ranks) were generally lauded as having the tradition of 'The care of the men comes first', and this attitude has been said to be one of the contributory causes for the lack of British mutinies in the trenches on the Western Front. By comparison the French and German officers were said to be more detached from their troops. It being alleged that many French officers largely left their men to fend for themselves, only being in close contact with them when actually in combat; although, it must be said that when in combat, the martial fervour of the French officers was deservedly renowned. On the other hand, whilst many of the German officers stuck tenaciously to their Junker martial code, they also gave much greater powers of command to their NCO's. This reduced the potential for friction between the two cadres. This philosophy also ultimately allowed the German concept of the NCO-led, highly self-contained and independently acting, Storm-Trooper Battalions to function at an exemplary level of competence, efficiency and efficacy.

In addition to these combat troops, both the British and French recruited hundreds of thousands of Chinese and other Orientals, plus a relatively smaller number of Africans, and West Indians, to work in Labour, or Auxiliary Forces, ostensibly behind the lines on the Western Front. Over 1,600 of the British Chinese Labour Force died on the Western Front and are buried there in 20 British Military Cemeteries. Others served in Mesopotamian and East African theatres of war.

b). Civilian
The mass recruitment of volunteers for Kitchener's Army immediately clashed with the need retain skilled workers in all spheres of industry, and to work the land for food production. Men were also needed in to man the new war factories.

The British Trade Unions were generally restrictive in the means of employment and deployment of Trade Unionised labour, and solutions had to be found to increase flexibility and mobility of the existing workforce, and to find the new cadres of workers. Some of the men with important and badly needed skills, who had volunteered for the New Army in 1914 and early 1915, were recalled to their former jobs, though this had to be done against the general resistance of the military.

More epoch making, and contrary to historical precedence, women workers were recruited in huge numbers, totalling1.6 million in all, representing nearly 40% of the wartime workforce. In addition to participating in munitions work, these women also undertook skilled tasks formerly reserved for men, thus releasing them for Army Service. The roles undertaken by British women spanned the whole gamut of British industry, commerce and the social services; women in uniforms and overalls became a common sight on the streets of Britain.

Armaments and munitions
Prior to 1914, the British armaments and munitions industry was sized to serve the needs of the small British Regular (professional) and Territorial (reserve) Armies, with some extra capacity for export to allies and friendly nations. British troops in Regular Army were relatively lightly armed and had no really heavy artillery as it was seen as a very mobile force, able to move constantly around the countries of the Empire, as and when required, and at short notice.

With the outbreak of hostilities in 1914, it soon became apparent that the arms industry required considerable expansion to equip the New Army, and supply it, the BEF, and other forces overseas.

The former armament and munitions contractors were asked to quickly expand their production. Other established manufactures were encouraged to convert to war work, and new entrants were sought. All this caused considerable disruption, production shortages and weaknesses, as exemplified by the scandal of the Shell Crisis in 1915. The industrial problems were so acute that some British military actions on the Western Front were compromised by a combination of a shortage of shells, the large numbers of dud shells (up to 30%) and prematurely firing shells (up to 1 in 1,000). In May 1915, Mr. David Lloyd-George was appointed Minister of Munitions and skilfully brought the matter under control. Such were the improvements in the quality and quantity of the British artillery that it subsequently became the catalyst that enabled the static trench warfare of 1915-1917 years to be converted to the highly successful mobile warfare of 1918.

As indicated earlier, through all these production problems, the British Trade Unions were often less than 100% co-operative and, on occasion, exacerbated them by supporting striking workers. Incredibly, 200,000 engineering workers went on strike for higher pay in April 1918 when the 1918 German Spring Offensive was at its height, the Germans were in cannon range of Paris and the French Channel Ports under dire threat. Surprisingly, the French workers were also rather strike-prone and the Germans had their problems too, though not on the same general scale as the British. However, the German worker's riots of late 1918 played and important part in the collapse of the German State which, in turn, lead to the Armistice in November 1918.

Other production problems arose with the unprecedented specialist demands of trench-warfare that had to be met. A whole new range of products and clothing were required. They varied from specialist items such as entrenching tools and hand-grenades, for close-contact fighting, hundreds of thousands of yards of duck-boards to line the flooded bottoms of trenches, and trench mortars and huge heavy artillery guns and howitzers to penetrate and destroy the enemy trench-works and fortifications.

Up to the entry of the United States in the War on the Western Front, in April 1917, the United States had provided considerable quantities of material to the Allies, but had also bought considerable quantities from them to equip its own armed forces. Once committed to the War, American industry produced an ever-growing avalanche of materials of war. For example, at the end of the War, in August 1918, more than half of the American aircraft on the Western Front had been built in the USA, as well as three-quarters of the engines that powered them. And the 20 observation balloons that the Americans had on loan from their Allies at the beginning of 1918, had been augmented by their own production to 600 by the time of the Armistice in November 1918.

Whilst the British economy was more than self sufficient in steel and coal were, it had an enormous appetite for all kinds of primary products that were required for the arms manufacturing industry, and commerce in general. Many of them were sourced from the countries of the Empire, and flowed in a steady stream via the British Merchant Navy to its seaports and then on to the rail and canal distribution systems of Britain. A large proportion of these primary products were re-exported through these same ports as finished manufactured goods for the war effort, and as exports to earn foreign exchange. Throughout the war the stream of items required by the Armed Forces on the Western Front, and elsewhere, was successfully maintained without serious interruption.

By comparison the German economy was slowly strangled by the British blockade, leading in no small measure to the collapse of both the German economy and the Army. Outside of the German occupied zone in France, the French economy managed to carry on, and, remarkably, developed and produced some high-grade armaments and munitions, including first class artillery and aircraft. Considerable quantities of armaments were purchased from them by the Americans, including artillery, small arms and many squadrons of the renowned fighter aircraft of the Spad A2/S-V11, and Nieuport 17/ 24/28 types.

Before 1914, the British imported around 50% of all the food it consumed, including staples such as cereals, animal and vegetable fats, meat, sugar and fruit.

Once it became apparent that the war would not end quickly, enormous efforts were made at improving self-efficiency in food production by putting into production virgin and unused land, and improving the efficiency of farming in general. The civilian population was exhorted to do its bit in allotments, back gardens and on any unused pieces of urban land. As the young men were taken from the land to serve in the armed forces, young women and men too old for active service largely replaced them.

In December 1916, the British Ministry of Food was established. Thereafter, certain essential items of food for the civilian population were progressively rationed, and their distribution strictly controlled. Enormous effort was put into the transport of food to Great Britain from the Empire and elsewhere, despite the frightful depredations of the unrestricted U-boat campaign. There were many tight and dire situations but, by and large, adequate quantities of food got through to supplement the enhanced domestic production. By means of the rationing and distribution schemes, the food available was acceptably well shared out although, inevitably, of a lesser quantity per capita than before the War.

The proper nutrition of the British troops on the Western Front was more problematic, due to the difficulties inherent in delivering prepared, cooked meals to the fighting troops under battle conditions, and much use was made of canned goods such as corned beef, stew and jam. Fresh food was always at a premium and the British established in France some livestock and vegetable farms to ease the situation.

It is said that the German Army's astounding advance in Northern France, during their 1918 Spring Offensive, was largely brought to a halt by the malnourished German troops stopping to gorge on captured British Army food and French alcohol. This gave the Allied armies time to recoup and reorganise, and the German Army on the Western Front never really recovered from this hiatus.

Alcohol also paid an important part in the maintenance of the morale of the British troops and the civilian population, although draconian restrictions were placed on the public drinking hours of the latter. In the trenches, British standard army rum was generally issued as a ration, with extra generous additional helpings at the time of major offensives and the like. In reality, the distribution of this much sought after 'comfort' could be both idiosyncratic and unpredictable in the front lines and, on occasions caused a lot of discontent and resentment. Out of the front line, the innumerable French estaminets provided a ready supply of cheap French wine and brandy as long as the infantryman's pay of shilling a day, and leave-of-absence, lasted. Many French entrepreneurs made fortunes supplying the British Tommy with omelette et frites (egg and chips). The officers had access to duty-free Scotch whisky and their Officer's Messes, and provided with batmen and servants.

By comparison, although the French Army's food was, theoretically, an excellent two-full-meals-a-day regime, including a generous daily ration of the peasants' favoured pinoir rouge wine, in the front-lines and the reserve areas, these optima were not always met. This issue of a better and more constant diet was, if perhaps of a lesser priority, one of those raised by the 1917 mutineers. On the German side, the formerly generous nutritional regime was soon affected by the British blockade and, although the troops in the front lines received preferential treatment, as the war reached the middle of its third year (1917), the food began to deteriorate in both quality and quantity. Increasing quantities of ersatz (substitute) food was supplied and acorn coffee and coarse black bread, in strictly rationed quantity, became the unpalatable norm.

On and around the battlefield the British initially relied on two forms of transportation, the soldiers' own feet and the horse.

Shod in heavy leather, ankle length, ammunition boots, and full battle dress weighing 66 pounds (30 kg), the British soldier was required to march around the front lines, as the operational requirements demanded. Later in the war, the motor vehicle appeared on the scene and, where the roads and the battle situation permitted, these vehicles were employed for the longer journeys: i.e. to transport the troops to and from the front-line and the rest areas.

The horse was primarily required to provide mounts for the cavalry, officers in general and traction for artillery pieces and their limbers, supply wagons and ambulances. In August 1914, a stock of 25,000 horses was available, and when the BEF left that month for the Western Front, it took with it 10,000 of these horses of various riding and traction breeds. Another 100,000 horses were immediately ordered through the usual commercial horse-trading sources. When this failed to provide the required numbers of good quality animals, compulsory purchases were made. In addition, a considerable number of privately owned horses were gifted by the public, or sold to the Army at below their commercial value. Such was the fervour to support the BEF that some civic authorities were left with no horses to service their public transport. Later, horses were directly acquired from overseas, and Ireland became a major source and entrepot.

In all 800,000 horses served with the British Army on the Western Front, of which half died from wounds or disease. As the war progressed, an increasing number of petrol engine vehicles were sent to the Western Front to perform these tasks including tanks and gun pulling tractors. Armoured cars were found to be generally impracticable in terrain disturbed by trench warfare.

Outside of the battle zone, various forms of transport were used to carry troops to and from the Western Front, and the other theatres of war, as well as for delivering supplies and equipment. Prominent amongst which was ammunition; in 1918, Britain's standard heavy artillery gun - the 18 pounder - alone was firing 100,000 shells a day on the Western Front.

The role of the Royal and Merchant Navies in the shipment of men and materials to the Western Front, and across the world, has already been mentioned.

The second great means of long distance transport, but perhaps not the lesser in import, was the railways. In the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, all the Continental belligerent nations had put enormous effort into developing their railways to assist the mobilisation of their troops, and to execute their rapid movement to the front-line. In particular, the Germans, by repeated rehearsals, had raised the mobilisation of its army by rail to a fine art. Once war was declared or, in some cases, when the threat of war was perceived as imminent, the giant rail transportation schemes were set in motion. In particular, the Central Powers moved their millions of troops to both the Western and Eastern Fronts with great efficiency. With rather less efficiency, the French and Russians (on the Eastern Front) achieved the same objective. In Britain and the Empire, matters moved at a slower pace, as the somewhat surprised governments adjusted to the reality that they were indeed committed to this European War, despite all their earlier disinclination to get involved.

Over the course of the war on the Western Front, the rail network spread out to most areas of the front lines, with small, satellite, feeder railways constructed virtually over-night where ever an operational need required it. Some very large artillery guns had their own dedicated spur lines.

At the outbreak of war in 1914, the British Government had the largest monetary reserves and financial assets of any nation on Earth. Many of these assets were foreign based (£40 billion or 30%) and largely safely placed outside of Europe. It was, therefore, in an extremely strong position to use these assets to prosecute the war. These assets were also useful as collateral when it became necessary to borrow money, particularly from the United States, to purchase goods of foreign manufacture and to generally fund the war as it extended in time far beyond the original estimations of all the belligerent nations.

By comparison France's foreign assets were only one half of Britain's and came close to exhaustion as the war dragged on. It increasing relied upon Great Britain and, later, the USA, to give support. The German situation was even worse; it had only one quarter of Britain's foreign assets. As the war went on, due to its diplomatic difficulties with the United States - particularly over the German U-boats campaign of unrestricted submarine warfare - the Central Powers found it increasingly hard to obtain loans and financial guarantees from there or, indeed, any other source.

These circumstances, some planned, some unplanned, some fortuitous, some catastrophic - and even some due to serendipity itself - all in their way played a part in the outcome of the 51 months of fighting in the Great War. The huge, ruthlessly managed war machine of the Central Powers had been slowly, and ever so painfully, ground down, by the democratic Allied Powers to the condition where it was forced to seek an Armistice and an end to the Great War.

None of the belligerent Powers could claim to be entirely victorious, when the battle-field of the Western Front were strewn with hundreds of thousands of their unburied and buried dead, and their countries harboured millions of maimed and crippled soldiers along with ruined economies.

Even worse, no lasting lesson had been learned, and no permanent solution found, to Europe's problems. Every-one was destined to go through it all again in 21 years; less than the span of a single generation.

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