World War I: A History in Documents

By Frans Coetzee; Marilyn Shevin-Coetzee | Go to book overview

Chapter Three
Meeting the
Challenge

When Europe’s soldiers struggled to accommodate themselves to the realities of war instead of the familiar rhythms of civilian life, they were confounded to discover that this particular war was very different from what they had been led to expect (and indeed from what their commanders expected). Some units went into battle in colorful uniforms or mounted on horseback, intent on coming to grips with their enemies in hand-to-hand combat in which the bayonet or the lance would be decisive. What they discovered was that technological advances such as machine guns or barbed wire had changed the nature of warfare. Too often attacking troops were mowed down well before they could reach enemy lines. On the western front, in Belgium and France, where the concentration of firepower was heaviest, soldiers had no alternative but to burrow for protection into the earth like so many moles, eventually producing parallel lines of trenches that stretched from the Belgian coast to the Swiss border. For nearly four years, from mid-September 1914 (when the German march toward Paris was repelled at the Battle of the Marne) until the summer of 1918 (when the armies of Germany and its allies collapsed), the name of the game was defense.

Attacks in the face of heavy shellfire simply squandered numerous lives without realizing significant gains, but commanders in all armies persisted in bloody, fruitless offensives because they foresaw no alternative means of achieving victory and feared that morale would deteriorate if armies simply waited passively and defensively for the enemy to seize the initiative.

The result was a stalemate in which neither side could achieve a decisive breakthrough. Continued attacks came to be justified by the generals, however, as progress in a process of attrition whereby one side would eventually capitulate when its human and material

-57-

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World War I: A History in Documents
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • World War I - A History in Documents 3
  • Contents 5
  • What Is a Document? 6
  • How to Read a Document 8
  • Introduction - The Great War 11
  • Chapter One - Into the Abyss 15
  • Chapter Two - Adjusting to War 39
  • Chapter Three - Meeting the Challenge 57
  • Chapter Four - War Without Mercy 81
  • Chapter Five: Picture Essay - Advertising the War 107
  • Chapter Six - Strains 115
  • Chapter Seven - Coming to Terms 141
  • Timeline 162
  • Further Reading 164
  • Websites 166
  • Text Credits 167
  • Picture Credits 169
  • Index 171
  • Acknowledgments 175
  • About the Authors 176
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