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Posted on September 30th, 2012, by

Major Battles of World War I

a. The Battle of Mons

The Battle of Mons was one of the most significant battles of World War I. In fact, it was the first major battle of World War I and, unlike many other battles that followed, the Battle of Mons was a battle of movement, which was untypical for World War I which was characterized by trenched warfare.

As German troops invaded Belgium on August 3rd, British troops from the BEF (British Expeditionary Force) had crossed to mainland Europe on August 14th. The BEF was led by Sir John French and by the time the BEF had got to Belgium they were behind with their schedule (Clarke, 2007). French wanted a cautious approach until he and his force met up with the French Fifth Army led by General Lanrezac. The plan was for both forces to join up at Charleroi.

On August 22nd, the BEF came across cavalry patrols from the German First Army and engaged them (Clarke, 2007). General French made plans to attack the German force that he assumed had to be in the region if they were sending out cavalry patrols. British intelligence warned him to be more cautious as the size of the German army in the vicinity was not known.

As a result of this intelligence, French ordered his men to dig defensive positions near the Mons Canal. The commander of the German First Army, Kluck, was surprised by the proximity of the British forces. He and his army had just engaged Lanrezac in battle (the Battle of Sambre) and were pursuing the French army south.

Kluck determined to take on the BEF and they first engaged the British in battle on August 23rd. French had deployed his men across a 40 kilometre front. The BEF was heavily outnumbered. The BEF had 70,000 men and 300 artillery guns whereas the German’s had 160,000 men and 600 artillery guns (Clarke, 2007).

Despite such overwhelming numbers, the Germans did not do well at the start of the battle. The BEF may have been referred to as a bunch of “contemptibles”¯ by the Kaiser William II, but they were professional soldiers (Clarke, 2007). The Germans believed that they were facing many British machine guns at Mons. In fact, they were infantry men firing their Lee Enfield rifles but at such a combined speed that they gave the Germans that impression. German intelligence had estimated that the BEF had 28 machine guns per battalion at Mons – whereas each battalion only had two! After his experiences of the BEF at the Battle of Mons, Kluck, after the war had finished, described the BEF as an “incomparable army”¯.

The XII Brandenburg Grenadiers attacking the 1st Battalion of the Royal West Kent Regiment lost 25 officers and over 500 men. The 75th Bremen Regiment lost 5 officers and 376 men in just one attack, such was the ferocity of the BEF’s gunfire and their well dug defensive positions (Clarke, 2007).

However, by evening French realized that the German army he faced was much bigger than his army. Also, unknown to him, the French army led by Lanrezac had retreated leaving the British army more exposed. French ordered his army to retreat. Kluck did not attack this retreat as he had to deal with the casualties in his army. However, on August 26th, a British rearguard guarding the retreat of the bulk of the BEF did sustain 8,000 casualties at the Battle of Le Chateau (Clarke, 2007).

French wanted to withdraw his army to the coast but this was forbidden by Lord Kitchener who insisted that British stayed in contact with the French army as they retreated to the Marne River

b. The Battle of Jutland

The Battle of Jutland was the major naval battle of World War I. This battle involved a large number of ships. The British fleet known as the Grand Fleet under the command of Jellicoe and Beatty consisted of fifty-two ships. The British faced a fleet of forty German ships led by Admiral Hipper. They opened fire at one another at a distance of about ten miles. Though they were a smaller force, the initial advantage lay with the Germans who were helped with their visibility by the lay of the sun.

Just after 16.00, the British battle cruiser “Indefatigable”¯ was destroyed by the Germans. One thousand men lost their lives when a magazine exploded. Nearly thirty minutes later, “Queen Mary”¯ was sunk in just ninety seconds (Clarke, 2007).

The position of the British became more difficult when Hipper was joined by Scheer’s High Seas Fleet. Jellicoe’s force was about fifteen miles from Beatty’s force when the actual battle started. As the two British fleets converged, the British suffered a third major loss when the “Invincible”¯ was sunk shortly after 18.30 (Clarke, 2007).

When the two fleets did join, they represented an awesome force and Hipper ordered the German fleet to sail north. Jellicoe interpreted this move as an attempt to lure the British fleet into either a submarine trap or a German mine field ”“ or both. Therefore, he did not follow the retiring German fleet. Jellicoe decided to sail his fleet south to cut off the Germans when they tried to sail for home. Both fleets clashed again as the Germans sailed for port. The German ship “Lutzow”¯ was sunk. “Seydlitz”¯ and “Derfflinger”¯ were badly damaged (Clarke, 2007).

The Germans claimed that Jutland was a victory for them as they had sunk more capital ships than the British. Jellicoe claimed that the victory belonged to the British as his fleet was still a sea worthy entity whereas the German High Seas fleet was not. The British did lose more ships (14 ships and over 6,000 lives) than the Germans (9 ships and over 2,500 casualties) (Clarke, 2007). But the German fleet was never again to be in a position to put to sea and challenge the British Navy in the North Sea.


c. The Battle of Cambrai

The Battle of Cambrai was one of the major battles of World War I. Douglas Haig approved a plan to take on the Germans by sweeping round the back of Cambrai and encircling the town. The attack would use a combination of old and new – cavalry, air power, artillery and tanks that would be supported by infantry. Cambrai was an important town as it contained a strategic railhead (Clarke, 2007). In front of it lay the very strong Hindenburg Line – a defensive position in which the Germans put a great deal of trust. The plan included an attack on the Hindenburg Line and the use of three cavalry divisions that would encircle Cambrai, thus cutting it off. While Haig’s plan won the approval of some, others were less than inspired that it included tanks as these new weapons had yet to prove their worth in battle in the eyes of some.

The attack started at 06.20 on November 20th 1917 (Clarke, 2007). The Germans were surprised by an intense artillery attack directly on the Hindenburg Line. 350 British tanks advanced across the ground supported by infantry – both were assisted by an artillery rolling barrage that gave them cover from a German counter-attack. The bulk of the initial attack went well. The 62nd Division (West Riding) covered more than five miles in this attack from their starting point (). Compared to the gains made at battles like the Somme and Verdun, such a distance was astonishing.

However, not everything had gone to plan. The 2nd Cavalry Division had a problem crossing the vital St. Quentin Canal when a tank went over its main bridge and broke its back – the same bridge that the cavalry were supposed to use to advance to Cambrai (Clarke, 2007).

Elsewhere, British units also got bogged down in their attack.

By November 30th, the German were ready to counter-attack and defend Cambrai. Many British army units had got themselves isolated and their command structure broke down in places. The German counter-attack was so effective that on December 3rd, Haig Ā gave the order for the British units still near to Cambrai to withdraw with the least possible delay from the Bourlon Hill-Macoing salient to a more retired and shorter line (Clarke, 2007) The failure to build on the initial success of the attack was blamed on middle-ranking commanders – some of whom were sacked. The initial phase of the battle did show that mobility was possible in the war but that to sustain it, a decent command structure was needed so that impetus gained in one area of the attack was aided by gains elsewhere in the advance.

While losses did not equate to the Somme or Verdun, the British lost over 44,000 men during the battle while the Germans lost about 45,000 men (Clarke, 2007).

Great Britain before World War II

The international policy of Great Britain in the 1930s was highly controversial and it is because its international policy, Great Britain failed to prevent the outbreak of World War II. In this respect, it is important to lay emphasis on the historical background which reveals the extent to which the policy of Great Britain was imprudent at the epoch.

First of all, Great Britain suffered from a considerable deterioration of the national economy which suffered from the effects of a profound economic crisis which affected practically all developed countries of the world. In such a situation, Great Britain was entirely focused on its internal socioeconomic problems which remained its major priority. In such a context, it was obvious that Great Britain was unprepared for any serious military conflict that could have started at the epoch.

At the same time, similarly to other countries, Britain faced a problem of the radicalization of the society. The radicalization of the society resulted in the strengthening of Communists in France and Fascists in Germany, Italy and Spain. In such a situation, Great Britain preferred to ignore the development of other countries, especially Germany preferring to avoid interference into the domestic affairs of foreign countries. However, it was obvious that the radicalization of German population would inevitably expose Great Britain to a threat of the military conflict with this country. To put it more precisely, the 1930s were characterized by the strengthening of the power of fascists in Germany, which eventually resulted to the establishment of the dictatorship by Hitler. However, Great Britain ignored the fact that Hitler took the power in the illegal way. He used the fire in Reichstag as the pretext of repressions against communists and establishment of his militarized regime taking control over legislative and executive branches of power as well as spreading its influence over the judicial power of the country. However, Great Britain ignored the usurpation of power by Hitler and maintained international, diplomatic contacts with this country.

In fact, on analyzing international policy of Great Britain in 1930s, especially in the late 1930s, it becomes obvious that Great Britain aimed at the appeasement of Hitler and preferred to ignore aggressive policies from the part of other countries, even though these policies violated existing international agreements (Clarke, 2007). In this respect, it is possible to remind the intentional ignorance of the Japanese aggression in Manchuria in 1937. The occupation of Chinese territory by Japan contradicted to the legal norms and principles of the League of Nations, which was established to maintain peace worldwide and implied the sanctions against any aggressor. The latter means that Great Britain, as a state-member of the League of Nations was obliged to oppose to the aggression from the part of Japan either at diplomatic level or, if necessary, at the military level. However, Great Britain did not even insist on expelling Japan from the League of Nations.

Such a policy of Great Britain could be justified by geographical remoteness of Japan from Great Britain. Obviously, the British Government considered the threat from the part of Japan insignificant for the national interests of Great Britain. However, the international policy of Great Britain in Europe also aimed at the satisfaction of aggressive ambitions of Nazi Germany. To put it more precisely, Great Britain have chosen the policy of appeasement of Hitler, which the British Government considered to be effective to prevent the war or any military confrontation with Germany. The logic of the British Government was simple. British policy makers supposed to satisfy the expansionist ambitions of Hitler and, in such a way, prevent him from launching a military campaign against Great Britain and France as major powers in Europe at the epoch. This strategy was justified by the unpreparedness of Great Britain to a large international military conflict in the 1930s because the country suffered from economic crisis and could not afford a considerable increase of military expanses. In addition, the policy of appeasement of Hitler was costless for Great Britain because it was the independence and sovereignty of other states that were at stake.

On the other hand, it is important to lay emphasis on the fact that the policy of appeasement of Hitler contradicted to the existing international agreements and, what is more, such a policy made World War II inevitable. In this respect, the late 1930s, when Hitler had already take the dictatorial power in Germany, were a particularly important period, especially taking into consideration that Japan had already started military expansion in China that was actually the beginning of World War II, though, European countries had not been involved yet. Nevertheless, the unpunished aggression of Japan increased the demands of Hitler and in 1938 he successfully annexed Austria, though the so-called anschluss of Austria contradicted to the terms of the treaties of Versailles and St.Ā  Germain, which specifically prohibited the union of Austria and Germany (Clarke, 2007). Nevertheless, Great Britain ignored the violation of the treaties by Germany and, in such a way, sanctioned the annexation of Austria.

However, the effects of this event were extremely destructive for the stability in Europe because Hitler’s ambitions increased even more and the same year the Munich Agreements was signed by Germany, France, Great Britain and Italy. In fact, it was the turning point which truly made World War II inevitable because Great Britain and France, which were allies, legally sanctioned the occupation of Czechoslovakia by Germany. In such a way, instead of maintenance of peace, Great Britain and its ally stimulated the growth of international tension in Europe and provoked military conflicts. According to the Munich Agreement, Germany annexed Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland, which was strategically important to Czechoslovakia’s defense and actually laid the country open to the German invasion (Clarke, 2007).

In this respect, it is hardly possible to underestimate a significance of the diplomatic work of Lord Runciman who had been appointed as a special advisor to Czechoslovak government on matters affecting their minorities. His position in regard to German demands concerning the Sudetenland was very important because Germans argued that the rights of the local German population were oppressed by the Czechoslovakian government. Hence, Germany insisted on the annexation of the Sudetenland to protect the rights of German population in Czechoslovakia. In such a situation, Lord Runciman could play the role of an independent observer, whose expertise could have played a crucial role in the decision concerning the future of the Sudetenland. Obviously, if he recognized the lack of oppression of the German population in the Sudetenland Germany would not have any reasons for the annexation of the territory and, therefore, Czechoslovakia would be protected from German aggression. However, the conclusion of Lord Runciman actually provoked the annexation of the Sudetenland because he claimed tactlessness, lack of understanding, petty intolerance, and discrimination in Czech rule in the Sudetenland. In such a way, he justified the annexation of the Czech territory by Germany and his position was apparently important not only to the British Government but also to the international community at large. As a result, the annexation was legalized by the Munich Agreement. As a result, by 1939 it had become clear that leading European powers, such as Great Britain and France, were not intent to protect small states and, instead, preferred the destructive policy of appeasement which actually resulted in the outbreak of World War II which struck Europe on September 1, 1939, when Germany started the occupation of Poland.

Thus, the foreign policy of Great Britain was a total failure since the country ignored aggressive policies of Japan and Germany. Moreover, Great Britain attempted to appease Hitler sacrificing smaller states and their independence for the sake of peace in Europe. However, such a policy resulted in the strengthening of Germany and outbreak of World War II.

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