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1. FIRST BATTLE OF THE MARNE
At the start of the First World War, Germany hoped to avoid fighting on two fronts by knocking out France before turning to Russia, France’s ally. The initial German offensive had some early success, but there were not enough reinforcements immediately available to sustain momentum. The French and British launched a counter-offensive at the Marne (6-10 September 1914) and after several days of bitter fighting the Germans retreated.
Germany’s failure to defeat the French and the British at the Marne also had important strategic implications. The Russians had mobilised more quickly than the Germans had anticipated and launched their first offensive within two weeks of the war’s outbreak. The Battle of Tannenberg in August 1914 ended in German victory, but the combination of German victory in the east and defeat in the west meant the war would not be quick, but protracted and extended across several fronts.
The Gallipoli campaign (25 April 1915 – 9 January 1916) was the land-based element of a strategy intended to allow Allied ships to pass through the Dardanelles, capture Constantinople (now Istanbul) and ultimately knock Ottoman Turkey out of the war. But Allied plans were based on the mistaken belief that the Ottomans could be easily overcome.
At dawn on 25 April 1915, Allied troops landed on the Gallipoli peninsula in Ottoman Turkey. General Sir Ian Hamilton decided to make two landings, placing the British 29th Division at Cape Helles and the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) north of Gaba Tepe in an area later dubbed Anzac Cove. Both landings were quickly contained by determined Ottoman troops and neither the British nor the Anzacs were able to advance.
The Battle of Jutland (31 May – 1 June 1916) was the largest naval battle of the First World War. It was the only time that the British and German fleets of ‘dreadnought’ battleships actually came to blows.
The German High Seas Fleet hoped to weaken the Royal Navy by launching an ambush on the British Grand Fleet in the North Sea. German Admiral Reinhard Scheer planned to lure out both Admiral Sir David Beatty’s Battlecruiser Force and Admiral Sir John Jellicoe’s Grand Fleet. Scheer hoped to destroy Beatty’s force before Jellicoe’s arrived, but the British were warned by their codebreakers and put both forces to sea early.
4. BATTLE OF VERDUN
The Battle of Verdun (21 February – 18 December 1916) was the longest battle of the First World War. It was also one of the costliest. It began in February 1916 with a German attack on the fortified French town of Verdun, where bitter fighting would continue for most of the year.
The ten-hour opening bombardment saw an unprecedented concentration of firepower and although the French were forced back they did not break. In the summer, the Germans were forced to reduce their strength at Verdun after the British and Russians launched their own offensives elsewhere.
The French retook lost ground in the autumn and through careful management of their army, efficient logistics and the resilience of the troops fighting for their homeland, the French secured a defensive victory before the year’s end.
5. BATTLE OF THE SOMME
The Battle of the Somme (1 July – 18 November 1916) was a joint operation between British and French forces intended to achieve a decisive victory over the Germans on the Western Front. For many in Britain, the resulting battle remains the most painful and infamous episode of the First World War.
In December 1915, Allied commanders had met to discuss strategies for the upcoming year and agreed to launch a joint French and British attack in the region of the River Somme in the summer of 1916. Intense German pressure on the French at Verdun throughout 1916 made action on the Somme increasingly urgent and meant the British would take on the main role in the offensive.
They were faced with German defences that had been carefully laid out over many months. Despite a seven-day bombardment prior to the attack on 1 July, the British did not achieve the quick breakthrough their military leadership had planned for and the Somme became a deadlocked battle of attrition.