From 1914 to 1916: the key battles in conflict
The first half of the war claimed huge numbers of lives in a series of clashes
When Arch-duke Franz Ferdinand, heir-apparent to the Austro-Hungarian throne, was assassinated on June 28, 1914, few could have imagined that it would trigger the most destructive and harrowing war the world had ever seen.
British leaders were confident the conflict would "be over by Christmas" but it soon degenerated into a full-blown world war that would pull in most major countries and drag on for four long years.
It would change the face of warfare forever thanks to the advent of submarines, tanks, airplanes and such mass-destruction horrors as poison gas and machine guns.
For many, World War I will be forever characterised by the brutal, attritional campaigns that were waged in the extensive networks of trenches that scarred much of continental Europe.
The figures are mind-boggling: some 70 million military personnel took part, with the vast bulk of that number from Europe. An estimated nine million were killed, including 49,000 Irish. Countless others were left maimed for life.
BATTLE OF THE FRONTIERS
Predominately involving French and German soldiers, these five early offensives at Mulhouse, Lorraine, the Ardennes, Charleroi and Mons would be a sign of the carnage to come with both sides sustaining heavy casualties. Aggressive German tactics forced a general Allied retreat to the Marne.
The offensive at Mons, in particular, featured a large contingent of Irish troops, with the Royal Munster Fusiliers, whose home depot was in Tralee, Co Kerry, playing a significant part. The Irish Guards also experienced significant lossses.
The first shot fired by the British army was by Corporal Edward Thomas of the 4th Royal Irish Dragoon Guards just north of Mons on August 22. The following day, Lt Maurice Dease from Mullingar, who was serving with the Royal Fusiliers, attempted to stop the German advance into the city with his machine gun unit. He died fighting and was awarded the first posthumous Victoria Cross of the war.
BATTLE OF LE CATEAU
A rearguard action fought by the British following the successful German offensives during the Battle of the Frontiers: although it served to delay the German army's advance on Paris, the British suffered almost 8,000 casualties.
BATTLE OF TANNENBERG
Perhaps the most spectacular and complete German victory of World War I, and still regarded as a tactical masterstroke, the encirclement and destruction of the Russian Second Army in late August 1914 virtually ended Russia's invasion of East Prussia before it had really started (see German map).
FIRST BATTLE OF THE MARNE
A hugely significant battle and not just because the Allies successfully halted the German advance on Paris. This was the place where trench warfare was introduced on a scale never before seen – and would be employed time and again over the next four years.
The enormous loss of life underscored the attritional nature of the trench campaigns. The French incurred 250,000 casualties, the Germans suffered similar. The British recorded 12,733 casualties.
FIRST BATTLE OF THE AISNE
A audacious, frontal attack by the Allies against the German First and Second armies' superior defensive positions across the river at the Aisne, it saw more than 3,000 British soldiers killed during the attack.
THE FIRST BATTLE OF ALBERT AND THE BATTLE OF ARRAS
Allies attempted to outflank the Germans in what became known as the "Race to the Sea". French attacks met stern resistance and the line began to stabilise. Fighting moved towards Flanders.
OCTOBER 19– NOVEMBER 22
FIRST BATTLE OF YPRES
The first Battle of Ypres was the last in the Race to the Sea series, which decided the location of the western front. British casualties were reported at 58,155, French around 50,000, German 130,000.
DECEMBER 20–MARCH 17, 1915
FIRST BATTLE OF CHAMPAGNE
The first significant attack by the Allies against the Germans after the advent of trench warfare. French casualties were some 90,000; the German Third army lost an equivalent number.
BATTLE OF NEUVE CHAPELLE
Douglas Haig's First Army led the attack on Neuve Chapelle. Allied casualties were 11,200 (7,000 British, 4,200 Indian). German losses were similar, with 1,200 German troops captured.
APRIL 22–MAY 25
SECOND BATTLE OF YPRES
An especially significant battle, as it featured the first large-scale use of chemical weapons. Some 10,000 troops were affected by the gas. Half died within 10 minutes of infection. Losses were estimated at 69,000 Allied troops, 59,000 British, 10,000 French, against 35,000 German.
The extent of the carnage is illustrated by the losses sustained by the 2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers. Of 666 troops who took part in this battle, only 21 survived.
APRIL 25–JANUARY 9, 1916
One of the longest campaigns of the entire war, and fought at various points along the Gallipoli peninsula in Turkey, it featured troops from more than 20 countries – including Ireland.
It was the battle that best captured the global extent of the Great War thanks to the large participation of soldiers from Australia and New Zealand. Their memory lives on during the national holiday of Anzac Day which is commemorated in both countries.
The Royal Dublin Fusiliers and the Royal Munster Fusiliers were the most high-profile of the Irish regiments that took part and, in one especially bloody 36-hour period, 600 Irish men perished trying to reach the shore at V Beach. They were simply mown down by Turkish machine gunners.
Gallipoli was disastrous for the Allies and came close to ending the career of future British prime minister Winston Churchill, who had devised the campaign.
The losses on all sides were monumental: 250,000 Allies perished, while an estimated 220,000 Turks were killed.
BATTLE OF FESTUBERT
Part of the French infantry's Artois offensive; British, Canadian and Indian troops captured the village of Festubert after strong resistance. Casualties of 16,000 advanced the Allies just half a mile.
BATTLE OF LOOS
Despite sustained artillery bombardment and the release of 5,000 chlorine gas cylinders, German machine guns resisted the British attack, inflicting 50,000 casualties in just four days. German losses were estimated at half that total.
FEB 21–DEC 18
BATTLE OF VERDUN
Rather than take the town, the Germans hoped to inflict crippling losses on the defending French forces – and they succeeded.
Verdun was a devastating campaign for both sides and yet it isn't part of the public consciousness today in the way the battles of Ypres and the Somme are. That's probably because practically no British or Irish soldiers were involved.
But the numbers killed are jaw-dropping. Roughly a 10th of all those killed in the Great War met their end in this picturesque part of north-eastern France.
An estimated one million were lost – with roughly the same number of casualties on both sides – by the time the Germans had been driven back.
JULY 1–NOV 18
BATTLE OF THE SOMME
The main Allied attack on the western front in 1916. British casualties on the first day totalled 58,000, the worst single-day loss of the whole war. Between 3,500 and 4,000 Irish men are thought to have died in this harrowing campaign, which is still cited as the battle that captures the futility of war.
For more on the Battle of the Somme and a concluding timeline of the key battles of World War 1, including the all-important naval Battle of Jutland, see next week's issue of 'Ireland at War'.
See our dedicated World War 1 section here.
Irish Independent Supplement