6 Important Battles of World War I

Village in the Somme

Battle of Tannenberg

The First World War began in the summer of 1914 shortly after the Archduke of Austria, Franz Ferdinand, was killed by a Serbian radical. Immediately following the assassination, both countries participated in a series of verbal attacks that resulted in Austria-Hungary declaring war against Serbia on July 28, 1914. Germany soon joined forces with Austria-Hungary to form the Central Powers, whereas Great Britain, France, Russia, Italy, Japan and the United States sided with Serbia to form the Allied Powers. Throughout the war, a substantial number of battles occurred between the Central and Allied Powers, six of which are essential for understanding World War I.

On August 26, 1914, one of the first battles of World War I started when Russian troops attempted to invade German territory in a multi-pronged ambush. Russian General Samsonov led his Second Army from the southwest, while General Rennenkampf marched the First Army through the northeast. This military strategy proved unsuccessful as a miscommunication on the Russian side led to a widely dispersed and weakened Army. In addition, German Colonel Hoffman and General Ludendorff intercepted a series of Russian messages that allowed the German Army to set up numerous traps cutting off Russian supplies. As a result, Germany ended up winning the battle, capturing 95,000 Russian troops, as well as enough guns and equipment to fill six trains back to Berlin.

First Battle of Marne

The First Battle of Marne is an important moment in war history as it was the first documented wartime use of motorized transport and radio intercepts. On September 5, 1914, French Commander Joffre and the French Army drove Paris taxis and buses to rush attack German troops through a gap opened by France’s Sixth Army and the British Expeditionary Force. Shocked by this military tactic, the German armies lost communication with one another and soon were retreating in what is now known as the “race to the sea.”

Battle of Gallipoli

The Battle of Gallipoli has become known as one of the Allied Powers most unsuccessful attempts to gain the upper hand in World War I. Lasting from February 1915 to January 1916, the battle began with the British and French initiating a naval attack on Turkey’s Dardanelles Straits. Commanders were unprepared and lacked necessary insight on the hilly Turkish terrain, resulting in hesitant and suspicious Allied troops. Furthermore, the Turkish Army held an extremely strong defense and leveraged their knowledge of the terrain to diminish the impact of this attack. By January, there had been an accumulation of over 500,000 soldiers lost, most of which belonged to the retreating Allied Powers.

Battle of Verdun

The Battle of Verdun was one of the longest battles of World War I. On February 21, 1916, the Battle of Verdun began as a direct result of German General von Falkenhayn’s implicit desire to take as many French lives as possible, in hopes of changing the course of the war. Upon receiving approval from higher ranks, General von Falkenhayn led German troops into French territory taking Fort Douaumont, without firing a single shot, and Fort Vaux. Despite these wins, General von Falkenhayn wanted even more bloodshed and continued to push forward. With the death toll from both sides surpassing 600,000, German commanders decided to protect their remaining troops, removing General von Falkenhayn from his position and retreating to safer grounds on December 18, 1916.

Battle of Jutland

The Battle of Jutland is seen as the battle that changed the course of the First World War. On May 31, 1916, World War I’s primary naval battle, the Battle of Jutland, took place on Denmark’s North Sea coast. The Battle of Jutland involved an estimated 250 ships and initially started as a small crossfire between German and British scouts. The British had uncovered the German’s coded communication methods and used it to their advantage. When Germany’s Admiral Von Hipper ordered 40 ships to move to the Danish coast, Britain’s Admiral Jellicoe ordered a fleet to meet them at sea. Eventually, main forces met, and Admiral Jellicoe leveraged the dwindling daylight to muddle many of the German Army’s attacks. Although the German forces eventually retreated on the 1st of June, they claimed victory due to having taken down 14 British ships and 6,784 British soldiers, compared to Germany’s 3,058 fatalities. At the same time, Britain claimed victory, because they stood as a strong opponent after the battle and were able to maintain their blockade against the Germans. Regardless, after the Battle of Jutland, German forces were never able to reclaim their previous level of power or control.

Battle of Somme

On July 1, 1916, the Battle of Somme, now known as one of the bloodiest battles of World War I, took place near the Somme River in France, with over 1.5 million troops killed by its end in November. On the first day of battle, the British Army lost over 57,000 troops. Despite so many casualties, improved communications and battle tactics marked the Battle of Somme as an immense improvement for the British Army. An example of a tactic the British mastered was the “creeping barrage”, in which they fired artillery just ahead of their preceding soldiers to aid their advancement. This helped the battle become a real turning point in the war as a whole, because of the heavy losses inflicted on the German Army. The Battle of Somme also marked the first American lost in the First World War: Harry Butters, who died on August 31, 1916.

Following these battles, and others, on October 17, 1918, having the majority of control, the Allied Powers started moving in on the German borders. Soon after, Turkey and Austria-Hungary signed armistices, leaving Germany entirely on their own. With tensions at an all-time high, the German Army began internally falling apart, resulting in the German forces and Allied Powers reaching a peace agreement that ended World War I on November 11, 1918.

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Battle of Gallipoli, History.com

Battle of Verdun, History.com

First Battle of Marne, History.com

Battles - The Battle of Tannenberg, 1914, firstworldwar.com

Battle of the Somme, History.com

What was the Battle of Jutland, why was it so important to the First World War - and who won?, The Telegraph

Battles - The Battle of the Somme, 1916, firstworldwar.com

Village in the Somme, Library of Congress