At the beginning of World War I, the predominate view was that the war would be over soon, even as early as Christmas. And perhaps it would have if events had gone differently.
In the autumn of 1914, the Allies had won the First Battle of the Marne, saving Paris from falling to the Germans, but Belgium was still occupied. The Allies were confident, however, that they could reach the German border in three months.
German and French Defenses
Unknown to the Allies, the Germans were fortifying their defenses near the Aisne River. The Allies discovered the fortifications only after they reached the Aisne. They attacked and managed to cross the river, but were unable to remove the Germans from the high ground. The Germans counterattacked, but that, too, was unsuccessful. Both sides dug trenches.
In the city of Reims, the French were under attack by the Germans, but held their ground.
Neither side was interested in stalemate or, worse, defeat. There weren’t many troops north of the Aisne, so both sides decided the best way to achieve victory was to outflank the other. The English Channel was seen as a prize of strategic importance.
Race to the Sea
The Allies and Germans began moving troops to extend their lines. The Race to the Sea was on.
The Germans clashed with British and French forces. In Belgium, troops fought to keep Antwerp free, but the city was forced to surrender to the Germans.
The Germans often clashed with colonial troops. Indians, for example, had only been in Europe for six weeks when they were thrown into battle.
Between mid-September and mid-October, several battles — including the Battle of Picardy, the First Battle of Arras and the Battle of Messines — were fought as the armies clashed over territory. In each instance, trenches were dug as soldiers prepared for the long haul.
As the armies reached the North Sea, there failed to be a victor, so they tried to outflank each other to the south.
Trench warfare had begun. Eventually trenches would extend 440 miles from the North Sea to Switzerland.
By Christmas, the death toll would be 240,000 Germans killed and 360,000 Belgians, British and French.
Updated: 23 October 2020