Fought between July 28, 1914 and November 11, 1918, World War I was a global conflict between the Central Powers of Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria; and the Allies which was a coalition of many nations, most prominently the Great Britain, France, Russia, Japan and Italy. The Western Front, a 400-plus mile stretch of land weaving through France and Belgium from the Swiss border to the North Sea, was the main theater of the First World War. It saw most of the major battles fought during WW1 including the First Battle of Marne, Battle of Verdun, Battle of Somme and the German Spring Offensive. The second most important theater of the war was the Eastern Front, which had the Russian Empire and Romania on one side; and the Central Powers on the other. The major battles on the Eastern Front include Battle of Tannenberg, Gorlice Tarnów Offensive and the Brusilov Offensive. Here is detailed information about the 10 most important battles of WW1 including their dates, place, front, participating nations and the top leaders involved..
#1 Battle of Tannenberg
Date: August 26 – 30, 1914, Eastern Front
Fought within the first month of war, the Battle of Tannenberg was the first major engagement on the Eastern Front between German and Russian armies. By mid-August, Russia had managed to send its 1st Army under General Rennenkampf to north-eastern Prussia, and the 2nd Army under General Samsonov to south–west, with the aim of pinning an outnumbered German Eighth Army between them. The Russians, however, failed to communicate effectively. On 26th August, after intercepting an un-coded wireless message between Samsonov and Rennenkampf, the German Eighth Army launched a surprise attack near Tannenberg. The battle resulted in the destruction of much of the advancing Russian 2nd Army and, in follow up engagements, the 1st Army as well.
The Battle of Tennenberg resulted in 170,000 Russian casualties and capture of 350 large Russian guns with minimal German loss. It was a huge morale boosting win for the Germans and forwarded the reputation of Generals Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff. The battle kept the Russians off balance until the spring of 1915. However, the offensive meant that two German corps had to be removed from the Western to the Eastern Front. Though the two corps did not arrive in time to play a role in the Battle of Tannenberg, their absence proved vital for Germany on the Western Front in the First Battle of Marne.
#2 First Battle of Marne
Date: September 6 – 12, 1914, Western Front
The first offensives of Germany in the First World War were based on a variation of the Schlieffen Plan; a strategy to deploy majority of forces on the Western Front and invade France through Belgium in a flanking movement. With this Germany hoped to avoid fighting on two fronts by knocking out France before turning to Russia. After successful invasions of Luxemburg and Belgium in August 1914, the German forces entered and advanced swiftly within French territory, threatening Paris.
The First Battle of Marne refers to the French and British counter-offensive along the Marne River. Fought between 6 – 12 September, the battle was a victory for the Allied forces as the Imperial German Army was forced to retreat leading to the “Race to the Sea“ and a long stalemate on the Western Front. The battle was marked by the German failure to quickly quash the French threat on the Western Front despite their victory on the eastern front in the Battle of Tannenberg. As troops began to dig trenches, the expected short war did not materialize for the Germans, and the conflict turned from a war of maneuver to a war of position.
#3 Battle of Gallipoli
Date: February 17, 1915 – January 9, 1916, Gallipoli Peninsula
The only major victory of the Ottoman Empire in WW1, the Gallipoli Campaign refers to the Allied advance in the Gallipoli Peninsula with the aim of weakening the Ottoman Empire by taking control of the strategic straights and advancing further. The plan involved sailing a huge fleet at the 65-mile Dardanelles water strait that linked the Mediterranean and Ottoman capital Constantinople (now Istanbul), capturing the city and knocking Ottoman Turkey out of the war. The naval offensive began in February 1915 and was a disaster, in part due to the outdated allies’ fleet; and the many ships that were sunk by Ottoman cannons and mines. Allied troops were then assembled to eliminate the Ottoman mobile artillery, which was preventing the Allied minesweepers from clearing the way for the larger vessels.
On 25th April 1915, amphibious landings were made on the peninsula, placing the British 29th Division at Cape Helles and the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) in an area later dubbed as Anzac cove. Both landing were quickly contained with the Ottomans not allowing any further advance. The same fate awaited the August landing near Anzac cove and Suvla Bay, forcing the Allies to decide on evacuation by December 1915. The Gallipoli Campaign saw close to 300,000 Allied casualties and 250,000 Ottoman casualties. The struggle formed the basis for the Turkish War of Independence and the rise of prominent Gallipoli commander Mustafa Kemal as its leader. It is also considered to have helped build the national consciousness of Australia and New Zealand as countries.
#4 Gorlice Tarnów Offensive
Date: May 2 – June 22, 1915, Eastern Front
Austria-Hungary was in an unfavorable position by mid-1915 with large areas of Galicia and Bukovina under Russian control. The weakening of the forces of the Habsburg Empire meant that Italy and Romania, who had stayed neutral since the beginning of war, would be tempted to join the Allied forces. Austro-Hungarian Chief Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf thus looked towards its ally Germany for support; and threatened to sue for a separate peace if the Germans refused to help. Conrad and German Chief Erich von Falkenhayn, thus planned a joint offensive on the Eastern Front in the region of Gorlice-Tarnów.
Beginning in early May 1915 and led by German field marshal August von Mackensen, the offensive was a major military success for Austria Hungary and Germany on the Eastern Front. On the very first day, the Central forces advanced almost 10 kilometers into the enemy’s defensive zone while the Russian III Army was routed in the first eight days. The Russians retreated to a new defensive line along the River San. This too did not hold for long against the advancing enemy. On 21st June, Russian Stavka, the high command of the armed forces, ordered the evacuation of its troops from Galicia and the Polish salient to shorten the front–line and avoid encirclement. This led to the Great Retreat of 1915.
The Central Powers thus managed to recapture Galicia with the penetration progressing about 160 km at its deepest. More importantly, the Russian threat to Austria-Hungary was averted. An estimated 100,000 Russian soldiers were killed or wounded in action, and another 250,000 were captured by the Austro-Hungarian and German forces, along with large amounts of weapons and other war materiel. The Central Powers suffered 90,000 casualties. The success in the campaign meant that Austria-Hungary could transfer a considerable number of troops from the Eastern Front to the new Italian front, when Italy declared war in May, 1915. Weakening of Russia on the Eastern Front led to the successful invasion of Serbia by the Central Powers in October, 1915. The supreme commander of Russian Forces Grand Duke Nicholas was replaced by Tsar Nicholas II himself. Furthermore, the political, economic and military situation in Russia began its descent, leading ultimately to the Russian Revolution.
#5 Battle of Verdun
Date: February 21 – December 18, 1916, Western Front
Fought for 9 months, 3 weeks and 6 days, the Battle of Verdun was the longest, and one of the most savage battles of the First World War. As noted from German Chief of General Staff Erich von Falkenhayn’s 1915 memo, the objective of the operation was to achieve a kill ratio of 5:2 in favor of the Germans, and cause the French Army to bleed to death defending the fortresses around Verdun. The plan involved a continuous series of limited advances supported by intense artillery bombardment.
The battle commenced on 21st February, 1916, when the German Army began their attack on the French fortified town of Verdun on the Meuse river. The initial phase of the battle saw Germany swiftly advance with Fort Douaumont captured in the first three days of the offensive. The French General Henri Philippe Petain was appointed to defend Verdun. His first challenge was to establish a supply chain, as the main rail lines to Verdun had been cut or were under constant barrage by German artillery. Over 3000 trucks transported men and material using a 57 km dirt road to bolster the French forces. This would be known as La Voie Sacrée (“the Sacred Way“) for its critical role in the French defense.
By 6th March, the battle had extended to both the banks of the Meuse. Back and forth battles continued with both sides losing thousands of men but the Germans held the initiative, and with the fall of Fort Vaux and Thiaumont on 9th June, the situation was looking bleak for the French. The Germans continued the offensive and, with the capture of Fleury, came within 4km of the Verdun citadel. However, the launch of the Somme Offensive by the Allies in late June, helped turn the tide as the Germans were forced to reinforce the Somme front. Fleury changed hands sixteen times and the German attack on Fort Souville failed. The autumn of 1916, saw the French counter attack and recapture of Fort Douaumont. A few days later, Fort Vaux was also recaptured. By December, the French had recovered most of the territory they lost in February. The battle thus ended in a stalemate at an enormous cost. Germans failing to achieve a high kill ratio had lost over 430,000 men killed or wounded, the French approximately 550,000, with nearly three quarter of the French army having fought the battle.
#6 Battle of Jutland
Date: May 31 – June 1, 1916, North Sea
Fought near the Skagerrak, close to west coast of Jutland in the North Sea, the Battle of Jutland was the largest and only major naval battle of WW1. It was fought between Britain’s Royal Navy Grand Fleet and Imperial German Navy’s High Seas Fleet. In the battle, Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, commanding 151 British combat ships including 28 battleships, would come face to face with 99 German combat ships including 16 battleships under Vice Admiral Reinhard Scheer.
The Germans were under a British naval blockade since the commencement of the First World War. Knowing the numerical superiority and experience of the Royal Navy, the Germans largely avoided direct conflict and evolved their naval strategy around their submarines. In May 1916, the majority of the British Grand Fleet was anchored far away, off the northern coast of Scotland. Thus the Germans made a plan to lure and ambush the British Fleet, with the aim of weakening the Royal Navy and its numerical advantage. The plan worked up to a point with British Admiral Jellicoe sending the 5th Battle Squadron to bolster Vice Admiral Sir David Beatty’s 1st and 2nd Battle Cruiser Squadrons at Rosyth. But unfortunately for the Germans, coded instructions of Admiral Scheer were being intercepted and decoded by British Intelligence and the plan was soon revealed.
100,000 men with 250 ships fought the Battle of Jutland. Initial encounters between Beatty’s force and the High Seas Fleet resulted in the loss of several ships; including HMS Lion, HMS Indefatigable and HMS Queen Mary; which were destroyed. Beatty withdrew until Jellicoe arrived with the main fleet. The Germans, now outgunned, turned for home. In total fourteen British and eleven German ships sank and there were close to 10,000 casualties. In the indecisive battle, both sides were unable to achieve their objectives, but claimed victory. The Germans had destroyed more ships and caused more casualties, but it was always their initiative to change the balance of power in European waters, which they failed to achieve in the entire war.
#7 Brusilov Offensive
Date: June 4 – September 20, 1916, Eastern Front
Named after General Aleksei Brusilov, the commander in charge of the Southwestern Front of the Imperial Russian Army, the Brusilov offensive was the most successful Russian advance in WW1. In December 1915, at the Chantilly Conference, the Allies had agreed to launch simultaneous offensives against the Central Powers. After the disaster of Lake Naroch Offensive in March, Brusilov proposed a massive offensive against Austro-Hungarian forces in Galicia. The aim was to relieve the pressure off the French at Verdun and Italians on the Isonzo; and to possibly knock Austria–Hungary out of the war.
Four armies of more than 40 infantry and 15 cavalry divisions were round up and preparations began for a surprise assault along a 480 km front. On June 4, 1916, the Russians attacked the Austro-Hungarian defensive lines, beginning with an impressive and accurate artillery bombardment. The successful initial attack opened weaknesses in the Austro-Hungarian defenses under the command of Archduke Josef Ferdinand, allowing three of Brusilov’s four armies to advance on a wide front. Austrian commander Conrad von Hotzendorff was soon forced to close down the offensive against Italy to divert divisions to the east. His German counterpart Falkenhayn, who was optimistic about a French surrender at Verdun on the western front, was taken aback. He was thus forced to release German divisions from the west, a weakness that allowed a successful French counterattack at Verdun on June 23.
The offensive ended as the Russian armies reached close to the Carpathian Mountains by September 20 and their resources began to run out. The Austro-Hungarians alone lost close to 1,000,000 men as casualties and 25,000 sq. km of territory. The Russians casualties numbered between 500,000 to 1,000,000. The battle played a big role in weakening the Central Powers on the Italian front, where they forsake victory to fight the Russians in the north, and also on the Western Front, from where the Germans had to send reinforcements. Moreover, the offensive was a big blow for Austria–Hungary, who were in political turmoil and could not withstand the loss of men and resources. However, Russia faced its own problems due to the offensive as the drain of resources put a heavy burden on its population which would soon revolt.
#8 Battle of Somme
Date: July 1 – November 18, 1916, Western Front
The Battle of Somme was the largest battle fought on the western front in the First World War, involving more than 3 million fighting men and close to a million casualties. Honoring the promises made in the Allied conference at Chantilly in December 1915, the British and the French planned a major assault on the western front against Germany. In February 1916, however, the Germans launched their own offensive at Verdun which began putting pressure on French resources. The British army, under Commander Douglas Haig, took the lead and, after a week-long bombardment of German defensive lines, the Allies launched the Somme offensive on July 1, 1916.
Over a million and a half shells had been fired on the Germans. However, the bombardment had not achieved the desired results with the Germans in relative safety of their deep dugouts. On the first day, the allies expected to march into no man’s land but were instead faced with German machine gun fire. The British suffered 58,000 casualties on that day, a third of them killed, making it the worst day in British military history. There was some success on the south for the British front, and the French did manage to make a deeper advance; but the battle was now that of attrition.
Over the next 140 days, attacks and counter attacks continued with tremendous loss of lives. By November, as the battle ended in a stalemate, the British, French and German casualties were approximated at 420,000, 200,000 and 500,000 respectively. The Somme campaign in 1916 was the first great offensive of World War I for the British. It marked the first use of battle tanks which failed to impress initially but would in years to come provide solutions for trench deadlocks. The Somme was an expensive lesson in how not to mount effective attacks. However, the German army was also weakened and, in February 2017, retreated to new and shorter, defensive lines.
#9 Battle of Passchendaele
Date: July 31 – November 6, 1917, Third Ypres, Western Front
With the failure of the Allied Nivelle Offensive in May 1917, British Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig set forth plans to launch his offensive in Flanders. Haig intended to capture an important rail junction a few miles to the east; and to eventually retake the Belgian ports that were supporting the successful German campaign of unrestricted submarine warfare. Bolstered by the dramatic success of the preliminary operation at Messines Ridge, the British Fifth Army supported by the Second Army; along with the French First Army launched the offensive from the Ypres Salient on 31st July. The initial success for the Allies was however soon hampered as heavy rains descend on the region. The situation was further worsened as the drainage system of the area has been mostly destroyed in the preliminary bombardment. The resulting wet muddy conditions clogged rifles and tanks, halted much of the movement and drowned many men and horses.
Attacks resumed on 16th August without any significant gains and there was a stalemate for over a month. Improved assaults in drier conditions post 20th September witnessed the British capture of the ridge east of Ypres on October 4. In early November, the British and Canadian troops captured what remained of the Passchendaele village. Having gained strategic ground around Ypres, Haig was able to claim success. The Third Battle of Ypres or Battle of Passchendaele has come to symbolize the horrors associated with the war on the Western Front. Fought for more than 3 months, the battle ended just five miles east of where it had started and claimed between 200,000 – 450,000 casualties on either side. The German ports were not threatened, but their having to defend in Flanders gave the French time to recuperate from the failure of the Nivelle Offensive.
#10 German Spring Offensive
Date: March 21 – July 18, 1918, Ludendorff Offensive, Western Front
By the end of 1917, Germany was in an advantageous position. The surrender of Russia on the Eastern Front meant it had freed up close to 500,000 troops and could now solely concentrate on the Western Front. The German leadership had realized that their best chance of victory was to defeat the Allies before the arrival of overwhelming human and materiel resources from the United States. General Erick Ludendorff thus planned a massive attack on the Allies in the following spring, a calculated gamble that could win them the war on the Western Front. This came to be known as the Spring Offensive.
The offensive began on March 21, 1918 with Operation Michael, and an artillery bombardment that saw a million plus shells being fired in just five hours on the British Fifth Army. The Germans widely used Stormtrooper tactics in the Spring Offensive, infiltrating and bypassing enemy strong–points to be mopped up by follow up troops. The Stormtroopers were expected to disrupt enemy headquarters, artillery units and supply depots in the rear areas; and to occupy territory rapidly.
Operation Michael aimed to break through the Allied lines; and outflank the British forces which held the front from the Somme River to the English Channel. This was quickly followed by Operation Georgette launched with the objective of capturing Ypres; and forcing the British forces back to the channel ports and out of the war. Another major assault, Operation Blücher-Yorck, was launched in the end of May when the French were attacked at the Aisne with the aim of threatening Paris. By early June, the Germans were on the Marne River and Paris was not far away. The Spring Offensive ended with Operation Gneisenau, as the Germans made an effort to link the gains from Michael and Blücher-Yorck.
The Spring Offensive is considered as a tactical victory but a strategic failure. The Germans gained vast amounts of territory but the Allies managed to defend strategic areas under the assault. The fast moving Stormtroopers stretched the supply lines and were unable to sustain themselves for long, and soon the German offensives lost their steam. This was, in part, due to lack of supplies. As the Germans assault died out and the main objectives were not achieved, the tide slowly turned in early summer of 1918. The Spring Offensive was followed by the 100 Days Offensive, a series of victories for the Allies that would win them WW1 in November 1918.