World War I: The Western Front
- LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2017
- LAST MODIFIED: 06 February 2012
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0068
- LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2017
- LAST MODIFIED: 06 February 2012
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0068
The war that raged along the Western Front from 1914 to 1918 is among the most studied and controversial events in European history. The Western Front is synonymous with trench warfare and the static war that replaced the relatively brief period of a war of movement in August and September 1914. The war of movement that resulted from the implementation of Germany’s so-called Schlieffen Plan quickly became bogged down, and by the end of 1914 troops had been digging themselves into the ground and would stay there, with relatively little adjustment to the front line, until the end of the war. Popular mythology equates the Western Front with the futility and pity of war, and with pointless suffering. For many it is epitomized by images of the Somme. While scholarship has long denounced the popular images of “mud and blood” and challenged the once prevalent idea that British troops had been “lions led by donkeys” with concepts such as the (admittedly Anglocentric) “learning curve,” historians continue to study the Western Front, and its popular appeal remains unchanged. Many major battles still need serious scholarly attention, and the efforts of the French and German armies remain poorly understood, compared to the more thoroughly studied British. Tactical evolution, the development of operations-level planning, generalship, military effectiveness, and the integration of new technology (among other topics) are the central themes around which the debates continue. In addition, the interest in the experience of war and in its cultural history has led to new ways of studying the Western Front, focusing, for example, on civilian experiences of the war. No doubt the centenary of the war’s outbreak will add further publications to an already seemingly inexhaustible list as historians continue to debate the nature of the war on the Western Front.
General histories of World War I abound despite the inherent difficulty in synthesizing truly monumental amounts of data into relatively concise accounts. Strachan 2001 is the only volume completed so far of the author’s planned three-volume study, which is set to become the most comprehensive account of the war. Beckett 2007 attempts to deal with the sheer weight of material by abandoning a chronological narrative for a thematic approach that allows the author to analyze key areas of the war such as the effects of economics, science and technology, and training, among many other important topics. Stevenson 2004 is impressive in its ability to review the entire war and accurately portray so many key events. Neiberg 2005 provides essays on a number of topics, including the Western Front, and Neiberg 2008 is especially helpful for its close focus on the Western Front. Boemeke, et al. 1999 (cited under Germany and the Central Powers) and Chickering and Förster 2000 focus on the experience of war and the question of the war’s unique nature by asking whether it was the first “total war,” and by examining the nature of “total war” in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Hirschfeld, et al. 2003 is a German-language encyclopedia of the war that is a useful starting point for anyone interested in overviews of the multitude of approaches historians have adopted in studying World War I. The work provides expert overviews of all relevant areas of research in major introductory essays on the main combatants, on society at war, the course of the war and major battles, the end of the war, and its historiography, as well as offering encyclopedic entries on events, people, and concepts. The Western Front is well covered in this impressive volume. More recently, Sondhaus 2011 is an exhaustive and informative account of the war, with documents and bibliographical information, which will be a useful starting point for those trying to familiarize themselves with the events of 1914–1918. For a more popular approach, Hew Strachan’s television series The First World War, produced in 2003 by the UK television station Channel 4, is an excellent starting point, based on his authoritative account of the war. A more popular book accompanied the series, Strachan 2003, which is aimed at a more general audience.
Beckett, Ian F. W. The Great War, 1914–1918. 2d ed. Harlow, UK: Pearson/Longman, 2007.
Beckett provides an excellent survey of the Great War. Detailed, knowledgeable, and very well referenced, with an excellent bibliography, maps, and chronology, it contains much on the Western Front.
Chickering, Roger, and Stig Förster, eds. Great War, Total War: Combat and Mobilization on the Western Front, 1914–1918. Washington, DC: German Historical Institute, 2000.
The essays in this collection ask whether the Great War was a “total” war. The authors do not arrive at a consensus view, but the volume contains much of interest to historians of the Western Front. Twenty-five chapters cover, inter alia, logistics, technology, chemical weapons, military doctrine, strategy, noncombatants, and war aims.
Hirschfeld, Gerhard, Gerd Krumeich, and Irina Renz, eds. Enzyklopädie Erster Weltkrieg. Paderborn, Germany: Schöningh, 2003.
Overviews of all relevant areas of research in essays on the main combatants, society at war, the course of the war and major battles, the end of the war, and its historiography, and encyclopedic entries on events, people, and concepts. Unfortunately not yet available in English.
Neiberg, Michael, ed. World War I. International Library of Essays in Military History. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2005.
This collection brings together a number of essays by leading scholars, a number of which address the once dominant images of World War I as a futile contest fought by innocent soldiers and wasteful generals, which have given way to more sophisticated scholarly analyses. This volume presents some of the most innovative work of this new generation of research on the War to End All Wars. Taking a global and comparative perspective, these essays place the War in a wide context. Chapters focus, for example, on the French Army at Verdun, attrition, German atrocities, the Somme, and gas warfare.
Neiberg, Michael S. The Western Front, 1914–1916: From the Schlieffen Plan to Verdun and the Somme. London: Amber, 2008.
Part of a six-volume history of the battles and campaigns on land, at sea, and in the air, Neiberg’s account provides a detailed guide to the conflict on the Western Front, from the opening shots to the end of the Somme offensive in late 1916. Includes maps and photographs.
Sondhaus, Lawrence. World War I: The Global Revolution. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011.
Aimed at general readers and students, Sondhaus provides an impressive array of sources to support his informed global history of the war, with up-to-date syntheses of the latest publications on the subject.
Stevenson, David. Cataclysm: The First World War as Political Tragedy. New York: Basic Books, 2004.
A magisterial overview that examines the war’s outbreak, escalation, outcome, and legacy. Contains an extensive bibliography and a number of useful maps.
Strachan, Hew. The First World War. Vol. 1, To Arms. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
In the first of three planned volumes, Strachan examines the causes of the war and its opening battles on land and sea, and includes the economic history of the war, the war in Africa, and the expansion of the war outside Europe.
Strachan, Hew. The First World War: A New Illustrated History. London: Simon & Schuster, 2003.
Written with a general audience in mind, to accompany the critically acclaimed television series The First World War. The book is richly illustrated and contains a lot of material on the Western Front, but also on all other aspects of the war.
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