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Battles of Verdun, Somme and the Hindenburg Line

The Western Front was a stalemate from 1915 to 1918, with no major movement but massive bloodshed. In 1916, the Germans attacked Verdun to weaken the French, and the British and French counterattacked at the Somme, using tanks. Both battles had a million casualties each. The Germans, facing pressure from the Russians and Austro-Hungarians, retreated to a shorter line, the Hindenburg line, in early 1917. Created by Sal Khan.

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  • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Adam
    What were the Austro-Hungarians doing at this point? Were they entirely occupied in the south and the eastern front? Were they there with the Germans in the trench line? Was there really no fighting to be done in southern France for example? There seems to be a very heavy focus from sources I've seen on German activity and the guys who kicked this all off aren't mentioned much.
    (37 votes)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user T.H.M.
      Good Question Adam, I've noticed the same thing myself :). During 1916 and 1917, the Austrians were fighting on three major fronts, in the East against the Russians, in the Balkans against a combined allied army in Greece, and with the Italians along the Austro-Italian Border.

      In 1914, the Austrians had invaded Serbian (three time precisely) had had been repelled each time. In 1915, the Austrians, with German and Bulgarian support, finally overran the country. However, the allies quickly rushed troops into neutral Greece to prevent the complete occupation of the Balkans. This front too would remain static with trenches until 1918.

      In Russia, the Austrians had also been defeated by the Russian in 1914, and had lost much of their province of Galica to the Russians. in 1915, the Austrians had helped the Germans in the repelling of Russian forces from Poland and in 1916 in repelling the Russian Brusilov Offensive. By 1917 when the war in the east ended, the Austrian were low on moral and were almost totally subservient to the Germans.

      However, it was in Italy, that the Austrians had the most success. Here, the front line ran along the Isonzo River. The Italians would launch a grand total of 11 attacks against the Austrians here (All called "The Battle of the Isonzo River", trying and differentiate between them all is a lot of fun) and the Austrians won each on. The Austrians in 1917 would then, with German support, fight the decisive Battle of Caporetto which Drove the Italians back several hundred miles and would break the Italian's moral. However, the Austrians were worn out and by 1918 the Austrians were routed and were forced to capitulate.

      So ya, the Austrians weren't just sitting on their hands for most of the war, despite what it may seem. :) Again, good question!
      (45 votes)
  • piceratops tree style avatar for user haajirb
    why were the casualties so high on the western front
    (13 votes)
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    • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user Parent123
      Most of the casualties on the western front can be chalked up to the use of static, positional warfare and the use of outmoded and questionable tactics (frontal assaults on well defended positions, failure to reinforce and exploit breakthroughs, etc) Simply put, most soldiers died from disease, artillery, and exceedingly poor leadership.
      (35 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Shaun Poore
    What was done with the half a million+ bodies? It seems unfathomable to me to have a scene where there's about as many corpses lying on the ground as the population of modern day Charlotte.
    (17 votes)
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    • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user Parent123
      In Verdun there is a very large building/monument called the " Douaumont Ossuary" that contains the bones of untold thousands. Essentially, bones from all over the battlefield were collected and eventually deposited in a single location that later became the Ossuary. Inside the building are numerous plaques bearing the names of many of the soldiers involved in the battle. Around back there are windows at ground level that let a visitor view the countless human skeletal remains that are interred under the monument.
      (26 votes)
  • leaf blue style avatar for user Aneirin (Nye) Rhys Potter
    At Sal says there is an estimate of 1/3 to 1/2 of a million casualties in each battle and at he says a million on each side. Can anybody clarify.
    (7 votes)
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  • male robot hal style avatar for user Khan Police
    If the soldier thought humanity was mad to fight such a war, why did he fight in it?
    (6 votes)
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  • orange juice squid orange style avatar for user David Boyce
    I'm interested if any of these battle sites are preserved and can be visited today. Are the trenches that were used still visible in some of these countries were the front was located?
    (8 votes)
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  • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user nakshatra gayan
    how did these tanks work?
    (4 votes)
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  • female robot amelia style avatar for user Maria Prange
    Why does Germany not try build an empire again?
    (1 vote)
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  • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Jonathan Chin
    If the Germans really made the French Army bleed, why were the German casualties also so high? Didn't their artillery just keep wiping out the French?
    (3 votes)
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  • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user dragonloverlord
    Did they have missiles in WW1 or even primitive missiles? I have always been confused about this.
    (3 votes)
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Video transcript

At a very high level, the period between 1915 and 1918 on the Western Front is usually considered to be a stalemate. It's considered to be a stalemate because you did not have a major movement on the front. There were some movement, but the front pretty much looked the way that it looks in this diagram right over here. That's not to say that it was not incredibly bloody. In fact, it was so bloody that some of the most famous battles, not just in World War I history, but in world history, occurred during this period. And in particular, they occurred in 1916. In 1916, the first of these happened in February, where you have the Battle of Verdun, or "Ver-done". Battle of Verdun, where you have the Germans, who want to do an offensive on the French that most historians believe was intended not to necessarily gain this territory, but to try to make the French put so many troops here and inflict so many casualties on the French that they might not be able to overcome that. And they might have to throw the French out of the war. And they especially thought this part of the front was vulnerable because the French could be attacked from multiple sides, this little bulge right over here. And so in February of 1916, they attack primarily with artillery. So they're shelling the French right over here, this whole area. The French keep bringing troops into the mix. And to get a sense of how ugly and how scary this whole scene was, this is a quote from the journal of a French soldier who was serving in Verdun during the Battle of Verdun, or serving in the Battle of Verdun. And he wrote-- and he was unfortunately later killed due to artillery fire-- "Humanity is mad. It must be mad to do what it is doing. What a massacre. What scenes of horror and carnage. I cannot find words to translate my impressions. Hell cannot be so terrible. Men are mad." And this battle would continue through most of the year. As you go into the summer, that's the maximum of the German offensive. This is some of the territory that they are able to capture. But as you get into the late summer, in July of 1916, the British and the French decide to do an offensive on another part of the front, right over here near the Somme River. So this right over here is the Somme River. So this right over here is the German offensive. In July, you have the Battle of the Somme, sometimes referred to as the Somme Offensive, named after the Somme River. It occurred where the Somme River intersected with the front. And this was an Anglo, British and French, Anglo French offensive. And it's also famous-- both of these were incredibly bloody. That's what really made them noteworthy. But this was also famous for the first use of the tanks. This was a picture of a British tank at the time. But both of these were incredibly bloody. It was lucky for the French at Verdun that the offensive at the Somme happened because this forced the Germans to go off of the offensive as we get into the late summer of 1916. They had to bring troops back over here to help support it. But the end result of both of these is you do not have a major movement of the front. In fact, by the end of 1916, because the Germans had to go fight at the Battle of the Somme, the French were able to recapture much of this territory. So the real end result of both of these offensives, one on the German side, one on the British side, was just a massive, massive, massive loss of human life. Each of them, it's estimated, had on the order of a million casualties, roughly half on each side. At Verdun, it was slightly more on the French side than the German. But it was roughly 55, 45%. So a million casualties in Verdun. A million casualties on both sides at the Somme. I've seen estimates on the death toll being a third of a million to half a million for each of these battles. So both of these were incredibly, incredibly ugly battles for both sides. The end result for the Germans though was even more interesting because you have to remember what was happening at the Eastern Front. On the Eastern Front, 1916 was the year that the Russians finally were building up their war machine. They were finally able to equip the munitions necessary. It was also the year that the Romanians joined on side of the Entente along with the Russians on the Eastern Front. The Austro-Hungarians were suffering huge losses. So in 1916 the Germans were in a very tough situation. Huge losses at Verdun, huge losses at the Battle of the Somme, the Russians are starting to get more aggressive on the Eastern Front, the Austro-Hungarians are starting to have trouble. So they decide to essentially re-trench. So they're going to start bringing more troops back to the Eastern Front. But in order not to lose too much ground on the Western Front, they essentially try to hold a smaller front. So they back up to this line. This is the line at the end of the Battle of the Somme. The Germans recognize that they can't protect this entire front. They want to protect a shorter front. So they begin preparing to move back right over here. And this line right over here is named after the field marshal of the German army. It's called the Hindenburg line. It's no coincidence. It's the same name of the zeppelin that blew up in the late '30s. It was actually named after Field Marshal Hindenburg for whom this line is named. But the Germans do this in order so that they can take more troops to the Eastern Front and hold a shorter line. So by the end of 1916, they start making the preparations for the Hindenburg line. And in February of 1917, they actually move back to the Hindenburg line. So this is 1917 February you have the Germans move to the Hindenburg line. So 1916, incredibly, incredibly ugly year. Two million casualties, not a lot of movement of the actual front.