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The Western Front: 1914-19161916: Unprecedented Slaughter

The war’s third year was consumed by two giant offensives, one German, one Allied.  These titanic battles involved millions of men and raged for months, but resolved nothing.

Germany planned to draw the French into an enormous, grinding battle that would drain them of men and supplies.  They launched this effort in February by attacking at Verdun.  For the next ten months, the armies threw millions of men and countless tons of firepower at each other. Momentum swung back and forth as the seasons changed.  In the end, the Germans called off the attack.  They had inflicted 370,000 casualties while suffering nearly the same number themselves, all for a gain of about three miles.  The French had held on; by the standards of the war, this was counted as a victory.

The Battle of Somme was shorter, but even more violent and just as futile.  The Somme was the first major action for the Britain’s new armies. On July 1, the first day of the battle, the attacking British suffered 57,000 casualties, with almost 20,000 deaths.  Some units lost over 90% of their men in just minutes.  As before, the attackers achieved initial success, but were unable to follow through to victory.   Later in the battle, the British used tanks for the first time, but the new machines had little impact. The Allied attacks were finally halted in November by bad weather.  In four and a half months they had advanced six miles, at a cost of over 600,000 casualties. German losses are uncertain, but they too were staggering: between 400-600,000 men.

The winter brought an end to a year of slaughter and futility.  Yet without a clear winner, none of the combatants was ready to end to the war.  Their horrific losses only stiffened their resolve to keep fighting.

Across the ocean, Americans followed the war in fascination and horror. Many sympathized with the Allies, but most were glad that the United States was far removed from the unspeakable state of affairs overseas.  No one yet knew that events in early 1917 would force America to make a crucial decision.