Background: political context in which the battles took place
The named battles of the Western Front
For information about the battles and which British units took part, just click for “More”.
|Battles of the initial phase of the war, when the small British Expeditionary Force (BEF) played a part in fast-moving actions that finally resulted in stalemate and the beginning of static trench warfare.
Imperial War Museum image Q109652: “British soldiers marching through a town”. This battalion of infantry is in fact moving through the French hilltop town of Cassel, on their way to the Flanders front in late 1914.
|23 Aug 1914||24 Aug 1914||The Battle of Mons||More||A very small part of the initial clashes between the German and French Armies, often known as the Battle of the Frontiers. BEF begins lengthy Retreat from Mons which only ends in early September.|
|26 Aug 1914||1 Sept 1914||The Battle of Le Cateau||More||British II Corps fights a holding action during the Retreat from Mons. “More” also includes details of other smaller rearguard actions during the continuing retreat.|
|7 Sept 1914||10 Sept 1914||The Battle of the Marne||More||The BEF plays a small part in this immense, decisive battle that halts the German advance into France. The French and BEF now begin to advance northwards.|
|12 Sept 1914||15 Sept 1914||The Battle of the Aisne||More||The advance is halted as the Germans dig in along the heights above the Aisne. British attacks are repelled and both sides dig in: the roots of trench warfare.|
|4 Oct 1914||10 Oct 1914||The Defence of Antwerp||More||While the BEF is now entrenched at the Aisne, a force (mainly of naval troops) is sent to help the Belgian Army defend Antwerp.|
|10 Oct 1914||2 Nov 1914||The Battles of La Bassee, Armentieres and Messines||More||The whole BEF is moved to Flanders from the Aisne, as part of an effort to outflank the Germans in France. On arrival it encounters German forces moving to outflank the Allies. These battles form part of a phase often, but incorrectly, referred to as the Race to the Sea.|
|19 Oct 1914||22 Nov 1914||The Battles of Ypres, 1914||More||Often known as the First Battle of Ypres, this is a series of named battles that also form part of the outflanking encounter. It becomes a desperate epic fight east of the city of Ypres which finally results in stalemate and entrenched warfare. It takes place at the same time as the Battle of the Yser, fought nearby by the Belgian Army against the Germans.|
Battles trying to break the deadlock of entrenched warfare, with the BEF as junior partner having to follow the strategies of the French.
|23 Nov 1914||6 Feb 1915||Winter operations||More||French orders for a major offensive in December lead to disastrous piecemeal British attacks. Localised operations seeking tactical advantage continue through winter.|
|10 Mar 1915||21 Apr 1915||The Battle of Neuve Chapelle||More||British First Army mounts first offensive on large scale: costly in terms of casualties but results in capture of Neuve Chapelle (10-13 Mar). Localised operations continue afterwards.|
|22 Apr 1915||25 May 1915||The Battles of Ypres, 1915||More||Often known as the Second Battle of Ypres, this began with surprise German attack using poison gas against French North African forces holding defences near Ypres. Both sides rushed reserves in and the battle developed into the second epic in that area. British Second Army withdraws to a shorter line near Ypres.|
|9 May 1915||10 May 1915||The Battle of Aubers||More||A disastrous attack that cost 11,000 British casualties for no material gain: it was a minor supporting operation to a much larger French attack in an action known as the Second Battle of Artois.|
|15 May 1915||25 May 1915||The Battle of Festubert||More||As the French attack in Artois continued, the British were called upon to continue offensive operations. Minor gains were made at an other heavy cost in casualties.|
|15 Jun 1915||9 Aug 1915||Other actions in Spring and Summer 1915||More||Localised operations seeking tactical advantage.|
|25 Sep 1915||15 Oct 1915||The Battle of Loos||More||The first genuinely large scale British offensive action but once again only in a supporting role to a larger French attack in the Third Battle of Artois. British appeals that the ground over which they were being called upon to advance was wholly unsuitable were rejected. The battle is historically noteworthy for the first British use of poison gas.|
|14 Feb 1916||13 June 1916||Actions in Spring 1916||More||Localised operations seeking tactical advantage. They include fighting when the Germans first used Phosgene gas, and the loss and recapture of high ground east of Ypres in the Battle of Mount Sorrel.|
|1 Jul 1916||18 Nov 1916||The Battles of the Somme, 1916||More||A Franco-British offensive that was undertaken after Allied strategic conferences in late 1915, but which changed its nature due to the German attack against the French in the epic Battle of Verdun, which lasted from late February to November. Huge British losses on the first day and a series of fiercely-contested steps that became attritional in nature. For all armies on the Western Front it was becoming what the Germans would call materialschlacht: a war not of morale, will or even manpower, but of sheer industrial material might. 15 September 1916 saw the first-ever use of tanks in the step known as the Battle of Flers-Courcelette. The British army in France is now approaching its maximum strength but is still developing in terms of tactics, technology, command and control.|
|11 Jan 1917||13 Mar 1917||Operations on the Ancre||More||Final flickering of the Somme offensive as British seek localised tactical advantage on heights above valley of the River Ancre.|
|14 Mar 1917||5 Apr 1917||German retreat to the Hindenburg Line||More||During Somme fighting the Germans construct a formidable new defensive system some miles in their rear. From February 1917 they begin to withdraw into it, giving up ground but in carrying out Operation Alberich they make the ground as uninhabitable and difficult as possible. British detect the withdrawal and cautiously follow up and advance, being brought to a standstill at the outer defences of the system.|
|9 Apr 1917||16 Jun 1917||The Arras offensive||More||Once again the British are called upon to launch an attack in support to a larger French offensive: the battles of the Chemin des Dames and the hills of Champagne. The opening Battle of Vimy and the First Battle of the Scarpe are very encouraging, but once again the offensive – often known as the Battle of Arras – bogs down into an attritional slog. Final attempts to outflank the German lines at Bullecourt prove terribly costly.|
Battles trying to break the deadlock of entrenched warfare, but now with the BEF as a senior partner – for its army has reached maximum size and the French are reeling after the disasters of April 1917.
|7 Jun 1917||14 Jun 1917||The Battle of Messines||More||A brilliantly planned and executed attack that resulted in the capture of the Wytschaete-Messines ridge south of Ypres, a feature that had given the British problems since 1914 and which was important to hold for future offensive operations in Flanders. Commenced with one of the heaviest artillery bombardments of the war and the explosion of nineteen enormous and long-prepared underground mines.|
|Operation Hush||More||A battle that never took place. Plans were made for an audacious British attack against the German-held coast of Belgium; a force was assembled and specialist training began. But necessary advance from Ypres (in ‘Third Ypres’, below) did not materialise and Hush was inevitably cancelled. A sharp German attack against British preparations in the Battle of the Dunes (Operation Strandfest) also disrupted matters.|
|31 Jul 1917||10 Nov 1917||The Battles of Ypres, 1917||More||The British finally got what they had wanted since 1914: the opportunity to attack at Ypres and breakout of the confines of the salient of trenches around it. Often known as the Third Battle of Ypres or Passchendaele, the offensive began with encouraging gains but terrible summer weather soon bogged it down.By August the offensive was clearly failing in its objectives and had descended into attritional fighting. New techniques by both sides led to agonisingly slow forward movement for the British, at enormous cost in casualties. Bad weather in October led to the battlefield becoming an impossible quagmire.|
|20 Nov 1917||30 Dec 1917||The Cambrai operations||More||A British attack, originally conceived as a very large scale raid, that employed new artillery techniques and massed tanks. Initially very successful with large gains of ground being made, but German reserves brought the advance to a halt. ten days later, a counter-attack regained much of the ground. Ultimately a disappointing and costly outcome, but Cambrai is now seen by historians as the blueprint for the successful Hundred Days offensives of 1918.|
The return to open, mobile warfare and after a spring of enormous losses and possibility of defeat, the British Expeditionary Force plays the key role in a series of offensive successes.
|21 Mar 1918||5 Apr 1918||The First Battles of the Somme, 1918||More||After transferring very large forces from the now-collapsed Eastern Front, the German Army commits to a series of large-scale offensives. The first, Operation Michael, strikes the British Fifth and Third Armies. A deep advance is made and inflicts large losses, although the second phase, Operation Mars, at Arras on 28 March, is soon held. In the crisis, the Allies decide at Doullens to appoint French General Foch as co-ordinator, and soon enough, as Generalissimo. Before enough French and British reserves are finally assembled to hold the German advance before it captures the critical railway junctions at Amiens.|
|9 Apr 1918||29 Apr 1918||The Battles of the Lys, 1918||More||The third German offensive Operation Georgette takes place in Flanders with the objective of capturing key railway and supply roads and cutting off British Second Army at Ypres. After initial successes the German attack is once again held after British and French reserves are somehow found and deployed.|
|27 May 1918||6 Jun 1918||The Battle of the Aisne, 1918||More||A small and tired British force, sent to the Chemin des Dames in exchange for fresh French divisions that went north, was struck and virtually destroyed as part of another German offensive, Operation Bluecher.|
|20 Jul 1918||2 Aug 1918||The Battles of the Marne, 1918||More||A British force takes part in Foch’s very large scale and highly successful counter offensive of the Marne, which proves to be the start of an unbroken series of Allied successes.|
|8 Aug 1918||17 Aug 1918||The Battle of Amiens||More||The British Fourth Army attacks alongside French forces further south and scores a notable victory and a deep advance from Amiens: Ludendorff calls 8 August ‘the black day of the German Army’.|
|21 Aug 1918||3 Sep 1918||The Second Battles of the Somme, 1918||More||British Third and Fourth Armies commence offensive operations on the same ground over which the 1916 Battle of the Somme was fought. They make deep advance.|
|18 Aug 1918||6 Sep 1918||The Advance in Flanders||More||Second and Fifth Armies begin operations in the Lys valley, recapturing the ground lost in April 1918.|
|26 Aug 1918||3 Sept 1918||The Second Battles of Arras, 1918||More||First and Third Armies attack successful from Arras and break the German Drocourt-Queant Line.|
|12 Sep 1918||12 Oct 1918||The Battles of the Hindenburg Line||More||A series of very large scale offensive operations that advance to and break the Hindenburg Line system. Carried out by the First, Third and Fourth Armies these victories rank among the greatest-ever British military achievements. The German Army fights on but it is increasingly clear that their ability to do so is declining fast.|
|28 Sep 1918||11 Nov 1918||The Final Advance in Flanders||More||The British Second Army and Belgian Army combine and finally break out of the Ypres salient. More ground is gained in a day that in the entire Passchendaele offensive of a year before. The offensive continues through fighting in the Courtrai area.|
|2 Oct 1918||11 Nov 1918||The Final Advance in Artois||More||First and Fifth Armies continue the advance in the Artois region, liberating the French coalfields, Lens and Douai.|
|17 Oct 1918||11 Nov 1918||The Final Advance in Picardy||More||The hardest-fought of the final offensive actions. First, Third and Fourth Armies exploit their success in breaking the Hindenburg Line by pushing on across the Rivers Selle and Sambre, recapturing Valenciennes and finally in liberating Mons – where it had all begun for the British Expeditionary Force more than four years before.|
|Nov-Dec 1918||More||Selected British forces advance across Belgium, cross into Germany and take up position on the Rhine, in accordance with the terms of the Armistice of 11 November 1918.|