Trench warfare begins
Military tactics before World War I had failed to keep pace with advances in technology. These changes resulted in the building of impressive defence systems, which out of date tactics could not break through for most of the war. Barbed wire was a significant hindrance to massed infantry advances. Artillery, vastly more lethal than in the 1870s, coupled with machine guns, made crossing open ground very difficult. The Germans introduced poison gas; it soon became used by both sides, though it never proved decisive in winning a battle. Its effects were brutal, causing slow and painful death, and poison gas became one of the most-feared and best-remembered horrors of the war. Commanders on both sides failed to develop tactics for breaching entrenched positions without heavy casualties.
In time, however, technology began to produce new offensive weapons, such as the tank. Britain and France were its primary users; the Germans employed captured Allied tanks and small numbers of their own design. After the First Battle of the Marne, both Entente and German forces began a series of outflanking manoeuvres, in the so-called "Race to the Sea". Britain and France soon found themselves facing entrenched German forces from Lorraine to Belgium's coast. Britain and France sought to take the offensive, while Germany defended the occupied territories; consequently, German trenches were generally much better constructed than those of their enemy. Anglo-French trenches were only intended to be "temporary" before their forces broke through German defences. Both sides attempted to break the stalemate using scientific and technological advances. On 22 April 1915 at the Second Battle of Ypres, the Germans (in violation of the Hague Convention) used chlorine gas for the first time on the Western Front. Algerian troops retreated when gassed and a six kilometre (four mile) hole opened in the Allied lines that the Germans quickly exploited, taking Kitcheners' Wood. Canadian soldiers closed the breach at the Second Battle of Ypres. At the Third Battle of Ypres, Canadian and ANZAC troops took the village of Passchendaele.
On 1 July 1916, the British Army endured the bloodiest day in its history, suffering 57,470 casualties, including 19,240 dead, on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. Most of the casualties occurred in the first hour of the attack. The entire Somme offensive cost the British Army almost half a million men.
Neither side proved able to deliver a decisive blow for the next two years, though protracted German action at Verdun throughout 1916, combined with the bloodletting at the Somme, brought the exhausted French army to the brink of collapse. Futile attempts at frontal assault came at a high price for both the British and the French poilu(infantry) and led to widespread mutinies, especially during the Nivelle Offensive.
Throughout 1915–17, the British Empire and France suffered more casualties than Germany, because of both the strategic and tactical stances chosen by the sides. At the strategic level, while the Germans only mounted a single main offensive at Verdun, the Allies made several attempts to break through German lines. At the tactical level, German commander Erich Ludendorff's doctrine of "elastic defence" was well suited for trench warfare. This defence had a relatively lightly defended forward position and a more powerful main position farther back beyond artillery range, from which an immediate and powerful counter-offensive could be launched.
Ludendorff wrote on the fighting in 1917,
The 25th of August concluded the second phase of the Flanders battle. It had cost us heavily ... The costly August battles in Flanders and at Verdun imposed a heavy strain on the Western troops. In spite of all the concrete protection they seemed more or less powerless under the enormous weight of the enemy’s artillery. At some points they no longer displayed the firmness which I, in common with the local commanders, had hoped for. The enemy managed to adapt himself to our method of employing counter attacks ... I myself was being put to a terrible strain. The state of affairs in the West appeared to prevent the execution of our plans elsewhere. Our wastage had been so high as to cause grave misgivings, and had exceeded all expectation.
On the battle of the Menin Road Ridge, Ludendorff wrote,
Another terrific assault was made on our lines on the 20 September ... The enemy’s onslaught on the 20th was successful, which proved the superiority of the attack over the defence. Its strength did not consist in the tanks; we found them inconvenient, but put them out of action all the same. The power of the attack lay in the artillery, and in the fact that ours did not do enough damage to the hostile infantry as they were assembling, and above all, at the actual time of the assault.
Around 1.1 to 1.2 million soldiers from the British and Dominion armies were on the Western Front at any one time. A thousand battalions, occupying sectors of the line from the North Sea to the Orne River, operated on a month-long four-stage rotation system, unless an offensive was underway. The front contained over 9,600 kilometres (5,965 mi) of trenches. Each battalion held its sector for about a week before moving back to support lines and then further back to the reserve lines before a week out-of-line, often in the Poperinge or Amiens areas.
In the 1917 Battle of Arras, the only significant British military success was the capture of Vimy Ridge by the Canadian Corpsunder Sir Arthur Currie and Julian Byng. The assaulting troops were able for the first time to overrun, rapidly reinforce and hold the ridge defending the coal-rich Douai plain.