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The First Battle of Champagne was fought from 20 December 1914 to 17 March 1915 during the Western Front campaign of World War I. The French general Joseph Joffre launched a massive offensive against German forces in the Champagne region of France, but the French suffered heavy losses while only gaining 2 miles of territory in return.

Background

The fighting of 1914 left the opposing armies on the Western Front entrenched from the north coast of Belgium to the Swiss border. The Allied side of hte line was manned along most of its length by the French. A sector in Flanders and northern France was held by British troops. The British 1st Army was opposite Neuve Chapelle and the British 2nd Army was at Ypres. Belgian and French forces held the sector nearest to the coast. The French and Belgian desire to liberate their territories influenced the Allies in favor of an offensive strategy.

Battle

By the end of 1914, a new phase had opened up on the Western Front - the stalemate of the trenches. But that is not how it appeared to French commander Joseph Joffre at the time. Joffre was still planning strategic maneuvers. He envisioned the German armies, which were pushed forward in a great arc between Verdun and Lille, being forced to withdraw by Allied advances from Champagne to the south and Artois in the north. He planned for his armies to break through into Belgium, threatening the Germans with encirclement.

Joffre began the campaign against German trenches on the Champagne front in late December 1914. Known as the First Champagne Offensive, it lasted into March 1915. German trench lines were primitive compared to what they would later become. Usually, a single, narrow frontline trench was packed with troops under orders to hold their position at all costs. If the trench was lost, German reserves counterattacked with ferocity to retake the position. In almost continuous fighting at Champagne, the French army suffered about 90,000 casualties. German losses were probably similar. In the small strips of ground that were fought and refought over, villages were shelled to obliteration. The French advance gained a maximum 2 miles of territory.

Aftermath

Joffre was already planning an offensive in Artois while the fighting in Champagne raged on. Artois was the junction between the French and British sectors, and British commander Field Marshal Sir John French, eager to shake his troops out of the morale-sapping routines of the trenches, agreed to a joint offensive. Conditions were ripe: the Germans had begun moving large numbers of their best troops to the Eastern Front for an attempt at a decisive blow against russia.

However, Britain had also begun to think there might be better military opportunities elsewhere. In mid-February, British troops intended for France were diverted to the attack on Turkey at Gallipoli. Joffre had been promised that British forces would take over French responsibilities along the line from Ypres north to the coast. Now that this offer was withdrawn, Joffre cancelled the joint operation at Artois. Perhaps eager to show his allies what he could do on his own, French decided to go ahead with a limited British attack at Neuve Chapelle.

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