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Lesson 2. Symbols of the Stalemate
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Poison gas attack, Flanders, Belgium
Poison gas attack, Flanders, Belgium
Though central and allied powers vied for victory during WWI, and undertook what was perceived to be strategic battle plans, the involved parties made few gains. In fact, WWI was initially intended to be a short war, but the failure of certain military strategies and trench warfare led to a deadlock that would only come to an end in 1918.

In this lesson, students will examine this stalemate and the failed efforts to break it.


As a result of completing these activities, students will:

  • Identify and analyze the factors that led to WWI's stalemate.
  • Determine how altered battle plans could have to the war's earlier end.
  • Examine The Schliefflen plan and analyze and rectify its strategic flaws.
  • Explore the impact of trench warfare on the war's progression.

This lesson meets the following standards set by the Mid-Continent Research for Education and Learning:

World History
Standard 39
Understands the causes and global consequences of World War I

Understands events that contributed to the outbreak of World War I (e.g., diverse long-range causes of World War I, such as political and economic rivalries, ethnic and ideological conflicts, militarism, imperialism, and nationalism; how nationalism threatened the balance of power among the Great Powers in Europe, and why it was considered one of the causes of World War I)

Understands the role of the U.S. and other countries in World War I (e.g., how the Russian Revolution and the entry of the United States affected the course and outcome of the war, motivations behind the entrance of the U.S. into the war)

United States History
Standard 21
Understands the changing role of the United States in world affairs through World War I

Understands U.S. involvement in World War I (e.g., how the American Expeditionary Force contributed to the Allied victory, Wilson's Fourteen Points, the negotiation of the Versailles Treaty, the national debate over treaty ratification and the League of Nations)

Understands the impact of the United States involvement in World War I (e.g., U.S. military and economic mobilizations for war and the role of labor, women, and African Americans in the war effort; World War I military engagements and the campaigns in which the American Expeditionary Force participated; the impact of the war on American troops; Wilson's goals in recommending the establishment of a League of Nations)


Three to four classroom periods (in addition to homework)

  • Computers with Internet access.
  • Print and online materials on the WWI stalemate.
  • Handout: Phase Two: Deadlock (pdf).

Activity 1: The Stalemate's Foundation

Write the word STALEMATE on the blackboard and ask students what it means. Definitions include:

  • A situation in which no progress can be made or no advancement is possible; "reached an impasse on the negotiations"
  • A situation in which further action is blocked; a deadlock.

Ask students how they think this term applies to WWI, based on their understanding of the war's beginning and progression.

Divide the class into groups of two. Distribute the handout Phase Two: Deadlock. Instruct the teams to read the piece describing WWI's stalemate, and then to discuss and note the deadlock's causes-how they transpired, the strategies employed, who was involved, who was affected. Ask each team to share its findings. Synthesize student responses to create a list of the stalemate's major causes.

Instruct teams to conduct additional research on the causes of the stalemate the class has identified. Refer them to the following Great War links as well as the web resources listed below.

Divide students into groups representing WWI allied and central power military strategists who have recognized the war's stalemate. Instruct each group to come up with a plan -- based on their understanding of the deadlock's contributors -- that will end the deadlock. Then, have the groups discuss the various plans and come to consensus on the best strategies for ending the stalemate, which indicates that the powers will have to make concessions.

Activity 2: The Schiefflen Plan

Explain to students that one of the primary factors contributing to WWI's stalemate were failed military plans, perceived initially to be strategic and without flaw. This was the case with Germany's Schlieffen Plan, meant to conquer quickly and lead to victory. However, the plan failed.

Direct students to resources to learn more about the Schieffen Plan. As a class, discuss the strategy behind the plan, how it was to be implemented, and why it failed. Have students speculate on how the plan might have worked had certain factors been taken into consideration beforehand, such as the potential of attack by enemies and even the physical route upon which the plan was based.

Activity 3: Trench Warfare

Have students visualize a trench and to describe what it is. What kind of an image does it evoke? What kind of feeling does it evoke? Then ask students to describe what they believe it was like for soldiers during WWI to fight in trenches and what they think that entailed. For images depict what life was like for soldiers holed up in trenches, direct them to the video clips and photographs of soldiers in the trenches on the Great War site. Ask them to also read the "Trench Facts" on the same page.

Provide students with some background on WWI's trench warfare and why it was a symbol of the war's stalemate. (Refer to the following sites, which students can also use for their project research.)

Divide students into small groups who will examine various aspects of trench warfare to present to the class. Students can do one or more of the following activities:

  • Recreate the trench system in a visual format, particularly noting the placement of trenches on the western and eastern fronts.
  • Gather and analyze primary source documents reflecting firsthand trench experiences, and then, in the voice of a soldier, write several journal first person journal entries reflecting his time spent in the trenches.
  • Create a chart representing the hazards of trench life and its impact on soldiers, including casualties.
  • Strategically analyze how trench warfare contributed to WWI's stalemate and propose other battle strategies that may have ended the war sooner, with fewer casualties.
  • Assume the roles of key WWI military leaders and write briefs that discuss how trench warfare has impeded military strategy and recommendations they have for strategies that will eradicate trenches in order to make military advances toward victory for their respective nations.

Online Resources


Administer a flash card quiz that require students to report on all they know about a particular topic (e.g., flash a card with the term Schliefflen Plan and have students share what they know on this subject.) Create rubrics to measure student participation in group activities. Measure student ability to analytically revisit and analyze information.

  • Have students create World War I Learning Corners where students can display and present the results of their various projects related to this lesson.

Michele Israel has been an educator in varied capacities for more than 20 years. As founder and director of Educational Consulting Group, Israel currently serves nonprofit and educational institutions, providing services including strategic planning, educational product development and project management. In addition, she produces learning materials and writes articles for companies such as PBS, Education World and CNN/Turner Learning.

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