Gavin Davies, a member of the South Wales Branch, originally wrote this series of articles for The Glamorgan GEM, a local paper circulating in Barry, Llantwit Major, Cowbridge, Bridgend and the Vale of Glamorgan.
Gavin also gives talks about First World War and the American Civil War in
January 1918: "We must beat the British"
Although Germany and Russia had not made peace it was clear that the Russians were no longer a threat. Troops from the Eastern Front poured west. The German High Command were well aware that the Americans were arriving in France and knew they must win the war before the Allies had an overwhelming advantage in numbers. In fact starvation might force them to make peace with or without the Americans. Civilians were living on under 1,000 calories a day, meat came from ‘roof rabbits’ (cats and dogs), sawdust and potato peelings were used to make bread, the railways suffered a 75% drop in freight movements which exacerbated the already severe coal crisis.
But the High Command, insulated from some of the worst economic problems, were not going to give up just yet. A conference in 1917 had concluded "We must beat the British" and with new troops and new methods the Germans planned to do just that. Both sides were trying to learn from mistakes in previous offensives; the Germans approach was to use small groups of ‘Storm Troops’. Small groups would find and exploit weak points in the enemy’s lines and push forward into the rear areas to disrupt headquarters and the artillery. Strong points which resisted would be by-passed and left to the waves of ‘battle units’ of more conventionally armed troops following up the leading waves. The army was reorganised and training in the new tactics started on a large scale.
In February or March the storm would break. In an attempt to end the war by negotiation President Wilson put forward his ‘Fourteen Points’ among which were the restoration of Alsace and Lorraine to France, the evacuation of Belgium and proposals to give more autonomy for various ethnic groups. They had little effect, Germany still intended to win the war while the various races which made up the Austro-Hungarian Empire were looking for complete independence. Even among his Allies Wilson’s initiative was not well received; "God only needed ten points", Clemenceau noted. In Britain times were tough, even if they were nowhere near as tough as in Germany. Sugar was rationed in January and hoarding food became a criminal offence. Protests against the war increased but the Government were determined. George Balfour, speaking in Edinburgh, said the horrors of war were ‘nothing’ compared to a ‘German peace’ and it appears that the majority would have agreed with him.
One who would not have agreed was Max Plowman, an infantry officer who had been invalided home. He resigned his commission saying he felt that "organised warfare of any kind is organised murder … I believe that killing men is always killing God." Although the main fronts were quiet in the depths of winter losses continued. American troops, in the front line near Verdun for training, lost men to German raids while 166 Americans troops and 44 British sailors were lost when their ship SS Tuscania was torpedoed. In Wimereux Lt-Col John McCrae of the Canadian army died some three years after writing his famous poem ‘In Flanders Fields’. HMS Raglan, a monitor (coastal bombardment ship) was sunk off the Dardanelles, two German destroyers were sunk by mines in the north sea, submarines and U-boats went down while air raids killed about fifty civilians in London and Paris and injured another 250.
In the raid on London Charles Banks and George Hackwell, flying Camels, were awarded the MC for shooting down a Gotha bomber, the first to be shot down of the UK. In one raid crowds panicked as they tried to get into shelters and 14 people were killed, mainly by suffocation. In the Mediterranean the Goeben and Breslau, a German battle-cruiser and a light cruiser which had been put under Turkish control in 1914, sortied into the Aegean and ran into a British minefield. The Breslau sank and the Goeben was badly damaged. In Mesopotamia (Iraq) a force commanded by Maj-Gen Dunsterville who had been at school with Rudyard Kipling (Stalky in the stories) was detached to secure the Baku oil fields following the collapse of Russia.
February 1918: "War is a disciplinary action by God to educate mankind."
Kaiser Wilhelm II In February 1918 the British army was completing a major reorganisation. Every division was reduced from twelve to nine infantry battalions. This involved vast changes, battalions were disbanded, moved from brigades and divisions in which they had fought for years to new ones with different methods and, in many cases, left seriously below strength - not the best preparation for a major offensive by the enemy. At the end of 1917 some 600,000 fit men were available in the UK to reinforce Haig's under strength battalions but the Government had refused to allow them to go to France and insisted, against the best military advice, on reducing the fighting strength of the British army.
The problem was David Lloyd George. He had become Prime Minister on the grounds he would prosecute the war harder that his predecessor. Unfortunately he does not seem to have realised that the war could only be won by defeating the Germans on the Western Front and that this would be very (very) costly. By the end of 1917 he had lost confidence in the army's high command because of the casualties in the battles of attrition in 1916 and 1917. Despite this he did not replace Field Marshall Haig and General Robertson, the Commander of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS), as he had every right to do but sought to undermine their ability to direct the war and to restrict their power to launch more offensives by withholding reinforcements from the Western Front. While one can, perhaps, sympathise with Lloyd George's efforts to avoid casualties his failure to realise that they were unavoidable in a major continental war and to keep the army short of men was to lead to even greater losses. Other changes were less damaging. Several of Haig's senior staff officers were replaced; probably a good thing but the notoriously reserved and inarticulate Haig must have found it hard to work with a new team. The other change was the creation of a Supreme War Council to coordinate Allied strategy. While this almost certainly improved the overall direction of the war Lloyd George's attempts to make it give the advice he wanted to hear and his efforts to use it to undermine the position of his own CIGS were not helpful. Indeed the suggestion in his memoirs that Britain was facing a takeover by the army who would impose a military dictatorship could, perhaps, call into question the PM's veracity and perhaps his mental balance. Meanwhile the British Army tried to prepare their line to receive the expected German assault. The problem was that there were not enough troops to hold the entire front, which now ran from Ypres to the River Somme, in strength. Haig had to make compromises and, reasonably enough, placed his greatest strength in the north where a German breakthrough to the Channel ports would be disastrous. Further south, opposite St Quentin, there was room to fall back without causing serious difficulties. Logical, but it left General Gough's Fifth Army, which was holding that sector, with problems. They had only taken over from the French a short time before and the defences needed a lot of work which, of course, there were too few men to complete. The plan had been to create three zones, a forward zone which would be lightly held, a battle zone where the main fighting would take place and a reserve position in case the enemy broke through. Unfortunately labour was only available to prepare the two forward zones. On the British sector the front was quiet. Elsewhere on 13 February American artillery supported a local French attack in Champagne and a week or so later American troops accompanied a successful French raid. In the East the Bolsheviks were having problems. Although their aim was to make peace they had found it difficult to accept the terms which Germany offered and withdrew from the negotiations. The Germans launched fifty divisions over the cease-fire line. The Russian army collapsed; in five days the Germans advanced 150 miles and by the end of the month had nearly reached Petrograd and had captured 63,000 Russian soldiers, 2,600 guns and 5,000 machine guns which would doubtless be very useful on the Western Front. Finally the Central Committee agreed that they had no option but to accept the German terms which had, naturally enough, become even tougher after their military successes. One of those arguing for acceptance alongside Lenin and Trotsky was a newcomer, Joseph Stalin. In fact Russia, clearly in a state of collapse faced the Turks, who were advancing in the Caucasus, as well as the Germans to say nothing of various White Russian and Finnish armies. While his armies completed the total defeat of Russia the Kaiser announced that "War is a disciplinary action by God to educate mankind." He then went on to claim that there had been an international conspiracy against Germany supported by the Bolsheviks, President Wilson, 'International Jewry' and the Grand Orient Lodge of the Freemasons (ignoring the thousands of Jews and Freemasons who had died in the German army but the Kaiser was never the most logical person). As their leader postured the Kaiser's troops continued to train in the new shock tactics which they expected would break the stalemate on the Western Front once and for all. In Britain civilians suffered shortages and air-raids. About thirty people were killed and about forty wounded in two raids on London, Essex and Kent but a third raid was beaten off by London's defences. As well as casualties the Home Counties were to suffer the rationing of meat, butter and margarine and, of course, families continued to receive the news of the death of sons, husbands and brothers - wastage continued at the front even if there were no major offensives.
March 1918: "Here we fight and here we die." Lt-Col Wilfrith Elstob, 16th Bn Manchester Regiment.
In the East the Bolsheviks finally accepted that they could not continue the war and signed a peace treaty with Germany at Brest-Litovsk. This cost Russia a third of her population and arable land and 90% of her coal and gave Germany access to the Ukraine’s wheat and 630,000 Austro Hungarian prisoners of war were released. The war had now lasted three and a half years and no one expected an early end to the fighting. Churchill, now Minister of Munitions, promised the Prime Minister, Lloyd George, that he would produce 4,000 tanks by March 1919 ready for the final campaign of the war – if they could withstand the expected German offensive in 1918. Things looked bleak; in fact the only high spot was that in Palestine General Allenby’s troops had captured Jericho at the end of February (and the Dead Sea, the lowest point on earth). Air raids continued with British planes bombing German barracks to hinder the build up of forces in the west. The Germans bombed London; four hundred houses were damaged and one bomb killed twelve people in the same house. They also bombed Paris causing 200,000 people to evacuate the capital. Austrian aircraft bombed Italian cities but lost 30% of the aircraft involved. But none of this really mattered. What did matter was the fact that the Germans were now stronger than the British and French and had to win the war in 1918 before the American army had built up its full strength. Field-Marshall Hindenburg saw the British as the main enemy and would have liked to launch his Kaiserschlact (Emperor Battle) with an attack in Flanders aimed at the Channel Ports but felt that the ground would be too wet in March so the first blow would fall further south. In preliminary bombardments along the whole front the Germans fired 500,000 mustard and phosgene gas shells gassing, among many other, Colonel Douglas MacArthur of the US Army who survived to become a General in the Second World War. The British retaliated; near St Quentin 85 tons of phosgene killed 250 Germans. Then, on the morning of the 21st the main German bombardment began; 6,000 guns opened fire on a 40 mile front from Arras to the River Somme mostly held by the British Fifth Army. It was carefully orchestrated by Col Bruchmuller, nicknamed DurchBruchmuller (Break-Through Muller) by the German press. The plan was to knock out headquarters and communications, then the defender’s artillery and, finally, to blast the front line defences. It worked well. After five hours trenches and wire had been comprehensively smashed while gas had incapacitated the supporting guns. (The days before the attack is the setting for R C Sherriff’s play Journeys End.) At 9.40 am the German infantry storm-troops advanced in the attack codenamed Operation Michael. The leading waves moved in small groups to penetrate the forward positions. Any post which held out was left to later waves and if they could not eliminate it quickly it was contained and left for the reserve divisions following up the attack. The troops in the Forward Zone were virtually wiped out. On one sector only fifty men survived out of about 4,000. In the Battle Zone, the main line of resistance, matters went better. In the north, where the mist lifted early and allowed British machine guns to come into action the line held but south of St Quentin, where it did not, the Germans had virtually broken through by nightfall. In places units held out, literally to the last man. Manchester Hill, near St Quentin itself, had been captured by the Manchester Regiment in 1917 and in 1918 was, coincidentally, held by the Regiment’s 16th Battalion under LT-Col Wilfrith Elstob, a former schoolmaster. "Here we fight and here we die", he told his men – and they did. The position was isolated by the German advance but he 16th held out. Col Elstob himself led counter attacks using grenades and his rifle and his revolver when the Germans actually broke in. ‘Ergeben Sie sich! (Surrender); Elstob knew German but replied in English ‘Never’ and fell with a bullet in his head. The surviving Manchesters were overrun shortly afterwards. Col Elstob was awarded the Victoria Cross. His body was never identified and he is commemorated on the Pozières Memorial to the Missing. Despite heroic actions like the Manchesters the British front was collapsing. Casualties had been heavy, headquarters found it difficult to find out what was happening and to send orders even if they could. The British had no option but to retreat and by the 24th the Germans had advanced nearly 20 miles in some places. Part of the problem was that, because of Lloyd George’s refusal to send reinforcements to France, units were only at about half strength and there were no reserves. Haig had been relying on the French to provide support but General Petain was worried that the Germans would attack his front and was reluctant to send troops north although he did release three divisions. Unfortunately the speed of the German advance meant that they did not have time to dig in properly before the Germans arrived. Steadily as the Germans pressed forward the Allied lines bent back. In the north the British Third Army’s right bent back around Arras while, in the south the French fought to hold the line of the River Oise. The possibility of the Germans breaking through and reaching Amiens was very real indeed. On the 24th Haig and Petain met. To Haig’s horror he discovered that General Petain had decided that if the worst came to the worst the French would fall back to cover Paris even if this meant losing contact with the British who would then have to fall back to the north. In Haig’s view this would spell disaster for the Allies and could not be allowed to happen. The result was a top level conference on the 26th of March and the appointment of General Ferdinand Foch as the Allied Commander-in-Chief. "A fine gift! You give me a lost battle and tell me to win it!" Foch remarked. Actually it was not a lost battle. By now the German advance had reached the wasteland of the old Somme battlefield. "Yesterday I was looking for Bouchavesnes, which used to be quite a large place. There was nothing but a board nailed to a low post with the inscription in English ‘This was Bouchavesnes’", Rudolf Binding, a German staff-officer wrote. The problems of supplying armies across this sort of ground can easily be imagined. In fact by 27th March the German infantry were exhausted. In several places they could advance at no more than a slow walk even as our, equally exhausted troops, fell back in front of them. Another thing which slowed the advance was looting. The Germans had been on short rations for some time and knew their families at home were suffering even more. They had been told the Allies were in a similar position but found vast stores of food and luxuries unheard of in Germany for months. As the advance reached the town of Albert Binding reported, "As soon as I got near the town \I began to see curious sights. Strange figures, who looked very little like soldiers, and certainly showed no sighs of advancing, were making their way back … There were men driving cows before them on a line; others who carried a hen under one arm and a box of note-paper under the other. Men carrying a bottle of wine under their arm and another open in their hand. … Men staggering. Men who could hardly walk …". With the advance slowing the Germans tried further north. Operation Mars, an attack on Arras, opened on 28th March. If it succeeded it would widen the gap in the Allied line and turn the flank of the troops holding the northern part of the great salient which Operation Michael had created. Thirteen German divisions attacked six British ones after the usual bombardment. This time the British were ready. Troops in the Forward Zone had fallen back, so many German shells fell on vacant positions. There was no fog. The defenders were well dug in behind almost intact barbed wire. The Germans attacked bravely throughout the day but line after line of storm troops went down under the British machine gun fire and defensive artillery barrages. The British Battle Zone was not penetrated; indeed for most of the front it was not seriously threatened. By the end of March the German attack had almost petered out. Allied reserves had arrived and had had time to dig in. The front had held – for the time being.
April 1918: "With our backs to the wall … each one of us must fight on to the end." Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig.
At the end of March the Germans launched Operation Michael and although they could not (quite) break through the Allied lines by the beginning of April they had advanced nearly fifty miles. Although their troops were tired out and had outrun their supplies they were only ten miles away from the vital rail junction of Amiens. One more effort was needed and on 4th April a bombardment by 1,200 guns crashed on the British lines near Villers-Brettoneux and fifteen German divisions advanced. Initially they made good progress against the seven Allied divisions which faced them but as the day wore on the position stabilised and British, Australian and French troops were able to counter-attack later in the day. On the 5th General Ludendorff halted the offensive noting in his diary "The enemy resistance was beyond our powers." Even if the Germans had not achieved all their aims they had gained an enormous amount of ground, including the entire 1916 Somme battlefield the capture of which had cost Britain 120,000 dead. Additionally vast quantities of munitions had been captured or destroyed and inflicted 250,000 casualties, mainly on the British army, including 70,000 prisoners. Overall a horrific 31,000 Allied troops had been killed, wounded or taken prisoner each day during the battle. But the German High Command had not given up. Ludendorff would have preferred to attack in Flanders but had been worried that the wet ground would not allow a spring offensive. Now, after a dry March, he could have his way. On 9th April the German artillery started to bombard the British army on a twelve mile front between Armentières and Bethune for four-and-a-half hours. As well as high explosives 2,000 tons of various sorts of gas shells fell on the defending troops. Once again luck favoured the Germans. Many of the defending divisions were still under-strength from the fighting in March, mist provided cover for the attacking infantry and the centre of the line was held by a weak force of Portuguese whose morale was low before the bombardment and non-existent after it. They ran, or in some cases cycled using bicycles stolen from a British battalion. By the end of the first day the Germans had advanced three and half miles although not everything had gone their way. Around Armentières the 34th Division held its ground until it was nearly surrounded and then managed to fall back Despite some successes the overall situation looked black. A special effort was needed and on 11th April the British Commander-in-Chief issued a special Order of the Day. "There is no other course open to us but to fight it out! Every position must be held to the last man: there must be no retirement. With our backs to the wall, and believing in the justice of our cause, each one of us must fight on to the end. The safety of our homes and the freedom of mankind alike depend on the conduct of each on of us at this critical moment." Doubtless some of the tired infantry in the trenches, or the eighteen year old conscripts who had made up earlier losses, enquired where the b*****y wall was but fight on they did. The Germans pushed forward towards Hazebrouck. If this vital rail junction fell to them the whole front in Flanders would be in danger. A brave decision to give up all the ground gained in the costly fighting of 1917 around Ypres helped to dislocate the German attack and released men to replace the tired troops in the front line. The Belgian army fought off an attack north of Ypres. French troops arrived and although they failed to hold the key position of Mount Kemmel on 25th April after a bombardment which included 700 bombs dropped by German aircraft, once again the Allied line held. Indeed during April they only managed to advance a further seven or eight miles after the initial rush. Another ‘war winning’ attack had failed to achieve its aim. "I think I may say that the defenders on the British front in April 1918 were the best troops of the many with whom we crossed swords in the four and a quarter years [of the war]." Quite an accolade from an officer of the German Alpine Corps, themselves regarded justifiably as crack troops. By the 29th of April the Battle of the Lys was over. The Allies had lost a further 111,000 men bringing their total losses for the two offensives to 352,000 men (in comparison the Battle of the Somme had cost the Allies about 650,000 men in 135 days). German casualties amounted to 358,000. As the Battle of the Lys died away the Germans attacked again near Amiens on 24th April. This time, as well as the usual artillery bombardment, the German infantry had tank support. German tanks were large (an 18 man crew) and clumsy and there were not very many of them. However what were available went into battle together with a number of captured British tanks. It could have been a disaster as the British infantry had no anti-tank weapons but they too had tank support. Two British tanks were knocked out but the German tank finally overturned trying to get away from the fire of a British ‘male’ tank equipped with a six-pounder gun. The first tank versus tank battle ended with a British victory. More was to come. Two German infantry battalions moving up in support were attacked by seven Whippet tanks, each with four machine guns and were virtually wiped out. By the end of the day the Germans had been driven back to their start lines, Operation Michael was finally over. While the fighting raged the Americans continued to arrive and by the start of May they had about 420,000 men in France but to save shipping space and speed up these vital reinforcements the British and French were to provide their artillery and transport. Were the Germans losing the race? While momentous events were happening all along the Western Front the air war continued above it. On 20th April Rittmeister Baron Manfred von Richtofen won his eightieth combat. On the 21st he was in action again, this time over the River Somme a few miles south of Albert. An inexperienced British pilot broke away from the dog-fight and Richtofen, breaking his own rules, chased him over Allied lines. Capt Roy Brown fired at long range to distract him and Australian machine-gunners opened fire as Richtofen’s Fokker Triplane swept low over the ridge they were holding. The Red Baron’s luck had finally run out; he was hit and although he managed to crash land he was dead by the time the Australians reached him. At sea the use of convoys had cut Allied losses but the submarine threat remained (100 merchant ships and 488 men were lost in April). Rather surprisingly one of their bases was the town of Bruges in Belgium whose canal allowed access to the North Sea at Zeebrugge. On St George’s Day three old cruisers sailed to block the canal entrance supported by a large force of ships and troops who were to land and capture the Mole, a long breakwater protecting the harbour, Even though the troops had difficulty landing from the HMS Vindictive the Mole was captured and the blockships sunk in their planned positions. The eight Victoria Crosses awarded for the raid are witness to the severity of the fighting and, although a brave attempt, the attack failed to produce any long term effects as the Germans were able to clear the canal within a few weeks. 1918 -The Last Act by Barrie Pitt and To Win a War – 1918, The Year of Victory by John Terraine both give detailed accounts of the fighting described in this article while 1918 The Year of Victories .by Martin Marix Evans covers the same period with an interesting emphasis on the American involvement.
May 1918: "The guns continued to fire and resistance did not cease until every man was killed or captured."
Since the 21st of March the German offensive had gained large amounts of territory but the Allied line was unbroken. It had been costly; over 600,000 men had become casualties. Everything would be all right when the American"s arrived but would they arrive in time? The Allies pressed for US troops to get their men into the battle. In a conference at Abbeville David Lloyd George pleaded with General "Black Jack" Pershing saying, "If the United States does not come to our aid then perhaps the enemy"s calculations will be correct. If France and Great Britain should have to yield, then their defeat would be honourable, for they would have fought to their last man, while the United States would have to stop without having put into the line more men than little Belgium." The American Commander-in-Chief was unmoved. The Americans had declared war independently and must have their own "powerful army"; moreover "the moral of the soldiers depends upon their fighting under their own flag". Then he gave a little. 280,000 Americans who would arrive in May and June could join the Allied line; the other 400,000 men in France would wait until the full strength of the army had been assembled. Lloyd George was bitterly disappointed. Although the Western Front was quiet at the beginning of May air raids continued. Cologne was bombed by British aircraft causing 110 civilian casualties. On the following night German bombers hit London killing 48 people. Ten-year-old Desmond Flower recalled, "The air-raid warning was by changing the gas pressure. When the lights went up and down twice all window curtains had to be drawn." By now London was heavily defended both by anti-aircraft guns and by RAF fighters. Lt Anthony Arkell and his observer Albert Stagg hit one of the Germans over the Albert Dock. As the plane went down in flames two of the crew jumped; the remainder of the crew died in the crash. "I couldn"t help feeling sorry for the poor fellows ... it must take very brave men to come all that way at night over the sea and a hostile country," Arkell wrote in a letter home. Altogether six bombers were shot down and three more crashed when the landed; about 30% casualties. Raids by both sides continued throughout the month. Railways and base camps in France, Paris, chemical plants in Germany were all bombed. During May the German army regrouped. They had not, so far, broken the Allied line or knocked out the British army. They would have to try again. This time they it would be the French line which would be the target. An attack in the south would draw the Allied reserves away from the British front opening the way for a final blow in the northern sector. Col Bruchmuller"s battering train of heavy guns moved towards the Chemin-des-Dames, a ridge between Soissons and Rheims. Oddly, this was the sector where an American intelligence officer, Capt Hubbard, had predicted they would make their next attack. Unfortunately the British and French were in no mood to listen to an American "new boy". Even more unfortunately the sector was under the command of General Duchesne. By now most senior commanders had realised that defence should be in depth with the area in range of enemy guns only lightly held to reduce casualties. Duchesne however had been brought up in the days when it was seen as dishonourable to give up any ground so his army were crammed into a few miles between the ridge and the River Aisne even though by doing so he ignored the express orders of this own superiors. Duchesne"s stupidity would have disastrous consequences not only for his own French troops but for the four British divisions all of which had suffered heavy losses in the previous offensives and which had been sent to this "quiet" sector to recuperate. Sidney Rogerson, an officer in the 2nd West Yorkshires, part of 8th Division which had lost 5,000 casualties in March and a further 3,500 in late April was among them. He wrote "To battered, battle-weary troops, whose only knowledge of France was based upon their experience of the Northern Front, the Champagne country in the full glory of sprint was a revelation. ...Trim villages nestled in quiet hollows beside lay streams, and tired eyes were refreshed by the sight of rolling hills, clad with great woods golden with laburnum blossom, by the soft greenery of the lush meadowland, shrubby vineyards and fields of growing corn." At 3.45 pm on 26th May Rogerson saw the telegram which warned the Division that they were to be attacked on the following morning. "For a second we looked at each other in silence. In a flash the world had changed. The landscape around us smiled no longer. ... For the third time we were to bear the brunt of an enemy offensive." On 27th May 3,700 German guns and mortars blasted the Allied positions with high explosive and gas for three and a half hours. At 3.40 am seventeen divisions advanced against a front held by seven. The crest of the ridge was quickly captured exposing the flank of the 50th Division who fell back to the lower ground to the east. Their retreat, in turn, opened the flank of the 8th Division although two of the Brigades held on north of the River Aisne for some time. Among them the 2nd Devons and their supporting field battery fought on at La Ville-aux-Bois-les-Pontaverts until they were all dead or too badly wounded to stand. The inscription on the French memorial to the action, which resulted in the award of the Croix de Guerre to the units involved reads, "The guns continued to fire and resistance did not cease until every man was killed or captured." By the end of the day the 21st and 22nd Divisions had ceased to exist as organised bodies. Casualties during the battle and during the next few days were heavy and included Major Bertram Cartland who had been serving on the Western Front since 1914; "which in itself was a miracle of survival" his daughter, the novelist Barbara Cartland, was to write. (Sadly two of Major Cartland"s sons were killed during the retreat to Dunkirk in 1940.) The first news Duchesne had of the attack was that German balloons were rising from his front lines. By midday he was to learn that the enemy had advanced five miles and crossed the River Aisne on bridges which he had failed to destroy. By the evening the Germans were on the Vesle, the next river to the south and ten miles from the original front line and by the end of the 28th of May they held a wedge projecting south into Allied territory fifteen miles deep with a forty mile base. Their advance continued. On the 29th Soissons fell and by the end of May the Germans had reached the River Marne, only fifty miles from Paris, and where their original assault had been held in 1914. They had captured 50,000 French soldiers, 650 guns and 2,000 machine guns. Arguably Ludendorff had achieved what should have been his primary aim, to draw reserves away from the British front in preparation for the final, knock-out blow in the north and should have halted the attack. Was he surprised by his own success or dazzled by the prize of Paris? Was he just being opportunistic? Was he a poor strategist? Whatever the reason the German advance continued. Although the Allies had suffered a series of hammer blows they were still fighting back and were not on the defensive on the entire front. At Cantigny, a village on the River Somme, the Americans launched their first major offensive. Supported by French heavy artillery, tanks and flamethrower teams 4,000 infantry from the 28th US Infantry Regiment advanced after a two hour bombardment. The village was overrun quickly, the flamethrowers proving particularly effective against dug-outs. Clarence Huebner saw a burning German soldier run from one "just as I had seen rabbits in Kansas come out of burning straw stacks". The village was taken quickly and held against seven counter-attacks in the next three days. During the attack the Americans captured about a hundred Germans but "Some they did not take. These were the last-ditch machine gunners, who fired until their ammunition was exhausted and then tried to surrender". During the capture of the village and the subsequent fighting the Americans lost two hundred killed and another two hundred men incapacitated from gas. The strain was terrific, men went "temporarily insane" and one lieutenant actually began to shoot at his own men until he was killed by a shell. When the victors were relieved by fresh troops "They could only stagger back, hollow-eyed with sunken cheeks, and if one stopped for a moment he would fall asleep." Perhaps the Americans were not the "rabble of amateurs" that the Germans expected. While the battle raged in the west the war in the east continued more quietly. Romania signed a peace treaty with Germany and Austria who were left in control of about two-thirds of the country. However the Austro-Hungarian Empire faced other problems. Mutinies by units of Slovenes, Serbians, Ruthenians and Czechs were quickly suppressed but the demands of the varied races for independence continued. The Bolsheviks too had problems. Lithuania had broken away from Russia, Finland had become independent and the Turks were advancing in the south.
June 1918: “Retreat, Hell! We just got here.” Captain Williams, US Marine Corps.
In May General Ludendorff had launched a major attack on the British and French troops holding the Chemin-des-Dames ridge east of Soissons. Thanks in no small part to the stupidity and arrogance of the French army commander, General Duchêne, the Germans had crossed the Aisne without difficulty and almost broken through the Allied lines. In the first days of June the Germans pressed south. To the Kaiser the capture of Paris and victory looked assured but the advance faltered. The German troops become tired, outran their supplies and, in some cases, celebrated too well on stocks of wine captured in the advance. French reserves arrived and, as before, the front stabilised. Still by 3rd June when the fighting died down the Germans had advanced about forty miles and the front line was now near Chateau Thierry on the River Marne only fifty-six miles from Paris. As well as gaining a considerable amount of ground the Germans had inflicted about 163,000 casualties on the Allies although thankfully about 60,000 these were prisoners and not killed or wounded. By any standards this was a considerable success which nearly cost the French Commander-in-Chief, General Petain, his job (it did cost General Duchêne his). Now with the Germans back on the River Marne which they had reached in 1914 the French were naturally concerned about Paris. To block any further advance in that direction the United States 2nd Division moved up to support the French passing demoralised French troops predicting the end of the war and advising them to retreat. “Retreat, Hell! We just got here,” was the response from Capt Lloyd Williams of the US Marine Corps. He was to die in the fighting. On 6th June, they were ordered to capture Bellau Wood about eight miles from Chateau Thierry to straighten the line. Twenty-six years to the day before the Normandy landings the Americans went into action. At 4.30 pm their artillery opened fire on the enemy positions. To gain surprise they followed the German practice of opening fire without registering their guns on their targets by firing ranging shots but, regrettably, without taking the trouble to doing the detailed survey work and mathematical calculations which made ‘off the map’ bombardments possible. The result was that most of the shells did little damage to the Germans; in fact the gunners were just beginning to hit their targets when they had to cease fire to allow the infantry to advance. The US marines advanced in lines each men neatly spaced five yards apart with twenty yards between each of the four lines; nothing had been seen like this since the disastrous British advance on the 1st of July 1916. Led by officers blowing whistles or shouting orders they got about a hundred yards before the German fire hit them. The first line went down almost at once and gaps appeared in the supporting waves. The rigid formations held together for another hundred yards, then the instinct for survival took over. In the centre and left, where they were now quite close to the edge of Bellau Wood, the marines charged – to find that they faced an enemy holding blockhouses or fortified cottages. By now the British army had light machine guns and rifle grenades to suppress the enemy’s fire while the assault groups armed with grenades and bayonets worked round to attack from the rear. The Americans only had rifles and bayonets. With great courage they tried to shoot it out with the Germans through windows and loopholes and, in small groups, to work between the enemy positions. As these were carefully sited to have interlocking fields of fire this frequently achieved nothing but casualties but, here and there, the US troops were able to close with their enemy when bayonets and rifle butts could be used to good effect. By about 2.00 am the small village of Bouresches had been captured but the attack had not even reached the edge of Bellau Wood. The next day, and the next the marines tried to capture the wood forcing their way through belt after belt of machine guns. By now their supporting artillery had smashed many of the trees – “The trees looked like someone had cut them down with a scythe,” one of the survivors wrote. Still the Germans held out. The marines were pulled back on 12th June and, supported by new troops and a heavier bombardment, reached the middle of the wood. Further than that they could not get and it was not until 25th June that the entire wood was finally captured, this time after a fourteen hour creeping barrage. The Americans were learning. The 4th Marine Brigade lost 5,700 men out of 10,000 and about half their officers including the Brigade Commander who was badly wounded. It was not only white Americans who were in the war. The all-Black 369th Regiment arrived in France and were extremely offended when they were put to work unloading ships. Apparently some regulations prevented white and coloured troops fighting side by side so the Regiment was attached to the French army. While the Americans fought in Bellau Wood the Germens tried to expand their original breakthrough with another attack near Compiègne but decoded messages gave warning of the planned offensive. Even though the French had been able to prepare their defences and launched their counter-bombardment ten minutes before the German guns opened fire they were to lose five miles of ground on the first day of the battle. The 4,000 casualties caused by 15,000 tons of gas shells may have had something to do with it. From 8th – 10th June the fighting raged as the Germans advanced slowly to a point about five miles from Compiègne. Then their advance stopped, the first time a German offensive had not run out of steam but had actually been halted by the Allies. The Germans remained in their salient – potentially an inviting target. General Mangin was just the man to take such an invitation. Marshall Foch had assembled reserves on the western side of the German salient and was ready to launch his counter-stroke. Charles ‘Butcher’ Mangin’s 10th Army which contained French, British and American divisions spearheaded the attack was launched from the cover of forests near Villers Cotteret. On 11th June the infantry, supported by hundreds of low-flying aircraft and 144 tanks, attacked. The initial assault captured the German front line positions and over 1,000 prisoners. Gains on the following day were limited and the battle was closed town on the13th but it had had a morale effect out of all proportion to the physical effects. Before the attack Mangin had told his men, “Tomorrow’s operations … should mark the definite check of the Germans and the renewal of the offensive on our part.” Perhaps he was a little optimistic but this first major Allied counter-offensive was indeed a sign of things to come. While heavy fighting raged in France in Russia the Germans continued to take over large areas of the country by capturing Tiflis in Georgia after, in effect, annexing the Ukraine while the Austrians captured over 10,000 Bolshevik troops. Meanwhile in the mountains on the Italian frontier the Austrians launched fifty-five divisions from the Asiago Plateau and sent another fifty-one across the River Piave. Unfortunately for the attackers Italian intelligence had got warning and the defenders artillery opened fire on the assault troops hours before their own bombardment started. Gains were limited and many of the positions which were taken initially were recaptured by counter-attacks and by 15th June the battle was over. Of course even a successful defence results in casualties. One was Capt Edward H Brittain MC. Vera Brittain, who had already lost her fiancé and two close friends in the war, had lost her only brother to an Austrian sniper. The new Emperor Charles, who was waiting behind the lines for news of victory was told, “The Army of the Tyrol is defeated, the troops have lost all that they have gained and been driven back to the line of departure.” At sea, too, the war continued. The Llandovery Castle was torpedoed in the Atlantic. Of 97 nurses and medical personal serving on this hospital ship only six survived while 283 of the wounded and sick aboard died. Overall, 453 merchant seamen died during the month. It was in June that a new enemy appeared. In June cases of what was to be known as Spanish Flu appeared in Britain and India it was soon to spread to the Western Front and Germany. It is now thought that the virus originated in poultry before jumping species to pigs in the British camps at Boulogne and finally moving to humans becoming more lethal with each jump. The first deaths seem to have occurred in 1916 and the disease then spread and grew into one of the worst pandemics to affect the world.
July 1918: “Since our experiences on July 16th, I know that we are finished.” Rudolf Binding.
The German offensive on the Chemin des Dames in June had gained a lot of ground but had not broken through the Allied lines and had actually left the Germans in a large salient which could be vulnerable to attacks on its sides – if the Allies were in a position to attack. The German High Command could see these weaknesses and, in any event, General Ludendorff had not given up on his original idea to draw the Allied reserves south so that he could launch a killer blow against the British in the north. The answer was to attack again and planning went on for two more offensives, one towards Compiègne in the west and one to the east of Rheims but it would take time. Would the Allies wait? Intelligence reports that the Germens were planning to attack again meant that there could be no major counter-offensive. Indeed, General Petain was moving his reserves to the threatened front but this did not mean that the Allies could only wait. The 1st of July saw the Americans go into action at Vaux, near Rheims where the Germans had created a small salient. The town was built of stone so each house could be turned into a bullet-proof fortress. The Americans studied aerial photographs, postcards and talked to a local stonemason. The bombardment started at 6.00 am and continued for twelve hours when the range shortened suddenly and the creeping barrage led the infantry forward. The Americans entered the town on the heels of the shells and quickly overran their objectives. Many Germans were caught in cellars, others got their machine-guns into action only to be shot down from adjoining buildings. In twenty minutes Vaux was captured; only 46 Americans died Another text-book attack was launched on 4th July, a date chosen to honour the American troops who were to take part (somewhat against the wishes of General Pershing their Commander-in-Chief). It was aimed at the small town of Hamel, between Villers Brettonneux and the River Somme and General Monash, the Commander-in-Chief of the Australian Corps and an engineer by trade, had planned it meticulously. The Australians had been let down by tanks in earlier attacks and viewed this new weapon with suspicion but they were persuaded to include the new Mark Vs in their plans. After much practice about 7,000 Australians, 1,000 Americans and 60 tanks went forward. There had been no preliminary barrage to warn the enemy and low flying aircraft had drowned the noise of the tanks moving up so when. At 3.10 am when the creeping barrage hit the enemy lines there was complete surprise. Covered by smoke and the fire of the tanks the infantry advanced and within two hours had captured all their objectives losing only just over 1,000 casualties and capturing over 1,500 Germans. Hamel was not a large, or particularly significant, battle but the rapid success showed how much the British had learned in four years of warfare. The American performance had impressed the Australians. “They plan a bit rough; but they’ll learn the rules in time” one is said to have commented. Meanwhile General Petain was trying to convince his army commanders to adopt a flexible defence to the next attack. The trouble was that the old fashioned French Generals felt it was dishonourable to give up ground even if, by doing so, casualties could be reduced and more Germans killed. One, General Gouraud, accepted these new ideas; his Army’s front turned into a death-trap. Unsurprisingly others did not agree. One of these was General Berthelot who is usually thought to share with the British General Wilson the prize for having been wrong more times that anyone else about the course of the war. In 1914 after the Battle of the Marne Wilson had said it would take four weeks to drive the Germans back to the Rhine, Berthelot thought two weeks. The Germans duly attacked on 11th July. After the brilliant planning of the earlier offensives Ludendorff had got it badly wrong. There had been no serious attempt to keep the attack secret and the attack was called Friedensturm (Peace Offensive). Maybe this encouraged the Germans to push harder at the start but when the attack failed the effect on morale was disastrous. The last nail in the coffin of many Germans was driven in when General Gouraud’s men took a prisoner; his concern to be allowed to keep his gas mask was a bit of a give-away. At 1.00 am Gouraud’s guns opened fire – ten minutes before the German barrage opened – catching the Storm Troops as they left their trenches. On this sector the German infantry swept forward, unopposed except for a few French machine-guns. Finally, somewhat tired and a little disorganised, they reached the limit of their barrage – to find they were facing the French infantry holding well wired trenches which were untouched by shells or gas and illuminating the ground in front of them with star shells and Very lights. Few, if any, Germans reached the French lines. Rudolf Binding, acting as a liaison officer wrote, “Our guns bombarded empty trenches; our gas-shells gassed empty artillery positions; only in little hidden folds in the ground, sparsely distributed, lay machine-gun posts, like lice in the seams and folds of a garment, to give the attacking force a warm reception … We did not see a single dead Frenchman, let alone a captured gun or machine-gun, and we had suffered heavy losses.” On the other side of Rheims the Germans made better progress even though the French gunners anticipated their attack. With considerable ingenuity they bridged the river which protected part of the front and overran many of the forward positions. At one point troops of the 38th US Infantry held out until only 400 of the original 1,500 men were left. In the Valley of the Ardre the Germans gained five miles before French reserves halted their advance. On 16th July General Ludendorff halted the attack. Rudolf Binding wrote, “Since our experiences on July 16th, I know that we are finished.” However Ludendorff was not yet finished. Col Bruchmuller’s battering train of heavy guns was already on its way north to support the attack and he left of Tournai to supervise the attack which would finally break the British army. However it was Ludendorff who was to have to deal with the next blow. General Mangin launched his counter-offensive at 4.35 am on 18th July. His aim was to cut the Soissons to Château Thierry road which supplied most of the Germans in the salient. The attack achieved complete surprise; the French and American troops had assembled about five miles behind the front line and simply marched forward to launch the attack. Seventeen divisions, including two from the US army, supported by 346 Renault light tanks hit the German lines on a front of about twelve miles. The German trenches were shallow, badly sited and virtually without wire. The machine-gunners fought bravely as they always did but their bullets did no damage to the armour of the tanks. In the first hour the attack advanced a mile along the whole front. At Tournai Ludendorff received the news. He postponed Hagen (the attack on the British) and returned to his Headquarters “naturally in a state of the greatest nervous tension.” What should he do? Hit the British at the start of August as planned to relieve the pressure in the south; use his reserves to halt the French offensive or…? Meanwhile Mangin’s offensive was moving forward and, on 20th July, the line from Château Thierry to Rheims came to life as two more French armies attacked. It was too risky to stay and by 27th July the Germans had pulled back more than ten miles. It had not been easy. One American Corps was practically wiped out by the Prussian Guards and on 30th July four US Divisions attacked but could only gain about a mile. One of their historians wrote, “[They were] the dirtiest days of infantry slaughter since Grant lost his head at Cold Harbor.” where the Union army had lost 7,000 men in twenty minutes in 1864. On the other flank Mangin’s men advanced five more miles and the Germans fell back eight miles more, giving up Soissons and Fismes. On 22nd July Kaiser Wilhelm II was depressed. “I am a defeated War Lord to whom you must show consideration,” he told his retinue. In the air the battle continued with Allied aircraft dropping 300 tons of bombs on German targets and harassing the retreating Germans with machine-gun fire. However flying was still a risky business and the British ace Major Edward Mannock, with 72 kills to his record, was shot down by ground fire. For his continuous bravery during more than a year in action he was awarded the VC. The Italian army continued to push forward in the delta of the River Piave capturing 3,000 Austrians. One of the wounded in this offensive was Ernest Hemmingway, a volunteer ambulance driver, who was hit by splinters from an Austrian mortar bomb. In the Far East Czech troops captured Vladivostok from the Bolsheviks. In Britain, on the Home Front, civilians were struggling. Rationing had started in July and was now 16 ozs of meat, 5 ozs of bacon and 4 ozs of butter or margarine per person per week. In contrast the German and Austrian meat rations were 7 and 4.6 ozs. In Britain bread was not rationed while Germans received 3 lbs 13 ozs and Austrians 2 lb 2 ozs per week. Meanwhile the ‘Spanish Flu’ pandemic was starting to bite with several hundred deaths a month in July. Oddly it was often the young and fit who died; perhaps older people had gained a degree of immunity from being exposed to other forms of the infection. Of course it was not just the Home Front which was affected. Perhaps 35,000 British solders were suffering from the disease and, although figures are not readily available, it is clear that in Germany the numbers of cases in both the Army and on the Home Front were at least as large if not greater.
August 1918: “August 8th was the black day of the German Army in the history of the war.” Erich Ludendorff.
Since March the Germans had launched attack after attack on the British and French lines in France. They had made substantial advances, captured thousands of prisoners and gained large areas of territory but they had lost about 645,000 men mainly of their fittest and best men who had been drafted into the new storm troop divisions. Allied casualties had been higher, nearly 740,000 including prisoners, but the Germans had not broken through nor had they achieved their main aim of defeating the British army. Now, following French and American counter-offensives, the front had stabilised; it was time for the Allies to strike back. During July, while the French fought the German attack to a standstill on the Marne, the Allies had been considering what to do next. The first priority was to ensure that any attack south of Ypres could be held but if the Germans did not attack both Marshall Foch, the Allied Commander-in-Chief, and Field Marshall Haig, the Commander-in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force, had agreed that the allies should launch their own joint offensive near Amiens. As the German attack failed to materialise the allies started to concentrate their forces under. Lessons from previous offensives had been learned. For this battle the surprise would be part of the Allies’ arsenal and secrecy was paramount and General Rawlinson’s Fourth Army staff took precautions which would have been unheard of two years before. The key message ‘Keep Your Mouth Shut’ was stuck into the troops paybooks, Conferences were held in different places so the appearance of senior commanders would not give away the secret. The Canadian divisions moved down from the Ypres sector but they left two battalions in the front line and their wireless stations went on sending messages as if the full Corps was still stationed around Mont Kemmel (shades of 1944 when the Allies sent dummy signals to make the Germans believe another invasion was being planned). 1,000 extra guns and sixty trainloads of shells were moved to the Amiens sector. The guns were moved up over several nights and carefully camouflaged by morning while the ranging fire was controlled so that there was no overall increase in shelling. 644 tanks moved up along the fourteen miles of the line to be attacked while aircraft flew low over the German lines to cover the noise of their engines. Of these 324 were heavy tanks to support the infantry assault but there were 192 Whippet light tanks which were to move forward with the cavalry to exploit the breakthrough. As well as fighting tanks older tanks were to be used to carry supplies and even machine gun teams forward to help secure the captured positions. At 4.08 am on the 8th of August the tanks started to move; at 4,20 am, an hour before dawn, a creeping barrage crashed down on the German front lines in front of the assaulting infantry while shells from heavy guns came down on the artillery positions. It was a misty morning and the combined effect of the barrage followed closely by tanks and infantry looming out of the darkness broke the German’s morale almost immediately. By 7.00 am the Australians had captured their first objective and by 11.00 am both the Australian and Canadian Corps were on their second objectives. The Official History reported “the whole Santerre plateau seen from the air was dotted with parties of infantry, field artillery, and tanks moving forward. Staff officers were galloping about, many riding horses in battle for the first time. … Indeed, at this stage her was more noise of movement than firing, as the heavy batteries … were no longer in action; for the infantry had gone so far that it was no longer possible for them to shoot. … No enemy guns seemed to firing and no co-ordinated defence was apparent. …” It had not been all that easy. While the tanks had overwhelmed the German infantry and machine-gunners the artillery had fought back. In one sector nine out of ten tanks were knocked out by direct hits at a range of seventy yards. On the other hand the use of armoured cars and Whippet tanks to exploit the breakthrough had been a success. German supply units and troops moving up to reinforce the front line were broken up by machine gun fire and in one place an entire Corps Headquarters was captured. One in particular gained a place in history. Lieut Arnold, commanding a Whippet named Musical Box, started the day by machine gunning the crews in an artillery battery which was firing on some heavy tanks. He then drove on destroying three enemy cavalry patrols and a machine gun position. He next killed or dispersed a large force of German infantry before continuing his advance to the east despite the fact that spare petrol tanks lashed to the tanks had been holed by enemy fire and petrol was running into the tank forcing Arnold and his crew to wear respirators. For another hour or so Arnold cruised around destroying any Germans found until, at about 3.00 pm ten hours after he had started his rampage, Musical Box was hit by a German shell which set it on fire. Arnold and his crew escaped and were trying to put out their burning clothes when they were set on by Germans who killed the driver and beat the others severely before sending them to the rear as prisoners. By 1.30 pm the main battle was virtually over. The Allies had captured about ten miles of the German front line with a maximum advance of about seven miles and had captured about 13,000 prisoners. While these results were excellent compared with the battles of 1917 they were not that dramatic and hardly justify Ludendorff’s conclusion that “August 8th was the black day of the German Army in the history of the war.” Perhaps he was justified. On 10th August as the German 38th Division moved up to face the British advance they found troops in front “falling back in disorderly flight, among them drunken Bavarians who shouted to the 94th Regiment, ‘What do you war-prolongers want? If they enemy were only on the Rhine – the war would then be over!’”. Men from another division who were falling back shouted “We thought we had set the whole thing going, now you asses are corking up the hole again.” at reinforcements. German morale was crumbling. Actually it was the British and French who had problems. Their formations were disorganised by casualties, the artillery was out of range, many tanks had broken down and German resistance was growing. The difficulty was that in the First World War it was possible to break into, and sometimes through, the enemy’s defences but no technology existing to exploit the breakthrough by a rapid advance into the rear areas. The Allied advance continued but became slower and after four days the British High Command closed the battle down. Overall they had advanced about nine miles on a front of about thirty miles at a cost of about 50,000 casualties as against German losses of 75,000 including over 20,000 prisoners. Now came the arguments. General Foch wanted the Fourth Army’s attack to continue – Foch always wanted attacks to continue – but the Haig had other ideas. It seems that the British commanders had finally realised that it was pointless to keep pushing on the same front once the initial advance had ground to a halt or been stopped by the defenders. Haig resisted Foch’s demands but offered to attack on with General Byng’s Third Army to the north around Arras. After several days of argument Foch seems to have realised that pressing the advance on the Somme would be costly. He wrote, “I definitely came around to the opinion of Field-Marshall Sir Douglas Haig, and I modified my orders of August 12th for he Somme operations.” completely refuting Lloyd George’s post-war allegations that [Haig] “did well … under Foch’s supreme direction”. On 21st August the Third Army attacked once again under cover of a morning mist. They gained 4,000 yards against enemy rearguards of machine-gunners and artillery. Supporting this attack the left flank of the Fourth Army recaptured the town of Albert and advanced across the old Somme battlefield (bringing the 38th (Welsh) Division back to Mametz Wood). Three days later the Germans had been pushed back on a front of thirty-five miles and on the 30th the New Zealand Division entered Bapaume nearly fifteen miles from the British start-lines. Monchy-le-Preux, near Arras, the scene of bitter and costly fighting in 1917 fell to the Third Army at the cost of only 1,500 casualties while, on the right, the about 600 tired Australian riflemen crossed the Somme and advanced into Peronne behind a heavy barrage. “It all happened like lightning, and before we had fired a shot we were taken unawares.” wrote one of the defeated Germans. The whole front was on fire and the Americans were moving up on the St Mihiel salient near Verdun. The situation was so desperate that the Germans even appealed to their Austrian allies for more troops. General Arz replied, “that the Austro-Hungarian Army was no longer in a condition to hold out through the coming winter.” So much for Lloyd George’s ridiculous idea that the war could be won by ‘knocking away the props’ (defeating Germany’s allies). In fact it was Germany who was supporting its allies; without Germany was defeated Austria, Turkey and Bulgaria were incapable of holding out. Overall, in August, the British had captures 63,000 Germans and nearly 1,000 guns while the French had captures another 31,000 albeit at a cost of 100,000 men. The German front was crumbling but not all the German troops were ready to surrender yet. On the home front a German Airship, L70, capable of carrying 8,000 lbs of bombs was shot down new Wells-next-the-Sea by British fighters. “It looked like a huge sun.” wrote one witness; another “She went down like a burning arrow.” On of the dead was the commander of the German airship force.
September 1918: “Tout le monde à la bataille.”
(Everyone fights) Marshall Ferdinand Foch With the ‘war winning’ Germans offensives of early 1918 contained the Allies struck back. The British, Canadians and Australians had attacked at Amiens on the 8th of August and had broken the German line in the ‘Black Day for the German Army’ as General Erich Ludendorff called it. However with the equipment of the day it was impossible to launch a rapid pursuit and as German reserves arrived the front solidified again. Rather than try to press forward on the same sector the French launched a new attack towards the town of Noyon and a day or so later the British Third Army attacked between the River Somme and Arras. The Germans, now threatened by the Allies’ advance on a wide front had no option but to fall back having lost over 60,000 prisoners and nearly 1,000 guns to the British alone. By the beginning of September the British army, supported as always by the Canadians, Australians and New Zealanders, had reached what the Allies called the Hindenburg Line. Actually it was a series of several heavily defended positions running from north of Arras to Metz. All the lines were strong, consisting of a series of lines and strongpoints over ten miles deep. The approaches were covered with barbed wire belts, eight or nine of them in places carefully arranged to funnel attacking troops into the enfilade fire of machine guns and, of course, covered by artillery fire from guns to the rear. A very formidable obstacle indeed. On the 2nd of September the Third Army attacked the Drocourt-Quéant Line near Arras. Although heavily defended it did not have the great depth of the main Hindenburg positions but, even allowing for this, for the Canadian Corps to break through the entire line at every point attacked in a single day was a considerable feat of arms. It certainly worried the German High Command and over the next week the Germans pulled back giving up all the ground won in March and April; the Allies followed up. Faced with Allied victories of this sort it is not surprising the Germans felt they were under pressure. This feeling increased when the British and Belgians launched the Fourth Battle of Ypres to break out of the Salient once and for all. Again, this attack went smoothly with the village of Passchendaele falling to the Belgians on the first day and that evening Ludendorff pressed Marshall Hindenburg, the German Chief of Staff and, effectively, their Commander in Chief, to seek an immediate armistice. From the German viewpoint things could only get worse. An attack near Cambrai on the 27th showed how war had changed since 1914. As well as the tanks and artillery the British had the support of over 1,000 planes which dropped 700 tons of bombs on the German positions and fired 26,000 rounds from their machine-guns in what we would now call strafing attacks. It resulted in the capture of a large section of the German defences together with 10,000 prisoners and 200 guns. Steadily the British, Australians, New Zealanders and Canadians followed up the retreating Germans towards the Hindenburg Line itself. Among other attacks the 46th Division, a Territorial Force division from the Midlands, achieved a major feat of arms when it forced the crossing of the St Quentin canal. What was in the canal varied from six feet of water to eight feet of mud but as it ran in a cutting with very steep sides from thirty to fifty feet high it was still a formidable obstacle especially as the Germans had used barbed wire liberally on both banks and the bottom. The Midlanders prepared with care, lifebelts were commandeered from cross-channel steamers, the engineers prepared collapsible boats, mats to cover the mud and wooden piers to be floated over the canal. At 5.50 am the battle started and by 8.30 am the 137th Brigade, made up of battalions of the North and South Staffordshires, had reached the canal, forced their way across, captured more German prisoners than their own original strength and were waiting for the reserve units to take up the advance. By 1.00 pm the 32nd Division passed through to pursue the retreating Germans. By the end of September the British army had captured most of the ‘impregnable’ defences of the Hindenburg Line. As the British advanced in the north a new attack started further south. Just south of Verdun lay the St Mihiel Salient, ground captured by the Germans in 1914 and projecting into the French lines. The Americans were to recapture it. Partly by leaving fake plans where they could be found by a German spy they achieved surprise and the Germans had actually moved some of their heavy guns away from the front when, on the 12th of September, 200,000 US troops supported by 250 tanks, 48,000 French infantry and nearly 1,500 planes launched the attack. “American tanks do not surrender so long as one tank is able to go forward. Its presence will save lives and kill many Germans.” George Patton’s approach to armoured warfare remained the same in the Second World War. One US Sergeant, Harry Adams, saw a German run into the door of a deep dugout. With only two rounds left for his pistol he fired both into the doorway and called to the German to surrender. He was, to put it mildly, surprised when 300 Germans emerged with their hands up but he marched them back to his lines covering them with his, now empty, weapon. Not all the US troops were so lucky. There are 4,153 graves in the cemetery at Thiacourt with a further 284 names on the wall behind it commemorating the missing. The next American and French attack was into the Argonne Forest to the west of Verdun. On the 25th of September 4,000 guns opened fire and after six hours the infantry and 700 tanks went forward. Capt Harry S Truman, later President of the United States but at that time commanding a battery of field guns, wrote, “I fired 3,000 rounds of 75[mm] ammunition from 4.00 am to 8.00 am. I slept in the edge of a wood to the right of my battery position on Friday night. If I hadn’t awakened and got up at 4.00 am I would not be here, because the Germans fired a barrage on my sleeping place!” By the morning of the 27th 23,000 Germans had been captured in the Argonne. It was not just in France that the Germany and her Allies were under pressure. Salonika had been quiet for a long time, so long in fact that a German described it as their greatest internment camp. Now the Allied forces there came to life. On the 14th a six-hour bombardment damaged the Bulgarian defences and destroyed much of their protective barbed wire. It did not, of course, destroy all their machine-guns and these came to life in the normal way but, despite taking casualties, the Serbs, French and Senegalese troops pressed on and the positions on the Vetrenik mountain were finally taken at bayonet point. The fighting continued on the 15th when 36,000 Serbs, French and Italians attacked a position held by 12,000 Bulgars and Germans. The defenders fought hard, so hard that the French had to use flamethrowers to silence some of the machine-gun positions and take their objectives. On the 18th the British and Greeks attacked around Lake Doiran. Although some Bulgarians were, like their Austrian allies, interested in peach many fought on. A battalion of the South Wales Borderers captured the summit of the Grand Couronné only to be forced back by Bulgarian machine-guns into a British gas cloud. Lt-Col Burges, the CO, was wounded three times and captured was awarded a VC for his leadership. In another attack the Bulgarian fire halted one British attack causing 66% casualties. The battle continued for two more days before, finally, the Bulgarians retreated and by the 21st the Allied forces had advanced fourteen miles and on the 25th British troops entered Bulgaria itself. On the 28th having lost 10,000 prisoners in a week Bulgaria opened talks for an armistice and, on the 30th, the war ended on the Salonika front. In Palestine General Allenby’s army was ready for its next big push. Turkish communications and supplies had already been disrupted by raids from Arab irregulars led by Lt Col T E Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) but the main attack started on the 20th. British and Indian infantry broke through the Turkish defences north of Jerusalem, entered the Jezreel Valley and captured 7,000 prisoners. The cavalry entered Nazareth the next day nearly capturing the German commander, Liman von Sanders who had to flee in his pyjamas. The Turks fled north under heavy air attack. One account runs, “Pilot after pilot, flying in perfect order, dropped his bombs, and then, assisted by he observers, raked the unfortunate Turks with machine-guns. Their ammunition exhausted, the airmen sped back to their aerodromes for more, and returned gain to the slaughter. Some pilots made four trips on that day.” (A preview of the Falaise Pocket?) On the 25th 2,750 Australian and New Zealand cavalry Amman on the Berlin-Baghdad railway taking 2,560 prisoners and bringing the total number of Turks captured the advance to about 45,000. In Germany reality was starting to break-in. The politicians feared a left-wing rebellion while the army’s High Command were beginning to accept that they faced a military defeat; all agreed that they must seek an armistice but the civilians at least realised that the Kaiser’s autocratic powers would be a major stumbling block and, to the annoyance of the soldiers, Kaiser Whilhelm was persuaded to allow an elected parliament to be formed with Prince Max of Baden, long known for his liberal views, would be appointed Chancellor. Hopefully these measures would placate the Allies and, with their known fear of Bolshevism, ensure the terms of the peace were not too onerous.
October 1918: “My senses are charred; I don’t take the cigarette out of my mouth when I write Deceased over their letter.” Wilfred Owen.
The Central Powers were collapsing but still the war continued. On the 9th of October Lloyd George telegraphed Field Marshall Haig. “… I wish to express to yourself, Generals Horne, Byng and Rawlinson (three of the Army Commanders) and all the officers and men under your command my sincerest congratulations on the great and significant success which the British Armies … have gained during the past two days.” Even in this telegram Lloyd George failed to mention the efforts of the British First Army or the entire army’s brilliant successes of the past few weeks. Naturally this message was not quoted when the Prime Minister attacked these same officers in his memoirs published after the war and Haig’s death; hypocritical behaviour by politicians is not new. On 8th October in the Argonne fame came to Sergeant Alvin C York. Originally a conscientious objector he had finally joined the American army York’s patrol was surrounded and heavily outnumbered. As a party of Germans moved to attack the Sergeant shot the last man in line, then the next to last until they were all dead. Overall this amazing man killed, single-handedly, at least twenty-eight Germans, captured 132 together with thirty-five machine guns. When a General asked him how many he thought he had killed York replied “General, I would hate to think I missed any of them shots; they were all at pretty close range – fifty or sixty yards”. Raised in the mountains York had learned to shoot to hung wild turkeys for the pot; for him army targets were easy, “They were so much bigger than turkey’s heads.” To the north the British launched the Second Battle of Cambrai. On a twenty mile front the Royal Air Force created a smoke screen using phosphorous bombs. Three British armies, with eighty-two tanks, advanced three miles in a day capturing 10,000 prisoners and 150 guns overrunning the last of the Hindenburg Line. Exploiting this attack British cavalry advanced eight miles to Le Cateau, the scene of a battle in August 1914, capturing 500 men. Other towns, in German hands since 1914 were falling. Colonel Alan Brooke, later Lord Alanbrooke, visited Lens, wrote “I climbed on a heap of stones which represents the place where the Church once stood, and I looked down on the wreckage. … If the stones could talk and could repeat what they have witnesses, and the thoughts they had read on dying men’s faces, I wonder if there would ever be any wars.” In fact it was not just the thoughts of the soldiers which would be remembered. During their occupation the Germans had systematically looted the areas of France and Belgium they had occupied. Beds, clothes, stocks of woollens, chairs, dining tables, basins, mattresses, cutlery, pianos, curtains and other household goods had all been ‘requisitioned’. Copper objects, even curtain rails and runners, were taken as were animals, bicycles, food and animal feed while men and women were deported to Germany for forced labour or compelled to work for the German army in France while communities were fined for ‘showing too much sympathy to French prisoners’. Despite food aid from the United States and Britain millions of school-age children were malnourished and doctors reported scurvy and beriberi had been reported in Lille as early as 1915. As the Allied armies pressed forward some Germans still seemed to believe that it would be possible to negotiate an equal peace and to retain Belgium and Alsace-Lorraine or, at the least, use them as bargaining counters. Maybe reality broke through for some when President Wilson made it clear that there could be no end to the fighting so long as German or Austrian troops remained in Belgium, France or Serbia. Although the Germans were now retreating steadily and even though by the 12th the government had accepted Wilson’s terms Field Marshall Hindenburg still encouraged this men to continue to resist in the hope of achieving and armistice on more favourable terms. Even so General Mangin’s men liberated the city of Laon, north of Rheims and Soissons on the 13th and continued to advance northwards. At the same time the Americans continued to press forward along the River Meuse north of the Argonne although their advance was slowed by terrible disorganisation partly due to a shortage of 100,000 horses to pull the guns and transport wagons. Around 100,000 US troops had become stragglers and some were very reluctant to attack. The battle continued in the north as well as Belgian and British troops advanced from the Ypres Salient. One of the wounded in this battle was a Corporal Hitler, temporarily blinded by a British gas shell. Also in the north the great industrial city of |Lille was recaptured by the Allies without a shot being fired while in Belgium Ostend and Zeebrugge were liberated. Despite having accepted that peace was impossible while German troops remained on foreign soil the German government seemed detached from reality. Ludendorff advised the Kaiser that after another month’s withdrawal the Allied offensive could be halted for the winter and that in 1919 a German offensive would make Belgium a battlefield again “so that 1914 will be child’s play compared to it.” The War Minister said that another 600,000 men would become available in 1919 but, reality striking in, pointed out that it would be impossible for Germany to fight for more than six weeks without Roumanian oil. From the front came another message. Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria advised the Chancellor, “We must obtain peace before the enemy breaks Germany.” On other fronts the Central Powers were retreating. German troops had left Bulgaria under the terms of the armistice by the end of September. Now German advisors were withdrawn from Mesopotamia where British cavalry advanced over eighty miles in two days. Some German units remained in action in Serbia most had fallen back. In Poland a new, independent government was proclaimed and Austro-Hungarian units mutinied in Italy and three Hungarian divisions demanded to be sent home, and disintegrated when they were. In Syria Arabs rose in Aleppo to welcome Arab irregulars and although some German units continued to resist British troops entered the town shortly afterwards and at the end of October Turkish delegates met the Allies to discuss an armistice which was to result in the country’s surrender before the end of the month. On the Italian front generally the Central Powers continued to resist until the Italians and British crossed the River Piave capturing 7,000 prisoners. “My people are neither capable nor willing to continue the war. I have made the unalterable decision to ask for a separate peace and an immediate armistice,” the Emperor advised the Kaiser. On the 28th negotiations commenced. At sea the submarine campaign had continued for most of October. On the 10th RMS Leinster was torpedoed with the loss of 501 lives including Josephine Carr who became the first WREN to die on active service and on the 21st eight men were drowned when the Saint Barcham was torpedoed bringing the total of merchant seamen killed that month to 318. However, although the British Grand Fleet were electrified when signals intelligence reported the German High Seas Fleet was to put to sea for a final battle, calm was restored when the German sailors mutinied and refused to sail in what they saw as a death ride. Quite apart from the war people were dying on the home front. 1,500 Berliners died in October of what was called ‘Spanish flu’. A thousand died in Bombay and many more in the United States while 20,000 US troops dies of the disease in September and October. In London 2,225 people died in October, more than had been killed in all the air raids of the entire war. It was in October when the official war artist John Singer Sergeant visited a dressing station near Le Bac-de-Sud. There he saw soldiers blinded by mustard gas awaiting treatment. His painting Gassed, one of the greatest and most terrible pictures of the War, now hangs in the Imperial War Museum in London. Finally the German government realised that all was not well. Ludendorff had sent a message to all the German Army Group commanders demanding a ‘fight to the finish’. In fact, following a protest from one of the Army commanders it was withdrawn but not before it had been ‘leaked’ by a socialist wireless operator to members of the Reichstag (Parliament). Prince Max of Baden, the recently appointed Chancellor, was outraged and demanded Ludendorff’s resignation. Ludendorff, supported by the Naval Chief of Staff and the Minister of War, argued that with the support of people at home “the war can be maintained for some months.” However without the Kaiser’s support his position was hopeless and his resignation was accepted. Field Marshall Hindenburg’s resignation was not and, like the Kaiser, he stayed on as a figurehead while the civilian government sought acceptable terms from the Allies. In October 1918 the war was finally drawing to an end.