The Apotheosis of German Fortifications on the Western Front in the Great War
From the moment, in late 1914, when ground warfare went static and underground, the Germans began a strategy of fortification of their defences. If this meant the relinquishment of territory to achieve dominant and fortifiable terrain and features, so be it. Inevitably, this left the British and French occupying the adjacent territory. This was usually less dominant, subject to oversight by the German infantry and artillery. Also, the Allied trenches were often more susceptible to waterlogging and flooding; to the prolonged discomfort of their troglodyte occupants.
To the contrary, the British and French chose to simplify their fortifications with a view to temporary occupation: their intention was always to advance into the open country behind the German lines so their cavalry could come into play and sweep round the German defenses. The Germans well understood this strategy of the Allies and thus extended their defensive fortifications to precisely defeat this objective.
If the Allies doubted the efficacy of the German fortification strategy, they were to learn a hard lesson at the Somme on 1st July 1916. Safe in their robust Stollen (dug-outs) the German soldiers were able resist the British week-long, preparatory barrage of heavy 18 pounder guns that delivered a million and a half shells. The Germans emerged from their shelters in time to massacre the advancing British infantry, killing 20,000 of them on the single day, with a further 40,000 wounded or missing.
The Hindenburg Line
Indeed, it was during the later stages of the First Battle of the Somme that the German High Command (Generals Paul von Hindenburg and Erich von Ludendorff) began creating their greatest fortified line - The Siegfried Line, known to the British as the Hindenburg Line. It was built well behind the then existing front line - i.e. between 10 and 50 km (six and 30 miles) - and planned as a retreat of operational opportunity or of last resort. General Hindenburg himself called it 'semi-permanent'.
The continuous defence ' Hindenburg Line' concept is a British misnomer: in reality it was, eventually, a system of linked fortified areas running from the North Sea to the area around Verdun in mid-France.
The other misconception that the British High Command is said to have harboured, was to believe that the subsequent withdrawal of the Germans behind the Hindenburg Line was the direct result of the drubbing that the British had administered to them at in the First Battle of the Somme. Certainly, the Germans realised that such levels of casualties as they suffered in the Battle of the Somme and at Verdun in 1916 were unsustainable, and changed their tactics accordingly. But in their minds, it was more the concept of self-determined strategic withdrawal to a vastly superior defensive position.
Another singular advantage of the Hindenburg Line, was that it straightened out the Germans defence line, eliminating salients and other fluctuations in the line. It reduced, at a stroke, the frontage of the area to be manned by 50 km (30 miles) and thus released another 10 divisions of infantrymen and 50 batteries of heavy artillery for the Reserves.
On the specific orders of Ludendorff, the area between the former defense line and the Hindenburg Line was systematically reduced to state of total devastation, by removing all means of access and possible shelter i.e. a 'scorched earth' policy. Mines were laid to make the area even more dangerous and inhospitable to the Allies. Ludendorff described it as: 'a totally barren land in which their [the Allies] manoeuvrability was to be critically impaired'.
The Germans separated the Hindenburg Line into operational areas, called Stellung. There were five Stellung, namely, from north to south, Wotan, Siegfried, Alberich, Brunhilde and Kriemhilde. The Siegfreid was the first, and the strongest of the five Stellung. It ran for 160km (100 miles) between Lens and Rheims and was completed in an amazing five months, using a vast force of more than half a million German civilian contract labour and Russian prisoners of war. At its heart was a network of deep trenches - some 15 foot deep and 12 feet wide - and dug-outs protected by a wall of barbed wire 20 metres (60 feet) wide; a truly impenetrable barrier to infantry and cavalry alike.
However, the total fortification concept went further than this. Three kilometres in front of these strong, steel-reinforced, concrete fortifications, was placed a lightly defended outpost line about one kilometre (1,100 yards) in depth. This was intended to slow down, fragment and ultimately disorganise the advancing troops. Behind this was another two-kilometer (one a quarter mile) 'Battle Zone' backed by an intensive barrage of machine guns and artillery which would eliminate any infantry that managed to cross the battle zone. Later, when the tank became a serious tactical weapon, anti-tank ditches were added to the first line of defence.
German strategic withdrawal and the Neville Offensive
This strategic withdrawal tactic was first used against the ill-fated Nivelle Offensive in Spring 1917. Having been forewarned by lax security on the part of the French commanders, notably the French Commander in Chief himself, General Nivelle, the Germans used Operation ALBERICH to withdraw to the Hindenburg Line in anticipation of the French offensive. When the French infantry, supported by tanks, struck at what they thought were the heavily bombarded occupied main German trenches, they were sucked into a veritable hurricane of machine gun and shellfire as they struggled across the deserted trenches and the barren open ground behind them.
Inevitably, despite the enormous French casualties which were incurred during repeated attacks, the Nivelle Offensive failed to make any real progress. This signally inept, futile, hugely wasteful and entirely French enterprise, proved to be the last straw that broke the back of the brave but long suffering French infantry: a series of mutinies soon followed in 68 of France's 112 infantry divisions.
This hard lesson learned, little happened along the Hindenburg Line until the Germans used it to launch their 1918 Offensive - (The Kaiserschlacht = The Emperor's Battle). On the 21st March 1918, with almost total surprise, the Germans attacked with 63 divisions, throwing the British back across the former Somme battlefield, until the Germans were finally halted, on the 28th March 1918, after an advance of 40km (25miles). After several other tentative, but unsuccessful attacks, Ludendorff called off the Kaiserschlacht and switched operations north to the Flanders Sector.
Allies final attack on H.L.
Subsequent British, Commonwealth, French and American counter attacks brought the Allies back up against the outposts of the Hindenburg Line by the Autumn of 1918.
The British High Command had fully realised that any success against the formidable defences of the Hindenburg Line, could only be achieved with the use of tanks. Fortuitously, these were now available in reasonable numbers.
A series of successful attacks was launched. Firstly by the British General Sir Henry Horne's First Army on the Wotan Stellung in early September 1918, then, secondly by General Sir Douglas Haig's Army Group on the Siegfreid Stellung during the month.
The British First, Third, Fourth and Fifth Armies joined with the French First Army and the American Expeditionary Force, under the supreme command of the French General Ferdinand Foch, and by the 10th October 1918, they had irretrievably shattered and cleared the whole of the Hindenburg Line.
At this point the fate of the German Army and State was sealed. The Western Front was never entirely broken, but by the 11th November 1918, the Germans had unconditionally capitulated and the Great War was over.