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World War I Western Front (1918) - Part 5

World War I Western Front (1918) - Part 5

Events that took place in the fifth and last year of WWI

The near collapse of Italy emphasized the Allied need to co-ordinate their actions, to which end a “Supreme War Council” was created at the Rapallo Conference (5 Nov-ember 1917). The Council, established at Versailles, was to meet regularly and include the prime Ministers of France, Britain and Italy, and the US president, or their representatives, and was the first step towards the Allied unity of command which strengthened in 1918.

 

Index of Content

The Somme Offensive

The first of the Ludendorff offensives, on the Somme, began on March 21, 1918, when three German armies attacked the British on their right flank along a 96 kilometer (60-mile) front. Initially, the British were driven back, and, as Ludendorff had correctly surmised, Pétain was more concerned with protecting Paris than he was with aiding his British colleagues. When General Sir Henry Wilson (1864–1922), British chief of staff, protested, the Supreme War Council responded by appointing Foch commander-in-chief of the Allied forces in France. Not only did Pershing approve of the appointment, but, contrary to his own buildup policy, he offered eight American divisions to Foch on an emergency basis.

In the meantime, by April 5, after creating a 64 kilometer (40-mile) salient, the German advance petered out. Foch had shifted French reserves to check the advance at Montdidier, but the Somme offensive had inflicted some 240,000 Allied casualties. It had been just as costly to the Germans, whose heaviest losses were among the elite shock troops. Thus, it was a tactical success for the Germans but a strategic victory for the Allies. The Germans had penetrated the Allied lines, but had lost men they could not replace, even as the Allies were about to be reinforced from the seemingly limitless pool of American doughboys. Perhaps even worse for Ludendorff, the offensive aimed at splitting the British and the French ended by uniting them, along with the Americans.

 

The Lys Offensive

Yet Ludendorff pressed on with a second offensive against the British at the Lys River, forming part of the Belgian-French border. This attack directly threatened the English Channel ports, and the initial impact of the assault was indeed devastating. A Portuguese division fighting under British control in the sector was all but annihilated, creating a gap that threatened the British flanks. Within a mere three hours of the initial onslaught, the German Sixth Army reached the open country behind the British rear lines. The defenders were caving in everywhere.

It was on April 11, 1918, that Haig issued perhaps the most famous order of the war. Telling his men frankly that their backs were “to the wall,” he ordered them to stand their ground, even if this meant death. Perhaps astoundingly, the “backs to the wall” order worked. Not only did they hold, but they pushed back, so that by April 29, Ludendorff was compelled to break off his second offensive.

British losses in the Lys offensive were 239,000, among whom were 28,000 dead. The Germans, who had come so close to a major victory with this offensive, lost 348,300, including some 50,000 dead.

 

The Aisne Offensive

The third German offensive, on the Aisne River, began on May 27 against lightly held French positions on the Chemin des Dames Ridge. This was supposed to be a diversionary attack only, but it was so successful that it became the major effort of the offensive. In 24 hours, the Germans advanced 32 kilometers (20 miles), and by May 30, they had reached the Marne, just 80 kilometers (50 miles) outside of Paris.

U.S. forces had played a minor role in assisting the British on the Lys. The first major U.S. action now occurred, when on April 20 two companies of the 26th Division came under heavy attack near Seicheprey along the St. Mihiel salient. About 2,800 regular German troops spearheaded by 600 elite shock troops overran the American positions. Many Americans were taken prisoner, and 669 others were killed or wounded. German losses were slight.

It was a disappointing baptism by fire. Pershing was unshaken, however, and rushed the U.S. Second and Third Divisions to reinforce the French along the Marne. In the meantime, Major General Robert Lee Bullard (1861–1947) launched the first U.S. offensive of the war, at the village of Cantigny, some 80 kilometers (50 miles) northwest of the action at Chemin des Dames and about 100 kilometers (60 miles) north of Paris.

Cantigny was the site of a German advance observation post and was strongly fortified. On May 28, the U.S. First Division attacked the village and drove the Germans out. Later in the day and on the next day, the Americans repulsed German counterattacks. The American victory boosted Allied morale and gave the U.S. troops great confidence.

The spearhead of the German offensive was at Château-Thierry, on the Marne. The U.S. Second and Third Divisions rushed to block the Germans from crossing the river at this point. The Third Division defended the Marne bridges, holding them against the Germans, then counterattacking. The French 10th Colonial Division, inspired by the Americans, joined the fray, and pushed the German onslaught back across the Marne at Jaulgonne.

 

The Capture of Belleau Wood

As the U.S. Army had performed so well at Cantigny and Château-Thierry, now the U.S. Marines ventured into Belleau Wood as the spearhead of the army’s Second Division. To capture Belleau Wood, the marines advanced across a wheat field that was swept by machine-gun fire.

The casualties incurred on June 6, 1918, were the heaviest single-day losses in Marine Corps history to that time (the record would endure until November 1943, during World War II, when the marines took the Japanese-held island of Tarawa). From June 9 through June 26, the marines and the army’s Second Division took, lost, and retook Belleau Wood and the nearby villages of Vaux and Bouresches half a dozen times before they expelled the Germans for good.

 

The Noyon-Montdidier Offensive

Deserters from the increasingly demoralized German army revealed to the French the strategy of Ludendorff’s next two offensives. The next assault, they said, would come at Noyon and Montdidier, just southeast of Cantigny and northwest of Château-Thierry. Foch and Pétain were well prepared for the assault, which came on June 9, and a combined Franco-American counterattack checked the advance of the German Eighteenth Army by June 11.

The next day, the Allies had repulsed an attack by the German Seventh Army. By this time, over 250,000 Americans were arriving in France each month. By June 1918, seven of the 25 U.S. divisions in France were in action at the front.

 

The Champange-Marne Offensive

The increasingly desperate Ludendorff was determined to end the war with the fifth German offensive in five months. As before, Ludendorff’s principal aim was the destruction of the British army in Flanders, but he would precede the major thrust with a preliminary offensive against the French and Americans in the Champagne region, focusing on the attack on the fortified city of Reims.

Foch, however, had been informed by the German deserters of the impending attack. He used his artillery to arrest the advance of German shock troops during the night of July 14–15. East of Reims, General Henri Gouraud’s (1867–1946) Fourth Army checked the German attack within a matter of hours.

West of Reims, the Germans reached the Marne and crossed it with 14 divisions. Here American troops became heavily engaged, and the U.S. Third Division earned the nickname “Rock of the Marne” for its determined and highly successful defense of the region west of Reims.

 

The Second Battle of the Marne

Ludendorff’s five great offensives had cost more Allied lives than German, but they had cost many German lives indeed, and they had failed to win the war. Adequate replacements could no longer be found. On the German home front, the British naval blockade, long in place, was taking its toll. People were hungry and weary of the war.

On July 17, 1918, Foch concluded Ludendorff was pulling troops away from the Marne sector, which had threatened Paris, to send them north, against the British positions. The French commander saw an opportunity. He decided that the time was now ripe for an Allied counteroffensive, to be launched before the Germans could begin action against the British.

Colleagues argued he should wait until they could summon additional American forces into action, but Foch realized that time was of the essence. He concentrated his available forces around the Marne salient, the bulge of German penetration, and decided deliberately to leave Haig’s British armies exposed before the growing German concentration to the north. It was a trick designed to encourage Ludendorff to continue weakening the Marne sector even while Foch built it up.

Foch would attack here, on the Marne, after Ludendorff had withdrawn many troops, but before he had concentrated them in the north to overwhelm Haig. It was a bold gamble, with a large part of the British army at stake. As Ludendorff shifted his troops from the Marne salient, the Allied counteroffensive stepped off at 4:35 on the morning of July 18.

The French Tenth, Sixth, and Fifth Armies, from left to right along the front, made the assault, while the French Ninth Army waited in reserve. General Charles Marie Emmanuel Mangin, a native of Sarrebourg, commanded the Tenth. He was spoiling for revenge and was precisely the tiger Foch needed to lead the major attack. A precisely timed rolling barrage, which battered the German lines, accompanied the infantry advance.

U.S. forces were also active in the Second Battle of the Marne. The American First and Second Division spearheaded Mangin’s major assault, and six other divisions also fought valiantly.

Ludendorff, the brilliant tactician, was this time taken by surprise. He desperately ordered four of his reserve divisions into the Marne sector, but he soon realized that withdrawal was his only viable option. He moved eastward across the Marne on the night of July 18. Although this action was an Allied victory, with heavy German losses, Ludendorff’s army remained intact on August 6, when the counteroffensive ended.

 

The Amiens Offensive

Ludendorff interpreted the fact that Foch had ended his counteroffensive as a sign that this action had been an isolated incident; he mounted a new offensive himself. Others in the German high command, most notably the crown prince, objected, arguing that the war had been lost and that it was time to stop the fighting. In the end, a terrible compromise was reached among the German officers. There would be no new offensive, but there would be no surrender, either.

On the Allied side, Haig proposed an Anglo-French attack east of Amiens in northwestern France along the Somme River, to free up the rail network in the area. Agreeing, Foch placed the French First Army under Haig’s direction; Haig chose the British Fourth Army, under General Henry Rawlinson (1864–1925), to operate with the French First. Rawlinson carried out a lightning attack along a 22 kilometer (14-mile) front, using artillery, infantry, and air power, as well as virtually the entire British tank corps, 604 vehicles.

The British advance, on August 8, was led by Canadian and ANZAC (Australian–New Zealand Army Corps) infantry, preceded by the tanks, and was protected by a thick blanket of fog. On the right, a brief artillery preparation preceded the French assault. The Allies rolled over the Germans, taking over 15,000 prisoners and capturing 400 guns. Years later, in his memoirs, Ludendorff would call August 8 the “Black Day” of the German army.

Ludendorff did not give up but reestablished a position 16 kilometers (10 miles) behind what had been the nose of the salient. On August 10, however, the French Third Army, under General Georges Humbert (1862–1921), pushed the Germans out of Montdidier. Haig, however, regrouped, which gave the German army a reprieve.

The Allies resumed the offensive on August 21, when the British Third Army, on the left, and the French armies on the right, again attacked. On the 22nd, the British Fourth came racing up the center, followed by the British First on the far left. The German positions crumbled, and Ludendorff withdrew not only from the Lys salient in Flanders but also from Amiens, to the south, in France.

However, the ANZACs struck, advancing across the Somme during August 30–31 and taking the German-held village of Péronne. On September 2, a Canadian corps forced its way through the German lines near Quéant. The German withdrawal turned into flight back to the Hindenburg Line.

In the Amiens offensive, the Germans suffered casualties over 100,000 killed, wounded, or taken prisoner. Some 22,000 British soldiers and 20,000 French were killed or wounded. The western front was no longer stalemated, and now Ludendorff himself recommended an end to the war.

 

Against the St. Mihiel Salient

The U.S. First Army, with the French II Colonial Corps attached to it, was assigned to the St. Mihiel sector on August 30. Its assignment was to push back this western German incursion, which had existed since 1915.

The assignment came at a critical time, for Ludendorff, on September 8, ordered a withdrawal from the salient, to begin on September 11. If his troops could retreat to the Hindenburg Line, the salient would be vacated, but they would also save the German army. General Pershing was determined to prevent Ludendorff from withdrawing without a fight.

Early on the morning of September 12, 16 U.S. divisions attacked, supported by French artillery and French tanks, as well as a mixed force of American, French, Italian, and Portuguese pilots flying some 600 planes (out of 1,400 deployed) under the command of U.S. military air pioneer Colonel William “Billy” Mitchell (1879–1936). The U.S. I and IV Corps smashed into the south face of the salient, while the French II Colonial Corps jabbed at the salient’s nose and the U.S. V Corps closed in from the west.

The massive battle raged for 36 hours, but its outcome was a foregone conclusion. Stunned Germans surrendered in droves, the salient was cleared of the enemy, and they had dealt the German army another severe blow. The reduction of the St. Mihiel salient by half a million U.S. troops was the largest U.S. military operation since the United States Civil War.

 

The Meuse-Argonne Offensive

Pershing did not allow his army to rest on its laurels following the reduction of St. Mihiel. Immediately after the sector was secured, he marched the entire U.S. First Army, unrested, 96 kilometers (60 miles) to the Verdun area to take part in Foch’s Meuse-Argonne offensive.

Foch’s plan was for the Franco-American forces to drive forward from Verdun toward Mézières, a key German rail junction and supply depot. Simultaneously, British units would attack between Péronne and Lens, to control the rail junction at Aulnoye. Foch understood it was important to kill the enemy, but that it was even more vital to seize control of its lifelines along the western front. With the railroads severed, they would cut the Germans off from the rear.

Pershing brilliantly executed the transfer of a 500,000-man army, by night, into position for the attack that would start the offensive. It began at 5:25 on the morning of September 26 against a German army group under Max von Gallwitz (1852–1937) and another commanded by the crown prince. The German defenses were well prepared and heavily fortified. The terrain, rugged and heavily wooded, was deadly for any attacker. Indeed, after an initial rapid advance penetrating the first two German lines, the American drive flagged along the line between Apremont and Brieulles by October 3.

By October 4, it was apparent that the dense Argonne afforded no room for maneuver. Pershing’s only option was to make a series of brutal frontal assaults. The Argonne operation stretched through nearly the end of October before the third German line was broken. Although an impatient French premier, Georges Clemenceau, wished to relieve Pershing of command, Foch stood by his American colleague. He could see that the Germans were using themselves up, fighting Pershing in the Argonne.

 

Approaching the Armistice

During the first 11 days in November, the last days of the war, the U.S. Army raced, now in the open, through the last German positions in the Meuse Valley. The U.S. First Division was about to take Sedan on November 6, when higher command ordered a halt. The honor of conquering that city must be French.

Only this would blot out the stain that had endured since the humiliating defeat at this place during the Franco-Prussian War in 1870. On November 10, the U.S. Second Army, under Bullard, launched an attack in its drive toward the village of Montmédy, only to break it off the next day at 11 A.M., the hour of Armistice.

 

The British Flanders Offensive

The Amiens offensive not only inflicted great losses on the Germans but also resulted in the capture of a complete and detailed plan of the Hindenburg Line. Haig used this to plan what he saw as a decisive, war-ending breakthrough in Germany’s last-ditch defense.

Haig began the Flanders offensive on the evening of September 26, 1918, with an artillery barrage precisely targeted against such key points as headquarters, artillery positions, and troop shelters, all of which were revealed in the captured plans. Haig also employed a new, more concentrated form of mustard gas, and he now laid down tons of it.

The following morning, the First and Third armies quickly captured the area around Cambrai, including Bourlon Woods, long a concentration of German strength. On the 28th, a combined force of British, French, and Belgian troops advanced through Flanders, taking the area in front of battered Ypres, and on the 29th the British Fourth Army, with French units in support, breached the Hindenburg Line.

To Haig’s dismay, this success did not end the war. By October 5, the British attacks had driven through the last of the Hindenburg Line positions, yet the Germans kept finding new positions to which to withdraw, and Haig’s momentum slowed.

 

Allied Pressure & German Collapse

Disappointed that the war had not instantly ended, the Allies were confident of victory, and they resolved to keep the pressure up. On October 17, General Rawlinson led his British Fourth Army against German defenses at the Selle River and broke through them. On October 20, Byng’s British Third Army crossed that river at a point farther south.

The German army group commanded by General Max von Boehn (1850–1921) fell back toward the Sambre River, some 80 kilometers (50 miles) east of his original position, while Crown Prince Rupprecht’s army group was pushed toward the Schelde River, about 64 kilometers (40 miles) east of the line held before the offensive. Boehn lost 20,000 men as prisoners of war, and still the British and Belgians kept coming, giving the Germans no time to form new lines of defense.

On September 29, Ludendorff advised Wilhelm II to seek an immediate armistice, and the Kaiser accordingly appointed Prince Max of Baden (1867–1929) as chancellor of Germany to open negotiations, initially with President Wilson. The president shocked Prince Max by replying that nothing short of Germany’s complete and unconditional surrender would end the war.

Wilson declared the Allies would not negotiate with what he called the present German military dictatorship. In response to this, the kaiser effectively compelled Ludendorff’s resignation on October 26, effective on the 27th. Yet the kaiser himself refused to abdicate in favor of one of his grandsons, and so negotiations were put off. Now, an intensely war-weary Germany felt the shudder of revolution, much as Russia had earlier.

When, on November 7, Austria-Hungary capitulated to the Allies, Bavarian revolutionaries declared the overthrow of the monarchy and the creation of the Bavarian People’s Republic. In response to this, Friedrich Ebert (1871–1925), leader of Germany’s majority Social Democrat Party, called on Prince Max to persuade the kaiser to abdicate, if only to save Germany from communism. Max announced Wilhelm’s abdication on November 9; Hindenburg informed the former kaiser that he no longer had the army’s support.

Wilhelm fled to the still-neutral Netherlands (November 10). In view of developments in Germany, the Allies opened armistice negotiations with a German delegation led by Matthias Erzberger (1875–1921), a civilian politician, at Rethondes, in the Forest of Compiègne, in a railway carriage that served Foch as his traveling headquarters.

They set the armistice for the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month.

 

Principal Combatants

Germany vs. Belgium, France, Great Britain, and United States

Principal Theatres

Western Europe (mainly Belgium and France)

 

Sources and further reading

  • Martin Gilbert, First World War: A Complete History (New York, Henry Holt, 1996)
  • Martin Gilbert, The Routledge Atlas of the First World War: The Complete History (London, Routledge, 2002)
  • Michael Howard, First World War (New York, Oxford University Press, 2002)
  • John Keegan, The First World War (New York: Knopf, 2000)
  • Hew Strachan, ed., Oxford Illustrated History of the First World War (New York, Oxford University Press, 2000)
Period/s:
WWI (1914-1918)
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