Changing Tides of War on the Western Front
Changing Tides of War on the Western Front
By the spring of 1917 World War I had been raging for over two years, yet little had been decided. In the first few months of the war German troops had stormed across Belgium, hoping to win a quick victory over the French. But the Germans had run into the determined resistance of British, French, and Belgian troops—known as the Allies—along a long line known as the Western Front (which stretched 475 miles across Europe from the North Sea in Belgium southeast to the border of neutral Switzerland). For two years, these bitter enemies had fought fiercely in battles that claimed many, many lives but little territory. Soldiers on both sides wondered what the new year of war would bring. Would there be more death and destruction as men fell to the killing power of machineguns, artillery, and poison gas? Or would their leaders devise some new way to win a war that many people thought was now not winnable?
Behind the lines, politicians and generals looked for ways to break out of the habits that had led to a war of stalemate. Both Britain and France experienced major changes in leadership. British prime minister Herbert Asquith (1852–1928),
who had left the war effort largely to the generals, resigned and was replaced on December 1, 1916, by David Lloyd George (1863–1945). In France, Commander in Chief Joseph Joffre (1852–1931)—who directed assaults on the German line that cost hundreds of thousands of French casualties—was replaced by General Robert Nivelle (1857–1924). Nivelle proposed a strategy that must have seemed familiar to soldiers who had served during the first two years of the war under Joffre: the French would go on the offensive.
A major assault in the central area of the Western Front, near the River Aisne, was planned. The French hoped to split the German line in two and cut off the German troops to the northwest. Carrying out this plan would nearly destroy the French army. The British would try once again to triumph over the Germans near Ypres (pronounced ee-per); if they succeeded, they would flank the Germans and surround them from the northwest. As in previous battles, both the French and the British planned to launch attacks with artillery bombardment and then follow the bombing with a massive push from the infantry.
For their part, the Germans were ever more committed to waging a war of defense. They were on the verge of ending the war with the Russians on the Eastern Front. If Germany could just hold out a bit longer on the Western Front, it would soon have reinforcements from the east. The Germans made their defenses even stronger on the Western Front, establishing second and third rows of trenches in many places. About twenty-five miles behind the westernmost bulge in the front, the Germans constructed massive new defensive fortifications that they called the Siegfried Zone; the Allies called it the Hindenburg line. As the Germans withdrew to this new defensive line, they destroyed everything in their path—roads, bridges, railways, towns—making it all the more difficult for the Allies to advance.
The Battle of the Aisne
The French began the Second Battle of the Aisne (also known as the Nivelle offensive) with an enthusiasm they had not felt in many months. Their new commander, Robert Nivelle, was optimistic, and he conveyed his enthusiasm to the soldiers. He told his men that they would "rupture" the German defense. General E. L. Spears, a British officer viewing troop preparations, described the scene, as quoted in John Keegan's The First World War: "A thrill of something like pleasure… ran through the troops. I was surrounded by the grinning faces of men whose eyes shone … . The effect of the cheerfulvoices was enhanced by the sparkles of light dancing on thousands of blue steel helmets." In all, some 1,200,000 soldiers prepared to support this important battle.
On April 16, the attack started; like so many others, it began with a solid day of artillery bombardment. As the bombing shifted to further back in the German line, the French infantry pressed forward in great numbers. They broke through quickly— too quickly— and began to advance. Then the tide began to shift. German airplanes dominated the skies and informed the German artillery of the location of French troops; the German gunners rained bombs down on the advancing men. The Germans had intentionally made their
first line of defense weak; the real strength of their defense lay in the second and third lines. By the time the exhausted French soldiers had pressed that far forward, they faced fresh German troops—and snarling machine guns.
The French were taking a beating, but they pressed on for two, three, four days. According to Keegan, "On the first day [the French] penetrated no more than 600 yards; on the third day the Chemins des Dames road, crossing the ridge, was reached; on the fifth day, when 130,000 casualties had been suffered, the offensive was effectively abandoned. There had been compensatory gains, including 28,815 prisoners, and a penetration of four miles on a sixteen mile front, but the deep German defenses remained intact." Nivelle did not want to face the fact that a French offensive had once again failed to break the solid German line. In fact, instead of breaking the German line, the attack at Aisne had come close to breaking the French army.
Mutiny in the French Army
As the Nivelle offensive faltered, ordinary French soldiers began to revolt against the war effort. These soldiers had long been underpaid, underfed, and forced to live in impossible conditions. For over two years they had obediently trudged forth to fight the generals' battles, but now they no longer had any faith that their generals were sending them into battles they could win. According to Stokesbury, "Reinforcements going up to the line [in the Battle of the Aisne] were sullen and slow. Passing their generals they baa-ed, imitating the noises of sheep being led to a slaughterhouse." As the Nivelle offensive failed, these men refused to fight any longer.
Historians have called these actions the "mutinies of 1917," but this overstates what actually happened. Soldiers did not desert the army or attack their officers. Instead, in great numbers—some estimates suggest that 500,000 soldiers were involved—they simply refused to attack the German lines. These soldiers would defend their soil, but they wanted leave to visit their families, more and better food, and better medical care. They wanted to be treated like men, not as fodder for German guns.
French politicians wisely sacked Nivelle and brought in the one man who was capable of salvaging the French army: Philippe Pétain (1856–1951). Pétain was beloved by the soldiers. He seemed to understand the difficulties that they faced, and he was known for not wasting French lives in futile assaults. Pétain quickly contained the crisis. He ordered immediate improvements in conditions for soldiers, but he also ordered disciplinary action against the most aggressive of the "mutineers." Fifty-five soldiers were executed for crimes related to their protests, and many more were charged with minor offenses. Though Pétain kept the French army from falling apart, he recognized that there would be no more massive assaults from his army, at least not until the Americans— who had recently declared war on Germany—joined the battle. Luckily, the Germans never learned of the difficulties in the French army, for they surely would have attacked if they had known about the crisis in the French soldiers' morale.
While the French were preparing for their attack near the River Aisne, the Canadian First Army achieved something quite rare on the Western Front: a clear-cut victory. The Battle of Arras was first conceived as a diversion—it was designed to distract the Germans from the coming attack on the Aisne. The British and Canadians were to take Vimy Ridge, a line of high ground that the French had failed to capture in two previous battles. Surprisingly, the Canadians laid down such an effective artillery barrage that they actually shattered the first German line. Canadian troops commanded by General Julian Byng (1862–1935) quickly broke through and drove the Germans from positions they had maintained for two and a half years. By the end of the day on April 9, Canadian troops stood atop Vimy Ridge and looked eastward over the German defenses. Though they would go no further, this victory was the high point of the war for previously untested Canadian forces. "It is not too imaginative," writes Stokesbury, "to say that Canada became a nation on the slopes of Vimy Ridge."
The Canadians were not the only ones to achieve success in 1917. As part of the preparation for a larger attack near the village of Ypres, British general Herbert "Daddy" Plumer (1857–1932) was charged with taking a German salient, or bulge, that protruded into the Allied line south of Ypres. Using the skills of soldiers who had been coal miners before the war, he ordered his troops to dig long tunnels reaching to beneath the enemy lines. The tunnels were packed with high explosives, and when they were set off on June 7, the huge blast decimated the German line, knocked British soldiers off their feet, and was thought to be an earthquake by people twenty-five miles away. Completely surprising the Germans, the British soldiers quickly pushed past the German line of defense and captured the entire bulge.
Passchendaele: The Third Battle of Ypres
British general Douglas Haig took the Battle of Arras and the capture of the German salient as good omens for his coming attack on the familiar battlefield of Ypres. Once more in 1917 the British would attack the Germans near the town of Ypres, where the British had already been involved in two bloody, fruitless battles (See Chapter 3); this time, thought Haig, they would use their artillery fire better, have betterrested and better-supplied men, and somehow crash through the German line. The artillery bombardment began as scheduled on July 18 and continued for thirteen days before soldiers began climbing up out of their trenches to face the Germans directly on July 31. The British advanced two miles that first day, pushing forward into German defenses weakened by the shelling. And then the rains came.
The area around Ypres was low and wet even in good weather conditions, but the rain that began to fall on August 1 soon saturated the soil. The shelling had turned this the soft, wet soil into a morass of water-filled craters, a sea of mud. Furthermore, it had destroyed the carefully constructed drainage system that offered the one hope of keeping the area passable. Soon the British soldiers found themselves struggling just to move. Men, horses, and trucks became stuck in the mud; the trenches in which men tried to take refuge filled with water. Soldiers wounded in battle drowned in the water-filled craters. Haig, unwilling to halt an offensive on which he had gambled so much, ordered more men into the muddy field. The Germans, with their better-constructed trenches, remained in command, slaughtering their struggling opponents even as the British retreated.
For weeks Haig sent his troops forward. They measured their gains in yards, not the miles Haig had hoped for. Young British officer Edward Campion Vaughan described the conditions on the field of battle in his diary, as quoted in Winter and Baggett's The Great War:
From the darkness on all sides came the groans and wails of wounded men; faint, long, sobbing moans of agony, and despairing shrieks. It was too horribly obvious that dozens of men with serious wounds must have crawled for safety into new shell-holes, and now the water was rising about them and, powerless to move, they were slowly drowning. Horrible visions came to me with those cries—of Woods and Ken, Edge and Taylor, lying maimed out there trusting that their pals would find them, and now dying terribly, alone amongst the dead in the inky darkness. And we could do nothing to help them.
Finally, after weeks of battle, Canadians involved in the attack took the village of Passchendaele and Haig saw fit to declare victory and end the battle. It was November 10; the British had gained just over four miles of territory at the cost of some 250,000 casualties.
Passchendaele pointed out to everyone involved the folly of continuing the massive attacks on heavily fortified German lines. British soldiers, once known for their enthusiasm in fighting for their country, seemed suddenly weary and shell-shocked. And for the first time, their officers became aware of the carnage that they had ordered their men into. In A Short History of World War I, James Stokesbury recounts the story of a British officer who surveyed the battlefield after the fighting: "He gazed out over the sea of mud, then said half to himself, 'My God, did we send men to advance in that?' after which he broke down weeping and his escort led him away." Just as the Nivelle offensive had thrown the French army into disarray, Passchendaele made many in the British army wonder how they could go on.
A New Way of Waging War
The Nivelle offensive and the Battle of Passchendaele were "old-style" battles, battles begun with artillery bombardments and fought by infantry charging across no-man's-land to take on the enemy. But by the fall of 1917, the Western Front was seeing the first of the new ways of conducting war.
Tanks had been used in battle before—by the British at the Battle of the Somme and by the French in the Nivelle offensive—but they had proved of little use. By November 1917, however, the British had made such improvements in the tanks' construction that these vehicles could now make a difference. The new British tanks, with their heavy armor and Caterpillar treads, could cross difficult terrain and launch a powerful attack. Better still, they did not need to have the way cleared by artillery barrage. On November 20, the British committed their entire Tank Corps to an assault on the Germans in the Battle of Cambrai.
Tanks and infantry advanced together. Over three hundred tanks smashed through the German barbed wire and crossed German trenches. The infantry followed close behind. Many Germans panicked at the sight of the gigantic metal monsters coming toward them and threw down their guns and ran. The British quickly gained ground, and for a time it looked like they would clear the field of Germans. Only a shortage of reinforcements kept the British from claiming more ground. The Battle of Cambrai proved the war-worthiness of the tank and showed that attacks could be effective without artillery support.
No sooner had the British called off their attack, however, than the Germans won a small victory using new techniques of their own. Borrowing from tactics developed on the Eastern Front and in fighting in Italy, the Germans launched a speedy surprise attack on the same ground the British had just gained. Grouped in small squadrons and unsupported by artillery shelling, the Germans quickly pushed the British back. Within a few days they had returned the front line roughly to the position it had been before the tank attack. Though neither the British tank attack nor the German surprise attack was decisive, both events indicated the shape of battles to come.
The Waiting Game: Preparing for the End
As 1917 came to a close, leaders on both sides recognized that the year to come might well bring the end of the war. How the war would end, however, was very much in doubt. For more than three years, Allied forces and soldiers representing the Central Powers had fought to a standstill on the Western Front. Despite their best efforts, neither side was capable of inflicting enough damage on the other to force a collapse. But leaders awaited a shift of power that might tip the delicate balance.
For Germany, the waiting game had the air of desperation. Simply put, Germany could not afford to wage war for too much longer. It had called forth nearly all of its manpower and resources to wage war, and now the nation was quite literally starving to death. An Allied blockade kept supplies from reaching Germany, and the nation's farms were no longer capable of meeting the demand for food. If Germany was to win the war, it needed to win the war soon. With this in mind, generals on the Western Front awaited the arrival of reinforcements from the east, where Russia had been defeated. These reinforcements would provide the manpower for one final offensive, which was to be launched in the spring, before the American troops that were streaming into France could be prepared for fighting. German military leader Ludendorff, who masterminded what has become known as the "spring offensive," hoped that the Germans could use these reinforcements to finally bring the Allies to their knees.
France and Britain played a waiting game of their own: They waited for the Americans. When the United States entered the war on April 6, 1917, France and Britain looked forward to using American manpower to help win the war. But the American troops were slow in coming, and their leader, General John Pershing (1860–1948), refused to allow his men
to serve under non-American generals. Still, by March 1918 there were 325,000 Americans in France, and their mere presence was a source of moral support for the Allies.
German Spring Offensives
Ludendorff knew of the arrival of the Americans, and he knew that if he would have victory, he must have it in the spring. As he had before, Ludendorff decided to attack at the point where the British and French forces met, near the Somme River. The major German attack would concentrate on routing the British and driving them northward; a secondary assault would split the British and French lines and seal the French to the south, where they could no longer come to the rescue of the British.
The German spring offensive began on March 21, 1918. In the usual way, first came the artillery barrage, next the poison gas, and finally the charge of the infantry. With their careful planning, the Germans' charge was highly effective. They broke through the British and French lines, driving the Allies to the rear. It was the most wide-open battle the Western Front had seen in years. The German push through the French line to the south was so successful that Ludendorff decided to keep driving forward, hoping to take the French town of Amiens.
This German charge threw the Allies into disarray. The Allied leaders met to decide how to resist the attack. Fearing that the Germans might succeed in splitting the French and British forces, the Allies agreed to coordinate their efforts under the command of French general Ferdinand Foch (1851–1929). Working together, the British and French defenses stiffened and finally stopped the German attack on April 4. The Germans could not have carried the battle much further anyway, because they did not have the capacity to ship men and supplies much further forward. For the Allies, much had been lost: The Germans had driven them back nearly forty miles, taking territory that Germany had not held since the early days of the war.
Cheered by the success, Ludendorff attacked again, hoping to destroy the British will to fight. This attack, known as the Battle of Lys, came just south of the familiar battlefield of Ypres. Fourteen German divisions smashed into the British line and soon overwhelmed the British as well as a Portuguese division that had been sent into battle. The Germans released over two thousand tons of poison gas, including mustard gas, phosgene, and diphenylchlorarsine, according to Martin Gilbert, "incapacitating 8,000 men, of whom many were blinded, and killing thirty." The battle was going so badly for the British that General Douglas Haig issued a rare rallying call to his troops, quoted in Stokes-bury's Short History of World War I: "With our backs to the wall and believing in the justice of our cause each one must fight to the end. The safety of our homes and the freedom of mankind alike depend upon the conduct of each one of us at this critical moment." These words reveal how desperate the situation seemed for the Allies.
Though the Battle of Lys went well for the Germans— they succeeded in pushing the British back several miles—it did not go well enough. The British defenses stiffened and held their ground, and the Germans lost thirty thousand casualties to the Allies' twenty thousand. Even worse, perhaps, was the effect that the battle had on the Germans' morale. German soldiers fresh from the Eastern Front had been told that they would walk right over the British; instead, they were met with firm resistance and suffered heavy casualties. Furthermore, writes Stokesbury, "When [German soldiers] got into British rear areas, [they] were astounded and appalled by the wealth of [military supplies], rations, clothes, and general sense of well-being that they found." The British were much better supplied than the Germans, who were nearing starvation behind their lines, and many German soldiers felt that there was no way such an enemy could be defeated.
The Collapse of the Spring Offensive
Ludendorff was claiming small victories, but he was not winning the war. In fact, he had lost nearly 600,000 casualties in his three victories so far, with increasing numbers of the casualties consisting of troops that either deserted or gave themselves up to Allied forces. Convinced that he still might break through if he kept on trying, Ludendorff planned two final assaults, the fourth and fifth attacks of the Germans' spring offensive. The fourth attack was to begin on June 9 on a front nearly twenty miles long, stretching from Montdidier to Noyon. But French troops had learned of the assault from German deserters and surprised the German soldiers by beginning their shelling just before the Germans could begin theirs. Though confused by this setback, the German attack still managed to gain several miles of ground before stalling against the combined might of the French and American defenses. With casualties mounting, the attack was called off within a matter of days.
The fifth and final German offensive action was doomed from the outset. The French had learned many of the details of the attack from the steady stream of German deserters crossing over to the west. The deserters revealed that the Germans planned an artillery attack near the city of Reims, to be followed by an infantry advance. Once again, the French artillery barrage began first, and the French mounted an effective counterattack that came just after the Germans' first attack wave faltered. All over the Allied line, French, British, American, and Italian troops fought with great determination. Surrounded on three sides, one American division still managed to hold its position; one of its regiments earned the nickname "the Rock of the Marne." On July 18, just days after the battle began, the Germans halted their attack. By July 22 they were in full retreat and were giving up ground that they had recently captured. The German assault had ended.
Hearing of these setbacks, German chancellor Georg von Hertling wrote, according to Gilbert, "On the 18th even the most optimistic among us knew that all was lost. The history of the world was played out in three days." Across the German front that feeling was shared. German troops retreating from battle met their reinforcements—still coming forward— with scorn, wondering how these men could continue to support what was clearly a lost cause. Even Ludendorff and Hindenburg, the architects of Germany's years-long war effort, were despondent. According to Stokesbury, Ludendorff went to see Hindenburg and asked him what Germany ought to do now. "Do? Do!" Hindenburg bellowed. "Make peace, you idiot!" But it was not that easy. German leaders wanted to be sure they argued from a position of power in any peace negotiations. To do so, they would have to hold their ground on the Western Front and convince the Allies that Germany was an equal in power and not a defeated nation. Ludendorff's words, quoted by Gilbert, summarized Germany's position: "We cannot win this war any more, but we must not lose it." And so, in order to try to win the peace, the exhausted German army battled into the fall trying hard not to lose the war.
The Allied Offensive
On the day the final German offensive faltered, July 18, 1918, the Allies began what was to be the final stage of the
war. French general Ferdinand Foch was in charge of this final Allied offensive, and he commanded not only the experienced armies of French and British soldiers but also the fresh American forces led by General Pershing. (The Allies had agreed to coordinate their efforts under French command, though Americans were still commanded by American officers in battle.) Near the Marne, French, British, Italian, and American troops worked together in the slow process of driving the Germans backward into submission. In the first phase of this attack nearly three hundred French tanks were used to cross German trenches and wipe out machine-gun nests. Many of the American troops got their first taste of battle in this encounter, though it was against German troops ravaged by fatigue and falling back in retreat. By August 3 the Allies had achieved their objective of pushing back the bulge that the Germans had created in the line.
Shattering the German Line
The first phase of the Allied offensive worked well, but the second proved devastating to the Germans. The site of the Germans' furthest westward advance was a huge salient that reached nearly to the French city of Amiens; it was here that the Allies massed an overwhelming force that included twenty-seven infantry divisions, more than six hundred tanks, nearly two thousand aircraft, and masses of artillery. To defend themselves the Germans had only twenty divisions of men, and these were racked by desertions and fatigue. On August 8 the Allies began pushing forward at great speed. Within a day they had driven some of the Germans out of their trenches and broken out into the rear of the front. Suddenly a battlefront that had seemed impenetrable was open, and the Allies were on the move.
For the Germans, August 8 was the worst day of a long and terrible war. On that day, a Canadian division took twelve villages and five thousand German prisoners; not to be out-done, Australians captured seven villages and eight thousand prisoners of their own. It got worse for the Germans. On August 10, twenty-four thousand more Germans were taken prisoner. Many German soldiers simply surrendered to the enemy at the first opportunity. In some areas, German officers ordered their men forward at gunpoint. And yet, despite this collapse, some German units did manage to put up resistance.
The U.S. First Army's First Victory
The Allied drive continued forward across a wide front, and the Allies quickly regained all the ground that the Germans had taken in the spring offensive. The Americans too had their first major success to the southeast. On the far-eastern end of the Western Front, the Americans had finally organized themselves into the U.S. First Army. Their task would be to retake what was known as the Saint-Mihiel salient, a narrow triangular bulge that stretched into Allied territory. On September 12, two hundred thousand American troops supported by forty-eight thousand French troops began their attack. They were aided by the use of thousands of shells of phosgene gas and by the support of nearly fifteen hundred airplanes, the heaviest concentration of air support yet seen in the war.
The American-led attack came at the worst possible time for the Germans, who had begun retreating to stronger defensive positions on September 11. U.S. general Pershing wanted a quick advance and that was what he got: Within twelve hours the Americans had pushed the Germans back nearly fifteen miles. Within forty-eight hours they had pushed the Germans all the way out of the salient and taken fifteen thousand prisoners and two hundred fifty heavy guns as well. The story of American soldier Sergeant Harry J. Adams, recounted by Martin Gilbert in The First World War, captures the essence of the American victory: Adams approached a German dugout (a room dug into the earth) with only two bullets remaining in his gun. Thinking there were just a few soldiers inside, he rushed in, fired his two bullets, and demanded that the Germans surrender. To his astonishment, German soldiers poured forth from their earthen bunker—there were 300 in all. The single American soldier marched his captives back to the American line.
Not every encounter went so well for the Americans. In all, more than four thousand Americans were killed in the taking of the Saint-Mihiel salient. But the Americans proved to their allies and to the Germans that they were a force to be reckoned with. A British newspaper, the Manchester Guardian, summed up the victory (as quoted in Gilbert): "It is as swift and neat an operation as any in the war, and perhaps the most heartening of all its features is the proof it gives that the precision, skills, and imagination of American leadership is not inferior to the spirit of their troops."
Through August and September the Allies achieved success after success. They drove the Germans back out of the three blocks of territory that the German soldiers had captured in the spring, and Allied troops now stood poised to attack at points all along the Western Front. Leaders and generals who once feared that the war must go on into 1919 began to make plans to finish the affair before the end of the year. Ferdinand Foch's plan was to alternate his attack at four points, in order to exhaust the German reserves as German soldiers moved from one point to another. With superior numbers of men, guns, tanks, and planes, and with troop confidence higher than it had been in years, the Allies seemed poised to rout their enemy. They did not quite do that, for the Germans still had some fight left in them.
The Battle of the Meuse-Argonne
The final Allied offensive began at the Battle of the Meuse-Argonne. The Meuse River flowed south into France from Belgium and was flanked on the west by the Argonne Forest, a dense tangle of trees and hills. If the Allies could drive the Germans out of this area, they could close off the rail lines that transported supplies from the east to German troops in the west. It was a strategically important area, and the Germans were not about to give it up easily.
On the night of September 25 combined French and American forces began their bombardment of German positions in the Meuse-Argonne region. Their gas attacks alone debilitated about ten thousand German troops, and on September 26 and 27 they advanced toward the German lines behind a line of tanks. By the evening of September 27 the Allies had crawled forward six miles, but their progress soon slowed. By September 29 the Allies stopped dead against strong German defensive positions in the Argonne Forest. Despite throwing waves of attackers forward, the Allies could not root out the Germans from their positions among the rocks and trees of the Argonne.
For ten days the Americans kept pouring men into the Argonne woods. Their losses were heavy, but unlike the other combatants they were able to bring fresh reinforcements and plentiful supplies to the line. It was in the battle for the Argonne Forest that the American "Lost Battalion" became famous. Separated from their retreating battalions, a band of American soldiers found themselves deep in enemy territory,
surrounded by Germans and given up for lost by American commanders. According to Stokesbury, "The remnants of two battalions hunkered down in a ravine, fighting off Germans from all sides and dodging barrages of grenades lobbed down the slopes at them. After five days the Germans sent them a very courteous letter suggesting they surrender, to which the response was a profane chorus of 'Come and get us!'" Finally, on October 8, American troops pushing forward drove the Germans away, and the "Lost Battalion" was found. By October 10 the Americans had finally cleared the Argonne Forest, but at a far greater cost in lives than they had anticipated.
To the north and west another battle was raging. British troops led by General Douglas Haig attacked a long front between the French towns of Arras and Cambrai. The battle had begun on September 28, and now, finally, British troops achieved the kinds of successes that had eluded them for years. The Germans had already begun to withdraw when the Allied attacks came on. Day after day for three weeks the
British ground forward, taking towns that had been under German control since the beginning of the war, and capturing huge numbers of German soldiers. Casualties were heavy on both sides, but the momentum was clearly on the side of the Allies. Early in October the Allies crashed through a thirty-mile stretch of the Hindenburg line east of Arras.
The Central Powers Collapse
By mid-October everything on the Western Front had changed. Within Germany both soldiers and politicians recognized that the war was lost, and on October 11 German forces began a systematic withdrawal from the Western Front. Battles continued all along the line: British, French, American, Canadian, and Australian troops pushed forward, liberating town after town from German rule; German soldiers fought desperately in retreat. The best the Germans could hope for at this point was to stop the Allies before they entered Germany itself,
or to slow them up enough that winter would bring an end to the hostilities. Even as the fighting raged on, however, the decisions of political leaders and generals in faraway cities and on faraway fronts were bringing World War I to a close. Two things especially helped bring the end of the war: the collapse of Germany's allies and the disintegration of Germany's leadership.
Bulgaria became the first of the Central Powers to surrender when it signed an armistice (truce) on September 29. This agreement allowed Allied troops to enter the Balkan region, within striking distance of Germany's southeastern border. Turkey followed signed its armistice a month later on October 30. Among the conditions of the truce was that Turkey must allow Allied troops to occupy the country for military purposes. The noose was thus tightened further on Germany. Soon Austria-Hungary, Germany's closest ally and once its most powerful partner, ended its war efforts as well. The stress of war had caused widespread dissension among the many peoples that made up the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Poles, Czechs, Yugoslavs, and Romanians within Austria-Hungary all longed for their independence, and their demands began to tear the empire apart in October of 1918. By October 29 Austria and Hungary seceded from their own empire. Remnant members of the imperial government signed a truce with the Allies on November 3.
Without allies, Germany had good reason to wonder how it could go on fighting with what seemed like the entire world aligned against it. The political leadership of Germany had been in disarray since July 1917, when Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg had resigned and been replaced by a string of leaders more interested in pleasing the military than the nation's people. As long as the politicians and the generals acted together, Germany was able to continue waging war, but this cooperation ended when Maximilian (1867-1929; known as the Prince of Baden) became chancellor on October 4, 1918. When he began to appeal to American president Woodrow Wilson to negotiate for peace, it was truly the beginning of the end for Germany.
Unwilling to go on without political support, Erich Ludendorff resigned from his position as co-commander of the German army on October 26. While Chancellor Maximilian continued negotiations with President Wilson, Germany began to disintegrate around him. The German navy mutinied when asked to take to the sea for one final battle. Throughout the country, people rioted in the streets in a full-scale revolution. They demanded the end of the war and called for the kaiser to abdicate, or give up the throne. Soldiers began leaving their posts or ignoring the commands of their officers. On November 8 Kaiser Wilhelm abdicated the throne and moved to Holland, where he lived the rest of his life in exile (forced removal from his own country).
On November 9 Germany became a republic—which meant that its political leader was no longer appointed by the Kaiser but instead was chosen by the parliament, which represented the people—as Chancellor Maximilian surrendered power to a party called the Social Democrats. The first act of the new German government was to seek peace. The Allied demands were harsh: Germany must withdraw its troops across the wide Western Front, and it must surrender massive numbers of trucks, rail equipment, submarines, and guns. In short, the Germans had to render themselves incapable of waging war. On November 11 the German government signed the armistice agreement. The war was over.
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Winter, J. M. The Experience of World War I. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.
Winter, Jay, and Blaine Baggett. The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century. New York: Penguin Studio, 1996.
The Shelling of Paris
While German land forces were launching their final attacks on the British and French troops along the Western Front in the spring of 1918, the German artillery was unleashing a new and horrifying weapon on the heart of the French nation, the city of Paris. From positions in the forests near Laon, about seventy miles from the city, German gunners fired the most powerful guns ever used in warfare.
These big German artillery guns were not efficient—they could only fire sixty-five shells before they had to be retooled— but they were formidable: "Fired at a steep angle into the air, the shells rose to a height of twenty-four miles before descending, and they took nearly three minutes to reach their target," writes historian James Stokesbury. From March 23 to April 9, the Germans fired nearly four hundred shells on Paris, causing almost nine hundred casualties in the city. The most dramatic attack, which occurred on Good Friday, March 29, smashed into the Church of St. Gervais.
Despite the costs of his victories, Germany's Ludendorff pushed on. His next point of attack was on the French troops positioned near another familiar battlefield, the Chemin des Dames. The effective quick-strike tactics of the Germans combined with an unfortunate concentration of French forces right at the point of the heaviest German shelling gave the Germans a major victory. Overrunning the French front lines, the Germans pushed forward thirteen miles in a single day, May 27, and kept moving from there. Despite resistance from retreating French troops, the Germans pushed on for a week, until they reached the Marne River. They were now within forty miles of Paris, but that was as close as they would get.
The German advance southward stalled for all the old reasons, plus one new one. As in previous battles fought on the Western Front, retreating armies had an advantage once they got organized. French troops fell back to strong positions and rained fire on the advancing German troops, making them pay for whatever ground they gained. And German supply lines simply couldn't keep up with the pace of the advancing army. German troops pushing forward had to stop to await fresh food and ammunition. Finally, German troops met up with the one force that was to change the tide of the battle: American soldiers. Untested as they were, these American troops were well-supplied and eager for battle. The German troops facing the Americans were surprised at how fresh and strong the American troops were. In many places, the German advance stopped when it met the American line.
Men in Charge: Erich Ludendorff
The most powerful leader in Germany was neither Kaiser Wilhelm nor Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, but rather Hindenburg's assistant—Erich Ludendorff (1865–1937). During the last few years of the war, Ludendorff was, in the words of World War I author Neil M. Heyman, "virtual dictator over the affairs of his country."
Born on April 9, 1865, Ludendorff became a career military officer. After attending the German General Staff Academy (a military training school), he occupied several key positions during peacetime. Ludendorff first gained notice as a military commander when he led the assault on the Belgian fortress city of Liège in the first battle of World War I. He attained real power as chief of staff of the German Eighth Army on the Eastern Front. Teamed with Hindenburg, Ludendorff helped Germany dominate the Eastern Front. In 1916, when General Erich von Falkenhayn was relieved of his command, Hindenburg and Ludendorff took charge of the German military.
As first quartermaster general to Hindenburg's chief of the general staff, Ludendorff called the shots in the major decisions about the German military. He backed better offensive tactics, stronger defensive positions, unrestricted submarine warfare, and the drafting of all able German males into the military. It was Ludendorff who masterminded the German "spring offensive" of 1918. Ludendorff struggled to hold the German military together as the Central Powers collapsed late in 1918, and he resigned in October of that year. After the war, Ludendorff backed Nazi leader Adolf Hitler before fading from public life and dying in 1937.
Men in Charge: Ferdinand Foch
Though France had many generals during World War I, the one who received perhaps the most credit for the final Allied victory was General Ferdinand Foch (1851–1929). Taking charge after the brutal German spring offensive of 1918, Foch (pronounced "Fawsh") coordinated the efforts of British, American, French, and other Allied forces in the final offensive that led to German surrender.
Born on October 2, 1851, Foch already had a distinguished military career before the start of World War I. He had served as an officer, taught at and eventually directed the École Supérieure de la Guerre (War School), and published two influential books on military techniques. Early in the war Foch had success as commander of the French Ninth Army in the Battle of the Marne, which took place in September 1914. As with other generals who achieved success early, however, the sheer cost of waging war on the Western Front eventually counted against Foch. When he lost numbers of troops during the Battle of the Somme in 1916, he was removed from command.
Foch returned to power in 1917 as chief of the French general staff, a noncombat position. He oversaw successful operations in Italy and was well liked by politicians. When the German spring offensive of 1918 took its toll on French confidence, Foch was placed in charge. He rallied British and American generals to carry out his plan for a concentrated offensive all along the Western Front, and he oversaw the successful Allied effort that ended the war. Foch convinced the politicians who were in charge of making peace to strip the German army of its ability to fight, but he could not convince them to take large chunks of German territory. Foch retired a hero and died in Paris in 1929.