WWI Centennial: Britain Grants Women’s Suffrage

Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 300th installment in the series. Read an overview of the war to date here.

The First World War triggered a wave of political reform, as country after country gave women the vote in recognition of their many contributions to the war effort, including working in war industries, serving as nurses and ambulance drivers, and running businesses and public services. There were other arguments besides: some pundits said that women, naturally inclined to pacifism, would exert a moderating influence over male politics. Others worried women would refuse to bear a new generation of children, needed to make good the loss of millions of lives in the war, unless they got the vote.

One month after the U.S. House of Representatives approved the 18th Amendment giving women the vote (later rejected by the Senate until 1920), on February 6, 1918, Britain’s Parliament passed the Representation of the People Act, also known as the Fourth Reform Act, granting women householders and university graduates ages 30 and over the right to vote, as well as universal male suffrage. The law added 8.4 million women and 5.6 million men to the franchise nationally, although women would remain outnumbered in the British electorate until full female suffrage was granted in 1928.

Although activists had been pursuing women’s suffrage for decades in Britain, there were no huge public celebrations following Parliament’s historic vote, due partly to the grim wartime context—but also because many had long taken the outcome for granted. The arrival of women’s suffrage was something of an anticlimax, following the revolution in gender relations brought about by the war.

WOMEN'S WAR, WOMEN'S WORLDS

Across Europe and much of the world, war brought women new freedoms in other spheres, but also new pressures and concerns. In addition to war work, women were expected to continue serving in their traditional roles as homemakers and caregivers, leaving them torn between work and family, a still-familiar dilemma. For women working in the war zone, this meant the constant threat of being forced to abandon their patriotic duties. The diarist Vera Brittain, who served as a volunteer nurses' aid for three years in France and Malta, recalled:

"Because we were women we feared perpetually that, just as our work was reaching its climax, our families would need our youth and vitality for their own support. One of my cousins, the daughter of an aunt, had already been summoned home from her canteen work in Boulogne; she was only one of many, for as the war continued to wear out strength and spirits, the middle-aged generation, having irrevocably yielded up its sons, began to lean with increasing weight upon its daughters. Thus the desperate choice between incompatible claims—by which the women of my generation, with their carefully trained consciences, have always been tormented."

For women working factory jobs “on the home front,” in addition to the tedium and dangers of such work, every day was a balancing and juggling act—especially for married women with young children. To help with the burden many factories started providing nurseries and daycare, while older children went to school. However, millions of women still had to rely on relatives, friends, religious or charitable establishments, or paid arrangements (as in the early industrial revolution, some women supported themselves running informal daycares for the children of factory workers). Female workers were also still responsible for feeding their families, which often meant waiting in long lines for basics like meat and bread. One British factory worker, Elsie McIntyre, remembered scrambling for groceries to feed her mother and siblings:

"The most awful thing was food. It was very scarce. And as we were coming off shift someone would say 'There is a bit of steak at the butchers.' And I would get off the train and then go on a tram. And can get off at Burley Road and run to the shop only to find a long queue. And by [the time] it got to my turn there would be no more meat, only half a pound of sausage, you see. And that’s coming off the night shifts. You went straight into a queue before you could go to bed."

As this account hints, just getting to and from work was often a struggle for women relying on overtaxed public transportation. One worker, Peggy Hamilton, recalled that it took 90 minutes to get to her job at a Royal Arsenal factory in London’s Woolwich Square:

“The buses were always full and when we arrived in the square it would be teeming with people fighting for a place on the bus. No one ever paid because the conductor had no chance of collecting the fares. Each bus was crowded to the suffocation point … We had to fight and push to get on board and were often ejected from several buses.”

Mill workers during World War I
Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Many factory workers came from the countryside or provincial towns, leaving low-paid domestic, agricultural, or textile work for well-paid munitions and heavy industrial work in the bigger cities, making it impractical to commute. So across Britain and Europe, factory owners and private individuals established hostels and boarding houses for young women, usually offering primitive accommodations with shared bedrooms and communal washrooms, and typically leaving girls and young women little if any privacy (and, along with factories and army barracks, providing a perfect breeding ground for communicable diseases including the flu).

MORAL ANXIETY

Reflecting the Victorian sensibilities of the older generations, parents, politicians, and clergy anxious about “loose morals” among young female factory workers demanded that towns, factories, and hostels hire female police officers, matrons, and other older women to keep an eye on female factory workers both at work and off duty. Concerns for morality and propriety covered a wide range of activity including everything from swearing and horseplay to drinking and smoking, and, of course, relations with men; members of the opposite sex were strictly forbidden in hostels and factory dormitories.

In a small concession to human nature, young women were allowed to establish “girls clubs” attached to factories and hostels where they could entertain male visitors for dances and parties in a chaste, supervised setting. But morality police had less control over young women out on the town, using their newfound spending power to visit bars, tearooms, movie theaters, and dancehalls, where it was much easier to meet members of the opposite sex including fellow factory workers and soldiers on leave. Although it is hard to generalize about the behavior of young women—most seemed determined to remain “respectable” or at least maintain that appearance—many clearly exercised their new freedom to meet, socialize, and have romantic encounters with men. Ray Strachey, a British feminist, remembered two decades later:

"It was during the war, and after it, that the changing moral standard of women became definitely noticeable. Thousands of women had seen their actual or potential mates swallowed up in that ever-increasing wave of death which was the Great War. Life was less than cheap; it was thrown away … All moral standards have been submerged … Little wonder that the old ideals of chastity and self-control in sex were, for many, also lost."

By the same token not every assignation ended in sexual intercourse. A.B. Baker, a volunteer in the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps serving in France, remembered one comparatively tame—but intense—kiss with a young soldier bound for Passchendaele:

"He said that he was afraid—more afraid than he had ever been in his life. He was sure that this time he was going to 'collect something worse than a packet.' He wanted to know what I believed about death. I forget what I told him. He made me promise to write to his mother if anything happened to him. When I promised he said that I was a “dear kid.” I was very near to crying. He asked me if he could kiss me. I said, “Yes.” He kissed me many times, and held me very tight. He held me so tight that he hurt me and frightened me. His whole body was shaking. I felt for him as I had never felt for any man before. I know now that it wasn’t love. It was just the need to comfort him a little."

Sexual morality was just one of the areas policed, rather ineffectively, by paragons from the older generations. The war also saw large numbers of women take up smoking, as tobacco was made more convenient and “feminine” with mass-produced cigarettes. Daniel Poling, an American YMCA lecturer and temperance advocate, was scandalized by the scene that greeted him in his London hotel in 1917:

"In the dining room of my hotel I found literally scores of women, perhaps as many as 300, smoking. The young, the middle-aged, and the old, were all at it. I saw a young mother calmly blow smoke over the head of her 8-year old soon, who displayed only a mild interest … For a man who is old-fashioned enough to prefer womanhood à la his wife and mother, the 'woman of the cigarette' is very disquieting, to say the least."

But for young women cigarettes came to symbolize elegance, sophistication, and worldliness, according to Brittain, who recalled her first visit home after picking up the habit:

"After supper I settled down luxuriously to smoke—a new habit originally acquired as a means of defense against the insect life of Malta—and to talk to my father about the hazards and adventures of my journey home. My parents took a gratifying pleasure in my assumption of worldly wisdom and the sophistication of the lighted cigarette; after 20 continuous months of Army service I was almost a stranger to them."

SEPARATION AND ALIENATION

War was broadly disruptive to couples, both married and unmarried, as women and men contended with long separations and uncertainty. In Britain and most other combatant nations, the marriage rate surged in the first year of the war and then plunged. Similarly, birth rates across Europe plummeted during the war, as couples put off childbearing for happier times.

Graph showing birth rates in Europe during World War I
Erik Sass

In addition to the ordinary obstacles presented by romantic relationships, during the war women and men also contended with a profound experiential barrier, as men tried to shield women back home from the grim reality of the trenches. Mildred Aldrich, an American retiree living in the French countryside, noted:

"One of the striking features about this war is that the active soldiers almost never talk with the civilians about the war. In a sense, it is forbidden, but the reason goes deeper than that. The soldier and the civilian seem today to speak a different language. It almost seems as if a dark curtain hung between the realities of life 'out there,' and the life into which the soldier enters en repos [on leave]."

Similar, Brittain worried that the war was creating a barrier between her and her fiancé, Roland Leighton:

"To this constant anxiety for Roland’s life was added, as the end of the fighting moved ever further into an incalculable future, a new fear that the war would come between us—as indeed, with time, the war always did, putting a barrier of indescribable experience between men and the women whom they loved, thrusting horror deeper and deeper inward … Quite early I realized this possibility of a permanent impediment to understanding."

Of course the dynamic sometimes worked the other way as well, as women who served at or near the front experienced physical danger on a regular basis, alienating them from older adults of both genders who never saw the war zone. A.B. Baker, the volunteer W.A.A.C., remembered scoffing at “spiritual advice” about the war received from a male clergy member who’d remained safely at home:

"A few days later I had a letter from our curate. In it he talked about war as a noble discipline. He said it purged men of selfishness, and by its pity and terror brought men nearer to God. I felt sick for a second time. He put with his letter a printed Prayer for Victory, and told me to say it every night. I remembered that my prayer in the dug-out had been just this, said over and over again: “O God, stop this war; stop it, and let me go home.” At home the curate had been rather a hero of mine. He wasn’t my hero any more."

The war saw a wide variety of new types of relationships forming, including casual, practical, and purely formal. Some women married men they didn’t really love out of a sense of desperation or patriotic duty, according to an American volunteer ambulance driver, William Yorke Stevenson, who heard about one situation from a French acquaintance in March 1916:

“She says a friend of hers who nursed a man, blind and without arms, is going to marry him because she thinks it is her duty, although she does not care for him. She is not pretty; but as the man is blind it will not matter, she says. Such cases are not rare.”


Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

On the other hand, the disruptions of war weren’t always unwelcome to married women and widows, depending on their previous circumstances, which might have seen them trapped in unhappy marriages. Mildred Aldrich confided an awkward truth about the lives of French peasant women in her diary in April 1916:

"I often wonder if some of the women are not better off than in the days before the war. They do about the same work, only they are not bothered by their men … for nearly two years they have had no drinking man to come home at midnight either quarrelsome or sulky; no man’s big appetite to cook for; no man to wash for or to mend for. They have lived in absolute peace, gone to bed early to a long, unbroken sleep, and get 25 cents a day government aid, plus 10 cents for each child … under my breath, I can assure you that there is many a woman of that class a widow today who is better off for it, and so are her children."

GRIEF AND DEDICATION

Finally, women would also bear for decades the lasting burden of grief for family members killed during the war. Visitors described crowds of Parisian women dressed black in church and other public places, and some women continued to dress in mourning many years. Privately, the grieving process began with the returned possessions of the dead, as vividly described by Brittain in January 1916:

"All Roland’s things had just been sent back from the front through Cox’s; they had just opened them and they were all lying on the floor. I had no idea before of the after-results of an officer’s death, or what the returned kit, of which so much has been written in the papers, really meant. It was terrible … Everything was damp and worn and simply caked with mud … the smell of those clothes was the smell of graveyards and the dead. The mud of France which covered them was not ordinary mud; it had not the usual clean pure smell of earth, but it was as though it were saturated with dead bodies."

So much importance was attached to these items that soldiers and civilians sometimes sent the possessions of dead enemy soldiers to their families on the opposing side, typically via neutral countries. Evelyn Blucher, an Englishwoman married to a German aristocrat and living in Berlin, tried to identify the possessions of British soldiers killed in battle and send them home. In August 1917 she wrote in her diary of one such occasion:

"A feeling of hopeless sadness crept over me as I saw these trays of things, the only mementoes left of men who had such a short time ago been alive in the full flush of manhood. There was a whole stack of battered and bloodstained cigarette cases, some with inscriptions or monograms engraved on them, many containing small photos or a few written words … Then there were all the other various small articles generally to be found in a man’s pocket—fountain pens, handkerchiefs, torn letters, purses, coins, etc.; and I felt the tears come into my eyes when I thought of what value they would be to some in England now."

At the same time, many women cited their own grief, as well as awareness of the losses suffered by others, as motivation for their own continuing war work. After Roland’s death Brittain wrote in her diary:

“Well, one of the things this final part of Roland’s story has made me feel is that as long as the war lasts … I cannot lead any but an active life, even though it should last for five years … No, it must be some form of active service, and if it implies discomforts, so much the better. I am beginning to feel that to leave nursing now would be a defeat."

Women drinking tea during World War I
Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In the same vein, a French woman, Marguerite Lesage, wrote in March 1916:

“There are times when I wonder if I’m going to give in to le cafard [depression] … Yes … but having mentally run through this list for the thousandth time, it is enough to think of our soldiers—and in what conditions!—to think, once again, that as long as I can, I must be worthy of them and stay here.”

Unsurprisingly even the most dedicated women workers found their spirits flagging as the war went on, leading to a regime of self-criticism and emotional self-policing. In 1916, now stationed in Malta, Brittain admitted in a letter to her brother:

“One’s personal interest wears one’s patriotism rather threadbare by this time … After all it is a garment one has had to wear for a very long time, so there’s not much wonder if it is beginning to get a little shabby.”

And Julia Stimson, an American volunteer head nurse, wrote in a letter home in June 1917:

"It is so pathetic the way one can lose sight of one’s inspirations if one’s feet are tired, or the way one can forget one is on a crusade if there is no drinking water to be had for half a day, and can be just an ordinary uninspired human female and be fretful and discouraged because you don’t like the tone of voice of a supervisor. It is my job of course to keep before my people the why of our coming and to keep their spirits up."

NEW CONFIDENCE

Despite numerous hardships, the First World War marked an expansion of women’s horizons. Again, it’s worth noting this didn’t result from the granting of women’s suffrage, but rather the reverse, as male politicians and voters were forced to recognize women’s contributions to the war effort, which had already brought new freedoms and greater economic power in its train. Two decades after the war, Robert Roberts, a boy at the time, remembered that the right to vote was granted almost as an afterthought, as even children could see the huge changes in the adult world:

"Whatever war did to women in home, field, service, or factory, it undoubtedly snapped strings that had bound them in so many ways to the Victorian age. Even we, the young, noticed their new self-confidence. Wives in the shop no longer talked about ‘my boss,’ or ‘my master.’ Master had gone to war and Missis ruled the household, or he worked close to her in the factory … earning little more than she did herself. Housewives left their homes and immediate neighborhood more frequently, and with money in their purses went foraging for goods even into the city shops … She discovered her own rights."

See the previous installment or all entries, or read an overview of the war.

WWI Centennial: Allies Rebuff German Armistice Offer

William Rider-Rider, Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // IWM Non-Commercial License
William Rider-Rider, Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // IWM Non-Commercial License

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 321st installment in the series. Buy Erik’s new WWI trivia book here!

OCTOBER 4-14, 1918: ALLIES REBUFF GERMAN ARMISTICE OFFER

The Central Powers were in total collapse. At a crown council on September 29, 1918, German chief strategist Erich Ludendorff warned Kaiser Wilhelm II that defeat was imminent and insisted that they must request an armistice from U.S. President Woodrow Wilson on the basis of his “Fourteen Points” and repeated calls for “peace without victory,” in hopes of gaining more lenient terms than they would receive from vengeful French and British governments. Even at this late date, however, Ludendorff still didn’t envision peace negotiations, let alone German surrender. He simply hoped for a pause in the fighting, banking on exhaustion in the enemy camp to win some breathing space in which he might reconstitute the shattered German armies (above, German soldiers taken prisoner by Canadian troops during the Battle of Canal du Nord, September 27-October 1, 1918).

Although the Allies were indeed exhausted after four years of war, Ludendorff badly underestimated their determination to continue, reflecting the political will of civilian populations who had sacrificed so much and now expected to achieve a decisive victory. Meanwhile, Ludendorff’s personal prestige at home was plunging. Stunned by the sudden admission of defeat and angry over Ludendorff’s continued interference in matters that were properly the business of the civilian government, Chancellor Georg Hertling tendered his resignation, triggering another political crisis just as Germany needed steady leadership.

On October 1, the Reichstag approved Kaiser Wilhelm II’s appointment of Prince Max of Baden, the monarch’s second cousin, as chancellor with responsibility for requesting an armistice from Wilson. At first Baden hoped to wait until German armies had regained some French territory to use as bargaining chips, but on October 3, 1918, commander in chief Paul von Hindenburg (technically Ludendorff’s superior) confirmed that the situation was critical, requiring immediate action by Baden to save what was left of the German Army.

In the early morning hours of October 4, 1918, Baden sent a telegram to Washington, D.C., requesting an armistice based on the “Fourteen Points,” including Germany’s evacuation of Belgium and France, free navigation of the seas (implying an end to both German submarine warfare and the Allied “starvation blockade”) and self-determination for the ethnic minority populations of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire. Mindful of Wilson’s demands that Germany also adopt a democratic government, Baden had already included members of the hated socialists in his cabinet to provide at least the appearance of parliamentary democracy.

The German armistice request gripped the world, giving Allied soldiers and civilians hope that the war might soon end. Heber Blankenhorn, an American propaganda officer, described the scene in provincial France as the news spread in a letter home, writing, “You should have seen this village and all the villages in France. Every street was lined with people all in one position, bent over a paper. All the world was reading the Paris papers. Men, women, youths, soldiers, Americans. They devoured the papers with the great news. It is the only news they are interested in.”

The world was longing for peace, but the Germans soon discovered that Wilson wasn’t about to fall for Germany’s divide-and-conquer gambit by agreeing to an armistice without first consulting Britain and France. With German armies in retreat all along the Western Front, America’s allies were in no hurry to take the pressure off, urging the president to allow enough time for all the Allied representatives to meet to discuss armistice terms in order to present a united front to the enemy. Wilson himself was deeply distrustful of German intentions, correctly doubting that the Kaiser and his hardline generals would give up Alsace-Lorraine or ethnic Polish territory in East Prussia, as implied by the Fourteen Points. He was also infuriated by the continuation of German U-boat warfare against civilian vessels, including the sinking of the mail boat RMS Leinster on October 10, 1918, resulting in the deaths of at least 564 civilians, many of them women and children.

On October 14, 1918, Wilson responded to Baden’s armistice request (and a subsequent German communiqué on October 12) with a note that quickly deflated German expectations. While explaining that the actual conditions of an armistice would be set forth jointly by all the Allies, Wilson also insisted that a ceasefire would only be granted once Berlin agreed to terms that made it impossible for Germany to continue the war in the event that subsequent peace negotiations failed—in effect, it called for unilateral German disarmament. He also insisted on Germany’s immediate cessation of “illegal and inhumane practices” including submarine warfare and scorched-earth tactics by retreating German forces in France and Belgium. Finally, Wilson reminded Baden of his earlier demand that Germany give up its authoritarian form of government—which he blamed for German militarism—and create a true democracy.

Wilson’s conditions, calling for Germany’s unconditional surrender and the overthrow of the Hohenzollern monarchy, shocked Ludendorff and Wilhelm II, who still hoped to cling to power after the war as a constitutional monarch. In fact, Ludendorff reversed himself (perhaps encouraged by a temporary slowdown in the Allied offensive, as John “Black Jack” Pershing’s disorganized and inexperienced U.S. First Army had become bogged down in the Meuse-Argonne in early October) and insisted that Germany should fight on, predicting that the Allies’ civilian populations would demand their own governments make peace within a few months—proof that Germany’s warlord was increasingly out of touch with reality.

Although they had rejected the first German armistice request, Allied leaders correctly interpreted the ceasefire offer as evidence that victory was near, requiring them to formulate their own armistice terms and peace conditions. The inter-Allied discussions that followed were complex, given the number of countries and players involved, as well as the various internal divisions and power struggles. In France, for example, in September-October 1918, Premier Georges Clemenceau quarreled with both President Poincaré, the head of state, and supreme military commander Ferdinand Foch about who had the ultimate authority to set forth armistice terms. In the end, the irascible premier succeeded in asserting his constitutional authority, but also agreed to most of Foch’s demands, including German withdrawal behind the Rhine and cession of at least three strategic bridgeheads across the river to the Allies as insurance against resumption of hostilities.

At the same time, the public disclosure of the initial armistice offer left no doubt in the minds of ordinary German soldiers and civilians that defeat was imminent, further undermining morale and accelerating the process of disintegration and political collapse. One German soldier wrote home bitterly on October 13, 1918, in a letter held back by the military censors:

“The main thing is that the swindle and the murdering has an end. We do not have to care whether we stay German or become French, we are now finished anyway. You at home will have an even better insight than we out here. If it does not come to an end right now, there won’t be nothing left of Germany at all.”

Not everyone was ready for peace, however, and many proud Germans could hardly believe that defeat was near. In a diary entry on October 15, 1918, Herbert Sulzbach, a German officer, expressed despair over Wilson’s note:

“It is presumptuous and makes exorbitant demands. One can hardly find words to express the indignation with which every German must now be filled. They want to humiliate us to death! This hypocrite Wilson, this perverter of justice, this ‘friend of peace’ and ‘idealist.’ Whatever are we to do? How splendid, if we had the strength and power, to say ‘No,’ but that will hardly be possible … The burden of a terrible nightmare lies on everyone. Everybody’s honor has been smirched, and the ignominy is too much to bear … My god, who would have thought it would end like this?”

Sulzbach’s feelings of indignation were hardly as universal as he imagined. Millions of working-class German soldiers and civilians were now in a revolutionary ferment. Clifford Markle, an American POW in Germany, noted the following exchange between a German worker and another American POW in October 1918:

“A conversation between one of the Americans who was a machine gunner and a German soldier who worked in the factory typifies the feeling at that time. The German asked the American if he operated a machine gun, and when the Yank replied in the affirmative, the Boche said, ‘We expect to revolt soon; will you handle a machine gun for us?’”

On the other side, Allied soldiers and civilians were hopeful that peace would come soon, but also cautious in their expectations to avoid disappointment. Robert Hanes, an American artillery officer, wrote home on October 14, 1918:

“Maybe by the time you get this, everything will have been settled up and we shall be getting ready to go home again. I sincerely hope so altho’ it is too good to be true and I am afraid all the time that the whole thing is only a dream and that nothing will turn of it at all. It would be too wonderful for anything if we should be able to get home for Christmas and have the whole thing over with.”

Guy Bowerman, an American ambulance driver, recorded a poignant encounter with a French soldier desperate for peace in his diary entry on October 9, 1918:

“He had been, he said (he spoke English perfectly) in the war four years during which time he had been in the signal service and three times wounded. He was not yet 26 and was engaged to a beautiful young Parisienne whom he was to marry the moment the war was ended. This very morning in the midst of rumors of peace and an armistice at midnight, orders had come for him to report to an infantry battalion which was new in the lines and … was to attack at four tomorrow morning. Now as you can see, he continued, if they sign the armistice tonight there will be no attack tomorrow or ever again. This he repeated either because he wished us to grasp the full significance of it, or because it held so much for him—life, love, and happiness … No one spoke as he stood there trying to master his emotions and regain his self control … but as he walked slowly thru the door we called our … word to him, “Good luck old man.’”

Tragically, the death and destruction would continue for another month, claiming tens of thousands of lives in the final awful spasm of the conflict. One American soldier recorded terrible scenes on the Meuse-Argonne battlefield:

“You had to do some fancy footwork to avoid stepping on the dead that covered the ground. I had never before seen so many bodies. There must have been a thousand American and German dead in the valley between the two ridges. They were an awful sight, in all the grotesque positions of men killed by violence … Once I looked down and was terribly shocked. There was a young German soldier with red hair and freckles, eyes staring at the sky—and he looked just like me.”

On October 15, 1918, Vernon Kniptash, an American soldier in the 42nd (“Rainbow”) Division noted in his diary that, despite all the setbacks, the Germans were still resisting fiercely. “Was talking to a wounded Cpl. out of the New York Regiment,” he wrote. “He said the Bosche are fighting like tigers up here. Said it’s the worst that he’s run up against yet … I guess it’s fight to the finish. Well, if diplomats can’t settle it, soldiers can.”

See the previous installment, or all entries, or read an overview of the war.

WWI Centennial: Central Powers In Collapse

Department of Defense, Department of the Army, Office of the Chief Signal Officer, National Archives and Records Administration // Public Domain
Department of Defense, Department of the Army, Office of the Chief Signal Officer, National Archives and Records Administration // Public Domain

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 320th installment in the series. Buy Erik’s new WWI trivia book here!

SEPTEMBER 26-OCTOBER 1, 1918: CENTRAL POWERS IN COLLAPSE

The surprise attack by the British Army on August 8, 1918, rued by German chief strategist Erich Ludendorff as “the black day of the Germany Army,” inaugurated a relentless series of blows by Allied armies, including a wide British advance from Flanders to the Somme as well as the American liberation of the St. Mihiel salient to the east. At first Ludendorff still clung to the hope that Germany might use occupied territory in Belgium and northern France as a bargaining chip for a negotiated peace—until a series of climactic events between September 26 and October 1, 1918 left no doubt that Germany and the other Central Powers were now truly in the midst of final, catastrophic collapse.

BREAKTHROUGH ON THE WESTERN FRONT

After months of preparation, on September 26, 1918 Allied commander-in-chief Ferdinand Foch unleashed the biggest coordinated strategic offensive of the war—and human history to that date—on the Western Front, sending Allied troops into action all along the line from the North Sea coast to Verdun, in many places against the heavily fortified Hindenburg Line. All told, the final offensive on the Western Front pitted Allied armies with a total strength of around 5 million men—including 1.7 million French, 1.5 million British, 1.2 million American, and 150,000 Belgian soldiers, although not all these forces were deployed at once—against about half that number of German defenders.

In the north, Foch had formed a new Flanders Army Group commanded by King Albert of Belgium, composed of the Belgian Army, the French Sixth Army, and the British Second Army, which would attack on both sides of Ypres. To the south, the rest of the British Expeditionary Force would launch an all-out push stretching from Lille to the Somme. To the southeast, the French Army would follow up the victories of July and August with an attack from the Somme to Champagne, and the American First Army would launch the eastern end offensive with its biggest action of the war so far, the Meuse-Argonne Offensive.

Western Front, September 28, 1918
Erik Sass

The carefully staged offensive would unfold in several phases, with the Americans attacking first in the Meuse-Argonne region on September 26, followed by the British First and Third Armies attacking together towards Cambrai, scene of the short-lived Allied victory in November 1917, on September 27. Next, the Flanders Army Group would pounce on September 28, and finally, the British Fourth Army and French First Army would attack along the Somme on September 29. All these actions would see infantry assaults closely coordinated with artillery, air power, and tanks, showcasing the “combined arms” tactics that came to dominate 20th century warfare.

As usual, the Allies tried to enforce strict secrecy about the timing and location of the offensive, meaning hundreds of thousands of troops had to endure night marches to conceal their movements from enemy airplanes. William Bell, a British officer in charge of scavenging war materiel, wrote in his diary on September 26:

“It was a long time before I got accustomed to the noise of the traffic last night; for the sound of steady tramping of men, of the erratic purring of the motor-lorries, and of the clatter of the horses and mules, continued far into the night. And the traffic was still pouring northward in a never-ending torrent when I first became conscious this morning.”

AMERICANS LAUNCH MEUSE-ARGONNE OFFENSIVE

The general offensive kicked off with the Franco-American assault in the Meuse-Argonne on September 26, 1918, which helped tie down German reserves, setting the stage for the British, Belgian, and French attacks further west. Although the Meuse-Argonne Offensive was a decisive victory for the Allies, it came at a very heavy cost in American blood, with 26,277 U.S. soldiers killed by the end of the battle on November 11. That makes it the bloodiest campaign U.S. history, prompting some contemporary observers and historians to criticize the American Expeditionary Force commander, John “Black Jack” Pershing, for being reckless with American lives in order to prove American fighting mettle to the Allies.

In fact, the Americans suffered from a number of handicaps. Because the Allies had agreed to prioritize transportation of American combat troops across the Atlantic, Pershing lacked the large staff needed to coordinate the movement of large numbers of troops, guns, and supplies. Unfortunately, Foch’s plan for the general offensive required the American First Army, numbering around 600,000 men, to move from the newly liberated St. Mihiel salient 60 miles west for the Argonne attack in just one week, resulting in widespread confusion and delays (once again, Pershing had agreed to rush the offensive to placate the Allies).

As always, conditions were miserable as well as dangerous, with unending rain and mud the commonest complaints of American soldiers during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. John Miller, an army dentist and medical officer wrote home:

“In all this time you live outdoors in all kinds of weather, and sometimes you get so damned wet and cold and miserable you wonder if anyone ever was warm enough to be comfortable and had enough to eat. You never build a fire because in the daytime the Germans would see the smoke and at night they’d see the light. And then Fritz comes over about every night in his bombing machines and drops bombs around in among your pup tents. You should hear those things land! When they strike a building there is just a cloud of dust and when that clears away there is just a big hole in the ground where the building was.”

The Americans enjoyed the advantage of thousands of trucks and other motor vehicles, but these presented issues of their own, including massive fuel consumption and inevitable breakdowns. Heber Blankenhorn, an American propaganda officer, described the huge nighttime movements in preparation for the attack, as well as large numbers of mechanical casualties, on September 24:

“By day the roads are pretty vacant and my car roared along unhampered. But by night there begins a tremendous flow of iron along the arteries of this front. Guns and shell trucks, tractors, horses dragging metal things, and the men bearing iron arms fill the roads and “proceed up.” By day the road is clear again, the only evidence of its night travail being wheels, broken gear, and every little while entire smashed trucks shoved into the ditch—casualties of the night.”

The Americans faced other problems, some of their own making. Pershing had just used his best divisions in the St. Mihiel Offensive, meaning the forces available for the Argonne offensive were inexperienced or tired. American divisions, roughly twice the size of European divisions, maneuvered awkwardly both behind the lines and in battle, with supply of food and fuel presenting special difficulties. The Americans also relied heavily on new communications technology, including telephones, telegraph, and wireless radio—by the end of the war the AEF’s network had grown to more than 100,000 miles of telephone and telegraph wire—but this proved vulnerable to enemy fire. U.S. forces were still mastering the art of battlefield signaling with flares, heliographs, and other traditional means. As a result, American units often became mixed up on the battlefield (click for archival footage of U.S. forces in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive).

On the plus side, however, the Americans were relatively well supplied with artillery and ammunition, including 700 tanks, by the French and British, thanks to Foch and the French commander Philippe Petain. With this huge numerical and material superiority, Pershing was confident his doughboys and devil dogs, armed with American fighting spirit, could break through the enemy’s strong sequential lines of defense, albeit with heavy casualties.

“IT CANNOT BE DESCRIBED, IT CAN ONLY BE FELT”

The battle opened at 2:30 a.m. on September 26, 1918 with another record-breaking barrage: 2417 guns fired 4 million shells over the course of the battle. One American soldier remembered the opening bombardment:

“We had two hours to wait. It was cold and damp, and I hugged the ground to keep from shivering. We were tired to the bone, but we could not sleep. Indeed, who wanted to sleep in such a scene as that. It cannot be described, it can only be felt. The big guns behind us were booming and lighting up the sky with their flashes, and the Boche was answering back, and we could hear the great missiles of death singing out over our heads in a multitude of monotones. Just before dawn the lesser guns opened up like the barking of many dogs, and then the whole world was filled as if with the noise of great machinery grinding out death.”

As Lieutenant Francis “Bud” Bradford remembered, “by 2 a.m. we were ready. A half hour’s tense wait. At 2:30 the barrage cut loose. For three hours a solid sheet of flame lit up all behind us. O God, O God, the poor devils on the other end.”

At 5:55 a.m. the first wave of men from nine American divisions went over the top, and made swift progress against scant opposition at first, as the Germans had wisely abandoned their frontline trenches. Resistance began to stiffen after the first several miles, however, including “strong points” consisting of heavily fortified machine gun nests in concrete emplacements. Subsequent waves of Americans followed. Bradford remembered their turn:

“At 8:30 we went over, a link in the grand attack. Another battalion was in the lead. About 10 the first morning, prisoners commenced to come in. They were an inspiring sight, to say the least. Shells were breaking through us, and every now and then machine guns flattened us to the ground, but we kept on without losses until the evening of the first day. We were lying in what had once been a town when five Boche planes swooped over us and dropped bombs into the company, killing two men and wounding a third.”

Marines advance at Meuse-Argonne, WWI
U.S. Marine Corps, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

After a rapid initial advance, however, disorganization and lack of experience began to take a toll, as American units became hopelessly jumbled. One officer lamented, “The failure of liaison and all mechanical means of communication cost the lives of many brave men in the front lines in the course of the battle.” He recalled:

“Whole battalions, led by commanders with a poor sense of direction, wandered from their proper line of advance, sometimes to bring up in another division’s sector or to find themselves moving southward. Battalions lost their companies and platoons escaped from their companies … Many platoons went their own way the entire forenoon without having seen another American unit or without having any sort of idea where they were. The constant effort to seek contact with the flanks of adjacent units became a more engrossing occupation even than dealing with the enemy.”

The consequences were deadly, according to the same observer, who witnessed an entire battalion mowed down while advancing against enemy trenches that were still intact:

“From every direction, German machine-gun fire assaulted them. Many of them crumbled at once. The second wave—which included me—lay waiting to follow them, horrified by their dying screams … The next few minutes were among the worst of the war for me as we lay helpless to aid, listening to our friends being torn to pieces by gunfire.”

Soldiers resting during Meuse-Argonne offensive, WWI
U.S. Army Signal Corps, National Archives and Records Administration, U.S. Army Reserve // Public Domain

Unfortunately, during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, the Americans’ eagerness to prove themselves resulted in mistakes that cost the lives of Allied troops as well (above, American troops from the 77th Division resting on October 15, 1918 during the continuing offensive). W.H. Downing, an Australian soldier, angrily recalled their surprise at discovering that the Americans preceding them had actually advanced too far ahead, leaving the Germans to reoccupy trenches again behind them:

“Two of its companies, finding no one at the place where they expected to ‘leap-frog’ the Americans, went on, thinking the latter to be a little farther ahead … They had walked into a trap. The Germans had waited until they were inside, and had closed the exits. But they found that entrapping Australians was like shutting their hand on a thistle. Nevertheless, by the time our men had cut their way out, they had lost two-thirds of their number, and this was before their part in the battle had begun. At length, pushing through the desultory fire, we entered Bellicourt. It was full of Americans. What had occurred was now apparent. Following the custom of most troops with more spirit than experience, they had gone as far as their feet would take them, and in their impetuous haste had neglected either to throw bombs down the dugouts or to capture their occupants. Consequently, the enemy came out of the earth and cut them off.”

Despite these setbacks the Americans made steady progress, paying for every yard they advanced with blood. Bradford recalled hard, uneven fighting in the days to come:

“For two days we chased the Germans across five miles of devastated territory, through rain and mud and hunger. Now we moved steadily forward, now we were held up, now we were exploring enemy works, now digging in against counterattack. The evening of the second day the battle lagged. Our artillery could not keep pace with us. The resistance was stiffening.”

At the same time, Americans were fighting in spots all along the Western Front, with U.S. divisions fighting alongside European comrades in the French Army and British Expeditionary Force as the Allied attack unfolded along hundreds of miles of no man’s land, piercing the legendary Hindenburg Line in multiple places (more archival footage of American forces in action here). Everywhere the devastation of war left an indelible impression on Americans, many still relatively new to the conflict’s horrors. In the west, Kenneth Gow, an American soldier, recalled advancing behind the retreating Germans near the Somme battlefield in a letter home:

“The country is wrecked. Once beautiful cities are just heaps of brick and debris, not a living thing to be seen, even the trees all shot off, leaving nothing but stumps, which look like ghosts in the moonlight. The graveyards are turned upside down by terrific shell-fire. The ground is covered with all the signs of a great battle—smashed guns of every calibre, wrecked tanks, dead horses, and here and there a dead Boche overlooked by the burying parties.”

To the north, Guy Bowerman Jr., an American volunteer ambulance driver, described the spectacular scene of battle surrounding Ypres in the pre-dawn hours of the combined multinational assault by Belgian, French, British (and American troops on September 28, 1918:

“The country is perfectly flat and as we were stopped in the center of a semi-circle of trenches we could see clearly what was perhaps the most awe-inspiring and splendid spectacle which we shall ever be privileged to see. “Arrives” and “departs”; red, white, and green star shells shooting at all angles across the blue-gray horizon; a munition dump burning with a huge dull red glow which was reflected in a patch of high-hung pinkish dawn clouds, and all these [kaleidoscopic] colors blazing forth among a terrible, soul-shivering roar as the thousand guns sent their shells screeching towards the lines where they fell with a terrifying sickening ‘crump’ burning a bright hole in the night, and added their smoke to the haze which made the rising sun blood red. We were rudely awakened from our trance (for such sights as these have rare hypnotic power) by a shell which came screaming towards us and as we threw ourselves flat exploded nearby sending a shower of dirt and small stones upon us.”

Later Bowerman added:

“The terrain is without doubt the most desolate, God-forsaken portion of this Earth. A veritable no man’s land 15 miles wide filled with shell holes, water, blackened tree stumps, and demolished concrete blockhouses. Across this waste there is but one path—a sickening pretense of a road which winds its shell-holed, muddy, splashy way past caved-in trenches, water-filled gun emplacements, and huge mine holes which resemble volcanic lakes.”

As shocking as the experience of battle was for American troops, the Allied onslaught was even more demoralizing for German soldiers and civilians, leaving no doubt that Germany was staring defeat in the face. However, social coercion and the threat of punishment would keep the machinery of war going for a few more weeks. Evelyn, Princess Blücher, an Englishwoman married to a German aristocrat, wrote in her diary during a visit to Munich on September 29, 1918:

“Today I noticed an especially scared look on the faces of those around me, and on my inquiring what had happened they told me that the Allied troops have made another combined offensive and have managed in places to break through the Hindenburg line … And yet, with ruin starting at them on all sides, there are still people here who continue to protest that everything stands well, and that anyone who spreads a report to the contrary will be punished with five years’ imprisonment with hard labor.”

BULGARIA ASKS FOR PEACE

The massive, coordinated Allied offensive on the Western Front was just one of several crippling blows against the Central Powers during the pivotal days of late September and early October. In a surprising development, one of the most crushing defeats came in the long-neglected Balkan front, in the Macedonian mountains north of the Greek city of Salonika, where a combined Allied attack resulted in the collapse of the threadbare Bulgarian Army and Bulgaria suing for peace terms.

Europe, September 1918
Erik Sass

Following the disastrous fire that destroyed most of Salonika in August 1917, the Allies repaired port facilities and supply lines while French commander Franchet d’Espèrey carefully conserved his manpower, benefiting from Greece’s entry into the war on the Allied side. By September 1918 d’Espèrey’s multinational Army of the Orient included six French divisions, six Serbian divisions, four British divisions, nine Greek divisions, and one Italian division. The beleaguered Bulgarians, who had never really recovered from the disastrous Second Balkan War, were further depleted by demands from Germany and Austria-Hungary to carry out garrison duty in conquered enemy territories like Serbia, Albania, and Romania.

Beginning on September 15, 1918, 700,000 Allied troops mounted a concerted offensive in Macedonia ranging from Monastir to the Vardar River Valley, followed by a combined British, Serbian, and Greek attack that captured Lake Doiran on September 17 and 18. A last-minute plan by German and Bulgarian commanders to stage a withdrawal and surprise counterattack against the Allies quickly unraveled, as the withdrawing Bulgarian and German forces refused to stop retreating and fight, turning the feint into a rout.

On September 24, 1918 the Bulgarians officially asked for an armistice, followed by another request on September 26. But they were rebuffed by d’Espèrey, who was determined to liberate Serbian land by arms and hold Bulgarian territory as insurance for good behavior. Finally, d’Espèrey signed an armistice declaration on September 29, as Allied forces led by French cavalry occupied Uskub (today Skopje, the capital of Macedonia) close on the heels of the retreating Bulgarians and Germans. One French cavalry officer recalled the chaotic scenes in the multiethnic, multilingual city:

“There were clouds, however, which did not follow the rising fog. They were smoke clouds caused by fires burning in the city’s Turkish district, in the Greek district, in the Serbian, and even in the Bulgarian district … Cypresses, set ablaze by the flames from nearby houses, were burning like giant torches. Ammunition dumps were exploding, shooting up huge red and black flames. The railroad station was aflame too. As expected, our attack fully surprised the enemy, whose troops were retreating in disorder and kept shooting in a haphazard manner from the northern and western ridges.”

Despite the violence and destruction, the city’s Serbian inhabitants were glad to see the Allied liberators:

“The city’s leader met us at the entrance, behind a white flag and accompanied by French and Italian soldiers. The latter had escaped from Bulgarian prisoner camps, and had been hidden and fed by the local population. Both the Serbian notables and the soldiers were shouting enthusiastically. The population’s emotion was deeply moving; the women kept kissing our hands while crying with joy.”

Bulgaria’s imminent surrender struck a dire blow to the Central Powers’ strategic position. The small Balkan kingdom had long been the only geographic corridor connecting Germany and Austria-Hungary in Central Europe with the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East. With Bulgaria out of the game, it would become much more difficult for Germany to continue supplying the Turks with war materiel—just as the Allies finally threatened to penetrate the Turkish homeland in Anatolia.

ARABS LIBERATE DAMASCUS

The British and Arab victory at Megiddo, when British cavalry from the Egyptian Expeditionary Force and camel-mounted warriors from the rebel Arab Army encircled and destroyed the remaining Turkish armies in Palestine, left the way open to Damascus, the legendary capital of medieval Muslim caliphates. The British, recent conquerors of Baghdad, Gaza, and Jerusalem, hoped to add another ancient entrepot to their list of conquests—but for political reasons they allowed irregular forces loyal to the Arab Army commander Prince Feisal and his advisor, the pro-Arab British intelligence officer T.E. Lawrence, the honor of liberating the city.

With the remnants of Turkish forces in Palestine beating a hasty retreat north, Arab rebels in the city raised the flag of the “independent Syria” as British cavalry entered Damascus on October 1, 1918, putting the Allies within striking distance of the Turkish homeland in Anatolia. The fall of the fabled city was yet another heavy symbolic blow to the Central Powers, making it clear that the Ottoman Empire, too, was on its last legs (though perhaps not as badly off as Austria-Hungary, already in the advanced stages of disintegration).

There was no government in the liberated city, which also still held around 15,000 Turkish and German soldiers who had deserted, or were too wounded or ill to move and were left behind in the retreat, making the city a dangerous, chaotic place. Lawrence described the spectacular scenes that greeted him as he approached the newly liberated city on October 1, 1918:

“As the Germans left Damascus they fired at the dumps and ammunition stores, so that every few minutes we were jangled by explosions, whose first shock set the sky white with flame. At each such roar the Earth seemed to shake; we would lift our eyes to the north and see the pale sky prick out suddenly in sheaves of yellow points, as the shells thrown to terrific heights from each bursting magazine, in their turn burst like clustered rockets. I turned to Stirling and muttered ‘Damascus is burning,’ sick to think of the great town in ashes as the price of freedom.”

Fortunately, the damage inflicted by the retreating Turks and Germans on the historic city was far less than they feared:

“When dawn came we drove to the head of the ridge, which stood over the oasis of the city, afraid to look north for the ruins we expected. But, instead of ruins, the silent gardens stood blurred green with river mist, in whose setting shimmered the city, beautiful as ever, like a pearl in the morning sun … A galloping horseman checked at our head-cloths in the car, with a merry salutation, holding out a bunch of yellow grapes. ‘Good news! Damascus salutes you.’”

See the previous installment, or all entries, or read an overview of the war.

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