WWI Centennial: “With Our Backs To The Wall”

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 306th installment in the series. Read an overview of the war to date here.

APRIL 9-MAY 1, 1918: “WITH OUR BACKS TO THE WALL”

The second mighty blow of the final German offensive on the Western Front in spring 1918, Operation Georgette, was German chief strategist Erich Ludendorff’s attempt to force the British Expeditionary Force into the sea with fresh troops arriving from the victorious eastern front. Known to the British as the Fourth Battle of Ypres or the Lys Offensive after its location along the Lys River, from April 9 to May 1, 1918 Georgette pitted a total of 35 divisions from the German Fourth and Sixth Armies against a defensive force initially totaling just 12 divisions from the British First and Second Armies around the village of Armentières, south of Ypres.

World War I in Europe, April 1918
Erik Sass

Once again, German gunners used the new mathematical registering technique perfected by Colonel Georg Bruchmüller, targeting artillery without the need for range-finding and test firing, helping to preserve the crucial element of surprise. The bombardment would be virtually unprecedented, with the German Sixth Army’s artillery firing a total 1.4 million shells on the first day alone, averaging 16 per second. As in Operation Michael, the German infantry advance would be spearheaded by thousands of storm troopers in special battalions armed with light machine guns, mortars, flamethrowers, and sometimes field guns.

World War I Operation Georgette, April 1918
Erik Sass

Georgette debuted at 4:15 a.m. on April 9, 1918, with 2210 German guns opening fire along a 25-mile stretch of front, including five miles held by the demoralized, undermanned Portuguese Expeditionary Corps. Following an Earth-shattering bombardment pounding the Allied artillery and saturating British and Portuguese trenches with a combination of high explosives, poison gas, and tear gas shells, the German guns laid down a creeping barrage with shrapnel and high explosives to protect the advancing stormtroopers and regular infantry (top, British soldiers wounded by poison gas). John Tucker, a 20-year-old British infantryman, described being wounded in the German bombardment on April 9:

"Suddenly a barrage of shells came screaming over and dropping a short distance beyond us, several bursting quite close. We moved to the trench side, bunching to get down at a convenient place. It is possible after a little experience to tell from the scream of an oncoming shell to know if it is going to fall within a few yards or to pass over one’s head. I heard one coming that I knew was going to land on us. I did not hear the final scream of the shell, nor what must have been the awful noise of its explosion. I felt a terrific blow on the left side of my back, like the kick of a horse, felt my knees buckle under me, and lost consciousness. I have no idea for how long I was in this state, but came to with an awful pain in my back and stomach, and hearing a lot of moaning noises. Realizing that some of the moaning was coming from me, I shut up, but there was much of it still going on around me … Now convinced that I was dying I had a peculiar hallucination of a light opening between clouds in the sky and voices singing and calling me in. I was not at all scared during all this, but apart from the pain felt quite calm. After a while I began to think how much I would like to see my mother, father, and sister just once again before I died, and then, of all things, a longing to walk once more at night along by Finsbury Park, and became determined that I would last out to do these things."

Chief strategic Erich Ludendorff had chosen his target with typical precision: the main blow fell squarely on the weak, demoralized Portuguese force in the middle of the line, causing the Portuguese divisions to simply disintegrate. British war correspondent Philip Gibbs described the overwhelming destructive power of the German shelling:

"It was a tragedy for the Portuguese that the heaviest bombardment, in a storm of gunfire as atrocious in its fury as anything of the kind since March 21, was directed against the center which they held. It was annihilating to their outposts and mashed their front-line defenses, which were stoutly held. It beat backwards and forwards in waves of high explosives."

Captain R.C.G. Dartford, a British liaison officer attached to the Portuguese 2nd Division, described the extraordinary speed of the German advance over the Portuguese positions, largely abandoned in panic, followed by the swift collapse of the Portuguese Expeditionary Corps on the morning of April 9:

"I think the Boche must have taken our front line about 8:30 and the B line 8:45 and was up to batt H.Q. by 9:15 or so. One message from X. de Costa (CO 29th Batt.) said he no longer had any command and that it was now a question of individuals fighting out. He was killed, we learnt after … Stragglers passed thro’ Laventie but most of them chose the open fields and wisely. We got hold of one and he said, “Everyone was running from the B line, so I did too,” though he hadn’t seen the Boche. We put two sgts to try and collect stragglers but they soon came back saying it was impossible to stop them and that officers were getting away too."

As during the first days of Operation Michael, the German Sixth Army’s steamroller of artillery and men advanced inexorably at first, taking over three miles by around noon on April 9, reaching one of their first day objectives, the River Lys, by mid-afternoon, and penetrating up to six miles by nightfall. Once again, however, the Germans failed to achieve all their ambitious first-day goals, especially on the left wing of the attack, where they faced a fierce defense by the British 55th Division around the villages of Givenchy and Festubert. And as in Michael, this delay gave the Allies critical breathing room, a few precious days in which to assess the direction of the latest German thrust and rush hastily summoned reinforcements to the battlefield, including ANZAC and South African troops.

The following day Ludendorff sent the German Fourth Army to the north, rumbling into action to support the Sixth Army’s attack, widening the scope of the offensive to include the whole Ypres sector. By noon the Fourth Army had captured the strategic area of Messines—first conquered by the British in summer 1917, and briefly recaptured by an Australian brigade on April 10 before being lost again. The combined advance by the Fourth and Sixth Armies threatened British control of the Channel ports, critical supply bases for the British Expeditionary Force—a disastrous scenario.

The ensuing struggle was undoubtedly grim for the Allies, as the Germans came alarmingly close to breaking through the British line in Flanders, and the Allies’ new supreme commander, Ferdinand Foch, claimed he was unable to send help. On April 11, as 31 German divisions battered 13 Allied divisions, British GHQ staff officer Brigadier-General John Charteris confided gloomily in his diary:

“It looks as if we should have to fight out this battle alone, and we have no reserves. It will decide the war. God grant the decision is not against us! Everything else fades into insignificance.”

That evening, as the Germans menaced Bailleul, closed on the rail hub at Hazebrouck, and almost split the British First and Second Armies, BEF commander Douglas Haig issued one of the most dramatic communiqués of the war, an order of the day reading in part:

"Many amongst us now are tired. To those I would say that victory will belong to the side which holds out the longest. The French Army is moving rapidly and in great force to our support. There is no other course open to us but to fight it out. Every position must be held to the last man: there must be no retirement. With our backs to the wall and believing in the justice of our cause each one of us must fight on to the end. The safety of our homes and the freedom of mankind alike depend upon the conduct of each one of us at this critical moment."

As Haig indicated, the Allies couldn’t expect to stop the German onslaught without suffering considerable further losses in terms of casualties and territory. With British losses mounting, thousands of Flemish peasants fled their homes to avoid falling into German hands, and once again the countryside burned. On the night of April 13, Gibbs, the British war correspondent, recorded the firelit spectacle:

"It was a clear, starlight night, and for miles the horizon was lit by the flame of burning farms and stores and ammunition dumps, and all this pale sky was filled with the wild glare of fires and by the flash of guns. German air-raiders came out dropping bombs. The sound of their engines was a droning song overhead, and our shrapnel winked and flashed about them."

SHIFTING BALANCE

However, the situation was already turning against the Germans attackers. As the German offensive surged ahead in the middle, the left wing of the advance remained stuck near Givenchy to the south, and everywhere progress came at a heavy price, as in the first offensive. Though forced to retreat again and again, the defenders of the British First and Second Army fought fierce rearguard actions as they withdrew; the Germans faced major difficulties bringing up artillery and ammunition over wrecked battlefields to keep the offensive going. One German soldier, Franz Xaver Bergler, noted their stalled progress—as well as the generally miserable conditions—in his diary entry on April 12:

"We have been back in position since 3 April and are still here. Right in the midst of a completely devastated area, everything is shot into pieces, only grenade craters are left. We haven’t even started yet advancing against the English. The Englishman is just firing against us with his massive grenade fire all day long … Now we have been sitting in this position for eight days, often covered in mud and dirt up to the knees. We are freezing during the night and have no shelter. Or we are lying in an old tunnel, so tightly squeezed against each other that all limbs hurt terribly."

Disappointed by the Sixth Army’s failure to advance on the left, Ludendorff allowed a brief pause to resupply and move up artillery before resuming the attack all along the front. Over the next few days the Sixth Army encircled and captured the village of Bailleul together with the Fourth Army, while to the north the Fourth Army forced the British to withdraw from the area east of Ypres, won at such a terrible price in Passchendaele. However, the Germans didn’t notice the withdrawal right away, while the British received a boost with the arrival of more French reinforcements sent by Foch.

On the evening of April 16, as the German Fourth Army tried unsuccessfully to separate the British Second Army from the Belgian Army to the north, Gibbs described the long, curving inferno of the Ypres salient to the south, where British and ANZAC troops were staging desperate counterattacks against the advancing Germans:

"It was just before dusk that counter-attacks began northwards from Wytschaete southwards for Meteren, and although before then there had been steady slogging of guns and howling of shells, at that time this volume of dreadful noise increased tremendously, and drumfire broke out in fury, so that the sky and Earth trembled with it. It was like the beating of all the drums of the world in a muffled tattoo … It was a wet, wild evening, with few pale gleams of sun through storm clouds and smoke of guns, and for miles all this panorama of battle was boiling and seething with bursting shells and curling wreaths of smoke from batteries in action … When darkness came each battery was revealed by its flashes, and all fields around me were filled with red winkings and sharp stabs of flame."

To the south the Germans renewed their attack on Festubert and Givenchy, without success, although at a heavy cost to both sides. A British soldier, Lance Corporal Thomas A. Owen, described being wounded and taken prisoner near Festubert on April 18, 1918:

"Looking over the top I saw the long gray lines sweeping along 400 yards away. They were marching slowly, should to shoulder, heavily weighted with picks, ammunition, and rations. We scrambled to the fire-step. We fired madly and recklessly. The Lewis gun rattled and the two magazine fillers worked with feverish haste … Still the gray hordes advanced … I thought my arm had gone. If it was death I was numb, careless, and content. I sank into a dull stupor and the hordes of gray uniforms trampled over me, round me and by me, and forgot me in their own terror. They swept on and on to meet another wall of steel and flame. How many of them would see another dawn?"

By April 18 and 19 it was clear that the German offensive had run out of steam, but Ludendorff was determined to win some objective of strategic importance in order to justify the terrible bloodshed. In a renewed attack on April 25 the Germans captured Mount Kemmel, an important observation point for targeting artillery, in a brilliant tactical maneuver, but there weren’t enough troops to exploit the victory, allowing the British to reform defenses at a safe distance.

Meanwhile, to the south the Germans still hadn’t captured Festubert or Givenchy, spelling the end of the strategic plan for Operation Georgette. The other final thrust of the German offensive failed at the Second Battle of Villers-Bretonneux from April 24 to 26, 1918, again due to challenges with artillery and ammunition, and the intensifying defenses of the enemy. Dominik Richert, a German soldier from Alsace, described the German attack at Villers-Bretonneux on April 24, 1918:

"At a blow, more than 800 guns sent over their iron greetings and then went on and on; for a full hour the guns thundered and roared. The shells flew over us continuously. From the other side you could hear the individual shell bursts. It was almost impossible to communicate with each other. You had to shout the words in the other person’s ear … The artillery fired continued unabated, we could now hear the crackling of the rifles as well. The attack was in full swing. Wherever you looked it was crawling with German soldiers pushing forwards. Infantry, machine guns, small and medium-sized mortars were all moving forward. A swarm of German aircraft flew low over us in order to contribute to the success of the attack with bombs, hand grenades, and machine-gun fire. As we approached the corner of the wood there were already a number of dead lying on the churned-up ground. We were suddenly showered with a hail of artillery and mortar shells, and all jumped in the shell-holes or holes that had been dug by the men."

It soon became clear that this attempt was also doomed to failure, although commanders far from the battlefield were either isolated from this information or simply indifferent, according to Richert:

"As a result of the enormous losses the attack had ground to a stop. Everyone had sought cover in the numerous shell-holes. The whole area was constantly covered in black shell smoke. All at once officers and orderlies ran around the occupied holes and shouted: ‘Divisional orders: The attack must be continued!’ We were all appalled. Individual groups who had been driven out of their holes started to jump forwards. Our captain got out of a hole near us and ordered us to advance. What choice did we have?"

The German troops were undoubtedly exhausted. On the other side, on April 25, 1918, Philip Gibbs described German prisoners of war captured during the fighting at Villers-Bretonneux:

"Many of the others whom I now saw, and who lay down on the grass in every attitude of exhaustion, were bespattered with blood, which mixed in clots on the white dust of their clothes. The field in which they lay was all silver and gold with daisies and buttercups, and these heaps of field-gray men, in their grim helmets, which gave them a strange malignant look, spread themselves out on this lawn, and some of them slept until their sergeants shouted to them again, and they lined up for their rations."

By the time Ludendorff called off Operation Georgette on May 1, 1918, both sides had suffered another round of nauseating losses. On the Allied side, British casualties stood at over 80,000, including killed, wounded, missing, and prisoners, while the French suffered around 30,000 casualties, and the unfortunate Portuguese Expeditionary Corps was devastated by the loss of a third of its total strength. On the other side the Germans had suffered at least 85,000 casualties in all categories—an intolerably high price, drawing down significantly on the roughly million men freed up from the Eastern Front—in return for few strategic gains and no strategic breakthrough.

THE AMERICANS ARE COMING

In fact, the conquests would soon become a positive liability, as the Germans were left holding longer defensive lines while the Allies drew strength from the arrival of more and more American troops. By the end of April 1918 there were 434,081 U.S. troops in France, while 245,945 more would embark for the continent in May alone. Stateside, the massive construction and training program was producing vast numbers of fresh troops: By June 1918, the U.S. Army’s total strength would approach 2.4 million and counting.

Although the Americans naturally took some time to learn the vagaries of trench warfare, usually starting in a relatively quiet sector along their French and British allies, during the dark days of the first German offensive General Pershing had committed to sending American troops wherever they were needed in the Allied line. Floyd Gibbons, an American war correspondent, described the scenes as the doughboys (widely considered overpaid) passed through Paris while moving up to the line in France:

"Other American troop trains had preceded us, because where the railroad embankment ran close and parallel to the street of some nameless faubourg, our appearance was met with cheers and cries from a welcoming regiment of Paris street gamins, who trotted in the street beside the slow moving troop train and shouted and threw their hats and wooden shoes in the air. Sous and 50-centime pieces and franc pieces showered from the side doors of the horses’ cars as American soldiers, with typical disregard for the value of money, pitched coin after coin to the scrambling move of children."

After more than a year of waiting, ordinary British and French civilians were surprised and relieved to finally see the long-promised troops arriving in large numbers. Vera Brittain, a young British woman serving as a volunteer nurse’s aid in France, remembered her initial mystification on encountering doughboys for the first time:

"They were swinging rapidly towards Camiers, and though the sight of soldiers marching was now too familiar to arouse curiosity, an unusual quality of bold vigor in their swift stride caused me to stare at them with puzzled interest. They looked larger than ordinary men; their tall, straight figures were in vivid contrast to the undersized armies of pale recruits to which we had grown accustomed … 'Had yet another regiment been conjured out of our depleted dominions?' I wondered ... But I knew the colonial troops so well, and these were different; they were assured where the Australians were aggressive, self-possessed where the New Zealanders were turbulent. Then I heard an excited exclamation from a group of sisters behind me. 'Look! Look! Here are the Americans!' I pressed forward with the others to watch the United States physically entering the war, so god-like, so magnificent, so splendidly unimpaired in comparison with the tired, nerve-racked men of the British Army. So these were our deliverers at last, marching up the road to Camiers in the spring sunshine!"

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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