Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 317th installment in the series. Read an overview of the war to date here or all entries here. And buy Erik’s new WWI trivia book here!
AUGUST 13-15, 1918: GERMANY MUST END WAR, GENERALS ADMIT
Following the failure of Germany’s final attempts to crack Allied defenses on the Western Front in spring and summer 1918, the Allies hit back beginning August 8, remembered by German chief strategist Erich Ludendorff as “the black day of the German Army,” with a devastating surprise attack led by the British Fourth Army against the German forces holding the recently re-conquered salient round the River Somme. British, Canadian, Australian, and American divisions supported by more than a thousand planes and hundreds of tanks stormed disorganized, unprepared defenses, forcing the German Second and Eighteenth Armies into a hasty withdrawal.
As the Germans beat a disorderly retreat on both the north and south banks of the river, all the way to their starting positions for the first spring offensive in March 21, Allied commander-in-chief Ferdinand Foch moved aggressively to exploit the new opportunities opened up by the British advance, with plans to unleash a new pincer attack by the French Tenth Army under Charles Mangin and the British Third Army on the main German salient in northern France. Foch was also working with American top commander General John “Black Jack” Pershing on another offensive by the new American First Army—the first American army to serve in Europe—targeting German positions in the Meuse-Argonne, the St. Mihiel salient, or both (although Foch and Pershing disagreed over which should receive priority).
Regardless of where the next blow fell, however, by mid-August 1918 it was clear to all observers that the Allies were winning the war and that the best Germany could hope for was a negotiated peace. In August 1918 Germany sustained 228,000 casualties, including 131,000 dead and missing—an unaffordable loss, maxing out the relatively fresh troops redeployed from the Eastern Front, while hundreds of thousands of new American fighters arrived every month (285,974 in August alone). By the end of the month there would be around 1.5 million Americans in France, including more than 800,000 serving in the trenches.
Even children understood the fatal turn of events, picking up on cues from despondent adults and older siblings. Piete Kuhr, a 13-year-old girl in East Prussia, wrote in her diary on August 15, 1918, “Germany is nearly finished, diary. We have suffered a terrible defeat. Most of our troops have surrendered to the English. At the station a sergeant said to Grandma, ‘Well, Mother, you will soon be able to close the soup kitchen. We are done for, fini, beaten!’ When Grandma came home from duty she was very pale.”
Following the Amiens Offensive of August 8-12, even Germany’s top generals, chief of the general staff Paul von Hindenburg and Ludendorff, his quartermaster general and chief strategist, now had to admit that a decisive victory over the Allies was impossible. But this wasn’t the same as admitting that Germany had lost the war: Ludendorff still argued, unrealistically, that it was possible to reach a negotiated peace with the Allies, maintain Germany’s territorial integrity, and possibly even hold on to some of the conquests in Eastern Europe.
Keen to shift blame for Germany’s impending strategic collapse, at a secret crown council meeting with Kaiser Wilhelm II at the Belgian resort town of Spa from August 13-15, 1918, Ludendorff claimed that German fighting morale remained high, and that the failure of the recent offensives was due principally to shortages of artillery and ammunition, as well as the wavering loyalty of German civilians on the home front. This analysis suggested that even though their offensive capacity was spent, German soldiers would be able to remain on the defensive for some time, exacting a heavy toll from the Allies for all future gains. Considering that French manpower was already stretched to the breaking point, the political risks of a bloody final campaign might deter the British and Americans from trying to achieve a decisive victory, for which their troops would take the brunt of losses. On that note Germany should dig in and hold on to most of Belgium and northern France as bargaining chips in hopes of winning a “fair peace” (notably unlike the punitive deal Germany just gave Russia with the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk).
However, Ludendorff and his interlocutors were way off base. True, French manpower was in a precarious position, but the French Army had passed the critical morale crisis of 1917. Already, in 1918, the government had called up a new year of young conscripts for early training at the request of Foch, meaning there was still (limited) room for maneuver, allowing France to continue the war effort into 1919 if need be. Britain was also prepared, albeit reluctantly, to find hundreds of thousands of additional conscripts by “combing out” low-priority workers from its industrial labor force and from new recruiting efforts overseas.
Most importantly, as noted, the gargantuan manpower and productive capacity of the U.S. were both now online, while the French and British economies were also on a full war footing, churning out artillery, shells, tanks, and planes. The flood of artillery and tanks, in particular, meant that the morale of ordinary German soldiers was increasingly irrelevant. No amount of fighting spirit could withstand overwhelming bombardments and massed tank attacks, combined with debilitating hunger and the scourge of the global flu epidemic, now about to take an even deadlier turn.
And yet some German soldiers managed to keep holding out, testimony to their bravery and incredible endurance. Patriotic sentiment was strongest among elite storm trooper units. Ernst Jünger later wrote in his famous novel and memoir, Storm of Steel:
“I paraded my company in battle order in a small apple orchard. Standing under an apple tree, I addressed a few words to the men, who were drawn up in front of me in a horseshoe arrangement. They looked serious and manly. There wasn’t much to say. In the course of the last few days … probably every one of them had come to understand that we were on our uppers. With every attack, the enemy came forward with more powerful means; his blows were swifter and more devastating. Everyone knew we could no longer win. But we would stand firm.”
However conditions and attitudes varied widely between individuals and units, and broadly speaking, the signs of spiraling morale were unmistakable on the battlefield. Private Edward Lynch, an Australian soldier, remembered advancing against scant resistance in late August 1918:
“Dozens of enemy are surrendering to our advancing wave. Poor, broken wretches who have been overrun by our creeping barrage. Still the advance moves on. Still the shells creep forwards. Still we follow their dusty, smoking line. Fritz are rising shivering from little holes in the ground, surrendering in fear. They seldom attempt to dispute our progress. They don’t show any fight. A dozen Fritz rise from in front of us yelling ‘Kamerad!’ We’re up to them and busy ratting them for souvenirs. They have surrendered from a great round concrete machine gun emplacement that they could have held for hours as they have two machine guns here. We despise them. Too cowardly to fight and too frightened to run. Surrendered an almost impregnable position without firing a shot. The morale of the enemy seems down to zero.”
Back home in Germany, Evelyn, Princess Blücher, an Englishwoman married to a German aristocrat living in Berlin, noted growing unease among the elite over political chaos in the wake of the resignation of the most recent failed foreign minister, Richard von Kühlmann:
“The whole political situation is so perilous at the moment, that everyone feels something momentous must be going to take place. The constant changes in official circles denote weakness and uncertainty, and there is in reality no strong man at the wheel of the ship of Germany. ‘A victorious army never rebels,’ people say, but an army in retreat is very liable to be seized by the spirit of mutiny, and certainly the mass of the population here would be ready to back any definite movement. Capitalists and large landowners are beginning to talk in earnest of the possibility of their land being confiscated and their property divided up in the Bolshevik manner.”
This was far from an implausible nightmare, according to some ominous anecdotal details recorded by Blücher:
“The whole public spirit is so depressed and the universal suffering so great, that the people are threatening to take matters into their own hands. You can hear this intention expressed at every street corner. A shop-girl said it openly to my husband the other day: ‘We are going to stop the war now; those in command have failed entirely and have never kept their promises which they so often made.’ Another friend heard in the tram: “It is high time for the Emperor to abdicate to bring about peace, and the sooner this is made clear to him the better.’ … Everyone is now able to see through the official telegrams which for so long hoodwinked the masses. They know that the constant threatening of the front spells ‘Retreat.’”
“No wonder that half the army have ruined nerves! One young officer, just returned from the front, stated that 30,000 German prisoners were taken on one day, and that eight of his brother officers were killed at his side in one minute, he alone surviving. They say that air battles have been the most characteristic feature of the offensive, there being sometimes as many as 40 planes engaged in the air, and that the swift advance of the Allied armies was mainly due to the systematic cooperation of aeroplanes and tanks.”
Once again, the most damning testimony came from German children. On August 20 Kuhr concluded gloomily:
“We must stop playing ‘Nurse Martha and Lieutenant von Yellenic.’ I don’t want to be a soldier any more, still less an officer. Things have changed. There is no point in Gretel and me going on with the same old game—war, casualties, hospitals, convalescence, officer’s dances, and aircraft crashes. Funerals too … When we play ‘Nurse Martha and Lieutenant von Yellenic’ we forget how terrible life around us really is. Now it must finish. We are no longer children. It’s all over.”