WWI Centennial: Central Powers In Collapse
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.’”