WWI Centennial: Avenging Angel—Operation Michael

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 304th installment in the series. Read an overview of the war to date here.

“We out here who knew that this thing was coming upon us, creeping nearer every day with its monstrous menace, held our breath and waited,” the British war correspondent Philip Gibbs wrote of Germany’s final offensive in the spring of 1918. “When at last the thing broke it was more frightful in its loosing of overwhelming powers than even we had guessed.”

“Operation Michael,” named for the fearful avenging archangel of the Bible, was chief strategist Erich Ludendorff’s all-in gamble to end the war with a crushing blow against the Allies on the Western Front before American troops began arriving in France in large numbers. The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk and the Central Powers’ victory over Italy at Caporetto enabled Ludendorff to transfer a million men from the defunct Eastern Front and elsewhere to the Western Front to carry out the attack.

Europe, March 21-31, 1918
Erik Sass

The massive offensive targeted the British Army—now the stronger partner in the Anglo-French Alliance, with around 3.9 million soldiers under arms in March 1918, including 1.5 million on the Western Front, compared to around 2 million French soldiers total. By shattering the Allied line and driving a wedge between the French and British armies, Operation Michael would threaten the British Expeditionary Force with encirclement and the loss of its supply bases in the Channel ports, forcing the British to withdraw or be destroyed, hopefully followed by French capitulation (below, the ruins of the French village of Bapaume).

Bapaume ruins, 1918
German Federal Archives, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

As Gibbs indicated, the impending German onslaught was common knowledge on both sides. Ivor Hanson, a British gunner, noted in his diary on March 20, 1918, “Each of the combatants seem to be almost completely aware of the designs of the other. Observation from the air, captured prisoners, listening posts, intercepted messages, the Intelligence Department … all help to make the information complete.” Gibbs reviewed the alarming intelligence gathered by the Allies in February-March 1918:

"Our flying scouts reported abnormal movements of troops on railways and roads far back behind the German lines. They reported new aerodromes established opposite our front, new hospitals, and field-ambulances … new ammunition dumps everywhere. Prisoners taken in our raids repeated the rumors in the German trenches of an offensive on so vast a scale that it would crush the British Army for all time …"

While the exact timing and location of the main thrust remained a closely guarded secret, on both sides everyone from top brass to the men in the trenches knew that the clash would likely determine the outcome of the war, not to mention the personal fates of countless combatants. John Jackson, a British soldier, remembered, “Any moment we expected a great attack by the enemy, but we did not know where or when the shock would come. The feeling of an impending battle was, however, in the atmosphere and everybody seemed strained and tense, waiting for we hardly knew what.” Similarly, Herbert Sulzbach, a German officer, wrote in his diary on March 19, 1918, “We are most conscious of the greatness of the moment, and have got into a terrific state of tension, and even when we have any time for rest, we genuinely can’t sleep any more, not for a second.”

Germans at the Somme, 1918
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Ludendorff’s strategy centered on concentrating overwhelming numbers against a decisive point in the enemy line—in other words, brute force—in a bid to break through, end the stasis of trench warfare, and reopen war of maneuver (above, German troops on the Somme in March 1918). Altogether, Operation Michael would hurl a total of 67 German divisions in the Second, Seventeenth, and Eighteenth Armies against the British Fifth and Third Armies as well the French Sixth Army, with the main blow falling on the British Fifth Army, numbering 26 divisions, giving the Germans an almost three-to-one advantage. If these attacks succeeded they would then proceed to the second phase, Operation Mars, with the Seventeenth and Second Armies pivoting northwest towards Arras, Albert, and Amiens in order to push the British north and crush them in a vise with the German Fourth and Sixth Armies, while the Eighteenth Army prevented the French from reestablishing contact with their allies.

Western Front, March 21, 1918
Erik Sass

Operation Michael would employ “infiltration tactics” on a large scale, in which storm trooper units armed with grenades, mortars, and machine guns would advance swiftly, exploiting surprise to penetrate enemy lines and create gaps that regular infantry following behind could widen and exploit (it would also incorporate a small number of Germany’s monstrous tanks, the A7V, developed belatedly and never built in sufficient quantities to be decisive; below, French soldiers with a ruined German tank). In addition to the tidal wave of men, the Germans assembled more than 1000 planes for the offensive, giving them local air superiority for artillery spotting, ground attacks against troops and vehicles, and aerial bombardment of rail hubs and supply depots. Most importantly, the Germans had assembled 6608 heavy guns and field artillery and 3534 trench mortars to deliver the most ferocious bombardment in history, using a new mathematical technique to target the guns without having to “register” or test fire them first, preserving the element of surprise.

French soldiers with an overturned tank, 1918
Der Weltkrieg in Bild, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Ironically, much of the fighting would take place on the old battleground of the Somme, where British and French forces had forced the Germans back at a huge cost in blood in summer and autumn 1916, prompting the Germans to conduct a strategic withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line in spring 1917. The ravaged battlefield presented special challenges in terms of mobility and communications, including the difficulty of moving up artillery, ammunition and other supplies in the event of a successful advance. Nonetheless, Ludendorff was so confident of success that Kaiser Wilhelm II and his entourage traveled to observe the kaiserschlacht, or “emperor’s offensive,” which they hoped would be crowned with victory. Their hopes would be disappointed—but only after they had unleashed an apocalypse.

"AS IF THE WORLD WERE COMING TO AN END"

The storm broke at 4:40 a.m. on March 21, 1918, when a bright white rocket above St. Quentin signaled Germany artillery to begin raining shells on British and French trenches, strong points, and communications along a 43-mile stretch of front (below, footage of Operation Michael). The German guns fired an incredible 1.16 million shells in the first five hours alone, reaching 3.2 million by the end of the first day—more than the British had fired during the entire week preceding the Somme offensive, working out to an average 64 shells per second in the opening phase and 37 shells per second for the whole day. Around a third of the shells in the initial bombardment were gas shells of various kinds, including mustard gas and “buntkreuz” (variegated) shells, the latter typically containing phosgene mixed with sneezing or vomiting agents, intended to force enemy soldiers to remove their gas masks in order to expose them to the more poisonous gases.

Ernst Jünger, an infantry lieutenant, described the opening moments of the historic battle in his memoir Storm of Steel:

"Shortly before the show, the following flash signal was circulated: ‘His Majesty the Kaiser and Hindenburg are on the scene of operations.’ It was greeted with applause. The watch-hands moved round; we counted off the last few minutes … The tempest was unleashed. A flaming curtain went up, followed by the unprecedentedly brutal roaring. A wild thunder, capable of submerging even the loudest detonations in its rolling, made the earth shake. The gigantic roaring of the innumerable guns behind us was so atrocious that even the greatest of the battles we had experienced seemed like a tea party by comparison. What we hadn’t dared hope for happened: the enemy artillery was silenced; a prodigious blow had laid it out. We felt too restless to stay in the dugout. Standing out on top, we gasped at the colossal wall of flame over the English lines, gradually obscuring itself behind crimson, surging clouds."

Another German soldier, Herbert Sulzbach, recorded the high spirits among artillery crews, reflecting widespread confidence in victory:

"At last we’re there, and with a crash our barrage begins from thousands and thousands, it must be from tens of thousands, of gun-barrels and mortars, a barrage that sounds as if the world were coming to an end … The gunners stand in their shirt-sleeves, with the sweat running down and dripping off them. Shell after shell is rammed into the breach, salvo after salvo is fired, and you don’t need to give fire orders any more, they’re in such good spirits …"

The German opening bombardment unfolded in 11 distinct stages and sub-stages, altogether lasting around five hours. These included, first, targeting communications and artillery batteries with high explosives and gas, then shifting to frontline trenches and secondary defenses with “registering” to confirm targeting, followed by howitzers raking the ground between the various British defensive lines to hit any soldiers who climbed out of the trenches to take shelter in shell holes (a defensive trick learned from the Germans). The howitzers then turned on enemy strongpoints, while field artillery hit the stretches of shell holes between the British trenches with more poison gas. Finally, all the German guns returned to targeting the British frontline defenses, laying down a wall of fire to create a “creeping barrage,” forcing the defenders to remain under shelter so the German storm trooper units and infantry could advance in relative safety.

The German spring offensive, World War I, 1918
Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Ordinary British and French soldiers on the receiving end of the German bombardment were understandably terrified by this volcanic onslaught. Unsophisticated British defensive tactics only increased the number of casualties, as around two-thirds of the British troops were deployed in frontline trenches, rather than further back in safer rear trenches, exposing them to the full brunt of the enemy barrage. The German guns also targeted British and French artillery with surprising accuracy, thanks to the new fireless “registering” techniques (above and below, British guns in action). Ivor Hansen, the British gunner, wrote in his diary:

"We felt that the whole German artillery was shooting directly at our Battery. Over the shells rained projectiles of all calibers, shrieking, screeching, whining, and moaning. Amid the hail of steel we could detect gas shells by their peculiar whine and sloppy bursting sound. This was the hottest bombardment I had ever experienced … Any moment we expected death, for the shells seemed to be making straight for us and as they screamed forward we crouched together against the side of the dug-out nearer the enemy."

Operation Michael, World War I, 1918
Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

However, the British troops held their frontline positions wherever possible, displaying remarkable bravery, according to Stanley Spencer, a British NCO:

"The enemy bombardment commenced at a little before 5 a.m. and before it was properly light. It consisted entirely of trench mortar bombs of all calibers as far as the front line was concerned, and at first was mainly gas rather than high explosive. It very soon reached a simply terrific intensity … compelling us to put on our gas respirators at once. Everyone felt sure that the great attack was coming at last, but there was no confusion and every man stood to his post and waited in readiness for whatever should happen next. As it became light a fairly thick white mist lay over No Man’s Land. In the trench itself the smoke and gas from the incessant deluge of trench mortar bombs, coupled with the condensation of moisture in the goggles of our respirators, made it impossible to see for more than a few feet ahead."

Back in the German trenches, the sound of thousands of guns firing in unison combined with the inferno of explosions and miasma of poison gas to create an otherworldly scene over the battlefield, according to Jünger:

"At our rear, the massive roaring and surging was still waxing, even though any intensification of the noise had seemed impossible. In front of us an impenetrable wall of smoke, dust, and gas had formed … Even the laws of nature appear to have been suspended. The air swam as on hot summer days, and its variable density caused fixed objects to appear to dance to and fro. Shadows streaked through the clouds. The noise now was a sort of absolute noise—you heard nothing at all. Only dimly were you aware that thousands of machine-guns behind you were slinging their leaden swarms into the blue air."

After five hours of furious shelling, the German storm troopers and infantry finally went “over the top” around 9:40 a.m. Despite all the orderly preparations, the waves of attackers soon became jumbled together amid the sheer momentum of their onslaught. Jünger described the weird combination of calm and chaos as they advanced:

"No man’s land was packed tight with attackers, advancing singly, in little groups or great masses towards the curtain of fire. They didn’t run or even take cover if the vast plume of an explosion rose between them. Ponderous, but unstoppable, they advanced on the enemy lines. It was as though nothing could hurt them any more. In the midst of these masses that had risen up, one was still alone; the units were all mixed up. I lost my men from sight; they had disappeared like a wave in the crashing surf."

As hoped, they found the enemy’s defensive positions totally obliterated in many places:

"We called out sobbing and stammering fragments of sentences to one another, and an impartial observer might have concluded that we were all ecstatically happy. The shredded wire entanglements provided no obstacle at all, and we cleared the first trench, barely recognizable as such, in a single bound. The wave of attackers danced like a row of ghosts through the white seething mists … There was no one here to oppose us."

German tank in Operation Michael, World War I, 1918
German Federal Archives, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

By 2 p.m. attackers from the German Second Army were swarming over the British Fifth Army’s trenches, encountering fierce resistance in places, but still carried forward by sheer momentum:

"A man next to me lobbed hand-grenades at the British as they ran. A steel helmet took off into the air like a spinning plate. It was all over in a minute. The British leaped out of their trenches, and fled away across the field. From up on the embankment, a wild pursuing fire set in. They were brought down in full flight, and, within seconds, the ground was littered with corpses … Our success had a magical effect. There was no question of leadership, or even of separate units, but there was only one direction: forwards! Each man ran forward for himself."

Meanwhile, German engineers worked frantically building roads and leveling terrain, enabling field artillery to move forward over the pockmarked battlefield and support renewed infantry assaults.

German troops towing a mortar, World War I, 1918
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Enemy penetrations all along the British line threatened to isolate and cut off small groups of defenders remaining in intact trenches, but they continued to hold out with amazing grit, fighting hand-to-hand around trench traverses. However, there was no question about the eventual outcome, as the Germans committed wave after wave of new troops. Spencer described growing alarm as the German tide surged around his unit, bringing up field guns and mortars to deliver punishing close-range bombardments (above, German troops towing a light mortar):

"Very rapid advances had been made by the enemy during the morning on our flanks and we were thus left in the most uncomfortable position, being fired at from almost every side at once. I was standing in a fire bay at about 4 p.m. when one of these shells burst on the parados … A great flash of flame shot across the trench over my shoulder, straight at the feet of the man on the fire step. He fell backwards into the bottom of the trench, as the man by me and I both staggered and rolled over under the concussion of the explosion. My face was pitted with grit and powder and one or two tiny shell splinters entered near the corner of my left eye, but otherwise I was unhurt. The man by my side was hit in the back and the one on the fire step had his left foot completely burnt off. When I could properly open my eyes and look round I found that the first man had gone, but the other one was lying in the trench looking in a dazed sort of way at the charred grey stump at his ankle where his boot and foot had been a minute before."

By the end of the first day British troops were withdrawing under heavy fire, as often as not without orders and with no way to alert divisional headquarters to their movements. Paul Maze, a French liaison officer with the British Army, remembered the confusion of the retreat on March 21 (below, a British gun crew retreating):

"All communication appeared to have been severed. Avoiding the road, I strode into vagueness to look for our “brown line” about 800 yards north of the village. The visibility was very bad. I stumbled forward, thinking of the seriousness of the situation, a feverish anxiety growing all the while in my mind … The ground was marked everywhere with fresh shell holes; the uproar rising from the line had become alarming. Shapeless figures were running through the fog past me … Then men were under no illusion as to what they were in for."

British retreat in Operation Michael, World War I
British government, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

SIGNS OF TROUBLE

Although the Germans had achieved a huge success by the standards of static trench warfare, there were already signs of trouble. Ominously, the advance was already very uneven, indicating that even with overwhelming force on their side, the battle was not going to plan.

While the German Second and Eighteenth Armies smashed through British and French defenses on the southern half of the battlefield with remarkable speed, to the north the German Seventeenth Army was stuck, held up by a determined British defense of the salient in front of Cambrai, recently the scene of a British surprise attack with tanks in November 1917. According to Ludendorff’s plan, the “Cambrai salient” had to be eliminated on the first day of the attack in order for the German heavy artillery to be transferred north for Operation Mars, the subsequent attack northwest, pivoting around Arras.

French gunners in World War I
Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Ludendorff had no choice but to give the Seventeenth Army more time to achieve its initial objectives, but the delay gave the British and French more time to assess the situation and begin to react—critical breathing room, even if it were just a day or two. Further, as the German Second and Eighteenth Armies surged forward further south it would eventually threaten to open gaps in the German line of attack, leaving them vulnerable to Allied counterattacks.

The Germans were also paying a terrible price for their extraordinary gains, as retreating British and French forces assumed new defensive positions and inflicted extremely heavy casualties before withdrawing again (above, a French gun in action). Jünger himself witnessed several gruesome deaths as they exchanged fire with retreating enemy soldiers from an old British trench on the morning of March 22:

"One man beside me from the 76th, a huge Herculean dockworker from Hamburg, fired off one shot after another, with a wild look on his face, not even thinking of cover, until he collapsed in a bloody heap. With the sound of a plank crashing down, a bullet had drilled through his forehead. He crumpled into a corner of the trench, half upright, with his head pressed against the trench wall. His blood poured on to the floor of the trench, as if tipped out of a bucket. His snore-like death-rattle resounded in lengthening intervals, and finally stopped altogether. I seized his rifle, and went on firing. At last there was a pause. Two men who had been just ahead of us tried to make it back over the top. One toppled into the trench with a shot in the head, the other, shot in the belly, could only crawl into it … The man with the wound in the belly, a very young lad, lay in amongst us, stretched out like a cat in the warm rays of the setting sun. He slipped into death with an almost childlike smile on his face."

Another German officer, Fritz Nagel, recalled endless lines of improvised ambulances filled with wounded headed for the rear as fresh reserve troops moved up:

"What almost made me sick was the traffic to the left of us coming back from the battle zone. It moved very slowly and I barely could stand the sight. Many of the vehicles were horse-drawn forage wagons and I believe they were put into service at the last moment when casualties began to exceed expectations. All of them were filled with severely wounded men lying motionless, pale and bloody looking. I had seen many wounded before, but not in such an awful parade, one vehicle after another without end. The sight shook me up and I became frightened. After a while I forced myself to look away."

RETREAT AND COLLAPSE

Despite the astronomical losses, the Germans retained a decisive advantage in manpower and artillery, and from March 22-27 the offensive ground remorselessly on, pulverizing Allied defenses and forcing retreat after retreat. In fact, over the next few days the Allies suffered one of the most stunning defeats of the war, with the collapse and virtual annihilation of the British Fifth Army (below, wounded British soldiers await transport).

Wounded soldiers in Bapaume, World War I
Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The Germans bagged thousands of British and French prisoners and 400 heavy guns in the first day of the offensive alone. Private Alfred Grosch, a British soldier taken prisoner on March 22, wrote of the sad scenes as French civilians commiserated with their erstwhile defenders in his diary:

"Relentlessly onward we go. Back, back, right clear of the battlefield, moving all night … What a crowd: hundreds, perhaps thousands, French and English—a long column stretches down the road and behind us … we go through a village, the inhabitants line the road with pails of water, we drink as we pass. The women wring their hands at the sight of us, and when they can pass us a piece of bread quickly, so that our guards cannot see the action. We got to Guise; the castle on the hill is visible some way off. We enter the town, which, though in German occupation, is still full of French inhabitants. They rush into the ranks, push tobacco, bread, and food into our hands. One woman braves the guards, and rushes to me with a can of hot coffee, then she is gone. The men throw their caps to those who are without. Tears are in all eyes."

Those who escaped death or capture also found themselves marching for days on end without rest during the retreat. Jack Martin, a British sapper, described chaotic scenes and looting as battered British forces fell back on March 23, 1918:

"We were met by a continuous stream of retiring troops, fatigued almost to the point of absolute exhaustion, staggering along hardly knowing where they were going. Hot, tired horses pulling guns of all calibers while, on the gun limbers, artillerymen, who had been firing their guns for three whole days and nights, slept a precarious slumber in the continual danger of being jolted in the road and being trampled by the team immediately behind. At the camp we heard that the canteen at Achiet-le-Grand had been abandoned … leaving the canteen to the mercy of the troops. In a very short time it was utterly ransacked and I daresay it held at least £2000 worth of stuff … some of our fellows brought back two cases of whisky and numerous boxes of biscuits and cigarettes. From the top of the rise near the camp we could see the bursting shells approaching nearer but we did not get the order to move until the shells were dropping in the camp."

British officers managed to prevent the retreat from turning into a rout, at least at first, by staging desperate rearguard defensive actions, digging in temporarily to allow other units to retreat in relatively good order. But by the third day of the German offensive things began to fall apart. Stanley Spencer, a British NCO, described losing contact with his men as they retreated under fire on March 24:

"Shell after shell screamed over us to crash amongst the houses and along the road beyond us; great clouds of rolling black smoke rose and drifted across the village, while at the same time low-flying enemy aeroplanes raced overhead and poured machine-gun bullets among the crowds of men. Orders were at once given to scatter across the fields and our Company melted away in all directions. I did not see them again that day."

Mixed up with another unit, Spencer took part in repeated withdrawals over the rest of the day, falling back again and again as German planes directed artillery fire on to them with merciless precision, while the roads were jammed with retreating heavy artillery—a rare sight in the war, indicating how serious the situation had become (below, a British heavy gun in retreat):

"We spread out as a thin outpost line to the southeast of Barastre and the men began to dig themselves in with their entrenching tools on a forward slope of short grass. There was no cover whatever and the enemy shelling began shortly … Soon afterwards we retired to some higher ground about a quarter of a mile farther back … We had been there barely 20 minutes when enemy aeroplanes came over and spotted us. A few minutes later field gun (3-inch) shells began to burst all round. Second Lieutenant Lynch was soon killed … Further orders came up to retire again and we trailed back across the open country by platoons at wide intervals … The road itself was simply choked with transport, so tanks and batteries of artillery were hurrying across country. To the north and east dense clouds of black smoke were drifting across the sky from burning stores that could not be removed. To the south near Le Transloy great sheets of flame shot up from a long line of huts steeped in petrol."

Haevy gun retreating, Operation Michael, World War I
Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

As Spencer’s account indicates, planes now played a crucial role in “combined arms” tactics, serving as aerial artillery spotters, bombing enemy positions and transportation hubs, and strafing columns of troops with machine guns. Although the Germans had achieved temporary air superiority, British fliers still managed to inflict considerable damage on the attackers, who were suffering their own logistical problems. Nagel, the German officer, recounted one attack:

"On March 24 we got into another incredible traffic jam … This time British planes came roaring in, four or five at a time, strafing without mercy. None of our fighters were in sight. We had to open up and fire as best we could right over the heads of men and horses only a few feet away. Nearby infantry let go with machine guns. With few interruptions these fights and attacks continued all day long. To the left of us was the usual procession of the Red Cross vehicles. While we worried about the danger of these constant attacks from the air, I wondered how a wounded man must have felt, completely helpless in those wagons while machine-gun bullets spattered all around."

The struggle for air supremacy played out above their heads in countless “dogfights,” some involving scores of planes. Rudolf Stark, a German pilot, left this impressionistic description of a spiraling dogfight with a British squadron in his diary on March 24 (below, a British plane after an accident during takeoff):

"Turn, turn, turn, high and low. Tracer bullets cleave the air. Machine guns rattle everywhere, engines roar, bracing-wires groan and howl in dives. We are flying a big merry-go-round, one behind the other, so that we cover one another’s tails. I see a Sopwith attack the Albatros in front of me and shoot at him sideways. He breaks away and goes into a turn to escape. Our turns grow narrower and narrower … My tracer bullets skim along the edge of his fuselage, but again and again he pulls himself out of my sights. At last I get on the mark—a hit—petrol squirts out of the machine and hangs in a long streamer of haze from its tail. The Englishman is hit and goes down in a spin. I have no time to follow him down, because I am attacked at once. Turns, turns, turns, turns. Everywhere the rattle of guns. The air is thick with the threads of tracers, which are torn by propellers and twisted into all sorts of shapes by propeller winds. Turns, turns, turns, turns. Another English formation joins the dogfight, which becomes fiercer than ever. Turns, turns, turns, turns. I am standing still in space, and the world is going round me in crazy circles. Then I turn, and the world stands still."

Damaged British plane, World War I
Australia War Memorial, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

THE PARIS GUN AND REFUGEES

Meanwhile, March 23, 1918 brought a new kind of terror to French civilians, as the Germans unleashed “Langer Max,” better known as the “Paris Gun” or “Big Bertha”—actually a collection of seven repurposed ultra-long-distance naval artillery pieces, supported by cables and capable of hitting targets up to 75 miles away. The advance of the German Eighteenth Army in the south enabled the Germans to build special rail spurs and circular concrete emplacements northeast of Paris, from which the gun dropped shells on the French capital.

Paris Gun, World War I
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Coming at the rate of about one every quarter-hour, the first shells shocked and mystified Parisians, who at first blamed very high altitude bombers or even enemy agents hiding in their midst. William Graves Sharp, the American ambassador to France, remembered the reaction to the first shells falling on Paris on March 23, 1918: “People were stupefied … it was stated that there was not the slightest sound made by them in passing through the air. They simply dropped from space like some huge meteorite, without its warning trail of light…”

Paris Gun shells, World War I
Australia War Memorial, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The Paris Guns had no real military impact, inflicting mostly symbolic damage. The worst incident occurred on March 29, 1918, Good Friday, when a shell caused the roof of the St-Gervais-et-St-Protais Church to collapse on the congregation, killing 91 churchgoers (below, damage to the church).

Paris church in ruins, World War I
Bibliotheque Nationale de France, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The long-distance shelling, striking defenseless people at random, certainly inspired fear and revulsion against German “barbarity,” but like aerial bombardment of civilian populations, it never succeeded in provoking mass panic and civil disorder, as hoped. Instead targeted civilians quickly grew acclimated to the periodic destruction, according to Marion Gregory, a volunteer interpreter working with American nurses in France, who soon adopted the blasé attitude of Parisians:

"It began at 7:30 in the morning and went on all day at intervals of 15 minutes, no one knowing what it was. We all thought for hours it was the long-expected daylight raid, and for the first time I went to the cellar; but an hour under ground, with a candle the only light, was enough for me, and I went up again to the apartment … The shops and public offices were all closed; and the Metro stopped running that day; but the next day when they learned the unbelievable news that they were fired on from the very front, the great people of Paris settled down once more to the normal things of life, paying no heed to the constant firing of “La Grosse Berthe”—she became a part of everyday life."

More serious from a military perspective were the crowds of refugees fleeing villages in the path of the German advance, who competed with retreating British and French troops for space on small, primitive roads. Many observers compared the exodus to the first days of the war, when Belgian and French peasant families fled the invaders for the first time, and now were forced to give up their homes again. Edward Lynch, an Australian soldier, described the pathetic scenes as they rushed to the front to reinforce the Allied line:

"Dozens of high-sided French carts come through the village lumbering on towards the rear, piled high with all manner of household effects and grandmothers or grandfathers jammed amongst the load. Hundreds of overladen wheelbarrows trundle through the village with poor, lonely old men and broken-hearted women shoving all their earthly possessions before them … And poor lost little kids seeking protection. Pinned inside one boy’s pocket is a crumpled piece of paper bearing the penciled address of a woman in Abbeville. Night, and ready to move forward at any minute … Away on the horizon we see the gun flashes and, here and there, the steady glow of a burning village."

Refugees in France, World War I
Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

 

MISSION CREEP

And still the onslaught continued in the south over the old Somme battlefield and beyond on March 25-27, as the British Fifth Army simply shattered and disintegrated under the mighty hammer blows of the German Eighteenth and Second Armies. Martin, the British sapper, described the continuing retreat amid freezing temperatures on March 25—a horrible ordeal for everyone, but especially so for the wounded:

"The opening of the barrage at dawn woke us and we found our blankets and heads covered with white frost … The traffic on the road was increasing every minute and soon it began to flow over into the fields on either side. Hundreds of wounded men were struggling to get back. All kind of wagons and limbers and civilian carts had been requisitioned to carry them back to hospital but the quantity of transport was insufficient; consequently, all those who could walk or even only hobble had to do so."

Spencer left a similar account of that fateful day:

"We had no line trenches or communication trenches and could not stir a foot from our shell holes except in the open; we had no more food and no reserve of ammunition; we had no supporting troops behind us and no artillery at all; and we had not even seen one of our own aeroplanes for days … Soon after 10 a.m. a runner got through from the right to say that the line had broken and the men were in full retreat … Still we hung on, though the barrage became heavier … Then the machine-gun barrage that swept over us seemed to double in intensity, so that we could scarcely hear each other shout above the drumming and chatter of the guns and the scream of the bullets. After two or three minutes of this deluge of fire … scores of the enemy sprang to their feet and came leaping down the hill towards us, some shooting as they came … That was the end. I saw no man hold up his hands in surrender but everyone turned and ran."

By March 26, as the remnants of the British Fifth Army streamed north (soon to be incorporated into the new Fourth Army) the Germans had finally succeeded in driving a wedge between the British Expeditionary Force to the north and the French Army to the south—bringing the Allies to the brink of total collapse. The British Third Army had lost contact with the French Sixth Army, and the route lay open for the Germans to seize Amiens, the central logistics hub of the Western Front.

But Ludendorff’s ambition and opportunism proved to be the downfall of Operation Michael. To the north the Seventeenth Army was still stuck, slogging slowly forward near Arras on the northern end of the offensive. As a result, Ludendorff eagerly threw his reserves behind the successful advance of the Eighteenth Army, even though its original mission had simply been protecting the German southern flank against French counterattacks. In other words, the main effort (by the Seventeenth Army) had failed, while a support operation (by the Eighteenth Army) had snowballed, in a classic example of “mission creep.” In the middle the Second Army, assigned the task of conquering Amiens, soon became overextended trying to support both the stalled Seventeenth Army to the north and the Eighteenth Army racing ahead in the south.

Gun line, World War I
Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Even worse, the German advance had outstripped their own supply lines in the south: by March 27, some of the lead German forces were up to 40 miles from their rail supply lines, leaving the transport of artillery ammunition—the lifeblood of the offensive—to horse-drawn wagons and scarce trucks. At the same time, the French were moving up two whole armies, the First and Third, to plug the gap with the British, and the Allies signaled their determination to continue the fight with the choice of the aggressive general Ferdinand Foch, a hero of the Miracle on the Marne, as supreme commander of all Allied forces (above, British guns).

Now, as the German offensive sputtered, Ludendorff made another desperate gamble: even though Operation Michael had fallen short of its original objectives, on March 28 he launched Operation Mars, the northern attack, in a long-shot bid to regain initiative.

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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