One hundred year ago, the Germans were still on the offensive on the Western Front. I understood why they were confident of victory in spring 1918, but always felt that the summer offensives were a bloody waste.
Early in 1918, the German Army attacked the Western Front with vigour. Tremendous gains were made; in late March, early April, the were almost able to break the Front in two. British and French soldiers managed, just, to hold the line east of Amiens. This was a tribute to the soldiers involved.
There was another factor. The Allies were better supplied. The Germans had to bring everything – ammunition, food, even water - and evacuate their wounded over many kilometres of trampled, rutted and bloodstained ground. The Allied defenders were bringing their supplies over a few kilometres of fresh fields.
Both side depended on 60 cm gauge field railways using portable or highly versatile track. In the case of the French, this was a development of artillerie 88, the system that was first adopted in 1888, and was informally known as the système Péchot in honour of Prosper Péchot its original designer. The Germans had their Feldbahn system, the British, Canadians and ANZACs had developed the War Department Light Railways (WDLR). The American Expeditionary Force (AEF) had their Department of Light Railways. When they retreated towards Amiens, WDLR operators destroyed the material they could not take to stop it from falling into enemy hands.
Although such railways were versatile, they were more easily laid over fresh ground – undisturbed fields and quiet country lanes.
|German prefabricated track came in a range of lengths. As can be sen, it could be laid quickly, but not on extremely rough ground. Track photographed at Apedale, Staffs. Courtesy MD Wright|
The Germans continued their offensives into the summer, trying one section of the Front after another until what had been a relatively smooth frontier became a bulging line of excrescences where territory had been gained at terrible cost. Yet in July 1918, General Ludendorf planned yet another attack. In German this was known as Friedensturm which we might translate as ‘auspicious storm’.
There was logic to the plan. The French still depended on places fortes – strategic towns which were heavily defended. One of these, Reims, was almost surrounded. The Germans would smash the enclave, cross the Marne and encircle Paris. The American Expeditionary Force (AEF) building up south-east of Verdun - most celebrated of the places fortes - would threaten the German flank. They would therefore have to be neutralised.
It was a good plan with similarities to the offensive of 1914. The Germans had developed new arms. As well as artillery and Storm Troopers, armed with flame-throwers, the Germans had started to deploy tanks. Therefore the optimists in German High Command thought that this time would be more successful than the last.
At dawn on August 15th, the people of Paris heard the enemy guns. The threat was not far off.
Unfortunately for the Germans, they had lost the element of surprise. A week earlier, rumours of such an attack, emanating from Alsace, reached the French General Staff. More specific information was to reach them on the night of the 14th. That very evening, some prisoners gave away the time and place of the German attack. This was not much notice, but the French had just enough time to prepare their own surprise. Most of the Front was evacuated and troops moved back to the second and third line of trenches so that the initial bombardment hurt no-one. A few sturdy volunteers had dug themselves in. Equipped with machine-guns, they gave the Germans the impression that the line of trenches was manned. As the Storm-troopers moved forward towards the second line, they were hit by a terrific bombardment. They took shelter in refuges – old farm buildings – many of which had been booby trapped. The second and third line of trenches had become the new Front and it was almost impossible to break through. The total death toll for both sides was 45,000.
The Germans had slightly more success on their left flank and actually crossed the Marne having gained 75 square kilometres of territory. All they had really gained was a new salient, pressed on three sides by the Allies, broken ground, and hard to supply – all they had was one railway. By July 19th, they retreated beyond the Marne, leaving valuable equipment, and Paris was safe.
|Late in July 1917, a French tank tows away a German gun, abandoned as they retreated. PIcture from 'Illustration' magazine courtesy MD Wright|
Why did the attack fail?
One good reason was that the French were learning how to deal with storm-troopers, as we have seen above. Another was the AEF on their east flank. As mentioned in previous blogs, the AEThough the AEF started arriving in France in 1917, their generals had, for the most part kept them back from battle until summer 1918. When faced with fresh armies of fine strapping men, full of the wheat and beef of the US prairies, German soldiers felt more than somewhat discouraged. US soldiers were formidable fighters.
Another reason was given by my dear old Granny who experienced the First World War. ‘The spring offensives of 1918’ she would say, ‘were a big mistake. When the Germans advanced, they saw how well supplied we were. This disheartened them’
She had a point. The Germans had been told by their Government and media that submarine warfare had successfully cut off supplies. The British were starving. The French, having lost territory, were in not much better shape. If things were bad for the Central Powers, they were even worse for the Allies.
|This detail from the above picture shows the soldiers marching over a 60cm railway. As they were the same gauge, both sides made use of captured rail. From Illustration magazine courtesy MD Wright|
The Spring Offensives gave the lie to these optimistic claims. Time and again, when the Germans occupied enemy trenches, they found supplies aplenty. Admittedly, the food was very dull. Dear old Granny could still remember the tins of ‘Maconochie’, containing tasteless stew and staple diet of the British Army. Also part of the ration was plum and apple jam – usually ‘spooned’ out of the tin with a bayonet, tasteless, perhaps, but full of calories.
The ordinary German soldier realised that he was being fed, not with proper food but with propaganda. The Allies were not starving. One comment about the German diet in 1918 says it all. They gave the world the word ersatz which we still use to describe fake and substitute food.
This may explain why the German prisoners started co-operating. Up until 1918, German military intelligence had been, like so much else, superior to that of the Allies. They could obtain information from prisoners without using undue pressure. The Allies, especially the British, were not so successful. By summer 1918, the soldiers who were captured may not have been quite as discreet as they had been earlier in the war. This might explain why vague Intelligence was leaked to the French from the Alsace area, and why the vital Intelligence was gathered on the night of July 14th.
Ordinary Germans knew the game was up. Their superiors, who ought to have known better, were prolonging the agony. What a pity that the slaughter went on until November 1918.