31/5/1918 A new French tank

The German offensive in the Chemin des Dames sector has made astonishing gains. Soissons has fallen and the stormtroopers have now reached the Marne, bringing them closer to Paris than they have been since the 1914 battle there. Some 45,000 enemy prisoners have been captured, together with 400 guns. But the German advance is starting to slow, for the same reasons that previous offensives in the Somme and Flanders also lost momentum: the German assault troops are now exhausted and their ranks depleted by the heavy fighting, while the Allies have rushed reinforcements in to stop the Teutonic tide.

An attempt to capture Rheims today is repulsed. Other German troops are attempting to exploit gains near Soissons when they find themselves up against a new type of French tank. Previous models of French tank have been heavily armed and armoured but prone to getting stuck in muddy ground. These new Renault FT vehicles are light and far more mobile. They feature a number of design innovations, including a gun mounted in a revolving turret, separate compartments for crew and engine and a new engine design that makes them less prone to stalling in rough ground. An attack by some 30 of these vehicles, supported by heavier French tanks, successfully breaks up the German advance.

Elsewhere the Germans continue to press forward, but the appearance of the French tanks is unnerving. Germany has failed to actively embrace the new tank revolution. German soldiers start to feel that they are being forced into a battle between flesh and steel.

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Renault FT tanks (BBC Future: the WWI tank that helped change warfare forever)

diagram (Wired: This puny French vehicle was the first great tank)

28/5/1918 Cantigny: US troops have their baptism of fire

Ludendorff‘s goal in the spring offensives is to defeat the Allies before US troops arrive in sufficient numbers to tip the balance in their favour. By now there are nearly 650,000 Americans in France but their combat ability remains largely untested. Some on the Allied side fear that, unlike the battle-hardened troops of the French and British, the Americans will quail at their first experience of real fighting. Many of the Germans also cling to this belief.

Today US troops receive their first serious experience of combat. The village of Cantigny lies on high ground captured by the Germans during Operation Michael, the first phase of the spring offensive. From here the Germans are able to observe Allied lines beyond. Now US troops attack, supported by French tanks. They overrun the German positions and then hold the village in the face of determined counter-attacks.
Cantigny is a small battle with both sides suffering only modest casualties. However it shows the French and British (and also the Germans) that the Americans are ready for combat. This is bad news for Ludendorff: time is beginning to run out for him. German victory must be achieved soon or defeat will be inevitable.

image sources (Dinge & Goete – May 28, 1918 : U.S. Troops score victory at Cantigny)

28/5/1918 Hubert Rees meets the Kaiser

The Allies are reeling from Germany’s Blücher-Yorck offensive in the Aisne sector. Most of the defending troops are French but British troops are also present, veterans of the first and second German offensives who had been sent to this previously quiet sector for a rest. Although French commander Pétain had suspected that the Germans might attack here, the preparations of Duchêne, the local commander, were inadequate and the German gains since yesterday have been unprecedented.

As the Germans advance they round up vast numbers of Allied prisoners. The Germans are moving forward so quickly that even senior officers are finding themselves being captured. One of these is Brigadier-General Hubert Rees, who had fought as a junior officer in the First Battle of the Aisne and at Ypres in 1914 before rising through the ranks. After falling into the hands of the enemy, Rees is brought to meet what he assumes will be a senior German officer but instead finds himself face to face with the Kaiser. The German Emperor is visiting the Crown Prince, the local German commander, and is pleased to meet a captured enemy general. He is also amused to learn that Rees, like Lloyd George, is Welsh.

Ludendorff, meanwhile, is pleased with the progress of the battle. It was meant to be a diversion, drawing Allied attention away from Flanders, where he planned to launch Operation Hagen, which would drive the British into the sea. But now Hagen has been postponed. Ludendorff is reinforcing Blücher-Yorck, hoping that it will provoke the collapse of the Allies.

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Kaiser Wilhelm II and Brigadier-General Hubert Rees (BBC)

27/5/1918 Blücher-Yorck: German stormtroopers smash the French #1918Live

The first two phases of Ludendorff‘s spring offensives (codenamed Michael and Georgette) saw the Germans make considerable initial gains against the British only for momentum to be lost as reinforcements, particularly French reinforcements, were rushed in to aid the defenders. This has engendered a certain complacency on the part of the French, a feeling that they do not have too much to fear from the German stormtroopers.

That complacency is shattered today when the Germans unleash their Blücher-Yorck offensive against the mainly French defenders of the Aisne river in the Chemin des Dames sector. The Allies had not expected an attack here on what had until now been a quiet sector (so much so that some battered British units have been sent to the Aisne to recuperate) and the German juggernaut takes them by surprise. First German guns stun the defenders with a bombardment of unprecedented scale, then the stormtroopers move forward, as usual bypassing any pockets of strong resistance in order to advance as far as possible.

Duchêne, the French commander in the sector, had concentrated his men at the front line rather than constructing a defence in depth. His aim was to prevent the loss of any of the gains of the disastrous Nivelle Offensive last year. But placing the men so far forward means that they are easily overwhelmed by the German assault. The Allied line collapses and the Germans make their greatest gains of the offensives so far.

Ludendorff had intended the Chemin des Dames attack to be a feint, drawing Allied reinforcements here before he launches his final war-winning assault on the British in Flanders. But, ever the opportunist, he now decides to delay the Flanders offensive and reinforce the victorious stormtroopers in the Chemin des Dames. Perhaps this is where the Allied armies will be decisively defeated.

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German stormtroopers (Commonwealth War Graves Commission: Operation Blücher-Yorck)

map (Ossett – the history of a Yorkshire town: Private Charles Henry Derry)

26/5/1918 Georgia exits the Transcaucasian Federation #1918Live

Last month a new country joined the family of nations: the Transcaucasian Democratic Federal Republic, uniting Georgians, Azeris and Armenians in a federal union, together with members of other smaller ethnic groups. Today, barely a month after its formation, the Federal Republic begins to disintegrate.

The odds were stacked against the federation from the start, with internal ethnic divisions exerting a strong centrifugal force. More immediately threatening is the continued advance into the Caucasus of the Turkish army, with Enver Pasha determined to restore Turkish prestige by re-absorbing long-lost territories back into the Ottoman Empire. Georgian leaders fear that the federation is too weak and internally divided to resist the Turks, so now they declare independence. A German force under Kressenstein has already arrived in Tbilisi. The Germans declare Georgia to be under their protection, preventing the Turks from overrunning this new state.

With Georgia gone, the Transcaucasian Democratic Federal Republic is effectively dead. Mutual hostility between the Azeris and Armenians mean that they will not be able to peacefully coexist in a single federation. It cannot be more than a few days before the federation is formally dissolved.

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Meeting today of Georgia’s National Council (Wikipedia: Democratic Republic of Georgia)

25/5/1918 Trotsky orders the Czechoslovak Legion’s suppression #1918Live

Disaffected Czechs and Slovaks captured from the Austro-Hungarians were recruited into a Czechoslovak Legion to fight alongside the Russians against the Central Powers. The Bolsheviks had agreed to transport the Legion by rail to Vladivostok, from where they would be shipped to Europe to continue their war. However clashes between the Czechoslovaks and the Bolsheviks have seen members of the Legion take over the town of Chelyabinsk, cutting the Trans-Siberian Railway.

Now Trotsky, commander of the Red Army, decides that he has had enough of these troublesome Czechoslovaks. Repudiating the transit agreement, he telegrams Soviets across Siberia, ordering them to suppress the Legion. “Every armed Czech found on the railway is to shot on the spot!”, he demands.

The Czechoslovaks are a disciplined and well-armed fighting force, while the various Soviets still have only Red Guard militia units at their disposal. Trotsky may perhaps have bitten off more than he can chew, initiating an unnecessary war in Siberia that his men will not easily win.

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Czechoslovak legionnaires (SovietJournal: The Czech Legion)

Leon Trotsky (Wikipedia)

23/5/1918 The former Tsar and Tsarina are joined in Ekaterinburg by their children #1918Live

The former Tsar and Tsarina are being held in Ekaterinburg in the House of Special Designation. The regime here is far stricter than the prisoners have been used to. The house is sealed off from the outside world, surrounded by a high wall and the windows painted over to prevent any attempt at signalling to royalist sympathisers. The guards are surly and ill-mannered, accompanying the inmates to the lavatory and covering the house’s walls with obscene slogans. For most of the day the prisoners are confined to their room. To pass the time, the Tsar starts reading Tolstoy’s War & Peace, which he had not previously found time for.

Today at least there is some good news for the former royal couple, as their son Alexei and four daughters Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia are brought to Ekaterinburg and incarcerated with their parents. Now at least the family is together again.

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The Royal Family in happier times (Wikipedia)

21/5/1918 Ludendorff’s gaze turns to India #1918Live

Ludendorff is preparing a diversionary offensive against the French in the Chemin des Dames sector, after which he plans to attack the British in Flanders. He hopes that this will see the British driven into the sea and the French forced to make peace. But he is concerned that the destruction of their army in France and Belgium may not be enough to force the British to agree to peace terms. With their naval dominance they will be able to rest secure in their homeland and continue to strangle German trade.

How to force Britain’s surrender? Ludendorff thinks he has the answer. Today he writes to Hans von Seeckt, German chief of staff of the Turkish army. Outlining his concerns, he reveals to Seeckt his solution: Britain will have to make peace if threatened in India. Accordingly Seeckt is to prepare the Turkish army for an overland march to attack the jewel in Britain’s imperial crown.

Ludendorff takes for granted that the Turks will gladly allow their army to be used for this grandiose adventure.

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Erich Ludendorff (The Soldier’s Burden – Die Grosse Schlacht in Frankreich: Events leading up to the 21st of March 1918)

Hans von Seeckt (Wikipedia)

19/5/1918 Gervais Lufbery’s fatal fall #1918Live

In 1916, before the USA entered the war, the Lafayette Escadrille of fighter pilots was formed by American volunteers to assist the French. Most of the Americans were new to flying but one who was not was Gervais Lufbery, a Franco-American who had previously worked as an aircraft mechanic before training to become a pilot. Lufbery proved to be a gifted pilot and soon achieved the 5 victories that qualified him as an ace. When the USA entered the war Lufbery transferred to the American air force, training new pilots in combat techniques but continuing to fly missions himself, achieving some 17 victories, mostly while flying with the Lafayette Escadrille.

Today Lufbery unfortunately meets his end. After intercepting a German reconnaissance aircraft near Nancy in France his own aeroplane flips over and he falls out, his seatbelt apparently unfastened. The fall proves fatal.

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Gervais Raoul Lufbery (Wikipedia)

19/5/1918 The last Gotha bombing raid on London #1918Live

Germany has followed its Zeppelin bombing raids on Britain with Operation Türkenkreuz, a series of attacks by giant Gotha aeroplanes. The Gotha raids have been more destructive than the Zeppelin attacks and have forced the British to deploy fighters in south east England that would otherwise be in place on the Western Front. But the bombing raids have taken their toll on the Germans too, with many of the Gothas shot down by enemy fighters or crash-landing on their return home (especially when missions are undertaken at night to avoid the British fighters). Today, after a terror bombing raid on London that killed some 49 people, German commanders decide that the strategic bombing campaign is not worth the resources that are being put into it. There will be no more bombing raids on London; instead the Gothas will be redeployed to attack targets behind enemy lines on the Western Front.

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Gotha bombers (Pinturas aviación Gran Guerra 1914-1918: Great London air raid scare (Tumblr))