31/8/1918 Australian victory on the Somme, Foch prepares the next round of offensives #1918Live

The Germans are being pushed back in the Somme sector. Bapaume fell a few days ago but German troops are still holding out in the town of Péronne, where Marwitz, the local German commander, hopes to halt the Allied advance. The western approaches to Péronne run through marshy ground, with this whole area a death trap for Australian troops attempting to advance here, as the marshes can only be crossed on narrow duckboards, on which they are extremely vulnerable to German gunfire.

Monash, the Australian commander, decides against a direct assault on Péronne. Instead he attempts to outflank it from the north. The way here is barred by Mont St. Quentin. This strongly defended position ought to be impregnable, but somehow the Australians manage to storm it in the early hours of the morning. The way is now clear for them to take Péronne from behind, forcing the Germans to begin a retreat from their stronghold. Marwitz’s plan to hold the Allies here has come to naught.
Allied successes in the Somme are leaving German positions to the north exposed. They now begin to withdraw from the territory captured in the second phase of their spring offensives, signalling the final death of Ludendorff‘s pipe dream of a war-winning Flanders offensive.

The success of the recent battles is causing Foch‘s ambitions to grow. Initially the Allied generalissimo was thinking of just pushing the Germans back from key rail hubs like Amiens and Hazebrouck. Now he is more firmly thinking of launching a series of offensives that will definitively smash the enemy. While the British advance towards Cambrai, the French can attack in the Aisne. And what of the Americans, continuously arriving in ever greater numbers? Pershing, their commander, is insistent that they must operate as a single force and not be used as piecemeal reinforcements elsewhere. Foch now accedes to his wishes, proposing that the Americans firstly attack the enemy’s St. Mihiel salient and then, together with the French, attack in the Meuse-Argonne sector. Foch hopes that these battles will so shatter the Germans that they will be unable to continue resistance for long into 1919.

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Australian soldiers prepare to attack (The Western Front: Australians on the Western Front – Mont St Quentin and the 2nd Division AIF)

Capture of Mont Saint Quentin, by Fred Leist (Wikipedia: Battle of Mont Saint-Quentin)

30/8/1918 Lenin shot #1918Live

Bolshevik rule in Russia rests on shaky foundations. In Siberia the party’s writ is challenged by the Komuch government in Samara, whose Czechoslovak allies are a powerful military force. Meanwhile in southern Russia, Denikin has established himself in Novorossiisk in the Kuban region, from where his White Army represents a potent threat to Bolshevik power. But surely the Bolsheviks are secure in Moscow and Petrograd, the heartlands of the revolution?

Lenin certainly thinks so when he heads off today to urge some Moscow factory workers to remain unrelenting in their defence of the revolution. While there has been some industrial unrest in the big cities, the Bolsheviks have successfully faced it down and now face a more pliant workforce. The uprising by their erstwhile allies, the Left SRs, has been crushed. So Lenin should have nothing to worry about.

News of the assassination of Moisei Uritsky, Cheka commander in Petrograd, appears not to have engendered any caution on the part of the Bolshevik leader. Lenin’s nonchalance however proves almost fatal when, as he leaves the factory, a woman emerges from the crowd and produces a pistol. She fires three times at the Bolshevik and then attempts to escape.

Lenin is gravely hurt; his comrades fear that his death may be imminent. His would-be assassin meanwhile is apprehended and interrogated by the Cheka. She is Fanny Kaplan, a Socialist Revolutionary, who declares to her captors that she shot Lenin because he has betrayed the Revolution.

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The attempted assassination, by Vladimir Pchelin (Wikipedia: Fanny Kaplan)

29/8/1918 Bapaume falls to the Allies #1918Live

British and Commonwealth soldiers are forcing the Germans back across the 1916 Somme battlefield, with French troops also applying pressure on the enemy. Albert and Roye have already been liberated while the Germans are also being pressed on the road to Cambrai. And today troops from New Zealand capture the town of Bapaume (or what is left of it).

Bapaume is of no great strategic importance but it has a symbolic value. It was one of the objectives on the first day of the Somme in 1916, but by the end of that long battle it remained in German hands. The Germans voluntarily surrendered it in 1917, when they withdrew to the Hindenburg Line, and then recaptured it during the first phase of their offensives in March. That the Allies have now managed to take Bapaume in battle is yet another sign of how the sun is now starting to set on German hopes of avoiding defeat.</a

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New Zealanders in Bapaume and the town after its liberation (Wikipedia: Battle of Bapaume)

21/8/1918 Britain attacks on the Somme as Haig begins to scent victory

The Allies are piling the pressure on the Germans, hoping to prevent them from consolidating a strong defensive line. The French have been attacking in the Aisne sector, under the command of Mangin, and have dealt another hammer-blow to the enemy. Now it is the turn of the British and their Commonwealth Allies. They attack today over the site of the 1916 Somme battle, once again attacking through fog behind a creeping barrage, supported by tanks. Progress is not quite so spectacular as at Amiens: German resistance seems a bit more stiff while the thick fog leads to confusion as advancing units get lost. Nevertheless, Allied commanders are pleased enough with the progress.

Much of the Allied success is coming from improved tactics on the battlefield. They have greatly improved their artillery tactics, with creeping barrages more closely matching the pace of the advancing troops. Tanks too are being more effectively used while Allied air superiority is allowing them to attack the Germans well behind the front. The element of surprise is also being used to great effect; in the days before the battle, the Allies masked the sound of tanks moving up to the front by flying aircraft over the German lines and then avoided the long preliminary bombardments of yore that served to give the enemy advance notice that an attack was imminent.

Haig‘s confidence was shaken by the German offensives. Now the British commander is recovering some of his former confidence. He is starting to think that the war could perhaps be ended this year. But he is no longer thinking of a spectacular victory in a single breakthrough battle of the kind he dreamed of at the Somme in 1916 or Passchendaele last year. Haig is thinking that the Germans can be broken in a series of battles like those the Allies have been waging since the Marne counter-attack: if the Allies can maintain the pressure then victory will be won.

Men against tanks

Tanks were a new feature of fighting in the First World War, first deployed by Britain at the Somme in 1916. German commanders were initially sceptical of the armoured vehicles’ potential. Tank building was not prioritised by the Germans, with only a small number of the monstrous A7V tanks being fielded by them. While terrifying in appearance, the A7V had the fundamental problem of not being very good at crossing terrain that had been ploughed up by artillery, which greatly limited its effectiveness on Western Front battlefields.

As the war went on the Allies began to use tanks more and more in their offensives, with Cambrai first showing how effective tanks could be when combined with infantry and well targeted artillery. Tanks played an important part in the Allied counter-offensives at the Marne and Amiens.

The increasing use by the Allies of tanks forced the Germans to develop tactics against the metal monsters. While artillery was the most effective weapon against tanks, infantrymen sometimes found themselves facing them on their own. As can be imagined, this could be a rather terrifying encounter.

The illustration shows German soldiers battling against two British tanks. Under the direction of their commander, the machine-gunners are opening fire, perhaps as a diversion or perhaps they are armed with high-velocity bullets that can penetrate weak points in a tank’s armour. To the commander’s left, three men armed with cluster grenades are preparing to move forward. When thrown onto the top of a tank, the cluster grenades had some chance of penetrating its armour; they could also be used to immobilise a tank by breaking its tracks.

The weight of cluster grenades meant that they could not be thrown a great distance, which required soldiers to move as close to their targets as possible. That German troops were still knocking tanks out with them at Amiens suggests that the German army was not yet ready to throw in the towel in August 1918.

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German anti-tank squad (Weapons and Warfare: Tanks at Amiens 1918 I)

14/8/1918 Hindenburg and Ludendorff block peace talks

The disaster at Amiens has forced the Germans to take stock. Yesterday Ludendorff and Hindenburg, the army’s chief of staff, met with senior German politicians; Hindenburg remained confident but Ludendorff was pessimistic. Today the generals brief the Kaiser, in the company of Chancellor Hertling and Hintze, the foreign minister. Ludendorff now recovers his poise somewhat, admitting a reverse on the battlefield but blaming it on agitations by socialists and malcontents in Germany. The generals insist that German forces are still well-placed to fight a successful defensive war on the Western Front, hoping that the Allies will just give up and let Germany keep Belgium, Alsace-Lorraine and some territory captured from France. The Kaiser and Hintze suggest some kind of peace overture, but Hindenburg and Ludendorff reject this as an admission of weakness. The German army will have to first win an impressive military victory so that Germany can enter peace talks from a position of strength.

The Kaiser is notionally Germany’s supreme warlord but for now he defers to the generals. Despite the recent defeats, there will be no serious attempt to seek an end to the war.

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Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff (in 1916) (Wikipedia: the Hindenburg Programme)

11/8/1918 Further Allied gains at Amiens

The Allied offensive at Amiens has smashed the Germans. Australian and Canadian troops have made unprecedented gains, as have supporting British and French forces. The battle has forced the Germans onto the back foot, obliging Ludendorff to abandon plans for another offensive of his own. The initiative on the Western Front has now definitively passed to the Allies.

The Allied advance has also brought relief to Paris capital from the Germans’ Paris Gun, which had been shelling the French capital from territory captured in their earlier offensives. Allied progress now means that the Paris Gun within range of British and French artillery, forcing it to discontinue its operations.

After the first day of the battle Allied progress begins to slow. German resistance begins to stiffen as reinforcements are rushed to the battle, while the Allied tank force weakens due to breakdowns and tanks being knocked out be enemy action. At the Somme and Passchendaele, Haig continued to order attacks long after it should have been clear that no breakthrough was going to be achieved; however the Haig of 1918 appears to be a changed man, as he now heeds calls from Monash and Currie, the Australian and Canadian commanders, for a halt to the offensive. Foch is pressing for further attacks but Haig agrees to pause operations until the tanks are ready for action again. The French separately halt their attacks, after capturing Montdidier yesterday.

Losses in this round of fighting have been considerable, with the Allies suffering some 44,000 casualties. At 75,000, German losses however are much greater, with some 50,000 of the Germans having been captured.

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map (Weapons and Warfare: Tanks at Amiens 1918)

German prisoners captured on the 8th of August (Wales at War: Amiens, 8th – 12th August 1918)