29/9/1918 Germany’s “Revolution from Above”

Germany’s position is unravelling. The Allies are pressing hard on the Western Front while its allies are being picked off: Bulgaria has thrown in the towel, Turkey is being battered in the Middle East and Austria-Hungary looks like it might be on the brink of disintegration. Ludendorff has come to the conclusion that an armistice must be secured at once before the situation deteriorates further. Now he and Hindenburg meet with Hintze, the foreign minister, and demand an immediate request to the Allies for an armistice.

Hintze however fears the political consequences of an armistice request. The German public have largely been shielded from the facts of the disastrous situation at the front and are still under the impression that victory is within Germany’s grasp. A sudden revelation of the true situation could lead to an explosion of anger against the regime. To prevent a domestic crisis, Hintze proposes that the German government be reformed by bringing in parties from across the political spectrum, in order to spread the responsibility for defeat. This “revolution from above” might just prevent a revolution from below.

Ludendorff and Hintze’s case is put to the Kaiser. He agrees to the government’s reformation and the subsequent request to Wilson for an armistice on the basis of his Fourteen Points. Then they all go for lunch.

29/9/1918 St. Quentin Canal: piercing the Hindenburg Line

While the Americans struggle in the Argonne their Allies make gains elsewhere. In Flanders the Belgians have recovered Dixmude while the British have recaptured Messines Ridge; the German-held coast of Belgium now looks like it might soon be wrested from their hands. Further to the south, the Canadian forces that crossed the Canal du Nord are now threatening German-held Cambrai.

Now the next of Foch‘s rolling attacks on the Germans begins, a British-led attack against German positions on the St. Quentin Canal, near to the old 1916 Somme battlefield. No one expects this to be an easy battle as the attack here is against the feared Hindenburg Line itself.

By now the norm for attacks has been to precede them with a short but intense bombardment, designed to stun the defenders without giving their commanders enough time to prepare reserves to meet the assault. At the St. Quentin Canal the British try another tack. In the fighting at Amiens, a map of German defensive positions here was captured. For the last few days the British have been subjecting these to an accurate and devastating bombardment.

When the infantry finally attack, progress is not spectacular. US troops spearhead an assault on the left but suffer heavy casualties and fail to break through. However British troops making what was meant to be a diversionary attack achieve a stunning success. Attacking in fog across the canal (with men given life jackets so they can swim across in full military gear), they make inroads into the German position and crucially succeed in capturing intact a bridge across the canal at Riqueval.

At the end of the day both sides have suffered great numbers of casualties. German resistance here is resolute, with none of the collapses in morale that have been seen elsewhere. To many soldiers on the Allied side this day of tough fighting does not feel like it has ended in victory, but the first breach has been made in the Hindenburg Line.

29/9/1918 Deadlock in the Argonne

The US offensive in the Argonne has degenerated into a series of plodding attritional battles. The Americans have made gains, advancing up to 7 miles in places, but they have suffered terrible casualties in doing so (up to 45,000 since the start of the battle three days ago). No one can doubt the bravery of the Americans but to some observers it seems as though they are fighting this battle with the tactics their French and British allies abandoned after the carnage of 1916 and 1917. With the Germans in the Argonne now being reinforced and even staging counterattacks, Pershing swallows his pride and orders a temporary halt to the offensive.

The roads are poor behind the American lines. The logistical demands of keeping the troops supplied while evacuating the wounded and relieving battered frontline units have led to chaotic traffic jams. When Clemenceau, the French prime minister, arrives today to visit the front he is unable to reach it, such is the congestion on the roads. Clemenceau is shocked by the disorder he witnesses, going so far as to mutter to Foch that he might have to petition Wilson to have Pershing replaced. This is perhaps unfair, as Pershing did not choose to fight in this sector and is only doing so at Foch’s insistence, but it illustrates a sense (or prejudice) on the part of the British and French that their American allies are not bringing much to the fighting beyond numbers and dumb muscle-power.

29/9/1918 Bulgaria throws in the towel

Bulgaria has been gripped by war weariness for some time now. It joined the war to avenge its defeat by Serbia in the Second Balkan War of 1913 and its leaders were initially pleased to conquer Macedonia in 1915. If the war had come to an end then Bulgarians would have been happy but instead it has dragged on, with the country now suffering food shortages and other privations. Bulgarians increasingly came to feel that they are being subordinated to German interests and are enduring great hardships to benefit others, a point rammed home by the lack of attention paid to Bulgarian interests when Germany made peace with Russia and Romania.

The Vardar offensive in the southern Balkans shattered Bulgarian resistance there. The Germans declined to send any troops to the aid of their Balkan ally, citing the primacy of the Western Front. Austria-Hungary is experiencing its own travails and is also unable to help the Bulgarians. Allied troops have crossed the Bulgarian border and their advance appearing to be unstoppable. Meanwhile disorder is rife within the country as mutinous soldiers demand an end to the war. Fearing total defeat and revolution, Bulgaria’s leaders now accept the inevitable and agree an armistice with the Allies.
Bulgaria’s defeat is a disaster for Germany and Turkey, as it severs the only land link between the two powers. It also leaves Constantinople vulnerable to attack by the Allied armies in the Balkans. Moreover Austria-Hungary is now vulnerable to an assault from the south by the Allies (including resurgent Serbian forces seeking vengeance for their country’s occupation). Bulgaria’s fall may well mean that the end for Germany’s other allies is not far off.

image sources:

map (Wikipedia: Liberation of Serbia, Albania and Montenegro (1918))

Bulgarian delegates at the armistice talks: Ivan Lukov, Andrey Lyapchev and Simeon Radev (Wikipedia: Armistice of Salonica)

[interlude] The Dublin Festival of History

The Dublin Festival of History is taking place at the moment and includes a number of Great War related events. If you are in the vicinity of Dublin then you might be interested in some of these events. All are free and unless otherwise stated do not need to be pre-booked.

29/9/2018 1.00 pm to 4.30 pm, Pearse St Library
The Sports of War : the impact of the First World War on sport in Ireland (seminar, in association with Sports History Ireland)

1/10/2018 Kevin Street Library (booking required)
A Missing History? Tracing the objects and images of the Irish women’s suffrage campaign with Donna Gilligan

4/10/2018 2.00 pm, Charleville Mall Library (booking required)
Sorting Letters on the Sea: the RMS Leinster tragedy of 1918 with Stephen Ferguson

4/10/2018 6.30 pm; Cabra Library (booking required)
Gaelic Sunday (with Donal Fallon)
I previously mentioned Gaelic Sunday here

2/10/2018 6.30 pm; Richmond Barracks (booking required)
The ‘Verdun’ Project 1918 & 2018: the ‘reconstructional bake’ of a Jacob’s Army biscuit with Wendy Williams, Maeve Casserly and Darren Harris

2/10/2018 7.00 pm; National Library of Ireland
The First World War and The Armistice with Jennifer Wellington

3/10/2018 11.00 am Richmond Barracks (booking required)
The War Poets with Jane Clarke

4/10/2018 6.30 pm Kevin Street Library
A Changing Society: Why 1918 matters – an Irish History talk with Maeve Casserly

6/10/2018 11.00 am Dublin Castle, Printworks
Dublin’s Great Wars: The First World War, the Easter Rising and the Irish Revolution with Richard S. Grayson

6/10/2018 4.15 pm Dublin Castle, Printworks
Sing for Suffrage with Ríona Sally Hartman (musical event marking the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in Ireland)

7/10/2018 1.00 pm Dublin Castle, Printworks
The Atlas of the Irish Revolution with Donal O Drisceoil, Helene O’Keeffe and John Borgonovo

7/10/2018 5.00 pm Dublin Castle, Printworks
The Race to Save the Romanovs with Helen Rappaport

11/10/2018 6.30 pm Kevin Street Library
A Changing Society: Women at work in World War One – an Irish History talk with Maeve Casserly

18/10/2018 6.30 pm Kevin Street Library
A Changing Society: “ Mutton doesn’t pickle well”, food, fuel and making do during the Great War – an Irish History talk with Maeve Casserly

running until 29/10/2018 City Hall
‘Doing Their Bit’: Irish Women and the First World War (exhibition)

The festival includes many other interesting events being run at the festival, unrelated to the First World War or the upheavals that surrounded it. More details on the Festival of History’s website.

28/9/1918 Ludendorff cracks and demands an immediate armistice

The Germans are being hard-pressed in the Argonne, in front of Cambrai and now in Flanders, with heavy artillery fire suggesting that an attack on the St. Quentin Canal and the Hindenburg Line itself is imminent. At the German army headquarters in Spa, Ludendorff is frantically trying to manage his army’s crisis. Some generals give broad instructions to their subordinates and leave them to proceed as they see fit, but not Ludendorff, who spends his time continuously telephoning his army commanders, looking for updates on their situation and issuing new orders. Delegation seems impossible to him and he has taken on himself the entire task of managing the resistance of the German army to the Allied juggernaut.

Today the effort proves too much for him. He is simply overwhelmed by reports of the collapse in Flanders. There are rumours, never confirmed, that he experiences some kind of mental breakdown, collapsing in his office and foaming at the mouth while suffering a seizure. That may be an exaggeration, but he appears nevertheless to have finally lost any belief that defeat can be avoided. He goes to Hindenburg, the army’s commander-in-chief, and says that a request for an armistice must be made immediately before the German army is destroyed and Germany consumed by revolution. He proposes a direct approach to Wilson, believing that better terms can be obtained from him than from Foch, the Allied Western Front commander.

Hindenburg agrees with Ludendorff. They will put the case for an armistice to the politicians and the Kaiser tomorrow.

image source:

Hindenburg and Ludendorff in happier times (Wikipedia: Erich Ludendorff)

28/9/1918 Fifth Ypres: another drubbing for the Germans

The Allies are piling the pressure on the Germans, with the American and French attacking them in the Argonne, the British and Canadians advancing across the Canal du Nord towards Cambrai, and British artillery blasting away at Germans defending the St. Quentin Canal in the Somme sector in preparation for an attack there tomorrow.

Today though it is at Ypres that the Allies attack. Ypres has already seen four battles in this war, the last being the second of Germany’s spring offensives earlier this year. Now it sees a fifth, as British, French and Belgian troops attack. The last British offensive here, in 1917, was a horrific affair that saw men butchered as they drowned in mud for nothing. This time though things are different. The short preliminary bombardment stuns the Germans. Although they hold what little high ground there is here and are defending positions that can only be approached across sodden fields, the Germans mostly lack the stomach for a determined defence. The Allies advance some 6 miles and capture around 6,000 prisoners. It now looks tantalisingly like it might soon be possible to clear the Germans from the Belgian coast and press on to liberate the entire country.

Note: confusingly, some do not consider Germany’s Flanders offensive in April to have been an Ypres battle, which means that the current British offensive is sometimes referred to as the Fourth Battle of Ypres rather than the Fifth.

27/9/1918 Canadian troops storm the Canal du Nord, prepare to march on Cambrai

Yesterday the Americans attacked the Germans in the Argonne forest. Progress has been slow and casualties heavy. The Allies however are intent on applying pressure all along the line to prevent the Germans concentrating reserves against any one threat. British artillery has started blasting German positions defending the St. Quentin Canal, aided by the capture in fighting at Amiens of a detailed map of the German defences here. This is allowing the guns to precisely target enemy positions in preparation for an attack in the next few days, which if successful will see the Hindenburg Line breached.

Today however it is a different canal that comes under attack by the Allies, the Canal du Nord, which lies between British and Canadian forces and the town of Cambrai. The attack is preceded by the kind of short artillery bombardment that has become the norm in fighting now. This canal and the marshy land surrounding it form a natural defensive barrier but Currie, the Canadian commander, concentrates his attack on a section of the canal that has not been flooded. This sector is strongly defended but the attack, after a short artillery bombardment, takes the Germans by surprise. The Canadians are able to cross the canal and push into the German positions. By the end of the day they have advanced some five miles and captured around 4,000 prisoners and more than a hundred guns.

To the Canadians’ south, British troops have a tough day of it. The Canal du Nord is not an obstacle here but German defences are strong and there are few tanks available to support the advance. Nevertheless, gains are made and progress made towards an advance on Cambrai itself.

image sources:

map (Battle Honours of the Calgary Highlanders)

Canadian troops on the move (Endless streams and forests: Deneys Reitz in WWI/ “They went forward at a walk.”)

26/9/1918 The forest of death: the Americans attack into the Argonne

After the successful reduction of the St. Mihiel salient, Pershing wanted his American troops to press on towards Metz. Foch, the supreme Allied commander on the Western Front, had other ideas. His plan is for the Allies to launch rolling attacks converging on the centre of the German position in France and Belgium. Foch hopes that this relentless pressure will break German resistance, perhaps even force them to throw in the towel before the year’s end.

The Americans have been chosen to launch the first of Foch’s offensives, attacking into the Argonne forest west of Verdun, supported on their left flank by French troops. This has obliged Pershing to transfer his men from the St. Mihiel sector. Transportation bottlenecks have however meant that he has not been able to bring his experienced troops to the frontline: when the offensive begins today it is spearheaded by inexperienced American troops.

Despite his men’s inexperience, Pershing has high hopes for them. St. Mihiel has shown what American troops are capable of, so he hopes that they will be able to smash through the German lines in the Argonne and then fight the enemy in mobile warfare. But sadly his hopes prove over-optimistic. German positions in the Argonne are strongly defended and the densely forested terrain makes rapid advances difficult. American troops are unable to dislodge the Germans from the key Montfaucon position and the US advance elsewhere slows so much that they fall behind their creeping barrage. The Americans find themselves stuck into the kind of attritional and positional fighting that Pershing thought his men would be bringing to an an end.

The French to the Americans’ left make better progress, partly thanks to their greater experience of fighting on the Western Front but also because the more open ground there is easier for them. Their progress would be considered astonishing by the standards of previous years but expectations have now risen that their gains too are considered disappointing.

image source:

Into the forest (Wikipedia: Meuse-Argonne Offensive)

25/9/1918 As his men take Amman, Allenby prepares to march on Damascus

Turkish forces in Palestine are in disarray following Allenby‘s successful offensive. Success on the coastal plain has allowed the British to make gains further inland. Success across the Jordan had proved elusive earlier in the year but now at last Allenby’s men take Amman.

Henry Wilson, the chief of staff of the British army, is pressing Allenby to exploit the Turks’ discomfiture by advancing with haste to Aleppo in northern Syria, from where Anatolia itself can be threatened with invasion. But Allenby is more cautious, fearing the consequences of an over-hasty advance (with the capture of Townshend‘s army at Kut in 1916 serving as a warning of the possible consequences of throwing caution to the wind). Nevertheless, he is not going to allow the Turks an opportunity to retreat and regroup. He is now preparing for his men to advance on Damascus, capital of Syria. The fall of this city will make clear to all that Turkish dominance of Arab lands has come to an end.

image source:

Amman (Wikipedia: Second Battle of Amman)