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.

image source:

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.

image source:

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.

image sources:

map (Weapons and Warfare: Tanks at Amiens 1918)

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

8/8/1918 Amiens: the Black Day of the German Army #1918Live

Foch, recently promoted to marshal, has managed to convince the Allied commanders that it is time for them to go on the offensive. Now the British lead an attack near Amiens in the Somme sector. At the Somme in 1916 and at Passchendaele last year Haig hoped to achieve a breakthrough that would bring the war’s end in reach. This time his goals are more modest, with the main aim being to push the Germans out of artillery range of the transportation hub of Amiens, paving the way for further assaults elsewhere.

Great efforts have been made to keep news about the impending attack from the Germans. Allied fliers prevent German aircraft from observing the troop build-up. Allied soldiers are careful to avoid talking about the plans for the battle, telling any loose lipped comrade to keep their mouth shut. A German raid two days ago saw several hundred Australian troops captured, but none of them spill the beans on the imminent offensive.

Now, finally, the attack begins, with the infantry moving forward behind a devastating barrage, supported by tanks. In an echo of the first day of the German offensives in March, the Allies attack out of mist. The Germans are taken completely by surprise, unprepared for the hammer blow landing on them. The Canadian and Australian troops leading the British assault make astonishing gains, as do the French. As many as 15,000 Germans are taken prisoner.

As news of the disaster reaches Ludendorff he is dumbstruck. Later he will describe this as “der schwarze Tag des deutschen Heeres“: the Black Day of the German Army. What is so shocking is not the gains achieved by the Allies but the apparent collapse in the fighting spirit of the German troops. There are reports of men surrendering after only token resistance and of retreating men shouting “blackleg!” at reserves moving forward, accusing them of prolonging the war.

The initiative has now definitively passed to the Allies. Bowing to reality, Ludendorff finally abandons his plans for a final offensive against the British in Flanders. His attempts to win victory on the battlefield have failed and now it looks like Germany is staring defeat in the face.

image sources:

German prisoners (Forces Network: The Beginning Of The End Of WWI – Amiens, 1918)

8 August 1918 by Will Longstaff (Wikipedia: Battle of Amiens (1918))

6/8/1918 Victory at the Marne paves way for planned Allied offensive at Amiens #1918Live

Supported by British and American troops the French have been counter-attacking in the Marne sector. Like its namesake in 1914, this Second Battle of the Marne has pushed back the Germans, who no longer threaten to break through and seize Paris. If anything the victory now is greater than that of 1914, as there is a real sense that the offensive power of the Germans has been broken and that the initiative has passed to the Allies. In the Marne fighting the French have recovered all the ground lost in the Blücher-Yorck offensive, advancing some 50 kilometres. They have also captured some 25,000 Germans, a sign that German morale is beginning to break.

Ludendorff is still planning another offensive, this time against the British in Flanders, but his thinking in this regard is increasingly delusional. German forces are spent; with the Allies in the ascendant it is unlikely the Flanders offensive will ever take place, far less that it will win the war for Germany.

The German situation is increasingly precarious. The fighting since the start of the first offensive in March has taken a heavy toll on their forces, with the Germans suffering nearly a million casualties. Their Western Front army now has 300,000 men less than it did before the start of the Kaiser’s Battle. The Allies meanwhile are seeing their numbers growing all the time, as more and more American soldiers arrive in France. In desperation the Germans are drafting youths who will not turn 18 until next year, but calling these children to the colours will still not make good the losses suffered in the year’s fighting. German ranks are further being depleted by the influenza pandemic, which appears to be hitting their men harder than those of the enemy.

The Allies are also outproducing the Germans. They now have a marked advantage in guns, tanks and aircraft. Their ability to use these weapons has greatly improved, with Allied artillery tactics dominating the battlefield and tanks finally being used in an effective manner.

On the Allied side, Foch recognises that the Germans have lost the advantage. Haig and Pétain demurred when he called for them to go on the offensive, but since then they have come round to his thinking. Haig and Rawlinson, the local British commander, are now preparing to attack the Germans in the Somme sector, hoping to push them back so that they can no longer shell the important transport hub of Amiens. The attack will be led by Canadian and Australian forces. Planning is being undertaken in great secrecy in order to guarantee the element of surprise. The offensive is scheduled to begin on the 8th, at which point it will be clear whether the advantage has really shifted to the Allies or whether Foch is guilty of the kind of hubris that afflicted Haig in 1916 and at Passchendaele, and Nivelle last year.

image sources:

German prisoners under escort (Dinge & Goete – July 15, 1918 : Second Battle of the Marne begins with final German offensive)

map (Wikipedia: Second Battle of the Marne)

26/7/1918 The last flight of Mick Mannock, Britain’s highest scoring fighter ace

Irish born Edward Mannock is the highest scoring British fighter pilot, credited with 60 enemy aircraft brought down since his flying career began in March last year. Known as Mick, he had previously served with James McCudden and was shocked by his accidental death. Mannock has flown against the Germans during many battles on the Western Front, including the Third Battle of Ypres last year and Operation Michael, the first phase of this year’s German offensives.

Mannock returned to England on leave in June, with some members of his family noting that he appeared to be under a great deal of nervous strain. On his return to France he took command of the RAF’s 85th Squadron. He introduced new tactics to his men, encouraging the pilots to fight together as a team rather than as individuals.

A week ago at a social function Mannock advised a fellow pilot to never fly low to observe a crashed enemy. Today though he breaks his own rule and pays the price. While patrolling in northern France, Mannock brings down a German aircraft, killing both members of his crew. He then inexplicably dives low to observe the wreckage before setting a course back towards his base. Unfortunately as he crosses the German lines at low altitude his aircraft is hit by intense fire from the ground and bursts into flames. The aircraft crashes behind German lines. Mannock’s body is apparently found some distance away, having been thrown clear or perhaps because he jumped to avoid immolation.

image sources:

The last photograph of Mick Mannock, taken in the summer of 1918 by a French farmer (samoyeddogs: Mick Mannock Veteran Page)

Major “Micky” Mannock (Acepilots: Edward “Mick” Mannock)

24/7/1918 Foch meets the Allied commanders, calls for them to go on the attack #1918Live

On the Western Front the tide appears to be turning in favour of the Allies. The German Marne-Champagne offensive has failed and now a French-led counter-attack is recapturing lost ground in the Marne sector. Meanwhile the balance of forces is becoming ever more favourable to the Allies as thousands of US troops continue to arrive in France every day while tanks and aircraft pour out of British and French factories.

Today Allied military leaders meet at Bombon, the headquarters of Foch, the Western Front generalissimo. Foch and Weygand, his chief of staff, greet Haig, Pétain and Pershing, the three Allied commanders. Weygand and Foch argue that the time has come for the Allies to go on the offensive, proposing a rolling series of assaults to push the Germans away from vital railway lines and pave the way for eventual Allied victory.

Haig and Pétain are both wary, fearing that their armies need to lick their wounds further before they can launch major offensives against the enemy. Pershing meanwhile is more keen to attack, but he remains insistent that American units must fight independently and not be incorporated into British or French armies (he had only with reluctance supplied US troops to support the French counterattack on the Marne).

Foch and Weygand are unable for now to bend Haig and Pétain to their will, but they manage to avoid a complete rejection of their proposals. Instead the Allied commanders will bring them to their own staff officers and issue a more considered reply in coming days. Foch remains confident that his fellow commanders will come round to his way of thinking. Soon the Allies will attack and seize the initiative permanently from the enemy.

image sources:

Philippe Pétain, Douglas Haig, Ferdinand Foch, & John Pershing (Wikipedia Commons)

Map (1 is the Marne counterattack currently underway) (The Long, Long Trail: The Battles of the Marne, 1918)