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)

6/5/1918 Ludendorff ponders his next move #1918Live

Ludendorff‘s first two phases of his spring offensive have battered the Allies, particularly the British, but they have not broken them. And the offensives have been costly for the Germans, who have lost many of their elite stormtroopers. The numerical advantage nevertheless remains with the Germans, whose numbers have been buttressed by men brought from the Eastern Front since the peace with Russia. But this advantage will not last forever: there are now some 430,000 American troops in France and more arriving every day.

Ludendorff knows that he has to defeat the Allies soon before the balance of forces shifts decisively against him. But where should he attack? He still sees the British as the more vulnerable of his enemies. In Flanders they lack strategic depth: a breakthrough here could throw them into the sea. But thanks to Ludendorff’s recently concluded Georgette offensive Flanders is awash with Allied troops, with French soldiers reinforcing the British. Another attack in Flanders now would just turn into an attritional bloodbath, something Ludendorff needs to avoid at all costs.

Nevertheless, Ludendorff is fixated on Flanders: an offensive here offers his best chance to destroy the British. But first his men will stage diversionary attacks further south against the French in the Chemin des Dames sector, site of the disastrous French offensive last year. These limited attacks will draw the French down there, after which the main blow will hit the British in Flanders.

This means that for now there will be a lull, as it will take a few weeks for the Germans to get their men and guns in place to attack in the Chemin des Dames. In that lull the Allies will just have to wait nervously as they wonder where the blow will fall.

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map (Mental Floss WWI Centennial: “With Our Backs To The Wall”)

29/4/1918 Germany’s last attack in Flanders #1918Live

Ludendorff has been trying to win victory on the Western Front, attacking first in the Somme sector and now in Flanders. Exhaustion and mounting casualties are leading to a slackening of German efforts while reinforcements, particularly French reinforcements, have strengthened the Allied defence. Today the Germans make another push near Ypres, attacking French troops who have relieved their battered British allies. However, unlike at Kemmelberg, just a few days ago, the French hold firm. German gains are minimal.

Realising that no further gains are to be had, Ludendorff halts this phase of the offensive. The Allies have survived again but the Kaiser’s Battle continues. Ludendorff now ponders where to land the next blow. Time is however beginning to run against him. The fighting in the Somme cost the British some 178,000 casualties, the French 77,000 and the Germans 239,000. The Flanders offensive has cost the Allies another 118,000 casualties and the Germans some 95,000. But the Allies have greater reserves of manpower to draw on, particularly now that American troops are starting to arrive in France. Worse, the German casualties are concentrated among the elite stormtroopers and assault troops, the men Ludendorff can least afford to lose. The Germans need to win the war soon, before Ludendorff’s offensives destroy their army.

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map (Wikipedia: Battle of the Lys)

Erich Ludendorff (Revolvy)

25/4/1918 German losses on the Somme, gains in Flanders #1918Live

Yesterday in the Somme sector German troops captured the village of Villers-Bretonneux but their attempts to advance further where blocked in the war’s first tank versus tank battle. Overnight British and Australian troops counter-attack, first surrounding the village and then storming it. In brutal fighting most of the German defenders are killed, with a small number managing to surrender. Villers-Bretonneux is back in Allied hands, meaning that for now the railway hub of Amiens is safe from the enemy’s attentions.

The Germans have more success in Flanders, where Ludendorff‘s Georgette offensive continues to press against the British. Foch, now officially the Allies’ supreme commander, has sent French troops to strengthen the British line. Newly arrived French troops take over British positions at Mount Kemmel, near Ypres, but they find they have arrived in hell when they are subjected to a devastating artillery bombardment and gas attacks before elite German units move forward against them, supported by German aircraft. German troops take the hill and thousands of French troops lose their lives. The Kaiser is so pleased with the victory that he calls for champagne to toast his Kemmelberg heroes.

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Australian night attack on Villers-Bretonneux (RSL Virtual War Memorial: Villers-Bretonneux)

Kemmelberg heroes (Wikipedia: Kemmelberg)

24/4/1918 The first tank battle #1918Live

Although Flanders remains Ludendorff‘s main focus, German troops are still pushing towards Amiens in the Somme sector. Their intermediate target is the village of Villers-Bretonneux. If they can establish themselves here they may be able to press on to take Amiens itself; Villers-Bretonneux is also close enough to Amiens that from there the Germans could render the vital transportation hub unusable with heavy artillery.

Today’s German attacks on Villers-Bretonneux are supported by tanks, with several of the lumbering A7V monsters moving forward with the assault troops. The Germans overrun the village and then when the German tanks are moving onward to exploit they encounter British tanks moving forwards to try and close the gap in the line. The stage is now set for the first battle between tanks the world has yet seen.

One German tank finds itself facing three British vehicles, two of which are “female” tanks, armed with machine guns rather than cannons. Their machine guns are unable to penetrate the German tank’s armour. After the A7V’s cannon blasts holes in the females’ armour their commanders decide that discretion is the better part of valour and retreat. The remaining British and German tank blast away at each other. The German tank lands several hits but then tips over on its side, apparently having fallen into a crater.
More tanks from both sides join the fray, but this time the German retreat in the face of determined shelling by the British. The British then use their new Whippet medium tanks to attack German infantry who are preparing to advance. The Whippets kill many of the Germans by simply driving over them, returning to their own lines with their tracks stained red, though three of the seven Whippets are knocked out by enemy artillery.

While apparently inconclusive, the tank battle has at least prevented German exploitation of Villers-Bretonneux’s capture. This has bought valuable time for the British, who have brought up reinforcements with which they hope to recapture the vital village.

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models (Flames of War – Iron Fortresses: British & German Tanks Of World War One)

Capsized A7V (Wikipedia: Villers-Bretonneux)

21/4/1918 The Red Baron’s last patrol #1918Live

German efforts are concentrated now in Flanders, where Ludendorff still hopes to inflict a decisive blow on the British. However the Germans are still pushing at the British in the Somme sector, hoping to either take Amiens or advance close enough to it that the transport hub becomes unusable to the enemy.

In support of the ground war the Germans have deployed much of their air force to the Somme. Manfred von Richthofen and his Flying Circus are patrolling here, doing as much as they can to keep the skies clear of Allied aeroplanes. Only yesterday the Red Baron brought down two enemy planes, shooting down first a Sopwith Camel flown by Major Richard Raymond-Barker, who dies, and then three minutes later another Camel flown by David Greswolde Lewis, who is lucky enough to survive and be taken prisoner.

Today while on patrol Richthofen sees an enemy aeroplane attacking one flown by his cousin, Wolfram von Richthofen. The Red Baron attacks, saving his cousin and then pursues the enemy aircraft, flown by Canadian pilot Wilfrid May. Throwing caution to the wind, Richthofen is unrelenting in his pursuit of May and allows himself to be drawn across the Allied lines. He declines to break off the chase even when another Canadian, Captain Arthur Brown, comes to his compatriot’s aid.
As May desperately tries to escape, the Red Baron finds himself being fired upon by Brown and also by Australian troops on the ground. A bullet pierces his heart, fatally injuring him. He manages to roughly land his Fokker triplane but dies almost immediately afterwards, lasting just long enough for Australian soldiers to reach the crash site and hear him say “kaputt”.

Richthofen’s body is taken away and prepared for burial with full military honours. His aeroplane is less fortunate, being torn apart by souvenir hunters.

In his two-year career, Richthofen has brought down some 80 enemy aircraft and sent a similar number of enemy fliers to their graves. There will never be another more famous fighter pilot.

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Red Baron’s Last Patrol & Red Barons Last Flight (Barry Weekley studio: Aviation Galleries) follow link for more pictures of warplanes from the First World War and beyond

19/4/1918 As influenza arrives on the Western Front German efforts slacken #1918Live

While German efforts in Flanders are continuing, there is a sense that the offensive here is running out of steam. The fighting has depleted the ranks of the German assault troops and the survivors are increasingly exhausted. Ludendorff has not helped matters by dispersing efforts against a number of targets: the transportation hub of Hazebrouck, the prestige target of Ypres (to whose outskirts the British have withdrawn) and the not particularly significant town of Bailleul. Meanwhile fresh troops are arriving to reinforce the British, including a large contingent of French troops.

German officers are noticing a fall in the morale of their men. With the spring offensive began with Ludendorff’s attack on the Somme, morale was high. The Germans believed that they were launching the offensive that would end the war. Now, a month on, the British still have not thrown in the towel and it is starting to look like the war will go on indefinitely.

There is another factor at play. Since Albert Gitchell took ill in early March the strain of flu that struck him down has spread across the world. It remains no more lethal than any other strain of influenza, but it is remarkably virulent. Somehow it has managed to cross the front lines and is afflicting men on both sides of the conflict, making them too ill for combat or anything else for up to a week. And it seems to be affecting German soldiers more, perhaps because of their poorer diets, robbing the German assaults of manpower at this crucial stage of the battle.

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map (Remembrance Trails – Kaiserschlacht: the German Spring Offensive of 1918)