9/10/1918 As Canadian troops recover Cambrai, Wilson’s reply to Prince Max’s note arrives in Berlin

Fighting on the Western Front is continuing in an almost surreal atmosphere now that news of Germany’s armistice request has reached the soldiers. Officers try to prevent talk of the war’s imminent end, but many of the men are wondering why they should risk their lives in a war whose outcome now seems pre-ordained. On the German side, troops moving to the front are often denounced as scabs by those retreating, who see continued resistance as serving no purpose but to prolong the war and end more lives for nothing.

The Allies meanwhile are continuing to press the Germans. The Americans are plodding away in the Argonne, fighting the kind of attritional battle Pershing had thought his men’s pluck would have allowed him to avoid. Further to the north the fighting is more mobile, and today Canadian troops finally take the city of Cambrai, long a target of Allied intentions. Victory celebrations are muted by the ruinous state of the city, which appears to have been deliberately set ablaze by the retreating Germans (though perhaps Allied artillery bombardments may share some of the blame).

Meanwhile in Berlin the Germans receive a reply from Wilson to their armistice request. The US President’s response is cordial, but he seeks assurances that the German government is truly representative of their country and that it accepts his Fourteen Points. He also makes clear that any armistice will involve Germany’s complete evacuation of all Allied territory it has occupied. Prince Max, the German Chancellor, is reassured by the tone and cautiously optimistic that an armistice can be concluded.

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Canadian troops liberate Cambrai (Cambrai Area Tourist Office: Liberation of Cambrai)

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.

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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.”)

2/9/1918 Allied successes force a German withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line #1918Live

After their capture of Mont St. Quentin, the Australians were able to seize Péronne from the Germans yesterday. Today it is the Canadians’ turn to win battle honours, as they manage to clear the Germans out of the Drocourt-Quéant line, a strongly fortified position north of the main Hindenburg Line. The Canadians attacked here without serious armoured support (most of the tanks have by now broken down) but despite the strong enemy fortifications they were able to evict the Germans. Haig is so impressed by this feat of arms that he comes up to the front to personally congratulate Macdonnell, the local Canadian commander.

The success of the Australians and Canadians has undermined the German position on the Somme battlefield. They now begin a withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line, a strong defensive position constructed in 1917. Ludendorff hopes that his men will be able to hold off the Allies here until war weariness forces them to sue for peace.

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Canadian troops press forward (Library and Archives Canada: Soldiers in Danger – Georges Vanier – We were there)

see also: Measuring the Success of Canada’s Wars: The Hundred Days Offensive as a Case Study (Canadian Military Journal)

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)

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.

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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.

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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)

30/3/1918 Moreuil Wood: Canadian cavalry stops the German advance #1918Live

Ludendorff has belatedly fixated on Amiens as a target for his spring offensive. If this railway hub falls then the Allies will not be able to sustain themselves in the Somme sector, which could lead to a general collapse. However German stormtrooper numbers have been depleted by the heavy fighting since the start of the battle, while the survivors are increasingly exhausted. Desperate resistance by the British and their French and Commonwealth allies is slowing the German advance to a crawl.

The village of Villers-Bretonneux commands the approaches to Amiens. If the Germans take here they will be able to shell Amiens. But for now they are unable to dislodge the Allies. Meanwhile at the Moreuil Woods a bizarre episode takes place. German troops have occupied the woods, overlooking the Amiens-Paris railway, but now Canadian cavalry units are ordered forward against them. Machine guns and barbed wire have rendered cavalry obsolete on the Western Front, but somehow in confused fighting the Canadians push back the the Germans, breaking the momentum of their attack in this sector. At the end of the charge the scene in woods is horrific, a landscape of dead and broken men and horses.

Ludendorff licks his wounds. His offensive on the Somme appears to have failed to break the Allies, though he will renew his efforts to take Amiens after a short pause. But for Ludendorff the Somme battle is only a phase of his spring offensive. His attentions now turn to Flanders, where he hopes that another round of assaults will drive the British into the sea.

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Charge of Flowerdew’s Squadron, by Alfred Munnings (Wikipedia)