11/11/1918 Celebrating the end of the fighting #1918Live

News of the armistice engenders a certain levity among the Allied commanders. Haig and his army commanders discuss the practicalities of continuing the advance into the German occupation zone and the problems of keeping the men usefully employed now that the fighting is over. But then men from a cinema company arrives to film the generals; as they pose for the camera they start playing tricks on each other like a bunch of schoolboys.
Pétain meanwhile marks the day by visiting a village theatre where soldiers and local civilians put on an impromptu performance. Pétain himself takes the stage to read the armistice communique to the delighted attendees.

In Mons, liberated just this morning, there is an outpouring of emotion as a Canadian army band plays the Belgian national anthem, previously banned by the German occupation authorities.

In Paris, after his meeting with Clemenceau, Foch retires to his apartment. Cheering crowds greet him but he is too exhausted after the final rush of the negotiations to join the celebrations. He sits alone smoking and thinking. The rest of the city gives itself over to a bacchanal. Paris explodes with tricolours and everywhere people are laughing, singing, embracing, and kissing. The conditions are perfect for the further transmission of the influenza.

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Haig and his generals

Paris celebrates (Le Blog Gallica: 11 novembre 1918 : Marthe Chenal chante l’arrêt des hostilités)

25/10/1918 As the Belgian King returns to Bruges, Allied commanders discuss armistice terms

On the Western Front the weather is worsening, making conditions tougher for the soldiers on both sides. Nevertheless Allied pressure on the Germans continues. With the support of their Allies, Belgian troops have now cleared the Germans from the country’s coast, recovering Zeebrugge and Bruges. Today the Belgian King and Queen pay their first visit to newly liberated Bruges, the centre of which at least appears to be relatively unscathed after four years of German occupation.

Despite Ludendorff‘s recent call for continued resistance, it seems likely that an armistice will soon be concluded with the Germans. Clemenceau has asked Foch for a report on the military terms that will be required, so now he meets with all the Western Front commanders for the first time since July. Despite the recent victories, Haig is relatively cautious, fearing that if too arduous terms are demanded of the Germans then they may decide to fight on into next year. Pétain however is more confident that the enemy can be required to accept terms that would put them at a grave disadvantage should the war be resumed.

Pershing meanwhile is the most bullish. Despite the travails of his army in the Argonne, he commands the only force that is steadily increasing in size and becoming ever more effective as his men adapt to Western Front conditions. He suggests the most extreme armistice demands, not merely German surrender of occupied territory but Allied occupation of the Rhineland and establishment of bridgeheads across the great river. He also suggests German restitution of confiscated rolling stock and their surrender of all U-boats. These conditions would make it impossible for the Germans to treat an armistice as a temporary reprieve and an opportunity to lick their wounds and prepare for more fighting. The armistice would put the German army at such disadvantage that restarting the war would be impossible.

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King Albert and Queen Elisabeth in Bruges (Wikipedia: Battle of Courtrai (1918))

7/10/1918 Haig and Foch scent victory, the Americans finally rescue their Lost Battalion

In Berlin the German leadership is waiting for Wilson‘s reply to their request for an armistice. On the Western Front the fighting continues. British and Commonwealth forces are preparing an attack on Cambrai, which still remains in German hands. Haig is increasingly confident that the war will soon be over. Of course he also thought that a decisive victory would soon be achieved during the Somme and Passchendaele, but he might just be right this time. Foch is also in an upbeat mood. When the two generals meet today, Foch shows Haig a newspaper report of the German armistice request; he tells Haig that this is the result of his men punching through the Hindenburg Line.

In the Argonne the US-led offensive is still struggling. Gains are being made but the inexperienced US troops are suffering terrible casualties. Nevertheless today they achieve a notable symbolic success. Five days ago a German counter-attack separated Major Whittlesey‘s battalion from the rest of the Americans. Since then the ‘Lost Battalion’ has been subjected to relentless German attack (and shelling from their own side). US troops have been attempting to push forward to relieve Whittlesey’s men, taking enormous losses in the process, but after previous reverses they today at last manage to reach the Lost Battalion. Whittlesey is hailed as a hero, but nearly two thirds of his unit are casualties (killed, wounded or missing).

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)

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.

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))