6/9/1918 Allied advance slows as the Germans withdraw to the Hindenburg Line #1918Live

The pace of conflict on the Western Front has temporarily slowed. The Germans are withdrawing to the Hindenburg Line while logistical problems are making it hard for the Allies to pursue them with all necessary vigour as they are now marching further and further from their bases of supply. The blasted landscape Allied troops are moving through was cleared of anything useful by the Germans last year during their previous withdrawal, with even wells poisoned or filled in, making it impossible to live off the land. The Germans are also making prodigious use of poison gas to slow the Allies, shelling broad areas to deny them to the enemy.

The Germans have their own logistic problems. While their men are moving towards their bases, the German army is suffering from an acute shortage of horses, which makes it difficult to move supplies to where they are needed. The German army’s crisis of morale is also seeing incidents whereby stores are looted before supplies can be despatched to where they are most needed.

The Germans hope that the Hindenburg Line will hold back the Allies and that after unsuccessful attempts to breach it they will agree to end the war. But what if the Hindenburg Line fails? At German army headquarters today, Ludendorff proposes the creation of a second line behind it. However he rejects suggestions that the German army could greatly shorten its line by abandoning most of the gains of 1914; he deems this an unacceptable admission of defeat. Ludendorff also blames the recent reverses on the poor performance of the men at the front. This shocks his fellow officers, who feel that he should be more appreciative of the sufferings of the frontline troops. They note also that he in no way sees the current situation as resulting from his own poor decisions.

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Map showing German retreats (The Long, Long Trail: The Battles of the Hindenburg Line)
The Hindenburg Line is shown by the name the Germans used for it: the Siegfried Line.

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.

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Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff (in 1916) (Wikipedia: the Hindenburg Programme)

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)

22/7/1918 Ludendorff shaken as French troops advance across the Marne #1918Live

French troops, supported by Americans (as well as British and Italian contingents), are counterattacking on the Marne. The Germans have been forced to abandon their own Marne-Champagne offensive and are now being pushed backwards, forced to gradually yield some of the gains of their earlier Blücher-Yorck battle. The French have now crossed the Marne and are continuing to move forward, though their advance has slowed somewhat thanks to their own exhaustion and the broken nature of the ground.

The Germans appear to be suffering something of a morale crisis. The spring offensives, starting with Operation Michael in March, were meant to bring victory but instead they have led to ever-lengthening casualty lists. With the Allies now striking back the promises of victory seem hollow. The crisis in morale manifests in incidents of units surrendering to the Allies and in disorder behind the lines. Nevertheless, most German units are continuing to resist the Allied advance; for the French this is no victory parade.

The failure of his Marne-Champagne offensive and the successful French counterattack has shaken Ludendorff, Germany’s Quartermaster-General and effective dictator. However he is still hoping that one more German offensive will bring about the final defeat of the Allies. For some time now he has been planning an offensive in Flanders, codenamed Hagen, which is meant to drive the British into the sea and force the French to surrender. His southern offensives (Blücher-Yorck, Gneisenau and the Friedensturm) were meant to be diversionary preludes to the final battle in Flanders. Now his attention turns back to the north and the war-winning offensive he intends to launch there. But with his army broken and the Allies in the ascendant, Ludendorff’s dreams of victory now look delusional.

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French machine-gunnners in a ruined church (Wikipedia: Bataille de la Marne (1918))

US propaganda poster showing African American troops of the US 369th infantry regiment (Wikipedia: 369th Infantry Regiment)

18/7/1918 2nd Marne: the French strike back #1918Live

The Germans launched the fifth phase of their offensives three days ago, attacking in the Marne and Champagne sectors to the east and west of Reims. Progress has been poor, achieving nothing like the initial successes of the previous assaults.

Now the Allies strike back. A strong French force bolstered by American reinforcements attacks the German salient on the Marne. In a break with Western Front tradition, there is no preliminary bombardment; instead a rolling barrage opens up just as the Allied troops move forward. Supported by several hundred of the new Renault tanks the French make great progress against the Germans, who have been taken by surprise and are manning only weakly fortified positions

The French attack forces the final abandonment of the German offensive, which Ludendorff had rashly dubbed the Peace Offensive in an attempt to persuade German troops that this was the last battle before the war’s victorious end. Now the Germans are losing the initiative. Ludendorff’s attempt to win the war before the Allies collected their strength appears to have failed. Unless he can pull one more rabbit out of the hat it looks like German defeat is now inevitable.

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map (1918: La Deuxiéme Bataille de la Marne)

French tanks and soldiers advance (Herodote.net: 15 juillet 1918 – L’Allemagne joue son va-tout en Champagne)

15/7/1918 Round Five: Ludendorff’s Peace Offensive #1918Live

Germany’s four offensives on the Western Front have failed to break the Allies. While both sides suffer enormous casualties, the Allies have been better able to replenish their ranks from new recruits and reinforcements from America. German losses have weakened the effectiveness of the elite stormtrooper units while morale generally has fallen as the offensives have failed to bring an end to the war.

Now Ludendorff rolls the dice one more time. The German commander still sees Flanders as the best location for a decisive battle but instead his men attack further south, on either side of Reims, in the Marne and Champagne sectors. He has assembled 43 infantry divisions for this assault, which has been dubbed both the Friedensturm (Peace Offensive) and Second Battle of the Marne. As with the previous assaults, this one begins with an intense artillery bombardment of the enemy, with the Germans having assembled some 5,000 guns for the purpose.

Then things start to go wrong for the Germans. The French are ready for the German assault, forewarned by deserters. As the German assault troops move up to the trenches from which they are to attack, they are hit by French artillery. This does not stop the German assault, but the French have learned from previous battles, organising a defence in depth that smothers the Germans, preventing them from achieving the kind of gains seen at the start of the previous battles. While some progress is achieved, there is no breakthrough. By the end of the day it looks disturbingly like the Peace Offensive has failed.

Western Front map (Wikipedia: Third Battle of the Aisne)

Offensive map (Wikipedia: Second Battle of the Marne)