17/10/1918 German morale buckles as the Allied advance continues #1918Live

While their masters exchange notes with Washington, Germany’s soldiers on the Western Front continue to be pushed back. Allied troops are now recovering territories that have been in German hands since 1914. For the Belgians this is a particularly exciting time as almost their entire country has been under German occupation and now its deliverance is at hand. Recent Allied victories have forced the Germans to begin a withdrawal from the Belgian coast and today Belgian troops enter the port of Ostend, together with King Albert. His arrival leads to emotional scenes.

French troops meanwhile have recovered Lille, while British forces liberate Le Cateau, scene of a failed attempt by the British in 1914 to hold off the Germans. Times have changed and now it is the Germans who are unable to halt the Allied juggernaut.

The retreats and defeats have sapped the morale of the once-mighty German army. Officers censoring their men’s post report that defeatism is now rife, with many soldiers writing home that they want peace at any price and are no longer willing to risk their lives in a war that has been lost. If an armistice is not concluded soon then the German army is at a very real risk of disintegration.

map (The Long, Long Trail: Campaign and battle maps for the British Army, 1914-1918)

2/10/1918 Western Front: in the north Germany retreats, while in the Argonne the “Lost Battalion” gets lost

Allied forces on the Western Front are pressing the Germans hard. British troops have pierced the Hindenburg Line and in response the Germans are building a new position to its rear, the Hermann Line. As the Germans prepare to retreat there are some shocking incidents of indiscipline. In Cambrai the town is looted by the Germans but then fighting breaks out over the spoils between Prussian and Bavarian troops. Shots are fired and fifteen soldiers killed, including an officer who is thrown from an upstairs window.

On the Allied side British and Commonwealth troops are doing much of the fighting. The French army is exhausted, still in a fragile state after the mutinies last year and the casualties it has suffered since the start of the war. Today nevertheless French units manage to take the town of St. Quentin from the Germans. The French are shocked at the state in which the retreating Germans have left it; Mangin even suggests that after the war’s end German prisoners should not be repatriated until they have repaired the damage inflicted by their army.

In the Argonne the American offensive is on hiatus as Pershing attempts to reinforce and resupply his battered troops. Fighting continues here however, as local attempts by each side to improve their position lead to attack and counter-attack. American attention finds itself focussed on the travails of one battalion commanded by Major Charles Whittlesey. After standing firm against a German counterattack, Whittlesey’s men discover that units to their right and left have been driven back. Whittlesey sends runners out to make contact with other American units. When they fail to return he realises the awful truth: his battalion has been cut off from their comrades and is now surrounded, adrift in a sea of resurgent Germans.

28/9/1918 Fifth Ypres: another drubbing for the Germans

The Allies are piling the pressure on the Germans, with the American and French attacking them in the Argonne, the British and Canadians advancing across the Canal du Nord towards Cambrai, and British artillery blasting away at Germans defending the St. Quentin Canal in the Somme sector in preparation for an attack there tomorrow.

Today though it is at Ypres that the Allies attack. Ypres has already seen four battles in this war, the last being the second of Germany’s spring offensives earlier this year. Now it sees a fifth, as British, French and Belgian troops attack. The last British offensive here, in 1917, was a horrific affair that saw men butchered as they drowned in mud for nothing. This time though things are different. The short preliminary bombardment stuns the Germans. Although they hold what little high ground there is here and are defending positions that can only be approached across sodden fields, the Germans mostly lack the stomach for a determined defence. The Allies advance some 6 miles and capture around 6,000 prisoners. It now looks tantalisingly like it might soon be possible to clear the Germans from the Belgian coast and press on to liberate the entire country.

Note: confusingly, some do not consider Germany’s Flanders offensive in April to have been an Ypres battle, which means that the current British offensive is sometimes referred to as the Fourth Battle of Ypres rather than the Fifth.

26/9/1918 The forest of death: the Americans attack into the Argonne

After the successful reduction of the St. Mihiel salient, Pershing wanted his American troops to press on towards Metz. Foch, the supreme Allied commander on the Western Front, had other ideas. His plan is for the Allies to launch rolling attacks converging on the centre of the German position in France and Belgium. Foch hopes that this relentless pressure will break German resistance, perhaps even force them to throw in the towel before the year’s end.

The Americans have been chosen to launch the first of Foch’s offensives, attacking into the Argonne forest west of Verdun, supported on their left flank by French troops. This has obliged Pershing to transfer his men from the St. Mihiel sector. Transportation bottlenecks have however meant that he has not been able to bring his experienced troops to the frontline: when the offensive begins today it is spearheaded by inexperienced American troops.

Despite his men’s inexperience, Pershing has high hopes for them. St. Mihiel has shown what American troops are capable of, so he hopes that they will be able to smash through the German lines in the Argonne and then fight the enemy in mobile warfare. But sadly his hopes prove over-optimistic. German positions in the Argonne are strongly defended and the densely forested terrain makes rapid advances difficult. American troops are unable to dislodge the Germans from the key Montfaucon position and the US advance elsewhere slows so much that they fall behind their creeping barrage. The Americans find themselves stuck into the kind of attritional and positional fighting that Pershing thought his men would be bringing to an an end.

The French to the Americans’ left make better progress, partly thanks to their greater experience of fighting on the Western Front but also because the more open ground there is easier for them. Their progress would be considered astonishing by the standards of previous years but expectations have now risen that their gains too are considered disappointing.

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Into the forest (Wikipedia: Meuse-Argonne Offensive)

23/9/1918 Bulgaria’s Balkan disaster #1918Live

Germany’s allies are receiving a battering. Allenby‘s Megiddo offensive in Palestine looks like it will destroy the Turks’ ability to mount effective resistance there. The Bulgarians too are now facing an Allied battering ram in the southern Balkans. After the initial French and Serbian attacks on the Vardar broke through Bulgarian lines, British and Greek troops attacked near Lake Doiran. These attacks were less successful, as the Bulgarians had deployed higher quality formations to this sector. This engendered some hope on the part of Bulgarian commanders that the Balkan situation remained salvageable. Bulgarian troops near Lake Doiran were ordered to break contact with the Allies there and move to launch a counter-attack against the advancing Serbs and French. But the counter-attack is stillborn. Allied control of the air means that the Bulgarian columns are subjected to relentless aerial bombardment as they attempt to move through the Kosturino Pass. Their morale and cohesion is shattered and they are unable to strike back against the Allies.

The Serb and French advance into Macedonia now appears unstoppable. Many of the local people welcome the Serbs as returning liberators, while others who had initially welcomed the Bulgarians fear the victors’ retribution. In Bulgaria itself meanwhile the combination of defeat on the battlefield and the privations of war mean that increasing numbers of people are calling for an immediate peace at any price.

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map and Bulgarian prisoners (Wikipedia: Vardar Offensive)

15/9/1918 The Vardar offensive: Allied breakthrough against the Bulgarians

The Balkan theatre has remained relatively quiet since Serbia was overrun in 1915. The Allies established a military base in Salonika in Greece but were unable to expand much beyond it, while other priorities meant that the Central Powers left the Salonika force largely unmolested. Even the entry of Greece into the war on the Allied side did not obviously make much difference to this deadlocked front.

This apparent stasis masks a fundamental change in the balance of forces in the Balkans. The Allies have been building up their strength while that of their enemies has been eroding. German troops were withdrawn to take part in the Western Front battles, leaving the line to be held mainly by the Bulgarians, with some Austro-Hungarian units in support. The Bulgarians fought well during the conquest of Serbia but since then their morale has fallen as their homeland has been gripped by food shortages. The lack of significant German attention to Bulgarian interests in the peace treaties with Russia and Romania have made clear to Bulgarian soldiers that they are being used as pawns for Berlin. War weariness now has a hold on the Bulgarian army.

Today the Allied Balkan force attacks the Bulgarians defending positions on both sides of the Vardar river. Commanded by French general Franchet d’Espèrey, the Allied force is mainly composed of French and Serbian troops, with Greek units in support. The initial bombardment shakes the Bulgarians, with frontline units too weakened by desertion to effectively resist the enemy assault. There are pockets of resistance but the Allied offensive shatters the Bulgarians, holding out to the Allies the tantalising prospect of their total collapse.

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French (?) troops attack in the Balkans (MetroPostcard guide to the Balkan campaigns of World War One on postcards)

12/9/1918 St. Mihiel: US troops smash the Germans

Pershing has been pushing for his American troops to be given their own sector of the front where they can prove their mettle. Now he has his chance, with US troops deployed to attack the St. Mihiel salient to the east of the old Verdun battlefield. The Americans are not operating completely on their own, as French units are also taking part, while the French have also deployed tanks and aircraft (and supplied tanks to be crewed by the Americans themselves), but this is nevertheless an American battle taking place under the direction of Pershing and his officers.

After a heavy artillery bombardment the US infantrymen attack today in wet weather. The German troops defending the salient are heavily outnumbered. Forewarned of the Allied attack, they had begun a withdrawal to a shorter line, but the attack today catches them on the hop. If the Germans had hoped that the Americans would not be up to fighting a major battle on the Western Front they are sorely mistaken; the Americans smash through the German defence lines and make such progress that Pershing orders his men to redouble their efforts in the hope of achieving a major breakthrough.

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Open attack at St. Mihiel, by Lucien Jonas (Wikipedia: Battle of Saint-Mihiel)