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)

3/7/1918 “Wholesale jollification”: Lettow-Vorbeck’s victory at Nhamacurra #1918Live

The outcome of this war will most likely be decided on the Western Front, where the bulk of German and Allied forces are deployed. But there are other fields of battle, and one of these is East Africa, where Lettow-Vorbeck has commanded German forces since the beginning of the war. His plan remains to keep his army in being, tying down as many Allied troops as possible and preventing their transfer to Europe. The forces ranged against him are overwhelming but Lettow-Vorbeck remains at large, his army (European officers and locally recruited Askaris) continuing to evade resist Germany’s enemies.

Lettow-Vorbeck has been unable to prevent the Allies from overrunning German East Africa. He has retreated into the Portuguese colony of Mozambique where his army is living off the land, often leaving starvation in its wake but also provoking native rebellions against their colonial masters. British Empire forces under South Africa’s Deventer and Portuguese army units seem powerless to stop Lettow-Vorbeck’s march; Deventer in particular is increasingly disdainful of the efforts of his Portuguese allies. He sees their troops as next to useless, an actual liability in combat against the Germans.

Fighting over the last few days at Nhamacurra, near the port of Quelimane, both accords with and runs counter to Deventer’s poor opinion of his allies. When Lettow-Vorbeck attacked the Portuguese here many of them quickly surrendered. However others, supported by a contingent of British Askaris, put up a stout resistance until they were eventually overwhelmed.

The vicotry at Nhamacurra is a godsend to Lettow-Vorbeck. As well as continuing to burnish his reputation for invincibility, his men have also captured the supplies of their enemies: stores of arms and ammunition and an enormous quantity of both food and quinine, the drug that protects his European officers from the ravages of malaria. The Germans also discover a large quantity of Portuguese wine and other alcohol, which leads to what Lettow-Vorbeck describes as “a wholesale jollification”, a surrender to drunkenness enjoyed by both his African and European troops.

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German standard bearer (Africans and West Indians at War: German African Soldiers)

map (Wikipedia: Battle of Ngomano)

30/6/1918 Time begins to run out for the Germans #1918Live

The Germans are preparing for their next offensive on the Western Front. Although Ludendorff is still intending to drive the British into the sea in Flanders, the next assault will hit the French in the south, with some 40 divisions to attack on either side of Reims. Ludendorff has dubbed this battle der Friedensturm (the Peace Offensive), hoping to convince his battered troops that this is the one last push that will somehow bring the war to an end.

The fighting since the start of the offensives has been devastating. The Germans have suffered some 800,000 casualties since the first assaults in March. Their gains in the first four offensives have stretched their frontline from 390 to 510 kilometres, which leave them vulnerable if the Allies should regain the initiative. The Germans are also being hit hard by the new influenza pandemic, which in the last month has led to some 135,000 military cases on the Western Front, far more than the Allies have suffered. Very few of these men have died, but while they are sick they are unable to fight.

German casualties have afflicted the elite stormtrooper units most severely. Ludendorff has replenished their ranks by taking men from ordinary units. This has however diluted the quality of the stormtroopers and left other units depleted and less able to perform their functions.

The Allies have taken great casualties too in the offensives but they seem to have a deeper well of manpower, while American troops are continuing to arrive in Europe in great numbers. All in all time is running out for Ludendorff: if his next offensive does not break the Allies then it looks disturbingly like Germany will lose the war.

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Stormtroopers (Drakegoodman on Flickr)

25/6/1918 US Marines clear the Germans from Belleau Wood #1918Live

US marines played their part in halting the Germans’ third offensive this year when they went into battle in the Belleau Wood near the Marne. The Americans have been attacking since then, determined to clear the enemy from the woods. Lacking combat experience, the Americans took heavy casualties but they proved determined fighters and now at last the forest is entirely in their hands, albeit at the cost of nearly 10,000 casualties.

The Allies derive great comfort from the battle. The Americans have shown that they can fight the Germans and are not cowed by losses of the scale encountered in Western Front fighting. On the other side of the hill the battle shakes German morale. Belleau Woods is of no great strategic significance in and of itself but it is a worrying harbinger of things to come. The Americans, largely on their own (although with some French support) have successfully defeated the Germans. With US troops now pouring into France, time is clearly beginning to run out for Ludendorff and his offensives.

In American the battle is used for propaganda purposes. Recruitment posters invite men to join the Teufel Hunden (Devil Dogs), the strangely ungrammatical nickname the Germans are reported to have given the marines.

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US and French troops, near Belleau Wood (Wikipedia: 6th Machine Gun Battalion (United States Marine Corps))

Teufel Hunden poster (Wikipedia: Battle of Belleau Wood)

17/6/1918 Ludendorff prepares for Round Five #1918Live

French counterattacks have forced the Germans to halt their Gneisenau offensive after only few days. Compared to previous stages of the Kaiser’s Battle, the gains from Gneisenau have been minimal. Now Ludendorff starts to plan the next attacl. Germany’s Quartermaster-General still hopes to end the war with a crushing blow against the British in Flanders, but his attention keeps being drawn further south. He decides to prepare for two simultaneous offensives either side of Reims, one in the Marne valley and the other in the Champagne region. These will be the final diversions, after which he will unleash the stormtroopers in Flanders.

Time is no longer on Ludendorff’s side. He will not be able to launch his next attack until July. Meanwhile American troops are arriving in France in ever increasing numbers and the Allies have more spring in their step, increasingly confident that they are successfully withstanding Germany’s worst. German troops meanwhile are suffering from a slump in morale. In March when Ludendorff launched the first phase of the Kaiser’s Battle, German morale was high: the soldiers believed they were taking part in the battle that would bring the war to a victorious end. Now after four offensives and enormous casualties victory seems no closer and the men are less keen to throw away their lives in Ludendorff’s pursuit of illusory goals. Incidents of insubordination are increasing to an extent that alarms German army commanders.

The men at the front are nevertheless mostly still obeying orders. This is less true of men being sent from Germany to join their comrades in the line. Soldiers on trains to the front are almost in a state of revolt, attacking anyone trying to impose discipline and stoning station commanders. They are also deserting in huge numbers, with troop trains often losing a fifth of their complement in transit.

Ludendorff blames socialist malcontents in Germany for the army’s growing discipline problem. He continues to hope that victory is just round the corner, with the next offensive, or perhaps the on after that, being the one that finally breaks the Allies. After that the shiftless elements at home can be dealt with.

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map (100 Years Ago Today, @CenturyAgoToday on Twitter)

11/6/1918 French counterattack blocks Germany’s latest offensive #1918Live

The fourth phase of Ludendorff‘s offensive sees the Germans attacking French forces between the tips of the salients created by the first and third assaults. Initial gains were promising but progress then slowed, much more quickly than in previous battles, thanks to exhaustion on the part of the stormtroopers and improvements in the Allies’ tactics.

Today sees the French counterattack in strength. The French hit the Germans with four infantry divisions and large numbers of the new Renault FT tanks. The momentum of the German assault is broken; when news of the failure reaches Ludendorff he has no option but to halt this phase of the fighting. But he is not throwing in the towel yet. Instead he ponders where to land the next blow, knowing that he must win victory soon or Germany will inevitably be defeated.

10/6/1918 Vorontsovka: Germany and Turkey come to blows

Germany and Turkey are allied to each other, but their goals are starting to diverge. Turkey’s leaders see the collapse of Russian power in the Caucasus as an opportunity for expansion; they have sent their troops racing to occupy territory lost to the Ottoman Empire in previous wars. Enver also hopes to expand Turkish power into central Asia, where he anticipates a warm welcome from the Turkic peoples there. The Germans however want to set up friendly client states in the Caucasus, to serve as buffer between Soviet Russia and the Turks; they have already recognised Georgia as independent and despatched a small force there under Kressenstein.

The problems caused by Germany and Turkey’s divergent goals come to a head today. Turkish forces advancing into Georgia clash with a combined Georgian and German force at Vorontsovka. The more numerous Turks have the upper hand, driving away their opponents and taking several German prisoners. As news of this incident filters back to the German high command there is outrage at this gross impertinence on the part of their supposed allies.

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map (Kafkasya Cephesi’nde Osmanlı-Alman Rekabeti – Ottoman-German Competition in the Caucasus Front)