17/9/1918 US victory at St. Mihiel see the Germans shaken and Pershing disappointed at missed opportunities #1918Live

The Americans have successfully eliminated the St. Mihiel salient, capturing more than 8,000 German prisoners and some 400 artillery pieces. The defeat at St. Mihiel has shaken the Germans. Hindenburg, the German commander-in-chief, is normally imperturbable but now he sends a furious telegram to Gallwitz, the local German commander. Hindenburg refuses to see the Americans as constituting a serious military force and rails against Gallwitz for allowing himself to be defeated by what he sees as a half-trained rabble.

Pershing had wanted his troops to exploit the success of St. Mihiel by pressing on towards Metz. Foch however has insisted that they be redeployed further to the west to take part in the Meuse-Argonne offensive, scheduled to start later in the month. Pershing is angry, feeling that an opportunity is being squandered and that his men will not have enough time to prepare adequately for the new offensive. Foch insists because fears that a further advance towards Metz would see the American advancing on a divergent axis from the rest of the Allies. The Meuse-Argonne offensive is to be one of several converging assaults, intended to break the Germans on the Western Front.

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(WW1HA — Fightin’ Friday: Mon Plaisir Farm)

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)

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.

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)

31/8/1918 Australian victory on the Somme, Foch prepares the next round of offensives #1918Live

The Germans are being pushed back in the Somme sector. Bapaume fell a few days ago but German troops are still holding out in the town of Péronne, where Marwitz, the local German commander, hopes to halt the Allied advance. The western approaches to Péronne run through marshy ground, with this whole area a death trap for Australian troops attempting to advance here, as the marshes can only be crossed on narrow duckboards, on which they are extremely vulnerable to German gunfire.

Monash, the Australian commander, decides against a direct assault on Péronne. Instead he attempts to outflank it from the north. The way here is barred by Mont St. Quentin. This strongly defended position ought to be impregnable, but somehow the Australians manage to storm it in the early hours of the morning. The way is now clear for them to take Péronne from behind, forcing the Germans to begin a retreat from their stronghold. Marwitz’s plan to hold the Allies here has come to naught.
Allied successes in the Somme are leaving German positions to the north exposed. They now begin to withdraw from the territory captured in the second phase of their spring offensives, signalling the final death of Ludendorff‘s pipe dream of a war-winning Flanders offensive.

The success of the recent battles is causing Foch‘s ambitions to grow. Initially the Allied generalissimo was thinking of just pushing the Germans back from key rail hubs like Amiens and Hazebrouck. Now he is more firmly thinking of launching a series of offensives that will definitively smash the enemy. While the British advance towards Cambrai, the French can attack in the Aisne. And what of the Americans, continuously arriving in ever greater numbers? Pershing, their commander, is insistent that they must operate as a single force and not be used as piecemeal reinforcements elsewhere. Foch now accedes to his wishes, proposing that the Americans firstly attack the enemy’s St. Mihiel salient and then, together with the French, attack in the Meuse-Argonne sector. Foch hopes that these battles will so shatter the Germans that they will be unable to continue resistance for long into 1919.

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Australian soldiers prepare to attack (The Western Front: Australians on the Western Front – Mont St Quentin and the 2nd Division AIF)

Capture of Mont Saint Quentin, by Fred Leist (Wikipedia: Battle of Mont Saint-Quentin)

29/8/1918 Bapaume falls to the Allies #1918Live

British and Commonwealth soldiers are forcing the Germans back across the 1916 Somme battlefield, with French troops also applying pressure on the enemy. Albert and Roye have already been liberated while the Germans are also being pressed on the road to Cambrai. And today troops from New Zealand capture the town of Bapaume (or what is left of it).

Bapaume is of no great strategic importance but it has a symbolic value. It was one of the objectives on the first day of the Somme in 1916, but by the end of that long battle it remained in German hands. The Germans voluntarily surrendered it in 1917, when they withdrew to the Hindenburg Line, and then recaptured it during the first phase of their offensives in March. That the Allies have now managed to take Bapaume in battle is yet another sign of how the sun is now starting to set on German hopes of avoiding defeat.</a

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New Zealanders in Bapaume and the town after its liberation (Wikipedia: Battle of Bapaume)

Men against tanks

Tanks were a new feature of fighting in the First World War, first deployed by Britain at the Somme in 1916. German commanders were initially sceptical of the armoured vehicles’ potential. Tank building was not prioritised by the Germans, with only a small number of the monstrous A7V tanks being fielded by them. While terrifying in appearance, the A7V had the fundamental problem of not being very good at crossing terrain that had been ploughed up by artillery, which greatly limited its effectiveness on Western Front battlefields.

As the war went on the Allies began to use tanks more and more in their offensives, with Cambrai first showing how effective tanks could be when combined with infantry and well targeted artillery. Tanks played an important part in the Allied counter-offensives at the Marne and Amiens.

The increasing use by the Allies of tanks forced the Germans to develop tactics against the metal monsters. While artillery was the most effective weapon against tanks, infantrymen sometimes found themselves facing them on their own. As can be imagined, this could be a rather terrifying encounter.

The illustration shows German soldiers battling against two British tanks. Under the direction of their commander, the machine-gunners are opening fire, perhaps as a diversion or perhaps they are armed with high-velocity bullets that can penetrate weak points in a tank’s armour. To the commander’s left, three men armed with cluster grenades are preparing to move forward. When thrown onto the top of a tank, the cluster grenades had some chance of penetrating its armour; they could also be used to immobilise a tank by breaking its tracks.

The weight of cluster grenades meant that they could not be thrown a great distance, which required soldiers to move as close to their targets as possible. That German troops were still knocking tanks out with them at Amiens suggests that the German army was not yet ready to throw in the towel in August 1918.

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German anti-tank squad (Weapons and Warfare: Tanks at Amiens 1918 I)