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.

image sources:

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)

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.

9/6/1918 Round four: Ludendorff unleashes Operation Gneisenau #1918Live

The recent Blücher-Yorck offensive has been the most successful phase of the German spring offensive yet. Ludendorff, Germany’s Quartermaster-General and effective dictator, had intended it to divert Allied attention away from his forthcoming final offensive in Flanders but had then reinforced it in the hope of provoking a general collapse of the enemy. That failed to materialise and now the Germans are left with another salient sticking out into enemy lines.

Ludendorff has decided to delay the Flanders offensive again. His men now launch Operation Gneisnau, intended to join up the two salients created by the earlier offensive in the Somme sector and Blücher-Yorck. Although intended as another diversion, with the additional goal of shortening the German lines, the Germans hope that this will be the blow that breaks the Allies and leads to a triumphant march on Paris.

The French have been forewarned of this attack by deserters, but the local commander has deployed his men poorly and the German assault overwhelms the Allied frontline. German troops push forward some six miles and capture more than 8,000 prisoners. Is the day of victory at hand?

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map (Mental Floss WWI Centennial: America’s Fighting Debut)

7/6/1918 Influenza spreads its tentacles

Since Albert Gitchell took ill in March this strange new strain of influenza has spread across the world. The disease is rarely lethal, certainly no more so than a normal winter flu, but it is extremely infectious and makes those it afflicts too sick to do anything for long periods, sometimes up to several weeks. Even after the worst of the illness has passed, victims are left in a weakened state, making basic tasks a struggle.

The influenza has arrived on the Western Front, where it appears to hit the Germans harder than the Allies. In the month of May their army suffers some 77,000 cases, more than all the Allies put together. These losses may have cost Ludendorff victory in the spring offensives (though he still hopes to end the war with a final assault in Flanders). But temporary losses of manpower in all the armies are considerable. The public remains largely unaware of the scale of the epidemic as military censorship keeps references to flu in the armies out of the newspapers. However in neutral Spain, where no censorship of this kind is in place, the newspapers report freely on the disease’s depredations. News of the Spanish king and members of his cabinet having been struck ill, as well as large numbers of people in Madrid, mean that in the public mind the disease is associated with Spain. People begin to talk of it as the Spanish flu.

It is not just in Europe and North America that the flu is spreading its dominion. It has also made its way to China, where its effect on police ranks in Peking has forced the closure of the city’s banks.