11/11/1918 Celebrating the end of the fighting #1918Live

News of the armistice engenders a certain levity among the Allied commanders. Haig and his army commanders discuss the practicalities of continuing the advance into the German occupation zone and the problems of keeping the men usefully employed now that the fighting is over. But then men from a cinema company arrives to film the generals; as they pose for the camera they start playing tricks on each other like a bunch of schoolboys.
Pétain meanwhile marks the day by visiting a village theatre where soldiers and local civilians put on an impromptu performance. Pétain himself takes the stage to read the armistice communique to the delighted attendees.

In Mons, liberated just this morning, there is an outpouring of emotion as a Canadian army band plays the Belgian national anthem, previously banned by the German occupation authorities.

In Paris, after his meeting with Clemenceau, Foch retires to his apartment. Cheering crowds greet him but he is too exhausted after the final rush of the negotiations to join the celebrations. He sits alone smoking and thinking. The rest of the city gives itself over to a bacchanal. Paris explodes with tricolours and everywhere people are laughing, singing, embracing, and kissing. The conditions are perfect for the further transmission of the influenza.

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Haig and his generals

Paris celebrates (Le Blog Gallica: 11 novembre 1918 : Marthe Chenal chante l’arrêt des hostilités)

25/10/1918 As the Belgian King returns to Bruges, Allied commanders discuss armistice terms

On the Western Front the weather is worsening, making conditions tougher for the soldiers on both sides. Nevertheless Allied pressure on the Germans continues. With the support of their Allies, Belgian troops have now cleared the Germans from the country’s coast, recovering Zeebrugge and Bruges. Today the Belgian King and Queen pay their first visit to newly liberated Bruges, the centre of which at least appears to be relatively unscathed after four years of German occupation.

Despite Ludendorff‘s recent call for continued resistance, it seems likely that an armistice will soon be concluded with the Germans. Clemenceau has asked Foch for a report on the military terms that will be required, so now he meets with all the Western Front commanders for the first time since July. Despite the recent victories, Haig is relatively cautious, fearing that if too arduous terms are demanded of the Germans then they may decide to fight on into next year. Pétain however is more confident that the enemy can be required to accept terms that would put them at a grave disadvantage should the war be resumed.

Pershing meanwhile is the most bullish. Despite the travails of his army in the Argonne, he commands the only force that is steadily increasing in size and becoming ever more effective as his men adapt to Western Front conditions. He suggests the most extreme armistice demands, not merely German surrender of occupied territory but Allied occupation of the Rhineland and establishment of bridgeheads across the great river. He also suggests German restitution of confiscated rolling stock and their surrender of all U-boats. These conditions would make it impossible for the Germans to treat an armistice as a temporary reprieve and an opportunity to lick their wounds and prepare for more fighting. The armistice would put the German army at such disadvantage that restarting the war would be impossible.

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King Albert and Queen Elisabeth in Bruges (Wikipedia: Battle of Courtrai (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)

24/7/1918 Foch meets the Allied commanders, calls for them to go on the attack #1918Live

On the Western Front the tide appears to be turning in favour of the Allies. The German Marne-Champagne offensive has failed and now a French-led counter-attack is recapturing lost ground in the Marne sector. Meanwhile the balance of forces is becoming ever more favourable to the Allies as thousands of US troops continue to arrive in France every day while tanks and aircraft pour out of British and French factories.

Today Allied military leaders meet at Bombon, the headquarters of Foch, the Western Front generalissimo. Foch and Weygand, his chief of staff, greet Haig, Pétain and Pershing, the three Allied commanders. Weygand and Foch argue that the time has come for the Allies to go on the offensive, proposing a rolling series of assaults to push the Germans away from vital railway lines and pave the way for eventual Allied victory.

Haig and Pétain are both wary, fearing that their armies need to lick their wounds further before they can launch major offensives against the enemy. Pershing meanwhile is more keen to attack, but he remains insistent that American units must fight independently and not be incorporated into British or French armies (he had only with reluctance supplied US troops to support the French counterattack on the Marne).

Foch and Weygand are unable for now to bend Haig and Pétain to their will, but they manage to avoid a complete rejection of their proposals. Instead the Allied commanders will bring them to their own staff officers and issue a more considered reply in coming days. Foch remains confident that his fellow commanders will come round to his way of thinking. Soon the Allies will attack and seize the initiative permanently from the enemy.

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Philippe Pétain, Douglas Haig, Ferdinand Foch, & John Pershing (Wikipedia Commons)

Map (1 is the Marne counterattack currently underway) (The Long, Long Trail: The Battles of the Marne, 1918)

28/5/1918 Hubert Rees meets the Kaiser

The Allies are reeling from Germany’s Blücher-Yorck offensive in the Aisne sector. Most of the defending troops are French but British troops are also present, veterans of the first and second German offensives who had been sent to this previously quiet sector for a rest. Although French commander Pétain had suspected that the Germans might attack here, the preparations of Duchêne, the local commander, were inadequate and the German gains since yesterday have been unprecedented.

As the Germans advance they round up vast numbers of Allied prisoners. The Germans are moving forward so quickly that even senior officers are finding themselves being captured. One of these is Brigadier-General Hubert Rees, who had fought as a junior officer in the First Battle of the Aisne and at Ypres in 1914 before rising through the ranks. After falling into the hands of the enemy, Rees is brought to meet what he assumes will be a senior German officer but instead finds himself face to face with the Kaiser. The German Emperor is visiting the Crown Prince, the local German commander, and is pleased to meet a captured enemy general. He is also amused to learn that Rees, like Lloyd George, is Welsh.

Ludendorff, meanwhile, is pleased with the progress of the battle. It was meant to be a diversion, drawing Allied attention away from Flanders, where he planned to launch Operation Hagen, which would drive the British into the sea. But now Hagen has been postponed. Ludendorff is reinforcing Blücher-Yorck, hoping that it will provoke the collapse of the Allies.

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Kaiser Wilhelm II and Brigadier-General Hubert Rees (BBC)

24/3/1918 German success causes Allied nerves to fray #1918Live

Since the start of their spring offensive, the Germans have taken some 50,000 British prisoners and many artillery pieces. They are now on the brink of overrunning the old Somme battlefield. The rapid advance in particular of Hutier, which threatens to separate the British and French armies, is a worrying sign of what the Germans are capable of. And the shelling of Paris by the new German supergun has unnerved France’s leaders.

French reinforcements are now bolstering the British line, but when the commanders of the two armies meet late tonight, Haig is shocked by his counterpart’s attitude. Pétain is concerned that the current offensive is but a prelude to an assault on his men in the Champagne region, one that together with Hutier’s advance would threaten Paris itself. Pétain indicates that if this threat were to materialise then the French would have to retreat southwards to guard their capital, abandoning the British.

image source (Project Gutenberg: The Somme, Volume 2. The Second Battle of the Somme (1918))

23/3/1918 The Kaiser and Hindenburg visit the scene of victory #1918Live

As Germany’s spring offensive continues to hit the British, Hindenburg and the Kaiser visit the rear area of the battle zone. Nominally these two men are the leaders of Germany’s war effort, the Kaiser the supreme warlord and Hindenburg the army’s chief of staff, but both have been shut out of the offensive’s planning by Ludendorff, Germany’s Quartermaster-General. Nevertheless both are happy to bask in the success of the offensive’s gains, which promise to end the war on German terms. The Kaiser even finds time to address a column of British prisoners: “Well gentlemen, you have fought very bravely, but… Gott mit uns!

Success has emboldened Ludendorff, who now sets Hutier, leading the attack in the southernmost sector, the task of pressing on to the south-west to separate the British and French armies. But he also orders his other commanders to advance to the west and north-west, dispersing German strength on divergent assaults.

The Allies meanwhile are shaken. But although the British have been thrown back all along the battle line, they have not yet suffered a total collapse. Meanwhile Pétain, the French commander, has promised to send 14 divisions to their aid. Help is on its way, if only the British can hold on.

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Kaiser Wilhelm II and Paul von Hindenburg (Wikipedia Commons)