There’s no getting away from it. Much as a global take on human history insists otherwise, I’m going to have to talk about the Western Front today. I should probably be focusing on the landings of British, American and Japanese forces in Siberia during early August 1918, which were helping create a divide destined to define the second half of the twentieth century. Or we could be looking at the vague promises of future self-government made to India by Lord Montagu, the British colonial minister, during a much-publicised speech to parliament on 6 August, which were part of an imperial let-down that put a (so far) permanent curve into sub-continental politics.
Then again, I could make a case for keeping our minds on the ongoing British conquest of the Middle East, or the civil wars bubbling in the Caucasus, or the rapid changes to US culture being wrought by the gods of war, or the mushrooming confidence in an imperialist destiny among military and political leaders in Japan, the Great War’s only real winner. But today, 8 August, is the centenary of what that arch-dissembler, Ludendorff, called ‘the black day of the German Army in the history of the War’, and he was kind of right, so the Western Front it is.
Standard histories on the Allied side refer to the battle that opened on 8 August as the Amiens Offensive, but like most major operations on the Western Front it was named by its perpetrators in fairly arbitrary fashion as a means of distinguishing it from all the previous Allied offensives in roughly the same place. It can be more helpfully described as a renewed Allied attempt to advance either side of the River Somme, and as the first major Allied counterattack after the long and scary German Spring Offensive had ground to a halt at the Marne in mid-July. As such, and with hindsight, it marked the opening of the Western Front’s final campaign, the one that ended with the Armistice in November.
Allied military leaders in France had been planning the operation, on and off, since May, when talks between BEF commander Haig and Western Front supremo Foch generated provisional arrangements for a surprise attack just south of the Somme, at the point where the French First Army under General Debeney met General Rawlinson’s British Fourth Army. At that stage Allied planning was being conducted in reaction to a cascade of German offensives erupting along the front. I’ve talked about the cascade’s opening – the Kaiserschlacht Offensive (21 March, 1918: Stalemate Ends… Posterity Shrugs) – and about its last phase at the Marne (12 July, 1918: The Way We Were), but until now I’ve done little more than refer to the big, important German offensives in between. So here’s some context.
Having survived the shock of Kaiserschlacht in March, the BEF bore the initial brunt of the next wave of German attacks, launched in Flanders on 9 April and known as the Lys Offensive or, in Germany, as Operation Georgette. Ludendorff and the German Third Supreme Command had originally planned to open their spring campaign with an assault on Allied lines in Flanders, but fear of bad weather and its attendant mud had prompted a switch further south, to the Somme sector. When the Kaiserschlacht operation faltered after early successes, and the weather to the north had held, a secondary operation in Flanders was quickly upgraded to become the main focus of the next phase.
Intended to force evacuation of the Allied salient that bulged east of Ypres, and to drive on to the Channel coast at Dunkirk, the Lys attack got off to a flying start. Advancing through mist and across firm ground along a front between the town of Béthune and the Lille satellite of Armentières, and supported by a vast concentration of heavy artillery, the attackers broke through a fragile Portuguese corps around Levantie. British units to either side of the breakthrough, many of them tired after their transfer from defence of the Somme sector, fell back some 5km on the first day and took heavy losses.
The attacks continued for another nineteen days, but never repeated the trick. Pushing northward towards the Ypres area, and bringing relatively fresh Belgian Army troops into the fight alongside General Plumer’s British Second Army, German forces inched forward as the battle degenerated into a mess of tit-for-tat local skirmishes. Meanwhile Haig found himself in danger of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory for the second time in three weeks, and responded by appealing to Foch for release of reinforcements from French-held sectors further south. Informed by French c-in-c Pétain that his exhausted forces expected an attack at any moment, Foch at first refused, but French reserves did eventually march north and joined the fight from 22 April.
By that time the Third Supreme Command – recognising that anything short of a strategic breakthrough in the sector amounted to failure – was already preparing an alternative line of approach if nothing more than local victories could be achieved. The German offensive eventually got within 35km of Dunkirk, 18km beyond its starting point, and took the tactically important prize of Mount Kemmel from French forces on 25 April, but by then Allied defensive discipline had been fully restored. With his forces close to exhaustion, and losses running at about 110,000 men on each side, Ludendorff suspended Operation Georgette on 29 April.
Haig and Foch hatched their counterattack plan during the lull that followed, intending to give French forces the lead role while the BEF recovered from its losses around the Lys – but Ludendorff’s third-phase offensive opened against French positions at the Aisne on 27 May, forcing the plan’s indefinite postponement.
Ludendorff was convinced that Germany’s only remaining hope of victory lay in driving the British out of Flanders, cutting their lines of supply across the Channel and forcing the BEF to evacuate northern France. The attack launched on 27 May, generally called the Aisne Offensive of 1918 or the Third Battle of the Aisne, was intended as a gigantic feint to draw French reserves away from Flanders, but began so well for the German Army that it morphed into another pivotal push for total victory.
Unlike his counterparts further north, the French commander in the Aisne sector had no truck with the ‘defence in depth’ tactics that had been working pretty well on the Western Front for almost three years (25 September, 1915: Deep Sh•t). A four-year Western Front veteran, General Louis Franchet d’Esperey was an energetic and rather cunning commander of the old school, which in French terms meant he was dogmatically committed to the power of all-out offence. This was presumably his reason for ignoring advice from subordinates after intelligence reached them of a forthcoming attack, and cramming his troops into forward positions with the River Aisne at their backs.
After a preliminary bombardment by 4,000 heavy guns, the German advance began in the small hours of the morning on 27 May, hitting the French Sixth Army and four British divisions attached in support. Artillery decimated troops packed into forward trenches, gas attacks took out defending artillery and the defence crumbled, leaving 17 divisions of Crown Prince Wilhelm’s Southern Army Group to advance through a 40km gap in the line towards the Chemin des Dames ridge, a position taken at enormous cost by French forces during the disastrous Anglo-French Nivelle Offensive of 1917. Surviving defenders scrambled back beyond the Aisne without destroying bridges, and by evening the attackers were at the River Vesle, an advance of some 15km.
This time German offensive momentum lasted longer. Attacking armies had captured 50,000 prisoners and 800 guns by 27 May, and by 3 June they had reached the Marne, although the line of advance had narrowed as they moved west. By the time exhaustion, supply problems and Allied counterattacks combined to halt German attacks on 6 June, they had established a 15km front at the Marne.
The fighting at the Aisne had cost the French Army 98,000 casualties, shorn the BEF of around 26,000 men, and triggered a sense of crisis in France that saw Sixth Army commander General Duchêne dismissed, Franchet d’Esperey transferred to Salonika and a general hardening of the Clemenceau government’s attitude towards the caution displayed by French c-in-c Pétain. It hadn’t drawn much French strength from the Flanders sector, and so Ludendorff chose to regroup for a fresh attempt at the Marne.
Foch and Haig meanwhile went back to planning their attack in Flanders, this time with the BEF scheduled to take the lead role, and added a secondary plan to attack the flank of the new German-held bulge at the Marne. Ludendorff again moved before the Allies were ready to act, but the German attack at the Marne in mid-July was the work of a broken weapon and the abject nature of its failure finally freed the Allies to strike back.
Haig was given command of the operation around Amiens, and his preparations reflected lessons learned from successful Australian ‘peaceful penetration’ tactics (4 July, 1918: Little Big Stuff). The strength of General Rawlinson’s Fourth Army was doubled in strict and really quite effective secrecy, while advancing infantry was to be given protection from every mechanized device available, including 2070 artillery pieces, 800 aircraft, 342 Mark V heavy tanks and 72 ‘Whippet’ medium tanks. Supporting French forces had no tanks, but they did have protection from almost 1,000 aircraft. Facing a total of around 120,000 Allied troops along the 23km front slated for attack, General Marwitz could muster about 20,000 troops of the German Sixth Army, while the German Army Air Service could field only 365 aircraft across the entire sector.
Secure in the material superiority of his army, Rawlinson elected to do without the standard preliminary bombardment, and defenders were ill prepared when his infantry, massed behind the tanks, advanced on schedule at 4.20am on 8 August. The central British advance met little infantry resistance during the morning, although many tank crews were reduced to delirium by the soaring heat, and both the Canadian and Australian corps had gained about 12km by early afternoon. No less aware than Ludendorff of a fundamental shift in the balance of power on the Western Front, Allied commanders began talking in terms of imminent victory, but though well-planned and in places efficiently carried out, the day’s endeavours had hit a few familiar snags.
To the north, an attack to protect the flank of the main force had been stopped at Chilpilly Spur, and French troops had made only small, slow gains to the south, so although the offensive’s main objectives had already been reached the overall advance was more of a shaft than a wave. Part of the problem was a rapid breakdown of coordination with supporting aircraft, which spent much of the day bombing bridges over the Somme after multiple communications cock-ups. Meanwhile tanks had again demonstrated their fragility as much as their tactical value, with most out of action long before the first day ended, and the advance had triggered the same kind of supply problems suffered by every initially successful operation to date on the Western Front.
The Canadian corps did manage to gain another 5km on 9 August, but elsewhere on the attack front little progress was made and heavy losses suffered. Attacks slowed over the next two days as fatigue set in and twelve German divisions arrived to bolster the defence. By 12 August, with British tank strength was down to six, a new German defensive line had been established in front of Noyon, Ham and Péronne, and three days later Foch and Haig agreed to halt the operation, switching their attention to a new offensive a little further north, around Albert.
Like the latter stages of a football game, when both teams are tired, the war on the Western Front had finally turned into an open game across the summer of 1918, but the first Allied attempt to exploit the theatre’s new defensive frailties had gone the way of the German Army’s best efforts. And yet, with US forces about to join the campaign and the breakdown of Germany’s war effort suddenly clear for all to see, strategists on both sides knew the War was won and lost by the time fighting ended around Amiens on 8 August.
I can come up with two excuses for this extended plod through a relatively dramatic sequence of offensives and counteroffensives. One is to plug one of those information gaps left by the lazy sensationalism of the British heritage industry, which is busy celebrating the German Army’s ‘black day’ with some of the most hilariously ill-informed and embarrassingly inaccurate reportage even this war has managed to generate. If you’re in any doubt about that, check out the spectacularly ignorant reports coming out of Amiens on Sky News.
My other aim is to spread a little opprobrium, because while Haig and Foch were obliged to continue the fight as long as the German Army remained at war, the German Third Supreme Command had only one reason for prolonging the horror on the Western Front after 8 August. Before they finally gave up, walked away and left German politicians to sort out the mess, Ludendorff, Hindenburg and their elite gang of would-be dictators would force another three months of continuous bloodletting simply to preserve their own reputations and those of the classes they represented. For all that heritage convention likes to rail at the ‘donkeys’ responsible for repeated tactical failures on the Western Front, the worst that could be said of the worst of them is that they were incompetent. The men running in Germany in 1918, under the nominal leadership of an inert monarch paralysed by fear and despair, were war criminals.