By 1918 the French army was led by experienced soldiers who had learned how to fight mechanised battles with acceptable levels of casualties.
Given that World War I is not remembered for its generalship, the fact that a highly competent and experienced group of senior commanders, who proved their worth during the Hundred Days, had emerged from the conditions of trench warfare may surprise. In a war in which the military arts were refashioned, thinking, practical and determined individuals were needed to take on the responsibilities of high command, to manage complex military machines and to deliver the results that made strategic victory possible. In the French army a group of generals who had held relatively junior commands in 1914 now held the senior commands – Foch himself had started the war commanding XX Army Corps, although by 1915 he was directing a group of armies. What they had in common was a wealth of experience in offensive and defensive battles, an understanding of the French army as well as the style of warfare it was now fighting, and sympathy for the common soldiers they commanded.
At the head of the army Philippe Pétain, who had restored morale after the crisis that followed the failure of General Robert Nivelle’s spring 1917 offensive, had the confidence of the men he led. He was a very experienced field commander, having begun the war in command of a brigade and been promoted rapidly to command the elite XXXIII Army Corps in the Artois offensive in spring 1915, before directing Second Army in the defence of Verdun and leading Central Army Group.
Petain’s two immediate subordinates in summer 1918, Marie-Émile Fayolle and Paul Maistre, commanding respectively the Reserve and Central Army Groups that were to push the Germans back to the Franco-Belgian frontier, had also fought in Artois. Fayolle had commanded a division in Pétain’s corps and had become its commander when Pétain was promoted, while Maistre had commanded the neighbouring XXI Army Corps. Foch had directed that offensive as Northern Army Group commander, and would also supervise Fayolle in 1916 when the latter, now commanding Sixth Army, fought the Battle of the Somme.
These men not only fought together; they had thought and taught together, educating a whole generation of senior officers now in positions throughout the army. Foch, Pétain and Fayolle all lectured at France’s staff college at the turn of the century and Maistre had been Foch’s assistant for a while. Other pre-war professors could be found in senior positions – Generals Marie-Éugene Debeney and Adolphe Guillaumat, commanding First and Fifth Armies, and General Edmond Buat, a former army commander and now Pétain’s chief of staff. They had experience of staff work as well as command. Debeney, for example, had been First Army chief of staff in 1914, a division and army corps commander in 1916 at Verdun and the Somme, then Pétain’s chief of staff in 1917 when he assumed command of the army. After the war Debeney would become head of the French army, as would Foch’s own chief of staff, Maxime Weygand.
The rest of Foch’s winning team were men who had proved themselves aggressive and effective commanders in the field. Three had learned their profession serving in France’s colonies before the war: General Henri Gouraud of Fourth Army, who had lost an arm at Gallipoli; General Georges Humbert of Third Army, which he had commanded since 1915, after commanding the elite Moroccan Division at the start of the war; and General Charles Mangin, Nivelle’s righthand man in the counter-offensive at Verdun who, if insubordinate at times, could be relied upon to strike hard and win battles. General Henri Berthelot, commanding Fifth Army, had been chief of army operations at the start of the war, a corps commander, and head of the French military mission to Romania that had reconstructed that army after its defeat in 1916.
The newest member of the team, General Jean-Marie Degoutte of Sixth Army, another colonial soldier, was appointed in July 1918, after his old-school predecessor had failed to contain the German attack on the Marne. Degoutte was a typical product of the army’s culture – a former army chief of staff and division and army corps commander who had distinguished himself as a commander of the Moroccan Division on the Somme and at Verdun. Their armies would march side by side to victory, won on the effort of their weary soldiers but made possible by the skill and drive of their generals.
In Ludendorff’s five spring offensives the German Army had suffered no fewer than 963,300 casualties. But the French were losing men at a rate of 112,000 a month, and the British armies were declining by 70,000 a month. The British were now conscripting men up to fifty years of age. `There are many things that show the approach of the end of England’s manpower,’ noted General J. G. Harbord – charged with securing American supplies – when he visited an army camp in Brentwood, Essex. The men were `physically poor, runts, crooked, underdeveloped, a sad contrast to the splendidly set up Tommies of peace times’. `The strength of the British Army is decreasing day by day,’ reported Foch in a formal memorandum to the Supreme War Council on 1 June. `It even decreases more rapidly than that of the American Army increases .The result is a decrease in the total strength of the Allies. This consequence is exceptionally grave: it may mean the loss of the war.’
The sun and the night added their own particular ingredients of terror to the war in the summer of 1918: fighting took place in a world of shimmering whites and unfathomable black. Thus Ludendorff’s final offensive upon the Marne pushed his armies, on 15 July, across a chalky wilderness where all the topsoil had been blown off by previous bombardment. It was a treeless, waterless zone, with no shade, no paths; the only landmarks that remained were the crumbling white embankments of abandoned trenches, infested by rusty snakes of broken barbed wire. Three days later Allied counter-attacks, west of Soissons, advanced through fields of ripe corn, wheat and white barley that stood over two feet high: enough to conceal enemy infantry and machine-guns. The soldiers looked out upon a threatening, quivering sheet of heat that extended, in ripples, to the horizon. And all advancing armies faced the peril of bombardment, which, when it came, threw up great geysers of hot earth – and cut out the light of day.
The erratic association of colours was only one element in a growing pool of violence. There was also the strange mixture of the new with the old, which confused the generals and gave many citizen soldiers a feeling that they lived outside time. No neat patterns of progress emerged in the fighting. No one could point a finger at a specific place at a particular moment and say, `This was new’ or `This was old.’ No theory worked; no process could be detected. Some soldiers did manage to put their faith in novel technologies, but others turned to God, while many simply stared into the empty night. Over 200 tanks gave General Charles Mangin’s French Tenth Army the victory when they came rumbling out of the Forest of Villers-Cotterets on 18 July to startle the right wing of Crown Prince Wilhelm’s German Army Group. But it had been a Canadian mounted cavalry that took Moreuil Ridge at the end of March and saved Amiens for the Allies. American Marines at Villers-Cotterets on 18 July were astonished when they saw emerging from the woods to their left uniformed French dragoons, lancers and armoured cuirassiers to mop up the isolated German positions they had bypassed: it was a scene from Napoleon’s century. The prophets of novelty had a few surprises. Scottish soldiers of the British 15th Division were shocked to discover the results of America’s `new’ version of `open warfare’: when they came in to relieve the American 2nd Division in the evening of 19 July they found several thousand of the Marines lying dead in swaths where the German machine-guns had caught them.
In the rarefied atmosphere of some staff offices one could hear the debate go on between `Ancients’ and `Moderns’, but the argument was never resolved. The technological enthusiasts of warfare by tank, like the British Minister of Munitions, Winston Churchill, were not entirely aware of what exhaustion meant for the crews of Mark Vs and `Whippets’ in the summer of 1918. Mark Vs advanced on the hard open road at a maximum speed of 4.6 m. p. h.; Whippets, at full throttle, roared ahead at eight. Under the sun the ammunition swelled and thus jammed the guns; the steering was impossible to touch: some engineering genius had lodged the radiator of the Mark V Star inside the steel armoury, with no compensating ventilation. The men inside, during a summer’s battle, lost their reason, became delirious and, on occasions, had to be overcome by force. And, of course, slow-moving tanks made easy targets for the German field guns.
The `war of movement’ of 1918 advanced yard by yard, foot by bloody foot. White, red and yellow aeroplanes buzzed overhead.
The future Catholic theologian and biologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was a stretcher-bearer in Mangin’s army when he watched, from a high observation post, the counter-offensive take place on 18 July. `There was something implacable about all this, above all; it seemed inanimate,’ he wrote to his sister. `You could see nothing of the agony and passion that gave each little moving human dot its own individual character and made them all so many worlds. All you saw was the material development of a clash between two huge material forces.’ Teilhard’s theory of evolution would one day contain a wry smile of optimism. That was more than could be said of the summer thoughts of the German lieutenant Rudolf Binding: `This generation has no future, and deserves none. Anyone who belongs to it lives no more.’
Ludendorff’s offensives had knocked the top half of the drunken `S’ further out of skew. The Allies’ first task was to recover lost ground and reduce the most menacing German salients, especially outside Paris. The strategic significance behind Mangin’s counter-offensive of 18 July had been that Allied guns had managed to dominate the important railway junction and main road connecting Soissons with Chateau-Thierry. This sort of fact was the vital concern in the weeks and months that followed. It was the roads and rails that fanned the plain which determined Allied military plans for the remainder of the war.
The reason was simple. In August 1914 some fifty-four German divisions had passed between the Belgian-Dutch frontier to the north and the French town of Metz to the south. By the spring of 1919 the Germans had over 200 divisions stationed along a great arc about 350 miles in length. They were supported by field guns, mortars, machine-guns, aeroplanes and every other instrument the war had invented in four years. Behind them lay the plain – but also the great Belgian ancient massif of the Ardennes, which in places was a veritable mountain range.
In no way would the Germans be able to retreat at the speed at which they advanced, even if that were their intention (which it was not). There were only two routes of escape: to the north and to the south of the Ardennes. If the Allies could manage to block these two `points’ (though these formed the greater part of the plain), then they could destroy the German Army.
Vague plans had been presented by Foch as early as May. But it was only after Mangin’s offensive that the Allies met – on 24 July in Foch’s gabled Chateau Bombon (Poincaré, who had no sense of humour, insisted on calling the place `Pomponne’) – to lay down their intentions. There was the usual discussion of war mathematics. Thousands of troops were being hospitalized and dying not as a direct result of combat but because of the `Spanish flu’. (What the generals did not know was that the Germans were suffering more.) Foch pushed for an all-out offensive, along the whole front. Haig had his doubts. Pétain said it was impossible. The Americans did not yet have an army. But the general idea of a pincer movement at the north and the south was accepted; both areas were rich in industry and minerals, and both were the sites of railway junctions – Germany’s only routes of escape.
This set the positions of the armies. British armies would apply the pinch in the north; the new American Army would push in the south. How exactly this would be achieved was, again, left to local initiative. In July 1918 it was thought that the task of clearing out enemy salients at Chateau-Thierry, Amiens and Saint-Mihiel would be enough on the agenda for that year. The pinch would begin in 1919. `L’édifice commence a craquer,’ Foch cheerfully repeated at Bombon; `tout le monde a la bataille!’
The point of juncture between the French and the British on the Somme would be critical, for here the two Allies would advance together and thus eventually tighten their grip on the trapped enemy. Oddly, that point of juncture was found near a town called Roye, where Louis XVIII had stopped to form his government after the Battle of Waterloo. Roye, where the front turned from south to south-east, carried some significance in the troubled history of Anglo-French relations. Co-ordination was essential here if the Allied `hinge’ was to be successfully converted into a hammer.
There was, of course, a lot of argument. Should the main thrust be made from the south (as Foch desired) or from the north (as Haig demanded)? The two armies involved were Henry Rawlinson’s British Fourth Army and Eugene Debeney’s French First. Rawlinson thought the French general lacked fire in his stomach. Harbord described Debeney as `a typically provincial Frenchman’ who, as Debeney himself admitted, found staff work a `heavy burden’ and preferred to be in the company of his troops.
But, whatever the temperamental differences, Foch eventually agreed to place Debeney’s army temporarily under Haig’s command and to concentrate on a northern attack – a combined offensive upon German positions that still threatened the vital railway junction at Amiens. On 7 August Foch issued one of his exhortatory orders of the day: `Yesterday I said to you: Obstinacy, Patience, your American comrades are coming. Today I say to you: Tenacity, Boldness, and Victory must be yours.’ Before dawn the next morning a British barrage opened up that sounded `like a colony of giants slamming iron doors’. Two thousand of Rawlinson’s guns had started with a single crash; over 400 tanks moved ahead in the mist, along with the British 1st Cavalry Brigade. In the sky there was a constant buzz as fleets of aircraft of the recently formed Royal Air Force flew in to provide cover.
`As the sun set on 8th of August on the battlefield,’ ran the official German report, `the greatest defeat which the German Army had suffered since the beginning of the War was an accomplished fact. The positions between the Avre and the Somme, which had been struck by the enemy attack were nearly completely annihilated.’