German Order of Battle, Western Front, 6.7.18, showing front line and German formations in red, Divisions in green; Divisions of poor quality in red outlined in green. The situation at the turning point of the war, as the Allied counter-offensives were beginning. Scale of original: 1:1 million.
German Order of Battle, Western Front, 11.11.18. 11.00, at the moment of the Armistice. Scale: 1:1 million.
Battle of Château-Thierry
French counter-attacks developed rapidly. On 18 July, the Battle of Château-Thierry opened when the French Tenth and Sixth Armies and American infantry were launched out of the Villers-Cotterêts Forest on a twenty-five-mile front between Fontenoy and Château-Thierry. Their objective was to hack into the flank of the Marne salient, and they were supported by predicted artillery fire and 750 Renault light tanks and protected by smoke. The Germans were forced to withdraw, and by 7 August had pulled out of the salient, back to the river Aisne. The Allies were now strengthened in numbers and morale by the infusion of American blood. German morale was correspondingly lowered.
Ludendorff cancelled his intended Flanders operation, and German soldiers, and those of their allies, were only too aware that the war was now lost. The French were now exhausted, and most of their tanks were destroyed, damaged or unserviceable. So Foch insisted that the task of carrying out the next blow should fall to the British, who had recovered from their setbacks earlier in the year and were benefiting from a massive increase in their war production.
Battle of Hamel
On the British sector of the front, counter-offensives were in any case being organized. On 4 July the Australians, supported by an American infantry company, captured Hamel and Vaire Wood, east of Amiens, in an imaginative and spirited set-piece attack involving the cooperation of predicted artillery fire, infantry, tanks and air support.
To minimize casualties, Monash, the Australian Corps Commander, insisted that his men should be well covered by the artillery. There was a massive concentration of British and French batteries for this small operation, amounting to about 600 guns and howitzers, with an emphasis on counter-battery fire as well as bombardments in the days before the attack. For the attack itself, surprise was achieved by the barrage opening with a crash. This successful little attack became the model for a much larger offensive, the Battle of Amiens. This in turn opened a series of Allied offensives, in which the British, French and Americans all played a major part, known as the Battles of the Hundred Days. This succession of offensives only ended with the Armistice on 11 November.
Battles of Amiens and Montdidier
Benefitting from the experience of the Hamel attack, the Amiens offensive, launched on 8 August on a fourteen-mile front, was made by Rawlinson’s Fourth Army, and spearheaded by the Canadian Corps. The aim was to disengage Amiens, which until now was within the range of German guns, and to free the Paris-Amiens railway. A deception plan was put into operation, involving a Canadian wireless station, two casualty clearing stations and two infantry battallions, to make it appear that the Canadian Corps was now in the Kemmel area in Flanders. The operations on the French sector of the attack frontage were known as the Battle of Montdidier.
Rawlinson’s Fourth Army pushed forward rapidly on a nine-mile front, supported by the French on the right, and then the Canadians and Australians, with the British 3rd Corps on the left. They were under accurate predicted bombardment and creeping barrage fired by over 2,000 guns and howitzers, and supported by 456 tanks, including many of the new Mark V models. Following the precedent set by the Germans in March, all supports and reserves began to move forward simultaneously at zero. The artillery had done very well at counter-battery work, aided in particular by the sound-rangers who could locate moving German batteries in haze and mist, unlike the flash-spotters and the air force.
British offensive tactics, after the slogging of 1915–18, were now more mobile and efficient. An advance of eight miles was made on the first day, but many tanks, still slow and vulnerable to mechanical breakdown, were lost to direct artillery fire. On the second day of the battle, the British only had 145 tanks still ready for action. Armoured cars and relatively fast Whippet tanks exploited in the rear areas, and cavalry helped to gain and hold some positions until the infantry arrived.
German resistance stiffened, the attack soon lost impetus, and there were no new reserves to feed the battle. But a new attack doctrine had by now evolved. As soon as one attack lost momentum, artillery and reserves were switched to another front and the blow repeated. Predicted fire, based on accurate survey and mapping, maintained the element of surprise, keeping the Germans off-balance. Wherever possible, tanks were also used to strengthen the attack. Rawlinson’s Army captured 400 guns and inflicted 27,000 casualties on the Germans, including 12,000 prisoners, for the loss of 9,000 men.
Battles of Albert, Bapaume and the Drocourt–Quéant Line
Following the Amiens operations, which lasted until 12 August, the weight of the British offensive was switched, at Haig’s insistence, to the northern sector of the Somme battlefield. Foch’s preference had been for a continuation of the Amiens battle. The Battles of Albert and Bapaume, from 21–31 August, turned the flank of the German position on the Somme and forced the Germans to pull back to the east bank. This series of blows continued when the new German position was then turned from the north from 26 August to 3 September in the Battles of Arras and the Drocourt–Quéant Line. That position being ruptured in an attack in which the Canadians and Americans took a major role, the Germans were forced to fall back to the outer defences of the Hindenburg Line. As the direct result of these battles, the Lys Salient further north was evacuated by the Germans, and the British captured Lens, and recaptured Merville, Bailleul and Mount Kemmel, and freed Hazebrouck and its vital railway junctions, which had been under German artillery bombardment.
Battle of St Mihiel
It had always been the aim of General Pershing, the Commander-in-Chief of the American Expeditionary Force, to concentrate American forces in a field army under his command, rather than see them scattered piecemeal to reinforce other Allied armies. At St Mihiel, and then more particularly in the Meuse–Argonne battle, he achieved this. Between 12–16 September the Americans, led by Pershing, with a French corps and 267 light tanks also under his command, fought the Battle of St Mihiel to eliminate the German-held St Mihiel Salient, south of Verdun. Pershing planned to break through the German lines and capture the fortress of Metz, and as his attack caught the enemy withdrawing from the Salient, with their artillery also pulling back and most batteries therefore out of action, it proved more successful than expected. In a day and a half Pershing’s army, at the cost of 7,000 casualties, captured 15,000 prisoners and 450 guns.
While the success of the American attack impressed the French and British, the operations demonstrated the difficulty of supplying large armies in a war of movement. The attack ground to a halt as artillery and ration trucks bogged down on the muddy roads. The US air service played a significant part in this battle, although American fliers had been serving with the Escadrille Lafayette since 1916. The intended attack on Metz did not in the end take place, as the Germans took up a strong rear position and the Americans turned their efforts further north, to the Verdun and Argonne Forest regions.
Battle of Epéhy and the Meuse–Argonne Offensive
In the Battle of Epéhy on 18 and 19 September, British forces broke through the outer Hindenburg defences and established jumping-off positions for the attack on the main Hindenburg position. Foch’s grand offensive now gathered pace along the whole Allied front. On 26 September, Pershing’s American First and Gouraud’s French Fourth Armies began the Meuse–Argonne offensive, on the front from Verdun to the Argonne Forest, with Pershing’s right flank on the river Meuse and the French attacking on his left. Twenty-two French and fifteen American divisions were involved. This, the largest American operation of the war, lasted from 26 September to the Armistice on 11 November. In the difficult Argonne Forest terrain of tangled woods, gullies and ridges, it was almost impossible for tanks to operate, and the Americans found themselves engaging in a bloody slog through a succession of strongly held German positions.
Breaking the Hindenburg Line
In their operations from 8 August to 26 September (the eve of the great attack on the main Hindenburg Position), the BEF suffered 190,000 casualties. Between 26–29 September, one Belgian, five British, and two French armies attacked the Hindenburg Line and German positions extending north to beyond Ypres. Attacks were made by fifty British and twelve Belgian divisions, as well as the French and Americans further south. On the whole of the Western Front, 217 Allied divisions faced 197 German.
The attack on the Hindenburg Position, whose defences were up to three miles in depth and included the St Quentin Canal which made a superb anti-tank ditch, was made in the Battles of Cambrai and St Quentin, from 27 September until 10 October. The French First Army attacked on the right of the British Fourth Army (Rawlinson). In view of the strength of this well-sited and long-prepared position, Rawlinson and his artillery commander Budworth decided on an intense fifty-six hour preliminary bombardment in addition to the now-usual predicted crash and creeping barrage starting at zero hour on 29 September. Over 1,630 guns were used on a 10,000-yard front, firing an extremely effective counter-battery and destructive programme beforehand, with a high proportion of high-explosive shell, and neutralizing fire during the attack. Operational and artillery planning was helped by a set of captured enemy defence maps, showing all the trenches, pill-boxes, dugouts, machine gun emplacements, battery positions, etc. The German defenders were stunned by the artillery, and overwhelmed by the attack.
In ten days of heavy fighting in the crucial sector from St Quentin to Epéhy, and especially north of this on a four-mile frontage between Bellicourt and Vendhuille, where the St Quentin Canal ran in a tunnel, the British and Americans eventually broke through the last and strongest of the Germans’ fully prepared positions. A critical situation initially developed in the tunnel sector when the American 2nd Corps’ two divisions (27th and 30th), supported by three Australian divisions, were delayed by the strength of the German defences and lost the barrage. Tanks became ditched in the deep trenches, and as the inexperienced Americans neglected the vital task of ‘mopping up’ German pockets as they went forward, the Australians had to fight through this ground again as they in turn moved up. Further south, at Bellenglise, the British 46th Division managed to cross the canal, using rafts and lifebelts, protected by a pulverizing barrage, punching a three-mile gap in the German defence and turning the enemy flank to the north in the sector facing the Australians and Americans. Advances were also made further north, on 27 September, between Péronne and Lens, on the fronts of the British Third and First Armies, and by 5 October the attacking Allied armies had broken through the whole Hindenburg Position. This opened the way for a war of movement and an advance towards the vital main German communications routes.
This group of assaults was undertaken in three phases. First came the storming of the Canal-du-Nord position on the left in the Battle of the St Quentin Canal, and the advance on Cambrai. Following this came the shattering blow which, after a stupendous artillery bombardment and with the help of hundred of tanks, broke through the Hindenburg Line and turned the defences of St Quentin. Lastly came the exploitation of these successes by a general attack on the whole front which broke through the last of the enemy defences and captured the Beaurevoir Line, to the rear of the Hindenburg Line, and the high ground above it, by 10 October. The Germans were forced to evacuate Cambrai and St Quentin and pull back to the river Selle. These three battles created a huge salient in the German position.
Fifth Battle of Ypres and Battles of Courtrai, Selle and Maubeuge
Meanwhile, further north, in the Fifth Battle of Ypres on 28 and 29 September, King Albert of Belgium’s Army Group of twelve Belgian divisions, Plumer’s Second Army (ten British divisions), and Degoutte’s Sixth Army (six French divisions) forced the Germans back from Ypres and drove yet another salient into their lines, endangering the German position on the Belgian coast. In one day these armies swept over the ground that had taken two British armies, assisted by a French army, three months to capture the previous year.
Meanwhile Ludendorff, receiving news on 28 September of the Bulgarian request for an armistice, and after the Allied attack in Flanders had begun, suffered a temporary mental and physical collapse, a crisis of nerve in which he crashed to the floor and even foamed at the mouth. The succession of gloomy reports from the Western Front can hardly have helped. At 6 p.m. he told Hindenburg that an armistice was imperative. On the twenty-ninth, an armistice on the Macedonian front was signed with the defeated Bulgarians and the way was now open for an Allied attack from the south into Austria. Hindenburg, at a war council meeting, told the German leaders that, to prevent a catastrophe (this was the day the Hindenburg Line was broken), peace must be sought using Wilson’s ‘fourteen points’ as a basis. Ludendorff now realized the game was up and, while he found six divisions to putty up the Serbian front, started to prepare the ground for peace proposals. On 3 October the Germans asked President Wilson for an immediate armistice.
Meanwhile the success at Ypres was extended by the Battle of Courtrai, from 14–31 October, which widened and deepened this wedge and resulted in the capture of Halluin, Menin and Courtrai. This series of great battles had, as their immediate result, in the south the evacuation of Laon and the German retirement to the river Aisne; in the centre the withdrawal to the river Scheldt, which liberated Lille and the great industrial district of northern France around Roubaix and Tourcoing; and in the north the clearing of the Belgian coast, including the submarine bases of Ostend, Zeebrugge and Bruges. The Germans were now back on the line of the Scheldt and Selle rivers. The Battle of the Selle, from 17–25 October, forced the Germans from the latter and drove yet another wedge into their defences. Germany’s remaining allies were now falling away; Turkey signed an armistice on 30 October, and Austria–Hungary did the same on 4 November, after which Germany was isolated.
The Battle of the Selle was followed by the final blow, the Battle of Maubeuge, from 1–11 November, which struck at and broke the Germans’ last important lateral communications, turned their positions on the Scheldt and forced them to retreat rapidly from Courtrai. At the same time, the Americans attacked again, the French armies were cautiously moving forward (Foch was naturally unwilling for too much French blood to be spilled at this stage), and the British had not halted in their series of successful operations. This victory completed the achievement of the great strategic aim of the whole series of battles, by effectively dividing the German forces into two, one part on each side of the natural barrier of the Ardennes forest. The German fleet had mutinied on 29 October, while the German army, while it had been experiencing increasing indiscipline and desertion in the latter part of 1918, had been comprehensively defeated in the field. Revolution broke out in Berlin. The pursuit of the beaten enemy all along the line was only halted by the Armistice at 11 a.m. on 11 November. The Kaiser abdicated on 9 November, and the following day the desperate German authorities told their armistice delegation to accept any terms put in front of them. Fittingly, the Canadians entered Mons, where the BEF had fought its first battle in 1914, on the morning of the eleventh.