World at War - M. B. Synge

The Western Front—Germany's Last Effort

"This is the field where Death and Honour meet,

And all the lesser company are low."


The beginning of the year 1918 found the position of the two opposing forces on the Western Front very different from that at the beginning of 1917. The Germans had been able to bring troops over from the East, owing to the dwindling away of the Russian armies, and for the first time since 1916 they were superior in number to the British and French. This superiority was not enough to give them actually a winning advantage, but they were able, owing to the exhaustion of the Allies, to concentrate their strength against chosen points, secure in the knowledge that the Allies would not be able to attack them elsewhere, at any rate early in the year.

The Allies needed reinforcements of fighting troops to turn the balance, but their resources in man-power were too depleted at the moment to furnish these. Germany knew this, and decided to risk all in one quick blow, which she hoped would prove decisive: her calculations were well made, but she failed to believe that the Americans would be able to bring into battle in time sufficient numbers to affect the result. There is no doubt that the presence of the Americans helped to turn the balance against the Germans. Ludendorff himself confesses "How many Americans had got across by April we did not know, but the rapidity with which they actually did arrive proved surprising."

The Germans also planned to use a new system of attack against the Allies, which consisted, briefly, in pouring in streams of men, who would keep coming on in increasing numbers, at those places where their first attack had been successful, thus going round and cutting off those places where the defence was particularly strong. In this way they kept their advance moving forward all the time, and saved numberless lives. The German defence against this method of attack was to have different positions stretching away back behind each other in depth, but the Allies as yet had not adopted this system. Thus Germany started the year with an advantage in numbers, and a new system of attack unsuspected by the Allies.

That an attack was coming was well known, and the Allied preparations for meeting it consisted in gathering together as large a force of mobile reserves as possible with which to counter-attack. These reserves were largely French troops, set free by the British extending their line down to the river Oise, an operation which naturally weakened the British reserves.

Although the mobile reserves which had been formed were naturally intended to help at any point on the Western Front which was seriously threatened, there was not yet, after three and a half years of war, one man in supreme control of affairs on the Western Front. The result was, not unnaturally, that the reserves were placed behind the French front in the Champagne country; and even when the British armies were in a position of the most extreme peril, there was a delay in sending help, owing to the fear of a German attack on the Champagne front. In spite of the most friendly working together of the British and French generals, and a common determination to defeat the enemy, it was impossible to expect the two armies to work together like a perfect machine, except when controlled by a single commander. In war, the time always comes when a decision has to be made quickly, and even a partially unsound decision is better than hesitation or delay. Lately, affairs on the Western Front had been controlled by an Allied War Council working at Versailles. This body of men, after discussion, came to a decision, and sent their orders to their respective generals. But there was bound to come a time when a decision was needed, and there was no time for discussion.

The Germans, therefore, had an additional advantage in that their campaign was organised and directed by one man, whilst the Allies had only a Council; and Ludendorff was not the man to miss taking advantage of this point in his favour. With all the Western Front at his disposal, he chose to make his blow against the British, who appeared to him to be the weaker of the two armies, bringing his main attack against the point where they joined, so as to cut off the British from the French and the common reserve.

Favoured by the weather, making most of his movements of concentration by night, and misleading the Allies by small distracting operations elsewhere, the German commander massed about 600,000 men on this front. His artillery power, greatly increased by guns withdrawn from and captured on the Rumanian, Russian, and Italian fronts, was stupendous, and, at the opening of the attack, there was one piece of artillery to every ten infantrymen.

The attack was launched against that portion of the British line which lay between the river Scarpe and the river Oise from Arras to La Fere, the point of heaviest attack being near St. Quentin. General Gough, with the British Fifth Army, was holding the latter portion of the line, with the Third Army, under General Byng, on his left, and the French on his right. In the early mists of the morning on 21st March, the great assault began. An hour and a half before day broke the colossal masses of German guns opened a bombardment of intense violence, penetrating in some places to a depth of twenty-eight miles behind the front line. Great use was made of gas-shells, and in the stagnant foggy air the gas, as it settled, clung to the ground. In the marshy ground below St. Quentin the mist and gas lingered longest, and it was here that the attack made its greatest success. The Fifth Army was, for the moment, broken; and in order not to lose touch with the Third Army on its left, it was forced to give up a great deal of the ground on its right. On 27th March, the Germans captured Albert, Roye, and Noyon, and in the first days of April were only nine miles away from Amiens.

The road to Amiens was barred firstly by a gallant body of men called "Carey's Force," commanded by General Carey, and composed of hastily collected engineers, cooks, labourers, signalers, grooms, mess attendants—any one who could hold a rifle, and then by the Australians and New Zealanders. In the meanwhile the gap between the British and French armies, made by the destruction of the right wing of the British Fifth Army, had widened, and there was grave danger of the two armies being separated altogether. The French mobile reserves were at last rushed up with extraordinary speed and efficiency, and the almost impossible task of repairing the defence was accomplished. The Germans claimed 90,000 prisoners and 1300 guns, and the Allied reserves had been used up.

[Illustration] from The World at War by M. B. Synge


The advance was, however, stopped for the moment, but the extreme seriousness of the situation roused the Allied Governments to the necessity of appointing one man to command all the forces on the Western Front. On 26th March Lord Milner, a man distinguished for his power of decision, hurried over to France and met M. Clemenceau at Doullens. In this little town, within sound of the rapidly advancing German guns, these men made the great decision. In spite of all the difficulties and delicate points involved, General Haig and General Pershing agreed unconditionally to serve under any one appointed, and General Foch was given the control of the allied armies: on 3rd April he was appointed actual Commander-in-Chief of all the allied forces on the Western Front. He at once set himself to the task of combining the strength of all these armies, but his task was rendered increasingly difficult by the fact that the Germans gave him no respite.

On 9th April they delivered another great attack between Armentieres and Lens, and after ten days' fighting had driven deep into the British line, and made it necessary once more to reinforce the defence with French troops. Fighting went on all the time, until on 27th May began the Third Battle of the Aisne.

This German attack was made between Soissons and Rheims, against a portion of the French defences, which they considered very strong, but against the new German methods of attack they gave way. The Germans surged over the Chemin des Dames, captured Soissons, and drove forward over thirty miles in four days to the Marne itself. British divisions were now brought to give help to the French; but before the enemy were stopped near Chateau-Thierry, they had taken 40,000 prisoners and 400 guns. On 9th June the Germans made yet another drive forward south of Montdidier and Noyon, extending their gains, and strengthening their line.

During this time the Germans had been bombarding Paris with a small group of guns, which were firing from a distance of nearly seventy-five miles. This was, of course, a range far longer than had ever been used before, and naturally no accurate results could be obtained, but the Germans hoped to strike terror into the hearts of the French people by means of these new and terrible weapons. The chief result of this unaimed and aimless fire was the destruction of a church on Good Friday, when many women and children were killed. The hearts of the French were only hardened, and amidst the great events which were happening on the Western Front, any other effect which this long range bombardment might have had was lost.