World at War - M. B. Synge




The Western Front—the Turn of the Tide

"This battle fares like to the morning's war

When dying clouds contend with growing light,

What time the shepherd, blowing of the nails,

Can neither call it perfect day or night.

Now sways it this way, like a mighty sea

Forced by the tide to combat with the wind:

Now sways it that way, like the self-same sea

Forced to retire by fury of the wind:

Some time the flood prevails, and then the wind,

Now one the better, then another best:

Both tugging to be victors, breast to breast,

Yet neither conqueror, nor conquered:

So is the equal poise of this fell war."

At the end of June 1918, the situation looked very serious indeed for the Allies. The Germans had made great drives into the allied line, and the Western Front was more deeply bent and extended than it had ever been since it was formed in 1914. Still it was not broken, and there was yet hope. The fighting had become so intense and on such a large scale, with the enormous numbers of men and amount of material employed, that the war resembled the battle described by King Henry VI. in the words at the head of the chapter.

The Germans were still in a position to attack, the Allies were not; and Ludendorff, with his eyes on Paris, decided to make his next, and, as he hoped, his final effort, at the extreme point of the biggest bulge, where the line was naturally extended to its fullest extent, and therefore most likely to break. In order to keep the enormous masses of men, which he proposed to pour across the Marne, supplied with food and ammunition, he considered it necessary first of all to capture Rheims, so that he might use the railways running through that city. This accomplished, he was going to hurl his main forces at Chateau-Thierry, afterwards bringing in another attack from the north from the direction of Amiens.

Over-confident as a result of their previous successes, the Germans took fewer pains to conceal their intentions, and General Foch was ready for Ludendorff's opening moves. True he had very few reserves in hand, and these were by no means fresh troops, but in this case the attack did not come as a surprise, and the dauntless spirit of the French and Americans, coupled with their adaptability to the new tactics, enabled them to hold Rheims, and prevent a complete break through on the Chateau-Thierry front.

Ludendorff opened the battle on 15th July against General Gouraud's army in front of Rheims: he failed to gain the city. Meanwhile his attacks about Chateau-Thierry had partially succeeded, but on 18th July General Foch sprang his first surprise.

Despite the fact that the Germans still had a superiority of more than 250,000 men on the Western Front, he ordered an attack between Soissons and Chateau-Thierry. "We haven't the men," said the French Generals on the spot. "I know that," said Foch, "still you must attack the whole of the German Flank." Sheer courage and indomitable will won the day, and the Germans began to give ground. Soon they found them-selves congested and tied down in an ever-narrowing space, and to avoid annihilation, were forced once more to withdraw behind the Aisne. Foch was determined to press the enemy so long as he gave way before his blows, but to avoid a slow and costly struggle when the German resistance began to harden. When the Germans therefore were posted in strong positions behind the Aisne, he ordered an attack by the British on the Amiens front.

This attack was launched on 8th August, and met with immediate success. Montdidier and Noyon were retaken, and the attacks were extended north to the Scarpe. Albert was reoccupied, Peronne and Bapaume regained, and early in September all the gains made by the Germans earlier in the year had been eaten away. On 12th September the American Armies made an attack on the bulge in the line, at the point of which lay St. Mihiel, and gained a great success. They captured 16,000 prisoners and 443 guns, and straightened out the line at this point.

This operation completed the series of preliminary attacks, and General Foch was now ready for his knock-out blow. Paris and Amiens had been freed, he had gained sufficient ground for the free movement of his troops, and the German reserves were being rapidly used up. The Germans were now definitely on the defensive, but although they had given up hope of decisive victory, the Western Front was still unbroken, and they were in possession of large stretches of enemy territory.

Behind the battle line, at a distance of about forty-five miles opposite Cambrai, and of about twenty miles from the Argonne front, ran a line of railways through Metz, Sedan, Maubeuge, Mons, and Brussels. This was the spinal cord of the German armies, by which Ludendorff was enabled to move his reserves and stores from flank to flank. General Foch decided to strike at this spinal cord by means of two blows, one upon Sedan, and the other from between the Scarpe and the Oise through St. Quentin and Cambrai upon Maubeuge. On 26th September the Americans and French launched their attack in the Argonne, and on 27th September the British stormed forward in front of Cambrai. Both attacks met with immediate success despite the fact that Ludendorff had weakened his front elsewhere in order to stiffen his defence at these points, since he realised that if his lateral communication was cut at Sedan, the safety of all his armies would be seriously threatened.

As a result of this weakening of the front in Flanders, on 28th. September the Belgian Army, together with some British and French divisions, the whole under the command of King Albert, overwhelmed the thinly held German defences and swept forward with such vigour, that by 1st October they were in the outskirts of Roulers.

The whole line from Verdun to the sea was now moving forward, and the deadlock on the Western Front was broken at last. On 1st October the French captured St. Quentin; Lens and Armentieres were evacuated on 3rd October. Cambrai fell on 9th October, and Laon and La Fere were evacuated on the 14th. On 17th October the Allies were in Lille, and they had advanced along the Belgian coast beyond Ostend and Zeebrugge. The British alone had captured 36,500 prisoners and 380 guns. In the meanwhile Bulgaria had collapsed, and Germany, seeing the rapidly approaching danger of a general collapse, sent out her first request for an armistice on 4th October. This was refused, and Germany was informed that all invaded territory must be evacuated before a truce could be considered.

Ludendorff, however, was making a last effort to rally his forces, and his new plan was to fall back as slowly as possible, from one position to another, and he hoped to be able to keep the Allied armies out of Germany at least until the spring of 1919. The first stage of this retirement was a withdrawal to the line of the river Meuse, and a prolonged stand on that river when it was reached. In order to do this successfully it was necessary to hold the Americans in front of Sedan, and the British in front of Cambrai, while he withdrew his armies from other points, which were farther away from the line of the Meuse. The German troops had now pulled themselves together again, and Ludendorff's plan met with a certain measure of success, but just when he was endeavouring to assure the German Government that there was no cause for despair, news came of renewed successes by the British near Le Cateau and the Americans in front of Sedan. Ludendorff resigned on 26th October, and the next day, left General Headquarters.

On 31st October an armistice was signed with Turkey, which amounted almost to unconditional surrender, and an armistice, requested by Austria-Hungary on 29th October, was signed on 3rd November. Germany was now left alone, and the growing unrest in that country left no glimmer of hope in the minds of the Kaiser and his Government. Unmoved by these events, Foch was setting the stage for his next advance. On 1st November the French and Americans again drove forward, and on the evening of the 6th were in the southern outskirts of Sedan. Meanwhile the British armies were moving forward over the very ground on which the British Expeditionary Force of 1914 had first come into action. On 9th November, Maubeuge was taken by the British, whilst the 3rd Canadian Division actually entered Mons a few hours before the Armistice was signed.

At eleven o'clock on 11th November the Armistice was signed, the last shot fired, and the years of Armageddon ended. In Germany the Kaiser had abdicated, and there was revolution in the country. Although at this moment the military position of the German armies was hopeless for carrying on the war successfully, it is clear that the Armistice did not necessarily save them from complete defeat. They fought to the bitter end, and that end was brought about by the falling away of their Allies, and the revolt of the people at home against their military controllers. The fighting men on both sides throughout those four years fought grimly and magnificently for their respective countries, doing their duty and laying down their lives in silence.

"Theirs not to reason why,

Theirs but to do and die."

Amidst all the countless arguments of right and wrong, of victory and defeat, this one fact stands out as a reminder of the ennobling power of patriotism.