Story of the Great War - Roland Usher

Breaking the Hindenburg Line

The attacks delivered by Foch against the Germans toward the end of September presumed a superiority in numbers for the Allies, and depended upon delivering crushing attacks at different parts of the German line, each superior in weight to the force the Germans had. He would also deliver a number of almost simultaneous blows at various portions of the line, considerable distances apart so that the Germans might not be able to meet this strategy with their old device of drawing men from other sections of the line. He must, however, if possible, surprise the foe, and therefore must attack without extensive collections of men and material which the German aviators would see and understand, and also without extensive artillery preparation of the old type, which had practically told the enemy, "I shall strike you here in three or four days."

On September 26, therefore, Foch threw the French and Americans against the Hindenburg Line between Rheims and Verdun. The operation was immediately successful in penetrating the German lines and presently drove through the first zone of defenses to the open beyond. He did not wait for success on this section but the very day after the attack had begun in the south hurled the Belgians and British against the German lines between Ypres and the coast. He meant to strike at the two ends of the line so as to make reŽnforcement of either part as difficult as possible. Success in the north would outflank the other lines of defense which rested upon Lille.

French charge, 1918


He had already determined that his chief strategy should be to break and turn the German right wing and throw it back through France and Belgium on the German frontier. His object was that which the French and British had constantly held throughout the war. They must so fight it as to expel the Germans from French and Belgian territory. No victory would be worth winning which ended with the Germans on French soil. Foch must therefore aim his drive at the right wing, capture Lille, the terminus of all the German defense lines in France, and bend back the whole system on Metz as a pivot, very much as a door swings open. This is eventually what he did. Having first pushed down near the hinges of the door, he then hammered the lock.

On that same day, September 27, he struck at the middle of the door, reaching out toward Cambrai. On September 28, he launched a French army against the sector just west of Rheims on the battle front already familiar to the French and Americans. The result of these four attacks, delivered with tremendous weight on such widely separated sections, set the whole German line rocking from the mountains to the sea. At either end the first line was completely broken. The Hindenburg Line had fallen at both ends. Being much stronger in the middle, the resistance was longer and further operations became essential.

On October 8 the decisive operations of the war were launched. To the British was given the honor of dealing the crushing blows against the center of the German line. Three armies, elaborately prepared and drilled, were simultaneously thrown against the section of the Hindenburg Line between Cambrai and St. Quenten. Within three days they all drove through the entire twelve-mile zone of the Hindenburg Line itself, cut the second great defense line behind it, and chased across the open territory between the second and third lines, halting at the third line just south of the great city of Valenciennes, which was also the key to the fourth line.

Meanwhile Foch redoubled the activities of the armies at either end of the line. To the north, the British and Belgians, reŽnforced by the French, broke through the final defenses of the second German line and swung down north of Lille, attacking the switch line which connected that city with Ghent. They therefore threatened the northern end of the entire German defense system, and if they could cut the switch line, they would compel the evacuation of the whole northern end of the line. That should be the final blow.

Final allied offensive


In the third and fourth weeks of October the Allies began to reap the fruits of the great offensive. The Germans themselves were compelled to abandon without fighting the first sections of all the defense lines. They retired rapidly behind the second switch line which connected Ghent and Valenciennes. Lille was surrendered; Douai, Cambrai, St. Quentin, all of them great positions on the second line of German defenses, fell without a blow. The entire first section of the switch line from Lille to Ghent was lost. The first of the water-tight compartments between the second and third German lines had also been lost. The Germans now had been driven from all of the territory between the second and third lines north of St. Quentin, though the other water-tight compartments between the second and third lines still held. They were therefore using the fourth line in Belgium, then the third line below Valenciennes, and below St. Quentin the second line.

The last week in October they were forced to evacuate the last water-tight compartment between the second and third lines just east of St. Quentin. In the first week of November Foch struck hard at the third line south of Valenciennes. The British and Canadians on November 2 completed the operation by taking Valenciennes itself, and broke clean through the fourth defense line into the open Belgian fields beyond. At the same time, the Belgians and British were assailing the switch line south of Ghent and the Americans and French were proceeding north of Rheims through the second line of the German defenses upon Sedan. This had been the scene of the defeat of the French army in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 and its capture was a matter of great satisfaction to the French.

Final allied offensive


The German lines were now everywhere broken; their armies everywhere in rapid retreat. Ludendorff early in September had counseled the German government to sue for peace, and there was now in the beginning of November no question whatever of the necessity of that measure. Bulgaria had already unconditionally surrendered, thus throwing open the entire rear of the military position of the Central Empires. The Allied armies would be able in the following spring to begin a great campaign against Austria's defenses on the Danube itself. There could be no question of the result. Austria would be crushed beyond recognition. Convinced of this, the Austrians had surrendered. Allenby had succeeded in defeating the Turks in Asia Minor and Palestine and the Turks had also thrown up the sponge. Everywhere Mittel-Europa was crumbling The great state which the Germans believed already created in the fall of 1917 was dissolving before their eyes.

They well knew that a conclusive final assault upon their rapidly retreating army had been arranged by Foch for November 13 and 14. They therefore made haste to request terms for an armistice in order to save their army from destruction. The war was lost; better a thousand times, they argued, to save what they could. Better to surrender than to be beaten flat.

In considering the question of foregoing the destruction of the German army, the Allied generals were moved by the consideration that while they might refuse to accept the armistice, might prolong the war and destroy the German army, it would undoubtedly cost many hundreds of thousands of lives and much suffering for the Allied peoples themselves. Beaten though it was, the German army was far from demoralized. Driven out of its defense lines of the previous years, it had behind it nevertheless strong natural defenses of mountains and rivers. Behind them, if given to understand that Germany must fight for her very life, that army was capable still of prolonged resistance. The Germans no longer had it in their power to win the war, but if the Allies insisted, they did have it in their power to make the winning of the war infinitely costly to the Allies. Wisely, Foch counseled the granting of the armistice. He would spill no blood that could be saved.

But he would propose to the Germans that which should make impossible a resumption of the war. The terms of the armistice insisted that the Germans surrender the remainder of the territory they had occupied in France and Belgium and as well all of Germany west of the Rhine. They also surrendered the three most important cities and crossings of the Rhine itself—Cologne, Coblenz, and Mainz; a zone sixty miles wide was drawn around each of these cities and beyond it the German troops must retire. The French, British, and American armies were then to occupy the entire district up to the Rhine and the three sixty-mile zones in addition. This placed the Germans at so great a disadvantage that the reopening of the war was unthinkable. They were also to surrender railroad cars, aŽroplanes, artillery of all sorts and kinds, ammunition, money, enough of everything essential to the prosecution of the war to foreclose any attempt to begin it again.

The Germans had really no option except to agree or to sell their lives as dearly as possible; they chose to surrender. Messengers came through the French lines by arrangement and were received by General Foch in his private railway train, which had been throughout the campaign his headquarters. When the Germans were admitted, Foch dealt with them as Bismarck had dealt with the French in 1870. He compelled them to address him in French and spoke to them in his own language and not in German, just as Bismarck had compelled the French to speak German in order to humiliate them; there was a poetic justice in this which the world was glad to see. The German emissaries requested an armistice, but Foch compelled them to admit in actual words that they came to beg for one. He then read them in French the terms agreed upon, sternly silenced their protest that the terms were too severe, handed them the paper, and dismissed them. A courier was dispatched with the paper through the lines to the German headquarters at Spa and they were given three days in which to accept or reject the terms. The length of time which the courier would take to go and come made the time the Germans had for deliberation not much more than one day. Before the expiration of the period he returned, the German delegates appeared before Foch, and signified their acceptance of the terms. Thus on November 11, 1918, came to an end the greatest war in history.

The Allied world burst into a delirium of joy. Great crowds surged through the streets of the principal cities in France, England, the United States, Canada, and Australia, shouting, singing, screaming, ringing bells, tooting horns. Everything that made a noise was useful. Not many such demonstrations are recorded in history.