THE LAST GERMAN OFFENSIVE
More than two years before the war concluded a junior officer from the front remarked that he could not say when, but knew where, it would end, and that was not far from our existing lines in France and Flanders. As time wore on and the limitations of strategy under modern conditions grew clearer, the war assumed more and more the aspect of a single battle varying in its intensity from season to season and place to place, but constant in its continuity and in its absorption of the principal forces of the main belligerents. The unity of control culminating in unity of command which marked the closing stages of the war was therefore not so much a brilliant improvisation on the part of any general or statesman as the inevitable lesult of the history of the war; and the misfortunes of the Entente did more than its foresight to bring that consummation to pass. In the main it was due to the gradual weakening and then the collapse of Russia, which first involved the ruin of Serbia and Rumania and the wrecking of our Balkan plans, and finally dissolved the Eastern front. There could have been no unity of command had Russia remained our predominant military partner; and even in the West it never comprised the Italian Army, which retained its independence of action or inaction until the end of the war. But in 1918 the Italian front sank into a subordination almost as marked as the Russian, and the war that counted grew to a climax where it had started between the Alps and the Belgian coast. There were concentrated the French and British armies which Germany must beat before she could win peace; and there came in the American hosts which turned the scale against her.
With or without unity of command, the two million American troops which ultimately crossed the Atlantic would have given us the victory; and the view that the war was won by unity of command is as superficial as the view that the battle of St. Quentin was lost by the lack of it. That battle was lost because the Versailles Council, acting on the advice of its French rather than its British members, misjudged the direction of the coming German offensive and misplaced the reserves at its disposal. Unless, which may be the case, Foch was at variance with his French colleagues on this point, his appointment as generalissimo at any earlier stage would not have affected the results of these mistakes. Unity of command might, indeed, have led to an even more extensive weakening of the threatened British front in order to make absolutely secure that French front which the French were convinced was the German objective, and a demand was made for a further British extension beyond Barisis, but was successfully resisted at the Versailles Council before the unity of command had been established. That does not absolve the British Cabinet from its complicity in the blunder. It was equally responsible to the British people for British lives whether it was acting on its own initiative or on the mistaken advice of an ally; and there were also sins of omission of its own. Not only had it been advised by Sir Henry Wilson that the German offensive would come on the British front, but it had been warned that if it came where it was anticipated, that front, thin as it was, could not be expected to hold unless reinforcements, for which repeated requests were made, were dispatched. Remonstrances fell on deaf ears, although there were nearly 300,000 troops available in England. Mr. Lloyd George afterwards called them first-class troops, and congratulated himself and the country on the fact that they were transported to France within a fortnight after the damage had been done. For this, the most culpable Cabinet failure in the war, others besides the Cabinet were to blame; and it must be ascribed ultimately to the national sins of intellectual sloth and ignorance. Those hundreds of thousands of troops, shown to be superfluous in England by their subsequent dispatch to France, were kept at home because persons in authority believed they were needed to do the work of the British Navy and defend our shores against a German invasion. Throughout the war loquacious generals, who were not employed at the front, harped at home on that alarm, supremely ignorant of and indifferent to the unbroken experience of the world and the teaching of naval history, that military invasion across an uncommanded sea is an utter impossibility. But there was no one to teach the War Cabinet this elementary truth, and least of all could it be taught by the eminent lawyer and the able railway director whom Mr. Lloyd George successively appointed to the Admiralty to represent the ripest naval wisdom of mankind. It remained for the nation to pay the cost.
The great attack was launched at dawn on Thursday, 21 March, precisely against that sector of the British front indicated by Sir Henry Wilson two months before; and Gough's Fifth Army, which held it lightly with fourteen divisions against forty, was doomed to defeat by the failure of both the British and the French Governments to provide adequate reserves which existed in abundance both in England and in the rear of the French line, and by the fact that Haig was more anxious about his shallow front in Flanders and Pétain about his in Champagne than either was about the Somme. Generally speaking, the British front grew thinner from north to south until between the Somme and the Oise Gough had less than a bayonet a yard; and Ludendorff knew it. He also made skilful use of the advantage which the possession of the interior lines gave him in the St. Quentin-St. Gobain salient. He could mass his troops in that angle without revealing which side he meant to attack, and thus neutralize that observation which superiority in aircraft gave his antagonists. It was not so much that he brought up his forces at night and concealed them in woods, which are leafless in March, as that the bodily eye of the airmen failed to discern his intentions. He had other incidental advantages: that laborious spade-work which characterized the German Army was not a distinguishing feature of either the British or the French; and both the trenches we took over south of St. Quentin and our own to the north of it left a good deal to be desired in their defensive strength, while the great bridgehead under construction to protect the Somme south of Péronne had not been completed. The Allied advance had been slow, but since 1916 a confident conviction possessed the Allied armies that they would only move in a forward direction. Ludendorff was also able to withdraw his six divisions and many Austrian batteries from the Italian front, assured that no Italian offensive need be feared; and his tactics came as a surprise in spite of the practical warnings given at Caporetto and Cambrai. They were based not so much upon superiority of numbers as upon superiority of the selected troops to the average of the forces opposed; and success depended less upon the weight than upon the sharpness of the weapon used for the blow. Hindenburg liked a hammer; Ludendorff chose an axe with which to cleave the enemy front. When it was cleft, inferior metal might be used to widen the gap between the French and British armies and drive the latter to the coast while the former was being crushed.
The German offensive was facilitated by the abnormally dry season, which reduced the strength of the water-defences of the British right, and a dense fog favoured the attack on our forward positions. The Germans got their infantry across the Oise canal north of La Fère without being noticed, and many of our outposts were surrounded before it was known that the attack had begun, although a brief bombardment by gas and other shells had drenched our line and areas miles behind it all along the front (see Map, p. 338). The forward zone resisted heroically, but by noon the Germans were through it west of La Fère and were in our battle-zone north of St. Quentin at Ronssoy. Between these two extremes of Gough's front they reached in the afternoon Maissemy, north of St. Quentin, and the line Essigny-Benay south of it. Farther north less progress had been made against Byng's Third Army, but the Germans had reached St. Leger in their effort to thrust a wedge between Arras and Cambrai, and many villages had been captured. The prospect was gloomy for the morrow, since, although the Germans had already used sixty-four divisions they were prepared to throw in fresh ones each succeeding day, and it would be several days before reinforcements could reach the Somme either from our reserves in Flanders or the French reserves in Champagne.
The Germans made comparatively little headway on the 22nd against the Third Army; but Gough's last reserves were thrown in without stopping the German advance on our right, and the meagre French division which Fayolle was able to send across the Oise could not dam the torrent. At night the enemy had penetrated our third defensive position, and Gough ordered a retreat to the unfinished bridgehead on the Somme. Byng's right had to conform to this movement, which did not stop east of the Somme; for on the 23rd the Germans had crossed the river south-east of Ham, more than a dozen miles from their starting-point, and the Péronne bridgehead had to be abandoned. Even on the west bank Gough's right was thus endangered, and his left was threatened by a German attempt to break a gap north of Péronne between his army and Byng's Third. This effort on the Somme, where it runs due west from Péronne to Amiens, now became the chief and most promising objective of the German strategy. The link between our two armies was extremely fragile, and misunderstandings arose between the two staffs. Fortunately the worst disaster was averted by Byng's timely withdrawal from Monchy, which disconcerted and postponed the German attack on Arras.
On Sunday the 24th the task of the British was threefold--to stem with French assistance the German advance on our right between the Somme and the Oise, to hold the line of the river from Ham northwards to Péronne, and to repel the German thrust between the Third and Fifth Armies north of the river bend. They were partially successful in the first two tasks, but north of the Somme the Germans got into Combles and the Third Army had to make a big retreat, surrendering Bapaume and nearly all the painful gains of the 1916 Somme campaign. The Germans renewed the attack with great energy on the 25th, and the British were unable to hold them up on their improvised lines. Before night they were ordered to take their stand on the old Ancre defences. This movement exposed the left flank of Gough's forces on the Somme; his front had also been driven in by German attacks across the river, while his right had been forced back beyond Guiscard, Noyon, and Nesle. Fissures began to appear on the broken front; there was something very like a gap between the French and British near Roye, and another between Byng's Fourth and Fifth Corps across the Ancre, besides that between his and Gough's armies. Byng was the first to re-establish his line, partly because reinforcements from the north reached him first. Early on the 26th the Germans had broken through our old line between Beaumont-Hamel and Hébuterne and taken Colincamps, where they had not been since 1914; but in the afternoon they were driven out again, and the recovery was permanent. Here at least the German advance had reached its limit, and there was some significance in the fact that here on that afternoon the British whippet Tanks first appeared in battle.
Gough was not so happy. He had begun to collect a miscellaneous force, like that which stopped the final German thrust at Ypres on 31 October 1914, consisting of all sorts of combatant and non-combatant details, to check the German rush on the Somme; but threats on his left, right, and front compelled him to retreat to a line running south from Bray and behind that held by the French before the battle of the Somme. Still the Germans advanced towards Montdidier, seeking to break through between Gough's right and the French, who had been driven off south-west of Roye. But the worst of the danger was north on the Somme, where Byng's orders were misunderstood and his extreme right, instead of holding the line Albert-Bray to protect Gough's left, fell back five miles to Sailly-le-Sec. The result was that on the 27th the Germans were able to cross the Somme behind Gough's left at Chipilly and compel his retreat to a line running from Bouzencourt S.E. to Rosières. There Gough's centre stoutly maintained itself during the day; but to the south the Germans drove the French out of Lassigny and Montdidier and seemed in a fair way to break the liaison between the Allies, while north of the Somme the Germans had got into Albert and Aveluy wood.
Nevertheless the clouds were beginning to lighten. The violence of the German attack was exhausting to the attackers; their communications now lay across the devastated area, and rain soon came to clog their movements. Their front of attack was, moreover, being steadily narrowed from fifty to twenty miles. The French had forced the Germans to leave the Oise after Noyon, and while their advance continued it did so with a lengthening flank no longer protected by the river. Unless Von Hutier to the south or Von Buelow to the north could break these containing and solidifying barriers, the front of the German attack would be reduced to a hopeless point before it got to Amiens. The attempt was naturally made against Arras by Von Buelow's comparatively unwearied army, and on the 28th he resumed his frustrated attack of the 23rd. This time the Germans had no fog to help them, and their troops assembling for the attack were decimated by our artillery. Nowhere did they succeed in piercing the battle zone, and a second attack in the afternoon fared no better. This was the decisive failure of the German offensive, and north of the Somme our front was now secure. South of it the Germans made some further progress on that day. The Rosières salient had to be abandoned to the Germans pushing south of it across the Somme, and a retreat made to the angle of the Luce and Avre rivers. Fayolle also was driven back to the Avre, but by counter-attacks north and south of Montdidier he prevented the enemy from debouching from that city.
The situation continued grave and the fighting severe for the next few days, but retreat and pursuit had merged into a battle on a line with take as well as give. The French front was extended up to the Luce and an extemporized Fourth Army replaced the weary remnants of the Fifth. More important was the appointment of Foch as commander-in-chief on the 25th after a conference at Doullens between Haig and Pétain, Lord Milner and Clémenceau, though it cannot have had much effect upon the operations which checked the German advance by the end of March. On 4 April Von Hutier made a final attempt to reach Amiens, and drove the Allies out of the angle of the Luce and Avre and from the west bank of the latter back to a line running west of Castel, Mailly-Raineval, Sauvillers, Cantigny, and Mesnil St. Georges. But farther the Germans could not advance either north or south of the Somme, though away to the east the French had to evacuate the sharp salient between the Oise from La Fère to Chauny and the St. Gobain forest, and to fall back behind the Aillette. The first act in the great German offensive had failed in its strategical object of breaking the Allied line, but it had achieved incomparably more than any Allied offensive in the war; and the only advances to compare with it were the German invasion of France and Belgium in 1914 and of Russia in 1915. The Germans claimed by 4 April 90,000 prisoners and 1300 guns, and the Fifth Army had been practically destroyed. It was the most formidable offensive in the history of the world, and four times as many divisions were launched against the British in March 1918 as against the French at Verdun in 1916.
But it did not exhaust the German effort. There were other acts to follow, and the second opened on 9 April, immediately after the curtain had been rung down on the first. No second offensive could, however, approach in magnitude the original plan. The Germans excelled in forethought and in methodical preparation for which ample time was needed. They had had it in the winter, and had staked their hopes upon the success of their throw in March. Now they had to improvise, and their second thoughts were second best. There were, indeed, signs of indecision in Ludendorff's later moves. Possibly he regarded the Flanders offensive in April and the attack on the Chemin des Dames in May as diversions merely intended to draw reserves away from the Amiens front and facilitate a resumption of his original design with better chance of success. Certainly those offensives were begun with limited forces, and probably succeeded beyond his expectations. But the attack on the Amiens front was never seriously resumed in spite of the success of Ludendorff's diversions; and the remainder of the campaign, so far as German initiative was concerned, resolved itself after April into an effort to repeat with more success against the French Army offensives which had failed to dispose of the British. There can hardly have been much hope in Ludendorff's mind of decisive victory in a strategy which after April left the British front almost immune from attack, while American reinforcements were pouring in at the rate of hundreds of thousands a month. But the responsibility of continuing the war under such conditions and deluding the German people with false confidence was so serious that no admission is likely to be forthcoming yet awhile of the real intentions and thoughts of the German General Staff during the summer of 1918. The truth no doubt is that Ludendorff had only a choice between a confession of failure which was bound to ruin the Government and the class he represented, and a desperate effort to make what he could out of the military situation; and he preferred gambling, so long as he had anything with which to play, to an immediate confession of bankruptcy.
For a time he had the luck which lures the gambler on, and the scene of his second act was skilfully chosen. Before 21 March Haig had kept his line better manned north than south of Arras, and the reasons which made him anxious for the defence of his northern sector counselled Ludendorff to attack it when the defeat of the Fifth Army had compelled the British commander to divert ten divisions from the north and supply their place with the weary survivors of the battle of St. Quentin. He had little room to spare between his front and the sea, and a break-through, far less extensive than that which had been effected in March, would give the Germans the coast of the Straits of Dover, enable them to bombard the Kentish shore, hamper the port of London, and perhaps reach it with long-range guns like those with which they had occasionally bombarded Paris since 23 March. These annoyances would have been serious; but the British public paid itself a very bad compliment when it seemed to assume that the distant bombardment of London would have an effect upon the war disproportionate to that of Paris; and the notion that an impetus which carried the Germans to Calais would transport them across the Channel was merely another illustration of the comprehensive popular ignorance of the meaning of sea-power. Nieuport or Dunkirk might have taken the place of Bruges as a submarine base without greatly enhancing the success of that campaign; and Haig chose rightly when, having to weaken his northern front, he risked a sector north instead of south of La Bassée and the Vimy Ridge. Defeat to the north of those points, even though it cost us the coast as far as Calais, would not entail retreat from the Artois hills between Arras and Gris Nez or threaten our liaison with the French which had been Ludendorff's first objective. The material comments on the value of his second thoughts were that the Germans might have had the Channel ports for the asking in 1914 but did not think them worth it, and that in April 1918 Ludendorff employed but nine divisions in his initial effort to break through. Probably his real ambition was merely to shorten his line and, in view of the possible resumption of his offensive in front of Amiens, to provide against a British counter-attack on the sensitive German position along the Belgian coast.
Anticipating some such attack, Haig had deemed it wise to relieve the two Portuguese divisions which held part of the front between the Lys and La Bassée of their arduous responsibility; but he could only replace them by weary British divisions, and the change had only been half effected when, on 9 April, Ludendorff s attack began after the usual bombardment with gas and high-explosive on the 8th. The Portuguese broke fairly soon, the British flanks on either side were turned, and the whole centre had gone in a few hours. By night the Germans had captured Fleurbaix, Laventie, Neuve Chapelle, Richebourg, and Lacouture, and were on the Lys from Bac St. Maur almost as far as Lestrem. But the key-position at Givenchy was splendidly held by the 55th Division, which set a permanent limit to the German success and prevented it from obtaining anything like the dimensions of the March offensive. It continued, however, to develop on the north. On the 10th Bois Grenier fell, Armentières was evacuated, and the Germans poured across the Lys, taking Estaires, Steenwerck, and Ploegstreet and threatening the Messines ridge. That, too, followed on the 11th, while farther south the Germans secured Neuf Berquin and Lestrem. On the 12th they got into Merris and Merville and advanced to the La Bassée canal, threatening to cross it and outflank Béthune on the north-west. Here, however, they were held up in front of Robecq, between the canal and the forest of Nieppe, and turned to exploit their advantage farther north. Their advance here was slower, but by the 16th they had mastered Wytschaete, Wulverghem, Neuve Eglise, Bailleul, and Meteren, and were facing the line of hills running from Mt. Kemmel to the Mt. des Cats.
British and French reinforcements were now arriving in considerable numbers, and Ludendorff would have been prudent to rest on his laurels. He had made a pronounced bulge in our line, had diverted forces from other sectors of the defence, and compelled us to evacuate our dearly-purchased gains of the Flanders campaign in the preceding autumn. On the other hand, he had lengthened instead of shortening his own line, he had achieved no strategical object, and his troops were left in a salient which invited attack. Unless he could win the heights from Mt. Kemmel to Mt. des Cats, which commanded the country to the coast, he would be in a worse situation for defence than he was before. He was thus driven to prolong the effort, pour fresh divisions into the battle, and convert a diversion into a major operation. Doubtless popular visions of the Channel ports and the bombardment of London reinforced the sounder military reasons for persistence. There were three obvious lines of attack--on the Belgian front north of Ypres, on the Kemmel range, now held partly by French troops, and on Béthune. The first was defeated on the 17th by a brilliant Belgian resistance, and the third was repulsed on the 18th before Hinges and at Givenchy; but the second was longer delayed and more stubbornly pushed.
The effort began with an intense bombardment on the 25th, and a few hours later the Germans had captured the village and hill of Kemmel; our forces were driven back to a line running in front of Dickebusch lake, La Clytte, the Scherpenberg, and Locre. Mt. Kemmel had been regarded as the key to the position, and it looked as though the range would fall. But Kemmel was an isolated height, and the Germans were beaten in the valleys which separated it from the Scherpenberg. Their attacks reached a climax on the 29th, and after some partial success were everywhere defeated. Local fighting continued spasmodically till late in May, but it was clear that Ludendorff's second offensive had come to an end like his first. Its extension had also ruined the chance of successfully resuming the attack in front of Amiens. On 23 April the Germans attacked just south of the Somme and captured Villers-Bretonneux, but it was promptly retaken on the following day; and in the struggle along that line in May we advanced as well as improved our position. The Germans had fought their last offensive against the British front and had failed; and when after a four weeks' pause they resumed their attacks, they were directed against the French.
During the interval the British public had time to reflect upon the disaster and its effects. They were brought home by a new military service Bill extending the liability to all men under fifty-one and bringing Ireland within its scope. Panic had as much to do with these proposals as forethought. The raising of the military age was calculated to weaken our industrial more than to strengthen our military power; and the extension to Ireland handed that country over to Sinn Fein and necessitated the diversion thither of large British forces, which might otherwise have been sent to the front, without producing a single Irish conscript. The proposal was, indeed, so foolish that its authors made no attempt to carry it out. Wiser was the speedy dispatch to France of 300,000 superfluous troops who had been kept in England by nothing better than an ignorant fear of invasion. But it was the amazing rapidity with which the United States responded to Mr. Lloyd George's anxious appeals that saved the Government from the effects of its own blunders and reduced its military service Act to a measure for the infliction of gratuitous hardship. In April nearly 120,000 American troops landed in Europe, over 220,000 in May, and 275,000 in June. On 2 July President Wilson announced that over a million had sailed; that number was doubled before the summer ended, and in July General Smuts was anticipating the possible presence in France of an American army as large as the British and French combined.
The need for so colossal a force did not arise, but in April the position of his Government as well as the military situation agitated the Prime Minister and gave wildness to his words as well as to his actions. Apart from the casualties, we had lost 1000 guns, 4000 machine guns, 200,000 rifles, 70,000 tons of ammunition, and 250 million rounds of small ammunition, and 200 tanks. Circumstances wore a different complexion from the roseate hues of the early months of 1917, and Mr. Lloyd George could not escape the kind of blame he had heaped upon his predecessors. He sought to evade it in his speech at the reassembling of Parliament on the 9th by shifting the responsibility for the disaster partly on to M. Clémenceau as the principal author of the unfortunate extension of the British line, and partly on to the commander of the Fifth Army. The latter at least could not reply, and the unfairness of the attack provoked much ill-feeling in the army and elsewhere; it found expression in a letter from Major-General Maurice, lately Director of Military Operations, which was published on 7 May and challenged the accuracy of ministerial statements. His charges were so serious that the Government at once proposed a judicial inquiry. Mr. Asquith committed the tactical error of moving instead for a parliamentary committee. The Government naturally treated his motion as a vote of censure, and escaped all investigation on the ostensible plea that it preferred a different method from that proposed by Mr. Asquith. The House of Commons by 293 to 106 votes expressed its apparent satisfaction with that "ex parte statement from the Prime Minister himself" which "The Times"--then his strongest supporter in the Press--had the day before said could not dispose of a charge which "unless and until it is impartially investigated and disproved, will profoundly shake the public confidence in every statement made from the Treasury Bench." It was not, however, with the honour of ministers that the House was mainly concerned. Members were in that mood, which occurs at times in every nation's history, in which questions of morals seem irrelevant or unimportant; and what they wanted was not the truth but a plausible excuse for shirking inquiry and refusing to add a political to the military crisis. Conscious of their own responsibility for the Government, they were impatient of any discussion which might reveal unpleasant facts to their constituents or military information to the enemy.
It is difficult also not to trace a political motive, if not in the attacks on Zeebrugge and Ostend, at least in the contrast between the enormous publicity they received and the silence which shrouded the more normal but not less important or heroic work of the British Navy. The plans, indeed, had been prepared and sanctioned by Jellicoe before he left office some months earlier; but many plans have long to wait the ministerial word, and the naval operations of 23 April were as timely for political as for military reasons. The military objective was to block the submarine and destroyer exits from Zeebrugge and Ostend, both of which were connected by canals with Bruges; and an operation of that kind against the elaborately fortified Belgian coast required favourable weather conditions as well as the highest courage. The plan at Ostend was simply to sink ships in the waterway; at Zeebrugge there were also to be diversions in the form of a landing on the protecting mole and the blowing up of the viaduct which connected it with the shore. Success was only possible if mist and smoke-clouds added to the concealment of night, and those conditions depended upon the wind. They seemed favourable on the night of 22-23 April, but a quarter of an hour before the Vindictive reached the mole, a south-west breeze dispersed the smoke-clouds and precipitated a torrent of shell-fire from the German batteries. In spite of it the landing party got on to the mole and systematically destroyed its works, while a submarine loaded with explosives was run under the viaduct and exploded. Meanwhile, the blocking ships were sunk at the mouth of the canal, and the survivors of their crews were picked up and got away in the Vindictive and her consorts. At Ostend the blocking ships had to sink outside the centre of the waterway; but the effort was repeated with better success by the Vindictive on the night of 9-10 May. Even Count Reventlow described these affairs as "damned plucky," but added that they were nothing more. The further attacks on the Belgian coast which were commonly expected did not come, and the operations had no appreciable effect upon the land campaign. But they hampered the German submarine campaign to some extent; and if they demonstrated once more that sea-power is limited to the sea, they also showed that on the sea German power had become a negligible quantity. That fact was, indeed, being proved in a more effective though less heroic fashion, by the safe transport of hundreds of thousands of American troops across the Atlantic; but possibly public opinion needed the more spectacular demonstration, and it certainly showed that the spirit of British seamen was unaffected by the tremors of politicians.
Politicians appeared, indeed, to be more nervous after the crisis had passed than they were before it arose, although their alarms did not greatly affect the incurable sang-froid of the British public; and the way in which the middle-aged shouldered the unnecessary burdens imposed upon them by the improvidence of their Government, was as exemplary as the eagerness with which youth had volunteered early in the war. Their acceptance of the new obligations had its value in stimulating America to dispatch her hundreds of thousands of troops more fit for active service; and few, if any, of the elderly English recruits saw any fighting. Ludendorff's plans had already gone astray when he failed in March and April to break the liaison between the French and British armies; and his subsequent operations were ineffective attempts to prepare the ground for a final offensive which he was never allowed to begin. It would have been doomed to miscarry in any case, for his preliminaries exhausted the forces intended for the final effort, and the battles in Flanders had enhanced the failure of his original design. He took four weeks to prepare for a second subsidiary operation, and hoped to achieve a better success against the French than he had against the British. He had the advantage of taking them unawares, and on the eve of his offensive a French journal proclaimed that it would be another blow at the British front because the Germans knew that the French line was impregnable. Popular opinion in France had attributed German success at St. Quentin and in Flanders to British incompetence or cowardice, and British troops had even been hissed in the streets of Paris. The attack on the Chemin des Dames was to modify this opinion, although some tactless Frenchmen announced that reserves sent up to the British sector, which alone stood its ground, were going "au secours des Anglais."
Ludendorff's object was to widen his front towards Paris, for the lure of the capital had already diverted him from his original plan of breaking the liaison between the French and British armies in front of Amiens. That Paris was his objective in May, and not the diversion of troops from the critical junction with a view to resuming that attack, seems clear from the fact that his next blow in June was struck between Montdidier and Noyon. The Chemin des Dames would have been impregnable if properly held, but Ludendorff s information was not at fault, and the possession of the interior lines gave him the same advantage as in March of striking either right against the British or left against the French. He struck early on 27 May and achieved the most rapid advance of the war on the Western front. The line from Soissons to Reims was held by only eight divisions, four French and four British--one of these in reserve--and in a few hours the French had lost all their gains since October 1914 and were back again behind the Aisne. The British divisions, although they had been sent there to recruit after their hard work in March and April, made a better fight, and maintained themselves in their second positions all the day. But the French retreat had uncovered the British left flank, and in the evening they had to withdraw to the Aisne. By that time the French were nearer the Vesle than the Aisne, and on the 28th they were driven well south of the latter river. On the 29th the Germans broadened their front by taking Soissons, and on the 30th the apex of the salient they had made had reached the Marne between Château-Thierry and Dormans. For three days they had advanced at the rate of ten miles a day, capturing some 40,000 prisoners and 400 guns. From that date the pace slackened. The Germans did not attempt to cross the Marne, but endeavoured to widen their salient by pushing east behind Reims and west across the Soissons-Château-Thierry road. They had little success in the former direction, but in the latter they gradually pressed back the French to an irregular line which ran from Fontenoy on the Aisne southwards along the Savières river across the Ourcq, and then turned eastwards down the Clignon and reached the Marne below Château-Thierry. American troops, who had on the 27th marked their advent into battle by capturing and holding Cantigny, a critical point on the Montdidier front, now took up an equally crucial position south-west of Château-Therry and drove the Germans back on 4-5 June, while on the 6th British troops recaptured Bligny south-west of Reims.
The French themselves defeated on the 5th a German attempt to cross the Oise at Lagache south of Noyon, which was intended to link up the German offensive on the Aisne with their next attack farther west. This was launched on the 9th between Montdidier and Noyon, and its purpose was to push southwards and envelop the French defences and forces in the forests of Compiègne and Villers-Cotterets which had stopped the German westward advance on Paris between the Aisne and the Marne. It was a dangerous threat, but this time Foch was prepared. The attack was, indeed, a matter of common anticipation, and its adoption suggested that Ludendorff was getting to the end of his expedients. The Americans at Cantigny set a western, and the French success at Lagache an eastern limit to its front; and thus confined it advanced no more than six miles in four days. The French left stood firm and a brilliant counter-attack by Mangin on the German right flank between Rubescourt and St. Maur on the 11th determined its failure, although Foch was compelled to evacuate the salient which the German advance had created in the French line east of the Oise between Ribecourt and Mt. de Choisy. Hoping that this attack had diverted French forces from the defence of the forest of Villers-Cotterets, the Germans then renewed their push along the Aisne, but were promptly checked; and no better success attended their effort on the 18th to encircle Reims still farther east.
For the moment German trust in success had to repose upon the secondary efforts of her Austrian ally on the Piave, although no German troops could now be spared to give much substance to the expectation. That front had been quiescent since the winter, but a good deal had been done to strengthen it, and the Italians were doubtless well advised to stand behind their lines rather than risk an offensive until Austria was practically hors de combat. Austria herself had little stomach for the fight. Her domestic situation was deplorable; parliamentary government had been suspended; and nearly half the population of the Empire was in veiled or open revolt. Hundreds of thousands of Czecho-Slovaks and Jugo-Slavs had joined the enemy, and some were stiffening the Piave front. But German demands were inexorable, and it was hoped that German tactics would supply the place of German troops. There were two battles in the offensive which began on 15 June, one in the mountains, the object of which was to turn the whole Italian front on the Piave, and the other a frontal attack across that river between the Montello, the pivot of the mountain and river fronts, and the sea. The first was the more promising, but achieved the less success. That front was partly held by French and British troops, and the insignificant advance which the Austrians made on the 15th was stopped on the following day. The attack on the Piave was at first more fortunate; a good deal of the Montello was taken, a serious impression was made on the Italian right wing at San Donà di Piave, and fourteen new bridges and nearly 100,000 Austrian troops were thrown across the river. Fortune came to the rescue of the Italians, and torrents of rain flooded the Piave and broke ten of the Austrian bridges. On the 18th the counter-attack began, and by a brilliant dash of soldiers and sailors the Austrian left was turned on the 21st. On the 22nd a general retreat across the river was ordered; it was skilfully carried out, and the Austrians escaped with singularly slight losses considering their precarious position. Their offensive had been an utter failure, but Diaz did not think it prudent to follow up his success with an advance across the river.
The Austrian misadventure was a meagre morsel with which to fill the gap between the latest German offensives and the crowning mercy for which the German public had been led to look; and as the precious summer weeks flew by uneasiness must have filled any German minds that were capable of discerning the realities of the situation. But the wish is father to most men's thoughts, and unpleasant facts which were not concealed by the censor were sedulously ignored or explained away. "Foch's reserves" became a jesting synonym on German lips for something which did not exist, and it was the daily exercise of journalistic wisdom to show that American armies which could not swim or fly would be prevented by German submarines from crossing the Atlantic. Ludendorff was not so blind, and had he been a patriotic statesman instead of a Junker general he would have sought to make terms while he might do so with advantage. But it is the nemesis of militarism that it never can make a peace which is tolerable to its enemies, and Ludendorff had no choice but to persist with an offensive which had become a desperate gamble. His efforts since the end of May had profited him little; he had used up most of the divisions intended for a final resumption of his attack on the Franco-British liaison; and after more than a month's delay he could only launch his last bolt against an eccentric and subsidiary objective. Foiled in front of Amiens and Paris, he turned to Reims; but there was nothing in the previous history of the war on the Western front to suggest that, even were his last offensive as successful as his first, it would bring him within measurable distance of the victory he needed. The Marne might be crossed and the railway to Nancy and Verdun cut, as they had been in 1914, but the further advance for which he could hope from his attack on Reims would bring him no nearer to Paris, to breaking the Entente connexion, or to damming that fatal flow of American reinforcements which was providing Foch with as many reserves a month as Germany could recruit in a year.
The fateful attack began at 4 a.m. on 15 July after four hours of artillery preparation. Its object was to encircle the Montagne de Reims, the chief bastion of the line of communications between Paris and the eastern front on the Meuse, and to extend the German hold on the Marne from Dormans as far as Châlons. There were two converging attacks, one on the twenty-six miles of front which Gouraud held east of Reims between Prunay and Massiges, and the other on a twenty-two mile line south-west of Reims between Vrigny and Fossoy on the Marne above Château-Thierry. For each attack Ludendorff used fifteen divisions, with others in reserve. On both fronts he found Foch prepared to counter the tactics which had been so successful in the earlier stages of the offensive. The first line was lightly held, and the Germans were shaken by a skilfully arranged bombardment as they crossed the zone between it and the real French defences. Upon these in Champagne they made no impression whatever. Prunay, Prosnes, Auberive, and Tahure were yielded at first, but recovered by counter-attacks; the French lost no guns, and their casualties were insignificant. Gouraud more than anyone else had frustrated Ludendorff's last offensive. South-west of Reims the Germans were rather more successful. They pushed across the Marne to a depth of some three miles between Mezy and Dormans, and in three days advanced up it past Châtillon towards Épernay as far as Rueil. Similar progress was made eastwards on the line between the Marne and Vrigny. But the gate-posts were firmly held at Fossoy with American assistance, and at Vrigny with that of the British and Italian divisions which under Berthelot did some of their best fighting in the war. By the evening of the 17th the Entente forces were successfully counter-attacking all along the line, and at dawn on the 18th Foch delivered the blow which converted the German advance into a retreat, and began a triumphal progress which did not stop until four months later the enemy sued for peace.