is the largest online archive of world war 1 photographs and texts.
the Archive of World War 1 Photographs and Texts
History of World War 1 The Western Front The Russian Front Italian Front The Middle East Air Warfare War at Sea

<< Previous | Contents | Next >>



There were a few people in England who had some inkling on 18 July that it might prove a turning-point in history. Foch's simple piety had led him into what was almost an indiscretion; he had asked for the special prayers of the faithful, the request had spread to conventual schools in England, and by the 16th it was guessed by those who knew the fact that a special effort was in contemplation. But his great counter-attack owed its importance to what had gone before and what was to follow; and victory was due to more complex and comprehensive causes than the valour of the troops engaged upon the Marne or even the strategy of Foch. Greater efforts were made at other times on both sides than during the last fortnight of July 1918, and the destruction of the salient the Germans had made since 27 May was merely the last ounce which turned the balance of power and the scales of victory. There were many ounces in the total weight, and the pride of each belligerent points to the different contributions which it made. To the Americans their divisions at Château-Thierry seem the decisive factor, to the French it was Foch's genius. The British point to the fact that the greatest weight of German force was still in front of Amiens and not on the Marne, and an Italian prince has declared that it was Italy who won the war on 24 October; while Ludendorff has maintained that American troops counted for little, and that the crucial factor was the revolutionary propaganda which had begun to undermine the moral of German troops as early as 1916. None of these partial explanations contain more than an element of truth, and a more comprehensive view is suggested by the likeness of Germany to the "one-hoss shay" of Oliver Wendell Holmes' ballad, a vehicle so skilfully compacted of durable materials that each part lasted exactly as long as every other, and that the whole eventually crumbled into a heap of dust in a single moment. German resources were vastly inferior to those which were slowly mobilized against her, but she organized them with such skill that they resisted the wear and tear of the war for a period to which some observers could discern no end. The strength of materials is, however, limited, and no organization can make them last for ever. The German armies began to give on 18 July, and the decay went on increasing because she had not the means with which to make repairs. The wonder is not that the machine broke down, but that it bore so great a strain for so prolonged a time. The Germans could not command success because they defied the conscience of mankind, but from the military point of view they certainly deserved it.

ammunition (139K)
Germany factory workers making ammunition.

In spite of Ludendorff's attempt, natural in a Junker, to debit revolution with his failure, it was American reinforcements which turned the scale. Few of them were as yet in the battle line, and there was no great disparity between the opposing forces on the front. But the mobilized strength of the Allies was growing to three times that of their enemies. Foch had an inexhaustible reservoir which enabled him to take risks which Ludendorff could not afford, and gave him a freedom of action which no Entente general had yet possessed. The extent of his command and his resources released him from the bonds of limited offensives. He could crush the German salient on the Marne without prejudicing the prospects of his plans at Amiens and Arras, in Champagne or at Verdun; and fear imposed on Ludendorff the dire alternative of weakening his powers of resistance to future attacks elsewhere, or starving his immediate defence. His plans for resuming the offensive at Amiens had already been ruined by the drain of his attacks on the Aisne and on the Marne; and his defensive prospects on the Amiens front were now to be jeopardized in the effort to avoid disaster in the salient he had rashly made along the Marne. For, except on the assumption that Foch was unable to attack on the western flank of that salient between Soissons and Château-Thierry, the German thrust deeper across the Marne was a wild adventure (see Map, p. 362).

Foch, however, had made his plan and his preparations. Concealed by the forests of Compiègne and Villers-Cotterets, he had assembled in the angle between the Oise and Marne reserves of which the Germans denied the existence. From the Aisne near Fontenoy southwards to the Ourcq Mangin commanded an army containing the pick of French colonial troops; and thence to the Marne Degoutte had another which included five American divisions. Before them ran the German flank weakly guarding the line of communications with the German front on the Marne. Led by a vast fleet of French "mosquito" Tanks something like the British "whippets," the French early on the 18th broke through the German defences on a front of twenty-seven miles and advanced from two to five miles towards the Soissons-Château-Thierry road. [Footnote: An error made in the British réchauffée of the French official news represented Mangin as having advanced eight miles on the 18th to the Crise on a stretch of five miles east of Buzancy. It was a mistake of nord-öuest for nord-est which was never corrected, and has got into most of the summaries and histories of the war, although it makes the subsequent French fighting in that area unintelligible. The history of the German evacuation of the salient would have been very different had the French got east of Buzancy on the 18th. As a matter of fact, it took them eleven days to secure the territory credited to them by this error on the 18th.] Mangin reached the Montagne de Paris within two miles of Soissons, and Berzy-le-Sec on the banks of the Crise, while south of the Ourcq Dégoutte got to Neuilly St. Front and the Americans captured Courchamps, Torcy, and Belleau. Sixteen thousand prisoners and fifty guns were captured, but there was nothing like a German rout. They stubbornly defended their main line of communications for days until the bulk of their forces could get away; and they evacuated the salient slowly and in good order. There was, of course, no further hope for them south of the Marne, and by the 20th they had regained the northern bank without very serious loss; it was not till the 22nd that the Allies crossed the river in pursuit. On the 21st the Germans had abandoned Château-Thierry and the Soissons road as far as the Ourcq, but north of that river they held the road for a week, and Buzancy was not captured till the 29th. By the 23rd Berthelot was making progress on the other side of the salient, and the German centre had to relinquish the forest of Fère and Oulchy on the 25th. On the 31st the Americans drove in their centre at Seringes, and on 2 August the French forced their way into Soissons. By the 3rd the Germans had been driven across the Vesle and the salient had been flattened out.

Even the best of the critics in the French press had little idea of what was to follow. The Germans' latest offensive had been foiled, and they had lost the more adventurous part of their gains in May; but Foch's success was regarded as merely a promising detail, and men discussed the locality of Rupprecht's counter-attack. But the signs of the times did not point in that direction. On 4 July Americans and Australians fighting side by side had captured Hamel below the Somme. On the 19th the British had recaptured Meteren at the apex of the German salient across the Lys, and Merris fell on the 30th. On the 23rd the French between Amiens and Montdidier had advanced two miles on a four-mile front and captured Mailly-Raineval, Sauvillers, and Aubvillers in the Avre valley; and on 4 August the Germans withdrew from all their ground to the west of that river. Two days later they attacked and recovered some of the ground they had recently lost near Morlancourt. Both the withdrawal and the attack were signs of nervous anticipation, but neither broke the force of the blow which Haig struck on 8 August on a twenty-mile front from Morlancourt to La Neuville on the Avre. The troops were mostly British under Rawlinson with a French army under Débeney cooperating on his right. Their success first opened the eyes of the public to the change in the situation on the front, and on Ludendorff's own testimony deprived him of his last vestige of hope. It was no weak flank that was attacked, but the sector of the front that was most strongly held by German armies. The drive was straight along the great road from Amiens to St. Quentin on which the Germans had made their westward thrust in March; and the first day saw them seven miles back at Framerville. To the south they lost Moreuil, Mezières, Demuin, Cayeux, and Caix, and to the north Morcourt, Cerisy, and Chipilly, while 7000 prisoners and 100 guns had been taken by 3 p.m. On the 9th those totals had risen to 24,000 prisoners and over 200 guns, while the British continued their advance to Rosières and Lihons, and the French to Arvillers and Beaufort. Nor was that all; for south of Débeney, Humbert interposed with another attack between Montdidier and the Oise. By the 11th the Germans had lost to the French most of their gains in the June offensive, and to the British further ground between Albert and the Somme.

On that day the German line ran in front of Bray, Chaulnes, Roye, and Lassigny to Ribecourt on the Oise. They had brought up reinforcements to make a stand on that shortened front, and they stubbornly contested the French advance on the Lassigny massif. But its capture was completed by the 15th, and the number of prisoners had risen to 33,000 and of captured guns to over 600. The Germans were also being pushed out of their salient on the Lys, where Merville fell on the 19th; and Mangin was forcing his way forward in the angle of the Aisne and the Oise between Soissons and Noyon. But the next great blow was struck north of the Somme by Byng between Albert and Arras. The Germans sought to evade its force by a timely retreat across the Ancre, and there was no such rapid advance as marked the first day of Rawlinson's offensive south of the Somme. But it was less interrupted, and day by day some progress was made. Byng's attack on the 21st was along a ten-mile front north of the Ancre, and the first day gave him Beaucourt, Achiet-le-Petit, Bucquoy, Courcelles, and Moyenneville. On the 22nd he extended his attack from Albert to the Somme and advanced two miles to a line between Albert and Bray. On the 23rd his left was advanced another couple of miles to Boiry, Ervillers, Bihucourt, and Irles, while on his right the Australians captured Bray. The German centre at Thiepval was thus outflanked on both sides; it gave way on the 24th, and Byng pushed on to the outskirts of Bapaume. Bapaume held out for five days longer while Byng pushed his right forward along the Somme towards Péronne, and extended his left attack northwards beyond the Scarpe.

Byng's addition to the pressure the Germans had to bear from north of the Scarpe to south of the Oise imposed upon them a retreat as extensive as that of March and April 1917; but now they could not make it at their leisure. On the 27th they had to abandon the line south of the Somme on which they had stood since the 15th, when they recovered stability after Rawlinson's offensive. Roye was relinquished that day and Chaulnes and Nesle on the 28th. Noyon followed on the 29th, partly in sympathy with the northern withdrawal and partly owing to Humbert's pressure on the north-western bank of the Oise, but also because it had been outflanked to the south by Mangin's advance between the Oise and the Aisne. Beginning on the 17th with an attack on a ten-mile front between Tracy-le-Val and Vingre he had steadily pushed on until by the 23rd his left flank held the Oise as far as its junction with the Ailette and his front faced the latter canalized river as far as Guny. By the 29th he was across the Ailette and threatening to turn the whole German position south of the Somme at Chauny. Bapaume fell on the same day as Noyon, and it soon became clear that the Somme would not protect the Germans any more than it had done the British in March. For on the 31st the Australians stormed Mount St. Quentin the bulwark of Péronne, and Péronne itself fell into their hands on 1 September. Simultaneously Byng's army pressed forward from Bapaume to the Canal du Nord which runs north from Péronne.

But this after all was ground we had held for a year in 1917-18, and the Hindenburg lines might serve the Germans as well in 1918-19. More significant of the coming debacle was the success of Horne's First Army, which now intervened and extended the line of Byng's attack. Already Canadian and British troops, by the capture of Vis-en-Artois on the 27th, Boiry on the 28th, and Haucourt on the 30th, had seized ground which the Germans had held since 1914; and on 2 September in one of the outstanding actions of the campaign Canadian and British troops broke the Drocourt-Quéant line on a front of six miles between Étaing and Cagnicourt. On that day the British army fired 943,857 shells. No single engagement caused greater depression in Germany, but the impression was somewhat fallacious; for behind this sector of the Hindenburg lines were waterways which were even worse obstacles to our tanks, and although the Canadians pressed on to L'Écluse, Écourt, and Rumancourt, they were hemmed in on their left by the Sensée and in front by the Canal du Nord, which protected Douai to the north and Cambrai to the east. The advance here was checked for some weeks, but it went steadily on along other fronts. The salient on the Lys was melting away: Bailleul fell on 30 August, Mount Kemmel on the 31st, and Ploegstreet wood on 4 September. Lens was evacuated on the 3rd. South-west of Cambrai the British were approaching their old lines, and east of the Somme the Germans were retreating to St. Quentin. On the 6th the French took Ham and Chauny, and on the 9th they were once more across the Crozat canal. Mangin was pushing his way towards the St. Gobain massif, and French and American troops were driving the Germans back from the Vesle across the Aisne. It looked as though winter might come with the line of battle much where it was before the German offensive began in March.

But the latter half of September gave a novel aspect to affairs. A great deal, no doubt, was due to Foch and the unity of command; but that unity did not extend to the East nor account for the debacle of Bulgaria and Turkey. It was, however, partly responsible for the extension of our offensive in France beyond the limits of the year before and for the timing of the American attack in the Woevre. In the hour of his Allies' need President Wilson had consented to the brigading of American with French and British troops, and to the employment of American divisions as supports for French and British generals. But with the American Army growing equal in size to the French and the British and acquiring an independent skill in war, there could be no hesitation about an American command on an equal footing with the armies of Haig and Pétain; and to the Americans under General Pershing had been allotted the right wing of the Allied front, the British forming the left and the French the centre. Some critics talked of Pershing's armies being used as the spear-head of an invasion of Germany through Lorraine; but this would have been an eccentric operation, and there were obvious reasons for restoring Lorraine, if possible, to France undevastated by war. North rather than east was the natural direction for an American advance, and in either case an indispensable preliminary was to eliminate that strange wedge at St. Mihiel which the Germans had held since September 1914. The task would also be a useful apprenticeship for an independent American command. The attack was made on both sides of the salient on 12 September, but the principal drive was from the south on a twelve miles' front between Bouconville and Regnieville. Part of the defending force was Austrian, but the whole salient collapsed under the blow; 15,000 prisoners and 200 guns were captured, and a new front was formed on a straight line from Fresnes to Pont-à-Mousson. The strategic purpose was to free the American flank and communications in view of a bigger offensive northwards, and on the 15th Austria and Germany began their overtures for peace, to which President Wilson at once returned an unsympathetic reply.

Anticipations as well as achievements counselled that diplomatic move, and Austria in particular had reason to fear developments on other fronts than the French. The Balkans had been quiescent during the summer, although the Greeks had on 30 May given an earnest of a better future by a victory at Skra di Legen, west of the Vardar, in which they captured 1500 Bulgarian and German prisoners, and on 18 June the fall of the pro-German Radoslavoff Ministry indicated that Ferdinand wished to present a less Teutonic appearance to the world. Italy, too, in pursuance of her assumed protectorate over Albania, thought in July that the time had come to assert herself, and with the assistance of some French troops began an advance towards Elbasan. The Austrians were taken by surprise, Berat was captured, and the country overrun as far as the Semeni and beyond the Devoli. The effort was not apparently serious; in August the Austrians returned to the attack, recaptured Berat, and drove the Italians back to their starting-point in a retreat boldly described in an Italian official pronouncement as of no military importance. It helped to discourage Italy from taking an active part in the coming offensive against Bulgaria, but political motives were the principal reason for quiescence. Italy had a tenderness for Bulgaria arising out of her antipathy to Jugo-Slavs and Greeks, and while proclaiming that Austria must be totally destroyed, she exclaimed against the wickedness and folly of imposing on Bulgaria a second Peace of Brest-Litovsk (see Map, p. 151).

The success of the Balkan campaign did not, however, suffer much from the lack of Italian push. Franchet d'Esperey was commander-in-chief, and he was ably seconded by the Serbian Marshal Mishitch. The Serbian Army was the spear-head of the attack, and it had with it an equally eager and effective force of Jugo-Slavs; with them cooperated the French on the west of the Vardar, while east of it were the Greeks and the British with the arduous and somewhat thankless task of facing the impregnable Demir Kapu defile and Belashitza range. The offensive began on 15 September, and the main attack was on the Dobropolie ridge in the angle between the Tcherna and Vardar rivers. On the first day the Bulgarian line was broken on a front of sixteen miles, an advance was made of five, and 4000 prisoners and 30 guns were taken. On the morrow the front widened to twenty-two miles, and the advance increased to twelve; and within a week the Serbians had cleared the angle between the rivers and crossed the Tcherna on their left and the Vardar above Demir Kapu on their right. This cut the main Bulgarian communications with Prilep on the west and Doiran on the east, and compelled a general retreat along a hundred miles of front. On the 23rd the French occupied Prilep; on the 25th the Serbians captured Veles and Ishtip and pressed on towards Uskub, while their cavalry were at Kotchana almost on the Bulgarian frontier. The British, whose first attacks had been checked, had actually crossed the border at Kosturino on the road between Doiran and Strumnitza. Bulgaria had put her whole trust in the strength of her front, and with it she collapsed. An armistice was requested on the 25th, and Franchet d'Esperey's terms were accepted on the 30th. It was the most dramatic overthrow in the war, and within a fortnight the whole situation in the Balkans was transformed. The Serbians were bitterly disappointed at having to stay their avenging hands when almost at the gates of Sofia; but the elimination of Bulgaria made the recovery of their country a triumphal procession varied by the occasional defeat of Austrian rearguards. On 12 October they and their allies occupied Nish, and a week later they had reached the Danube. Nor was Serbia alone concerned. Austria had relied upon the Bulgarian buckler, and when it crumpled her entire hold not only on the Balkans but over her own Jugo-Slav subjects in Bosnia, Dalmatia, and Carinthia was relaxed. A general uprising of Jugo-Slavs in favour of union under the Serbian crown more than doubled the size of that kingdom which Austria had begun the war to crush.

Nor did this exhaust the effects of Bulgaria's capitulation. The terms of the armistice included the Allied occupation of Bulgarian railways, and this brought their military front up to the borders of Rumania on the north and of Turkey on the south. Presently Marghiloman's Ministry, which the Germans had imposed at Bukarest, fell, and Rumania prepared to resume her part in the war. Bulgaria, too, was willing to revive her quarrel with Turkey. The famous corridor had disappeared, and Turkey was an isolated unit. It was no wonder that the "Easterners" looked up again, and the Prime Minister's henchmen in the press began to tell stories about his single-handed and far-sighted championship of an Eastern campaign as the solution of the problem of the war. But the collapse of the Balkan front was ultimately due to the collapse of its German foundation. Berlin journalists talked of the German troops which would soon bring back Bulgaria to her senses and to the Teutonic fold. But they were mortgaged to the Western front, and instead of a German expedition to assist her under Mackensen, Turkey was faced with ruin at the hands of Allenby.

His blow had followed swiftly on that of Franchet d'Esperey, and four days after the Balkan campaign had opened, British forces began the battle which was to prove the most perfect operation of the war. Preparations had been in progress during the summer, and little had been done to modify the British line running a dozen or fifteen miles north of Jericho, Jerusalem, and Jaffa to the sea. A Turkish counter-attack on 13 July had even met with some initial success; but the Turks had been unable to maintain their strength, the Germans could not assist them, the Arabs were perpetually harassing them along the Hedjaz railway, and what reserves they had were sent on a wild goose chase for the recovery of Turkish dominion in Caucasia and Persia and along the shores of the Caspian. The pursuit was rendered attractive by Russian impotence and anarchy: Armenia was regained and subjected to a final and more extensive massacre than ever; Northern Persia was overrun, and even the long and adventurous arms which the British Empire stretched out in August from Mesopotamia and India to the southern and eastern shores of the Caspian failed to save Baku from the combined efforts of Turkish troops and Bolshevik treachery on 14 September. But Allenby, the luckiest of British generals, brought down these airy Turkish castles with a single blow. He had been largely reinforced from India, which mobilized during the war nearly a million men and bore the chief burden of the Palestine and Mesopotamian campaigns; he had got a magnificent force of cavalry, and with it the terrain and open fighting wherein to exhibit a model of that traditional strategy from which the glory on European battlefields had departed for ever.

On 19 September his infantry drove the Turks from a sixteen-mile line between Rafat and the sea back a dozen miles to the railway junction at Tul Keram, while his cavalry burst through to the right towards the gap south-east of Mount Carmel and the plain of Esdraelon. It was a rare ride: on the morrow they were forty miles north and north-east at El Afuleh, Nazareth, and Beisan; and then wheeling south-east they cut off the retreat of nearly the whole of the Turkish forces. On the 22nd Allenby reported that 25,000 prisoners and 200 guns had been taken and counted, and that the Seventh and Eighth Turkish armies had virtually ceased to exist. The Fourth was pursued across the Jordan, and mostly mopped up between its pursuers and the Arabs to the east. On the 25th we were round the Lake of Galilee, and the number of prisoners had risen to 45,000 and of captured guns to nearly 300. There was nothing left to stop our advance, which was joined by some French battalions, while the Arabs kept pace on the other side of the Jordan. On the 28th we effected a junction with them at Deraa, and Damascus fell on the 30th. On 6 October cavalry, advancing between Mts. Lebanon and Hermon, seized Zahleh and Rayak between Damascus and Beyrut, which the French occupied on the 7th, while the British took Sidon. On the 9th we were at Baalbek, on the 13th at Tripolis, and on the 15th at Homs. On the 26th Aleppo fell, and on the 28th we reached Muslimieh, that junction on the Baghdad railway on which longing eyes had been cast as the nodal point in the conflict of German and other ambitions in the East.

Allenby played the leading part in Turkey's destruction, partly because Marshall's attention in Mesopotamia had been distracted towards the Caspian. But in October he resumed his interrupted march up the Tigris: on the 25th his troops captured Kirkuk and forced the passage of the Lesser Zab; and on the 28th they took Kalat Shergat, and after a six days' battle forced the Turkish army on the Tigris to surrender. Turkey had taken a lot more beating than Bulgaria, but the end was the same. On 30 October an armistice was signed, which permitted the Allies to occupy the forts on the Dardanelles and Bosporus and make free use of the Straits. Marshall entered Mosul, and presently British ships commanded the Black Sea and British troops were holding a line across Caucasia to the Caspian and connecting with the chain of forces established between Krasnovodsk and India. An end was thus put to Germany's dreams of a Teutonic-Turco-Turanian avenue into the heart of Asia, but the search for an eastern front in Russia against the Central Empires was elusive. For the Bolsheviks, in spite of the murder of Count Mirbach the German ambassador at Moscow on 6 July, grew ever more friendly to the Prussians, and the Entente had to go to Vladivostock for a basis of operations, and rely largely upon the romantic achievements of the Czecho-Slovak prisoners who had enlisted in the Russian armies and refused to lay down their arms at the Peace of Brest-Litovsk. At first the Bolsheviks promised them a passage via Siberia to the Western front, but then, like Pharaoh hardened their hearts and refused to let the infant nation go. Thereupon the Czecho-Slovaks set up for themselves, seized the Siberian railway from the Bolsheviks, and after much hardship and fighting established contact with the motley Entente forces advancing from Vladivostock. With their assistance an anti-Bolshevik government, of which Admiral Koltchak afterwards made himself master, was set up in Siberia, while Entente forces, mostly British, were sent to Archangel and the Murmansk coast to prevent the Germans establishing their authority there as they had done in the Baltic provinces "liberated" by the Peace of Brest-Litovsk.

The Conquest Of Syria

But this Eastern front, which as late as August was regarded in high but civilian quarters as indispensable to the Allied success, failed to pierce the protection which the Bolsheviks gave to Germany or to penetrate farther west than the Urals; and Germany had after all to be beaten by professional strategists on the Western front. There was little fault to be found with their progress, and while Bulgaria, Turkey, and Austria were collapsing in the East, the Germans were being steadily driven towards disaster on a widening field of battle in the West. Simultaneously with Pershing's destruction of the St. Mihiel salient the British were thrusting the Germans back to the Hindenburg lines between Cambrai and St. Quentin, and Mangin was pushing forward towards the forest of St. Gobain. The Germans attempted to stand at Épehy, but on 18-19 September they were driven back with the loss of 11,750 prisoners and 100 guns; and from the 27th to the 30th was fought the first phase of the battle for Cambrai and St. Quentin, in which the British First, Third, and Fourth armies took 26,500 prisoners and 340 guns apart from the gains of the French. The object was to complete the breach of the Hindenburg lines on the strength of which public opinion in Germany was stayed; and it was a critical operation. The lines themselves were reinforced by the Canal du Nord protecting Cambrai and the Scheldt-St. Quentin canal between Cambrai and St. Quentin.

The southern sector in front of the Fourth Army was the more strongly fortified, and an intense bombardment began on the night of 26-27 September which continued till the 29th. This tended to divert attention from the First and Third armies, which on the 27th forced the Canal du Nord south of Moeuvres and then spread fanwise along the eastern bank. By the end of the day they were more than half-way from the Canal du Nord to Cambrai, and on the 28th the advance was continued across the Scheldt canal at Marcoing and broadened from Palluel on the north to Gouzeaucourt on the south. On the 29th the Fourth Army began its attack on the canal to the north of St. Quentin. It was well supported by several American divisions, and the great episode of the day was the capture of Bellenglise by troops who crossed the canal equipped with life-belts, mats, and rafts. East of Bellenglise, Lehaucourt and Magny were also stormed, and north of it Nauroy and Bellicourt. Meanwhile the Third Army captured Masnières and penetrated into the western outskirts of Cambrai while the Canadians threatened to outflank it on the north. On the 30th the Germans had to withdraw their centre at Villers Guislain and Gonnelieu, while the Fourth Army extended its gains southwards by the capture of Thorigny; and, thus menaced, the Germans had to abandon St. Quentin to the French on 1 October. On that day, too, New Zealanders and British troops took Crèvecoeur and Rumilly south of Cambrai, and the Canadians Blécourt to the north of it. The Hindenburg line, apart from its tottering supports, had gone at the moment when Bulgaria was capitulating; and on the same 30 September Count Hertling and all his Secretaries of State resigned.

The British victory, while the critical movement on the Western front, was but one of the four operations which Foch had concerted with Haig in the middle of September. The other three were a Belgian attack at Ypres, an American advance on the Meuse, and a French offensive in close connexion with it in Champagne and the Argonne. The Belgian attack was an agreeable surprise, and nothing did more to illumine the change from 1917 than the contrast between its rapid success and the painful crawl of Gough's campaign. The cause was that which also accounted for the Germans' failure elsewhere; they had not the forces to sustain their vast and crumbling front, and they attempted to hold the line in Belgium with no more than five divisions. The attack began on 28 September on a twenty-three mile front, and in one day 50 per cent more ground was covered than had been gained in three months the year before. The whole of Houthulst forest, which then had hardly been touched, was taken at a stroke; and on the 29th Dixmude fell and the Belgians were across the Roulers-Menin road. As a consequence of this and of Haig's advance the Germans had to evacuate the rest of the Lys salient and draw back their front towards Lille and Douai. Armentières was recovered on 3 October, La Bassée and the Aubers ridge were abandoned without a struggle, and the Germans surrendered the remaining section of the Drocourt-Quéant line, withdrawing to the Douai, Haute Deule, and Sensée canals which protected Lille and Douai.

The French and Americans had a sterner task in the Argonne and on the Meuse, for here was the pivot of the Germans' whole position in the conquered territory. A possible retirement to the Meuse had been contemplated in 1917, and in September 1918 the Germans would have been glad to surrender everything west of it in return for safety on that line; hence their withdrawals and feeble resistance in Flanders. But the Meuse from Verdun to Mezières was an indispensable flank for any German front in Belgium; it had now become more to the Germans than even that, for it was the only shield behind which their armies could escape disaster and get back to Germany at all. Whatever else might have to go, this flank must hold; if it gave, the Germans would have to capitulate or suffer the wholesale destruction of their forces. Hence the stubbornness of the defence the Americans encountered; the terrain gave it every advantage with which art could supplement nature; and a singular and serious breakdown of their commissariat added to the difficulties under which American troops fought with intrepid skill.

The attack was launched on 26 September. The American front ran for seventeen miles from Forges on the Meuse, eight miles north of Verdun, to the centre of the Argonne, whence the French extended it to Auberive on the Suippe. Pershing's First Army advanced an average depth of seven miles and captured Varennes, Montfaucon,--for long the Crown Prince's headquarters,--Nantillois, and Dannevoux. Gouraud's progress was less rapid but better sustained. His greatest advance was only three miles, but it extended along a wider front and developed during the following days, while the Americans were held up by defective organization. Somme-Py and Manre were taken on the 28th, while on Gouraud's left Berthelot began to move from Reims, and farther west Mangin pursued the Germans across the Aisne. Progress along the whole French front continued in October; Gouraud's right pressed on to a level with, and then in advance of, the American left towards Challerange and Grandpré; his centre advanced towards Machault, and on his left Berthelot took Loivre, Brimont, and forced the passages of the Suippe at Bertricourt and Bazancourt, and of the Aisne at Berry-au-Bac. The Moronvillers massif was thus outflanked, and by the middle of the month the Germans were evacuating the whole of their ground south of the Aisne. This retreat, coupled with the French advance east of St. Quentin, endangered the great apex of the German front in the St. Gobain forest, and by the 10th its abandonment was begun. On the 11th the Chemin des Dames was relinquished, on the 13th the French were in La Fère and Laon, and the Germans were retreating to the line of the Serre.

Nevertheless, the advance of the right wing of the Allied front had not quite come up to expectations. The prolonged maintenance of the German bastion in the Argonne and on the Meuse enabled their centre to withdraw more or less at its leisure and thus avoid the colossal Sedan with which it was threatened; and, the French centre having been cast for a part subsidiary to those of the two wings, the brunt of the fighting fell upon the British, whose advance was not so fatal as similar progress would have been on the other wing. They were greatly assisted by American divisions serving with the Third and Fourth armies, by the Belgians and French on their left, and by the French on their right; but the check to the American advance enabled the Germans--unfortunately for them, as it turned out--to transfer reinforcements from the Meuse to Cambrai and Valenciennes.

Cambrai did not therefore fall until another series of actions had been fought in the first nine days of October. The Scheldt canal to the north of it had proved a formidable obstacle, and Haig determined to press the attack from the south, where the Fourth Army had prepared the way on 29 September by destroying the Hindenburg line at Bellicourt and Bellenglise. On 3 October Rawlinson attacked again between Le Catelet and Sequehart and captured those villages, Gouy, Ramicourt, and the Beaurevoir-Fonsomme line. On the 4th and 5th further progress was made by the taking of Beaurevoir and Montbrehain, while north of Le Catelet the Germans were driven from their positions east of the canal, which were occupied by the Third Army. On the 8th the final phase in the battle for Cambrai began. The chief fighting was on the line secured on the 3rd. An American division captured Brancourt and Prémont, and British divisions Serain, Villers-Outreaux, and Malincourt north-east of Le Catelet. New Zealanders south of Cambrai look Lesdain and Esnes, and three British divisions Serainvillers, Forenville, and Niergnies, penetrating the southern outskirts of Cambrai, while to the north of it Canadians captured Ramillies, crossed the canal at Point d'Aire and entered the city on that side. During the night the whole of it fell into our hands; the Germans were driven back in disorder to within two miles of Le Cateau; and Bohain was reached ten miles east of Bellicourt and a similar distance south-west of Le Cateau. By the 10th the advance had been carried to the line of the Selle river, on which the Germans made another stand, while farther south the French pushing east of St. Quentin, cleared the Oise-Sambre canal as far north as Bernot. On the 10th Le Cateau fell, and by the 13th the British had gained the west bank of the Selle as far north as Haspres.

A great wedge had thus been thrust into the German line, leaving pronounced salients to the north of it round Lille and Douai, and to the south-east of it between the Oise and the Aisne. It was the policy of the Entente to eschew the destruction which fighting in cities involved, and it was particularly desirable to compel the Germans to retreat from Lille and its industrial neighbourhood by threats of encirclement rather than by frontal attack. To complete the process begun on the south, the advance in the north was now resumed; and on 14 October Belgian forces with a French army under Dégoutte and the British Second Army under Plumer attacked the whole front in Flanders between Dixmude and the Lys at Comines. Their success was even more striking than it had been on 28 September; the Belgians and French carried Courtemarck, Roulers, and Iseghem, while the British pushed along the north bank of the Lys until on the 16th they held it as far as Harlebeke, farther east than Ostend and even than Bruges. On the 15th the Belgians captured Thourout and the British Menin, crossing the Lys at various points and taking Comines on the 16th. The effect of this advance was to precipitate a comprehensive German retreat both north and south. The coveted Belgian coast had at last to be abandoned: Ostend fell on the 17th, Zeebrugge and Bruges on the 19th, and by the 21st the Germans were twenty miles from the sea, striving to stand on the Lys canal in front of Ghent. To the south the withdrawal was no less complete: both Lille and Douai were entered on the 17th; Tourcoing and Roubaix soon followed; and by the 21st our Second and Fifth armies had advanced to the Scheldt on a front of twenty miles, forming nearly a straight line with the First, Third, and Fourth on the Selle.

There the battle had been renewed on the 17th, as soon as our advancing lines of communication had been sufficiently repaired to bear the strain. The attack was made south of Le Cateau by the Fourth Army, employing British and American troops in co-operation with Débeney's French armies on our right. The country was difficult and the fighting stiff, but by nightfall on the 19th the Germans had been driven across the Oise and Sambre canal at all points south of Catillon, and on the 20th the Third and part of the First armies took up the struggle on the Selle north of Le Cateau. Here again it was severe, especially at Neuvilly, Solesmes, and Haspres, but the whole of the Selle positions on both banks were secured, while north-east of its junction with the Scheldt the First Army had occupied Denain. On the 23rd a combined attack was made by the Fourth and Third armies, though progress was limited to the front north of the bend of the Sambre at Ors. Between that point and a few miles south of Valenciennes our troops advanced six miles up to the outskirts of the forest of Mormal and Le Quesnoy in spite of the intervening streams which had been swollen by rain, of the wooded country, and of the stubborn resistance of the Germans. These battles of the Selle between 17-25 October yielded to British armies alone 21,000 prisoners and 450 guns, and on the 26th Ludendorff resigned. Meanwhile the French were gradually squeezing the Germans out of their salient between the Oise and the Aisne back upon the Serre. Chalandry and Grandlup, near that river, were occupied on the 22nd, and east of the Aisne some progress was made in the Argonne by the capture of Olizy and Termes on the 15th; but till nearly the end of October the Americans west of the Meuse were held up by their commissariat difficulties, though east of it they had captured Brabant and Consenvoye and pushed forward their line to a level with that on the western bank.

It was only on the Meuse and on the Lys that the enemy front showed the last vestiges of stability at the end of October. The surrender of Bulgaria had been followed by that of Turkey, and Austria was on the verge of collapse. Her hold on the Balkans had gone, her southern provinces were rising in sympathy with the Serbian and Jugo-Slav advance, in the north the Czecho-Slovaks were preparing to join, and even Hungary was refusing to supply the starving capital with food. Unless Italy struck quickly, Fiume and Trieste and the whole north-eastern Adriatic coast would pass into the hands of the insurgents. The moment had come to forestall the Jugo-Slavs and deliver a blow which might overthrow the Hapsburg Empire before it collapsed of itself. Since the repulse of the Austrian offensive on the Piave in June, the Italian front had remained quiescent during the critical months of the war, though picked Italian divisions had done good fighting with the French at Reims, and the Italians in Albania had pursued the Austrian forces after they had been beaten by the Serbs and French and abandoned by the Bulgars. On the night of 23-24 October the Tenth Italian Army, consisting of two British and two Italian divisions commanded by Lord Cavan, attacked the island of Grave di Papadopoli in the Piave and completed its conquest on the 25th and 26th. Simultaneously Giardino's Italians with a French division attacked in the region of Mt. Grappa, but retired to their original position after taking a number of prisoners. On the 25th they were more successful, capturing Mt. Pertica and repulsing Austrian counter-attacks on the 26th. On the 27th the decisive movement began with Cavan's crossing of the Piave, and on the same day the Austrian Government requested Sweden to transmit to President Wilson an offer which was equivalent to surrender. At the front the Austrians continued to counter-attack very heavily at Mt. Pertica; but on the Piave they completely collapsed, and the breach of their line on the 27th was followed by a disorderly flight. The booty was colossal, the heterogeneous troops of the moribund Hapsburg Empire surrendered wholesale, and on 3 November their dying government submitted to the terms of an armistice imposed by General Diaz. On that day Italians landed at Trieste, where insurgents had taken over the government on 31 October; but an Austrian Dreadnought at Pola which had hoisted the Croat revolutionary flag was sunk by the daring act of two Italian officers.

Germany now stood alone, and any defence she might otherwise have made on her frontiers was hopelessly compromised by the position of her armies on their far-flung line in France and Belgium. Nemesis for the invasion of Belgium had at last overtaken the invader. The problem of withdrawing in safety was rendered insoluble by the battles of the first week in November and the consequent convergence of the Allies on Germany's remaining lines of communication. The decisive blows were delivered right and left by the American and British wings. Towards the end of October the Americans had surmounted their difficulties of transport and organization, and were breaking down the German resistance, which had been weakened by the transfer of troops to the British front, between Grandpré and the Meuse. On 1 November the German line was broken and the Americans advanced three or four miles. On the 2nd they doubled that distance and were in Buzancy; on the 3rd they repeated their success, while the French on their left cleared the Argonne and reached Le Chesne. German resistance also broke down on the east bank of the Meuse, and the Americans made for Montmédy. But their advance was most rapid on the west bank, where on the 7th they leapt forward to Sedan. The Germans were thus deprived of their great lateral line connecting the eastern and western sectors of their front, and were driven back against the barrier of the Ardennes; and a great French offensive into Lorraine was being prepared under Mangin. This provision somewhat weakened the less essential advance of the French in the centre between the Aisne and the Oise, but the progress of the American wing left the Germans no option but retreat in the centre, and three French armies under Débeney, Mangin, and Guillaumat were rapidly converging upon Hirson. The remains of the Hunding position were taken on 5 November, and Marle and Guise were captured farther north-west. Vervins, Montcornet, and Réthel fell on the 6th. Hirson and Mezières were reached and the Belgian frontier crossed on the 9th. On the 10th the Italians entered Rocroi, and on the morning of the 11th the Allies were converging on Namur.

This rapid pursuit of the German centre had been made possible by the coup de grâce given to the German armies in the battle of the Sambre. Haig regarded the capture of Valenciennes as an essential preliminary, and on 1-2 November corps of the First and Third armies attacked a six-mile front to the south of the town. The line of the Rhonelle was forced and Valenciennes fell on the 2nd. The line of the Scheldt was thus turned, and besides falling back in front towards the forest of Mormal the Germans had to begin evacuating the Tournai bend of the river. But the decisive blow was still to come. It was delivered on 4 November by the First, Third, and Fourth armies on a thirty-mile front, between Valenciennes and Oisy on the Sambre, which was continued by Débeney's army southwards to the neighbourhood of Guise. In Haig's restrained language a great victory was won which definitely broke the enemy's resistance. Nineteen thousand prisoners were taken on the British front and 5000 on the French. On the first day Landrecies and Le Quesnoy fell and half the forest of Mormal was overrun; and the remaining operations consisted of a pursuit. On the 7th Bavai was captured, and Condé during the following night; on the 8th our troops were twelve miles east of Landrecies in Avesnes and on the outskirts of Maubeuge, which fell on the 9th. On that day also Tournai was occupied, and the Second Army crossing the Scheldt on a wide fronting reached Renaix. On the 10th they were close to Ath and to Grammont, and early on the 11th Canadians captured Mons.

Foch's Campaign

The British Army ended the war on the Western front where it had begun to fight, and at 11 a.m. on that day the struggle ceased from end to end of the fighting line in accordance with an armistice signed six hours before. Its terms were severe, the immediate evacuation of all the conquered territory and withdrawal behind the Rhine, leaving the whole left bank and all the important bridgeheads open to Allied occupation, and a neutral zone on the right bank; the repatriation of all the transported inhabitants and Allied prisoners of war; the quashing of the treaties of Brest-Litovsk and Bukarest, and the withdrawal of all German troops from territories formerly belonging to Russia, Rumania, and Turkey; the surrender of thousands of guns, locomotives, aeroplanes, of all submarines fit for sea, and of the better part of the German Navy. The Germans had no choice: their armies were in flight along roads choked with transport towards an ever narrowing exit, and they could only escape if given time, which they could only obtain by surrender. They yielded to avoid a Sedan which would have destroyed their armies as a fighting force. But they gained one at least of the objects for which they had fought. The Fatherland was saved from the abomination of desolation which the Germans had spread far and wide in their enemies' homes; and except for a corner in East Prussia and another in Alsace, German soil had remained immune from invasion.

The surrender might have had the saving grace of common sense had it not been delayed so long; but it required the imminence of military destruction and an intimation from President Wilson that peace could not be concluded with those who had made the war, to provoke that revolution which competent observers had from the beginning declared to be an inevitable result of a German defeat. It was precipitated by an order to the German Fleet to go out and fight. That again had been anticipated as a counsel of despair, but few foresaw that the order would be disobeyed. The German genius for organization had tried the strength of its human material beyond the limits of endurance. The crews mutinied, and the spirit of revolt spread in the first week of November to Kiel and other ports, and thence throughout the whole of Germany. Every German throne, grand-ducal or royal, toppled into the dust, and on the 9th the Kaiser abdicated, fleeing like the Crown Prince to Holland, and leaving it to a government of Socialists to sign the terms of surrender. With the imperial crown went that imperial creation, the German Navy; and the crowning humiliation was its peaceful transference to Scapa Flow on 21 November, to be scuttled by its crews on 21 June 1919. Navies had gone in the past to the bottom, beaten and wrecked like the Spanish Armada, or battered to pieces and sunk as at Trafalgar; but never yet had Britain's sea-power led home a captive fleet without a fight. The curtain rang down on a fitting scene, a proof beyond all precedent of British command of the sea, and a yet more solemn demonstration that the ultimate factor in war consists in a people's spirit and not in its iron shards.

<< Previous | Contents | Next >>