THE LAST HUNDRED DAYS OF THE WAR
Thank you to Paul Greenwood, who writes this text for us.
The Last Hundred Days of the War.
The German Army suffered some 800,000 losses during its attacks between late March and August, and Ludendorff, after the failure of his July 15th "Friedensturm" offensive, had not the strength to mount further large attacks. Foch, seizing the advantage, now planned to reduce the German salient round Amiens, Saint-Mihiel and the one above the Marne.
The Marne was dealt with first. Four French armies, together with eight American, four British and two Italian divisions drove back the Germans in what was the first allied success of that year. Although the Germans were still far from defeated, they were on the back foot and forced into defence, while the allies, heartened particularly by the performance and power of the American troops, made greater efforts in spite of their own near exhaustion.
While the drive northwards from the Marne was still going on, other offensives were being prepared round Amiens and St Mihiel. Secrecy was vital. Throughout Rawlinson's Fourth Army every soldier's paybook carried a notice saying 'Keep Your Mouth Shut!' Even Wegand, Foch's Chief of Staff, was told to keep well away from Sarcus where the Amiens operation was being planned in case his presence alerted the Germans. Such stringent precautions ensured that when the offensive round Montdidier began on August 8th, it gained an outstanding victory, perhaps the most brilliant gained by British and French arms in the entire war.
On July 28th, Wegand had personally delivered Foch's letter placing Haig in charge of the Amiens offensive while the Assistant Chief of Staff carried copies to Pétain at Provins. Given Debeney's First Army to add to Rawlinson's Fourth and knowing the soldiers of the British XXIInd Corps involved in the Marne battle were on their way back north, Haig pressed forward with his plans. Rawlinson had 12 Infantry and 3 Cavalry divisions. Debeney's French force was similarly sized. It was planned to throw back the Germans threatening Amiens, free the Paris-Amiens railway and force the enemy into retreat between the Somme and the Avre.
As the French and British gathered men and material for the Amiens attack, the Americans were preparing their own offensive. Pershing asked for his forces in the Marne salient to be hurried across to Lorraine to help his attack on the St Mihiel salient.
More artillery was brought openly to the Marne to concentrate the minds of the Germans on repelling further attacks there, while secretly, hour by hour, Pétain was moving troops behind Fayolle's centre and Haig was sending his reserves to the Amiens/Montdidier area.
At last preparations were complete. On the Somme's north bank the British IIIrd Corps would secure the left flank, while Debeney's First French force did the same on the right. Monash's four Australian divisions had the sector from the river to the Amiens/Nesle railway, while the four Canadian divisions under General Currie were in position from there to Debeney's men. Five hundred heavy tanks with two battalions of Whippet light tanks were to lead the attack. Some seven hundred heavy guns were supported by over a thousand field guns, all with targets provided by sound-ranging equipment and air observation.
In spite of a German assault on August 6th, the offensive began on time. The guns opened up on August 8th at 04 20, firing on their allotted targets, and a three minute long creeping barrage suddenly lifted by a hundred yards. As it did this, the advance rolled forward in heavy mist. The Germans were taken completely by surprise. No advance artillery bombardment had alerted them, neither were they in entrenched positions like those of the Somme in 1916. By 07 00 the Australians had gained their first objective - the ridge from Warfusée Abancourt to Cerisy-Gailly, the and by 10 30 the villages of Morecourt and Harbonnieres were occupied. By 1100 the Canadians had come into line with them.
The Mark V massed tanks overran von Hutier's and von der Marwitz's defences, and their appearance in such numbers quite overwhelmed the German infantry. Many simply took to their heels. Entire units disintegrated and some 16,000 German soldiers surrendered. The tanks did not achieve this success unscathed. More than 100 were knocked out by shelling. On the Canadians' southern flank nine out of ten were destroyed and the infantry advance was at a standstill. The Australians, their flank compromised by the previous set-back of the IIIrd Corps on August 6th, were also slowed, and the Chipilly Spur was not taken until the following day with the help of Americans from the 33rd Division.
By 13 30 the advance had outstripped the range of the heavier guns and the hoped-for co-operation between light tanks and cavalry was not proving a success, though both were making effective contributions in their own right. The light Whippets (14 tons against the Mark V's 35) outpaced the heavier tanks by some four miles per hour, had a crew of three and carried four machine guns. One of them, Musical Box, running alongside the railway line that divided the Australian and Canadian sectors, wiped out the crew of a four-gun battery that had already destroyed two of the larger tanks, then dealt with two German groups holding up the Australians before cruising round Harbonniers and strafing a crowd of the enemy packing up to retreat. By 14 30 Musical Box was dealing with withdrawing transport when it was shelled, set on fire, and the two crew members still alive were captured.
The cavalry now took the opportunity and charged. The Canadian Cavalry Brigade and the Queen's Bays reached Harbonnieres, the 5th Dragoons captured a railway gun and took well over 500 prisoners, while the 15th/19th Hussars charged, holding trenches 2000 yards ahead of the Canadians until the infantry and tanks arrived.
The Royal Air Force flew over two hundred sorties that day, with forty four 'planes lost and more than fifty damaged. As the mist cleared they were able to co-ordinate attacks with the infantry, and as the day progressed they changed tactics to bombing the Somme bridges in an attempt to cut off the German retreat. In this they were constantly attacked by von Richthofen's 'circus' - now led by Hermann Goering, promoted after the ace's death.
That day Amiens was freed (partly due to a feint in Flanders that deceived the German High Command) and though at the time neither Foch nor Haig realised the scale of the triumph, five German divisions had been broken, with overall losses of about 30,000 men and well over 300 guns. Ludendorff later called it Der schwarze Tag of the German Army and within days offered to resign. The losses suffered by the allies that day numbered some 6,500.
Haig called a halt to the battle after a couple more days. By then his troops were seriously tired and his supply lines were stretched to the limit. This decision in the circumstances was more than prudent, as the Germans lacked the means to mount any serious counter-attack.
As the attack reached the detritus of the old Somme battlefields it faltered, and a lack of reserves began to tell. Within three days the first phase of the offensive was over, with allied casualties numbering 46,000 and German losses overall being some 75,000.
The Advance to the Siegfried Stellung
As German resistance to the tiring Australians and Canadians started to stiffen, Haig decided to use Byng's Third Army to push north of the river Ancre towards Bapaume. Foch wanted not only to keep up pressure in the centre, but also to extend his attack both north and south, but was finally persuaded to leave the planning to Haig, Rawlinson, Byng and Debeney.
The Germans, too, were in two minds about what to do. At local level, most commanders wanted to pull back to stronger defensive positions, but Ludendorff ordered them to stand fast. Dissension was now beginning to spread in the ranks as well. Reserves arriving to bolster the shaken divisions were accused of being blacklegs and of trying to prolong the war. The will of the German Army and its enthusiasm for conquest were starting to disintegrate.
The old Somme battlefield was the next obstacle facing the allies. The land was still in a dreadful state from the fighting of 1916, and wrecked villages, overlapping shell holes, rusting barbed wire and all the unpleasant accumulated detritus of war made it a highly unpleasant place.
From Arras, eastward towards the Germans' Siegfried Stellung', the land was relatively unscarred, and would, it was thought, give the allies opportunity to spearhead an attack with their remaining tanks.
August, however, turned out to be a scorching hot month, and using the miracle- weapons made their crews fight in impossible conditions. The Whippets' air-cooled machine guns seized, and their crews, and those of the Mark V's, were badly affected or completely overcome by the heat. Once again the infantry was forced to dictate the pace of the advance, and though Byng's attack on 21st August gained some ground, it did not gain it quickly enough to satisfy Haig. The following day, Rawlinson's troops retook Albert, and once again the place names of 1916, redolent with the anguish and loss of those times, were retaken one by one. On August 24th, Thiepval fell, followed by Mametz Wood the following day and Delville Wood on the 27th.
Ludendorff, now being forced to ward off yet another offensive that started on August 26th, this time mounted by the British First Army on the Scarpe, must surely have realised a retreat to the Siegfried Stellung was becoming unavoidable. All his dreams of reaching the Channel Ports were at an end, and troops would have to be brought across from Flanders to help stem the allied advance.
Two days before the end of August, Bapaume was captured by New Zealand troops. By now the Germans were only too aware that ultimate defeat was staring them in the face, but were still determined to make the allies pay for every step of ground they gained. On the last day of August a superior German force was entrenched on the commanding ground of Mont St Quentin, and the weakened Australian force had a bitter struggle, fighting throughout the day from one strongpoint to another, before the German defenders were finally killed, thrown back or captured.
The Siegfried Stellung defence line set up in the winter of 1916 had to be dealt with next. Those fortifications, known to the unfortunate troops who had to attack them as the Hindenburg Line, were carefully sited. In front a carefully registered killing field had to be crossed before the attackers
even arrived at the acres of barbed wire protecting its first positions.
Behind again lay several mutually supporting defence systems with every yard of ground targeted by machine gun and artillery- at the line's strongest point these stretched back ten full miles - with deep dugouts concealing troops ready to emerge and defend the positions as soon as an enemy barrage lifted.
However, by the end of the first week of August, the capture of a German command post yielded priceless information:- detailed plans of the entire system from Bellicourt to La Fere was in allied hands. The Australians captured Peronne on September 1st, and Bullecourt and Hendicourt fell into allied hands the same day. In the Ypres area, Merville, Ballieul, Neuve Eglise, Kemmel Hill and Hill 63 were all wrenched from German grasp, and by the end of the month the enemy had in part been driven, and in part had withdrawn from the Flanders salient, ending the four-year long threat to the Channel Ports. The Canadians of Horne's First Army smashed through the 'Wotan' section of the defences on September 2nd, the Drocourt-Quéant line was stormed, British troops were opposite the main Siegfried Stellung defences and Ludendorff had been forced to give up his earlier gains of the year.
The next battle was with the politicians at home. Haig, in bad odour with Lloyd-George and his government, needed reinforcements at this critical stage, and his previous casualties on the Somme and at Passchendaele encouraged the politicians to keep those reserves in England for battles in 1919 Haig returned to London on September 9th to argue his case. He wrote later, 'I was convinced that the British attack was part of the general scheme, and that the moment was favourable. Accordingly I decided to proceed with the attack, and all preparatory measures were carried out as rapidly and thoroughly as possible'.
The first step was to capture positions from which a major attack could be mounted. Havrincourt village (previously captured in the 1917 Cambrai battle) was one such. The village, on commanding ground, formed a strong position in the German line. By now, the divisions sent down to fight in the July Marne battle were back with Haig, and the 62nd (2nd West Riding) Division, which had captured Havrincourt the previous year, was told to repeat its success. The attack started at 05 30 on September 12th. Three days later, after driving back counter-attack after counter-attack by reinforced defenders, the job was done - at a cost to the Division of 200 killed, almost 1100 wounded and well over 200 missing. Such losses were not uncommon during the battles of those last Hundred Days.
Epéhy village was defended stubbornly, and the IIIrd Corps made very little headway, but the Australians' 1st and 4th Divisions drove forward almost 3miles on a front 5miles wide, capturing hundreds of guns and more than four thousand prisoners. Almost a fifth of the attacking force became casualties, but the action reinforced German belief that the Australians were certainly the most to be feared of their enemies. All this had to be achieved without tank support, as the tanks were being held back for the assault on the main German Siegfried defences.
The allies were now able to attack sections of the German line as they chose. The Americans and French moved against the Argonne defences on September 26th. The British were to probe the Siegfried approaches to Cambrai the next day, and on the 28th the Flanders armies were to launch their attack. The main Siegfried Stellung would be assaulted on the 29th.
The approach to Cambrai was barred by the Canal du Nord, still unfinished, and sections still dry. To the east were hills from which the Germans could direct fire on the attackers. Currie's Canadians were to attack, and Currie planned to pass two divisions through the canal's dry sections. They would then fan out and a third division would move in support. Sixteen tanks had been gathered, the artillery barrage would have to be cutting and precise, and, for that time, an unbelievable number of aircraft would bomb and strafe the German positions. (Raids using a thousand planes, as this one did, were still newsworthy twenty five years later during World War Two.)
The Canadian attack started at 05 30 on the 27th, and was completely successful. By the end of the second day's fighting, six miles had been gained against fierce opposition, but once again the impetus of the advance slackened. However, by October 1st, more than 200 guns and 7000 prisoners had added to the Germans' losses.
Now it was the turn of the main Stellung positions to be attacked.
The ones defending the Cambrai area, incorporated the St. Quentin canal (that runs to Bellenglise then north to Riqueval before entering a tunnel under Bellicourt and re-emerging to run towards Cambrai). South of that tunnel the canal went through a deep, strongly fortified cutting. It seemed that the only place where tanks could be used was the land over the tunnel, but that had been made into a veritable death-trap for attackers.
The attack above the tunnel was to be given to the Australians, but by now the Diggers were weary and depleted. Their 1st and 4th Divisions were pulled back and replaced by keen, though inexperienced, American doughboys of the 27th and 30th Divisions under General Read. They were given eighty tanks and Australian officers and n.c.o's to help direct the attack. Lt.General Braithwaite suggested an additional assault further south by the 46th (North Midland) Division and the 32nd, and this attack was added to the battle plan.
The attack started at the same time as the Canadian assault round the Canal du Nord. The Americans moved forward and took some of the first objectives, but were soon under vicious counter-attacks that threw them out of the captured positions and caused more than 1500 American casualties by the day's end. A second assault two days later had to be made without a creeping barrage, for no-one knew how far the men still continuing the first attack had progressed. Again, dense fog covered everything, and when the Australians went forward they found the Americans still fighting gamely, trying to take their objectives. The 30th Division was also heavily involved in the fight, and as the Australians went forward to relieve the doughboys, many groups, unwilling to be relieved, joined up with them to continue the advance.
The attempt to break the Hindenburg line had failed. More than half of the tanks had been knocked out by field gun fire and anti-tank rifles, and by the end of September 29th the objectives still had not been captured.
That, however, was not the only attack to take place that day. The North Midland Division, with men from the South Staffordshires, moved through the fog covering the St Quentin canal and fell upon the German positions with the bayonet. By 08 30, Bellenglise was captured, and other parties of the Division, using the fog as cover, crossed the canal with the help of lifejackets from the cross-channel ferries.
At the tunnel's southern end, groups of men from the North Stafforshire Brigade were given the task of capturing the Riqueval bridge spanning the canal. The fog was so thick that the place had to be found by compass, and the troops were fortunate to wipe out the German demolition party before it could act.
Supporting troops moved up to continue the advance. The fog, now beginning to thin, placed the tanks at risk from artillery fire, but being still thick behind the line of advance, it caused confusion both to advancing reinforcements and to wounded men trying to struggle to the rear.
The 46th Division advanced over three miles that day against the strongest positions the Germans had been able to construct, taking over four thousand prisoners. They themselves lost some eight hundred men.
September to November
The Final Phase.
While Pershing’s Americans were pressing the Germans’ eastern flank, and French and Italian forces were forcing the enemy back across the Chemin des Dames, the British, French and Belgians attacked the German right flank.
By September 4th the British had recaptured Ploegsteert, and on September 28th the Ypres salient went through its fourth major battle with 12 Belgian divisions under King Albert and France’s General Degoutte in the north, while ten British and six French divisions were starting to attack from positions near those held in June 1917.
On the first day of that northern attack, the Belgians moved through the Houlthulst forest and reached Passchendaele while the British drove the Germans out of Wytschaete. Next day saw further gains, but on October 2nd the terrible state of the ground and lack of food supplies halted the advance. It meant, however, that the Ypres salient had at last seen the end of the fighting, and by October 14th Ypres itself was freed from the threat of German shelling.
The joint British and American force further south, now being across the St Quentin canal, began a drive along the route of the British line of retreat that had taken place four years before in the first few weeks of the war. American heavy tanks supported the British 6th and 25th Division and the 11nd American Corps in an attack against Brancourt on October 8th, and American tanks crossed the River Selle on the 17th of the month. On the 23rd another action took place below Le Cateau, and the fact that the Germans smothered the entire area with gas was the only thing that prevented an overwhelming infantry advance and another huge success.
This ‘open’ warfare, free from strongpoint, trench and wire, was amazingly new to the troops and moving across open, unscarred country brought its own, very different problems. As towns and villages were released from German occupation, all-out attacks were made more difficult as civilian lives were at risk, and the constant advance often meant troops going without sleep for days on end. Prisoners had to be collected and French families reunited. The retreating enemy was busily contriving booby traps, blowing bridges and felling trees to hamper the allied advance, and traffic up to a constantly moving front line was tangled and disorganised as a result.
The American 91st Division was now involved in the drive through the south of Belgium. On the last day of October its troops started a drive towards Audenarde, believed (without reason) to be only lightly defended. The river Scheldt, on which the town stands, provided a natural defence line for the Germans and they were determined to hold it. Bridges were blown, the land was flooded, and accurate shellfire added to the problems. The British 37th Division, fighting alongside the Americans, managed to cross the river higher up, and it seemed a useful bridgehead would be created, but the remainder of the French units in Belgium were unable to advance, and so a new attack was planned for November 10th.
By then the Germans were definitely pulling back, and the attack was cancelled.
The following day the news was confirmed that hostilities would end at 11 am. The Germans celebrated that morning by shelling Verdun and one German machine gunner sprayed the allied lines continuously until eleven o’clock struck, when he stood, bowed to his opponents and departed. The killing, although there were fewer deaths than usual, did not stop that morning, for as the Canadians arrived at Mons where the British Expeditionary Force had fought its first action over four years before, the last Canadian soldier to die in the war fell to a sniper’s bullet two minutes before the armistice came into effect at 11 00.
Emotions varied between euphoria and a quiet, numbed relief that the threat of death from bomb, bullet and bayonet was over at last.
The full cost of all these actions suffered by the British, Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders, Newfoundlanders, South Africans and Americans was high. Between August and November some forty thousand men were killed in action and a further fifteen thousand died from wounds. Sixty thousand or so died from disease during the period and a further eight thousand from other causes. Although less than a hundred men were reported as missing in action, some five thousand were taken prisoner by the Germans.