Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 279th installment in the series.
June 13-15, 1917: The Colossus Begins To Move
Following the U.S. declaration of war on Germany in early April, all eyes in Europe were on the great Republic across the sea, with people on both sides of the great conflict wondering (some in hope, others in fear) whether the Americans really intended to join the fight – and if they did, would they arrive in time to affect the outcome of the war?
A little over two months later they had the answer to at least the first question, as the colossus in the west finally began to move. Mid-June saw the arrival of the top American general in France, as well as the successful closing of the First Liberty Bond, kicking off a mass fundraising campaign to pay for the war effort, largely sponsored by the savings of ordinary American citizens. Meanwhile a crash construction program for a vast network of training camps was also getting underway, laying the groundwork for the creation of a new army numbering in the millions; record-breaking procurement programs to build a huge air force, navy, and merchant marine were also swiftly set in motion.
PERSHING IN PARIS
With the death of Lord Kitchener at sea still fresh in every one’s minds, the voyage of General John “Black Jack” Pershing and his staff across the Atlantic Ocean was kept top secret, in order to protect the top commander of the American Expeditionary Force from ambush by enterprising German U-boats. The gambit worked, as Pershing’s sudden arrival at the British port of Liverpool aboard the ocean liner Baltic on June 8, 1917 seemed to have taken everybody by surprise.
After a train journey to London, Pershing spent four days in the British capital, where he was received by King George V and Queen Mary at Buckingham Palace, then met with Prime Minister Lloyd George and conferred with top officials at the War Office. The American commander and his retinue then proceeded by train to the southern port of Folkestone and crossed the English Channel aboard a fast destroyer with a large naval escort, including sea planes and blimps watching for U-boats; the vanguard of the U.S. Army, consisting of 59 officers and 67 enlisted men, arrived in Boulogne and set foot on French soil for the first time on June 13, 1917 (top; below, a doughboy disembarks).
Following a quick tour of Boulogne, which served as the headquarters and main supply hub for the British Expeditionary Force, Pershing’s party continued by train to Paris, where they received a rapturous reception from the city’s population and virtually the entire French government. The American journalist Floyd Gibbons, a correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, recalled their arrival:
The sooty girders of the Gare du Nord shook with cheers when the special train pulled in. The aisles of the great terminal were carpeted with red plush… General Pershing stepped from his private car. Flashlights boomed and batteries of camera men manoeuvred into positions for the lens barrage. The band of the Garde Republicaine blared forth the strains of the “Star Spangled Banner,” bringing all the military to a halt and a long standing salute. It was followed by the “Marseillaise.” At the conclusion of the train-side greetings and introductions, Marshal Joffre and General Pershing walked down the platform together. The ops of the cars of every train in the station were crowded with workmen. As the tall, slender American commander stepped into view, the privileged observers on the car-tops began to cheer. A minute later, there was a terrific roar from beyond the walls of the station. The crowds outside had heard the cheering within.
There followed a long, slow journey by a convoy of vehicles carrying the Americans and a cross-section of France’s top political and military leaders:
General Pershing and M. Painleve, Minister of War, took seats in a large automobile. They were preceded by a motor containing United States Ambassador Sharp and former Premier Viviani… There were some fifty automobiles in the line, the rear of which was brought up by an enormous motor-bus load of the first American soldiers from the ranks to pass through the streets of Paris. The crowds overflowed the sidewalks. They extended form the building walls out beyond the curbs and into the streets, leaving but a narrow lane through which the motors pressed their way slowly and with the exercise of much care. From the crowded balconies and windows overlooking the route, women and children tossed down showers of flowers and bits of coloured paper. The crowds were so dense that other street traffic became marooned in the dense sea of joyously excited and gesticulating French people. Vehicles thus marooned immediately became islands of vantage. They were soon covered with men and women and children, who climbed on top of them and clung to the sides to get a better look at the khaki-clad occupants of the autos… American flags and red, white and blue bunting waved where the eye rested. English-speaking Frenchmen proudly explained to the uninformed that “Pershing” was pronounced “Peur-chigne” and not “Pair-shang”….
The convoy finally arrived at its destination, the Hotel Crillon, a luxury hotel located in a former aristocratic palace, where the crowd called for Pershing to show himself on the balcony. In a deft bit of public diplomacy, the American general honored his host country by catching a corner of the French tricolor and kissing the national flag of America’s “Sister Republic,” prompting another surge of delirious acclamation from the masses below (however Pershing did not utter the phrase, “Lafayette, we are here,” commonly attributed to him; the famous exclamation was actually delivered by his aide, Charles Stanton, during a speech at the tomb of the Revolutionary War hero in the Picpus Cemetery on July 4, 1917).
Pershing had become an instant hero in France and Britain simply by showing up, but it’s worth noting that not everyone was carried away by these carefully staged propaganda scenes or the romantic myths which grew up around him – especially the American soldiers who would do the actual fighting. Thus some critics noted that America’s top general barely spoke any French, still the universal language of educated people in that era. Others remembered that his nickname was actually an unflattering (not to mention racist) epithet bestowed earlier in his career by rank-and-file troops who resented his prickly parade ground manner and strict discipline. Finally, Pershing showed little inclination to share the privations of his men: the four-star “General of the Armies” – the only officer in the U.S. military to receive this title – traveled everywhere aboard his own ten-car headquarters train, including a wagon carrying two luxuriously appointed automobiles, which sometimes carried the 57-year-old general to secret assignations in Paris with his French mistress, the 23-year-old Micheline Resco.
For the time being the American contribution to the Allied war effort would be mostly symbolic as far as manpower was concerned: in July there were 20,000 U.S. troops in France, rising to 65,000 in October and 129,000 by the end of the year. However these numbers would start to rise rapidly in 1918, raising an important question: would newly-arrived American troops be committed piecemeal to fill in the gaps in the depleted French Army, as the French generals demanded, or would they fight as separate American units, serving under their own officers? It was here that Pershing made one of his first major contributions to the U.S. war effort: although the Americans would initially fight alongside French and British troops as part of their training in trench warfare, Pershing insisted they return to their own divisions, eventually forming entire American armies, which played a decisive role on the Western Front.
THE FIRST LIBERTY LOAN
Back home, June 15, 1917 saw the closing of the First Liberty Loan, an official U.S. government bond authorized by Congress to raise money from the American public for the war effort. The stated goal for the Loan was $2 billion, but it was massively “oversubscribed,” raising a total of $3.04 billion by the closing date, reflecting a surge in patriotic feeling as well as the relatively generous terms of interest.
During the war all the major combatants relied on interest-bearing bonds to raise money from their publics, including private citizens and businesses, in part because this was more politically palatable than other techniques like raising taxes or printing money, which spurred inflation, making everyday goods more expensive. The bond drives were accompanied by ubiquitous publicity and propaganda campaigns portraying the bond purchases as both a civic duty and sound investment.
Over the course of the war, for example, Germany issued nine major loans for public subscription, raising a total of around 93 billion marks, or about 60% of the total war debt of 156 billion marks from 1914-1918. Meanwhile France raised 24.1 billion francs through public war loans and 55 billion francs through ordinary short and medium-term bond sales, accounting for just over half the total debt of 150 billion francs accumulated by the end of the war. British war bonds raised over £1 billion in the last year of the war alone. For its part Austria-Hungary issued eight public loans during the war, while Italy issued five and Russia issued six before the 1917 Revolution.
As time went on, however, public enthusiasm for the war bonds waned, especially in the Central Powers as doubts grew about the chances of victory, raising the question of they would ever be repaid. By contrast the United States government was much better positioned to raise money from the American public, as pre-war public debt was fairly low and war fatigue hadn’t set in, while confidence in victory was high. Over the course of the war the government issued a total of four Liberty Loans and one Victory Loan, raising a total of over $20 billion – a stupendous amount, considering the country’s entire GDP in 1916 (the last peacetime year) was around $41.3 billion.
The vast sums raised by the loans helped pay for a breathtakingly ambitious (and remarkably rapid) war construction program, including dozens of training camps across the United States, where millions of drafted men from all over the country would learn the basics of military discipline, drill and maneuver (below, Camp Meade).
Congress had also approved a program to build a huge navy of ten battleships, six battle cruisers, 30 submarines, and 50 destroyers, the latter critical for the fight against German U-boats, and also authorized the formation of a new Emergency Fleet Corporation with the goal of building millions of tons of new cargo shipping to offset huge losses to submarines. Although the success of the EFC was debatable – it didn’t manage to produce any ships before December 1917 – the U.S. also commandeered around 3.5 million tons of shipping from the Central Powers and later neutral powers including the Netherlands, raising total U.S. seagoing tonnage to 12.4 million tons by the end of the war. Last but not least, Congress agreed to a plan to build 22,500 aircraft engines for both the United States Army Air Force (then a single branch under the Army) and the Allies, who were prepared to build thousands of airframes but needed the “Liberty Engines” to power them.
Foreign observers were surprised at how swiftly the new training camps and factories seemed to spring up. Lord Northcliffe, the British newspaper tycoon, recalled the construction of a new camp not far from his estate on Long Island in June 1917: “My American home is some miles out of New York City. When I took up my residence there in June last there were no signs of war about me. I went to Washington and returned after the space of a few days. A vast camp, as big as ours at Witley in Surrey appeared at my doors as though it had grown by magic.”
Not long afterwards he was invited to witness work on a huge complex of camps near San Antonio Texas (see map above):
Early in July there lay three miles outside San Antonio, Texas, a stretch of ground covered with a difficult kind of scrub or bush. On the 6th of July there appeared an army of between nine and ten thousand workmen of every known nationality, directed by young Americans of the Harvard and Yale type. The ten thousand arrived in every kind of conveyance, in mule carts, farm waggons, horse cabs, motors, and huge motor vans. At the end of the day’s work, when the whistle had blown, the scene resembled that of some eccentric elaborately-staged cinematograph film. Together with the army of ten thousand men came many kinds of semi-automatic machinery… In this new town outside of San Antonio twelve miles of rail, twenty-five miles of road, thirty-one miles of water pipe, thirty miles of sewer were accomplished in forty-five days… Nearly all material had to be brought from what appear to us vast distances. As often as not the thermometer stood at 100 degrees, yet the daily photographs taken by the contractors show that progress was continuous, until on August 25th a considerable part of the city was ready for occupation. The strongly and comfortably built huts are all provided with heating arrangements for the winter, and baths hot and cold are attached to each building; there are vast stores and office blocks, several post offices, a huge bakery, laundry, stables for thirteen hundred horses and mules, hospitals, schools; in all between twelve and thirteen hundred buildings.
The men who were soon training in these camps weren’t always as impressed with the comforts provided, often finding barracks and tents cold and drafty and the food unappetizing. As always it was usually a shock for civilians to adjust to military life, where they were suddenly subjected to the rigors and arbitrary whims of military discipline; it was also an eye-opening cultural experience, as volunteers and conscripts found themselves thrown together with people from all walks of life and social strata.
One newly enlisted man, Paul Green, expressed typical sentiments in a letter home in the summer of 1917, in which he described the training camp at Goldsboro, NC:
When I was at Chapel Hill, I thought that was a rough place; but this is the roughest place on earth. The profanity of the soldiers is awful. Co. B. is a roaring, rough set of fellows. There is an old blacksmith that sleeps in our tent who is the roughest man, I know, that ever saw day daylight… The drill leaders are pretty rough on you. Some of the men have fainted each day while drilling since I came. The way they bring them to their senses is to send three men for three buckets of water. Then they dash these on them and in their faces. After doing that they grab them by the collar and shove them back into ranks. One fellow drilled beside me this morning, coughing and vomiting every few minutes. After a short time, he fell out and lay in the hot sun, slobbering like steer. After they had poured about a barrel of water on him, he got better… For my part, I never am going to curse. I’m going to stay straight. It will not be hard for me to do it, for all profanity and vulgarity sickens me.
Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 304th installment in the series. Read an overview of the war to date here.
“We out here who knew that this thing was coming upon us, creeping nearer every day with its monstrous menace, held our breath and waited,” the British war correspondent Philip Gibbs wrote of Germany’s final offensive in the spring of 1918. “When at last the thing broke it was more frightful in its loosing of overwhelming powers than even we had guessed.”
“Operation Michael,” named for the fearful avenging archangel of the Bible, was chief strategist Erich Ludendorff’s all-in gamble to end the war with a crushing blow against the Allies on the Western Front before American troops began arriving in France in large numbers. The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk and the Central Powers’ victory over Italy at Caporetto enabled Ludendorff to transfer a million men from the defunct Eastern Front and elsewhere to the Western Front to carry out the attack.
The massive offensive targeted the British Army—now the stronger partner in the Anglo-French Alliance, with around 3.9 million soldiers under arms in March 1918, including 1.5 million on the Western Front, compared to around 2 million French soldiers total. By shattering the Allied line and driving a wedge between the French and British armies, Operation Michael would threaten the British Expeditionary Force with encirclement and the loss of its supply bases in the Channel ports, forcing the British to withdraw or be destroyed, hopefully followed by French capitulation (below, the ruins of the French village of Bapaume).
As Gibbs indicated, the impending German onslaught was common knowledge on both sides. Ivor Hanson, a British gunner, noted in his diary on March 20, 1918, “Each of the combatants seem to be almost completely aware of the designs of the other. Observation from the air, captured prisoners, listening posts, intercepted messages, the Intelligence Department … all help to make the information complete.” Gibbs reviewed the alarming intelligence gathered by the Allies in February-March 1918:
"Our flying scouts reported abnormal movements of troops on railways and roads far back behind the German lines. They reported new aerodromes established opposite our front, new hospitals, and field-ambulances … new ammunition dumps everywhere. Prisoners taken in our raids repeated the rumors in the German trenches of an offensive on so vast a scale that it would crush the British Army for all time …"
While the exact timing and location of the main thrust remained a closely guarded secret, on both sides everyone from top brass to the men in the trenches knew that the clash would likely determine the outcome of the war, not to mention the personal fates of countless combatants. John Jackson, a British soldier, remembered, “Any moment we expected a great attack by the enemy, but we did not know where or when the shock would come. The feeling of an impending battle was, however, in the atmosphere and everybody seemed strained and tense, waiting for we hardly knew what.” Similarly, Herbert Sulzbach, a German officer, wrote in his diary on March 19, 1918, “We are most conscious of the greatness of the moment, and have got into a terrific state of tension, and even when we have any time for rest, we genuinely can’t sleep any more, not for a second.”
Ludendorff’s strategy centered on concentrating overwhelming numbers against a decisive point in the enemy line—in other words, brute force—in a bid to break through, end the stasis of trench warfare, and reopen war of maneuver (above, German troops on the Somme in March 1918). Altogether, Operation Michael would hurl a total of 67 German divisions in the Second, Seventeenth, and Eighteenth Armies against the British Fifth and Third Armies as well the French Sixth Army, with the main blow falling on the British Fifth Army, numbering 26 divisions, giving the Germans an almost three-to-one advantage. If these attacks succeeded they would then proceed to the second phase, Operation Mars, with the Seventeenth and Second Armies pivoting northwest towards Arras, Albert, and Amiens in order to push the British north and crush them in a vise with the German Fourth and Sixth Armies, while the Eighteenth Army prevented the French from reestablishing contact with their allies.
Operation Michael would employ “infiltration tactics” on a large scale, in which storm trooper units armed with grenades, mortars, and machine guns would advance swiftly, exploiting surprise to penetrate enemy lines and create gaps that regular infantry following behind could widen and exploit (it would also incorporate a small number of Germany’s monstrous tanks, the A7V, developed belatedly and never built in sufficient quantities to be decisive; below, French soldiers with a ruined German tank). In addition to the tidal wave of men, the Germans assembled more than 1000 planes for the offensive, giving them local air superiority for artillery spotting, ground attacks against troops and vehicles, and aerial bombardment of rail hubs and supply depots. Most importantly, the Germans had assembled 6608 heavy guns and field artillery and 3534 trench mortars to deliver the most ferocious bombardment in history, using a new mathematical technique to target the guns without having to “register” or test fire them first, preserving the element of surprise.
Ironically, much of the fighting would take place on the old battleground of the Somme, where British and French forces had forced the Germans back at a huge cost in blood in summer and autumn 1916, prompting the Germans to conduct a strategic withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line in spring 1917. The ravaged battlefield presented special challenges in terms of mobility and communications, including the difficulty of moving up artillery, ammunition and other supplies in the event of a successful advance. Nonetheless, Ludendorff was so confident of success that Kaiser Wilhelm II and his entourage traveled to observe the kaiserschlacht, or “emperor’s offensive,” which they hoped would be crowned with victory. Their hopes would be disappointed—but only after they had unleashed an apocalypse.
"AS IF THE WORLD WERE COMING TO AN END"
The storm broke at 4:40 a.m. on March 21, 1918, when a bright white rocket above St. Quentin signaled Germany artillery to begin raining shells on British and French trenches, strong points, and communications along a 43-mile stretch of front (below, footage of Operation Michael). The German guns fired an incredible 1.16 million shells in the first five hours alone, reaching 3.2 million by the end of the first day—more than the British had fired during the entire week preceding the Somme offensive, working out to an average 64 shells per second in the opening phase and 37 shells per second for the whole day. Around a third of the shells in the initial bombardment were gas shells of various kinds, including mustard gas and “buntkreuz” (variegated) shells, the latter typically containing phosgene mixed with sneezing or vomiting agents, intended to force enemy soldiers to remove their gas masks in order to expose them to the more poisonous gases.
Ernst Jünger, an infantry lieutenant, described the opening moments of the historic battle in his memoir Storm of Steel:
"Shortly before the show, the following flash signal was circulated: ‘His Majesty the Kaiser and Hindenburg are on the scene of operations.’ It was greeted with applause. The watch-hands moved round; we counted off the last few minutes … The tempest was unleashed. A flaming curtain went up, followed by the unprecedentedly brutal roaring. A wild thunder, capable of submerging even the loudest detonations in its rolling, made the earth shake. The gigantic roaring of the innumerable guns behind us was so atrocious that even the greatest of the battles we had experienced seemed like a tea party by comparison. What we hadn’t dared hope for happened: the enemy artillery was silenced; a prodigious blow had laid it out. We felt too restless to stay in the dugout. Standing out on top, we gasped at the colossal wall of flame over the English lines, gradually obscuring itself behind crimson, surging clouds."
Another German soldier, Herbert Sulzbach, recorded the high spirits among artillery crews, reflecting widespread confidence in victory:
"At last we’re there, and with a crash our barrage begins from thousands and thousands, it must be from tens of thousands, of gun-barrels and mortars, a barrage that sounds as if the world were coming to an end … The gunners stand in their shirt-sleeves, with the sweat running down and dripping off them. Shell after shell is rammed into the breach, salvo after salvo is fired, and you don’t need to give fire orders any more, they’re in such good spirits …"
The German opening bombardment unfolded in 11 distinct stages and sub-stages, altogether lasting around five hours. These included, first, targeting communications and artillery batteries with high explosives and gas, then shifting to frontline trenches and secondary defenses with “registering” to confirm targeting, followed by howitzers raking the ground between the various British defensive lines to hit any soldiers who climbed out of the trenches to take shelter in shell holes (a defensive trick learned from the Germans). The howitzers then turned on enemy strongpoints, while field artillery hit the stretches of shell holes between the British trenches with more poison gas. Finally, all the German guns returned to targeting the British frontline defenses, laying down a wall of fire to create a “creeping barrage,” forcing the defenders to remain under shelter so the German storm trooper units and infantry could advance in relative safety.
Ordinary British and French soldiers on the receiving end of the German bombardment were understandably terrified by this volcanic onslaught. Unsophisticated British defensive tactics only increased the number of casualties, as around two-thirds of the British troops were deployed in frontline trenches, rather than further back in safer rear trenches, exposing them to the full brunt of the enemy barrage. The German guns also targeted British and French artillery with surprising accuracy, thanks to the new fireless “registering” techniques (above and below, British guns in action). Ivor Hansen, the British gunner, wrote in his diary:
"We felt that the whole German artillery was shooting directly at our Battery. Over the shells rained projectiles of all calibers, shrieking, screeching, whining, and moaning. Amid the hail of steel we could detect gas shells by their peculiar whine and sloppy bursting sound. This was the hottest bombardment I had ever experienced … Any moment we expected death, for the shells seemed to be making straight for us and as they screamed forward we crouched together against the side of the dug-out nearer the enemy."
However, the British troops held their frontline positions wherever possible, displaying remarkable bravery, according to Stanley Spencer, a British NCO:
"The enemy bombardment commenced at a little before 5 a.m. and before it was properly light. It consisted entirely of trench mortar bombs of all calibers as far as the front line was concerned, and at first was mainly gas rather than high explosive. It very soon reached a simply terrific intensity … compelling us to put on our gas respirators at once. Everyone felt sure that the great attack was coming at last, but there was no confusion and every man stood to his post and waited in readiness for whatever should happen next. As it became light a fairly thick white mist lay over No Man’s Land. In the trench itself the smoke and gas from the incessant deluge of trench mortar bombs, coupled with the condensation of moisture in the goggles of our respirators, made it impossible to see for more than a few feet ahead."
Back in the German trenches, the sound of thousands of guns firing in unison combined with the inferno of explosions and miasma of poison gas to create an otherworldly scene over the battlefield, according to Jünger:
"At our rear, the massive roaring and surging was still waxing, even though any intensification of the noise had seemed impossible. In front of us an impenetrable wall of smoke, dust, and gas had formed … Even the laws of nature appear to have been suspended. The air swam as on hot summer days, and its variable density caused fixed objects to appear to dance to and fro. Shadows streaked through the clouds. The noise now was a sort of absolute noise—you heard nothing at all. Only dimly were you aware that thousands of machine-guns behind you were slinging their leaden swarms into the blue air."
After five hours of furious shelling, the German storm troopers and infantry finally went “over the top” around 9:40 a.m. Despite all the orderly preparations, the waves of attackers soon became jumbled together amid the sheer momentum of their onslaught. Jünger described the weird combination of calm and chaos as they advanced:
"No man’s land was packed tight with attackers, advancing singly, in little groups or great masses towards the curtain of fire. They didn’t run or even take cover if the vast plume of an explosion rose between them. Ponderous, but unstoppable, they advanced on the enemy lines. It was as though nothing could hurt them any more. In the midst of these masses that had risen up, one was still alone; the units were all mixed up. I lost my men from sight; they had disappeared like a wave in the crashing surf."
As hoped, they found the enemy’s defensive positions totally obliterated in many places:
"We called out sobbing and stammering fragments of sentences to one another, and an impartial observer might have concluded that we were all ecstatically happy. The shredded wire entanglements provided no obstacle at all, and we cleared the first trench, barely recognizable as such, in a single bound. The wave of attackers danced like a row of ghosts through the white seething mists … There was no one here to oppose us."
By 2 p.m. attackers from the German Second Army were swarming over the British Fifth Army’s trenches, encountering fierce resistance in places, but still carried forward by sheer momentum:
"A man next to me lobbed hand-grenades at the British as they ran. A steel helmet took off into the air like a spinning plate. It was all over in a minute. The British leaped out of their trenches, and fled away across the field. From up on the embankment, a wild pursuing fire set in. They were brought down in full flight, and, within seconds, the ground was littered with corpses … Our success had a magical effect. There was no question of leadership, or even of separate units, but there was only one direction: forwards! Each man ran forward for himself."
Meanwhile, German engineers worked frantically building roads and leveling terrain, enabling field artillery to move forward over the pockmarked battlefield and support renewed infantry assaults.
Enemy penetrations all along the British line threatened to isolate and cut off small groups of defenders remaining in intact trenches, but they continued to hold out with amazing grit, fighting hand-to-hand around trench traverses. However, there was no question about the eventual outcome, as the Germans committed wave after wave of new troops. Spencer described growing alarm as the German tide surged around his unit, bringing up field guns and mortars to deliver punishing close-range bombardments (above, German troops towing a light mortar):
"Very rapid advances had been made by the enemy during the morning on our flanks and we were thus left in the most uncomfortable position, being fired at from almost every side at once. I was standing in a fire bay at about 4 p.m. when one of these shells burst on the parados … A great flash of flame shot across the trench over my shoulder, straight at the feet of the man on the fire step. He fell backwards into the bottom of the trench, as the man by me and I both staggered and rolled over under the concussion of the explosion. My face was pitted with grit and powder and one or two tiny shell splinters entered near the corner of my left eye, but otherwise I was unhurt. The man by my side was hit in the back and the one on the fire step had his left foot completely burnt off. When I could properly open my eyes and look round I found that the first man had gone, but the other one was lying in the trench looking in a dazed sort of way at the charred grey stump at his ankle where his boot and foot had been a minute before."
By the end of the first day British troops were withdrawing under heavy fire, as often as not without orders and with no way to alert divisional headquarters to their movements. Paul Maze, a French liaison officer with the British Army, remembered the confusion of the retreat on March 21 (below, a British gun crew retreating):
"All communication appeared to have been severed. Avoiding the road, I strode into vagueness to look for our “brown line” about 800 yards north of the village. The visibility was very bad. I stumbled forward, thinking of the seriousness of the situation, a feverish anxiety growing all the while in my mind … The ground was marked everywhere with fresh shell holes; the uproar rising from the line had become alarming. Shapeless figures were running through the fog past me … Then men were under no illusion as to what they were in for."
Although the Germans had achieved a huge success by the standards of static trench warfare, there were already signs of trouble. Ominously, the advance was already very uneven, indicating that even with overwhelming force on their side, the battle was not going to plan.
While the German Second and Eighteenth Armies smashed through British and French defenses on the southern half of the battlefield with remarkable speed, to the north the German Seventeenth Army was stuck, held up by a determined British defense of the salient in front of Cambrai, recently the scene of a British surprise attack with tanks in November 1917. According to Ludendorff’s plan, the “Cambrai salient” had to be eliminated on the first day of the attack in order for the German heavy artillery to be transferred north for Operation Mars, the subsequent attack northwest, pivoting around Arras.
Ludendorff had no choice but to give the Seventeenth Army more time to achieve its initial objectives, but the delay gave the British and French more time to assess the situation and begin to react—critical breathing room, even if it were just a day or two. Further, as the German Second and Eighteenth Armies surged forward further south it would eventually threaten to open gaps in the German line of attack, leaving them vulnerable to Allied counterattacks.
The Germans were also paying a terrible price for their extraordinary gains, as retreating British and French forces assumed new defensive positions and inflicted extremely heavy casualties before withdrawing again (above, a French gun in action). Jünger himself witnessed several gruesome deaths as they exchanged fire with retreating enemy soldiers from an old British trench on the morning of March 22:
"One man beside me from the 76th, a huge Herculean dockworker from Hamburg, fired off one shot after another, with a wild look on his face, not even thinking of cover, until he collapsed in a bloody heap. With the sound of a plank crashing down, a bullet had drilled through his forehead. He crumpled into a corner of the trench, half upright, with his head pressed against the trench wall. His blood poured on to the floor of the trench, as if tipped out of a bucket. His snore-like death-rattle resounded in lengthening intervals, and finally stopped altogether. I seized his rifle, and went on firing. At last there was a pause. Two men who had been just ahead of us tried to make it back over the top. One toppled into the trench with a shot in the head, the other, shot in the belly, could only crawl into it … The man with the wound in the belly, a very young lad, lay in amongst us, stretched out like a cat in the warm rays of the setting sun. He slipped into death with an almost childlike smile on his face."
Another German officer, Fritz Nagel, recalled endless lines of improvised ambulances filled with wounded headed for the rear as fresh reserve troops moved up:
"What almost made me sick was the traffic to the left of us coming back from the battle zone. It moved very slowly and I barely could stand the sight. Many of the vehicles were horse-drawn forage wagons and I believe they were put into service at the last moment when casualties began to exceed expectations. All of them were filled with severely wounded men lying motionless, pale and bloody looking. I had seen many wounded before, but not in such an awful parade, one vehicle after another without end. The sight shook me up and I became frightened. After a while I forced myself to look away."
RETREAT AND COLLAPSE
Despite the astronomical losses, the Germans retained a decisive advantage in manpower and artillery, and from March 22-27 the offensive ground remorselessly on, pulverizing Allied defenses and forcing retreat after retreat. In fact, over the next few days the Allies suffered one of the most stunning defeats of the war, with the collapse and virtual annihilation of the British Fifth Army (below, wounded British soldiers await transport).
The Germans bagged thousands of British and French prisoners and 400 heavy guns in the first day of the offensive alone. Private Alfred Grosch, a British soldier taken prisoner on March 22, wrote of the sad scenes as French civilians commiserated with their erstwhile defenders in his diary:
"Relentlessly onward we go. Back, back, right clear of the battlefield, moving all night … What a crowd: hundreds, perhaps thousands, French and English—a long column stretches down the road and behind us … we go through a village, the inhabitants line the road with pails of water, we drink as we pass. The women wring their hands at the sight of us, and when they can pass us a piece of bread quickly, so that our guards cannot see the action. We got to Guise; the castle on the hill is visible some way off. We enter the town, which, though in German occupation, is still full of French inhabitants. They rush into the ranks, push tobacco, bread, and food into our hands. One woman braves the guards, and rushes to me with a can of hot coffee, then she is gone. The men throw their caps to those who are without. Tears are in all eyes."
Those who escaped death or capture also found themselves marching for days on end without rest during the retreat. Jack Martin, a British sapper, described chaotic scenes and looting as battered British forces fell back on March 23, 1918:
"We were met by a continuous stream of retiring troops, fatigued almost to the point of absolute exhaustion, staggering along hardly knowing where they were going. Hot, tired horses pulling guns of all calibers while, on the gun limbers, artillerymen, who had been firing their guns for three whole days and nights, slept a precarious slumber in the continual danger of being jolted in the road and being trampled by the team immediately behind. At the camp we heard that the canteen at Achiet-le-Grand had been abandoned … leaving the canteen to the mercy of the troops. In a very short time it was utterly ransacked and I daresay it held at least £2000 worth of stuff … some of our fellows brought back two cases of whisky and numerous boxes of biscuits and cigarettes. From the top of the rise near the camp we could see the bursting shells approaching nearer but we did not get the order to move until the shells were dropping in the camp."
British officers managed to prevent the retreat from turning into a rout, at least at first, by staging desperate rearguard defensive actions, digging in temporarily to allow other units to retreat in relatively good order. But by the third day of the German offensive things began to fall apart. Stanley Spencer, a British NCO, described losing contact with his men as they retreated under fire on March 24:
"Shell after shell screamed over us to crash amongst the houses and along the road beyond us; great clouds of rolling black smoke rose and drifted across the village, while at the same time low-flying enemy aeroplanes raced overhead and poured machine-gun bullets among the crowds of men. Orders were at once given to scatter across the fields and our Company melted away in all directions. I did not see them again that day."
Mixed up with another unit, Spencer took part in repeated withdrawals over the rest of the day, falling back again and again as German planes directed artillery fire on to them with merciless precision, while the roads were jammed with retreating heavy artillery—a rare sight in the war, indicating how serious the situation had become (below, a British heavy gun in retreat):
"We spread out as a thin outpost line to the southeast of Barastre and the men began to dig themselves in with their entrenching tools on a forward slope of short grass. There was no cover whatever and the enemy shelling began shortly … Soon afterwards we retired to some higher ground about a quarter of a mile farther back … We had been there barely 20 minutes when enemy aeroplanes came over and spotted us. A few minutes later field gun (3-inch) shells began to burst all round. Second Lieutenant Lynch was soon killed … Further orders came up to retire again and we trailed back across the open country by platoons at wide intervals … The road itself was simply choked with transport, so tanks and batteries of artillery were hurrying across country. To the north and east dense clouds of black smoke were drifting across the sky from burning stores that could not be removed. To the south near Le Transloy great sheets of flame shot up from a long line of huts steeped in petrol."
As Spencer’s account indicates, planes now played a crucial role in “combined arms” tactics, serving as aerial artillery spotters, bombing enemy positions and transportation hubs, and strafing columns of troops with machine guns. Although the Germans had achieved temporary air superiority, British fliers still managed to inflict considerable damage on the attackers, who were suffering their own logistical problems. Nagel, the German officer, recounted one attack:
"On March 24 we got into another incredible traffic jam … This time British planes came roaring in, four or five at a time, strafing without mercy. None of our fighters were in sight. We had to open up and fire as best we could right over the heads of men and horses only a few feet away. Nearby infantry let go with machine guns. With few interruptions these fights and attacks continued all day long. To the left of us was the usual procession of the Red Cross vehicles. While we worried about the danger of these constant attacks from the air, I wondered how a wounded man must have felt, completely helpless in those wagons while machine-gun bullets spattered all around."
The struggle for air supremacy played out above their heads in countless “dogfights,” some involving scores of planes. Rudolf Stark, a German pilot, left this impressionistic description of a spiraling dogfight with a British squadron in his diary on March 24 (below, a British plane after an accident during takeoff):
"Turn, turn, turn, high and low. Tracer bullets cleave the air. Machine guns rattle everywhere, engines roar, bracing-wires groan and howl in dives. We are flying a big merry-go-round, one behind the other, so that we cover one another’s tails. I see a Sopwith attack the Albatros in front of me and shoot at him sideways. He breaks away and goes into a turn to escape. Our turns grow narrower and narrower … My tracer bullets skim along the edge of his fuselage, but again and again he pulls himself out of my sights. At last I get on the mark—a hit—petrol squirts out of the machine and hangs in a long streamer of haze from its tail. The Englishman is hit and goes down in a spin. I have no time to follow him down, because I am attacked at once. Turns, turns, turns, turns. Everywhere the rattle of guns. The air is thick with the threads of tracers, which are torn by propellers and twisted into all sorts of shapes by propeller winds. Turns, turns, turns, turns. Another English formation joins the dogfight, which becomes fiercer than ever. Turns, turns, turns, turns. I am standing still in space, and the world is going round me in crazy circles. Then I turn, and the world stands still."
Meanwhile, March 23, 1918 brought a new kind of terror to French civilians, as the Germans unleashed “Langer Max,” better known as the “Paris Gun” or “Big Bertha”—actually a collection of seven repurposed ultra-long-distance naval artillery pieces, supported by cables and capable of hitting targets up to 75 miles away. The advance of the German Eighteenth Army in the south enabled the Germans to build special rail spurs and circular concrete emplacements northeast of Paris, from which the gun dropped shells on the French capital.
Coming at the rate of about one every quarter-hour, the first shells shocked and mystified Parisians, who at first blamed very high altitude bombers or even enemy agents hiding in their midst. William Graves Sharp, the American ambassador to France, remembered the reaction to the first shells falling on Paris on March 23, 1918: “People were stupefied … it was stated that there was not the slightest sound made by them in passing through the air. They simply dropped from space like some huge meteorite, without its warning trail of light…”
The Paris Guns had no real military impact, inflicting mostly symbolic damage. The worst incident occurred on March 29, 1918, Good Friday, when a shell caused the roof of the St-Gervais-et-St-Protais Church to collapse on the congregation, killing 91 churchgoers (below, damage to the church).
The long-distance shelling, striking defenseless people at random, certainly inspired fear and revulsion against German “barbarity,” but like aerial bombardment of civilian populations, it never succeeded in provoking mass panic and civil disorder, as hoped. Instead targeted civilians quickly grew acclimated to the periodic destruction, according to Marion Gregory, a volunteer interpreter working with American nurses in France, who soon adopted the blasé attitude of Parisians:
"It began at 7:30 in the morning and went on all day at intervals of 15 minutes, no one knowing what it was. We all thought for hours it was the long-expected daylight raid, and for the first time I went to the cellar; but an hour under ground, with a candle the only light, was enough for me, and I went up again to the apartment … The shops and public offices were all closed; and the Metro stopped running that day; but the next day when they learned the unbelievable news that they were fired on from the very front, the great people of Paris settled down once more to the normal things of life, paying no heed to the constant firing of “La Grosse Berthe”—she became a part of everyday life."
More serious from a military perspective were the crowds of refugees fleeing villages in the path of the German advance, who competed with retreating British and French troops for space on small, primitive roads. Many observers compared the exodus to the first days of the war, when Belgian and French peasant families fled the invaders for the first time, and now were forced to give up their homes again. Edward Lynch, an Australian soldier, described the pathetic scenes as they rushed to the front to reinforce the Allied line:
"Dozens of high-sided French carts come through the village lumbering on towards the rear, piled high with all manner of household effects and grandmothers or grandfathers jammed amongst the load. Hundreds of overladen wheelbarrows trundle through the village with poor, lonely old men and broken-hearted women shoving all their earthly possessions before them … And poor lost little kids seeking protection. Pinned inside one boy’s pocket is a crumpled piece of paper bearing the penciled address of a woman in Abbeville. Night, and ready to move forward at any minute … Away on the horizon we see the gun flashes and, here and there, the steady glow of a burning village."
And still the onslaught continued in the south over the old Somme battlefield and beyond on March 25-27, as the British Fifth Army simply shattered and disintegrated under the mighty hammer blows of the German Eighteenth and Second Armies. Martin, the British sapper, described the continuing retreat amid freezing temperatures on March 25—a horrible ordeal for everyone, but especially so for the wounded:
"The opening of the barrage at dawn woke us and we found our blankets and heads covered with white frost … The traffic on the road was increasing every minute and soon it began to flow over into the fields on either side. Hundreds of wounded men were struggling to get back. All kind of wagons and limbers and civilian carts had been requisitioned to carry them back to hospital but the quantity of transport was insufficient; consequently, all those who could walk or even only hobble had to do so."
Spencer left a similar account of that fateful day:
"We had no line trenches or communication trenches and could not stir a foot from our shell holes except in the open; we had no more food and no reserve of ammunition; we had no supporting troops behind us and no artillery at all; and we had not even seen one of our own aeroplanes for days … Soon after 10 a.m. a runner got through from the right to say that the line had broken and the men were in full retreat … Still we hung on, though the barrage became heavier … Then the machine-gun barrage that swept over us seemed to double in intensity, so that we could scarcely hear each other shout above the drumming and chatter of the guns and the scream of the bullets. After two or three minutes of this deluge of fire … scores of the enemy sprang to their feet and came leaping down the hill towards us, some shooting as they came … That was the end. I saw no man hold up his hands in surrender but everyone turned and ran."
By March 26, as the remnants of the British Fifth Army streamed north (soon to be incorporated into the new Fourth Army) the Germans had finally succeeded in driving a wedge between the British Expeditionary Force to the north and the French Army to the south—bringing the Allies to the brink of total collapse. The British Third Army had lost contact with the French Sixth Army, and the route lay open for the Germans to seize Amiens, the central logistics hub of the Western Front.
But Ludendorff’s ambition and opportunism proved to be the downfall of Operation Michael. To the north the Seventeenth Army was still stuck, slogging slowly forward near Arras on the northern end of the offensive. As a result, Ludendorff eagerly threw his reserves behind the successful advance of the Eighteenth Army, even though its original mission had simply been protecting the German southern flank against French counterattacks. In other words, the main effort (by the Seventeenth Army) had failed, while a support operation (by the Eighteenth Army) had snowballed, in a classic example of “mission creep.” In the middle the Second Army, assigned the task of conquering Amiens, soon became overextended trying to support both the stalled Seventeenth Army to the north and the Eighteenth Army racing ahead in the south.
Even worse, the German advance had outstripped their own supply lines in the south: by March 27, some of the lead German forces were up to 40 miles from their rail supply lines, leaving the transport of artillery ammunition—the lifeblood of the offensive—to horse-drawn wagons and scarce trucks. At the same time, the French were moving up two whole armies, the First and Third, to plug the gap with the British, and the Allies signaled their determination to continue the fight with the choice of the aggressive general Ferdinand Foch, a hero of the Miracle on the Marne, as supreme commander of all Allied forces (above, British guns).
Now, as the German offensive sputtered, Ludendorff made another desperate gamble: even though Operation Michael had fallen short of its original objectives, on March 28 he launched Operation Mars, the northern attack, in a long-shot bid to regain initiative.
Sergeant Marshall/Department of Defense, NARA // Public Domain
Though reading and writing might not come to mind as the first requirement for trench warfare, during the early 20th century, the U.S. Army became increasingly concerned with whether or not its soldiers were literate. Thousands of World War I soldiers couldn't read printed directions on basic military tasks. The Army didn't implement its first major literacy program until the 1940s, but literacy tests were included in a battery of psychological evaluations World War I recruits went through to determine their mental fitness and intelligence, as the blog Futility Closet recently highlighted.
These unconventional literacy tests largely took the form of a yes or no questions with obvious answers, according to the 1921 report from the U.S. Surgeon General, Psychological Examining in the United States Army. Edited by pioneering intelligence-testing psychologist Robert Yerkes, who developed the military's first psychology exams for new recruits (and was also famous for his support for eugenics), the volume is a lengthy compilation of all of the methods the U.S. Army used to test the intelligence of its future soldiers. Many of these tests are now considered racist and culturally biased—some of the "intelligence" testing questions required recruits to know things like what products Velvet Joe (a figure used in tobacco campaigns) advertised—but some of the literacy questions, in particular, simply come off as weird in the modern era. Some are downright existential, in fact, while others—"Is a guitar a disease?"—come off as almost poetic.
Psychological Examining in the United States Army, Google Books // Public Domain
One test, the Devens Literarcy Test, asked recruits questions like "Is genuine happiness a priceless treasure?" and "Does success tend to bring pleasure?" Another section of the test asked "Do boys like to play?" and "Do clerks enjoy a vacation?"
Other questions seem like they're up for debate, like "Are painters ever artless individuals?" and "Is extremely athletic exercise surely necessary?" Surely the answers to questions like "Should criminals forfeit liberty?" and "Is misuse of money an evil?" depend on the opinions of the reader. The answer to "Do imbeciles usually hold responsible offices?" might be different depending on how the person feels about their Congressional representative, and could surely be the spark for an hour-long argument at most dinner parties.
Still others are tests of cultural knowledge, not reading skill—a major modern criticism of Yerkes's work. Despite being arguably a pretty literate person, I certainly don't know the answer to the question "Do voluntary enlistments increase the army?" A question like "Are 'diminutive' and 'Lilliputian' nearly identical?" isn't exactly a test of literacy, but a test of whether or not you've read Gulliver's Travels, which doesn't exactly seem like a necessity for military success.
Luckily, some of the questions are pretty obvious, like "Is coal white?" That one I can answer. The full list of questions used in the various versions of the Devens test is below for you to test your own Army-level literacy.
Do dogs bark?
Is coal white?
Can you see?
Do men eat stones?
Do boys like to play?
Can a bed run?
Do books have hands?
Is ice hot?
Do winds blow?
Have all girls the same name?
Is warm clothing good for winter?
Is this page of paper white?
Are railroad tickets free?
Is every young woman a teacher?
Is it always perfect weather?
Is the heart within the body?
Do clerks enjoy a vacation?
Is the President a public official?
Would you enjoy losing a fortune?
Does an auto sometimes need repair?
Is it important to remember commands?
Are avenues usually paved with oxygen?
Do we desire serious trouble?
Is practical judgment valuable?
Ought a man's career to be ruined by accidents?
Do you cordially recommend forgery?
Does an emergency require immediate decision?
Should honesty bring misfortune to its possessor?
Are gradual improvements worth while?
Is a punctual person continually tardy?
Are instantaneous effects invariably rapid?
Should preliminary disappointment discourage you?
Is hearsay testimony trustworthy evidence?
Is wisdom characteristic of the best authorities?
Is extremely athletic exercise surely necessary?
Is incessant discussion usually boresome?
Are algebraic symbols ever found in manuals?
Are tentative regulations ever advantageous?
Are "diminutive" and "Lilliputian" nearly identical?
Is an infinitesimal titanic bulk possible?
Do all connubial unions eventuate felicitously?
Is a "gelatinous exaltation" ridiculous?
Are "sedate" and "hilarious" similar in meaning?
Is avarice sometimes exhibited by cameos?
Can a dog run?
Is water dry?
Can you read?
Do stones talk?
Do books eat?
Do cats go to school?
Are six more than two?
Is John a girl's name?
Are there letters in a word?
Is your nose on your face?
Can you carry water in a sieve?
Do soldiers wear uniforms?
Does it rain every morning?
Are newspapers made of iron?
Are "forward" and "backward" directions?
Do many people attend motion-picture theatres?
Do handkerchiefs frequently injure human beings?
Do magazines contain advertisements?
Are political questions often the subject of debates?
Are empires inclosed in envelopes?
Are members of the family usually regarded as guests?
Is genuine happiness a priceless treasure?
Do imbeciles usually hold responsible offices?
May chimneys be snipped off with scissors?
Is moderation a desirable virtue?
Are apish manners desired by a hostess?
Do conscientious brunettes exist?
Do serpents make oblong echoes?
Do voluntary enlistments increase the army?
Is hypocrisy approved by honest men?
Is virile behavior effeminate?
Do alleged facts often require verification?
Do pestilences ordinarily bestow great benefit?
Are painters ever artless individuals?
Do the defenders of citadels sometimes capitulate?
Do physicians ameliorate pathological conditions?
Is embezzlement a serious misdemeanor?
Do vagrants commonly possess immaculate cravats?
Are "loquacious" and "voluble" opposite in meaning?
May heresies arise among the laity?
Are piscatorial activities necessarily lucrative?
Do tendrils terminate in cerebral hemorrhages?
Does a baby cry?
Can a hat speak?
Do hens lay eggs?
Is a stone soft?
Is one more than seven?
Do the land and sea look just alike?
Are some books black?
Does water run up hill?
Are stamps used on letters?
Do 100 cents make a dollar?
Are we sure what events will happen next year?
Do ships sail on railroads?
Do stones float in the air?
May meat be cut with a knife?
Are ledges common in mountain districts?
Does success tend to bring pleasure?
Are diamonds mined in mid-ocean?
Is misuse of money an evil?
Should criminals forfeit liberty?
Is special information usually a disadvantage?
Are attempted suicides always fatal?
Are exalted positions held by distinguished men?
Does confusion favor the establishment of order?
Is a civil answer contrary to law?
Is a dilapidated garment nevertheless clothing?
Are textile manufacturers valueless?
Do thieves commit depredations?
Does close inspection handicap accurate report?
Do transparent goggles transmit light?
Do illiterate men read romances?
Is irony connected with blast furnaces?
Do avalanches ever descend mountains?
Are scythes always swung by swarthy men?
Do pirates accumulate booty?
Are intervals of repose appreciated?
Are intermittent sounds discontinuous?
Is an avocational activity ordinarily pleasurable?
Are pernicious pedestrians translucent?
Are amicable relationships disrupted by increased congeniality?
Are many nocturnal raids surreptitiously planned
Are milksops likely to perpetrate violent offenses?
Are "precipitancy" and "procrastination" synonymous?
Is snow cold?
Can a dog read?
Do houses have doors?
Has a horse five legs?
Are three more than ten?
Do mice love cats?
Does a hat belong to you?
Do animals have glass eyes?
Should fathers provide clothing for children?
Is it true that lead is heavy
Do poor men have much money?
Is summer colder than winter?
Can a horse tell time by a watch?
Is a city larger than a country town?
Does Christmas ever fall on Tuesday?
Do Christians often overlook faults?
Are difficult problems easily solved?
Do convicts sometimes escape from prison?
Should the courts secure justice for everybody?
Are scoundrels always intoxicated?
Is a guitar a kind of disease?
Do jugglers furnish entertainment?
Should we build on insecure foundations?
Do annual conventions take place biweekly?
Does persistent effort favor ultimate success?
Is a shrewd man necessarily admired?
Is manual skill advantageous?
Are elaborate bonnets inexpensive?
Are petty annoyances irritating?
Are false arguments valid?
Do you approve of ruthless massacres?
Do blemishes occur in complexions?
Is air found in a complete vacuum?
Do robins migrate periodically?
Are weird tales sometimes gruesome?
Do felines possess locomotor appendages?
Do demented individuals frequently have hallucinations?
Are laconic messages sometimes verbose?
Are perfunctory endeavors usually efficacious?
Would a deluge extinguish a smouldering trellis?
Are devastated suburbs exhilarating vistas?
Are "contingent" and "independent" alike in meaning?