WWI Centennial: Disaster At Caporetto

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 291st installment in the series.

October 24-27, 1917: Disaster At Caporetto

In the spring and summer of 1917, the momentum of events in the First World War seemed to favor the Allies. The U.S. and Greece joined the war, a democratic revolution promised to revive Russia, and the British put the Germans on the defensive again at Passchendaele in Flanders. Just a few months later, however, the tables had turned in dramatic fashion: although American troops began arriving in relatively modest numbers, the British Flanders offensive was flailing in the autumn mud and Russia was teetering on the verge of another (far more radical) revolution.

Then, on October 24-27, 1917, the other shoe dropped. A combined Austro-German force launched a crushing offensive on the Italian front, achieving a successful breakthrough and the near-collapse of the Italian Army. Caporetto is commemorated as one of the worst battlefield defeats suffered by either side during the war, with the virtual destruction of the Italian Second Army ranked alongside debacles like the annihilation of the Russian Second Army at Tannenberg, the collapse of Austria-Hungary’s armies during the Brusilov Offensive of 1916, and the shattering of the British Fifth Army in March 1918 during the final German onslaught. Thanks to Caporetto and the Bolshevik coup in Petrograd, by the end of 1917—after more than three years of war—the fortunes of the Allies had never been at a lower ebb.

Crisis and Complacency

Following the surprise Italian victory at the Sixth Battle of Isonzo, which saw the fall of the town of Gorizia, stasis returned to the front until the Eleventh Battle of the Isonzo in August-September 1917, when the Italians once again managed to push the Habsburg defenders of the First and Second Isonzo Armies back near Montefalcone (though once again the gains came at an astronomical cost in human blood, including 30,000 Italian and 20,000 Habsburg dead).

The Italian conquest of the strategic Bainsizza Plateau during the Eleventh Isonzo threatened to isolate several Habsburg mountain strongholds, endangering Austro-Hungarian control of nearby Tolmein and the Slovenian hinterland to the east. Meanwhile, after 11 bloody battles, the Austro-Hungarian armies on the Isonzo Front were finally stretched to the breaking point. In short, the Central Powers could no longer neglect the Italian front.


Erik Sass

At the same time, the Habsburg military had new leadership at the very top. The young, reform-minded Emperor Karl I had succeeded his uncle Franz Josef on the latter’s death on November 21, 1916, and in March 1917 Karl sacked the imperious chief of the Imperial general staff, Conrad von Hötzendorf—one of the main advocates of war with Serbia in 1914, who had frequently butted heads with the empire’s civilian leadership, not to mention his equally imperious German colleagues.

Karl replaced Conrad with General Arz von Straussenberg, who had worked closely with the Germans on the Eastern Front and earned their trust. Straussenberg’s good relations with the German leaders, chief of the general staff Paul von Hindenburg and his own chief of staff, quartermaster general Erich Ludendorff, helped secure seven German divisions from the Eastern Front to bolster the overstretched Austro-Hungarian armies and spearhead a new attack on the Italian Front. The German contribution to the hybrid Austro-German Fourteenth Army, which remained totally under German command, included the elite Alpenkorps, specializing in mountain combat. The Austro-Hungarian Army contributed 10 divisions to the Fourteenth Army, as well as the Austro-Hungarian Second Isonzo Army (previously part of the Fifth Army under Svetovar Boroevic), Tenth Army, and Eleventh Army.

The arrival of 140,000 battle-hardened German assault infantry raised morale among their overtaxed Habsburg allies, and would soon strike fear in the hearts of their foes, according to Ernest Hemingway, whose character Lt. Frederic Henry observes in A Farewell to Arms (based on Hemingway’s own experiences as an ambulance driver on the Italian front): “The word Germans was something to be frightened of. We did not want to have anything to do with the Germans.”

The Germans and Austrians took elaborate precautions to conceal the movement of new troops to the front, as recounted by Erwin Rommel, then a 25-year-old lieutenant whose Württemberg Mountain Battalion, an elite assault unit, would play a major role in the victory:

Because of enemy aerial reconnaissance each prescribed march objective had to be reached before daybreak at which time all men and animals had to be concealed in the most uncomfortable and inadequate accommodations imaginable. These night marches made great demands on the poorly fed troops. My detachment consisted of three mountain companies and a machine gun company, and I usually marched on foot with my staff at the head of the long column.

The Central Powers’ attack at Caporetto would enjoy stunning success in large part thanks to storm trooper units like Rommel’s, using new “infiltration” tactics developed by German Army captain Willy Rohr beginning in the spring of 1915, refined at Verdun in 1916, and recently employed by the German Eighth Army under General Oskar von Hutier at Riga in September 1917.

The new combat technique centered on small, highly trained groups of Stosstruppen (stormtroopers) armed with machine guns, rifles, grenades, mortars, and even field guns, who would penetrate deep behind enemy lines following intense but localized heavy artillery bombardments, in order to neutralize enemy machine guns and artillery before the main infantry assault. The stormtroopers typically bypassed enemy strongpoints whenever possible, leaving them to be surrounded and destroyed by a second wave of larger assault squads with heavy weaponry, and enabling the stormtroopers to keep moving to sow chaos in the rear (below, a German assault platoon rests during the battle).


Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

For his part the Italian chief of the general staff, Luigi Cadorna, ignored repeated warnings of an impending enemy attack, noting the arrival of snow in the Julian Alps and ordering Italian troops to stay on the defensive before going on holiday in Venice in mid-October. Cadorna was confident that the Austrian attack would come 50 miles south of the Isonzo, on the Carso Plateau. Away from headquarters and distracted by growing political opposition to his command in Rome, he also failed to discern that one of his army commanders, General Capello, hadn’t move the Second Army to a defensive footing—leaving a large number of his troops forward deployed on the far (eastern) bank of the Isonzo River, where they could be stranded if the bridges fell. In many areas Italian defenses were discontinuous, with hillside trenches broken by outcroppings, gorges, and other rough terrain—making them perfect targets for infiltration techniques.

Amid heavy autumn rains the Austro-German hammer blow fell at 2 a.m. on October 24, 1917, when artillery unleashed a terrifying bombardment that some German soldiers said exceeded Verdun or the Somme. Even Rommel and his colleagues seemed impressed:

It was a dark and rainy night and in no time a thousand gun muzzles were flashing on both sides of Tolmein. In the enemy territory an uninterrupted bursting and banging thundered and reechoed from the mountains as powerfully as the severest thunderstorm. We saw and heard this tremendous activity with amazement. The Italian searchlights tried vainly to pierce the rain, and the expected enemy interdiction fire of the area around Tolmein did not materialize.

That was probably due in part to the deadly combination of phosgene and chlorine gas shells that overwhelmed Italian soldiers, many of whom failed to put on their gasmasks because the yellow gas blended invisibly into the heavy mountain fog. By dawn Rommel and his assault team, whose mission was to protect the flank of the Bavarian Life Guards in a dangerous mountain assault, were moving forward to their jumping-up points:

A few shells struck on both sides of the long column of files without doing any damage. The column halted close to the front line. We were frozen and soaked to the skin and everyone hoped the jump-off would not be delayed. But the minutes passed slowly. In the last quarter hour before the attack the fire increased to terrific violence. A profusion of bursting shells veiled the hostile positions a few hundred yards ahead of us in vapor and a gray pall of smoke.

At 6 a.m. Italian secondary lines were under fire, and German and Austrian assault groups began appearing in mountain valleys along the Tolmein portion of the Isonzo front, indicating a major assault was under way. However, Italian communications had already been severed by artillery fire in many places, preventing the still-confident Cadorna from learning how serious the situation really was.


Erik Sass

After jumping off at 8 a.m., Rommel’s unit passed through the smoldering remains of the Italian front line and swiftly ascended the spoke-like ranges around Mount Mrzli, towering over the Isonzo. On encountering a well-sited Italian strongpoint, Rommel simply moved laterally and continued infiltration techniques over the craggy terrain until he found favorable ground for an attack—using vegetation, outcroppings, and other natural features to shield his troop movements from enemy observation and fire, while platoons provided covering fire for each other as they advanced.


German Federal Archives, Image 146-1970-073-25 // CC-BY-SA 3.0

Of course the terrain provided risks of its own. Early in the ascent the Rommel detachment’s armed advance scout, or “point,” accidentally dislodged a small boulder:

At this moment a hundred-pound block of stone tumbled down on top of us. The draw was only 10 feet wide and dodging was difficult and escape impossible. In the fraction of a second it was clear that whoever was hit by the boulder would be pulverized. We all pressed against the left wall of the fold. The rock zigzagged between us and on downhill, without even scratching a single man.

Attracting the attention of large numbers of Italian frontline troops could be fatal, so the stormtroopers focused on enemy units that directly impeded their continuing ascent over the ridgelines. Later in the morning, Rommel used a favorite tactic—deception—to turn a dangerous Italian defensive position protecting an unsuspecting garrison:

I singled out Lance Corporal Kiefner, a veritable giant; gave him eight men, and told him to move down the path as if he and his men were Italians returning from up front, to penetrate into the hostile position and capture the garrison on both sides of the path. There were to do this with a minimum of shooting and hand grenade-throwing … Their rhythmical steps died away and we began to speculate on their success … Again long, anxious minutes passed and we heard nothing but the steady rain on the trees. Then steps approached, and a soldier reported in a low voice: “The Kiefner scouts squad has captured a hostile dugout and taken 17 Italians and a machine gun. The garrison suspects nothing.”

And still Rommel pressed on. After capturing an isolated garrison and taking around 60 prisoners, the German mountain assault team returned to the advance, penetrating deep behind the Italian frontlines:

Our thousand-yard column worked its way forward in the pouring rain, moving from bush to bush, climbing up concealed in hollows and draws, and seizing one position after another. There was no organized resistance and we usually took a hostile position from the rear. Those who did not surrender upon our surprise appearance fled head over heels into the lower woods, leaving their weapons behind. We did not fire on this fleeing enemy for fear of alarming the garrison of positions located still higher up.

Further south, as the Italian defenses collapsed, Caporetto fell to the advancing enemy at 3 p.m., and at 3:30 the retreating Italians blew up the bridge over the Isonzo. However, these defensive measures were belated or irrelevant: the German Fourteenth Army advanced with almost unprecedented speed, and by later afternoon the Germans had occupied the Isonzo Valley while forward units were seizing control of mountain slopes far to the west of Caporetto.

Yet as late as 6 p.m., Cadorna, isolated at his headquarters in Udine, still believed that the attack was a feint to distract from the main enemy offensive on the Carso. Only as October 24 drew to a close did the Italian chief of the general staff grasp the scale of the unfolding disaster, as news arrived that 14 infantry regiments had been pulverized and some 20,000 Italian soldiers taken prisoner, along with ominous reports of mass insubordination and desertion in several divisions.

Over the next three days, from October 25-27, 1917, the Germans brought up artillery and mounted additional attacks to exploit the breakthrough, capturing the plateau around Cividale and threatening Udine itself by October 28—forcing Cadorna and his staff at the Supreme Command to hastily evacuate the town for safer environs to the southwest. Perhaps most spectacularly, Rommel’s 200-man strong assault company scored a legendary battlefield victory on October 25-26, 1917, with the capture of Mount Matajur, the next major peak after Mount Mrzli.

The physical ascent was epic in its own right, and the Germans now faced more determined defenders practiced in mountain warfare. At one point Rommel took characteristically bold action to relieve a surrounded German unit:

The 2d Company held some sections of trench on the northeast slope and was encircled from the west, south, and east by fivefold superiority, an entire Italian reserve battalion … The wide and high Italian obstacles lay in rear of the 2d Company, making retreat to the north slope impossible. The troops defended themselves desperately against the powerful enemy mass; only their unbroken rapid fire prevented an enemy attack. If the enemy ventured to attack in spite of the fire, then the little group would have been crushed … My estimate of the situation was that the 2d Company could be relieved only by a surprise attack by the entire detachment … Under such conditions I believed that the superior combat capabilities of the mountain soldier would prevail.

By the time they conquered Mount Matajur, in two days Rommel’s small force of mountain troops had crossed 18 kilometers of very rough terrain, ascended almost 3000 meters, and captured 9000 Italian prisoners—all at a cost of six dead and 30 wounded.

Meanwhile, the Italian Second Army fell into headlong (though initially orderly) retreat, as described by Hemingway:

The next night the retreat started. We heard that Germans and Austrians had broken through in the north and were coming down the mountain valleys toward Cividale and Udine. The retreat was orderly, wet, and sullen. In the night, going slowly along the crowded roads we passed troops marching under the rain, guns, horses pulling wagons, mules, motor trucks, all moving away from the front.

By October 27 the Second Army under Capello had simply disintegrated, with tens of thousands of beaten, demoralized soldiers streaming towards the rear in pouring rain; the collapse in turn exposed the northern flank of the neighboring Third Army under the Duke d’Aosta, forcing the latter to fall back from Montefalcone before the Habsburg Second Isonzo Army. Within a few weeks Boroevic’s force would advance west to within sight of the lagoons of Venice, now facing the threat that so recently menaced its sister city, Trieste. Will Irwin, an American war correspondent touring the Italian front, described the worried reaction as news of the debacle arrived in Venice:

I was aware that a curious change had come over the appearance of the crowds. Ten minutes before they had been streaming across the plaza. Now there was no movement. They had congealed into groups, talking low and seriously … All that Italy had gained so splendidly in the August offensive gone in one stroke! If it would only stop there!

Elsewhere the Habsburg Tenth Army under Krobatin and Eleventh Army under Conrad (the former Austrian chief of staff, now with a field command) rumbled into action, brushing aside the thin Italian covering force in the Carnic Alps and forcing back the Italian Fourth Army under Giardino—the latter imperiled by the Austro-German advance towards its supply lines. Only the Italian First Army under Giraldi, at the extreme west of the Italian front by Lake Garda, was able to stabilize its position after Conrad’s advance around the Asiago Plateau (the situation was worsened by the decision to dissolve the Italian Fifth Army, a reserve force, in July 1916; below, a retreating Italian 305-millimeter howitzer).


Italian Army Historic Photogalleries // CC BY 2.5

And still the retreat continued amid chaotic conditions well into November, with thousands of Italian troops mixed up with civilians, constantly threatened by the lightning-fast German advance. Hemingway’s narrator Frederic Henry noted: “We were very close to Germans twice in the rain but they did not see us… I had not realized how gigantic the retreat was. The whole country was moving, as well as the army. We walked all night, making better time than the vehicles.”

“I Cannot See When or Where the Awful War Is Going to End”

By the time the Italian retreat finally ended on November 12, as the battered First, Third and Fourth Armies took up strong defensive positions behind the Piave River, Italy had lost most of the country’s northeast, exposing Venice to the enemy, at a cost of 305,000 casualties, including 10,000 dead and 265,000 taken prisoner (top, Italian prisoners of war crammed in an Austrian prison camp; below Italian lancers joining the reforming line at the Piave). By contrast the German and Austrian attacking forces suffered just 70,000 casualties, including killed and wounded. The victory also allowed the Central Powers to defend a much shorter line, running via the Asiago Plateau, Mount Grappa, and the valley of the Piave—helping ease a severe manpower shortage by freeing up German and Austrian troops for service elsewhere.


Italian Army Historic Photogalleries // CC BY 2.5

The severity of the defeat at Caporetto triggered a harsh reaction from Cadorna, who realized that he would be held responsible and swiftly placed the blame on the Second Army, openly accusing officers and ordinary soldiers alike of defeatism and cowardice. In fact morale had been at rock-bottom even before the German attack, and during the chaotic retreat thousands of Italian soldiers deserted, while tens of thousands more surrendered without a fight.

Reports of mutiny and mass desertion prompted arbitrary, draconian measures, including the execution of hundreds of soldiers by drumhead tribunals behind the lines. In A Farewell to Arms, Frederic Henry witnesses the execution of an officer who was separated from his troops during the retreat:

"Have you ever been in a retreat?” the lieutenant-colonel asked. “Italy should never retreat.” We stood there in the rain and listened to this. We were facing the officers and the prisoners stood in front and a little to one side of us. “If you are going to shoot me,” the lieutenant-colonel said, “please shoot me at once without further questioning. The questioning is stupid.” He made the sign of the cross. The officers spoke together. One wrote something on a pad of paper. “Abandoned his troops, ordered to be shot,” he said. Two carabinieri took the lieutenant-colonel to the river bank. He walked in the rain, an old man with his hat off, a carabinieri on either side. I did not watch them shoot him but I heard the shots.

Henry narrowly escapes execution himself by throwing himself in the fast-flowing river, swollen with rain. Unsurprisingly he decides to desert: “It was no point of honor. I was not against them. I was through. I wished them all the luck. There were the good ones, and the brave ones, and the calm ones and the sensible ones, and they deserved it. But it was not my show any more.”

The debacle at Caporetto had a devastating impact on Allied morale, leaving little doubt that Britain and France would have to send reinforcements to shore up the Italian front (probably forcing them to call off the Passchendaele offensive). Many ordinary people felt the defeat personally. Charles Biddle, an American pilot volunteering in the Escadrille Lafayette in France, wrote home as the scale of the disaster became known:

What do you all think at home of the recent Hun invasion of Italy? The outlook is pretty gloomy, is it not, but I hope it may serve to make people in America realize that this war is not won yet by a long sight, and that if it is going to be won they have to got to get into it for all they are worth. We certainly should do our utmost without complaining when one considers what a soft time of it we have had so far.

Clare Gass, an American woman volunteering as a nurse in France, noted simply in her diary on October 29, 1917: “The news that Italy has lost thousands of men & hundreds of guns to the Austrians is very startling, I cannot see when or where the awful war is going to end.”

See the previous installment or all entries.

WWI Centennial: Allies Rebuff German Armistice Offer

William Rider-Rider, Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // IWM Non-Commercial License
William Rider-Rider, Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // IWM Non-Commercial License

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 321st installment in the series. Buy Erik’s new WWI trivia book here!

OCTOBER 4-14, 1918: ALLIES REBUFF GERMAN ARMISTICE OFFER

The Central Powers were in total collapse. At a crown council on September 29, 1918, German chief strategist Erich Ludendorff warned Kaiser Wilhelm II that defeat was imminent and insisted that they must request an armistice from U.S. President Woodrow Wilson on the basis of his “Fourteen Points” and repeated calls for “peace without victory,” in hopes of gaining more lenient terms than they would receive from vengeful French and British governments. Even at this late date, however, Ludendorff still didn’t envision peace negotiations, let alone German surrender. He simply hoped for a pause in the fighting, banking on exhaustion in the enemy camp to win some breathing space in which he might reconstitute the shattered German armies (above, German soldiers taken prisoner by Canadian troops during the Battle of Canal du Nord, September 27-October 1, 1918).

Although the Allies were indeed exhausted after four years of war, Ludendorff badly underestimated their determination to continue, reflecting the political will of civilian populations who had sacrificed so much and now expected to achieve a decisive victory. Meanwhile, Ludendorff’s personal prestige at home was plunging. Stunned by the sudden admission of defeat and angry over Ludendorff’s continued interference in matters that were properly the business of the civilian government, Chancellor Georg Hertling tendered his resignation, triggering another political crisis just as Germany needed steady leadership.

On October 1, the Reichstag approved Kaiser Wilhelm II’s appointment of Prince Max of Baden, the monarch’s second cousin, as chancellor with responsibility for requesting an armistice from Wilson. At first Baden hoped to wait until German armies had regained some French territory to use as bargaining chips, but on October 3, 1918, commander in chief Paul von Hindenburg (technically Ludendorff’s superior) confirmed that the situation was critical, requiring immediate action by Baden to save what was left of the German Army.

In the early morning hours of October 4, 1918, Baden sent a telegram to Washington, D.C., requesting an armistice based on the “Fourteen Points,” including Germany’s evacuation of Belgium and France, free navigation of the seas (implying an end to both German submarine warfare and the Allied “starvation blockade”) and self-determination for the ethnic minority populations of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire. Mindful of Wilson’s demands that Germany also adopt a democratic government, Baden had already included members of the hated socialists in his cabinet to provide at least the appearance of parliamentary democracy.

The German armistice request gripped the world, giving Allied soldiers and civilians hope that the war might soon end. Heber Blankenhorn, an American propaganda officer, described the scene in provincial France as the news spread in a letter home, writing, “You should have seen this village and all the villages in France. Every street was lined with people all in one position, bent over a paper. All the world was reading the Paris papers. Men, women, youths, soldiers, Americans. They devoured the papers with the great news. It is the only news they are interested in.”

The world was longing for peace, but the Germans soon discovered that Wilson wasn’t about to fall for Germany’s divide-and-conquer gambit by agreeing to an armistice without first consulting Britain and France. With German armies in retreat all along the Western Front, America’s allies were in no hurry to take the pressure off, urging the president to allow enough time for all the Allied representatives to meet to discuss armistice terms in order to present a united front to the enemy. Wilson himself was deeply distrustful of German intentions, correctly doubting that the Kaiser and his hardline generals would give up Alsace-Lorraine or ethnic Polish territory in East Prussia, as implied by the Fourteen Points. He was also infuriated by the continuation of German U-boat warfare against civilian vessels, including the sinking of the mail boat RMS Leinster on October 10, 1918, resulting in the deaths of at least 564 civilians, many of them women and children.

On October 14, 1918, Wilson responded to Baden’s armistice request (and a subsequent German communiqué on October 12) with a note that quickly deflated German expectations. While explaining that the actual conditions of an armistice would be set forth jointly by all the Allies, Wilson also insisted that a ceasefire would only be granted once Berlin agreed to terms that made it impossible for Germany to continue the war in the event that subsequent peace negotiations failed—in effect, it called for unilateral German disarmament. He also insisted on Germany’s immediate cessation of “illegal and inhumane practices” including submarine warfare and scorched-earth tactics by retreating German forces in France and Belgium. Finally, Wilson reminded Baden of his earlier demand that Germany give up its authoritarian form of government—which he blamed for German militarism—and create a true democracy.

Wilson’s conditions, calling for Germany’s unconditional surrender and the overthrow of the Hohenzollern monarchy, shocked Ludendorff and Wilhelm II, who still hoped to cling to power after the war as a constitutional monarch. In fact, Ludendorff reversed himself (perhaps encouraged by a temporary slowdown in the Allied offensive, as John “Black Jack” Pershing’s disorganized and inexperienced U.S. First Army had become bogged down in the Meuse-Argonne in early October) and insisted that Germany should fight on, predicting that the Allies’ civilian populations would demand their own governments make peace within a few months—proof that Germany’s warlord was increasingly out of touch with reality.

Although they had rejected the first German armistice request, Allied leaders correctly interpreted the ceasefire offer as evidence that victory was near, requiring them to formulate their own armistice terms and peace conditions. The inter-Allied discussions that followed were complex, given the number of countries and players involved, as well as the various internal divisions and power struggles. In France, for example, in September-October 1918, Premier Georges Clemenceau quarreled with both President Poincaré, the head of state, and supreme military commander Ferdinand Foch about who had the ultimate authority to set forth armistice terms. In the end, the irascible premier succeeded in asserting his constitutional authority, but also agreed to most of Foch’s demands, including German withdrawal behind the Rhine and cession of at least three strategic bridgeheads across the river to the Allies as insurance against resumption of hostilities.

At the same time, the public disclosure of the initial armistice offer left no doubt in the minds of ordinary German soldiers and civilians that defeat was imminent, further undermining morale and accelerating the process of disintegration and political collapse. One German soldier wrote home bitterly on October 13, 1918, in a letter held back by the military censors:

“The main thing is that the swindle and the murdering has an end. We do not have to care whether we stay German or become French, we are now finished anyway. You at home will have an even better insight than we out here. If it does not come to an end right now, there won’t be nothing left of Germany at all.”

Not everyone was ready for peace, however, and many proud Germans could hardly believe that defeat was near. In a diary entry on October 15, 1918, Herbert Sulzbach, a German officer, expressed despair over Wilson’s note:

“It is presumptuous and makes exorbitant demands. One can hardly find words to express the indignation with which every German must now be filled. They want to humiliate us to death! This hypocrite Wilson, this perverter of justice, this ‘friend of peace’ and ‘idealist.’ Whatever are we to do? How splendid, if we had the strength and power, to say ‘No,’ but that will hardly be possible … The burden of a terrible nightmare lies on everyone. Everybody’s honor has been smirched, and the ignominy is too much to bear … My god, who would have thought it would end like this?”

Sulzbach’s feelings of indignation were hardly as universal as he imagined. Millions of working-class German soldiers and civilians were now in a revolutionary ferment. Clifford Markle, an American POW in Germany, noted the following exchange between a German worker and another American POW in October 1918:

“A conversation between one of the Americans who was a machine gunner and a German soldier who worked in the factory typifies the feeling at that time. The German asked the American if he operated a machine gun, and when the Yank replied in the affirmative, the Boche said, ‘We expect to revolt soon; will you handle a machine gun for us?’”

On the other side, Allied soldiers and civilians were hopeful that peace would come soon, but also cautious in their expectations to avoid disappointment. Robert Hanes, an American artillery officer, wrote home on October 14, 1918:

“Maybe by the time you get this, everything will have been settled up and we shall be getting ready to go home again. I sincerely hope so altho’ it is too good to be true and I am afraid all the time that the whole thing is only a dream and that nothing will turn of it at all. It would be too wonderful for anything if we should be able to get home for Christmas and have the whole thing over with.”

Guy Bowerman, an American ambulance driver, recorded a poignant encounter with a French soldier desperate for peace in his diary entry on October 9, 1918:

“He had been, he said (he spoke English perfectly) in the war four years during which time he had been in the signal service and three times wounded. He was not yet 26 and was engaged to a beautiful young Parisienne whom he was to marry the moment the war was ended. This very morning in the midst of rumors of peace and an armistice at midnight, orders had come for him to report to an infantry battalion which was new in the lines and … was to attack at four tomorrow morning. Now as you can see, he continued, if they sign the armistice tonight there will be no attack tomorrow or ever again. This he repeated either because he wished us to grasp the full significance of it, or because it held so much for him—life, love, and happiness … No one spoke as he stood there trying to master his emotions and regain his self control … but as he walked slowly thru the door we called our … word to him, “Good luck old man.’”

Tragically, the death and destruction would continue for another month, claiming tens of thousands of lives in the final awful spasm of the conflict. One American soldier recorded terrible scenes on the Meuse-Argonne battlefield:

“You had to do some fancy footwork to avoid stepping on the dead that covered the ground. I had never before seen so many bodies. There must have been a thousand American and German dead in the valley between the two ridges. They were an awful sight, in all the grotesque positions of men killed by violence … Once I looked down and was terribly shocked. There was a young German soldier with red hair and freckles, eyes staring at the sky—and he looked just like me.”

On October 15, 1918, Vernon Kniptash, an American soldier in the 42nd (“Rainbow”) Division noted in his diary that, despite all the setbacks, the Germans were still resisting fiercely. “Was talking to a wounded Cpl. out of the New York Regiment,” he wrote. “He said the Bosche are fighting like tigers up here. Said it’s the worst that he’s run up against yet … I guess it’s fight to the finish. Well, if diplomats can’t settle it, soldiers can.”

See the previous installment, or all entries, or read an overview of the war.

WWI Centennial: Central Powers In Collapse

Department of Defense, Department of the Army, Office of the Chief Signal Officer, National Archives and Records Administration // Public Domain
Department of Defense, Department of the Army, Office of the Chief Signal Officer, National Archives and Records Administration // Public Domain

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 320th installment in the series. Buy Erik’s new WWI trivia book here!

SEPTEMBER 26-OCTOBER 1, 1918: CENTRAL POWERS IN COLLAPSE

The surprise attack by the British Army on August 8, 1918, rued by German chief strategist Erich Ludendorff as “the black day of the Germany Army,” inaugurated a relentless series of blows by Allied armies, including a wide British advance from Flanders to the Somme as well as the American liberation of the St. Mihiel salient to the east. At first Ludendorff still clung to the hope that Germany might use occupied territory in Belgium and northern France as a bargaining chip for a negotiated peace—until a series of climactic events between September 26 and October 1, 1918 left no doubt that Germany and the other Central Powers were now truly in the midst of final, catastrophic collapse.

BREAKTHROUGH ON THE WESTERN FRONT

After months of preparation, on September 26, 1918 Allied commander-in-chief Ferdinand Foch unleashed the biggest coordinated strategic offensive of the war—and human history to that date—on the Western Front, sending Allied troops into action all along the line from the North Sea coast to Verdun, in many places against the heavily fortified Hindenburg Line. All told, the final offensive on the Western Front pitted Allied armies with a total strength of around 5 million men—including 1.7 million French, 1.5 million British, 1.2 million American, and 150,000 Belgian soldiers, although not all these forces were deployed at once—against about half that number of German defenders.

In the north, Foch had formed a new Flanders Army Group commanded by King Albert of Belgium, composed of the Belgian Army, the French Sixth Army, and the British Second Army, which would attack on both sides of Ypres. To the south, the rest of the British Expeditionary Force would launch an all-out push stretching from Lille to the Somme. To the southeast, the French Army would follow up the victories of July and August with an attack from the Somme to Champagne, and the American First Army would launch the eastern end offensive with its biggest action of the war so far, the Meuse-Argonne Offensive.

Western Front, September 28, 1918
Erik Sass

The carefully staged offensive would unfold in several phases, with the Americans attacking first in the Meuse-Argonne region on September 26, followed by the British First and Third Armies attacking together towards Cambrai, scene of the short-lived Allied victory in November 1917, on September 27. Next, the Flanders Army Group would pounce on September 28, and finally, the British Fourth Army and French First Army would attack along the Somme on September 29. All these actions would see infantry assaults closely coordinated with artillery, air power, and tanks, showcasing the “combined arms” tactics that came to dominate 20th century warfare.

As usual, the Allies tried to enforce strict secrecy about the timing and location of the offensive, meaning hundreds of thousands of troops had to endure night marches to conceal their movements from enemy airplanes. William Bell, a British officer in charge of scavenging war materiel, wrote in his diary on September 26:

“It was a long time before I got accustomed to the noise of the traffic last night; for the sound of steady tramping of men, of the erratic purring of the motor-lorries, and of the clatter of the horses and mules, continued far into the night. And the traffic was still pouring northward in a never-ending torrent when I first became conscious this morning.”

AMERICANS LAUNCH MEUSE-ARGONNE OFFENSIVE

The general offensive kicked off with the Franco-American assault in the Meuse-Argonne on September 26, 1918, which helped tie down German reserves, setting the stage for the British, Belgian, and French attacks further west. Although the Meuse-Argonne Offensive was a decisive victory for the Allies, it came at a very heavy cost in American blood, with 26,277 U.S. soldiers killed by the end of the battle on November 11. That makes it the bloodiest campaign U.S. history, prompting some contemporary observers and historians to criticize the American Expeditionary Force commander, John “Black Jack” Pershing, for being reckless with American lives in order to prove American fighting mettle to the Allies.

In fact, the Americans suffered from a number of handicaps. Because the Allies had agreed to prioritize transportation of American combat troops across the Atlantic, Pershing lacked the large staff needed to coordinate the movement of large numbers of troops, guns, and supplies. Unfortunately, Foch’s plan for the general offensive required the American First Army, numbering around 600,000 men, to move from the newly liberated St. Mihiel salient 60 miles west for the Argonne attack in just one week, resulting in widespread confusion and delays (once again, Pershing had agreed to rush the offensive to placate the Allies).

As always, conditions were miserable as well as dangerous, with unending rain and mud the commonest complaints of American soldiers during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. John Miller, an army dentist and medical officer wrote home:

“In all this time you live outdoors in all kinds of weather, and sometimes you get so damned wet and cold and miserable you wonder if anyone ever was warm enough to be comfortable and had enough to eat. You never build a fire because in the daytime the Germans would see the smoke and at night they’d see the light. And then Fritz comes over about every night in his bombing machines and drops bombs around in among your pup tents. You should hear those things land! When they strike a building there is just a cloud of dust and when that clears away there is just a big hole in the ground where the building was.”

The Americans enjoyed the advantage of thousands of trucks and other motor vehicles, but these presented issues of their own, including massive fuel consumption and inevitable breakdowns. Heber Blankenhorn, an American propaganda officer, described the huge nighttime movements in preparation for the attack, as well as large numbers of mechanical casualties, on September 24:

“By day the roads are pretty vacant and my car roared along unhampered. But by night there begins a tremendous flow of iron along the arteries of this front. Guns and shell trucks, tractors, horses dragging metal things, and the men bearing iron arms fill the roads and “proceed up.” By day the road is clear again, the only evidence of its night travail being wheels, broken gear, and every little while entire smashed trucks shoved into the ditch—casualties of the night.”

The Americans faced other problems, some of their own making. Pershing had just used his best divisions in the St. Mihiel Offensive, meaning the forces available for the Argonne offensive were inexperienced or tired. American divisions, roughly twice the size of European divisions, maneuvered awkwardly both behind the lines and in battle, with supply of food and fuel presenting special difficulties. The Americans also relied heavily on new communications technology, including telephones, telegraph, and wireless radio—by the end of the war the AEF’s network had grown to more than 100,000 miles of telephone and telegraph wire—but this proved vulnerable to enemy fire. U.S. forces were still mastering the art of battlefield signaling with flares, heliographs, and other traditional means. As a result, American units often became mixed up on the battlefield (click for archival footage of U.S. forces in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive).

On the plus side, however, the Americans were relatively well supplied with artillery and ammunition, including 700 tanks, by the French and British, thanks to Foch and the French commander Philippe Petain. With this huge numerical and material superiority, Pershing was confident his doughboys and devil dogs, armed with American fighting spirit, could break through the enemy’s strong sequential lines of defense, albeit with heavy casualties.

“IT CANNOT BE DESCRIBED, IT CAN ONLY BE FELT”

The battle opened at 2:30 a.m. on September 26, 1918 with another record-breaking barrage: 2417 guns fired 4 million shells over the course of the battle. One American soldier remembered the opening bombardment:

“We had two hours to wait. It was cold and damp, and I hugged the ground to keep from shivering. We were tired to the bone, but we could not sleep. Indeed, who wanted to sleep in such a scene as that. It cannot be described, it can only be felt. The big guns behind us were booming and lighting up the sky with their flashes, and the Boche was answering back, and we could hear the great missiles of death singing out over our heads in a multitude of monotones. Just before dawn the lesser guns opened up like the barking of many dogs, and then the whole world was filled as if with the noise of great machinery grinding out death.”

As Lieutenant Francis “Bud” Bradford remembered, “by 2 a.m. we were ready. A half hour’s tense wait. At 2:30 the barrage cut loose. For three hours a solid sheet of flame lit up all behind us. O God, O God, the poor devils on the other end.”

At 5:55 a.m. the first wave of men from nine American divisions went over the top, and made swift progress against scant opposition at first, as the Germans had wisely abandoned their frontline trenches. Resistance began to stiffen after the first several miles, however, including “strong points” consisting of heavily fortified machine gun nests in concrete emplacements. Subsequent waves of Americans followed. Bradford remembered their turn:

“At 8:30 we went over, a link in the grand attack. Another battalion was in the lead. About 10 the first morning, prisoners commenced to come in. They were an inspiring sight, to say the least. Shells were breaking through us, and every now and then machine guns flattened us to the ground, but we kept on without losses until the evening of the first day. We were lying in what had once been a town when five Boche planes swooped over us and dropped bombs into the company, killing two men and wounding a third.”

Marines advance at Meuse-Argonne, WWI
U.S. Marine Corps, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

After a rapid initial advance, however, disorganization and lack of experience began to take a toll, as American units became hopelessly jumbled. One officer lamented, “The failure of liaison and all mechanical means of communication cost the lives of many brave men in the front lines in the course of the battle.” He recalled:

“Whole battalions, led by commanders with a poor sense of direction, wandered from their proper line of advance, sometimes to bring up in another division’s sector or to find themselves moving southward. Battalions lost their companies and platoons escaped from their companies … Many platoons went their own way the entire forenoon without having seen another American unit or without having any sort of idea where they were. The constant effort to seek contact with the flanks of adjacent units became a more engrossing occupation even than dealing with the enemy.”

The consequences were deadly, according to the same observer, who witnessed an entire battalion mowed down while advancing against enemy trenches that were still intact:

“From every direction, German machine-gun fire assaulted them. Many of them crumbled at once. The second wave—which included me—lay waiting to follow them, horrified by their dying screams … The next few minutes were among the worst of the war for me as we lay helpless to aid, listening to our friends being torn to pieces by gunfire.”

Soldiers resting during Meuse-Argonne offensive, WWI
U.S. Army Signal Corps, National Archives and Records Administration, U.S. Army Reserve // Public Domain

Unfortunately, during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, the Americans’ eagerness to prove themselves resulted in mistakes that cost the lives of Allied troops as well (above, American troops from the 77th Division resting on October 15, 1918 during the continuing offensive). W.H. Downing, an Australian soldier, angrily recalled their surprise at discovering that the Americans preceding them had actually advanced too far ahead, leaving the Germans to reoccupy trenches again behind them:

“Two of its companies, finding no one at the place where they expected to ‘leap-frog’ the Americans, went on, thinking the latter to be a little farther ahead … They had walked into a trap. The Germans had waited until they were inside, and had closed the exits. But they found that entrapping Australians was like shutting their hand on a thistle. Nevertheless, by the time our men had cut their way out, they had lost two-thirds of their number, and this was before their part in the battle had begun. At length, pushing through the desultory fire, we entered Bellicourt. It was full of Americans. What had occurred was now apparent. Following the custom of most troops with more spirit than experience, they had gone as far as their feet would take them, and in their impetuous haste had neglected either to throw bombs down the dugouts or to capture their occupants. Consequently, the enemy came out of the earth and cut them off.”

Despite these setbacks the Americans made steady progress, paying for every yard they advanced with blood. Bradford recalled hard, uneven fighting in the days to come:

“For two days we chased the Germans across five miles of devastated territory, through rain and mud and hunger. Now we moved steadily forward, now we were held up, now we were exploring enemy works, now digging in against counterattack. The evening of the second day the battle lagged. Our artillery could not keep pace with us. The resistance was stiffening.”

At the same time, Americans were fighting in spots all along the Western Front, with U.S. divisions fighting alongside European comrades in the French Army and British Expeditionary Force as the Allied attack unfolded along hundreds of miles of no man’s land, piercing the legendary Hindenburg Line in multiple places (more archival footage of American forces in action here). Everywhere the devastation of war left an indelible impression on Americans, many still relatively new to the conflict’s horrors. In the west, Kenneth Gow, an American soldier, recalled advancing behind the retreating Germans near the Somme battlefield in a letter home:

“The country is wrecked. Once beautiful cities are just heaps of brick and debris, not a living thing to be seen, even the trees all shot off, leaving nothing but stumps, which look like ghosts in the moonlight. The graveyards are turned upside down by terrific shell-fire. The ground is covered with all the signs of a great battle—smashed guns of every calibre, wrecked tanks, dead horses, and here and there a dead Boche overlooked by the burying parties.”

To the north, Guy Bowerman Jr., an American volunteer ambulance driver, described the spectacular scene of battle surrounding Ypres in the pre-dawn hours of the combined multinational assault by Belgian, French, British (and American troops on September 28, 1918:

“The country is perfectly flat and as we were stopped in the center of a semi-circle of trenches we could see clearly what was perhaps the most awe-inspiring and splendid spectacle which we shall ever be privileged to see. “Arrives” and “departs”; red, white, and green star shells shooting at all angles across the blue-gray horizon; a munition dump burning with a huge dull red glow which was reflected in a patch of high-hung pinkish dawn clouds, and all these [kaleidoscopic] colors blazing forth among a terrible, soul-shivering roar as the thousand guns sent their shells screeching towards the lines where they fell with a terrifying sickening ‘crump’ burning a bright hole in the night, and added their smoke to the haze which made the rising sun blood red. We were rudely awakened from our trance (for such sights as these have rare hypnotic power) by a shell which came screaming towards us and as we threw ourselves flat exploded nearby sending a shower of dirt and small stones upon us.”

Later Bowerman added:

“The terrain is without doubt the most desolate, God-forsaken portion of this Earth. A veritable no man’s land 15 miles wide filled with shell holes, water, blackened tree stumps, and demolished concrete blockhouses. Across this waste there is but one path—a sickening pretense of a road which winds its shell-holed, muddy, splashy way past caved-in trenches, water-filled gun emplacements, and huge mine holes which resemble volcanic lakes.”

As shocking as the experience of battle was for American troops, the Allied onslaught was even more demoralizing for German soldiers and civilians, leaving no doubt that Germany was staring defeat in the face. However, social coercion and the threat of punishment would keep the machinery of war going for a few more weeks. Evelyn, Princess Blücher, an Englishwoman married to a German aristocrat, wrote in her diary during a visit to Munich on September 29, 1918:

“Today I noticed an especially scared look on the faces of those around me, and on my inquiring what had happened they told me that the Allied troops have made another combined offensive and have managed in places to break through the Hindenburg line … And yet, with ruin starting at them on all sides, there are still people here who continue to protest that everything stands well, and that anyone who spreads a report to the contrary will be punished with five years’ imprisonment with hard labor.”

BULGARIA ASKS FOR PEACE

The massive, coordinated Allied offensive on the Western Front was just one of several crippling blows against the Central Powers during the pivotal days of late September and early October. In a surprising development, one of the most crushing defeats came in the long-neglected Balkan front, in the Macedonian mountains north of the Greek city of Salonika, where a combined Allied attack resulted in the collapse of the threadbare Bulgarian Army and Bulgaria suing for peace terms.

Europe, September 1918
Erik Sass

Following the disastrous fire that destroyed most of Salonika in August 1917, the Allies repaired port facilities and supply lines while French commander Franchet d’Espèrey carefully conserved his manpower, benefiting from Greece’s entry into the war on the Allied side. By September 1918 d’Espèrey’s multinational Army of the Orient included six French divisions, six Serbian divisions, four British divisions, nine Greek divisions, and one Italian division. The beleaguered Bulgarians, who had never really recovered from the disastrous Second Balkan War, were further depleted by demands from Germany and Austria-Hungary to carry out garrison duty in conquered enemy territories like Serbia, Albania, and Romania.

Beginning on September 15, 1918, 700,000 Allied troops mounted a concerted offensive in Macedonia ranging from Monastir to the Vardar River Valley, followed by a combined British, Serbian, and Greek attack that captured Lake Doiran on September 17 and 18. A last-minute plan by German and Bulgarian commanders to stage a withdrawal and surprise counterattack against the Allies quickly unraveled, as the withdrawing Bulgarian and German forces refused to stop retreating and fight, turning the feint into a rout.

On September 24, 1918 the Bulgarians officially asked for an armistice, followed by another request on September 26. But they were rebuffed by d’Espèrey, who was determined to liberate Serbian land by arms and hold Bulgarian territory as insurance for good behavior. Finally, d’Espèrey signed an armistice declaration on September 29, as Allied forces led by French cavalry occupied Uskub (today Skopje, the capital of Macedonia) close on the heels of the retreating Bulgarians and Germans. One French cavalry officer recalled the chaotic scenes in the multiethnic, multilingual city:

“There were clouds, however, which did not follow the rising fog. They were smoke clouds caused by fires burning in the city’s Turkish district, in the Greek district, in the Serbian, and even in the Bulgarian district … Cypresses, set ablaze by the flames from nearby houses, were burning like giant torches. Ammunition dumps were exploding, shooting up huge red and black flames. The railroad station was aflame too. As expected, our attack fully surprised the enemy, whose troops were retreating in disorder and kept shooting in a haphazard manner from the northern and western ridges.”

Despite the violence and destruction, the city’s Serbian inhabitants were glad to see the Allied liberators:

“The city’s leader met us at the entrance, behind a white flag and accompanied by French and Italian soldiers. The latter had escaped from Bulgarian prisoner camps, and had been hidden and fed by the local population. Both the Serbian notables and the soldiers were shouting enthusiastically. The population’s emotion was deeply moving; the women kept kissing our hands while crying with joy.”

Bulgaria’s imminent surrender struck a dire blow to the Central Powers’ strategic position. The small Balkan kingdom had long been the only geographic corridor connecting Germany and Austria-Hungary in Central Europe with the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East. With Bulgaria out of the game, it would become much more difficult for Germany to continue supplying the Turks with war materiel—just as the Allies finally threatened to penetrate the Turkish homeland in Anatolia.

ARABS LIBERATE DAMASCUS

The British and Arab victory at Megiddo, when British cavalry from the Egyptian Expeditionary Force and camel-mounted warriors from the rebel Arab Army encircled and destroyed the remaining Turkish armies in Palestine, left the way open to Damascus, the legendary capital of medieval Muslim caliphates. The British, recent conquerors of Baghdad, Gaza, and Jerusalem, hoped to add another ancient entrepot to their list of conquests—but for political reasons they allowed irregular forces loyal to the Arab Army commander Prince Feisal and his advisor, the pro-Arab British intelligence officer T.E. Lawrence, the honor of liberating the city.

With the remnants of Turkish forces in Palestine beating a hasty retreat north, Arab rebels in the city raised the flag of the “independent Syria” as British cavalry entered Damascus on October 1, 1918, putting the Allies within striking distance of the Turkish homeland in Anatolia. The fall of the fabled city was yet another heavy symbolic blow to the Central Powers, making it clear that the Ottoman Empire, too, was on its last legs (though perhaps not as badly off as Austria-Hungary, already in the advanced stages of disintegration).

There was no government in the liberated city, which also still held around 15,000 Turkish and German soldiers who had deserted, or were too wounded or ill to move and were left behind in the retreat, making the city a dangerous, chaotic place. Lawrence described the spectacular scenes that greeted him as he approached the newly liberated city on October 1, 1918:

“As the Germans left Damascus they fired at the dumps and ammunition stores, so that every few minutes we were jangled by explosions, whose first shock set the sky white with flame. At each such roar the Earth seemed to shake; we would lift our eyes to the north and see the pale sky prick out suddenly in sheaves of yellow points, as the shells thrown to terrific heights from each bursting magazine, in their turn burst like clustered rockets. I turned to Stirling and muttered ‘Damascus is burning,’ sick to think of the great town in ashes as the price of freedom.”

Fortunately, the damage inflicted by the retreating Turks and Germans on the historic city was far less than they feared:

“When dawn came we drove to the head of the ridge, which stood over the oasis of the city, afraid to look north for the ruins we expected. But, instead of ruins, the silent gardens stood blurred green with river mist, in whose setting shimmered the city, beautiful as ever, like a pearl in the morning sun … A galloping horseman checked at our head-cloths in the car, with a merry salutation, holding out a bunch of yellow grapes. ‘Good news! Damascus salutes you.’”

See the previous installment, or all entries, or read an overview of the war.

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