WWI Centennial: Britain Grants Women’s Suffrage

Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 300th installment in the series. Read an overview of the war to date here.

The First World War triggered a wave of political reform, as country after country gave women the vote in recognition of their many contributions to the war effort, including working in war industries, serving as nurses and ambulance drivers, and running businesses and public services. There were other arguments besides: some pundits said that women, naturally inclined to pacifism, would exert a moderating influence over male politics. Others worried women would refuse to bear a new generation of children, needed to make good the loss of millions of lives in the war, unless they got the vote.

One month after the U.S. House of Representatives approved the 18th Amendment giving women the vote (later rejected by the Senate until 1920), on February 6, 1918, Britain’s Parliament passed the Representation of the People Act, also known as the Fourth Reform Act, granting women householders and university graduates ages 30 and over the right to vote, as well as universal male suffrage. The law added 8.4 million women and 5.6 million men to the franchise nationally, although women would remain outnumbered in the British electorate until full female suffrage was granted in 1928.

Although activists had been pursuing women’s suffrage for decades in Britain, there were no huge public celebrations following Parliament’s historic vote, due partly to the grim wartime context—but also because many had long taken the outcome for granted. The arrival of women’s suffrage was something of an anticlimax, following the revolution in gender relations brought about by the war.

WOMEN'S WAR, WOMEN'S WORLDS

Across Europe and much of the world, war brought women new freedoms in other spheres, but also new pressures and concerns. In addition to war work, women were expected to continue serving in their traditional roles as homemakers and caregivers, leaving them torn between work and family, a still-familiar dilemma. For women working in the war zone, this meant the constant threat of being forced to abandon their patriotic duties. The diarist Vera Brittain, who served as a volunteer nurses' aid for three years in France and Malta, recalled:

"Because we were women we feared perpetually that, just as our work was reaching its climax, our families would need our youth and vitality for their own support. One of my cousins, the daughter of an aunt, had already been summoned home from her canteen work in Boulogne; she was only one of many, for as the war continued to wear out strength and spirits, the middle-aged generation, having irrevocably yielded up its sons, began to lean with increasing weight upon its daughters. Thus the desperate choice between incompatible claims—by which the women of my generation, with their carefully trained consciences, have always been tormented."

For women working factory jobs “on the home front,” in addition to the tedium and dangers of such work, every day was a balancing and juggling act—especially for married women with young children. To help with the burden many factories started providing nurseries and daycare, while older children went to school. However, millions of women still had to rely on relatives, friends, religious or charitable establishments, or paid arrangements (as in the early industrial revolution, some women supported themselves running informal daycares for the children of factory workers). Female workers were also still responsible for feeding their families, which often meant waiting in long lines for basics like meat and bread. One British factory worker, Elsie McIntyre, remembered scrambling for groceries to feed her mother and siblings:

"The most awful thing was food. It was very scarce. And as we were coming off shift someone would say 'There is a bit of steak at the butchers.' And I would get off the train and then go on a tram. And can get off at Burley Road and run to the shop only to find a long queue. And by [the time] it got to my turn there would be no more meat, only half a pound of sausage, you see. And that’s coming off the night shifts. You went straight into a queue before you could go to bed."

As this account hints, just getting to and from work was often a struggle for women relying on overtaxed public transportation. One worker, Peggy Hamilton, recalled that it took 90 minutes to get to her job at a Royal Arsenal factory in London’s Woolwich Square:

“The buses were always full and when we arrived in the square it would be teeming with people fighting for a place on the bus. No one ever paid because the conductor had no chance of collecting the fares. Each bus was crowded to the suffocation point … We had to fight and push to get on board and were often ejected from several buses.”

Mill workers during World War I
Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Many factory workers came from the countryside or provincial towns, leaving low-paid domestic, agricultural, or textile work for well-paid munitions and heavy industrial work in the bigger cities, making it impractical to commute. So across Britain and Europe, factory owners and private individuals established hostels and boarding houses for young women, usually offering primitive accommodations with shared bedrooms and communal washrooms, and typically leaving girls and young women little if any privacy (and, along with factories and army barracks, providing a perfect breeding ground for communicable diseases including the flu).

MORAL ANXIETY

Reflecting the Victorian sensibilities of the older generations, parents, politicians, and clergy anxious about “loose morals” among young female factory workers demanded that towns, factories, and hostels hire female police officers, matrons, and other older women to keep an eye on female factory workers both at work and off duty. Concerns for morality and propriety covered a wide range of activity including everything from swearing and horseplay to drinking and smoking, and, of course, relations with men; members of the opposite sex were strictly forbidden in hostels and factory dormitories.

In a small concession to human nature, young women were allowed to establish “girls clubs” attached to factories and hostels where they could entertain male visitors for dances and parties in a chaste, supervised setting. But morality police had less control over young women out on the town, using their newfound spending power to visit bars, tearooms, movie theaters, and dancehalls, where it was much easier to meet members of the opposite sex including fellow factory workers and soldiers on leave. Although it is hard to generalize about the behavior of young women—most seemed determined to remain “respectable” or at least maintain that appearance—many clearly exercised their new freedom to meet, socialize, and have romantic encounters with men. Ray Strachey, a British feminist, remembered two decades later:

"It was during the war, and after it, that the changing moral standard of women became definitely noticeable. Thousands of women had seen their actual or potential mates swallowed up in that ever-increasing wave of death which was the Great War. Life was less than cheap; it was thrown away … All moral standards have been submerged … Little wonder that the old ideals of chastity and self-control in sex were, for many, also lost."

By the same token not every assignation ended in sexual intercourse. A.B. Baker, a volunteer in the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps serving in France, remembered one comparatively tame—but intense—kiss with a young soldier bound for Passchendaele:

"He said that he was afraid—more afraid than he had ever been in his life. He was sure that this time he was going to 'collect something worse than a packet.' He wanted to know what I believed about death. I forget what I told him. He made me promise to write to his mother if anything happened to him. When I promised he said that I was a “dear kid.” I was very near to crying. He asked me if he could kiss me. I said, “Yes.” He kissed me many times, and held me very tight. He held me so tight that he hurt me and frightened me. His whole body was shaking. I felt for him as I had never felt for any man before. I know now that it wasn’t love. It was just the need to comfort him a little."

Sexual morality was just one of the areas policed, rather ineffectively, by paragons from the older generations. The war also saw large numbers of women take up smoking, as tobacco was made more convenient and “feminine” with mass-produced cigarettes. Daniel Poling, an American YMCA lecturer and temperance advocate, was scandalized by the scene that greeted him in his London hotel in 1917:

"In the dining room of my hotel I found literally scores of women, perhaps as many as 300, smoking. The young, the middle-aged, and the old, were all at it. I saw a young mother calmly blow smoke over the head of her 8-year old soon, who displayed only a mild interest … For a man who is old-fashioned enough to prefer womanhood à la his wife and mother, the 'woman of the cigarette' is very disquieting, to say the least."

But for young women cigarettes came to symbolize elegance, sophistication, and worldliness, according to Brittain, who recalled her first visit home after picking up the habit:

"After supper I settled down luxuriously to smoke—a new habit originally acquired as a means of defense against the insect life of Malta—and to talk to my father about the hazards and adventures of my journey home. My parents took a gratifying pleasure in my assumption of worldly wisdom and the sophistication of the lighted cigarette; after 20 continuous months of Army service I was almost a stranger to them."

SEPARATION AND ALIENATION

War was broadly disruptive to couples, both married and unmarried, as women and men contended with long separations and uncertainty. In Britain and most other combatant nations, the marriage rate surged in the first year of the war and then plunged. Similarly, birth rates across Europe plummeted during the war, as couples put off childbearing for happier times.

Graph showing birth rates in Europe during World War I
Erik Sass

In addition to the ordinary obstacles presented by romantic relationships, during the war women and men also contended with a profound experiential barrier, as men tried to shield women back home from the grim reality of the trenches. Mildred Aldrich, an American retiree living in the French countryside, noted:

"One of the striking features about this war is that the active soldiers almost never talk with the civilians about the war. In a sense, it is forbidden, but the reason goes deeper than that. The soldier and the civilian seem today to speak a different language. It almost seems as if a dark curtain hung between the realities of life 'out there,' and the life into which the soldier enters en repos [on leave]."

Similar, Brittain worried that the war was creating a barrier between her and her fiancé, Roland Leighton:

"To this constant anxiety for Roland’s life was added, as the end of the fighting moved ever further into an incalculable future, a new fear that the war would come between us—as indeed, with time, the war always did, putting a barrier of indescribable experience between men and the women whom they loved, thrusting horror deeper and deeper inward … Quite early I realized this possibility of a permanent impediment to understanding."

Of course the dynamic sometimes worked the other way as well, as women who served at or near the front experienced physical danger on a regular basis, alienating them from older adults of both genders who never saw the war zone. A.B. Baker, the volunteer W.A.A.C., remembered scoffing at “spiritual advice” about the war received from a male clergy member who’d remained safely at home:

"A few days later I had a letter from our curate. In it he talked about war as a noble discipline. He said it purged men of selfishness, and by its pity and terror brought men nearer to God. I felt sick for a second time. He put with his letter a printed Prayer for Victory, and told me to say it every night. I remembered that my prayer in the dug-out had been just this, said over and over again: “O God, stop this war; stop it, and let me go home.” At home the curate had been rather a hero of mine. He wasn’t my hero any more."

The war saw a wide variety of new types of relationships forming, including casual, practical, and purely formal. Some women married men they didn’t really love out of a sense of desperation or patriotic duty, according to an American volunteer ambulance driver, William Yorke Stevenson, who heard about one situation from a French acquaintance in March 1916:

“She says a friend of hers who nursed a man, blind and without arms, is going to marry him because she thinks it is her duty, although she does not care for him. She is not pretty; but as the man is blind it will not matter, she says. Such cases are not rare.”


Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

On the other hand, the disruptions of war weren’t always unwelcome to married women and widows, depending on their previous circumstances, which might have seen them trapped in unhappy marriages. Mildred Aldrich confided an awkward truth about the lives of French peasant women in her diary in April 1916:

"I often wonder if some of the women are not better off than in the days before the war. They do about the same work, only they are not bothered by their men … for nearly two years they have had no drinking man to come home at midnight either quarrelsome or sulky; no man’s big appetite to cook for; no man to wash for or to mend for. They have lived in absolute peace, gone to bed early to a long, unbroken sleep, and get 25 cents a day government aid, plus 10 cents for each child … under my breath, I can assure you that there is many a woman of that class a widow today who is better off for it, and so are her children."

GRIEF AND DEDICATION

Finally, women would also bear for decades the lasting burden of grief for family members killed during the war. Visitors described crowds of Parisian women dressed black in church and other public places, and some women continued to dress in mourning many years. Privately, the grieving process began with the returned possessions of the dead, as vividly described by Brittain in January 1916:

"All Roland’s things had just been sent back from the front through Cox’s; they had just opened them and they were all lying on the floor. I had no idea before of the after-results of an officer’s death, or what the returned kit, of which so much has been written in the papers, really meant. It was terrible … Everything was damp and worn and simply caked with mud … the smell of those clothes was the smell of graveyards and the dead. The mud of France which covered them was not ordinary mud; it had not the usual clean pure smell of earth, but it was as though it were saturated with dead bodies."

So much importance was attached to these items that soldiers and civilians sometimes sent the possessions of dead enemy soldiers to their families on the opposing side, typically via neutral countries. Evelyn Blucher, an Englishwoman married to a German aristocrat and living in Berlin, tried to identify the possessions of British soldiers killed in battle and send them home. In August 1917 she wrote in her diary of one such occasion:

"A feeling of hopeless sadness crept over me as I saw these trays of things, the only mementoes left of men who had such a short time ago been alive in the full flush of manhood. There was a whole stack of battered and bloodstained cigarette cases, some with inscriptions or monograms engraved on them, many containing small photos or a few written words … Then there were all the other various small articles generally to be found in a man’s pocket—fountain pens, handkerchiefs, torn letters, purses, coins, etc.; and I felt the tears come into my eyes when I thought of what value they would be to some in England now."

At the same time, many women cited their own grief, as well as awareness of the losses suffered by others, as motivation for their own continuing war work. After Roland’s death Brittain wrote in her diary:

“Well, one of the things this final part of Roland’s story has made me feel is that as long as the war lasts … I cannot lead any but an active life, even though it should last for five years … No, it must be some form of active service, and if it implies discomforts, so much the better. I am beginning to feel that to leave nursing now would be a defeat."

Women drinking tea during World War I
Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In the same vein, a French woman, Marguerite Lesage, wrote in March 1916:

“There are times when I wonder if I’m going to give in to le cafard [depression] … Yes … but having mentally run through this list for the thousandth time, it is enough to think of our soldiers—and in what conditions!—to think, once again, that as long as I can, I must be worthy of them and stay here.”

Unsurprisingly even the most dedicated women workers found their spirits flagging as the war went on, leading to a regime of self-criticism and emotional self-policing. In 1916, now stationed in Malta, Brittain admitted in a letter to her brother:

“One’s personal interest wears one’s patriotism rather threadbare by this time … After all it is a garment one has had to wear for a very long time, so there’s not much wonder if it is beginning to get a little shabby.”

And Julia Stimson, an American volunteer head nurse, wrote in a letter home in June 1917:

"It is so pathetic the way one can lose sight of one’s inspirations if one’s feet are tired, or the way one can forget one is on a crusade if there is no drinking water to be had for half a day, and can be just an ordinary uninspired human female and be fretful and discouraged because you don’t like the tone of voice of a supervisor. It is my job of course to keep before my people the why of our coming and to keep their spirits up."

NEW CONFIDENCE

Despite numerous hardships, the First World War marked an expansion of women’s horizons. Again, it’s worth noting this didn’t result from the granting of women’s suffrage, but rather the reverse, as male politicians and voters were forced to recognize women’s contributions to the war effort, which had already brought new freedoms and greater economic power in its train. Two decades after the war, Robert Roberts, a boy at the time, remembered that the right to vote was granted almost as an afterthought, as even children could see the huge changes in the adult world:

"Whatever war did to women in home, field, service, or factory, it undoubtedly snapped strings that had bound them in so many ways to the Victorian age. Even we, the young, noticed their new self-confidence. Wives in the shop no longer talked about ‘my boss,’ or ‘my master.’ Master had gone to war and Missis ruled the household, or he worked close to her in the factory … earning little more than she did herself. Housewives left their homes and immediate neighborhood more frequently, and with money in their purses went foraging for goods even into the city shops … She discovered her own rights."

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

WWI Centennial: Germany Must End War, Generals Admit

Pvt. J.M. Liles, U.S. Army, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Pvt. J.M. Liles, U.S. Army, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 317th installment in the series. Read an overview of the war to date here or all entries hereAnd buy Erik’s new WWI trivia book here!

AUGUST 13-15, 1918: GERMANY MUST END WAR, GENERALS ADMIT

Following the failure of Germany’s final attempts to crack Allied defenses on the Western Front in spring and summer 1918, the Allies hit back beginning August 8, remembered by German chief strategist Erich Ludendorff as “the black day of the German Army,” with a devastating surprise attack led by the British Fourth Army against the German forces holding the recently re-conquered salient round the River Somme. British, Canadian, Australian, and American divisions supported by more than a thousand planes and hundreds of tanks stormed disorganized, unprepared defenses, forcing the German Second and Eighteenth Armies into a hasty withdrawal.

As the Germans beat a disorderly retreat on both the north and south banks of the river, all the way to their starting positions for the first spring offensive in March 21, Allied commander-in-chief Ferdinand Foch moved aggressively to exploit the new opportunities opened up by the British advance, with plans to unleash a new pincer attack by the French Tenth Army under Charles Mangin and the British Third Army on the main German salient in northern France. Foch was also working with American top commander General John “Black Jack” Pershing on another offensive by the new American First Army—the first American army to serve in Europe—targeting German positions in the Meuse-Argonne, the St. Mihiel salient, or both (although Foch and Pershing disagreed over which should receive priority).

Regardless of where the next blow fell, however, by mid-August 1918 it was clear to all observers that the Allies were winning the war and that the best Germany could hope for was a negotiated peace. In August 1918 Germany sustained 228,000 casualties, including 131,000 dead and missing—an unaffordable loss, maxing out the relatively fresh troops redeployed from the Eastern Front, while hundreds of thousands of new American fighters arrived every month (285,974 in August alone). By the end of the month there would be around 1.5 million Americans in France, including more than 800,000 serving in the trenches.

Even children understood the fatal turn of events, picking up on cues from despondent adults and older siblings. Piete Kuhr, a 13-year-old girl in East Prussia, wrote in her diary on August 15, 1918, “Germany is nearly finished, diary. We have suffered a terrible defeat. Most of our troops have surrendered to the English. At the station a sergeant said to Grandma, ‘Well, Mother, you will soon be able to close the soup kitchen. We are done for, fini, beaten!’ When Grandma came home from duty she was very pale.”

Following the Amiens Offensive of August 8-12, even Germany’s top generals, chief of the general staff Paul von Hindenburg and Ludendorff, his quartermaster general and chief strategist, now had to admit that a decisive victory over the Allies was impossible. But this wasn’t the same as admitting that Germany had lost the war: Ludendorff still argued, unrealistically, that it was possible to reach a negotiated peace with the Allies, maintain Germany’s territorial integrity, and possibly even hold on to some of the conquests in Eastern Europe.

Keen to shift blame for Germany’s impending strategic collapse, at a secret crown council meeting with Kaiser Wilhelm II at the Belgian resort town of Spa from August 13-15, 1918, Ludendorff claimed that German fighting morale remained high, and that the failure of the recent offensives was due principally to shortages of artillery and ammunition, as well as the wavering loyalty of German civilians on the home front. This analysis suggested that even though their offensive capacity was spent, German soldiers would be able to remain on the defensive for some time, exacting a heavy toll from the Allies for all future gains. Considering that French manpower was already stretched to the breaking point, the political risks of a bloody final campaign might deter the British and Americans from trying to achieve a decisive victory, for which their troops would take the brunt of losses. On that note Germany should dig in and hold on to most of Belgium and northern France as bargaining chips in hopes of winning a “fair peace” (notably unlike the punitive deal Germany just gave Russia with the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk).

However, Ludendorff and his interlocutors were way off base. True, French manpower was in a precarious position, but the French Army had passed the critical morale crisis of 1917. Already, in 1918, the government had called up a new year of young conscripts for early training at the request of Foch, meaning there was still (limited) room for maneuver, allowing France to continue the war effort into 1919 if need be. Britain was also prepared, albeit reluctantly, to find hundreds of thousands of additional conscripts by “combing out” low-priority workers from its industrial labor force and from new recruiting efforts overseas.

Most importantly, as noted, the gargantuan manpower and productive capacity of the U.S. were both now online, while the French and British economies were also on a full war footing, churning out artillery, shells, tanks, and planes. The flood of artillery and tanks, in particular, meant that the morale of ordinary German soldiers was increasingly irrelevant. No amount of fighting spirit could withstand overwhelming bombardments and massed tank attacks, combined with debilitating hunger and the scourge of the global flu epidemic, now about to take an even deadlier turn.

And yet some German soldiers managed to keep holding out, testimony to their bravery and incredible endurance. Patriotic sentiment was strongest among elite storm trooper units. Ernst Jünger later wrote in his famous novel and memoir, Storm of Steel:

“I paraded my company in battle order in a small apple orchard. Standing under an apple tree, I addressed a few words to the men, who were drawn up in front of me in a horseshoe arrangement. They looked serious and manly. There wasn’t much to say. In the course of the last few days … probably every one of them had come to understand that we were on our uppers. With every attack, the enemy came forward with more powerful means; his blows were swifter and more devastating. Everyone knew we could no longer win. But we would stand firm.”

However conditions and attitudes varied widely between individuals and units, and broadly speaking, the signs of spiraling morale were unmistakable on the battlefield. Private Edward Lynch, an Australian soldier, remembered advancing against scant resistance in late August 1918:

“Dozens of enemy are surrendering to our advancing wave. Poor, broken wretches who have been overrun by our creeping barrage. Still the advance moves on. Still the shells creep forwards. Still we follow their dusty, smoking line. Fritz are rising shivering from little holes in the ground, surrendering in fear. They seldom attempt to dispute our progress. They don’t show any fight. A dozen Fritz rise from in front of us yelling ‘Kamerad!’ We’re up to them and busy ratting them for souvenirs. They have surrendered from a great round concrete machine gun emplacement that they could have held for hours as they have two machine guns here. We despise them. Too cowardly to fight and too frightened to run. Surrendered an almost impregnable position without firing a shot. The morale of the enemy seems down to zero.”

Back home in Germany, Evelyn, Princess Blücher, an Englishwoman married to a German aristocrat living in Berlin, noted growing unease among the elite over political chaos in the wake of the resignation of the most recent failed foreign minister, Richard von Kühlmann:

“The whole political situation is so perilous at the moment, that everyone feels something momentous must be going to take place. The constant changes in official circles denote weakness and uncertainty, and there is in reality no strong man at the wheel of the ship of Germany. ‘A victorious army never rebels,’ people say, but an army in retreat is very liable to be seized by the spirit of mutiny, and certainly the mass of the population here would be ready to back any definite movement. Capitalists and large landowners are beginning to talk in earnest of the possibility of their land being confiscated and their property divided up in the Bolshevik manner.”

This was far from an implausible nightmare, according to some ominous anecdotal details recorded by Blücher:

“The whole public spirit is so depressed and the universal suffering so great, that the people are threatening to take matters into their own hands. You can hear this intention expressed at every street corner. A shop-girl said it openly to my husband the other day: ‘We are going to stop the war now; those in command have failed entirely and have never kept their promises which they so often made.’ Another friend heard in the tram: “It is high time for the Emperor to abdicate to bring about peace, and the sooner this is made clear to him the better.’ … Everyone is now able to see through the official telegrams which for so long hoodwinked the masses. They know that the constant threatening of the front spells ‘Retreat.’”

Blücher added:

“No wonder that half the army have ruined nerves! One young officer, just returned from the front, stated that 30,000 German prisoners were taken on one day, and that eight of his brother officers were killed at his side in one minute, he alone surviving. They say that air battles have been the most characteristic feature of the offensive, there being sometimes as many as 40 planes engaged in the air, and that the swift advance of the Allied armies was mainly due to the systematic cooperation of aeroplanes and tanks.”

Once again, the most damning testimony came from German children. On August 20 Kuhr concluded gloomily:

“We must stop playing ‘Nurse Martha and Lieutenant von Yellenic.’ I don’t want to be a soldier any more, still less an officer. Things have changed. There is no point in Gretel and me going on with the same old game—war, casualties, hospitals, convalescence, officer’s dances, and aircraft crashes. Funerals too … When we play ‘Nurse Martha and Lieutenant von Yellenic’ we forget how terrible life around us really is. Now it must finish. We are no longer children. It’s all over.”

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

WWI Centennial: “The Black Day of the German Army”

David McLellan, Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
David McLellan, Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 315th installment in the series. Read an overview of the war to date here.

AUGUST 8, 1918: “THE BLACK DAY OF THE GERMAN ARMY”

The failure of the final German offensive on the Western Front in July 1918 was the decisive turning point of the First World War. Allied commander-in-chief Ferdinand Foch had unleashed his first major counterattack with French and American troops at the Second Battle of the Marne, forcing outnumbered German armies to withdraw from the Marne salient thanks in part to American heroics at Belleau Wood and Chateau-Thierry. This retreat effectively marked the end of German offensive capability on the Western Front, but the Germans remained dug in across northern France and Belgium, meaning the war was far from over. To achieve victory, the Allies would have to mount a series of massive offensives of their own—the greatest campaign in military history to that point.

On August 8, 1918, the British Expeditionary Force took the first swing with an all-out attack against enemy forces around the historic Somme battlefield. They needed to free the strategic Paris-Amiens railroad; alleviate the threat to the channel ports including Boulogne and Calais, which served as key British supply bases; and liberate coal mines critical to French industry, per the plan agreed by Foch and BEF commander Douglas Haig on July 24, as the final German offensive petered out.

Maps of World War I positions in August 1918
Erik Sass

The Battle of Amiens from August 8-12, 1918, was a decisive Allied victory, crushing the German Second Army under the mighty hammer blows of the British Fourth, Third, and First Armies. They were supported by overwhelming artillery firepower, close air support for observation and ground attacks, with over 1,400 Allied planes facing less than half that number of German machines; and hundreds of tanks advancing ahead of the infantry to smash enemy strongpoints (top, British troops preparing to fire). The defeat was so devastating that German chief strategist Erich Ludendorff rued August 8, 1918 as “the black day of the German army.” It marked the first day of the fateful “Hundred Days’ Offensive” by the Allies, which culminated in the final collapse of the German Empire.

The Allied plan emphasized surprise, beginning with the stealthy concentration of attack troops along a 20-mile stretch of front around Amiens, requiring hundreds of thousands of men and thousands of artillery pieces and tanks to move only at night to conceal their locations from enemy spies and aerial observation. Edward Lynch, an Australian private, recalled a miserable march to the front on the night of August 7, 1918:

“Two nights later, we did another rotten night march. It took us six hours to march 12 miles as the roads were so congested with traffic. Motor traffic had the center of the road whilst the slow-moving horses and mules kept to the outside edge of it. We were anywhere we could get, walking, running, dodging, and shoving our swearing way in and out between motor wheels and horses’ legs, abusing and being abused; swallowing dust, motor fumes, and the smell of dirty mules.”

Inclement weather only added to their woes. Another Australian soldier, W.H. Downing, left a vivid impression of conditions as his unit moved up to its staging position under enemy fire:

“Every night the cobblestones of all the roads of all the countryside resounded with the clatter and the roll of many parallel streams of transport. The highways were crowded with tanks, with field guns, with motor lorries carrying war material of every kind, with 9.2 howitzers, with gargantuan siege guns whose mammoth barrels were borne on tractors, while their bodies rolled behind them on their giant iron wheels—all going the same way, making the hillsides vibrate with their thunder. Among these packed columns, strings of horsemen and laden infantry wound their way. It began to rain. The boom and flickering of guns were nearer and nearer. At length there were shell bursts on the road, a derelict tank, a dead mule or two. We had marched 20 miles. That night we lay in the rain, on the side of the railway embankment, under heavy shellfire.”

Modeled on the short-lived victory at Cambrai in November 1917 and the success of the French Tenth Army counterattack in late July, the Allies launched the attack without a preliminary artillery bombardment, relying instead on hundreds of tanks advancing under cover of darkness to catch German defenders unaware. The only artillery preparation was the standard creeping barrage, unleashed at the last minute to provide a protective moving wall of fire in front of infantry and tanks. Downing recalled the sudden unleashing of the barrage in the early morning hours of August 8, 1918:

“As though a flaming dawn had been flung into the sky, the whole world flared behind us. There was a titanic pandemonium of ten thousand guns. We shouted to each other, but we could not hear our own voices, buried beneath colossal ranges of sound. The lighter, more metallic notes of thousands of field guns were blended in one long-drawn chord. The hoarse and frantic rumble of the 60-pounders, the long naval guns, the great howitzers, was like the rapid burring of a thousand drums.”

Clifton Cate, an American soldier, described the scene in the early morning of August 8, 1918:

“The darkness of the night became a glare of lightning-like red, yellow, and white flashes. The Earth shook as from an earthquake. Breathing suddenly became difficult as our nerves grew number from the terrific concussion caused by the crashing, roaring, blasting, air-splitting din about us. Thousands of guns were firing from wherever room for one could be found, on a front 20 miles long. Thousands of tons of high explosive and gas were being thrown into the German trenches, gun positions, and routes over which his reserves must march. How any of the troops in that part of the German line ever escaped that terrible bombardment is a miracle.”

Next came the tanks, described by Downing:

“White smoke curled over us and hid the flaming skies. There was a thrumming as of gigantic bumble bees, and a low chug-chug-chug, as the ugly noses of tanks poked through the mist above us. We hastily scattered from the path of one and found ourselves almost beneath others. They went forward in a line, scarcely thirty yards between them. They were in scores, and their vibrations sounded through the fog from every side, like another layer of sound on the bellow of the guns … Whenever we found ourselves in trouble, we signaled to the tanks, and they turned towards the obstacle. Then punk-crash, punk-crash! As their little toy guns spoke and their little, pointed shells flew, another German post was blown to pieces. A brick wall tottered and crumbled amid a cloud of red dust. They passed the place. The machine gun and its crew were crushed and still.”

On the other side, one anonymous German soldier in the 58th artillery regiment recalled British infantry supported by seemingly endless numbers of tanks on the morning of August 8, 1918:

“Ahead of us, the khaki lines of British infantry were emerging from the ravine. ‘Look out, buddies, or else we are lost!’ somebody shouted. We began firing time shells. The enemy wave slowed down, swayed, and dispersed … Suddenly Sergeant Niermann, commander of one of our two remaining guns, shouted, ‘A tank, straight ahead.’ A light tank was roaring toward us with great speed, plunging into craters and climbing over trenches, while his machine guns kept firing at our battery. Bullets were whizzing all around us. Our men feverishly set the sights and fired one, two shells in rapid succession. Before us, there was a shattering roar followed by a dark cloud the size of a house: the tank had been destroyed. But this was only the beginning. Two large tanks emerged from the ruins of Lamotte, flames flashing from their steel turrets. Their projectiles were exploding around our battery. Our pointers aimed at them hurriedly, fired a few shells, and disposed of the two tanks as rapidly as they had wiped out the first. But three new tanks were approaching in single file through the high grass on our right, and had arrived within several hundred yards. We could clearly see their occupants’ flat helmets above the turrets. Their guns opened fired on us, and again four men of our battery were badly wounded … The order, ‘Fire at will!’ was followed by a desperate cannonade … The tank’s destruction was our last-minute salvation. Now it was high time to fall back. The British assault troops behind the tanks were surging forward in small groups in all directions.”

On the right the French First Army, which lacked enough tanks to participate in the surprise attack, waited 45 minutes after the British infantry and tanks went over the top before unleashing another attack preceded by the traditional artillery barrage. All along the front, the surprise attack caught thousands of German troops in frontline trenches, resulting in terrible bloodshed followed by panicked withdrawals. Lynch, the Australian private, remembered gory scenes as the Allies advanced:

“We cross the old front line and are in what was old no-man’s-land a few hours ago. We pass through the gaps in our wire and reach the enemy wire which has been smashed and tossed about by our barrage. Dozens of dead everywhere and not a whole man amongst them. Limbless and headless they lie coated in chalk, torn and slashed.”

German POWs in World War I
John Warwick Brooke, Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Lynch and his comrades encountered huge numbers of surrendering Germans, reflective of the cratering enemy morale, as ordinary troops—already hungry and suffering from the flu—simply gave up in the face of the Allies’ overwhelming manpower and material superiority (above, German POWs). As Lynch wrote, some enemy officers couldn’t bear the thought of surrendering and committed suicide—or perhaps they simply refused to allow their troops to surrender, and were lynched for their trouble:

“Now a big crowd of Fritz are running back to us. There must be a hundred of them captured by our advancing companies … Into a little thick green wood and we’re in an enemy camp. Transport carts and wagons are here in dozens. Dead Fritz everywhere and about 30 wounded are lying under a big shady tree. Fritz with little red crosses on their arms are bandaging the wounded … ‘Come here, sir!’ a man calls, and I follow an officer up to a little sentry box and we look in. A Fritz officer is in it, dead; hanged by a white cord around his neck. The sight is horrible, especially the bulging eyes and the swollen, protruding tongue.”

William Orpen, a British war correspondent, described the huge numbers of dejected German POWs:

“Any day on the roads then one passed thousands of field-grey prisoners--long lines of weary, beaten men. They had none of the arrogance of the early prisoners, who were all sure Germany would win, and showed their thoughts clearly. No, these men were beaten and knew it, and they had not the spirit left even to try and hide their feelings.”

Fritz Nagel, an officer in the German anti-aircraft artillery, remembered August 8, 1918 as the final nail in the coffin of German martial spirit:

“The German armies were in very bad shape. Every soldier and civilian was hungry. Losses in material could not be replaced and the soldiers arriving as replacements were too young, poorly trained, and often unwilling to risk their necks because the war now looked like a lost cause. Since the Allied breakthrough on August 8 in the Albert-Moreuil sector, the enemy’s superiority in men and guns became visible to even the simplest soldier, and morale was breaking down gradually.”

Herbert Sulzbach, a German officer, noted in early August 1918, “It also appears from the same source that the enemy have unheard-of numbers of tanks, including new models. It is gradually turning into a complete war of machines.” And in his famous novel and war memoir All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque remembered the mounting deprivation and despair of the war’s final phases:

“Our lines are falling back. There are too many fresh English and American regiments over there. There’s too much corned beef and white wheaten bread. Too many new guns. Too many aeroplanes. But we are emaciated and starved. Our food is bad and mixed up with so much substitute stuff that it makes us ill. The factory owners in Germany have grown wealthy; dysentery dissolves our bowels.”

Ominously, many ordinary German soldiers no longer bothered to conceal their feelings from military censors, a sure sign that morale was close to the breaking point. In August 1918 a report from German military censorship noted uneasily, “It is by the way remarkable that letter writers, after having recently vented their anger in most drastic form, often add, ‘I know they are checking my correspondence, but just let them read this, this way they will at least learn the truth.’”

At the same time the Germans were both impressed and discouraged by the appearance and spirit of well-supplied American soldiers, although they were also puzzled by some new American habits, according to Nagel:

“A few days before, I had seen about 20 American soldiers who had been taken prisoner and were marching by to be shipped to some prison camp. They looked healthy, well-fed, and above everything else, their marvelous clothing and uniform accessories impressed us. Everything they had seemed to be of the best—fine heavy boots and thick leather for their gun holsters, belts, and gloves. All of them were chewing furiously, which confounded the bystanders until I explained to them the importance of chewing gum to the American way of life. Most Germans never had heard of chewing gum.”

It should be noted that not everyone was impressed with the Americans’ martial bearing, at least among their own Allies. On encountering American troops for the first time during this period, Stanley Spencer, a British soldier, recognized their fitness but was otherwise skeptical:

“On the second day of our stay, one of the new American battalions marched through the village and I never saw a more disreputable looking party in my life. They were a fine lot physically but their uniforms were an amazing mixture of American, French, and British, and they shambled along the street out of step and out of line, with hardly a trace of discipline amongst them.”

With the German armies beating a swift but relatively orderly retreat in the west, the fighting ground on mercilessly, as the Allies maintained a close pursuit, inflicting heavy casualties and paying heavily in blood for these gains—the climactic resumption of the open warfare of the first days of the war, with its terrible harvest of death and suffering. Lynch, the Australian private, wrote of continuing combat August 17 (below, an Australian battalion resting):

“The darkness is stabbed on every hand by vivid lightning-like flashes that leap from the ground with mighty, shuddering roars. Under foot we feel the ground rumble and vibrate. Over our ducking heads, shell fragments whizz and hum through the air as along the trench we hurry, fearful lest a shell gets amongst us at any step. Fingers of death are clutching through the night … We are stumbling along a deep grassy trench when my foot treads on something soft and springy in the trench floor. I stumble as if walking on a half-inflated football, peer down and see I have trodden on a man’s stomach. A torch flashes and its fleeting beam shows a headless and legless Australian body lying amongst the lank grass underfoot. A few steps more and an officer gives a breathless sigh as he sidesteps something else in the grass, something round, something gruesome even to a war-hardened officer—the mangled head of the man whose body lies a few yards back.”

Australian 6th Battalion in World War I
Australian War Memorial, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

A few days later Lynch described ghastly sights that had become all too familiar for young men over the previous few years:

“On every side are up-turned faces, greeny-black in putrefaction and great, swollen, distorted bodies. Sightless, dull, dust-filled eyes. If they would only close! But no, they remain open—and move! Open, gaping mouths are surely moving too! We’re sick in every fiber as we hurry on past open eyes and open mouths. Past eaten-out eye-sockets and mouths that are a seething mass of feasting grubs. We’re in the land of rotting men in the year of Our Lord, 1918.”

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

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