WWI Centennial: America’s Fighting Debut

U.S. Marine Corps, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
U.S. Marine Corps, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 309th installment in the series. Read an overview of the war to date here.

MAY 27-JUNE 6, 1918: AMERICA'S FIGHTING DEBUT

Following the failure of Germany’s first two offensives in March and April 1918, which conquered a large amount of territory but fell short of the hoped-for breakthrough, German chief strategist Erich Ludendorff unleashed Blücher-Yorck on May 27, 1918—his third desperate bid to smash Allied forces using divisions freed up by the victory on the Eastern Front before American troops began arriving in France in large numbers. Once again, Ludendorff achieved almost total surprise with his choice of target, raising the terrifying possibility of an advance on Paris. But once again, this short-term success was undone by Ludendorff’s own opportunism, while the dreaded event had finally come to pass: the Americans were here (top, U.S. Marines resting near Belleau Wood).

Europe, May 1918 map
Erik Sass

Blücher-Yorck was originally planned as a diversionary attack, pitting the German First and Seventh Armies, later joined by the Eighteenth Army, against the French Sixth Army along the Aisne River near Soissons and Reims. The Germans hoped to force the French to move reserve forces back south of the Somme, setting the stage for a final crushing blow against the overstretched British armies in Flanders, now deprived of French support. However, after its stunning initial success, it was quickly upgraded to the main offensive, reflecting Ludendorff’s new ambition to exploit the two adjacent salients (the other held by the Second and Eighteenth Armies) as the launching point for a giant pincer offensive converging on Paris.

Map of the Western Front, May 27, 1918
Erik Sass

Like the first two German spring offensives, Blücher-Yorck began with a brief but incredibly ferocious bombardment, using the Pulkowski method, a new mathematical system which targeted enemy positions without having to “register” the guns first, preserving the element of surprise. That was followed by an infantry attack using cutting-edge infiltration tactics, spearheaded by stormtroopers armed with machine guns, grenades, mortars, and flamethrowers.

As luck would have it, the center of the line was held by five tired, understrength British divisions, ironically moved to the French Sixth Army for a rest after hard fighting in the first two German offensives. Ludendorff had another piece of good fortune courtesy of French Sixth Army commander general Denis Auguste Duchene, who kept most of his troops in frontline trenches, contrary to the new doctrine of “defense in depth,” which called for positioning most defenders further back in rear trenches, from which they could stage counterattacks after the initial enemy advance lost its momentum (below, French soldiers man a machine gun).

The German spring offensive, 1918, World War I
Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

At 2:30 a.m. on May 27, over 5600 German artillery pieces opened up a mind-bending barrage according to the new tactics pioneered by gunnery officer Georg Bruchmüller, hitting different zones of the Allied lines along the Chemin des Dames ridge, scene of the disastrous French offensive in spring 1917. The carefully planned sequence was meant to neutralize enemy artillery, cut off communications and reinforcements, and destroy enemy strongholds. German artillery fired 2 million shells in the first four hours alone, for an average of about 139 shells per second, pulverizing British and French positions.

At 4:20 a.m., 23 German divisions went over the top, following a double creeping barrage of high explosives and gas shells, forcing any remaining defenders to take shelter until the attackers were upon them. The German advance was led by battalions of stormtroopers who penetrated deep into Allied defenses all along the front, severing communications, isolating enemy units, and forcing the defenders into a chaotic retreat, leaving gaps that the following waves of German infantry widened even further.

By the end of the first day the Germans had advanced up to 12 miles, another huge advance by the standards of static trench warfare, exceeding even the most optimistic expectations. This stunning progress immediately prompted Ludendorff to abandon his overall plan, calling for a second offensive against the British in Belgium and Picardy, and instead focus on the Aisne attack as the main thrust. But Ludendorff was falling into a now well-established pattern, committing precious reserves and artillery to a subsidiary attack without plausible plans for follow-through. Distracted by local success, he frittered away more of his dwindling manpower on an advance which, however impressive, failed to achieve strategic goals and instead simply added to the territory that the Germans had to defend (below, a British soldier takes aim). Lack of artillery also prevented the German from advancing on both flanks of the main attack.

British troops with rifle, World War I
Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

As in the first two offensives, the German advance triggered mass refugee movements by terrified peasants, stirring memories of the long columns of fleeing families in the first years of the wars (below, refugees). Mildred Aldrich, an American author who was living in retirement in a small village near the Marne, confided in a letter home, “I sit trembling for fear of a panic again. I cannot blame these poor people. They are as loyal as possible, but our roads are being crowded with refugees flying from the front. It is a horrid sight.”

Their problems were compounded by widespread looting by supposedly friendly soldiers, according to Avery Royce Wolf, an American ambulance driver in the French Army, who noted:

“Allied troops invariably pillage the homes of the French civilians through which they pass while retreating. I suppose that this action is condoned by the theory that nothing of value should be left behind for the enemy and perhaps that is as it should be … But it certainly is difficult to comprehend the extent of the depredations committed by the Allied troops in the houses of their own compatriots … Hundreds of refugees returned to their firesides to find them lying in an incredible mess, full of needless filth, contents of bureaus and chests dumped recklessly on the floor, dishes, pictures, mirrors, and furniture ruthlessly smashed to bits, mattresses disemboweled, odds and ends of clothing and linen strewn on the floor, heedlessly tramped on by the feet of their own brave defenders.”

Refugees in France, World War I
Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The following days brought no respite for the Allies, as the Sixth Army fell back in disarray, and the Germans advanced with surprising speed across a series of parallel river valleys including the Marne—the scene of the dramatic Allied victory at the beginning of the war. Now detailed German planning paid off, as dozens of temporary bridges (built and brought forward before the attack in total secrecy) were rushed into the battlefield, enabling the rapid German advance across multiple river obstacles (below, French soldiers pass resting British soldiers).

German spring offensive, World War I, 1918
Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

As decimated French and British divisions fell back, the new Allied supreme commander, French generalissimo Ferdinand Foch, rushed reinforcements to the Sixth Army as well as the neighboring French Tenth Army and Fifth Army, barely holding the line near Reims and Soissons (in fact the latter was briefly evacuated and occupied by German troops for less than a day). Now American troops made their first major contribution to the fight, as the American 2nd and 3rd Divisions hurried forward to help stem the German tide on the Marne River just 20 miles from Paris, aided by the Allied superiority in motor vehicles, in one of the first major uses of motorized infantry. Floyd Gibbons, an American war correspondent, accompanied some of the American reinforcements to the battlefront:

“At four o’clock on the morning of May 31st, the Marine brigade and regiments of United States infantry, the 9th and the 23rd Regulars, boarded camions, 20 to 30 men and their equipment in each vehicle. They were bound eastward to the valley of the Marne. The road took them through the string of pretty villages 15 miles to the north of Paris. The trucks loaded with United States troops soon became part of the endless traffic of war that was pouring northward and eastward toward the raging front. Our men soon became coated with the dust of the road. The French people in the villages through which they passed at top speed cheered them and threw flowers into the lorries.”

Gibbons also noted the continuous flow of wounded returning from the battlefield, as well as columns of smoke in the distance, the telltale signs of the German advance (below, wounded French and British soldiers):

“On the broad, paved highway from Paris to Meaux, my car passed miles and miles of loaded motor trucks bound frontward. Long lines of these carried thousands of Americans. Other long lines were loaded down with shell and cartridge boxes. On the right side of the road, bound for Paris and points back of the line, was an endless stream of ambulances and other motor trucks bringing back wounded. Dense clouds of dust hung like a pall over the length of the road. The day was hot, the dust was stifling … To the west and north another nameless cluster of farm dwellings was in flames. Huge clouds of smoke rolled up like a smudge against the background of blue sky.”

German spring offensive, World War I, 1918
Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

By June 6 the momentum had dissipated, thanks in part to the growing American presence at the front. U.S. Marines were assigned the task of blocking the road to Reims at Belleau Wood, a name that would soon enter the American military pantheon of heroic battles, with particular significance in the mythos of the Marines. The Battle of Belleau Wood, lasting from June 1-26, 1918, was America’s first major engagement in the First World War, as doughboys and “devil dogs” (a popular nickname for the U.S. Marines) stemmed the German tide along the Marne River after the fall of Château-Thierry (below, Belleau Wood after the fighting).

Belleau Wood, 1918
USMC Archives, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

Belleau Wood was the first encounter with the awful reality of trench warfare and open warfare for thousands of American soldiers. E.A. Wahl, a Marine private, recalled the progress to the front, followed by the beginning of incredibly fierce fighting at Belleau Wood, in a letter home:

“We sought shelter everywhere, falling flat on our faces as we heard shells come screeching down. That was our only protection. We just had to lie flat wondering if the next was going to get us. One shell landed about 15 feet from me and exploded. I heard a scream at the same time and looked up. It had landed in a hole where two chaps from another company were lying. Several of us rushed over to the spot and pulled them out. They were horribly cut up, but not dead … I can’t begin to describe my state of mind—you will just have to imagine it. We were getting our first real taste of the horrors of war. At dusk we fell into single file and started down a road toward the lines. Dead and wounded were liberally distributed along the road. Shell-shock victims acting like crazy men were being led to the rear by comrades. I will never forget that first trip through the pitch darkness of tangled woods down to our first positions. Bullets whistling around snipping off tree branches, big shells screaming and crashing in all directions, stumbling into shell holes and over fallen trees, taking about three hours to reach our positions—it tested one’s endurance to the limit … The whole 16 days was just a nightmare of this sort of business—attacks and counter-attacks. I cannot describe it.”

Like millions of European soldiers before them, the American soldiers were shocked by their own heavy losses but also horrified by the massive casualties they inflicted on the enemy, forcing them to acknowledge their foes’ bravery. Gibbons described American artillery exacting a bloody toll on the German attackers on June 2, as the French fell back and Americans manned the first line, with artillery directed by French aerial observers, along a 12-mile stretch of front:

“The Germans advanced in two solid columns across a field of golden wheat. More than half of the two columns had left the cover of the trees and were moving in perfect order across the field when the shrapnel fire from the American artillery in the rear got range on the target. Burst after burst of white smoke suddenly appeared in the air over the column, and under each burst the ground was marked with a circle of German dead.”

John Lewis Barkley, an American soldier who was later decorated with the Medal of Honor, recalled American machine guns felling rows of advancing Germans trying to capture bridges over the Marne near Château-Thierry:

“The columns weren’t stopped by the machine gun bullets. But everywhere, as they came on, men were left squirming on the ground. I could see the officers quite clearly. They allowed no break in that steady stream. Every gap was filled up at once. And the column moved on. Moved to certain death at the bridges. They were brave men, those German soldiers. I was learning that early.”

Barkley had his own very personal encounter with inflicting death as a sniper during the Battle of Belleau Wood, when he killed a German officer. “Perhaps he was young, and had a girl at home like mine. Or a mother who wrote him the kind of letters my mother wrote me. I tried to stop thinking about it,” Barkley wrote. “There wasn’t anything to do but to get over it … After a while I got so that it didn’t disturb my mind either.”

Fierce fighting cut a swathe through American ranks, with the Marines suffering especially steep losses. Gibbons, who was wounded shortly afterwards, described the events of June 6, when the U.S. Marines attacked German positions along the eastern edge of Belleau Wood:

“At five o’clock to the dot the Marines moved out from the woods in perfect order, and started across the wheat fields in four long waves. It was a beautiful sight, these men of ours going across the flat fields toward the tree clusters beyond from which the Germans poured a murderous machine gun fire. The woods were impregnated with nests of machine guns, but our advance proved irresistible. Many of our men fell, but those that survived pushed on through the woods, bayoneting right and left and firing as they charged … The fighting was terrific. In one battalion alone the casualties numbered 64 percent officers and 64 percent men … I was with the Marines at the opening of the battle. I never saw men charge to their death with finer spirit.”

On the other side, the first encounter with American fighting spirit was surprising and demoralizing for German soldiers and civilians, who had been assured by government propaganda that the Americans were undisciplined rabble, and in any event, would never arrive in sufficient numbers to make a real contribution to Allied combat power. German soldiers also contended with hunger and miserable physical conditions, as the Allied “starvation blockade” strangled the Central Powers. Wartime dislocations disrupted agriculture and made food shortages even worse.

Evelyn, Princess Blücher, an Englishwoman married to a German aristocrat then living in the German countryside, wrote in her diary in June 1918:

“My nephew Norbert, who is 19 years of age, has just been staying with us. He is on leave, having been through the whole of the Western offensive. His descriptions of it are terrible. For six days and nights, he says, they lay in the front trenches, with nothing to eat but what they found in the English trenches on the first day … He told me … that the Americans are daily becoming a more serious asset to the enemy, as each day more troops are pouring in, all fresh and well equipped, a contrast to the tired-out troops opposing them.”

Back on the home front, the mounting death toll, combined with diminishing prospects of victory, was pushing German civilians to the breaking point. The demoralization was reinforced by letters from soldiers at the front as well as soldiers home on leave. Blücher recorded the impact of these reports amid the Blücher-Yorck offensive:

“Gebhard’s two nephews have just written home. They say that no words can describe the horrors of what they have been through. They write that they are almost dying of starvation. They say they advanced so rapidly that no provisions could reach them, and their division was five days and nights fighting incessantly without food or even sleep at all, and those of their companies who were not killed or wounded died of exhaustion, and it is only by a miracle that they themselves are left to tell the tale. Their letter ends with the significant words: ‘Send us some food somehow, as quickly as you can, or we shall also die.’ Here in Krieblowitz, the peasants and village people receive the news that sometimes one, sometimes even two, of their sons have been killed on the same day. It has been a wholesale slaughter of late.”

Princess Blücher also transcribed a letter from her maid’s husband, who wrote from the front at Laon, about 20 miles northeast of Soissons. “It is indescribably awful here in Laon. We live in the midst of an incessant hail of bullets. The men on each side of me were both killed yesterday, and I expect my turn to come any day,” she recorded. Another German soldier, Herbert Sulzbach, described the gruesome scenes along the road to Chaudun on June 3:

“Seasoned fighting men that we are, we can’t help being shaken at the sight of all these bodies which have been torn to pieces, and then cut up over and over again; friend and foe, white and black, all jumbled together. It is also very hot, and the stink of the corpses is more than one can bear, but we have no time to bury the dead now.”

Above all, the fighting in May-June 1918 led to the widespread realization that the Americans were now present in Europe in large numbers, intended to take part in combat, and were formidable fighters, at least in some cases (below, a map of the American Expeditionary Force’s logistics network in France). In May 1918 alone, 245,945 U.S. soldiers crossed the Atlantic to France, followed by another 278,664 in June, bringing the total number in France to around 1 million by mid-summer. Blücher noted the stark change in attitudes between the winter of 1917 to the summer of 1918:

“The offensive is taking on more and more the character of a race between Hindenburg and America, and people are beginning generally to perceive the terrific consequences of their fatal mistake in allowing America to come in. Every one is force admit that it is America now that is keeping on the war. How foolishly they laughed at the idea two years ago!”

U.S. supply routes, spring 1918, World War I
Erik Sass

Dominik Richert, a German soldier from Alsace, also recorded signs of plunging morale in June 1918, including a gloomy conversation with an officer:

“‘How are things at the front?’ he asked me. ‘I don’t think they are going very well,’ I replied. I told him that the English were greatly superior in terms of aircraft and artillery, and certainly also in terms of foodstuffs, and that in my opinion the Americans would tip the balance. ‘Yes,’ said the officer, ‘you have the same opinion as I do.’ This was the first time I had found an officer who was willing to say that Germany would lose the war.”

On the Allied side, America’s fighting debut was met with elation, especially among Americans themselves, as many expressed pride and relief at this vindication of American manhood (not to mention the bravery of thousands of women serving as nurses, ambulance drivers, and canteen workers, often exposed to enemy fire). Marian Baldwin, an American chief nurse volunteering at a British field hospital, noted in her diary on June 7, 1918, “The Sammies are right in the ‘thick of it’ now and doing better, especially the Marines, even than was expected of them. It’s all very wonderful and these days makes one prouder than ever of being an American.”

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

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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