WWI Centennial: The Tide Turns; the Romanovs are Executed

John Warwick Brooke, Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
John Warwick Brooke, 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 313th installment in the series. Read an overview of the war to date here.

JULY 15-22, 1918: THE TIDE TURNS; THE ROMANOVS ARE EXECUTED

In the spring of 1918, German chief strategist Erich Ludendorff launched four huge offensives against the Allies on the Western Front, using troops freed up by the victory on the Eastern Front, in a desperate attempt to defeat Britain and France before American forces started to arrive in Europe in large numbers. Codenamed Michael, Georgette, Blücher-Yorck, and Gneisenau, this series of attacks delivered powerful blows against the Allies and succeeded in conquering a large amount of territory, bringing the Germans alarmingly close to Paris—but failed to achieve the hoped-for strategic breakthrough.

With hundreds of thousands of fresh American troops arriving every month, and with Germany’s internal political situation nearing the breaking point, as spring gave way to summer Ludendorff had no choice but to keep rolling the dice in hopes that the Allies would make a mistake. His efforts culminated in the fifth German offensive, Marneschutz-Reims, (“Marne Defense-Reims”) launched on July 15, 1918—yet another attempt to force the French to move reinforcements south from Flanders, leaving the overstretched British Expeditionary Force vulnerable to a decisive German knockout blow in the north.

However, Ludendorff had finally met his match. The Allied commander-in-chief, the French general Ferdinand Foch, seemed to possess nerves of steel. Once again he refused to panic, and instead carefully husbanded his reserves in Flanders and in the Reserve Army Group of 55 divisions under General Émile Fayolle north of Paris, waiting for the perfect moment to launch a massive Allied counterattack. With the failure of Marneschutz-Reims from July 15-17, 1918, that moment had finally arrived: the surprise counterattack on July 18, supported by tens of thousands of American soldiers at the Battle of Chateau-Thierry, would prove the turning point of the war.

MARNESCHUTZ-REIMS

The fifth (and final) German offensive supposedly had several purposes—although, like its predecessors, this may have simply reflected the muddled thinking of the German general staff. At the local level, simultaneous attacks by the German Seventh and Third Armies, both part of the army group commanded by the German crown prince Wilhelm, were supposed to capture the key rail hub at Reims in a giant pincer movement, easing the task of resupplying the German forces in the new salient extending south to the Marne River, previously conquered during Blücher-Yorck. At a strategic level, capturing Reims would straighten the German line and free up more German troops for subsequent attacks, while hopefully frightening the French into moving reserve forces that were then backing up the BEF in Flanders and Picardy. At this point Ludendorff would unleash another huge offensive, codenamed Operation Hagen, against the British by the Second, Fourth, Sixth, and Seventeenth Armies, all part of the army group commanded by Bavarian crown prince Rupprecht. By splitting the French and British near Amiens and pushing the latter into the sea, there was still a chance Germany could win the war.

Western Front, July 15, 1918
Erik Sass

Ludendorff was betting on another big tactical victory, but the situation had changed since the dramatic advances of Michael, Georgette, and Blücher-Yorck. For one thing, he no longer enjoyed the key element of surprise. As the German salients ballooned out, it was relatively easy for Allied intelligence officers to guess where the next blows might land, and Reims, jutting into the German flank, was an obvious target. Additionally, German preparations for the offensive were hard to conceal from Allied aerial observers, reflecting the shifting balance of power in the air. The Allies had also finally adopted the German doctrine of defense in depth, leaving frontline trenches lightly held and keeping most of their troops further back, from which they could mount counterattacks once the initial enemy assault began losing momentum. Finally, the Allies had figured out the Pulkowski technique, used by the Germans to target artillery without having to test fire the guns to find the range (which gave away where an attack was coming), meaning they had a few surprises of their own up their sleeves.

The Allies stole the show right from the start with a surprise counter-bombardment by French artillery, beginning shortly after midnight on July 15, using additional artillery pieces brought up secretly and carefully hidden in the weeks before the attack. In line with the Pulkowski technique copied from the Germans, the French used meteorological and mathematical calculations to target the German frontline trenches where the attacking infantry were assembled, inflicting heavy casualties and threatening to disrupt the assault. One American soldier described the French surprise counter-barrage:

“Thousands of French guns broke the weeks of quiet and fired with an intensity that caused the atmosphere to shake with a constant rolling, unbroken sound. The deep roar of the heavy guns, smashing detonations of the middle calibers, and the bark of the 75’s coalesced with the vibrating swishing note of the departing projectile. It was a hellish music. To its accompaniment, the stars were snuffed out and the skies turned in blotches and splashes and flashes to red, yellow and green. The surface of the earth was like a shaking table.”

On the other side the heavy German artillery bombardment pounded the French frontline trenches with around 4.5 million shells on the first day alone, but this had relatively little effect on the French Fourth and Fifth Armies bearing the brunt of the attack. The frontline trenches were almost empty, with most of the French infantry waiting safely in a series of trenches in the “defense zone” to the rear. Elsewhere the Allies were less fortunate, as the French Sixth and Ninth Armies also received heavy fire, including American troops. John Miller, an American medical officer, wrote in his diary on July 17:

“Some fight! The barrage started at just midnight July 14th, and kept it up until 11 o'clock the next day and then they shelled steadily the rest of that day, that night and the following day (today). All our horses are dead, almost half the men, I think, were casualties and things are in a hell of a mess in general. The dressing station and surroundings are a sight. The damn woods is just about torn down and filled with dead men and horses. And they are beginning to smell pretty rank.”

The first wave of German storm troopers and infantry went “over the top” at 4:50 a.m., preceded by a double creeping barrage, a moving wall of artillery fire intended to force defenders to take cover until the attacking infantry were upon them. But once again, the creeping barrage had minimal effect, because the frontline trenches were unmanned. As the lead German storm troopers arrived to find the positions totally undefended—the first indication that the assault would not go to plan—French 75-millimeter guns, still considered the best field artillery in the world at that time, opened up on the tightly packed ranks of German infantry. Another American soldier recalled the bloody work done by French field artillery as the dawn lifted on July 15 (below, French machine gunners):

“Wave after wave of Germans swept across no man’s land in close formation. They came over half of the distance without any marked break and then the French opened up on them with 75’s that [had] been placed for just that purpose … The destruction was terrible and the advancing waves were torn and split apart. The great gaps were filled, only to be again torn and shattered by the direct artillery fire. Doggedly they kept pushing for war … but the force of the charge was gone and they were beaten back.”

French troops, July 1918
U.S. War Department, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

An American sergeant described carnage all too typical of the war: “we had them stacked up in front of our wire two and three deep.” And Vernon Kniptash, an American soldier in the 42nd (Rainbow) Division, recorded similar impressions in his diary on July 15, 1918:

“Their Infantry came over in three huge waves and our 75’s, machine guns, and trench mortar batteries fired at ‘em point blank. The first wave was just naturally killed standing up. They came over shoulder to shoulder and couldn’t find room to fall down. The second and third waves suffered the same fate. Then our doughboys went out and took prisoners or finished up the ones that the artillery didn’t get.”

By 7:30 a.m. the Germans had progressed a few kilometers in places, paying a terrible price for these meager gains, as they ran headlong into a deep “defense zone” bristling with machine gun nests and strong points. Their own artillery was mostly unable to come to their assistance: They were simply out of range in some places; in others the German gun crews were already moving their pieces forward on the assumption that they had achieved another breakthrough, making it very difficult to set up the guns and start targeting them again.

Without additional artillery support, the German infantry attacks quickly lost their momentum, and by mid-afternoon the eastern half of the German pincer had stalled far short of its objective for the first day, indicating that the plan had already failed. The situation was even worse to the west, where the French counter-barrage had thrown the German Seventh Army’s attack into chaos—amplified by dauntingly ambitious objectives, which called for the attacking infantry to cross the Marne River on pontoon bridges.

Although the Germans had achieved remarkable success with these tactics before by crossing multiple river obstacles in Blücher-Yorck, their preparations for Marneschutz-Reims weren’t nearly as thorough, and the bridges were subjected to ferocious Allied artillery fire and aerial bombardment. As a result, six German divisions that managed to cross the Marne ended up temporarily stranded on the south bank without artillery or ammunition after the pontoon bridges were destroyed.

By the following morning it was clear that the attack had failed, leaving officers and rank-and-file soldiers alike thoroughly demoralized. Herbert Sulzbach, a German artillery officer, noted in his diary on July 16, 1918:

“Our morale is quite terrible, we can’t get the faintest glimpse of what is going on, and all we can guess is this great offensive hasn’t come off! ... We hear that our attack has in fact been repulsed by the French in this sector, with heavy losses. We feel really desperate.”

On July 17 Ludendorff agreed with the recommendation of crown prince Wilhelm’s staff and army commanders to go on the defensive, and the Germans successfully withdrew all six divisions from the south bank of the Marne. However, worse was to come: on July 18 Foch ordered French Tenth Army commander Charles Mangin, nicknamed “the Butcher,” to attack the western edge of the enemy salient northeast of Paris, held by the German Ninth Army, recently transferred from Romania.

Western Front, July 18, 1918
Erik Sass

AMERICANS VICTORIOUS AT CHATEAU-THIERRY

The Tenth Army attack achieved total surprise thanks to Mangin’s unorthodox approach of sending the infantry over without prolonged artillery preparation, instead relying on hundreds of tanks for fire support and a brief “rolling barrage” to force enemy troops to take cover. As part of the Allied counterattack, Mangin also had nine American divisions under his command, including the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 26th, 28th, 32nd, 42nd (known as the Rainbow Division because its soldiers were drawn from all over the United States) and 77th. In this sector the American divisions—with a strength of 28,000 men each, around twice the size of European divisions—were distributed in a long arc beginning opposite Soissons and extending down to Chateau-Thierry and Belleau Wood.

The rolling barrage began at 4:35 a.m., and thousands of American troops advanced close behind the creeping wall of fire, surging forward despite very heavy casualties from German gas, machine gun fire, and aerial ground attacks. The attackers soon succeeded in pushing the enemy out of their first defensive zone, forcing the Germans to send reinforcements from other parts of the front—spelling the definitive end of the German offensive (below, the Chateau-Thierry bridge, destroyed during the battle). On July 18, Sulzbach and his comrades were floored by the order to withdraw and redeploy to help fend off the surprise French counterattack on the Seventh Army:

“This order tells us everything, and we are speechless … So we are moving along behind the front; it looks as though we are being thrown into the largest enemy offensive of all time—and it was supposed to be our offensive! We couldn’t even have dreamed that this would happen—never.”

Chateau-Thierry bridge, 1918
United States Marine Corps Archives & Special Collections, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

The Allied counterattack supposedly pushed Ludendorff to the edge of a nervous breakdown, although he eventually recovered his composure. It now became clear that his recent conquests, far from bringing them closer to victory, were a huge strategic liability, as the overstretched German armies had to hold hundreds of kilometers of new front, exposed to Allied counterattacks on all sides. The only answer was an immediate retreat from the Marne by the Seventh and Ninth Armies to more defensible positions to the north—in other words, giving up all the hard-won territorial gains of previous offensives. As the Germans withdrew from the Marne salient, the French offensive expanded to include advances by the French Fifth, Sixth, and Ninth Armies, although Foch failed to achieve his goal of cutting off the German armies in the salient (below, a bridge at Chateau-Thierry destroyed in the battle).

Although the German armies mostly escaped intact, they suffered significant losses. Guy Bowerman, Jr., an American ambulance driver, witnessed the scenes following the German retreat with his comrades on July 19, 1918:

“It was here that our barrage must have caught a road-full of retreating Germans and what a hell-hole it must have been! Dead men, dead horses and demolished wagons and trucks are everywhere … Close beside the truck are the charred bodies of two men, beyond at the side of the road the bare leg of a man with a piece of a boot and a sock still around it sticks up from the bushes as if it had become stuck as the man hurried along and had pulled out of the socket … As we stood there waiting Bal came over, his face somewhat pale and there was no denying the sincerity of his words as he said ‘God! Bowie but this makes me sick.’”

For many Americans soldiers Chateau-Thierry and the Second Battle of the Marne were their first contact with the horrors of war. In a letter home written July 20, 1918, William Russel, an American pilot, tried to convey his feelings on seeing the battlefield from the air:

“Father, it is truly terrible beyond description—the once-beautiful country ravaged and pitted with shell holes, and the homes of the people who were happy so short a time ago, and the attractive buildings and churches either burning or already leveled to the ground in ruin. Very little has escaped the cruel fire of the large guns and the frightful destruction of a merciless enemy. This was my introduction to actual warfare, and my first impression was one of horror and stupefaction. It was far worse than I had thought, and truly, it seems to me that it is inconceivable to one who does not see it with his own eyes.”

Ferdinand Jelke, an American liaison officer to the French Army, described the horrors of chemical warfare in a letter home on July 22, 1918:

“This mustard gas is a dastardly and damnable thing, frightfully blistering and burning the body, especially in the moist and hairy places, and making the most horrible sores. If enough gets into the lungs, it kills either at once or by a long and horrible, lingering death … In talking with some of the cases today that were burned 12 days ago, and are still suffering intensely and lingering between life and death, they said they would far rather lose an arm or leg.”

Chateau-Thierry station, 1918
United States Marine Corps Archives & Special Collections, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

On July 23, the American medical officer Miller noted a horrifying scene with a few laconic remarks in his diary. “Crossed Marne today at about 3 o'clock on pontoon bridges. Horses and men still unburied. Saw one dead American machine gunner at Mazy with 160 dead Boches around him,” he wrote. “He did well.”

Another American surgeon was appalled by conditions near the front (above, American wounded at the Chateau-Thierry railroad station, converted into a makeshift hospital). “Hospitals were again swamped. Our field hospital with 200 beds was inundated by more than 3,000 wounded,” he noted. “Men lay in the streets outside in the wet and cold; many who might have been saved died from exposure, shock, and lack of care.”

Robert C. Hoffman, a medical officer with the U.S. 28th Division, conveyed the horror of seeing American wounded:

“The more pitifully wounded did not wish to live. They constantly begged doctors and nurses, sometimes at the top of their voices, to put an end to them. Some made attempts to end their lives with a knife or fork … One of the orderlies told me that a blinded man who was suffering greatly and did not wish to live had killed himself at one time with a fork. It was hard to drive it deep enough through his chest to end his life, and he kept hitting it with his clenched fist to drive it deeper.”

By July 22, the battle of Chateau-Thierry was over—but many considered these few days to be the turning point of the war, as Mangin’s offensive marked the end of German offensive capability, and with it any prospect of German victory. In fact the German chancellor at the time, George Hertling, later recalled:

“At the beginning of July, 1918, I was convinced, I confess it, that before the first of September our adversaries would send us peace proposals. … We expected grave events in Paris for the end of July. That was on the 15th. On the 18th even the most optimistic of us knew that all was lost. The history of the world was played out in three days.”

After months of skepticism, French commanders showered praise on American fighting spirit at Chateau-Thierry, with one reporting to the French high command, “The conduct of American troops has been perfect and has been greatly admired by French officers and men. Calm and perfect bearing under artillery fire, endurance of fatigue and privations, tenacity in defense, eagerness in counterattack, willingness to engage in hand-to-hand fighting—such are the qualities reported to me by all the French officers I have seen.”

On the other side, German troops were stunned and demoralized, not only by American fighting spirit, but also by the evident material superiority of the Allies, as demonstrated by massive French artillery power, carefully accumulated over the two years since Verdun. Sulzbach was at a loss for words to describe a French barrage on July 21, 1918:

“I don’t know the word indicating the difference in degree required to describe the wholly crazy artillery fire which the French turned on for the attack in the morning. The word ‘hell’ expresses something tender and peaceful compared with what is starting here and now … It’s as though all the barrages one had ever known have been combined to rattle down on us now.”

On July 23, Sulzbach endured another horrific bombardment. “At 4 a.m. a barrage suddenly began: the very earth was rumbling, and it seemed as though the world were coming to an end. You couldn’t hear what the next man was saying; it was indescribable,” he wrote. Faced with these overwhelming odds, and with troops starving and decimated by influenza, German morale was starting to collapse. Dominik Richert, a German soldier from Alsace, remembered his decision to defect to the French:

“On the following Wednesday, the 23rd of July 1918, we once again had a miserable lunch—burnt dried vegetables. NCO Beck and I were standing on our own up in the trench shoveling down the terrible much. Suddenly, in an abrupt outburst of rage, Beck took his canteen and its contents and flung it against the traverse near him. ‘Goddamit!’ he raged. ‘I’ve just about had enough of this!’ I pointed across towards the French front as if to say: ‘What do you think, Gustav?’ He suddenly looked at me and said: ‘Would you be willing to come?’”

DEATH OF THE ROMANOVS

As the First World War entered its final phase on the Western Front, the Russian Civil War, which would claim around 3 million lives by 1923, was just beginning, pitting Lenin’s “Reds” (Bolsheviks) against the “Whites” (a coalition of conservative anti-Bolshevik forces, most led by former Tsarist generals). By mid-1918 the chaos was deepening as the vast realm hurtled off a cliff. July brought the first foreign interventions with Allied occupations to Russia’s far north and Far East, intended to protect war materiel provided by the Allies to the former Provisional Government from capture by the Germans or Bolsheviks. Meanwhile, a dozen small regional factions had formed, operating independently of both the Reds and Whites, including the Czech Legion, now consolidating its control of the Trans-Siberian Railroad.

Map of Russian civil war, 1918
Erik Sass

Both sides exercised utmost brutality as the government lapsed once again into arbitrary tyranny. Sophie Buxhoeveden, a former lady-in-waiting, noted worsening conditions in Bolshevik-controlled areas, as well as the glaring disparity between Bolsheviks and the rest of the population:

“The Bolsheviks did not suffer from these hardships. They had special facilities for getting what they wanted, and money in abundance, so they could pay the fancy prices that the underhanded dealers demanded for those articles which they still managed, in some mysterious way, to produce. The unfortunate people who were not in Bolshevik service could get no work, and these lived by selling the last of their belongings, most of which was clothing.”

Buxhoeveden described how the Bolsheviks extorted valuable possessions from members of the “bourgeoisie,” now deemed enemies of the people and therefore fair game, but also more humble folk:

“Merchants and the bourgeoisie were put into prison for even the slightest infringement of the regulations, and their relations, knowing the treatment they would be exposed to, hastened to pay bail for them. As there was no ready money available, their womenfolk sold the last bits of jewelery they still possessed, but paid whatever was the sum demanded. Gradually the arrests extended also to less prominent people.”

Justice, never secure in Russia before the war, was now a naïve dream, Buxhoeveden continued:

“Trials were a farce. There were no longer any regular law courts; the old penal code was abolished and no other existed. For every kind of offense people were brought before a revolutionary tribunal, the members of which were all appointed by the Soviet and consisted almost exclusively of Red guardsmen. These men were instructed to give their judgments according to their ‘revolutionary conscience,’ as there were no staple laws.”

The steep descent into anarchy accelerated on the night of July 16-17, 1918, with the Bolsheviks’ brutal summary execution of the Romanov royal household, including the former Tsar Nicholas II, his wife Alexandra, their five children, and a number of courtiers who accompanied them into exile. Held prisoners in Yekaterinburg, the Romanovs were executed at the explicit order of Lenin, prompted by fears that the approaching Czech Legion might liberate the former royal family, raising the prospect of a restoration by sympathetic pro-royal White forces.

Pavel Medvedev, one of the soldiers guarding the family, recalled the sad scene as the royal family, including the 13-year-old former heir to the throne Alexei, were suddenly roused from their sleep in the modest home where they had been living before being led to the basement where they were shot, bayoneted, and clubbed to death:

“During my presence none of the Tsar’s family asked any questions. They did not weep or cry … When the room (which adjoins the store room with a sealed door) was reached, Yurovsky ordered chairs to be brought, and his assistant brought three chairs. One chair was given to the Emperor, one to the Empress, and the third to the heir … It seemed as if all of them guessed their fate, but none of them uttered a single sound … At this moment 11 men entered the room … Yurovsky ordered me to leave, saying, ‘Go on to the street, see if there is anybody there, and wait to see whether the shots have been heard.’ I went out to the court, which was enclosed by a fence, but before I got to the street I heard the firing. I returned to the house immediately (only two or three minutes having elapsed) and upon entering the room where the execution had taken place, I saw that all the members of the Tsar’s family were lying on the floor with many wounds in their bodies. The blood was running in streams. The doctor, the maid, and two waiters had also been shot. When I entered the heir was still alive and moaned a little. Yurovsky went up and fired two or three more times at him. Then the heir was still.”

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.

8 Famous People Who Earned Purple Hearts

iStock
iStock

Most of you already know that Purple Hearts are medals awarded to soldiers who have been injured by the enemy while serving in the U.S. military (or posthumously to those killed in combat). But you might not know that these famous figures have received the medal, which was created by General George Washington on August 7, 1782.

1. CHARLES BRONSON

American film actor Charles Bronson in 1985
Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

You know Charles Bronson from his roles in Once Upon a Time in the West, The Magnificent Seven, The Dirty Dozen and Death Wish, but did you know he probably never would have become an actor if it weren’t for the military? Bronson, whose last name was Buchinsky before he changed it, was so poor as a child that he once had to wear his sister’s dress to school because there were literally no other clothes for him in the house. In 1943, Charles enlisted in the Army Air Corps where he started out working as a truck driver, but eventually became a tail gunner in a B-29. After the war was over, he was awarded a Purple Heart for an injury he received in the service and used the GI Bill to study acting, which eventually helped him become the action hero we are all familiar with.

2. JAMES ARNESS

James Arness played Marshal Matt Dillon in Gunsmoke over five decades, as the show spanned from 1955 to 1975 and then there were five more made-for-TV movie follow-ups shot in the 1980s and '90s. Arness (or Aurness before he started acting) enrolled in the U.S. Army in 1943. He wanted to be a fighter pilot, but with a height of 6’7”, there was no way that was going to happen, as the maximum height of pilots at the time was 6’2”, so instead he served as a rifleman. Unfortunately, his height singled him out to be the first off the boat to test the water depth for the other men, leaving him to be the first target for the enemy. As a result, Arness was injured less than a year into his service during an invasion on Anzio, Italy, when he was shot in the right leg.

On the upside, his time in the hospital led to his work in television … eventually. That’s because the nurses kept insisting that with his booming, deep voice, Arness ought to work on the radio. After he returned home, he got a job as a disc jockey in Minneapolis, which is where he finally decided to try his luck as an actor in Hollywood.

Despite having multiple surgeries and almost a full year of physical therapy, Arness was still bothered by his injury years down the line. Reportedly, he hurt intensely on the set of Gunsmoke when mounting his horse.

3. JAMES GARNER

merican actor James Garner best known for starring in 'Maverick' and the long-running television programme 'The Rockford Files' as Jim Rockford
L. J. Willinger, Keystone Features/Getty Images

Those familiar with The Rockford Files or Maverick certainly know who James Garner is. What you might not know is how much time he dedicated to the Armed Forces. When he was just 16 years old, Garner joined the Merchant Marines near the end of WWII, though he didn’t do particularly well there given that he suffered from seasickness. He later served in the National Guard for seven months before joining the Army and serving in the 24th Infantry for 14 months during the Korean War.

While in the Army, James was injured twice. The first time he was hit in the hand and face by shrapnel from a mortar round. The second time he was shot in the buttocks by U.S. fighter jets as he dove into a foxhole. As a result, he received two Purple Hearts, although he didn’t receive the second one until 32 years later.

4. JAMES JONES

While the movie version of The Thin Red Line was largely overshadowed by Saving Private Ryan, it did have the distinction of being based on a book written by someone who served in WWII. In fact, James Jones’s so-called “war trilogy” of From Here to Eternity, The Thin Red Line, and Guadalcanal and Whistle blend the author’s real war experiences with fiction so effectively that no one really knows which events are factual and which were created for the novels.

What we do know for certain though is that Jones enlisted in the Army in 1939, served in the 25th Infantry, and was wounded on Guadalcanal, earning him a Purple Heart.

5. KURT VONNEGUT

Author Kurt Vonnegut attends 'The Week at Grand Central: A Series of Conversations' on September 30, 2002 at Grand Central Station in New York City
Lawrence Lucier, Getty Images

Most fans of Kurt Vonnegut already know that he fought in WWII and was taken prisoner after the Battle of the Bulge. (It was the inspiration for his famous novel Slaughterhouse Five.) He was one of a handful of survivors from the American bombing of Dresden in February of 1945, and he earned a Purple Heart for his service. While you might assume that his injuries would have been obtained during the Dresden bombing, you’d be wrong. As it turns out, he said he earned the medal for a "ludicrously negligible wound" related to frostbite.

6. RON KOVIC

If you’ve seen the movie or read Born on the Fourth of July, then you’re already familiar with the story of Ronald Lawrence Kovic. After all, the book was his autobiography. Kovic joined the Marines after being stirred by Kennedy’s famous “Ask not what your country can do for you” speech. He was sent on his first tour of duty in 1965 and returned for a second tour in 1967. It was during this second tour that he was injured, while leading his squad through an open area of land. Kovic was first shot in the right foot and then through the right shoulder, which left him paralyzed from the chest down. He received a Bronze Star with "V" device for valor and a Purple Heart for his service.

After returning home, he became a peace activist and has since been arrested twelve times for his protests. In 1974, he told his story in Born on the Fourth of July. When Oliver Stone commissioned the story to become a movie, Kovic wrote the screenplay. He received a Golden Globe for Best Screenplay exactly 22 years after the date he was injured in the war.

7. OLIVER STONE

Director Oliver Stone attends the Opening Ceremony of the 22nd Busan International Film Festival on October 12, 2017 in Busan, South Korea
Woohae Cho, Getty Images

Yes, the famous director not only made a film about someone with a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star for service in Vietnam; he has both medals from his time in the war as well. Like Kovic, he willingly signed up for the Armed Forces, dropping out of Yale to do so, and even requested combat duty in Vietnam. Stone was injured twice in the war and received the Purple Heart after he was shot in the neck.

As you might have guessed, Platoon was based largely on the director’s experiences in Vietnam.

8. ROD SERLING

If you’re a fan of The Twilight Zone, then you might be interested in knowing that it might never have been created if Rod Serling was never injured in WWII. The future writer was eager to enroll in the war to help fight the Nazis, but he was instead sent to the Philippines to fight the Japanese. He was put into one of the most dangerous platoons in the area, nicknamed “the death squad” for the high number of casualties suffered in the group. Serling was lucky enough not to be killed in combat, but he hardly came out unscathed. He was injured a few times in battle, but more dramatic was the severe trauma he experienced by serving in such a violent area. As a result, he was plagued by nightmares and flashbacks for the rest of his life.

The events he experienced reshaped his world view, and with them he was inspired to create The Twilight Zone and write many of the show’s most famous episodes.

BONUS: SERGEANT STUBBY

Sergeant Stubby
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

One more veteran with a Purple Heart who is certainly noteworthy, even if he's not a human, is Sergeant Stubby, our favorite K9 war hero and the most decorated dog of WWI. Stubby received his Purple Heart for an injury caused by shrapnel from a German grenade thrown into the trench he was in. After recovering, he returned to the trenches to help his fellow soldiers.

This article originally ran in 2012.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios