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: 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.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER