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.

The Time German and Russian WWI Soldiers Banded Together to Fight Wolves

iStock.com/567185
iStock.com/567185

During the winter of 1917, Russian and German soldiers fighting in the dreary trenches of the Great War’s Eastern Front had a lot to fear: enemy bullets, trench foot, frostbite, countless diseases, shrapnel, bayonets, tanks, sniper fire. Oh, and wolves.

In February of that year, a dispatch from Berlin noted that large packs of wolves were creeping from the forests of Lithuania and Volhynia into the interior of the German Empire, not far from the front lines. Like so many living creatures, the animals had been driven from their homes by the war and were now simply looking for something to eat. “As the beasts are very hungry, they penetrate into the villages and kill calves, sheep, goats, and other livestock,” the report, which appeared in the El Paso Herald, says. “In two cases children have been attacked by them.”

According to another dispatch out of St. Petersburg, the wolves were such a nuisance on the battlefield that they were one of the few things that could bring soldiers from both sides together. “Parties of Russian and German scouts met recently and were hotly engaged in a skirmish when a large pack of wolves dashed on the scene and attacked the wounded,” the report says, according to the Oklahoma City Times. “Hostilities were at once suspended and Germans and Russians instinctively attacked the pack, killing about 50 wolves.” It was an unspoken agreement among snipers that, if the Russians and Germans decided to engage in a collective wolf-hunt, all firing would cease.

Take this July 1917 New York Times report describing how soldiers in the Kovno-Wilna Minsk district (near modern Vilnius, Lithuania) decided to cease hostilities to fight this furry common enemy:

"Poison, rifle fire, hand grenades, and even machine guns were successively tried in attempts to eradicate the nuisance. But all to no avail. The wolves—nowhere to be found quite so large and powerful as in Russia—were desperate in their hunger and regardless of danger. Fresh packs would appear in place of those that were killed by the Russian and German troops.

"As a last resort, the two adversaries, with the consent of their commanders, entered into negotiations for an armistice and joined forces to overcome the wolf plague. For a short time there was peace. And in no haphazard fashion was the task of vanquishing the mutual foe undertaken. The wolves were gradually rounded up, and eventually several hundred of them were killed. The others fled in all directions, making their escape from carnage the like of which they had never encountered."

Afterward, the soldiers presumably returned to their posts and resumed pointing their rifles at a more violent and dangerous enemy—each other.

11 Facts About Robert the Bruce, King of Scots

Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn
Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn
Edmund LeightonCassell and Company, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

The subject of a recent Netflix original movie called Outlaw King, Robert the Bruce is one of Scotland’s great national heroes. Get to know King Bob a little better.

1. Robert the Bruce was a polyglot who loved telling stories.

He likely spoke Scots, Gaelic, Latin, and Norman French, and was an avid reader who loved studying the lives of previous monarchs. According to a parliamentary brief from around 1364, Robert the Bruce "used continually to read, or have read in his presence, the histories of ancient kings and princes, and how they conducted themselves in their times, both in wartime and in peacetime.” In his free time, he would recite tales about Charlemagne and Hannibal from memory.

2. Despite his reputation as Scotland’s savior, he spent years siding with England.

The Bruce family spent the 1290s complaining that they had been robbed of the Scottish Crown. That’s because, after the deaths of King Alexander III and his granddaughter Margaret, it was unclear who Scotland's next monarch should be. Debates raged until John Balliol was declared King in 1292. The Bruces, who had closer blood ties to the previous royal family (but not closer paternal ties) considered Balliol an usurper. So when tensions later flared between Balliol and Edward I of England, the resentful Bruces took England’s side.

3. He murdered his biggest political rival.

John Comyn is killed by Robert Bruce and Roger de Kirkpatrick before the high altar of the Greyfriars Church in Dumfries, 10 February 1306
Henri Félix Emmanuel Philippoteaux, Cassell, Petter & Galpin, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

One of the leading figures standing in the way of Robert the Bruce’s path to Scotland’s throne was Balliol's nephew, John III Comyn, Lord of Badenoch. In 1306, Robert arranged a meeting with Comyn in the Chapel of Greyfriars in Dumfries, Scotland. There, Robert accused Comyn of treachery and stabbed him. (And when word spread that Comyn had somehow survived, two of Robert’s cronies returned to the church and finished the deed, spilling Comyn’s blood on the steps of the altar.) Shortly after, Robert declared himself King of Scotland and started to plot an uprising against England.

4. He lived in a cave and was inspired by a very persistent spider.

The uprising did not go exactly according to plan. After Robert the Bruce killed Comyn in a church, Pope Clement V excommunicated him. To add salt to his wounds, Robert's ensuing attempts to battle England became a total failure. In the winter of 1306, he was forced to flee Scotland and was exiled to a cave on Rathlin Island in Northern Ireland.

Legend has it that as Robert took shelter in the cave, he saw a spider trying—and failing—to spin a web. The creature kept attempting to swing toward a nearby rock and refused to give up. Bruce was so inspired by the spider’s tenacity that he vowed to return to Scotland and fight. Within three years, he was holding his first session of parliament.

5. He went to battle with a legion of ponies.

For battle, Robert the Bruce preferred to employ a light cavalry of ponies (called hobbies) and small horses (called palfreys) in a tactic known as hobelar warfare. In one famous story, a young English knight named Sir Henry de Bohun sat atop a large warhorse and saw Robert the Bruce mounted upon a palfrey. Bohun decided to charge. Robert saw his oncoming attacker and stood in his stirrups—putting him at the perfect height to swing a battleaxe at the oncoming horseman’s head. After slaying his opponent, the king reportedly complained, “I have broken my good axe.”

6. He loved to eat eels.

Robert the Bruce
iStock.com/fotoVoyager

Robert the Bruce’s physician, Maino de Maineri, criticized the king’s penchant for devouring eels. “I am certain that this fish should not be eaten because I have seen it during the time I was with the king of the Scots, Robert Bruce, who risked many dangers by eating [moray eels], which are by nature like lampreys," de Maineri wrote. "It is true that these [morays] were caught in muddy and corrupt waters.” (Notably, overeating eels was considered the cause of King Henry I England’s death.)

7. His underdog victory at Bannockburn proved that quality could defeat quantity.

In 1314, Robert the Bruce defeated King Edward II’s army at Bannockburn, sending England (as the popular anthem Flower of Scotland goes) “homeward tae think again.” It was a surprising victory; the English had about 2000 armored horsemen and 15,000 foot soldiers, compared to the Scots's 500 horsemen and 7000 foot soldiers. But Robert the Bruce used geography to his advantage, forcing the English to attempt crossing two large and boggy streams. The victory was a huge turning point in the Scottish War of Independence and would help secure Scotland's freedom.

8. He’s firmly intertwined with the Knights Templar mythology.

Treasure hunters speculate that in the 14th century, the Knights Templar fled to Scotland with a trove of valuables because they received support and protection from King Robert the Bruce. Thanks to his help, they say, the Knights were able to hide gold and holy relics—from ancient Gospel scrolls to the Holy Grail—in secret spots across the country (including in Rosslyn Chapel, of The Da Vinci Code fame). But there is little evidence to support these colorful myths. Templar scholar and medieval historian Helen Nicholson said that any remaining Knights Templar were likely hanging out in the balmy climes of Cyprus.

9. He’s still donating money to a Scottish church.

Robert the Bruce and Elizabeth de Burgh
Henri Félix Emmanuel Philippoteaux, Cassell, Petter & Galpin, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

After the death of his second wife, Elizabeth de Burgh, Robert the Bruce decreed to give the Auld Kirk in Cullen, Scotland—now the Cullen and Deskford Parish—a total of five Scots pounds every year. That's because, in 1327, Elizabeth had died after falling off a horse, and the local congregation generously took care of her remains. Robert was so touched by the gesture that he promised to donate money “for all eternity.” To this day, his bequest is still being paid.

10. Parts of his body are buried in multiple places.

Robert the Bruce died on June 7, 1329, just a month before his 55th birthday. The cause of his death has been a source of much discussion, and disagreement, but most modern scholars believe that he succumbed to leprosy. His funeral was a rather elaborate affair that required nearly 7000 pounds of candle wax just for the funerary candles. Following the fashion for royalty, he was buried in multiple places. His chest was sawed open and his heart and internal organs removed: The guts were buried near his death-place at the Manor of Cardross, near Dumbarton; his corpse interred in Dunfermline Abbey; and his heart placed inside a metal urn to be worn around the neck of Sir James Douglas, who promised to take it to the Holy Lord.

11. His heart was the original “Brave Heart.”

Unfortunately, Sir Douglas never made it to the Holy Land: He got sidetracked and took a detour to fight the Moors in Spain, where he was killed. Before his attackers reached him, Douglas reportedly threw the urn containing the king’s heart and yelled, “Lead on brave heart, I’ll follow thee.” The heart was soon returned to Scotland, where its location was forgotten until a team of archaeologists discovered it in 1921. It’s now interred in Melrose Abbey.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER