Germany's Dying Desperate Effort
( Originally Published 1918 )
IN the spring of 1918 it must have been plain to the German High Command that if the war was to be won it must be won at once. In spite of all their leaders said of the impossibility of bringing an American army to France they must have been well informed of what the Americans were doing. They knew that there were already more than two million men in active training in the American army, and while at that time only a small proportion of them were available on the battle front, yet every day that proportion was growing greater and by the middle of the summer the little American army would have become a tremendous fighting force.
Their own armies on their western front had been enormously increased in size by the removal to that front of troops from Russia.
Hundreds of thousands of their best regiments were now withdrawn from the east and incorporated under the command of their great Generals, Hindenburg and Ludendorff, in the armies of the west. They must, therefore, take advantage of this increased force and win the war before the Americans could come.
The problem of the Allies was also simple. It was not necessary for them to plan a great offensive. All they had to do was to hold out until, through the American aid which was coming now in such numbers, their armies would be so increased that German resistance would be futile. Under such circumstances began the last great offensive of the German army.
At that time it seems probable that the armies of .Great Britain and France numbered about three million, five hundred thousand men, and that, of these, six hundred and seventy thousand were on the front lines when the German attack began leaving an army of reserve of about two million, eight hundred and fifty thousand men. A considerable number of these were probably in England on leave. The number of French soldiers must have been between four and five million, of whom about one million five hundred thousand were on the front line. Adding to these the American, Belgian, Portuguese, Russian and Polish troops the Allied forces could not have been short of eight million, five hundred thou-sand men.
The strength of the Germans on the Western front before the Russian Revolution was probably about four million, five hundred thousand men, and the withdrawal of Russia from the war had added to that number probably as many as one million, five hundred thousand men, making an army of six million men to oppose that of the Allies. The Allies, there-fore, must have considerably outnumbered the Germans.
In spite of this fact in nearly all the engagements in the early part of the great offensive the Allied forces were outnumbered in a ratio varying ` from three to one to five to three. This was possible, first, because in any offensive the attacking side naturally concentrates as many troops as it can gather at the point from which the offense is to begin, and second, since the Allies were not under one command it was with great difficulty that arrangements could be made by which the forces of one nation could reinforce the armies of another.
The first difficulty of course could not be obviated, but the solution of the second difficulty was the appointment of General Foch as Commander-in-Chief of all the Allied forces.
The appointment was made on March 28th and all the influence of the United States had been exerted in its favor. General Pershing at once offered to General Foch the unrestricted use of the American force in France and it was agreed that a large part of the American army should be brigaded with the Allied troops wherever there were weak spots.
Foch was already famous as the greatest strategist in Europe. He comes of a Basque family and was born in the town of Tarbes, in the Department of the Hautes-Pyrenees, which is on the border of Spain, on October 2, 1851. Foch served as a subaltern in the Franco-Prussian War and at twenty-six was made Captain in the artillery. Later he became Professor of Tactics in the Ecole de Guerre, where he remained for five years. He then returned to regimental work and won steady promotion until he became Brigadier-General. He was sent back to the War College as Director and wrote two books, "The Principles of War" and "Conduct of War," which have been translated into English, German and Italian and are considered standard works. He was now recognized as a man of unusual ability and was appointed to the command first, of the Thirteenth division, then of the Eighth corps at Bourges, and then to the command of the Twentieth corps at Nancy.
Unlike Marshal Joffre who was cool, careful, slow moving, Marshal Foch is full of daring and impetuosity. Everything is calculated scientifically but his strategy is full of dash. Many of his sayings have been passed from mouth to mouth among the Allies.
"Find out the weak point of your enemy and deliver your blow there," he said once at a staff banquet.
"But suppose, General," said an officer, "that the enemy has no weak point?"
"If the enemy has no weak point," replied the Commander, "make one."
It was he who telegraphed to Joffre during the first battle of the Marne : "The enemy is attacking my flank. My rear is threatened. I am therefore attacking in front."
Foch is a great student, an especial admirer of Napoleon, whose campaigns he had thoroughly studied. Even the campaigns of Caesar he had found valuable and had gathered from them practical suggestions for his own campaigns. He is the hero of the Marne, the man who on September 9th marched his army between Von Bülow and Von Hausen's Saxons, drove the Prussian Guards into the marshes of St. Gond and forced both Prussians and Saxons into their first great retreat. Later his armies fought on the Yser while the British were battling at Ypres. During the battle of the Somme he was on the English right pressing to Peronne.
For a time he became Chief of the French Staff, until he was called into the field again to his great command. Foch was one of those French officers who had felt that war was sure to come, and had constantly urged that France should be kept in a state of preparedness. The appointment of General Foch to the Supreme Command was largely the result of American urgency.
General March, the American Chief of Staff, in. one of his weekly announcements, stated : "One of the most striking things noticeable in the situation as it is shown on the western front is the supreme importance of having a single command. The acceptance of the principle of having a single command, which was advocated by the President of the United States and carried through under his constant pressure, is one of the most important single military things that has been done as far as the Allies are concerned. The unity of command which Germany has had from the start of the war has been a very important military asset, and we already see the supreme value of having that central command which now has been concentrated in General Foch."
General March, who had earlier been appointed Chief of Staff of the United States army, was sending a steady stream of American troops to Europe, a fact whose importance was well understood by the new Commander-in-Chief. On General March's promotion General Foch sent him the following message:
I hear with deep satisfaction of your promotion to the rank of General. I associate myself to the just pride which you must feel in evoking the names of your glorious predecessors, Grant and Sheridan. I convey to you my sincere congratulations and I am happy to see you assume permanently the huge task of Chief of Staff of the United States army which you are already performing in so brilliant a way.
General March replied:
Your message of congratulation upon my promotion to the grade of General Chief of Staff, United States army, was personally conveyed to me by General Vignal, French Military Attaché. I appreciate deeply your most kindly greetings and in expressing my most sincere thanks, avail myself of the opportunity to assure you of every assistance and constant support which may lie in my power to aid you in the furtherance and successful accomplishment of your great task.
General Foch took command at a very critical time. The Germans had prepared the most formidable drive in the history of the war. They had gathered immense masses of munitions and supplies. Their great armies had been refitted and they were in hopes of a victory which would end the war. Their great offensive had many phases. It resulted in the development of three great salients, the first in Picardy and in the direction of Amiens along the Somme, which was launched on March 21st; the second on the Lys, which was launched on April 9th; and the third which is called the Oise-Marne salient, launched on May 27th.
Between the attacks which developed these salients there were also some unsuccessful attacks of almost equal power. On March 28th there was a desperate struggle to capture Arras, preceded by a bombardment as great as any during the whole offensive, but this attack was defeated with enormous losses to the German troops. A fourth phase of the German offensive took place on June 9th, on a front of twenty miles between Noyon and Montdidier, which gained a few miles at an enormous cost.
On July 15th came the last of the great offensives. It was a smash on a sixty-mile line from Chiteau-Thierry up the Marne, around Rheims, and then east to a few miles west of the Argonne forest. This offensive at the start made a penetration of from three to five miles, but was held firmly and much of the gain lost, through the counter attacks of the Allies. It was at this point that the American troops first began to be seriously felt, and it was at this point that General Foch took up the story, and began the great series of Allied drives which were to crush the German power. But there had been many days of great anxiety before the turn of the tide.
The objects of the German drives were doubtless more or less dependent upon their success, The first drive in Picardy, in the direction of Amiens, had apparently as its object to drive a wedge between the French and British and the object was so nearly attained that only the heroic work of General Carey saved the Allies from disaster.
The Fifth British army, which had borne the brunt of the German attack, had found it-self almost crushed by the sheer weight of numbers. The whole line was broken up and it seemed as if the road was open to Amiens. French reinforcements could not come up in time; bridges could not be blown up because the engineers were all killed. Orders came to General Carey at two o'clock in the morning, March 26th, to hold the gap. He at once proceeded to gather an extemporized army.
Every available man was rounded up, among others a body of American engineers. Laborers, sappers, raw recruits as well as soldiers of every arm. There were plenty of machine guns, but few men knew how to handle them. With this scratch army in temporary trenches, he lay for six days, and as Lloyd George said, "They held the German army and closed that gap on the way to Amiens."
During this fight General Carey rode along the lines shouting encouraging words to his hard-pressed men. He did not know whether he would get supplies of ammunition and pro-visions or not, but he stuck to it. Later on the regular troops arrived. The American engineers, who had been fighting, immediately returned to their base, and resumed work laying out trenches. General Rawlinson, Commander of the British army at that point, sent the commanding officer of the Americans en-gaged, the following letter:
The army Commander wishes to record officially his appreciation of the excellent work your regiment has done in assisting the British army to resist the enemy's powerful offensive during the last ten days. I fully realize that it has been largely due to your assistance that the enemy has been checked, and I rely on you to assist us still further during the few days that are still to come before I shall be able to relieve you in the line. I consider your work in the line to be greatly enhanced by the fact that for six weeks previous to your taking your place in the front line your men had been working at such high pressure erecting heavy bridges on the Somme. My best congratulations and warm thanks to all.
The demoralization of General Gough's Fifth army, which had thus left an eight-mile gap on the left, and which had been saved at that point by General Carey, permitted also the opening of another gap between its right wing and the Sixth French army. Here General Fayolle did with organized troops what Carey had done with his volunteers further north. The reason for the success of both Carey and Fayolle appears to have been that the German armies had been so thoroughly battered that they were unable to take advantage of the situation. Their regiments had been mixed up, their officers had been separated from their men in the rush of the attack, and before they could recover the opportunity was lost.
The first days of April saw the end of the drive toward Amiens. The Germans claimed the capture of ninety thousand prisoners and one thousand three hundred guns. They had penetrated into the Allies' territory in some points a distance of thirty-five miles. Their new line extended southwest from Arras beyond Albert to the west of Moreuil, which is about nine miles south of Amiens, and then went on west of Pierrepont and Montdidier, curving out at Noyon to the region of the Oise.
The first part of April was a comparative calm, when suddenly there developed the second drive of the German offensive. This drive was not so extensive as the first one, and its object appeared to be to break through the British forces in Flanders and reach the Channel ports. It resulted in a salient embracing an area about three hundred and twenty square miles, and the Germans claimed the capture of twenty thousand prisoners and two hundred guns. It was at this point that General Haig issued his famous order in which he described the British armies as standing with their "backs to the wall." It read as follows:
Three weeks ago today the enemy began his terrific attacks against us on a fifty-mile front. Its objects are to separate us from the French, to take the Channel ports, and to destroy the British army. In spite of throwing already one hundred and six divisions into the battle and enduring the most reckless sacrifice of human life, he has yet made little progress toward his goals. We owe this to the determined fighting and self-sacrifice of our troops. Words fail me to express the admiration which I feel for the splendid resistance offered by all ranks of our army under the most trying circumstances. Many among us now are tired. To those I would say that victory will belong to the side which holds out the longest, The French army is moving rapidly and in great force to our support. There is no other course open to us but to fight it out. Every `position must be held to the last man. There must be no retiring. With our backs to the wall and believing in the justice of our cause each one of us must fight to the end. The safety of our homes, and the freedom of mankind depend alike upon the conduct of each one of us at this critical moment.
The British Commander's order made the situation clear to the British people and to the world. The Germans had given up for the moment their attempt to divide the British and French armies, and were now attempting to seize the Channel ports, and the British were fighting with true British pluck with their "backs to the wall."
One can imagine the anxiety in the villages of Flanders where they watched the German advance and heard the terrible bombardment which was destroying their beautiful little cities, and threatening to put them under the dominion of the brutal conquerors of Belgium. Town after town fell to the enemy until at last the German attack began to weaken.
Counter attacks on April 17th recaptured the villages of Wytschaete and Meteren. At other points German attacks were repulsed, and the attack on the Lys had reached its limits. It had not only failed to reach the coast but it had not even reached so far as to force the evacuation of Ypres or to endanger Arras. On the contrary the Germans had paid for their advance by such terrible losses that the ground that they had gained meant almost nothing. They then made, on April 30th, a vigorous endeavor to broaden the Amiens salient in the region of Hangard and Noyon. This attack also failed.
On May 27th Ludendorff made his next move. This was in the south, and was pre-ceded by the most elaborate preparations over a forty-mile front. At first it met with great success. German troops from a point north-west of Rheims to Montdidier were moving apparently with the purpose of breaking the French lines and clearing the way for a drive to Paris. Consternation reigned among Al-lied observers as the Germans carried, apparently with ease, first the formidable Chemin des Dames, which was believed invulnerable, and then the south bank of the Aisne, with its great fortifications at Soissons.
Criticism began to appear of General Foch, who was thought at first to have been taken by surprise. The Germans were using four hundred thousand of their best troops, and the greatest force of tanks, machine guns and poison-gas projectors which they had ever gathered. They captured over forty-five thousand prisoners and took four hundred guns. They penetrated thirty miles and gained six hundred and fifty square miles of territory, but they were held on the River Marne.
It is now apparent that General Foch knew exactly what he was about. He might easily by sending in reinforcements, have put up the same desperate resistance to the German offensive which they were now meeting in other sectors. But he preferred to retreat and lead the enemy on to a position which would make them vulnerable to the great counter attack he was preparing for them on their flank. The Germans reached the Marne, but they paid for it in the terrible losses which they incurred.
The German line now from Montdidier, the extreme point of the Amiens salient, to Château-Thierry, the point of the new Marne salient, was in the form of a bow, and on June 9th General Ludendorff attempted to straighten out the line. His new attack was made on a twenty-mile front between Montdidier and Noyon in the direction of Cornpiègne. This was another terrific drive and at first gained about seven miles. French counter attacks, however, not only held him in a vise but regained a distance of about one mile. This battle was probably the most disastrous one fought by the Germans during their whole offensive. Nearly four hundred thousand men were completely used up, without gaining the slightest strategic success.
Then followed a period without battles of major importance, during which General Foch by periodic assaults on the Lys, the Somme, on the flanks of Montdidier and Soissons, on the Château-Thierry sector and southwest of Rheims, captured many important positions and kept the enemy in constant anxiety.
During the great German offensives the Germans had lost at least five hundred thou-sand men, while the casualties of the Allies were barely one hundred and fifty thousand. The Germans also were beginning to lose their morale. They were finding that however great might be their efforts, however terrible might be their losses, they were still being constantly held. Their troops were now apparently made of inferior material, and included boys, old men and even convicts.
The system of making attacks by means of shock troops was producing the inevitable result. The shock regiments were composed of selected men, picked here and there, from the regular troops. Their selection had naturally weakened the regiments from which they were taken. After three months of great offensives these shock troops were now in great part destroyed, and the German lines were being held mainly by the inferior troops which had been left. Moreover, in other parts of the world, the allies of Germany were being beaten. In Italy and Albania and Macedonia there was danger.
The Germans prepared for one more effort. On June 18th they had made a costly attempt to carry Rheims. On July 15th they made their last drive. Ludendorff took almost a month for preparation. He gathered together seventy divisions and great masses of munitions, and then drove in from Château-Thierry on a sixty-mile line up on the Marne, and then east to the Argonne forests. His line made a sort of semicircle around Rheims and then pushed south to the east and west of that fortress.
Once again he had temporary success. West of Rheims he penetrated a distance of five miles, and on the first day, had crossed the Marne at Dormans, but was held sharply by Americans east of Château-Thierry. On the second day he made further gains, but with appalling losses. On the 17th he was still struggling on with minor successes but on July 18th the French and Americans launched the great counter-offensive from Château-Thierry along a twenty-five mile front, between the Marne and the Aisne. The Germans everywhere began their retreat and the war tide had turned.
The German attack east of Rheims had been a failure from the start. The Allied forces re-tired about two miles and then held firm. The country there is flat and sandy and gave little shelter to the attacking forces which lost terribly. In this sector, too, there were many American troops, who behaved with distinguished bravery.
By this time nearly seven hundred thousand men of the American army were on the battle line. They had been fighting here and there among the French and English but on June 22d General March announced that five divisions of these troops had been transferred to the direct command of General Pershing as a nucleus for an American army.
In glancing back at the great German drives which have now been described, one is impressed by the terrific character of the fighting. This struggle undoubtedly was the greatest exertion of military power in the history of the world. Never before had such masses of munitions been used; never before had scientific knowledge been so drawn on in the service of war. Thousands of airplanes were patrolling the air, sometimes scouting, sometimes dropping bombs on hostile troops or on hostile stores, sometimes flying low, firing their machine guns into the faces of marching troops. Thousands upon thousands of great guns were sending enormous projectiles, which made great pits wherever they fell. Swarms of machine guns were pouring their bullets like water from a hose upon the charging soldiers.
One of the most noticeable artillery developments was the long-range gun which off and on during this period was bombarding Paris. This bombardment began on March 23d, when the nearest German line was more than sixty-two miles away. For a time the story was regarded as pure fiction, but it was soon established that the great nine-inch shells which were dropping into the city every twenty minutes came from the forests of St. Gobain, seven miles back of the French trenches near Laon, and about seventy-five miles from Paris. This was another of those futile bits of frightfulness in which the Germans reveled. Military advantage gained by such a gun was almost nothing, and the expense of every shot was out of all proportion to the damage inflicted. It only roused intense indignation and stirred the Allies to greater determination. The first day's casualties in Paris were ten killed and fifteen wounded. By the next day one would not have been able to tell from the Paris streets that such a bombardment was going on at all. The subway and surface cars were running, the streets were thronged and traffic was going on as usual. About two dozen shells were thrown into Paris every day, mainly in the Montmartre district, in a radius of about a mile. This seemed to show that the gun was immovable.
On March 29th, however, a shell struck the church of St. Gervais during the Good Fri-day service, killing seventy-five persons, and wounding ninety. Fifty-four of those killed were women. The church had been struck at the moment of the Elevation of the Host. This outrage aroused special indignation, and Pope Benedict sent a protest to Berlin.
An examination of exploded shells indicated that the new German gun was less than nine inches in caliber, and that the projectiles, which weighed about two hundred pounds, contained two charges, in two chambers connected by a fuse which often exploded more than a minute apart. It took three minutes for each shell to travel to Paris and it was estimated that such a shell rose to a height of twenty miles from the earth. Three of these guns were used. One of these guns exploded on March 29th, killing a German lieutenant and nine men. The Kaiser was present when the gun was first used. It was said by American scientists that seismographs in the United States felt the shock of each discharge. On April 9th French aviators discovered the location of the new guns, and French artillery began to drop enormous shells weighing half a ton each near the German monsters. A few days later a French shell fell on the barrel of one of these guns and put it out of commission. Great craters were made around the other, interfering with its use, and toward the end of the period it was only occasionally that the remaining gun was fired, and no great damage resulted.
Another feature of the great German drives was the tremendous destruction that accompanied them. Not only were churches, public buildings, and private houses throughout al-most the whole district turned into ruin, but the very ground itself was plowed up into craters and shell holes, and the trees smashed into mere splinters. During the whole campaign poison gas of various kinds was used in immense quantities, and it was constantly necessary for the troops to wear gas masks. Sometimes after a town had been evacuated by the enemy it was so filled with gas that it was impossible for victorious troops to enter. One of the fiercest bombardments was that directed against the Portuguese during the fighting along the Lys. The enemy made a special attempt to crush the Portuguese contingent which behaved with the utmost gallantry, in some cases fighting until their last man had been killed.
It was the season of the year when the orchards were covered with blossoms and the fields with flowers, but the horrors of war destroyed the beauty of the Spring. In these battles men fought until they were completely exhausted and one could see troops staggering as they walked and leaning on each other from pure exhaustion.
These were days when wonders were per-formed by the Medical Departments of the Al-lied armies, and the work of the Red Cross was almost as important as the work of the soldiers. Relief for the wounded had to be undertaken and carried on on a mammoth scale. Many of the doctors, nurses, orderlies and ambulance men lost their lives while making efforts to rescue the wounded.
These were days when the German leaders were filled with the pride of victory. They were talking now about a hard German peace.
On June 17th the German Kaiser celebrated the thirtieth anniversary of his accession to the throne. He talked no more of a war of self-defense, but declared the war to be the struggle of two world views wrestling with each other. "Either German principles of right, freedom, honor and morality must be upheld, or Anglo-Saxon principles with their idolatry of Mammon must be victorious." He sent congratulations to Field Marshal Von Hindenburg, to General Ludendorff and to the Crown Prince. Von Hindenburg assured the Kaiser of the unswerving loyalty until death of Germany's sons at the front, and concluded "May our old motto `Forward with God for King and Fatherland, for Kaiser and Empire' result in many years of peace being granted to your Majesty after our victorious return home."
But the terrific attacks which the German Commanders directed upon the Americans at Château-Thierry and at other points upon the southern lines show well that they knew that there was another danger rising to confront them; that during their great drives a million and a half American soldiers had been learning the art of war, and that every moment of delay meant a new danger. By the end of this period the Americans had arrived.