[This article first appeared in Stand To! 40 pp 5-11]
When the Armistice came on 11 November, seventy-five years ago, it took a great many people (including some who should have known better) entirely by surprise and when it proved also to be the end of the War in Europe they were surprised once more. Having failed to perceive it coming, disbelieving completely in the possibility of peace being arrived at on the Western Front, a number of important Allied politicians were quite unprepared for it and entered upon it in a state of mental confusion whose consequences are with us yet. But the fact remains, as Lloyd George stated in his WAR MEMOIRS (though he was far less clear about it at the time), that
"the conclusion is inescapable that Germany and her allies were in fact defeated in the field , whatever civil collapse was superimposed in November to make her completely helpless .. .”
The field on which Germany was defeated was, of course, the Western Front—which to my mind makes it all the more satisfactory that it should have given its name to our Association. And it is Germany's defeat that I propose to talk about today.
It has to be said that, when one puts away hindsight, as one must always try to do, there does appear to be some justification for at least the initial surprise at the dramatic change of fortune on the Western Front in 1918. The great German offensives against the British sector in March and April, followed by their pulverising blow against the French in May, which saw the longest one-day advance on the Western Front of the whole War— 10 miles, crossing three rivers, on 27 May— had been understandably unnerving experiences. In June the Germans attacked the French again—the Battle of the Matz—and though this time they were far less successful than in their earlier blows the situation was still a very anxious one.
When July came, it was quite clear to the Allied Staffs and Governments that the Germans were by no means finished. They were once more on the River Marne, where they had given everyone such a fright in September 1914; they had 207 divisions available on the Western Front (though only 39 of them were now categorized as "fresh"); on the Marne front they were assembling what has been called "the densest concentration of artillery employed in the war" and also the largest number of tanks that they ever used on a single occasion—no fewer than 20.
Only in one respect were Allied prospects significantly better than in the crisis of 1914: the Americans were at last not merely in the war, but actually taking a part in it. Unfortunately, most of them were very raw—the penalty of having to raise an army quickly with the war already in progress, and how costly that could be the British well knew. However, the Americans were willing and coming over now in ever increasing numbers. The sight of long, regular lines of them lying dead where the machine guns had caught them made some British observers think back to Kitchener's Army on the Somme in 1916, which was not encouraging. But this was 1918; the armies were no longer stuck in trench warfare; this was a war of movement. There would always be accidents, there would be unfortunate episodes and heavy losses for all. But the movement was going to continue, and it was an accelerating movement towards the end of the war. But that, of course, is hindsight!
The German attack came on 15 July, and a difference from past experiences was immediately perceptible. Forewarned, the French brought down their counter-battery bombardment half-an-hour before the German barrage opened, which was bad news for the German infantry assembled to attack. When they advanced they encountered another novelty—defence in depth, which manifested itself according to one of their officers, Captain Rudolf Binding, as a seemingly empty landscape,
"only in little folds of the ground, sparsely distributed, lay machine gun posts, like lice in the seams and folds of a garment, to give the attacking force a warm reception."
The attack faltered, and the next day it did no better; Captain Binding, wrote in his diary on 16 July:
"I have lived through the most disheartening day of the whole War, though it was by no means the most dangerous. This wilderness of chalk is not very big, but it seems endless when one gets held up in it, and we are held up .. ."
They were indeed. Hindsight tells us that this had been Germany's last attack—the last time the grey waves would roll forward with an invincible look bringing alarm to one and all. But no-one could know that on 16 July.
The German High Command still dreamt of another offensive. There was a pause in the battle on 17 July, and General Ludendorff immediately began to move his "battering train"—his heavy and super heavy artillery and the heavy mortars (the dreaded m in e n w e r fe r ) and the essential aircraft—back to Flanders for another onslaught on the British front, to finish the job that had been too much for his Army in April. This time, he felt quite sure, the French would be in no condition to come to the help of their hard-pressed Allies. This time, if the British found themselves with their "backs to the wall" again, no-one would help them to hold the wall up; the big rail-junction at Hazebrouck would fall; the Germans would get Dunkirk and probably Calais; the BEF might well be rounded up. Such thoughts already haunted the worried days and sleepless nights of the British War Cabinet and some of the French leaders too.
Two Allied leaders thought otherwise. At the beginning of May, before the German attacks on the French began, General Foch, the Allied commander-in-chief, asked whether he was thinking of withdrawing in front of a new offensive to cover the Channel Ports, or to take up a new line behind the River Somme, answered flatly, "N either the one nor the other". He hammered it in:
"Jamais, jamais, jamais"—"Never, never, never".
A fortnight later—ten days before the German attack on the Chemin des Dames ridge— Foch outlined to Sir Douglas Haig, the British C-in-C, a proposal for an Allied advance intended to free the Amiens-Paris railway, which was still under grave threat. Haig accepted this idea with alacrity, warned Foch to say nothing about it, and ordered General Rawlinson, once more commanding the Fourth Army in the Somme area, to prepare plans in deep secrecy with General Debeney, his French right-hand neighbour.
That was on 17 May. Ten days after that came the German thunderclap on the Chemin des Dames ridge and deep consternation to British and French leaders alike. On 1 June General Sir Henry Wilson, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, was working early on his diary:
"Writing now, before breakfast, I find it difficult to realize that there is a possibility, perhaps a probability, of the French Army being beaten. What would this mean? The destruction of our army in France? In Italy? In Salonika? What of Palestine and Mesopotamia, India, Siberia and the sea? What of Archangel and America?"
What indeed? General Wilson, appointed to support alternatives to the Western strategy of the General Staff, was now eyeball to eyeball with the realities of defeat on the Western Front. He was never again quite such a determined opponent of seeking victory there.
There were quite a number of leading soldiers—prominent among them being the French Commander-in-Chief, General Petain, who doubted the possibility of outright victory on the Western Front until it actually happened. Among the politicians, the most optimistic were the ones who
spoke of victory in 1919 (but not often specifying where it was to be sought), others (Churchill among them) talked of 1920. Most were derisive about any possibility of it in 1918.
The Prime Minister, Mr. Lloyd George took up a curious position. He set his face firmly against any idea of a compromise peace. In 1917 he had firmly identified himself with the objective of a "knockout blow" against the Central Alliance, and he maintained that position. On the other hand, he was equally firmly convinced that no decisive victory could ever be won in the West— the successive German failures reinforced this belief.
Lloyd George viewed with jealous eyes the distribution of the large American reinforcements that were flowing into France. The overwhelming majority of them were going to the French sector, and it was in that area that the separate American Armies so much desired by the President, Congress and the American people were to be formed. This did not appeal to Lloyd George at all; as he saw it, Britain was supplying most of the shipping that brought the Americans over, and Britain should profit most from this performance. (The final figures showed that during this campaign in 1918 about 57% of the American troops were carried by British shipping—no mean effort, in the face of U-boats) but America herself shipped 95% of their stores, which were always commodious. On the eve of the last German attack, 14 July, Lloyd George provoked a serious Anglo-French crisis over this matter, threatening to overrule Foch's orders and to cut off the British shipping for the Americans— a remarkable display of the best time-honoured method of spitting one's own face.
But it is not so much Lloyd George's impetuous performance in inter-Allied counsels that should interest us, dangerous though it was. Far more significant was his underlying motive. Professor David Woodward, in his absorbing book LLOYD GEORGE AND THE GENERALS, tells us
that in a secret Cabinet meeting on July 1 the Prime Minister was noting down:
"If the Americans concentrate on the Western Front [in 1919], it might be possible for our Army to follow its traditional role of operating on the outskirts of the war area".
Even Professor Woodward, whose whole inclination is to take Lloyd George's side in his unceasing battle with the despised "brass-hats", has to admit that at this juncture, with the Alliance on what Lord Hankey called "the verge of a very serious conflict of British and French policy", Lloyd George
"had much to answer for himself. What the British [Government] dared not tell the French in open council.. . was that they planned to transfer British divisions to other theatres as soon as the Allied line in the West was secure."
It was an astonishing proposition, and hindsight only makes it more so than ever
Ye this intention to remove a large portion of the BEF from France just as the tide of battle turned became the cornerstone of Lloyd George's military policy right up to the moment when the Germans committed the gaffe of hoisting a white flag to seek an armistice on the Western Front, thus spoiling the whole scheme. Small wonder if peace found the Government sadly unprepared.
Fortunately, two brass-hats without benefit of hindsight, relying only on their educated military instincts, now perceived a different opportunity on 17 July. While Ludendorff was on his way to Mons to confer with the Bavarian Crown Prince about a new attack in Flanders, Foch made up his mind: the French counter-attack on the Marne would be launched the next day. And also on 17 July Haig wrote to Foch, reminding him of the plan they had hatched together two months earlier; Haig now told him:
"The operation which to my mind is of the greatest importance, and which I suggest to you should be carried out as early as possible, is to advance the allied front east and southeast of Amiens so as to disengage that town and the railway line."
Foch replied to this on 20 July; the general scene had changed fundamentally by then. In his MEMOIRS he wrote later that Haig's proposal was "perfectly in harmony with my previous instructions and with my way of looking at the matter” and in his reply to Haig he said:
"The combined attack of the British Fourth and French First Armies... should, it seems to me, be carried out at once, owing to the prospect it offers of most profitable results. I suggest that the generals commanding the British Fourth Army and the French First Army be at once asked to arrange between them a plan. .."
Foch was now to some extent behind the times; Rawlinson had already submitted his proposals for the attack to GHQ—also on 17 July. It had been a big day, one way and another: a day of big decisions and big plans.
18 July was a day of big events. The French counter-attack took the Germans completely by surprise; General Mangin Tenth Army made full use of the new artillery method of unregistered shooting— there was no preliminary bombardment, the French guns and infantry made their impact together, supported by over 200 tanks and 581 aircraft. By mid-day they had advanced over four miles and this first day's fighting brought them 10,000 prisoners and some hundreds of captured guns. It was a French battle and a French victory—but they did not fight alone: there were four British divisions present, seven American, and two Italian (these last very weak). But it was the French who bore the brunt. The French Army had been having a pretty bad time in the last two months; it went into this battle with the look of men who intended to wipe something off a slate.
The fighting continued until 5 August, by which time the French and their immediate supporters had taken over 29,000 German officers and men prisoner, 793 guns and 3,723 machine guns. The advance, at its deepest point, was about 25 miles; the whole of the great German salient between Reims and Soissons was wiped out and the front thereby shortened by 28 miles. It was a fine victory, officially called the Second Battle of the Marne, but its significance did not lie in place-names or distances or captures; what mattered, as Foch said, was that it
"once more placed in our hands the initiative of operations and the power to direct the progress of events in this long, vast war."
From the very first encounters in August 1914, the Germans had held the initiative, which meant, as I have said before, that "the French had to dance to the German tune and the British danced at their coattails— an activity neither dignified nor rewarding." Now, after almost four years, it would be the Allies who called the tune. That, at any rate, was something to cheer about.
I must add that never, at any time in the war, was it easy to defeat the German Army. The French paid a price of over 95,000 officers and men for this victory; the British losses were 16,500, the Italians over 9,000 (out of 24,000). I am afraid I can't tell you what the American figures were; obviously they varied from division to division and according to what we may call the "state of play". We can safely say that they were not negligible. And neither were the German, though once again we do not have an exact figure for the battle; French calculations put the German total at 168,000. Ludendorff himself says:
"18 July and the defensive battles arising out of it had in particular been very expensive .. . The losses through the battle had been so heavy that we were compelled to break up about 10 divisions and use their infantry as reserves for others."
This was the beginning of what would soon be a familiar process; the great German Army was cracking up. It had lost almost exactly a million men on the Western Front since 21 March, and even Ludendorff now had to admit— on 20 July — that the offensive in Flanders "will probably never come to execution". He was right; Foch had the initiative and he liked the feel of it. Haig was ready, and the wonderful "Hundred Days" Campaign as about to begin.
The "Hundred Days” Campaign of 1918— actually it lasted 96 days, but no matter; the famous precedent, in 1815, which saw off Napoleon Bonaparte, lasted 110 days, but has been the "Hundred Days" ever since—the 1918 version seems to me to stand without challenge as the "finest hour” of the British Army in its whole distinguished history. The Duke of Marlborough's four famous victories, which "every schoolboy" used to be able to rattle off—Blenheim, Ramillies, Oudenarde and Malplaquet—spanned six years. The Duke of Wellington's cluster, once equally well know n— V im eiro, Busaco, Talavera, Salamanca, Vittoria, Toulouse and Waterloo (to name but a few)— spanned eight years. Sir Douglas Haig's nine victories in 1918, leading inexorably to the Armistice, filled the 96 days, a quarter of one year. Marshal Foch (he became a Marshal of France just two days before the campaign started, on 6 August) put on record his view that
"Never at any time in history has the British Army achieved greater results in attack than in this unbroken offensive".
One may say, perhaps, that the procession of victories deserved a better peace to follow them; but that does not in any way detract from what was done on the Western Front during that astonishing fourteen weeks.
8 August was the starting date: the Battle of Amiens. It set the tone of all that followed. I regard it as, in many respects, a model battle. Those of you who took part in the WFA's "Victory Tour" in 1988, or who have made their own studies of the ground over which it was fought, will know what I mean when I say that the field of battle was not prepossessing. The central position is known as the Santerre plateau; it is a wide sweep of featureless tableland stretching practically from Villers Bretonneux to Peronne. It has always seemed to me that concealment, in country like this, must be practically impossible; but just as both sides managed to hide their intentions in open desert on numerous occasions during World War II, General Rawlinson found ways, in July and early August 1918, to conceal the presence of three large and distressing visible formations for his attack.
The Canadian Army Corps, about 100,000 strong, was brought down from Flanders and assembled in total secrecy on the right flank of the Fourth Army. The Cavalry Corps, of three divisions, was also brought in and hidden—one has to struggle to imagine the long horse-lines and the great heaps of fodder that had to be slipped into the scenery; the slightest glimpse of them would have given the game away. And in addition Rawlinson was also about to use the largest number of tanks on one battlefield during the whole war— 534, including 342 of the heavy Mark Vs, and 72 Medium "A"s, somewhat misleadingly called "Whippets". With a maximum speed (on roads) of 8.3 mph, these whippets were hardly up to White City standards. But this gathering of tanks would also have given the game away if the Germans had spotted it. Nor did they perceive and draw conclusions from the Fourth Army's 1,386 field guns and 684 heavies on the 11-mile front, quietly making their sound-ranging and flash-spotting observations in readiness for the Day. The Royal Air Force lent its valued assistance with these, and with 800 aircraft present (376 of them fighters) the RAF was also playing a key role in preventing German air reconnaissance.
Surprise was of the very essence of the Battle of Amiens: secrecy, deception, camouflage had all been brought to a high pitch by now. Electronic deception (a screen of dummy radio messages in Flanders to Canadian units which were no longer there) was a new device that was tried out; in the back areas any units moving towards the front in daylight had to turn about and march towards the rear at the first sign of a German aircraft having slipped through the RAF's cover. Signposts all through the area warned all comers to "KEEP YOUR MOUTH SHUT". And it worked.
The Germans were caught completely unawares. On 4 August Ludendorff issued an Order of the Day, saying:
"I am under the impression that, in many quarters, the possibility of an enemy offensive is viewed with a certain degree of apprehension. There is nothing to justify this apprehension provided our troops are vigilant and do their duty . . . we should wish for nothing better than to see the enemy launch an offensive ..."
At 4.20 a.m. on 5 August he was disabused. The whole assembly of the Fourth Army's artillery opened fire with thunderous precision, and at the same moment the tanks and infantry began their advance. The Germans had no warning at all of what was about to happen; the Royal Artillery's preparations were entirely successful; indeed, such was the accuracy of the British barrage that, in the words of General Birch, the BEF's top artilleryman,
"Hostile artillery fire was insignificant and several enemy batteries were captured with the muzzle covers still on the guns, showing that the detachments had failed to reach their positions."
Around many of the German battery positions the advancing infantry found pathetic heaps of dead horses, which also showed how effective the predicted shooting of the guns had been. And behind this shattering barrage came the tanks, the Canadians and Australians— the whole British weapons system at a high peak of efficiency, turning this into what Ludendorff called
"the black day of the German Army in the history of the war."
It had already declared itself to be that by mid-day. As with most of the big successful attacks (by both sides) in 1918, the day had begun with dense mist, which was an undoubted advantage to the attackers, as it had been on 21 March and 27 May, and other occasions, and would be again. When it cleared in the late morning, and the sun came through, a remarkable scene was displayed:
"the whole Santerre plateau seen from the air was dotted with parties of infantry, field artillery, and tanks moving forward. Staff officers were galloping about, many riding horses in battle for the first time . .. Indeed, at this stage there was more noise of movement than firing, as the heavy batteries were no longer in action; for the infantry had gone so far that it was no longer possible for them to shoot. . . No enemy guns seemed to be firing and no co-ordinated defence was apparent.”
The first day's work— which means the most significant fighting—was overby 1.30 in the afternoon. For the Australian Army Corps, in the middle of the Fourth Army's front, with all five of its divisions in action together for the first time, it had been a triumph. The Australians had taken all their objectives, together with just under 8,000 prisoners, 173 guns and what the British Official History calls "hundreds of smaller trophies". These consisted largely of machine guns and trench mortars, which the Australians tried to turn against their previous owners, but a revealing footnote in the Australian Official Account tells us,
"After the first bombardment there was little chance of using any of the trench mortars."
It was no longer that kind of war.
The Canadians (4 divisions of them) had also done extremely well; they had advanced nearly 8 miles and taken over 5,000 prisoners and 161 guns and a due proportion of what a German account calls the "huge number of machine guns" that were taken that day. The nine Dominion divisions were undoubtedly the spearhead of the Fourth Army; each of them still contained 12 infantry battalions, as compared with 9 in the British divisions, and the Canadians were quite fresh and well up to strength.
The British III Corps on the left was not able to match these successes, for reasons that I have discussed in my book TO WIN A WAR, and which may be summed up, as I said there, by saying that all the divisions in the Corps "had had a hard year", beginning on 21 March. And on the right, the French First Army, which Marshal Foch had placed under Haig for this battle, had also performed disappointingly despite some rousing exhortations. The French called this battle "Montdidier" and they somewhat confusingly measure their time spans differently. Foch brought in another Army, the Third, on 10 August, and they reckon their captures and losses (for both Armies) as taking place between August 6 and 15— which makes comparisons difficult. During that time, their advances nearly all followed those of the Canadians on their left, and were most marked where the contact was immediate. In the period stated they claimed 11,373 prisoners and 259 guns. Their Army Commander was General Debeney, and Haig found him in a state of great agitation on the afternoon of 8 August, on account of the lack of elan in some of his units. As I said in my book, Debeney was no Mangin.
But there was no doubt about the meaning of the day. The German Official Monograph, frankly entitled "The Catastrophe of the 8 August 1918", is quite explicit; it says
"As the sun set on 8 August on the battlefield the greatest defeat which the German Army had suffered since the beginning of the war was an accomplished fact."
The battle continued, though at nothing like the original intensity, until 12 August, but the Germans never really recovered from what had happened on the first day. On the 10th Winston Churchill, Minister of Munitions, was at the front—he seemed to gravitate in that direction fairly frequently— and he had no difficulty in recognizing what he saw, despite the fact the he had been for years a firm opponent of British offensives on the Western Front. Churchill wrote to Lloyd George:
"It seems to me that this is the greatest British victory that has been won in the whole war, and the worst defeat that the German Army has yet sustained. How thankful you must be after all the anxieties through which we have passed."
The precise extent of Lloyd George's thankfulness is difficult to judge. At the conference of Dominion Prime Ministers which was taking place in London at this time, he was strongly arguing once more for making Britain's main effort in Italy in order to knock out Austria, and receiving considerable support for this strategy from his fellow Prime Ministers and War Cabinet colleagues. The Dominion PMs were in a despondent frame of mind, despite the victory on the Marne; when they heard that the British forces were about to be heavily engaged there was considerable trepidation, but as the first communiques came in from Amiens they cheered up and on 10 August Lloyd George himself, speaking in Newport, referred to the victory, attributing it to "the brilliant qualities of our troops" (with whom he included the French) and he added,
"It is due to the very courageous leadership of Sir Douglas Haig and General Rawlinson and of the French generals. I must say I think a large share of the triumph is to be attributed to the unity of command ..."
Lloyd George took a proprietary pride in the institution of an Allied generalissimo, forgetting his earlier fierce struggle to put the Allied command in the hands of an international committee. Ironically, what he called "the unity of command" was about to be put to a severe test. 10 August, in fact, was another of the War's "moments of truth". Foch issued a Directive on that day, which showed how he saw the future strategy of the Allies developing. Always reluctant to break off a battle unless positively compelled to, especially if it looked as though it was going well; Foch was now very unwilling to countenance an relaxation of pressure by Rawlinson's and Debeney's Armies. He instructed them, through Haig, to press on. Haig was dubious about this; plentiful evidence was now coming in—reinforced when he went up to the Canadian sector later in the day— indicating that German resistance was stiffening; there were a lot of machine guns about, belts of intact wire, and all the impediments of the old 1916 battlefield which the Fourth Army was entering. Haig's preference was to extend the battle on his left, to outflank the German defences by bringing in General Byng's Third Army, and later General Horne's First Army on Byng's left. Foch had no objection to more British Armies joining in, but he still wanted the Fourth Army to go on attacking. Haig did not want to disobey the Allied commander-in-chief, but he was liking this idea less and less. During the next few days a serious disagreement between them built up.
On 11 August there was a highly significant meeting at the German Supreme Headquarters. The Kaiser and the Crown Prince (who commanded an Army Group) were both present, and it was at this meeting that the Kaiser uttered the fateful words:
"I see that we must strike a balance. We have nearly reached the limit of our powers of resistance. The war must be ended.”
Two other important people stated their future plans on this day. Sir Henry Wilson, on a lightning tour of the battle area, learned that Marshal Foch was thinking in terms of freeing all the main Allied lateral railways in 1918, and seizing the German lateral railways in 1919. Haig held a different view; according to Wilson,
"Haig at dinner said we ought to hit the Boche now as hard as we could, then try and get peace this autumn."
"Get peace"—a significant choice of words. This would be Haig's prime and unfaltering object from now on—to get peace.
Two days later, 13 August, he received from Lloyd George the congratulations of the Imperial War Cabinet on what he had already achieved. And on this day Lloyd George also spoke of the future; Lord Hankey recorded in his diary,
"Lunched with P.M., who does not take a very sanguine view of our military prospects, in spite of recent success. Nor do I—very."
13 August was also the day on which Haig issued his formal orders to General Byng to join in the offensive, naming 20 August as his starting date.
Meanwhile the dispute with Foch continued. Rawlinson, in particular, no doubt with grim memories of 1916 in mind, was reluctant to make another attempt to rush the German lines. Haig agreed that the Fourth Army must bring up all its heavy artillery and revert to "step-by-step advances"; for a short time there was what the Army's history calls "an enforced and very unwelcome reversion to trench warfare", with a resumption of the big advance planned for 15 August.
It was during this period, though hard to place exactly, that according to the Official History Rawlinson "became almost insubordinate" and asked Haig "Are you commanding the British Army or is Marechal Foch?" and this is understood to have been what made Haig change his mind. A recent study (1992), COMMAND ON THE WESTERN FRONT by Robin Prior and Trevor Wilson, throws doubt on this story. "The documents,” they say, "alas, do not bear out this gripping version of events." Sadly, I have to agree with them—sadly, because I have quoted the story often enough, and no-one likes to be robbed of a good yam. But that, I am afraid, is what it looks like; another piece of Western Front mythology— not the only one to gain credence from the Official Historian.
The climax came on 14 August; Rawlinson had visited General Currie, the Canadian commander, and found that he regarded the attacks on the 15th as "rather a desperate enterprise and anticipates heavy casualties." Currie showed Rawlinson a batch of photographs of the German defences facing the Canadians, and the
Army Commander saw what he meant. At 10 o'clock on the morning of the 14th he took the photographs to show Haig, and told him of Currie's doubts. He was now preaching to the converted; Haig postponed the big attack of the Fourth and French First Armies (much to the relief of General Debeney), and reported to Foch—incidentally his report was taken to Foch's headquarters by air, a sufficiently rare occurrences to be mentioned in the Official History. Foch was not pleased.
It was time to settle this argument. At 3 p.m. on 15 August Haig arrived at Foch’s headquarters. He repeated his reasons for not pushing the Fourth Army (though it was to make the enemy expect attack), and told the Generalissimo that he was transferring reserves to Byng and preparing an attack further north by the First Army. They discussed these interesting matters together in some detail. And then, says Haig,
"I spoke to Foch quite straightly and let him understand that I was responsible to my Government and fellow citizens for the handling of the British forces. Foch's attitude at once changed and he said ... he now thought I was quite correct in my decision not to attack the enemy in his prepared position. But notwithstanding what he now said, Foch and all his Staff had been most insistent for the last five days that I should press on... regardless of German opposition and British losses.”
Foch's account of this meeting is curiously brief, but it is very much to the point; Foch says
"I definitely came around to the opinion of Field-Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, and I modified my orders of 12 August for the Somme operations."
Professor Woodward, whom I quoted earlier, remarks
"Haig's successful stand against Foch made it abundantly clear thereafter that the commander-in-chief of the British army was not a compliant instrument of the Generalissimo. When the offensive resumed on 21 August, it was Haig's strategy that prevailed over Foch's".
Personally, I am not sure that I would wish to see one strategy "prevailing" over the other. The really good thing about this meeting on 15 August is that, starting from a serious and potentially very dangerous difference of opinion, the two marshals had reached genuine agreement, and parted on good terms. As I said in TO WIN A WAR, after this meeting "Foch and Haig were running well together"—and they continued to do so almost to the very end.
It was, in truth Foch's strategy rather than Haig's that rang up the curtain on the next phase of the Final Offensive— the Battle of Noyon, the attack by Mangin's Tenth Army extending the offensive front a further 12 miles southward. The date was 20 August, and Ludendorff called this, "another black day. Again we had suffered heavy and irreplaceable losses.” It was the third and last time in the War that the Germans used that phrase to describe a battle Byng’s attack the Battle of Albert should also have gone in on the 20th, but was delayed until the next day, waiting for the arrival of tanks and other reinforcements. Once more the battle opened in thick fog, giving way later in the day to intense heat. This proved to be a great trial for the tank crews—Byng had 156 tanks for this day's work—and Clough Williams-Ellis's history of the Tank Corps tells us
"In one or two instances the whole crew of a Mark V seem to have become unconscious through the appalling heat, the fumes from their own engines, and the gas used by the enemy, the unconsciousness being followed by temporarily complete loss of memory and extreme prostration.”
As regards the light tanks (the Whippets), William s-Ellis says that several were temporarily put out of action as fighting weapons by the heat alone. He continues:
"On a hot summer's day one hour's running with door closed renders a Whippet weaponless except for revolver fire. The heat generated is so intense that it not only causes ammunition to swell so that it jams the gun, but actually in several cases caused rounds to explode inside the Tank. Guns became too hot to hold, and in one case the temperature of the steering wheel became unbearable."
21 August is described by the Official History as being "on the whole" successful. About half Byng's infantry now consisted of very young soldiers, 18'A or 19-year-old conscripts, or wounded men returning to the front on recovery, and Medical Category "B" reinforcements. Such severe heat was no joke for any of these. Much against Haig's wishes, Byng relaxed his pressure on 22 August in order to complete preparations for a fresh advance on 23 August.
Meanwhile Churchill was back at GHQ, to discuss the Army's Munitions requirements with Haig. Haig appreciated his obviously sincere wish to be as helpful as possible, but noted,
"His schemes are all timed for completion in next June! 1 told him we ought to get a decision this autumn."
With this thought always uppermost in his mind he issued an Order to all five Army Commanders and his Cavalry Corps commander on 22 August, drawing their attention to the great change that had come over the War. He told them,
"To turn the present situation to account, the most resolute offensive is everywhere desirable. Risks which a month ago would have been criminal to incur ought now to be incurred as a duty."
Byng appears to have taken inspiration from this message, and his troops would seem to have been refreshed by the previous day's pause, because according to the Official History,
"The 23 August was . . . disastrous for the Germans, as their own regimental accounts admit."
The Third Army took over 5,000 prisoners that day, and in the Fourth Army area the 1st Australian Division alone took over 2,500, with 23 guns and 167 machine guns. Haig had already remarked, with a certain degree of wonderment, that
"It seems the rule now to capture more prisoners than we have casualties."
On 26 August Haig extended his front of attack once more. The First Army opened the Battle of the Scarpe with a fine success, and Haig commented,
"The capture of Monchy-le-Preux at the cost of 1,500 casualties was quite extraordinary. The enemy knew the value of this position .. . and so devoted much labour to strengthening it since he retook it from us.”
These were gloomy days for the Germans; six Allied Armies—three French and three British—were now attacking them, and there were more to come.
In the British Official Histories, the Third Army's Battle of Albert ends on 23 August, and there is some confusion about the name of the fighting that was going on on that front at the end of the month. The New Zealand Division entered Bapaume on 29 August, but what is called the "Battle of Bapaume" did not officially begin until 30 August—such are the wonders of official history—and the Battle of the Scarpe ended on that day. These battles were short, sharp affairs, like those of earlier wars, not the long-drawn-out agonies of 1915-1917. The very last day of the month saw one of the shortest and sharpest—and it has no name. I am referring to the storming of Mont St. Quentin, one of the "bastions” of the Western Front, by the 2nd Australian Division. Some of you must have seen the splendid statue of the Digger at the top of the Mount outside Peronne—it replaces an earlier one that the Germans didn’t like at all when they were there again in the last war; that one showed an Australian soldier bayoneting the German eagle. One can see their point. Some four or five hundred Australian infantry, well backed by plentiful artillery, took this very strong position at a rush on 31 August, and captured more prisoners than they numbered themselves. It was a magnificent end to a wonderful month of war.
As I said earlier the French have different names and dates from ours. Foch dates what he calls the Battle of Bapaume from 21 August to 1 September, during which time, he says, the British Third Army and the left wing of the Fourth had captured 34,000 prisoners and 270 guns. Foch dates the Battle of the Scarpe from 26 September to 3 September, and in this, he says, the British First Army took 16,000 prisoners and 200 guns.
Now Foch was well pleased with his British ally; their earlier dispute was forgotten, and he wrote to Haig,
"Things are going very well with you. I can only admire the resolute manner in which you press the business forward, giving no respite to the enemy and consistently increasing the scope of your action. It is this persistent widening and intensifying of the offensive ... that will give us the best results with the smallest losses, as you have so perfectly comprehended."
The boy soldiers and the old men—old, let me say, in Army language; it refers to young fellows of 35 and 40—were doing well. The young ones lacked some of the stamina of men of full military age, and tired more easily; but a night's sleep worked wonders, and so did the sense of continually going forward, and the sight of the German prisoners coming in in droves. The normal infantry formation for attack was in groups (sometimes called "worms") following a barrage at wide intervals. They relied more and more on their supporting artillery, and when this fell silent for any reason—such as moving forward—the conscript infantry was usually at a loss. As the Official History says,
"The drafts consisted of very young officers and men who had had very little useful training of any kind. The years of trench warfare . . . had produced an army which was prepared to stand enormous losses uncomplainingly, but was practically devoid of real tactical sense."
In open warfare, this was a serious matter. It led to obvious over-sensitivity about open flanks— in marked contrast with the Germans in March.
It also meant, says the Official History, that
"the extreme range of the barrage often formed the limit of the infantry advance."
So there was often an active sense of wasted opportunity, which hindsight all too frequently confirms. To that extent, the German tactic of discreet withdrawals covered by plentiful machine guns and single guns or pairs in concealed positions, was successful—there was never a breakthrough. As one commentator puts it,
"Foch was caught by a hiatus in the mobile arm: horsed cavalry had become obsolete and the blitzkrieg tank had not yet been developed."
The tanks of 1918 were very useful weapons (considering how short their existence had been), but they were not war-winners. As I pointed out in TO WIN A WAR, the 414 fighting tanks that rolled into action in the fog on 8 August were down to 145 on 9 August (about 35%); on 10 August the total was 85, on the 11th it was 38, and on 12 August it was 6. By the 13th, 480 tanks had been handed over to the Salvage Units, and there were no reserves.
Breakthrough or no breakthrough, however, what was perfectly clear was that the Germans were steadily going back, and being seriously weakened in the process. No part of it was easy; they were always hard men to beat. The price, since 21 August, was over 32,000 casualties in the Fourth Army, and nearly 56,000 in the Third and First Armies. Haig was acutely aware that he was commanding Britain's last army, and figures like these only emphasized the need to bring the war to a very early end.
A matter that rankled in him was the somewhat abrupt removal by General Pershing (the American Commander-in Chief) of three divisions from the British sector to join the buildup of a purely American Army in the Argonne. The last of these divisions departed on 25 August, and Haig wrote in his diary:
"What will History say regarding this action of the Americans leaving the British zone of Operations when the decisive battle of the war is at its height and the decision is still in doubt?"
Two days later he wrote to Foch, urging the immediate need to put the Americans into the battle, and when he met Foch on the 29th he found the Generalissimo in full agreement. Not only that, but Foch agreed that the Americans should make their attack convergently so that Allied pressure would fall on both sides of the great German salient. Haig told his Chief of Staff, General Lawrence, that he was determined to go on attacking
"to prevent [the enemy] from settling into a strong position. The decisive moment will arrive when the Americans attack in force."
The task that lay ahead was forbidding. In front of the British Fourth and Third Armies stood the strongest part of the famous "Hindenburg Line". That was our name for it; the Germans called it the "Siegfried Line". By any name, it was the most powerful system of field defences ever seen to that date. Neither Haig nor any of his generals could have any illusions about the difficulties that faced them. His feelings may be imagined when he received a telegram marked "Personal" from the CIGS, General Wilson, saying,
"Just a word of caution in regard to incurring heavy losses in attacks on the Hindenburg Line as opposed to losses when driving the enemy back to that line. I do not mean to say that you have incurred such losses but I know the War Cabinet would become anxious if we received heavy punishment in attacking the Hindenburg Line without success.”
Haig wrote in his diary:
"I read it to mean that I can attack the Hindenburg Line if I think it right to do so .. . If my attack is successful, I will remain on as C-in-C. If we fail, or our losses are excessive, I can hope for no mercy! I wrote to Henry Wilson in reply. What a wretched lot of weaklings we have in high places at the present time!"
It was a bleak moment—not by any means the first in Haig's experience; and not the last.
But the War did not wait for men to get over their bad times. The signs of failing German morale multiplied, and Haig even began to doubt whether the Germans would stand on the Hindenburg Line after all. The matter could only be put to the test by getting there and finding out, and two new battles had to be fought to bring the Fourth and Third Armies up to the main Line. The Third Army opened the Battle of Havrincourt on 12 September, and the Fourth followed up on the 18th with the Battle of Epehy. The two, between them, according to Foch, netted 12,000 prisoners and 100 guns. On 12 September, also, the Americans at last launched their own offensive at St Mihiel— a fine success, once more in dense fog, catching the Germans in the act of retirement and taking 15,000 prisoners and 450 guns.
Sensing the Government's continuing doubts, despite all the encouraging reports from the front, Haig went to London with Lawrence on 10 September and talked to the Secretary of State for War, Lord Milner. He told Milner the British Army had captured 77,000 prisoners and nearly 800 guns in the last four weeks; he said.
"The discipline of the German Army is quickly going, and the German officer is not what he was. It seems to me to be the beginning of the end ... If we act with energy now, a decision can be obtained in the very near future."
He urged that "What is wanted now at once is to provide the means to exploit our recent great successes to the full." He understood Milner to say that he fully agreed, but that was not so; a few days later Milner was telling Wilson that he considered Haig "ridiculously optimistic" and Wilson sycophantically agreed with that.
It didn't matter. The last act of the War was about to begin; the day of the optimists was at hand. Foch told Haig on 4 September that he also now believed "the German is nearing the end" and their joint plans were being framed accordingly. It was the politicians—who liked to believe that far-sighted wisdom was their prerogative— who were adrift. Churchill circulated a powerful paper on 5 September, outlining Munitions policy for 1919 and 1920. It contained this remarkable sentence:
"We should be content to play a very subordinate role in France, and generally in the Allied Councils, during 1919, and count on having solid forces and conserved resources available for the decisive struggles of 1920, or held in hand for the peace situation if our Allies break down meanwhile."
Haig wrote in the margin:
"What rubbish! Who will last till 1920—only America?"
Meanwhile, what was about to take place was the fulfilment of Foch's basic, rather crude, but effective strategy, summed up in his famous phrase:
"Tout le monde a la bataille!" ("Everyone go to it.")
With the American debut at St Mihiel out of the way, and the King of the Belgians prepared to put his army into battle on the other flank, Foch could draw up a timetable for the big battle that settled the issue. "Z day" (in the next war it would be called a "D-Day") would be on 26 September, when the American First and French Fourth Armies would open the proceedings in the Argonne; the British First and Third Armies would enlarge the battle on Z+2 (27 September); a further and significant enlargement would follow on 28 September (Z+3)— under King Albert, the Belgian Army, with a large French Detachment and the whole of the British Second Army, would also carry the offensive northwards through the Ypres Salient and along the coast; on Z+4 (29 September) the Third and Fourth Arm ies would cross the main Hindenburg defences along the St. Quentin Canal. Other French Armies would also be joining in. It was "tout le monde" indeed!
The most daunting assignment was that facing Rawlinson's Fourth Army; it was also the most triumphant. A good many of you, I imagine, will have heard (or read) my views of 29 September; I believe it was the date of the most brilliant victory in the whole history of our Army. Just over a month ago I had the great honour of unveiling a WFA plaque commemorating this victory at the place where the 46th North Midland Territorial Division broke through the Hindenburg Line in one day Riqueval. Actually, it was done in half a day, with the aid of another of those fogs that so greatly helped the attackers in 1918. The 46th Division under Maj.-General Sir Gerald Boyd itself took 4,000 prisoners and 70 guns—at a cost of about 800 casualties. It was magnificent. And it clinched the realization that Ludendorff had already reached under the blows of the other Allies, together with Plumer's Second Army, saying goodbye to the dreaded Salient after nearly four grim years. Painfully Ludendorff reached what he calls the "fateful conclusion”:
"we must plainly sue for peace if peace could be had."
It took just over six weeks to discover whether peace could be had, and on what terms. For the soldiers on both sides they were weeks which continued to pile up the unbelievable casualty statistics of the war; they were also weeks of great strain and weariness, robbing the Allied armies of a lot of the elation which they should have been feeling, but never depriving them of determination.
The list of victories of the "Hundred Days" continued:
in what Foch called the Battle of Cambrai and the Hindenburg Line, Haig's three Armies engaged took 35,000 prisoners and 380 guns; next comes the Battle of Le Cateau, 6-12 October, for which Foch offers no statistics, though the Fourth, Third and First Armies were all engaged; and the Battle of the Selle, fought by the Fourth and Third Armies between 17-25 October, which produced 20,000 prisoners and 475 guns.
At last the Government acknowledged that victory might really be in sight. Haig was summoned to London to advise the War Cabinet; in effect, the question was, should the Allied demand an "U nconditional Surrender", risking prolonging the War into 1919, or should they demand something less and make sure of ending it in 1918? Haig was impatient for the peace he had anticipated on 11 August * and he told the Cabinet:
The French and American Armies are not capable of making a serious offensive now. The British alone might bring the enemy to his knees. But why expend more British lives—and for what?"
For once, he observed:
"The Prime Minister seemed in agreement with me."
But the decisions of European peace and war no longer resided in Europe. President Woodrow Wilson of the United States was effectively handling the Allied negotiations, often without consulting his European Allies. The thing dragged; the War went on—but its own momentum was inexorable.
While the Allied statement wondered and wavered, Germany's allies, deprived of her sustenance, dropped away— first Bulgaria, then Turkey, and now Austria was suing for peace. Germany, under constant defeat and facing mutinies in the Navy and the Army, was practically helpless; Ludendorff resigned.
So November came in, bringing the last battle, the Battle of the Sambre, on the first of the month. On the 8th, the German armistice delegation crossed the lines, and three days later the battle ended. In the course of it, Haig's Armies took another 19,000 prisoners and 450 guns. But better still, they got the peace he had been working for when the Germans signed the Armistice document in Marshal Foch's railway carriage and ended the War. The British contribution to this result, during the "Hundred Days", had been (as I never tire of repeating), 188,700 prisoners and 2,840 guns; that was just under 50 % of all the prisoners taken by the Allies, and jus over 40 % of all the guns.
And it had all begun, says the Official History, at Amiens, on the "black day" of the German Army", when
"the collapse of Germany began—not in the Navy, not in the Homeland, not in any of the sideshows, but on the Western Front in consequence of defeat in the field."
I shall leave the last word to a soldier, Major E. B. Ferrers of the 2 /Scottish Rifles, in a letter to a brother officer in December 1918:
"Well, we had our fun and led some damned brave men to a glorious victory." I thought you might find this a good story for a November day.