The British involvement in war on the Western Front lasted for 1,294 days: from the 12th of August 1914 - when the first elements of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) arrived in France - until the 11th November 1918, when the Armistice took effect. For each of those days an average of 1,751 men were wounded and 436 died (the latter figure representing almost half a battalion, equivalent to around 600 battalions in total). The highest number of casualties on a single day was 58,000, including 20,000 killed, on the first day of the First Battle of the Somme, on the 1st July 1916.
Throughout all but the very final days of the war on the Western Front, the outcome was in doubt to the British serving soldier and the civilian population alike. The only occasion when hope welled sufficiently to allow the ringing of church bells across the British Isles, was the so-called victory at the Battle of Cambrai, in November 1917, when it was thought that the use of 476 massed tanks had finally resolved the bloody stalemate in the trenches. Even this optimism was quickly crushed when the Germans counter-attacked and, within a week, regained almost all the territory they had lost. This article considers the final one hundred days in 1918 when the British and their Allies finally cracked the German defences, and began the rapid advance that crushed the German Army in the West.
The 100 Days Campaign
The genesis of the Final One Hundred Days Campaign of 1918 goes back to three entirely separate events. Firstly, came the Allied Conference at Doullens in March 1918, when the divided Allies finally decided to give the French Marshal Ferdinand Foch the authority to co-ordinate the activities of all the Allies on the Western Front: a single hand would hold the tiller of a dangerously floundering boat. Out of this coalescence of action came the Allies Amiens Offensive - August/September 1918. Then, General John Joseph Pershing finally gave approval for the general involvement of all his troops - also under Foch - and these million troops, with millions more in the pipeline, became an important operational consideration for the future. Finally, General Erich von Ludendorff, running out of Plans, initiatives, ploys and fresh fighting men, and mourning 'The Blackest Day of the German Army' - 8th August 1918 - began to give serious thoughts about retiring behind his massive fortifications of the Hindenburg Line. Throughout the first four years of the war, with the exception of the heady days of the activation of the vaunted Schlieffen Plan, and the ultimately disastrous Spring Offensive of 1918, the Germans had generally fought a defensive war, choosing the most advantageous high ground with skill. They fortified it with fervour in a way somewhat alien to the Allies, who persistently prosecuted a War of the Offensive. The still incomplete Hindenburg Line, running in an almost continuous line of linked fortifications, 15km deep, from the Channel coast in the north to Verdun and Metz in the south, was the apotheosis of the German's defensive stance. Huge amounts of concrete, steel, barbed wire and millions of hours of forced labour had gone into its construction. The German offensive falters
The German Army's Blackest Day had occurred slightly before Armistice Day minus 100, but the pressure on the Germans over the breadth of the old First Battle of the Somme battlefields soon began to increase further. By the 1st of September 1918 the famous battleground towns of Albert, Bapaume and Peronne had all fallen to the Allies.
Ludendorff now felt pressed to withdraw all of his armies to the fortifications of Hindenburg Line, and, behind a shield of rear-guard machine gunners, he proceeded to do so, exacting heavy casualties in the process. The British Army alone suffered over 80,000 casualties in August 1918. Many of them were untested 18- and 19-year-old's from the newly arrived UK drafts, as latterly authorised by Prime Minister Lloyd George's cabinet.
The British and Allied breakthrough
The British First Army, led by General Henry Horne was the first to break through the Hindenburg Line - the Wotan Stellung - on September the 2nd 1914. This success was shortly followed by that of the Fourth Army near Saint-Quentin - the Siegfried Stellung - who stormed the strategically vital bridge at Riqueval before the defenders could destroy it. The Australian 2nd, 3rd, and 5th Divisions were particularly effective in the Mont Saint-Quentin and Peronne Sectors.
Other breaches were achieved in late September to November 1918 by the Americans (with French support) at the Saint Michel Salient (near Verdun) and the Argonne Forest - both part of the Kriemhilde Stellung - (also with French support). In the North, the Anglo-Belgian Flanders Group, led by Prince Albert of the Belgians, launched the Courtrai Offensive. The American's valour and enthusiasm did not entirely compensate for their lack of battle experience, as was dramatically reflected by their heavy casualties. One American Expeditionary Force (AEF) regiment - the 107th - lost nearly a thousand men: 337 killed and 658 wounded.
In addition to their support of the Americans, the French Army, reanimated by Marshal Henri-Philippe Pétain after the mutinies 1917, also played a vital role on their own part in the October Meuse River and Argonne Forest Offensive reaching the Aisne River after a 30km advance.
Ludendorff vacillates and retreats
As early as the end of September 1918, Ludendorff had 'seen a glimmer at the end of the tunnel', but it illuminated a stark message, 'Seek an Armistice'.
Up to, and during, October 1918, the retreat of the German Army on the Western Front was continuous on wide frontage. But it was by no means routed as a fighting force and no foreign soldiers had yet set foot on the German homeland. In Berlin, the Government had fallen, and had been replaced, after some considerable wrangling with the Kaiser Wilhelm II, by one led by Prince Max of Baden: a popular moderate.
In early November 1918, the British found themselves fighting once again at Mons, where it had all started 50, long, bloody months before. Meanwhile, on the 7th November 1918, General Foch, acting as the Allied Supremo, met the German marshals and politicians in a railway wagon (of even greater fame in 1940) at a clearing in the Forest of Compiègne, in Northern France. Here the crushed German military elite and the new, more moderate, politicians finally accepted the Allies' terms. On November the 11th 1918, at 11am, all fighting ceased on the Western Front.
Success for Haig at last
For General Haig, who had endured criticism, and even hatred, for his persistent adherence to his doctrine of 'wearing away' - attrition, said some - and the enormous list of casualties this entailed, the last 100 days of the Great War was a period of unprecedented military success never before achieved by a British Army commander on foreign soil.
From the 8th of August 1914, until the Armistice, he is credited with the operational direction and staff-work that led to an uninterrupted chain of British successes in the 23 officially recognised battles of the Last 100 Days; from the Battle of Amiens (August) to the Battle of the Sambre (November). As usual, casualties were high - for the British alone, over 300,000 - but with the attainment of peace, these numbers became more acceptable to the British public. Haig received much public acclaim, and reward, after the Great War and, whilst they survived, the support of many of his Great War army officers and soldiers. In more recent years, he has received even more severe criticism and blame - some of it vitrolic - but the current assessment by some contemporary historians - e.g. John Terraine and Robin Neillands - tends to be more favourable and forgiving. Not withstanding the mountains of books, acres of print and hours of speechifying that have covered this matter, the arguments seem to go on as vociferously as ever.
Perhaps for the final observation we should go to Prime Minister Lloyd George's memoires. He said that he had ardently sought a suitable replacement for General Haig, but never found one: a sentiment later echoed by Winston Churchill.
By Dr David Payne
[This article was first posted in a previous version of the Western Front Association website: 19 May 2008]
The Battle of the Selle, October 1918
The Battle of the Selle, October 1918
The Centralisation of Command
Sir Douglas Haig always beli…