Historian GORDON LUCY on the events of 100 years ago that marked a turning point in the Great War
Eric Ludendorff, First Quartermaster General of the German Army, made light of the United States’ entry into the Great War, believing that the Americans could not put an effective army in the field until 1919, an assessment which the Americans actually shared. By then, Ludendorff calculated that Germany would have already won the war.
As late as July 1918 Germany’s position still seemed formidable. In the west the Germans were threatening Paris and in the east they held huge tracts of eastern Europe including Russian Poland, Ukraine (one of the most fertile regions of the world) and the Baltic states.
The strategic failure of the German offensive of March 1918 did not appear to register with Ludendorff. This is evidenced by a letter (dated May 21 1918) to Hans von Seeckt, the chief of staff on the Caucasian front, in which Ludendorff contended: ‘There is the hope that we will yet succeed in forcing France to the ground this year. But even if we are victorious in France, it is still in no way certain that we can force the English to a peace acceptable to us, if we are not able to threaten their most sensitive spot, in India’.
Ludendorff’s upbeat calculations were first dented by the Battle of Chateau-Thierry (often referred to as the Second Battle of the Marne) on July 18 1918 when the 1st and 2nd US divisions and the Moroccan Division, the most highly decorated formation in the French army, dislodged the Germans from very strongly entrenched positions. Although the Americans suffered very heavy casualties, the Germans were struck by their military prowess and their presence could no longer be discounted.
Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria, an extremely able professional soldier, had a significantly more realistic grasp of the military situation than Ludendorff. Rupprecht concluded: ‘We stand at the turning point of the war: what I expected first for the autumn, the necessity to go over to the defensive, is already on us, and in addition all the gains of the spring … have been lost again’.
Rupprecht recognised the faltering morale of his troops as a result of ‘poor provisions, heavy losses and influzenza’ (the pandemic sweeping across Europe which would ultimately kill more people than the war).
On August 8 the Germans were completely surprised at Amiens when nine divisions of the British Fourth Army – the British 3rd Corps, the Australian and Canadian Corps – and 10 divisions of the French army attacked the great Picardy salient created by the huge German offensive of March 1918. For this offensive the Allies had assembled almost 1,500 heavy guns and howitzers; almost 600 tanks and more than 1,700 aeroplanes.
The element of surprise played a significant part in the success of the operation. Douglas Haig, the commander of the BEF, and Henry Rawlinson, the commander of the British Fifth Army, withheld all knowledge of the attack from those who were to undertake it. Divisional commanders had a week’s warning, troops in the line less than 36 hours. When the troops began to assemble for the assault, all movements were undertaken under cover of darkness.
The Allied attack was launched in thick fog at 04:20 across the Santerre plateau, from Amiens to just south of Montdidier. The Australians and Canadians, superb troops which Haig increasingly used to spearhead his operations, made a seven-mile advance. Six or seven German divisions, which Ludendorff believed to be battle-worthy, were broken. Of 27,000 German casualties, 12,000 had surrendered.
In his memoirs Ludendorff recalled: ‘I was told of deeds of glorious valour but also of behaviour which … I should not have thought possible of the German army. Retiring troops, meeting a fresh division going bravely into action, had shouted out things like “Blackleg” and “You’re prolonging the war” … The officers in many places had lost their influence.’
For Ludendorff it was the ‘black day in the history of the German Army’. Basil Liddell Hart, the British military historian, subsequently described the events of August 8 as ‘the most brilliant [victory] ever gained by British arms in the war’.
This was the psychological turning point in the war. The German High Command’s hopes of victory were fatally undermined. At last Ludendorff began to absorb and process what others had been saying for weeks. He made no further offensive plans, and thereafter fought only defensive battles. He also showed signs of cracking up. He was on a short fuse, his relations with subordinates and Hindenburg, his nominal superior, were strained, he could not sleep, and he started drinking too much. He sought the advice of an old friend who was a psychiatrist. He advised going for walks and taking more rest and for a brief period these steps worked.
For the British and the Allies it was the beginning of the ‘Hundred Days Offensive’ which culminated with the Armistice on November 11 1918. Strictly speaking the ‘Hundred Days Offensive’ is a series of offensives rather than a single one. Canadians often refer to ‘Canada’s Hundred Days’ because of the huge role they played as ‘the shock troops of the British Empire’ in these operations.
At the end of August, Philip Gibbs, the celebrated British war correspondent, noted the impact of events on the British Army, observing that ‘the enemy ... is on the defensive’ and, ‘the initiative of attack is so completely in our hands that we are able to strike him at many different places’. This is exactly what Haig did so the Germans could not anticipate where the next blow would fall.
Gibbs was struck by the transformation in British morale: ‘the change has been greater in the minds of men than in the taking of territory. On our side the army seems to be buoyed up with the enormous hope of getting on with this business quickly’.
The impact on German morale was equally profound. They ‘no longer have even a dim hope of victory on this western front. All they hope for now is to defend themselves long enough to gain peace by negotiation’.