Hundred Days Offensive

In August 1918, the allied armies of Britain, France, and America unleashed a series of counter-attacks against the German army that brought the war to a conclusion.

Having driven the Russians from the war in 1917 and fearing the arrival of thousands of American soldiers in the coming years, Germany had decided to try and force a military conclusion to the war in the spring of 1918.

General Erich Ludendorff – George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress

On 21st March 1918, the German army launched its Spring Offensives with the original aim of splitting the British and French armies apart and then seeing how the situation developed from there. However, whilst the German army was able to force the two allied armies back, the commanding officer General Erich Ludendorff became distracted by temporary gains and the possibility of capturing Paris.

As a result he redirected his attacks and allowed the allies to regroup and his own momentum to be lost. What had begun as a dramatic and devastating series of offensives in March became a panicked retreat in July when the German army realised it was at risk of being surrounded.

With the German army no longer able to maintain their assault, the allies took the chance to launch counter-attacks.

The Black Day

Throughout their Spring Offensives the Germans had aimed to capture the strategically significant city of Amiens. Their failure had allowed the allies to make use of the railway junctions in the area to resupply their own armies. At the beginning of August the allies would make this advantage count.

Following the final German offensive in July and their subsequent retreat, the allied Supreme Commander Ferdinand Foch devised an allied attack on enemy positions.

On 8 August 1918, a mixture of British, French, Australian, and Canadian forces attacked the Germans near Amiens. The attack was initially led by over 500 tanks from the British armies, and caught the German opposition almost completely by surprise as they attacked through thick fog at 4:20am. To ensure that the Germans could not organise further resistance, the allied armies targeted their enemy’s lines of communication to leave the defenders isolated.

Battle of Amiens. German prisoners arriving at a temporary POW camp near Amiens, 9 August 1918. © IWM (Q 9193)

Within a few hours allied armies had breached German trench lines and begun breaking through to the countryside behind. By the end of the day some allied forces had advanced by over 8 miles and carved a hole 13 miles wide in the German lines. German losses for just the 8th August numbered over 30,000.

By the conclusion of the offensive on 12th August the allies had advanced by over a dozen more miles and Germany had lost over 75,000 men with 50,000 of those being taken prisoner.

General Ludendorff would look back on the 8th August and describe it as ‘the black day of the German army’ not simply because of the losses sustained but because of what the day represented. The use of massed allied tanks, the surprise nature of the attack, the distance they had covered, the collapse of German moral and the high numbers of their soldiers surrendering or being captured all indicated one undeniable fact; Germany was now decisively losing the war.

The Hindenburg Line

German soldiers had begun 1918 within the formidable defenses of the Hindenburg Line, named after General Ludendorff’s commanding officer; Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg. The series of fortifications had been constructed at the end of 1916 and the beginning of 1917. Following their heavy losses at the Battles of Verdun and the Somme, the German army had withdrawn to these new positions in order to solidify their hold on the French territory they had already gained.

Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, 1914

Having abandoned these defenses to go on the attack in March the German army that returned to them in August was but a shadow of its former self.

With the Germans forced back into their original defensive positions, the allies began a series of attacks around the Hindenburg Line with a view to capturing or breaching the last serious fortifications on the Western Front. If they were successful the ground behind these fortifications would lie open to them; the remainder of occupied France and Belgium could be liberated and there would even be a route open into Germany itself.

Allied operations against the Hindenburg Line began with a joint American and French attack near the River Meuse and the Argonne Forest on 26th September. Though the Franco-American forces would eventually force German soldiers from the forest, the attack would be hampered by the difficult terrain and the tactics of the American armies who had not yet adapted to the warfare in Europe.

Meanwhile, on 29th September the British army using, Australian and American forces under their command, had reach the strongest fortifications of the Hindenburg Line and launched their attack through a tunnel near Bellicourt and at the final remaining bridge of the St Quentin Canal at Riqueval.

As American soldiers stormed the tunnel at Bellicourt, Captain A. H. Carlton of the North Staffordshire Regiment reached the top of the Riqueval Bridge where he, and a small contingent of his men, discovered a small German detachment priming the bridge to be destroyed. If the Germans could successful detonate their explosives and destroy the bridge the allied offensive would be temporarily checked. Both groups of men stared at each other for a moment, before charging.

When the smoke cleared the German soldiers were gone and the bridge was captured.

By 5th October the allies had opened a gap through the defenses of the Hindenburg Line across a 15 mile front.

On the 8th October, at the Second Battle of Cambrai, the British army decisively broke through the Hindenburg Line and effectively destroyed the last serious German defenses remaining on the Western Front.

The end

Following the successful attack on the Hindenburg Line on 29th September 1918, General Ludendorff and his senior Field Marshal von Hindenburg informed the German Kaiser that the war had been lost and an immediate peace must be sought.

Kaiser Wilhelm in exile, 1933

The newly chosen German Chancellor Prince Maximilian of Bader attempted to open negotiations with the American President Woodrow Wilson, only to be informed that America would only enter negotiations with a democratic Germany. If the Kaiser would not step down there would be no peace. As details of the planned terms of surrender began to filter through to the German military Ludendorff changed his mind and claimed that peace on these terms was unacceptable and that the war must continue.

In response Prince Maximilian told the Kaiser that he would resign if Ludendorff was not dismissed. General von Hindenburg himself was viewed as too important a military figurehead to remove from power. Ludendorff offered his resignation as did Hindenburg. The Kaiser berated Ludendorff in front of the rest of the German command and then accepted his resignation and refused  Hindenburg’s.

Ludendorff’s replacement, General Groener immediately informed the Kaiser that if a peace could not be quickly secured he could not guarantee the future existence of the German army should allied attacks continue.

Facing imminent revolutions on the home front and an unmitigated military collapse at the front lines, the Germans began peace negotiations with the allies and, within days, the Kaiser himself had abdicated and fled to the Netherlands. These negotiations would bring the fighting to an end.

The armistice terms came into effect at 11am on 11th November 1918. They did not signal the complete end of the fighting, however. Word had not reached all the forces arrayed around the Western Front and some men continued to die up to and beyond the 11am deadline. 10,944 men became casualties on the war’s final day; 2,738 of them were fatalities in a war that had already been decided.

Armistice Day in London, 1918© IWM (Q 47852)

It had taken four years and three months, some 1,568 days, and cost 41 million casualties; 18 million of them were dead.

But it was now over. However, whilst the fighting on the Western Front had ceased, conflicts emerging out of the First World War in Germany, Russia, the middle-east and across the world would continue for years in some cases. Decades in others.

As the dust settled, Britain, France, America, and their allies would begin the plans for peace talks with Germany in Paris the following year. The agreement they drew up, the Treaty of Versailles remains one of the most controversial and misunderstood documents in modern history.

The ‘guilt clause’ of the Treaty that specified that Germany, and Germany alone, bore responsibility for the conflict has often been viewed as a key factor in the build up to the Second World War. German anger at shouldering all of the culpability alongside enforced financial reparations was seen as a crushing dual burden that lay the foundations for the rise of fascism and the Nazi Party.

However, the Treaty itself was never fully accepted by all of the allied combatants. America would not ratify it and eventually made their own peace terms with the new Weimar Republic. France had wanted a far more punitive treaty to discourage future German aggression, whilst the British had hoped to rebuild Germany as a future trading partner. In the end not only did the Treaty disappoint all involved, many of its clauses and aspects were never fully enforced.

As the inter-war years proceeded the previously victorious allies would drift apart through angry recriminations over the failure to secure a Treaty which fulfilled their desires.

Through a mixture of financial crises following the Great Depression, rising fascism in Europe, and a constructed notion in Germany that their army had not been defeated in battle but rather had been betrayed by politicians and ethnic and religious minorities on the home front, resentment bubbled.

Twenty years after the conclusion of the First World War, Europe would go to war again.