Category: Western Front

The Armistice

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Foch (center, with cane) and Wemyss (to the immediate left) pictured outside the train car in which the armistice was signed.

November 11 1918, Compiègne–The German armistice delegation at Compiègne had attempted to secure better terms, but had failed at doing so, apart from a slight extension of the two-week timeframe to evacuate Belgium, France, and Alsace-Lorraine.  On November 10, they received notification that the Kaiser had abdicated, and received instruction from the new Chancellor, Ebert, that they were to sign the armistice as they were.  Shortly after 5AM local time (GMT) on the 11th, Erzberger, the other Germans, Foch, and Wemyss signed the armistice.  The armistice was slated to go into effect six hours after the signing (backdated to 5AM), at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.

Fighting continued until 11AM across the front, though dampened by rain that day.  Gunner B.O. Stokes, with the New Zealand Field Artillery, recalled:

We heard the announcement of the Armistice when we were still in the Forest de Mormal on a cheerless, dismal, cold, misty day.  There was no cheering or demonstration.  We were all tired in body and mind, fresh from the tragic fields of battle, and this momentous announcement was too vast in its consequences to be appreciated or accepted with wild excitement.  We trekked out of the wood on this dreary day in silence.

In some sectors, six hours was not enough time to convey news of the armistice to troops in the thick of fighting.  Parts of 89th Division, which had attacked at 4AM that morning, did not stop fighting until noon.  There are no known reports of any shooting continuing beyond 12:30 in the afternoon.

I leave you with a recollection from American Private Frank W. Groves:

At the front our days and nights were filled with the sounds and smells of the bombardment.  Never were we free of it and we had learned to live with it.  On November 11 at 11:00 am those sounds and vibrations abruptly stopped.  The quietness that followed was awesome; you could feel it – almost smell and taste it.  There was no singing, no shouting, no laughter; we just stood around and looked and listened.

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First stick bombs and smoke bombs were thrown down, and then the sappers tossed their tins of explosives down to finish things up thoroughly. There was a series of huge detonations and then a pillar of flame 50 feet high shooting up from the dugout mouth. I was watching from an eminence a long way back and saw the whole display of fireworks beautifully. The dugout burned for some hours.

Afterwards we learned from the prisoner that there can’t have been less than 60 men and two machine guns in that dugout – so I suppose they burnt for several hours too! It was a very good show and carried out with much dash.

Journal of Brigade Major Arthur Floyer-Acland on watching troops clearing German dugouts in 1917.

Battle of the Sambre

A 1920 depiction of the scaling of Le Quesnoy by troops from the New Zealand Rifle Brigade.

November 4 1918, Le Quesnoy–The general Allied offensive extended south from Valenciennes on November 4, as British and French armies attacked across the Sambre-Oise canal on a thirty-mile front.  While the canal was a significant natural obstacle, the German line behind the canal had been hurriedly improvised.  A German regimental history noted that:

The whole position consisted of rifle-pits connected up irregularly.  There were no dug outs.  There was no field of view owing to hedges, houses, walls and gardens.  The battle headquarters were in small cellars, hardly splinter proof.  In these inadequate positions weakened and used up troops awaited the attack of an overwhelming enemy.

The Allied attack began with a hurricane bombardment at 5:45 AM, with the infantry attacking five minutes later as the bombardment moved back.  In many places, the Allies made quick progress.  In others, however, the Germans mounted a fierce resistance, pouring fire onto British soldiers and engineers as they attempted to swim, boat, or construct bridges across the canal.  In one such instance, the famed poet Wilfred Owen was killed on the banks of the canal, just a week before the armistice.

Nevertheless, the Allies were able to make a general advance that day of over two miles–in some places stretching up to five.  To the north, New Zealanders took the medieval town of Le Quesnoy after crossing the moat and scaling the town’s walls with a single thirty-foot ladder.  The New Zealand Division took over 2500 prisoners that day, a fourth of the total Allied haul.

The sudden fall of the Sambre-Oise canal convinced General Groener (Ludendorff’s replacement) that the German army needed to retreat to the Meuse-Antwerp position.  Although little better-developed than the lines the Germans had been using so far, it had the advantage of being much shorter, allowing the Germans to consolidate their rapidly-shrinking force.  He had been reluctant to issue such orders previously, as the railroad networks east of the Meuse were poor, which would make it difficult to move supplies and reinforcements to where they were needed–but by November 5, he had little choice.  In the final week of the war, warfare on the Western Front turned into a general pursuit.

Today in 1917: Italians Begin Retreat to the Piave

Today in 1916: Betting Markets Narrowly Favor Wilson
Today in 1915: Kitchener Departs For Gallipoli
Today in 1914: “Battle of the Bees”

Sources include: Nick Lloyd, Hundred Days; David Stevenson, With Our Backs to the Wall; Gregor Dallas, 1918: War and Peace.

Stay tuned for a bonus edition later today!

Canadians Take Valenciennes

Canadian troops entering Valenciennes.

November 2 1918, Valenciennes–While the Americans and French were attacking in the Meuse-Argonne, the Allies launched their own renewed offensive in Flanders and in northern France.  On November 1, the Canadians unleashed one of the heaviest barrages of the war on the German defenders of Mont Houy on the outskirts of Valenciennes, on the Scheldt. Seven tons of high explosive shell were dropped every minute on a front of less than two miles.  Over the course of three hours, they used almost as much ammunition as was used during the entire Boer War.  Shells were sent from almost every direction, including some that were designed to make the Germans think they were being shelled by their own artillery.  The hill was taken with only 60 Canadian fatalities, a very small figure by the standards of the war so far.  The artillery was then moved forward and brought to bear on its next targets; the Canadians had pushed past the torn-up ground of what had been Western Front, making it much easier for them to move supplies and heavy equipment forward.

On November 2, the Canadians entered Valenciennes itself, a major rail junction and one of the last major towns in France still under German occupation.  The Canadians spent the remainder of the war pursuing the quickly-retreating Germans back to Mons, the site of one of the first British actions in the war.

Today in 1917: The Balfour Declaration

Today in 1916: The Hindenburg Program
Today in 1915: Arrests of Christians and Jews in Baghdad
Today in 1914: Russia Declares War on Turkey

Sources include: Derek Grout, Thunder in the Skies; David Stevenson, With Our Backs to the Wall; Nick Lloyd, Hundred Days.

American Breakthrough in the Meuse-Argonne

Buzancy, west of Barricourt, a day after its liberation by the Americans.  The American supply situation had improved, but the rapid advances of November would cause issues for all the Allied armies.

November 1 1918, Barricourt–In over a month of fighting since September 26, the Americans had suffered tens of thousands of casualties in the Meuse-Argonne and had not broken through the German lines as hoped.  Compared to the massive victories in Flanders and against the Hindenburg Line, this was a disappointment for the Allies, and Clemenceau had even called for Pershing’s removal.  Nonetheless, they had taken key positions in the last month, and had learned valuable lessons from the fighting, and were well-prepared for another offensive, in conjunction with the French, to be launched on November 1.

The Americans used much more artillery support than before; a two-hour preliminary bombardment essentially destroyed the German lines in the area.  They used mustard gas for the first time, and airplanes provided ground support to the troops.  Even a few tanks were deployed, but they were largely rendered redundant by the overwhelming force of the artillery.  American infantry officers had learned to be more adaptable to the conditions on the ground, not sticking to fixed lines and objectives so rigidly.  There was a major improvement in American supply, which had been a mess ever since the St Mihiel offensive; supply depots were now further forward, ready for an advance.

The German defenders were quickly overwhelmed by the American firepower and numbers.  The First Army advanced over five miles on the first day of the offensive, taking the last German fixed defensive line in the area and seizing the heights around Barricourt.  This outflanked German positions further east, in the Bois de Bourgogne, and the Germans began a general withdrawal from the area the next day, while the Americans began to set their sights on Sedan.

Today in 1917: Roosevelt Campaigns for New York Mayor Mitchel’s Re-election

Today in 1916: Ninth Battle of the Isonzo Begins
Today in 1915: Metaxas, Falkenhausen Discuss Greek Entry Into War
Today in 1914: Germans Destroy British Squadron at Coronel

Sources include: Gary Mead, The Doughboys; Mitchell Yockelson, Forty-Seven Days; David Stevenson, With Our Backs to the Wall.

Belgians Liberate Bruges and Zeebrugge

King Albert (center) on his entry into the city on the 25th, after arriving in the area by plane on the 23rd.  He was accompanied by, among others, Admiral Keyes; the elimination of the U-boat threat in Ostend and Zeebrugge had long been a goal of the Royal Navy.

October 19 1918, Bruges–Since renewing their attack on October 14, the combined Allied force in Flanders had advanced at an extremely rapid pace, in some cases aided by a German withdrawal, in others in spite of determined German opposition.  Lille, which was outflanked by the breakthrough, was captured on the 17th without a shot being fired, much to Ludendorff’s disappointment; he had wanted to hold on to the region’s industries as a bargaining chip in the negotiations to come.  On the same day, the Belgians liberated the port of Ostend, after four years and two days of German occupation.  On October 19, they took Bruges and its port of Zeebrugge, the last Belgian port with unfettered access to the sea under German occupation.  The U-boats that had been stationed there and at Ostend had been hurriedly recalled, and a few torpedo boats had been left behind.  The next day, the Belgian Army reached the Dutch border.  The liberation of Belgium had begun in earnest.

Today in 1917: The “Silent Raid”


Today in 1916: Penultimate Sortie of the High Seas Fleet
Today in 1915: “The Thirty-Nine Steps” Published
Today in 1914:  German Fourth Army Attacks at Ypres

Battle of the Selle

The Allied advance from the Selle.  The German salient to the north, including Lille (around 15 miles to the north of Douai), was also captured around the same time as it was outflanked to the north by the Allied advance in Flanders.

October 17 1918, Le Cateau–After the British broke through the last layer of the Hindenburg Line, the Germans fell back to an improvised position behind the River Selle.  The British brought their guns up over the following week and then unleashed a two-day preliminary bombardment of the makeshift German position, focusing mainly on their communications and their second line behind the Sambre-Oise canal five miles to the east.  At 5:20 AM on October 17, four British divisions and two American ones (under overall British command) crossed the Selle on planks, quickly breaking through the first German position.  They threw up pontoon bridges for their artillery and were able to advance up to three miles on the first day and capture 5000 PoWs.  Although the Sambre-Oise canal position would remain in German hands for some weeks to come, the Battle of the Selle made it clear that the main limit to the Allied advance was not the Germans, but how quickly they could bring up their own artillery to attack the next German position.

Meanwhile, the Kaiser, Hindenburg & Ludendorff, and Prince Max and his cabinet met in Berlin to discuss the latest American armistice note.  Ludendorff had recovered from last month’s panic, and was buoyed by an unrealistic promise of 600,000 men from the war minister.  The Germans had suffered considerable defeats in the last month, but it had not turned into an overall rout, and hoped that the situation would improve as the typical campaign season ended; if “we get into winter, we shall be ‘out of the wood.’”  Wilson’s latest note was were intolerable, and the Allies must be made to “fight for such conditions.”  Prince Max, however, wanted to avoid such a fight, that would likely lead to an invasion of Germany.  The meeting ended inconclusively, but Prince Max had already made up his mind–and given Wilson’s insistence on negotiations with representatives of the German people, his voice mattered the most.

Today in 1917: Naval Actions in the North and Baltic Seas

Today in 1916: Last Gasp of the Brusilov Offensive
Today in 1915: Italians Launch Midget Submarine
Today in 1914:  Allied Advances Around Armentières and Ypres

Sources include: Alexander Watson, Ring of Steel; Robert B. Asprey, The German High Command at War; David Stevenson, With Our Backs to the Wall.

Allied Breakthrough in Flanders

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The front line on October 16, 1918.  Note the large expansion of the Ypres salient in the north; the Allies had not been able to push beyond Passchendaele at any prior point in the war.  Further south, the British and Canadians had pushed beyond the Hindenburg Line from Cambrai to St. Quentin, while the French and Italians were pushing north from the Aisne.

October 14 1918, Courtrai–The Allied offensive in Flanders, while achieving dramatic success initially, had slowed to a halt due to supply problems.  By October 14, they had been able to resupply and bring their artillery forward, and resumed the attack at 5:35AM that morning, on a front stretching from Dixmude south to the French border.  Although the attack was not a surprise, they did not anticipate much German resistance, and had their rolling barrage go forward at the quick rate of 100 yards per minute.  Many of the defending Germans quickly surrendered, and the Allies took over 12,000 PoWs in the first few days of the offensive.  The next day, Ludendorff authorized a general withdrawal from Flanders, which his subordinates and local commanders had been urging for weeks.

Today in 1917: Trading With the Enemy Act

Today in 1916: Franco-Russian Attack on Kenali Fails As Warned
Today in 1915: Bulgaria Declares War on Serbia
Today in 1914: Rush to Buy Zeppelin Insurance in London

Sources include: David Stevenson, With Our Backs to the Wall.

Italians Capture Chemin des Dames

The Chemin des Dames in 1920.

October 11 1918, Cerny–The Chemin des Dames, a ridgeline road overlooking the Aisne, had been the site of fierce fighting since September 1914The Nivelle Offensive in April 1917 failed to take it, but Pétain’s more measured  push in October did.  The bitterness of the fighting for the road meant the French were extremely unwilling to give it up, and this was responsible, in large part, for the German breakthrough there in May 1918 (as the French refused to have any defense-in-depth).  The general Allied offensive spread to the Aisne in October, and the Germans there were in danger of being outflanked on their right by the fall of the Beaurevoir line and on their left by the continued Franco-American attack in the Meuse-Argonne, and began to fall back from the Aisne.  On October 11, the Chemin des Dames was captured by the Italian II Corps as part of a six-mile advance, and it would remain in Allied hands thereafter.  The Italian II Corps, the only Italian force on the Western Front, had arrived there in May in response to the German offensives, and as repayment for the deployment of British and French forces to Italy after Caporetto.

Today in 1917: Operation Albion


Today in 1916: French Disarm Greek Fleet
Today in 1915: British Submarines Sink German Ships Off Swedish Coast
Today in 1914: Russian Problems on the Vistula

Canadians Capture Cambrai

A Canadian soldier emerges from a Cambrai cellar on October 9 with an armful of German Pickelhaube helmets, prized as souvenirs.

October 9 1918, Cambrai–The British made the first hole in the Beaurevoir line on October 5, and the Canadians followed up on October 8 north of Cambrai.  With extensive support from the RAF and 94 tanks, they advanced up to three miles and threatened to outflank the city.  At around 1:30 AM on October 9, the Canadians began to push into the city itself, occasionally fighting from house to house.  But the bulk of the German forces were evacuating, setting fires to destroy as much as they could (despite a substantial civilian population); they would not be fully extinguished for several days.  Over the next two nights, the Germans evacuated what was left of the Beaurevoir line.  They fell back behind the River Selle to the “Hermann Position” which a month ago had mainly existed on paper.  The Canadians deployed cavalry in an attempt to chase down the retreating Germans, and there was a rare successful cavalry charge on October 9–but for the most part the cavalry was not worth the concomitant supply difficulties.  The Germans would get a week’s respite behind the flooded waters of the Selle.

Today in 1917: Battle of Poelcappelle

Today in 1916: Venizelos Arrives at Salonika, Declares Provisional Government of National Defense
Today in 1915: Austrians Enter Belgrade
Today in 1914: Germans Find Russian Order of Battle; Austrians Reach Przemyśl

Sources include: David Stevenson, With Our Backs to the Wall; Derek Grout, Thunder in the Skies.