Category: Western Front

Americans Wrap Up Operations at St Mihiel

A traffic jam on the way to the new American front.

September 13 1918, St Mihiel–At 7AM on September 13, only 26 hours after the infantry began their advance, lead elements from both sides of the attack on the St Mihiel salient met up in the middle.  Although the Americans would take well over 10,000 prisoners, the bulk of the German army in the salient would escape.  The Americans, committed to another attack on the other side of the Meuse less than two weeks later, could not pursue.  George Marshall believed this was a lost opportunity, later writing:

Had not the operation been definitely limited in order to permit troops participating in it to be withdrawn immediately and marched to the Meuse-Argonne in time for that battle, there is no doubt on my mind that we could have reached the outskirts of Metz by the late afternoon of the 13th, and quite probably could have captured the city on the 14th, as the enemy was incapable of bringing up reserves in sufficient numbers and formation to offer an adequate resistance.

Whether Marshall’s defense of Pershing’s original plan rings true is unclear.  The Americans may very well have turned the capture of the St Mihiel salient into a full rout if afforded the opportunity, or, as was so often the case, progress could have slowed, the Germans could have brought up reserves that had been delayed by rain, and the Americans could have been stopped at the prepared position behind the St Mihiel salient.

Regardless, George Marshall had larger concerns to deal with on the 13th, as he now had to start moving the First Army back across across the Meuse, even while fighting continued in what was left of the salient.  Traffic soon became a nightmare.  There were not enough roads and railroads, and the Americans had overestimated their capacity.  There were disputes between American and French drivers over the rules of the road, often resulting in accidents that would block the highway for a time.  French PM Clemenceau wanted to see St Mihiel for himself and congratulate Pershing.  Pershing would only let him go as far as Thiaucourt, 25 miles from the front, but even there Clemenceau could plainly see the problem:

They wanted an American army.  They had it.  Anyone who saw, as I saw, the hopeless congestion at Thiaucourt will bear witness that they may congratulate themselves on not having had it sooner.

Sources include: Gene Fax, With Their Bare Hands.

Today in 1917: Kornilov Surrenders to Alexeyev

Today in 1916: Germans Given Ultimate Command of All Central Powers’ Armies
Today in 1915: Senussi Faction Invades Tunisia
Today in 1914: German First and Second Armies Entrench Behind the Aisne

American Victory at the St Mihiel Salient


American troops marching into the St Mihiel salient.  The large hill in the background, Montsec, was simply bypassed on both sides.

September 12 1918, St Mihiel–The Germans had taken St Mihiel on the Meuse nearly four years ago in 1914, and had maintained the salient stretching to the city ever since, despite numerous French attempts to dislodge them.  The German position there had cut off the railroad lines leading to Verdun from the south.  Pershing, who had been forced by the events of the late spring and early summer to throw in his forces into the fighting a division at a time, was eager to deploy his new First Army on the offensive as a unit, and had chosen St Mihiel as his target for early September.

At the end of August, however, Foch had decided that the French and Americans should attack in force on the west side of the Meuse late , to support the continuing British advance further north.  Pershing was furious, but a compromise of sorts was eventually reached.  The St Mihiel attack would continue, but with French infantry support reduced to one corps of colonial troops.  Furthermore, the Americans would have to turn around and head for the west bank of the Marne almost immediately–an almost impossible logistical task that was left to Lt. Col. George Marshall.

In the meantime, the Germans were aware of the American preparations.  The German commander, Max von Gallwitz, wanted to launch a pre-emptive attack on the Americans, but Ludendorff declined and instead ordered a withdrawal from the salient.  There was no urgency to the evacuation, however, and it only began on September 11–weakening the German lines just in time for the Americans to attack the next day.

The preliminary bombardment began at 1AM on September 12; the infantry attacked four hours later.  There was essentially no resistance.  Major Raymond Austin recalled:

Their resistance was so feeble as far as artillery was concerned, and their Infantry, so much of it as was within the zone of our artillery preparation, was badly shaken.  Not a shell landed anywhere near my batteries and during the whole fight not more than four shells fell near enough to me to be dangerous…the Boche evidently left in great haste as our advance was extremely rapid.  One of my batteries got two cows and several had pigs, chickens, and a great number of rabbits.  The main idea of the Germans seems to have been get out of the salient and about all we had to do was to follow them up….The whole thing was a walk-over for us…

George Patton wrote his father:

We have all been in one fine fight and it was not half so exciting as I had hoped, not as exciting as affairs in Mexico, because there was so much company.  When the shelling first started I had some doubts about the advisability of sticking my head over the parapet, but it is just like taking a cold bath, once you get in, it is all right….

I walked right along the firing line of one brigade they were all in shell holes except the general (Douglas Mcarthur [sic]) who was standing on a little hill, I joined him and the creeping barrage came along towards us, but it was very thin and not dangerous.  I think each one wanted to leave but each hated to say so, so we let it come over us.  The infantry were held up at a town so I happened to find some tanks and sent them through it.  I walked behind and some boshe [sic] surrendered to me….

The Americans would take most of the salient within a day at the cost of 7000 casualties, capturing 450 guns and 16,000 prisoners in the process.  Among these were elements of the Austrian 35th Division–one of the few encounters between Americans and Austrian forces in the war.  Father Francis Duffy, with the 42nd Division, recalled of the Austrians:

They had not been very keen about the war at any time and were made less so on finding that they had been left behind after the bulk of the army had withdrawn.  Many of them had been in the United States, and the first question that one of them asked was, “Can I go back now to Sharon, PA?” 

One of the worst obstacles to the advance of the German barbed wire, which had been unaffected by the partial withdrawal and was only somewhat reduced by the bombardment.  To cross it, the Americans cut it where possible, rolled out 18-foot stretches of chicken wire to collapse it, or simply crossed it themselves if they could.  One member of a team of French officers sent after the battle apparently concluded that “the Americans had the advantage over Frenchmen because of their long legs and large feet.”

Today in 1917: British Mutiny at Étaples Suppressed

Today in 1916: French & Serbians Launch First Offensive from Salonika
Today in 1915: French Evacuate Armenians From Musadagh

Today in 1914: Belgian Attack From Antwerp Halts

Sources include: Andrew Carroll, My Fellow Soldiers; Gary Mead, The Doughboys; Gene Fax, With Their Bare Hands; Nick Lloyd, Hundred Days; David Stevenson, With Our Backs to the Wall.

Ludendorff Plans New Defense Lines

September 6 1918, Avesnes–On September 6, Hindenburg & Ludendorff summoned a final meeting of the army group chief of staff at OHL in Avesnes, a day before OHL was set to relocate to Spa, further away from the endangered front line and closer to the Kaiser.  Hindenburg acknowledged the “extreme seriousness” of the situation: they had, by the 6th, given up almost all of their gains of the year so far, and the Allies were continuing to make headway. Ludendorff continued to blame the men and officers of the German Army for the recent defeats, and announced his plans for continued defense.  Due to shortages of manpower and equipment, every battalion would be reduced from four companies to three. Extreme punishments would be carried out for men found to be shirking in their duty.  The German Army would attempt to hold the Hindenburg Line, but, in case that did not succeed, new defensive lines were to be constructed twenty miles behind that, and the Meuse-Antwerp position even further east would be shored up.

General Lossberg, chief of staff to General Boehn, believed the Hindenburg Line was not in excellent condition and would not hold for long (as the Drocourt-Quéant Switch had not), advocated strongly for the replication of Operation Alberich on a grand scale.  They did not have the resources to build a new defensive line, so the main effort should go into the Meuse-Antwerp line, which would both be highly defensible and over 40 miles shorter than their current lines.  The intervening ground (up to 70 miles in some cases) would be subjected to scorched-earth tactics to slow the inevitable Allied advance and deny them any resources or logistical support in the area.  Once the preparation of the Meuse-Antwerp line was complete, the German Army would withdraw from the Hindenburg Line; experience had shown that the pursuing Allies would not be able to keep up, and the German Army would gain both space and time in which to recuperate.  Ludendorff refused to acknowledge the need for such drastic measures, and continued with his own plan–even refusing to destroy bridges and railroads they would no longer need.

Today in 1917: Haydarpasha Munitions Explosion Sets Back Turkish Operations in Palestine

Today in 1916: PM Asquith Visits the Somme
Today in 1915: Bulgaria Agrees to Join War Against Serbia & Allies
Today in 1914: Austrians Attempt to Envelop Russians at Rava-Ruska

Sources include: Robert B. Asprey, The German High Command at War; Nick Lloyd, Hundred Days.

Canadians Take Drocourt-Quéant Switch Line


The ruins of Quéant, on the southern end of the line, 

September 2 1918, Drocourt–The Germans were withdrawing on a front of 100 miles, but still hoped to stop before reaching the Hindenburg Line. On the northern end of their position was the Drocourt-Quéant Switch Line.  It was built at the same time as the Hindenburg Line, but not occupied with the rest of it in March 1917; it was meant as a fallback position in case the British broke through near Arras, but was just as formidable as the Hindenburg Line.  The Canadian Corps attacked at Arras on August 26, and soon reached the Drocourt-Quéant Switch.  Haig was eager to the continue the attack, but had been warned by the Chief of the Imperial General Staf on September 1 not to suffer unnecessary casualties breaking the Hindenburg Line, and told General Currie not to continue if he had any doubts about taking the line.  Currie was confident in his men, his guns, and the weakness of the Germans, and had begun an intense bombardment as soon as his guns were in range–surprise no longer really being a possibility.

The Canadians attacked at 5AM on September 2 behind a massive creeping barrage.  Once the infantry reached the German trenches, however, the onus was mainly on them; they only had around 50 tanks supporting their advance.  Over the course of seven hours of fierce fighting the German first and second lines were captured, along with 6000 PoWs.  Seven VCs would be awarded that day, including one to Corporal Walter Rayfield:

Ahead of his company, he rushed a trench occupied by a large party of the enemy, personally bayoneting two and taking ten prisoners. Later, he located and engaged with great skill, under constant rifle fire, an enemy sniper who was causing many casualties. He then rushed the section of trench from which the sniper had been operating, and so demoralized the enemy by his coolness and daring that thirty others surrendered to him. Again, regardless of his personal safety, he left cover under heavy machine-gun fire and carried in a badly wounded comrade.

The fall of the Drocourt-Quéant Switch, along with the capture of Péronne by the Australians a day earlier, meant that the hoped-for German defensive line was completely untenable.  The Germans soon withdrew to the Hindenburg Line itself; in the Canadian sector, their new position was also protected by the Canal du Nord.  Around the same time, the Germans also gave up the salient in Flanders won in April in an attempt to shorten their lines.  Plans were also made to move Ludendorff’s and Hindenburg’s OHL headquarters back from Avesnes in France to Spa in Belgium.

Today in 1917: Germans Begin Nighttime Bombing Raids On Britain

Today in 1916: First Airship Shot Down Over Britain
Today in 1915: Australian Reporter Keith Murdoch Visits Gallipoli
Today in 1914: French Government Evacuates to Bordeaux; Germans Celebrate Sedan Anniversary

Sources include: David Stevenson, With Our Backs to the Wall; Nick Lloyd, Hundred Days; Robert B. Asprey, The German High Command at War.

Australians Seize Mont Saint-Quentin

A view of Mont Saint-Quentin (under artillery fire) and Péronne from across the Somme, by F.E. Hodge.

August 31 1918, Péronne–The Germans had withdrawn across the Somme battlefield, leaving the Allies to advance across the broken ground.  The Germans reestablished themselves in a formidable position around the town of Péronne, guarded by the Somme river and nearby marshes.  General Monash, commanding the Australian Corps, planned a frontal assault, but called it off quickly after the first attempt; tanks were of no use, there was no cover, and engineers were unable to throw up bridges across the Somme while under fire.  Instead, Monash decided on a daring raid across the river, hoping to seize the key German position of Mont Saint-Quentin with a small force.  Rawlinson thought the plan inordinately reckless, but let Monash proceed.

After nightfall on August 30, the 5th Australian Brigade, numbering at most around 1350 men, crossed the Somme south of Péronne then made their way six miles north, to the base of the hill.  At 5AM on the 31st, they attacked behind a quick rolling barrage.  One German defender recalled that “It all happened like lightning, and before we had fired a shot we were taken unawares.”  The Australians took the hill and 500 PoWs.  They were driven off by German counterattacks later in the day, but by this point the Australians had been able to cross the Somme in force.  The next day, the hill was recaptured and the Australians entered Péronne; the Germans were forced to withdraw back to the Hindenburg line, where they had started the year.  Rawlinson’s chief of staff would call the operation “one of the most notable examples of pluck and enterprise during the war.”

Today in 1917: New York City Fulfills Draft Quota

Today in 1916: Musical “Chu Chin Chow” Opens Five-Year West End Run
Today in 1915: Benito Mussolini Called Up for Active Duty
Today in 1914: British Attacks into Cameroon Repulsed

Sources include: Randal Gray, Chronicle of the First World War; Nick Lloyd, Hundred Days.

Canadians Attack Near Arras

Horse carts bringing up supplies behind the advancing British armies, near Monchy-le-Preux (captured by the Canadians on August 26), pictured on August 30.

August 26 1918, Arras–The Allied attacks kept coming at an increasing rate and on a broader front in late August.  On the 26th, the Canadians, who had been transferred north from the fighting east of Amiens, attacked near Arras, advancing four miles in a single day.  The pace was exhausting for both sides, but the Germans had the worst of it.  They never knew when the next blow would fall, were low on reserves, and had neither the food nor the fuel to let their troops recuperate from the fighting.  Even troops that had been officially pulled off the front line could not be spared rolling stock to get away, and had to “rest” under enemy shellfire; still others were stuck in the front line for weeks at a time.  Morale was low; one officer complained the next day that much of the infantry “hardly made any use of their rifles,” leaving the artillery and machine-gunners to their own devices (apart from occasional use of the indirect fire of grenades).

That night, the Germans began a general ten-mile withdrawal along a 55-mile front, running from the Aisne to Arras.  The Somme battlefield, fought over for months in 1916, was recaptured with four days.  Many of Ludendorff’s commanders urged a further withdrawal, to the Hindenburg Line where they had started the year, or even further, to the Meuse, but Ludendorff refused to allow anything but limited withdrawals.

Today in 1917: Toscanini Conducts Band On Captured Mountain

Today in 1916: French Planes Reach Bucharest Via Russia
Today in 1915: Kaiser Orders No Attacks on Passenger Ships Without Warning
Today in 1914: German Colony of Togoland Surrenders to British and French

Sources include: Nick Lloyd, Hundred Days; David Stevenson, With Our Backs to the Wall; Randal Gray, Chronicle of the First World War.

British Offensive Expands

A British “Whippet” tank crossing a trench west of Bapaume in late Augsut.

August 23 1918, Bapaume–Byng was satisfied with the advance of Third Army on August 21 around Albert, and wanted his troops to rest and consolidate their gains.  Haig, however, wanted to press the advance on a broad front and keep the pressure up on the Germans.  Organizing another attack in such short notice was logistically difficult:

The artillery had been advancing during the day, and a barrage was organized. Owing to the width of the front to be attacked the barrage could only be a thin one, but what there was of it was reported after the battle to have been extremely good…The whole operation was rendered extremely difficult bowing to the very short time available to get battalions into assembly positions, and to the fact that it was dark very early that night on account of clouds.

Nonetheless, the Germans, having seen the lack of activity on the 22nd, believed the British would not be attacking again so soon, and were once more taken by surprise.  Third Army used around 100 tanks, which were still extremely effective at taking out German strongpoints and demoralizing their infantry; a German soldier later recalled that the “mere mention of a tank was sufficient to put the whole trench into a state of excitement.”  The tanks were not invincible, however; on August 23, in a wartime first, two were taken out by armor-piercing bullets fired from airplanes.  The next day, a single German officer disabled 14 tanks singlehandedly.  Regardless, Third and Fourth Armies, increasingly bolstered by young conscripts, were able to advance two miles on a thirty-three mile front and capture over 7000 German PoWs.

Today in 1917: Black Soldiers in Houston Strike Back at Police

Today in 1916: First “Jasta” Fighter Squadron Created
Today in 1915: Turkish Ambassador Departs Rome After Italian Declaration of War
Today in 1914: Germans Attack British Expeditionary Force at Mons

Sources include: Randal Gray, Chronicle of the First World War; Nick Lloyd, Hundred Days; David Stevenson, With Our Backs to the Wall.

Third Army Resumes British Offensive

A watercolor and ink drawing of the ruined church at Albert, created by Adrian Hill two days after the town was recaptured by the British Third Army.

August 21 1918, Albert–The British offensive by Fourth Army around Amiens had been called off at Rawlinson’s insistence, but Haig, like Foch, was eager to keep the pressure up on the Germans, and ordered an attack for August 21 by Byng’s Third Army to the north.  Byng envisioned a limited “bite-and-hold” style operation, but Haig was more ambitious, telling him to

…break the enemy’s front, and gain Bapaume as soon as possible….Now is the time to act with boldness, and in full confidence that, if we only hit the Enemy hard enough, and continue to press him, he will give way and acknowledge that he is beaten.

Preparations for the attack were carried out in utmost secrecy, as had become the norm: troops were moved at night, artillery batteries were hidden, radio was used no more than usual, and planes flew low over German lines to conceal the noise of tank engines.

When they attacked at dawn on the 21st they achieved total surprise, aided by a heavy fog blanketing the battlefield.  The fog, however, also interfered with the advance, as both infantry and tanks lost their way.  They eventually advanced two to three miles, reaching their objectives, but not achieving the sort of breakthrough they had at Amiens; heavy German artillery fire prevented a further advance.  When Byng did not follow up on the attack the next day, the Germans believed they had, if not won a victory, at least prevented a third “black day” for their army.

Sources include: Nick Lloyd, Hundred Days; David Stevenson, With Our Backs to the Wall; Randal Gray, Chronicle of the First World War.

Today in 1917: Lenin Flees to Finland

Today in 1916: UK Bans Almost All Exports to Sweden
Today in 1915: Final Allied Offensive at Gallipoli Fails
Today in 1914: German Forces Cross the Sambre

Major French Success Near Soissons

August 20 1918, Soissons–Foch’s strategy, beginning with Amiens, had been to launch continued “freeing attacks,” continually attacking the Germans at different places along their line to put them off balance.  This continued on August 20 with an attack between Soissons and Compiègne by Mangin’s Tenth Army, which had seen heavy fighting attacking the German salient on the Marne the previous month.  Mangin, who had acquired a reputation for recklessness with the lives of his men at Verdun, had learned the lessons of 1916 and 1917 and had planned meticulously for his assault: troops would be moved up at night, air cover would prevent German reconnaissance, the preliminary bombardment would be short but intense, tanks would be used extensively, and the advancing infantry would employ assault tactics.  

Launched at 7:10AM on August 20, Mangin’s attack was a great success, capturing 8000 PoWs and advancing three miles.  For the Germans, this was a sign that the defeat at Amiens had not been a fluke; it seemed the Allies could win victories of a similar magnitude every two weeks.  Ludendorff called August 20th “another black day” and authorized a withdrawal behind the Oise, then the Ailette.  Mangin desperately wanted to follow up on his success, but Pétain refused to give him the reserves he asked for, seeing no need to be profligate with the lives of French soldiers when the Americans were on their way.  Nonetheless, by the end of the month the French had retaken Noyon (a town of great symbolic importance to PM Clemenceau) and captured more than 30,000 prisoners.

Today in 1917: French Offensive at Verdun

Today in 1916: U-35 Completes Most Successful Submarine Patrol in History
Today in 1915: Novogeorgievsk Fortress Surrenders
Today in 1914: Germans Defeated by Russians at Gumbinnen

Sources include: Nick Lloyd, Hundred Days; David Stevenson, With Our Backs to the Wall.

Action of Outtersteene Ridge

Wounded troops from the 9th (Scottish) Division, on the left flank of the British attack, preparing to be evacuated to the rear on a light narrow-gauge railway from Meteren.

August 18 1918, Outtersteene–Although the British had called off major operations near Amiens, at Rawlinson’s insistence, the British advance still continued there as the Germans withdrew or as local circumstances dictated.  Additionally, attacks continued elsewhere, in line with Foch’s overall plan to keep up the pressure on the Germans all along their line.  On August 18, three divisions from Plumer’s Second Army in Flanders attacked the Outtersteene Ridge, south of Mt. Kemmel on the German salient created by the German offensive there in April.  The attack gained around a mile and a few hundred German PoWs were captured.  Otherwise, Flanders would remain relatively quiet until late September, but the British success could not have eased the nerves of Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria, the German commander in the area, who had already told Prince Max of Baden: “Our military situation has deteriorated so rapidly that I no longer believe we can hold out over the winter; it is even possible that a catastrophe will come earlier.”

Today in 1917: Great Fire of Salonika

Today in 1916: British Fail to Take Guillemont
Today in 1915: Germans Fire on British Submarine Grounded on Danish Island
Today in 1914:  Belgian King Albert Orders Evacuation to Antwerp

Sources include: Randal Gray, Chronicle of the First World War.