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Allied soldiers on the front line in France, 1918.

Allied soldiers on the front line in France, 1918.

1918: Year of Victory and Defeat

When the Great War broke out in 1914, the German imperial army was regarded as the finest fighting force on earth. Just four years later, it was crushed by Britain and its allies.

For most of the past hundred years, horror, sorrow and trauma have been the leading motifs of the First World War. They define how its centenary has been commemorated. On one level, this makes sense. Aside from the occasional inspiring story of self-sacrifice, only fools and knaves find much to celebrate in war and each generation has a duty to warn the next of its evil. Over the last four years, however, it has been easy to forget that this was not a war in which there were no victors. Few in Britain or France during the 1920s and 1930s, whatever their struggles, would ever have wished to exchange places with their counterparts in the states roiled by violence, revolution and worse that succeeded imperial Germany, Austria-Hungary and tsarist Russia. Better not to fight, but if you must fight, then it is better to win. In 1918 the British found themselves on the victorious side of the largest and most complex war to date. How did they get there?

This war was not won by Tommies in the trenches of France and Flanders alone, of course. Conflict raged on other fronts, too, from the battlefronts of the Atlantic, Greece, Mesopotamia and Palestine to the less violent but no less competitive struggles for economic, industrial, scientific, propaganda and diplomatic superiority. Farmers, factory workers and housewives, as well as sailors, soldiers and airmen, all made their sacrifices and played their part. Nor was Britain alone: it fought as part of two huge coalitions: an international alliance with France, the United States (who entered the war in 1917), Italy and others; and the imperial coalition of dominions and colonies. Nonetheless, in the course of 1918 it was British soldiers and airmen on the Western Front, working together with their Belgian, French and US allies, who broke the back of a military power that had inspired fear and awe around the world for at least half a century and which drove the German High Command to beg for peace.

Indeed, 1918 proved the most successful year in the history of the British army. Never before or since has it exerted such influence on the global stage and advanced Britain’s foreign policy aims so completely. It helped defeat the Central Powers, end the First World War and ensured that Britain had a crucial seat at the Paris peace conference, all while safeguarding and reinforcing its imperial position around the globe.

German confidence

None of this seemed at the time to be inevitable. On the last day of 1917, Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria, the senior German general commanding more than a million men facing the British on the Western Front, closed his diary for the year. After reviewing the problems of manpower and transport affecting the war effort, he nonetheless concluded that, with revolutionary Russia knocked out, ‘our situation is not without its dangers, but at least we are better placed now than at the end of last year. So let us confidently look forward to 1918 and hope that it can bring us victory and peace’.

In London and Paris, victory and peace looked, at best, far off. The Russians had left but the Americans were yet to arrive. The terrible battles of 1917 had yielded little more than casualties and Prime Minister David Lloyd George had lost patience with the commander of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), Sir Douglas Haig. Repeated claims from Haig’s headquarters that the German army was on the brink of collapse seemed no closer to fruition now than a year earlier. Lloyd George clipped Haig’s wings by purging his senior staff and refusing him all the manpower that he had demanded for the 1918 campaign. One consequence of the manpower shortage was a far-reaching reorganisation of the BEF. The only way to keep the units up to strength was to disband several divisions and reconfigure the rest from 12 infantry battalions to nine. These changes proved highly disruptive, despite the fact that British intelligence was fully aware that the Germans were shuttling divisions over from Russia in preparation for a major offensive in the West.

Known as the Kaiser’s Battle, the offensive began on 21 March with a huge operation, codenamed ‘Michael’. More than 70 divisions and around a million men, supported by 10,000 artillery guns and heavy mortars, attacked the British right flank from Arras down to south of St Quentin. Outnumbering the defenders by about three to one, the Germans made substantial early ground. On the first day alone, they captured more territory than the Entente had done in the 140 days of the Battle of the Somme in 1916. Over the next few days, the German advance continued. The BEF was stretched to the limit and needed to pull in French reinforcements to plug gaps in the line. In response, for the first time in the war, the Allies appointed a supreme commander, a French general, Ferdinand Foch, to pull together all their forces.

By 26 March, with Entente resistance stiffening, the German advance was beginning to slow. Assault troops were tiring and supplies were running low. General Erich Ludendorff (who, with Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, was joint head of the German army), over-estimated his success. Thinking the British already beaten, he split his forces, hoping to finish off the BEF and defeat the French at the same time. By 30 March the German push had stalled. Michael was formally suspended on 5 April.

Backs to the wall

Attention now switched to Flanders and a second German offensive, codenamed ‘Operation Georgette’, which began on 9 April. This was a less ambitious attack, aiming an upper cut towards the rail junction at Hazebrouck, hoping to destabilise the Ypres salient and threaten the Channel ports. Again, early results were good: the British evacuated Armentières and gave up all the ground around Passchendaele they had bled so painfully to win the previous autumn. Haig ordered his men, ‘with our backs to the wall’, to fight to the last. After a few days, though, Georgette, too, began to lose momentum. Hazebrouck remained out of reach and the Germans no longer had the strength to exploit occasional successes, such as the capture of the important high ground at Mount Kemmel. Georgette was finally halted on 29 April, by which time another drive towards Amiens had been turned back at Villers-Bretonneux by Australian, British and French troops.

Even by the standards of the First World War, casualties in Michael and Georgette were heavy: fighting in the open was bloodier than trench warfare. Every day the British, on average, lost more than half as many men again as they had lost even in the bloodiest battle so far: the Battle of Arras (April-May 1917). April 1918 was the most dangerous month to be a German soldier since the opening few months of the war. In all, the British suffered casualties of 259,000 men killed, wounded or missing, the French 107,000 and the Germans 325,000.

German stormtroops depicted in ‘Either … Or …’, from the magazine Simplicissimus, August 1918. Illustration by Eduard Thöny.

Historians have tended to describe these battles according to a common pattern of brilliant German tactics initially overcoming a brave but weak British defence and then being eventually let down by logistic weakness and strategic and operational blunders, by Ludendorff in particular. This consensus depicts the Germans using mobile, aggressive ‘stormtroop’ tactics, combined with a decentralised, flexible system of mission command, whereby the leader on the spot was given maximum room to decide for himself, to infiltrate and overrun a system of defence-in-depth, which the British had cribbed from the Germans and failed either to grasp or to apply properly. British command and control were paralysed, while the soldiers of the BEF, often cut off in small units, fought bravely but in vain and seemed unable to stem the field-grey tide. The German attacks stalled only when replacements and supplies ran out. This logistic vulnerability, combined with Ludendorff’s obsession with tactics at the expense of operations or strategy, led to failure.

This narrative is primarily one about the German army. It assumes that it would have succeeded had its commanders not made certain mistakes. It fits into a widely held view of the German army in the first half of the 20th century as being, politics aside and considered purely as a technical instrument, a superb fighting force. There are three problems with this myth.

Challenging the myths

First, reality was considerably more complex and nuanced. Second, German failure was the result, not only of things the Germans did wrong, but also of things the British and French got right. Even on 21 March, tactical success had been far from uniform: excellent progress in the south was offset by relative failure in the north. Not all German troops were capable of operating at the highest level. For instance, Operation Mars, a badly botched attack around Arras on 28 March, is rarely mentioned by historians because it does not fit the pattern. Artillery performed poorly. Not all German troops had been trained in stormtroop tactics and, in any case, the enemy positions in this sector were well established and complex, leaving little room for infiltration. Indeed, since the terrain did not favour defence-in-depth, the British used a traditional forward defensive scheme. Many German units reverted to their usual close-order tactics but, with little fog to mask them, proved easy targets as they crossed No Man’s Land. By early afternoon, Mars was suspended. Throughout March and April, even where the Germans employed the new tactics, they seemed unable repeatedly to shake off the habits of trench warfare and keep up with the tempo of mobile operations. Some artillery batteries used the latest tactics for firing by the map to retain surprise, but many did not. Finally, far from leaving subordinates free to use their initiative within a decentralised model of command, corps, army headquarters and Ludendorff himself tried to exercise too much control, micro-managing far down the hierarchy. In other words, whatever the shortcomings of German logistics and strategic decision-making, success and failure depended at least as much on other contingent factors, such as terrain, weather and the strength of the Allied defence, as it did on German tactical excellence.

The third problem with the myth is more fundamental. However the spring offensives were executed and whatever the extent that Allied resilience came as a surprise, they would have failed in any event because the conception underlying them was deeply flawed. The Kaiser’s Battle was almost certainly hopeless. In Ludendorff’s haste to win the war before the US could make its might felt, he failed to draw up a carefully considered plan arranging available means in appropriate ways to achieve clearly defined strategic and political ends. He was not a fool, nor irrationally obsessed with tactics, although he has often been criticised on both grounds. His decision to attack the BEF reflected a correct political insight: if he could knock Britain out of the war, France might follow. He also saw that tactics were important because ‘without tactical success there could be no strategy. Strategy which gives no thought to tactics is doomed to failure’. But he failed to create the bridge between tactics and his political wish-list. He set no realistic objectives, much less worked out how to achieve them, partly because he exaggerated what could be achieved with the resources he possessed and partly because he underestimated his enemies’ strength and determination by this stage of the war. Ludendorff’s belief that he could break the enemy coalition and force peace negotiations was based more on hope than on analysis. One cannot avoid the suspicion that he decided to attack, less because he genuinely believed he would win the war than because he was not prepared to admit defeat.

Further blows

After the end of April, the Germans unleashed a further series of heavy blows in the French sector: Operation Blücher-Yorck across the River Aisne on 27 May; Gneisenau near Noyon on 9 June; and Marne-Reims on 15 July. British involvement, with the exception of a few unlucky formations caught up in the battles by accident, was slight; German returns, however, diminished with each attack. The 15 July operation, in particular, enjoyed little success. French and US troops were ready for it and surprised the attackers with a devastating counter-attack of their own on 18 July.

This marked the final shift of initiative on the Western Front. From now on Germany had to give up any thought of another offensive in Flanders and to fight only on the defensive. The spring offensives had cost Germany nearly a million casualties. Although Allied losses in the first half of 1918 were comparably heavy, US troops were arriving quickly and more than made up the shortfall. As the Second Battle of the Marne petered out, Foch felt that, at last, the time had come for US, Belgian, British and French forces to go over to a general offensive.

Lieutenant General Henry Rawlinson’s British Fourth Army would strike the first blow east of Amiens, supported by the French First Army under General Marie-Eugène Debeney. Initially intended merely to make safe the important rail links running through the city of Amiens and to recapture Montdidier, the first day of the attack brought stunning success. Achieving complete surprise, Rawlinson’s experienced Australian, British and Canadian troops struck in the early morning mist of 8 August, with artillery, tanks, infantry and aircraft all combining to produce a model display of modern combined arms warfare, overrunning the defenders as the Allies drove up to eight miles into the German rear. Over 17,000 men were captured, a fact which disgusted Ludendorff so much that he later called this ‘the black day of the German army’.

Allied progress over the following days was less dramatic and by 11 August the offensive had pretty much stalled. In previous years the British and French might have carried on bashing fruitlessly away at stiffening resistance with ever more tired troops. By 1918, however, lessons had been learnt: Foch, Haig and Rawlinson agreed to suspend the Fourth Army attack. Instead, different British and French armies launched a series of assaults over the next fortnight up and down the line. By early September, at least five Allied armies and over a million men were attacking on a front around 100km wide from Arras to south of the River Oise. The French had liberated Noyon, while British troops cleared the old Somme battlefield and occupied the ruins of Albert and Bapaume. The Germans withdrew to the positions in which they had started the year, the defences of the so-called Hindenburg Line.

The Allies had advanced to the Hindenburg Line by the last week in September. Preparations were complete to seize it in the climactic battle of the First World War and, indeed, the largest ever fought in Western Europe. Between 26 and 29 September, over 120 Allied divisions drove into the German defences from Ypres almost to Verdun, setting ablaze a stretch of the front over 300km long. The fighting was bitter, progress often painfully slow and casualties predictably heavy. Nonetheless, the German army had no way of stopping the Allied advance. On 29 September, Ludendorff and Hindenburg, terrified that what had happened in Russia might also take place in Germany, demanded an immediate armistice to preserve their army from destruction. They were keen to keep it whole in case they needed it to prop up the kaiser’s regime and suppress a Bolshevik revolution. They reconstructed the government along slightly more liberal lines in an attempt to forestall a coup and sent a note to US President Woodrow Wilson asking for peace negotiations. When news of this request for an armistice got out, morale plummeted among both the civilian population at home and members of the military.

Fighting retreat

On 8 October another large-scale set-piece Allied attack drove the Germans out of the last remaining stretch of the Hindenburg Line, but the killing was far from over. The German army, covered by determined groups of machine-gunners, executed a skilful fighting retreat. They improvised defensive positions along river lines to force the Allies to pay dearly for every yard of France they liberated. Poor weather, a shortage of tanks and crews and the logistic difficulties of moving munitions and supplies up over a shattered road and rail network, all made it harder for the BEF to employ combined arms warfare as successfully as they had in the late summer. Nonetheless, in a series of battles through the second half of October and first week of November, the British captured towns such as Courtrai and Valenciennes and fought their way across the rivers Selle and Sambre. By the time the Armistice came into effect at 11am on 11 November, elements of the BEF were back where their war had begun in the Belgian town of Mons. Each side had suffered over a million casualties on the Western Front since July.

Rupprecht’s hopes for the new year had been shattered. Germany’s defeat was total. Its allies had fallen away and sued for peace after defeats in Italy, the Balkans and Palestine. Mutiny in the German navy sparked a revolution, which flashed across the country, overthrowing the imperial regime and sweeping the kaiser and other German royals from their thrones. Rupprecht’s father fled into exile, while the prince himself, with the help of the Spanish ambassador, was smuggled into neutral Netherlands under a false name (‘Mr Landsberg’). It was more than a year before he was able to settle back in Bavaria; he never did ascend his throne. The myth that the German army had been stabbed in the back on the home front, while remaining unbeaten in the field, was a dangerous lie, designed to shift blame for defeat from the military, which it suited first the politicians of Weimar and then the Nazis to perpetuate.

The BEF in France did not win the war on its own. This was a complex conflict played out and decided in many different dimensions, with the efforts of Britain’s allies and events on other fronts, all significant. The economic blockade imposed by the Royal Navy, with US help, created real distress on the German home front. The defeat of the imperial army, however, not only knocked away one of the major props of the regime, it struck at the heart of Germany’s sense of itself. The military was the centre of gravity of imperial Germany: once it was removed, it span out of control.

Smashing stereotypes

Winning on the Western Front was uniquely important. What factors helped the British do that? Over the last 30 years or so, historians have reacted against the old ‘lions led by donkeys’ stereotypes by highlighting how much the BEF had learnt over the course of the war, especially tactically. It became capable of competing head-on with the world’s best. The integration of technology and tactics into a combined arms weapons system, coupled with an operational approach that broke off offensives before they ran out of steam and replaced exploitation in depth with breadth, greatly improved British effectiveness, even if the new approaches were not always applied universally. Moreover, the BEF had learnt not only how to fight, but how to learn, developing a range of formal and informal channels to disseminate practice around the huge institution that it had become by 1918.

This ‘learning curve’ was only one of the foundations of success. Nothing could be achieved unless industry was geared up to provide all the materiel needed to fight. A reliable logistic system had to distribute supplies where they were most required. Both were in place by 1918. To give just one example: the British lost large numbers of aeroplanes during Operation Michael, but they were speedily replaced. On 8 April the RAF flew more aircraft in action than on 21 March.

Leadership was another important factor. By 1918, any remaining old buffers had been replaced by a new hardier breed of experienced commanders at all levels, who knew their business and inspired the confidence of their men. Improved decision-making and greater trust in the ability of subordinates allowed a measure of decentralised command. Permitting the ‘man on the spot’ to decide without continually referring up the chain of command, even if it did not always happen and the habits of trench warfare and central control often proved hard to break, served at times to accelerate the tempo of operations and add greater flexibility.

Better leadership and material superiority fed through to good morale. Even during the retreats and disasters of March and April, German intelligence officers were struck by the confidence in final victory displayed by British prisoners of war. Once the Allies went over to the offensive, that confidence only grew. As Major R.H. Ripon later wrote:

We felt we were being used in an intelligent way for an intelligent purpose. We felt for the first time we were of use. We felt for the first time we were not just being bunged, quite unintelligently, like a fives ball against a front wall of a fives court: with as much chance of getting through as a fives ball. From then on to the finish in November things were totally different.

Decisive factors

Three other factors also contributed to British victory. First, by 1918 Britain had learnt to work well within her alliances, cooperating effectively with both her international peers and the so-called ‘lion cubs’ of the Empire. Second, for all the ongoing friction between politicians and the military, Britain had united around a clear and realistic view of what kind of war this was and what would be necessary to win it. Earlier mirages of ‘business as usual’ had burnt off long ago. This was a war of survival; the enemy must be utterly crushed.

The grim common sense of Britain and its allies contrasted with a lack of strategic realism within the German High Command. Deciding to go to war in the first place had been a fatal error. Choosing to continue it, even after defeat on the Marne in September 1914 doomed their gamble to failure, was a disaster. The inability, or unwillingness, of the German military establishment to see that the spring offensives were no more than the most forlorn of hopes, led to the bloodiest year of an already bloody war and was symptomatic of a Germany so worn down by four years of war that it was devoid, not only of men and materiel, but of ideas. The weakness of the German army is the third, and final, factor that explains British victory in 1918.

To fight a successful defensive battle and then make the transition to a victorious offensive is one of the hardest things to pull off in war. Montgomery did it in the desert in 1942; Bill Slim did it in Burma in 1944-45. But, impressive as both campaigns were, neither can compete in scale or importance with the achievement of Douglas Haig’s BEF on the Western Front in 1918. For the first and last time in history, the British army played a leading role in defeating the enemy’s main force in the central theatre of operations: the German army that had set the standard worldwide since the 1860s. The fact that it managed to do so while projecting British power around the whole globe, from Archangel to Zanzibar, only makes the achievement more impressive. A hundred years later, we may not want to celebrate that achievement. We should at least commemorate it.

Jonathan Boff is a Senior Lecturer in History and War Studies at the University of Birmingham and the author of Haig’s Enemy: Crown Prince Rupprecht and Germany’s War on the Western Front, 1914-18 (Oxford, 2018).

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