1918: Australians in France · Battles; Amiens. 8th August, 1918, by Septimus Power.
On 11 August 1918 there was a conference presided over by the Kaiser at von Hindenburg’s headquarters at Avesnes.
On 11 August 1918 there was a conference presided over by the Kaiser at von Hindenburg’s headquarters at Avesnes. At it the Kaiser uttered: ‘I see that we must strike a balance. We have nearly reached the limit of our power of resistance. The war must be ended.’ Two days later there was a further high level conference at Spa. Ludendorff stated that Germany no longer had the means to launch another offensive ‘to force the enemy to sue for peace by an offensive’ and ‘as the defensive alone could hardly achieve that object . . . the termination of the war would have to be brought about by diplomacy.’ Von Hindenburg, according to his memoirs, took a slightly different view:
If the enemy repeated these attacks with the same fury, in view of the present constitution of our army, there was at any rate some prospect of our powers of resistance being gradually paralysed. On the other hand, the fact that the enemy had once more failed to extract all possible advantages from his great initial success gave me the hope that we should overcome further crises.
He also reminded those present that ‘we were still standing deep in the enemy’s country’. He argued that peace feelers should not be put out until there had been an improvement in the military situation. All this implied that he hoped that the Allies would allow the Germans a respite before they attacked again. This was not to be so.
On 12 August King George V and Queen Mary, who had been in France during the Amiens attack, visited the Fourth Army. The King inspected elements of the US 33rd Division, although the 131st Regiment was not present, being still in the line, and conferred on Pershing and General Tasker Bliss, the US representative on the Supreme War Council, the Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath. Their Majesties then went on to visit III Corps, Amiens, and finally the Australians at Bertangles, where he knighted Monash. Rawlinson was present only part of the time. Haig came to his HQ in the afternoon to brief him, Debeney, and Byng on the next phase. He stated that the immediate objective for the Fourth Army was the line from Chaulnes to the high ground east of Roye and that the advance was to be generally north-east. The Third Army was to break through and aim for Bapaume, the idea being to turn the flank of the Germans in front of Rawlinson. Haig stated that Rawlinson should renew the offensive on the 15th and that Byng, reinforced with two cavalry and four infantry divisions, together with 200 tanks, was to attack on the 20th.
Rawlinson noted that the attack would be continuing across the old Somme battlefields, and the trenches would be ‘full of MG nests so I fear we will have a higher casualty list’.4 When he went through the plan with Sir Arthur Currie, the latter was aghast. He produced air photographs of the German defences and also warned of the likely high casualty bill. He was therefore opposed to the attack. Rawlinson forwarded Currie’s views to Haig, who cancelled the attack the day before it was due to take place. Next day he had a somewhat acrimonious interview with Foch, who was angry at the cancellation. Haig replied that he alone was responsible for the operations of the British Army and Foch calmed down.
Meanwhile, Ludendorff had authorized a slight withdrawal by the Seventeenth Army in front of Byng in order to remove a salient south of Bucquoy and thus save on manpower. Byng reported this on 14 August and followed up, although the Germans pulled back little more than a mile and it did not affect their main defensive position. Byng launched his main attack on 21 August, again with fog to assist him. On the first day the attack reached the Arras-Amiens railway, an advance of about 2 miles, but the main German defences had not been reached and hence there was no opportunity for the cavalry and armoured cars to exploit as they had done on 8 August. Byng, cautious by nature, now ordered a pause on the grounds that his men were suffering from the heat and the artillery needed to redeploy. This made his opponent, Otto von Below, the Seventeenth Army commander, believe that he had shot his bolt and he began to prepare a counter-attack. All this was in contrast to what was happening in the French sector. On 20 August the tough General Charles Mangin launched his Tenth Army from the Aisne to the Oise and in two days advanced some 5 miles. On his left Humbert resumed his assault on the following day and advanced in step with Mangin. In the light of this Haig was not best pleased when he heard of Byng’s decision. On 22 August he issued a note to his army commanders. It stated in part:
The methods which we have followed, hitherto, in our battles with limited objectives when the enemy was strong, are no longer suited to the present conditions.
The enemy has not the means to deliver counter-attacks on an extended scale, nor has he the numbers to hold a position against the very extended advance which is now being directed upon him.
To turn the present situation to account the most resolute offensive is everywhere desirable. Risks which a month ago would have been criminal to incur, ought now to be incurred as a duty.
It is no longer necessary to advance in regular lines and step. On the contrary, each division should be given a distant objective which must be reached independently of its neighbour, and even if one’s flank is thereby exposed for the time being.
With 8 August clearly echoing in his ears, Haig could sense that ultimate victory lay just around the corner.
On the same day of 22 August von Below launched a series of counter-attacks against the Third Army, but they were poorly coordinated and repulsed without too much difficulty. To the south Rawlinson’s III Corps attacked, its objectives Albert and high ground between the Somme and the Ancre. It was almost totally successful, apart from a counter-attack against the 47th Division, which drove one of its brigades from ground it had just captured. Pressured by Haig, Byng resumed his attack on 23 August. It began in the early hours of the morning with preliminary attacks. VI Corps in the north launched its main attack at 4.55 a.m., while that of IV Corps began at 11 a.m. The tanks played their part, as did the RAF, and by the end of the day the River Sensée had been reached in the north, while in the centre it came to a halt just 3 miles west of Bapaume. Some 5,000 German prisoners were also taken, an indication that German morale was slipping.
After Amiens Ludendorff had refused to sanction any significant withdrawals in order to shorten the front but he did agree to a construction of an extension to the Hindenburg Line (called the Siegfried Line by the Germans), which the Germans had built in winter 1916-17 and withdrawn to in the spring of 1917. Known as the Wotan Position by the Germans it ran from south of the River Scarpe up to just east of Armentières, and was called Drocourt-Quéant Switch Line by the British. On 26 August Ludendorff relented and gave orders for the Second Army, still facing Rawlinson, and the Eighteenth Army to its left to begin withdrawing to this line. But, driven on by Haig, Byng and Rawlinson had continued to attack, with the Australian Corps being particularly aggressive. General Sir Henry Horne’s First Army joined in on 26 August. The Canadian Corps, which had been returned to Horne, advanced 4 miles down the Arras-Cambrai road, outflanking the northern extremity of the Hindenburg before coming to a short halt in front of the Drocourt- Quéant Line two days later. Then, on the night of 30/31 August, in the Fourth Army sector, the Australians crossed the Somme and Somme Canal between Clery and Péronne and turfed the crack 2nd Guards Division off the dominant Mont St Quentin to the north of Péronne.
The Germans were still fighting hard, sufficient to inflict some 120,000 casualties on the BEF during August, but this had to be balanced against the 63,000 prisoners and 870 guns that had fallen into British hands. In truth they were being stretched on the rack. As the Bavarian Official History described it:
. . . the German front ached and groaned in every joint under the increasing blows delivered with every fresh and increasing force [sic]. Heavy losses in men, horses and material had been suffered, and the expenditure of man-power had reached terrifying proportions. The German divisions just melted away. Reinforcements, in spite of demands and entreaties, were not forthcoming. Only by breaking up further divisions and regiments in the field could the gap be more or less filled.
Ludendorff was forced to sanction further withdrawals to the main Hindenburg defences, as well as accept the loss of the territory the Germans had gained during their April 1918 Lys offensive. This was followed up by the British Armies and the French First, Third, and Tenth Armies.
But if Foch and Haig, and the other senior commanders, increasingly had their tails up, the British government was becoming concerned. Lloyd George instructed Sir Henry Wilson, the CIGS, to send Haig a note ‘warning him that the War Cabinet would not approve attacks on the Hindenburg Line involving heavy casualties whether to British or American troops.’ Wilson sent it marked ‘H W personal’, writing that ‘the War Cabinet would become anxious if we received heavy punishment in attacking the Hindenburg Line WITHOUT SUCCESS [sic].’ Haig not surprisingly took umbrage, considering the Cabinet to be ‘underhand’ in their interfering, and ‘do not dare openly to say that they mean to take the responsibility for any failure though ready to take the credit for every success!’ He replied to Wilson: ‘What a wretched lot! How well they mean to support me! What confidence!’ Wilson responded with a placatory note saying that it was not that the Cabinet had lost confidence in them, but that they were still deeply concerned over manpower and were also ‘curiously hostile’ to the Americans and the French. This is probably because it appeared in London that during August the BEF had been doing most of the fighting, but this would change.
September opened with the British First Army assaulting and breaking through the Drocourt-Quéant Line, again achieved by the Canadians. Then, on 3 September, Foch issued a fresh directive. The British, supported by the adjoining French armies, were to press on towards Cambrai and St Quentin, while the French would push beyond the Aisne. The Americans, now given the opportunity to operate as a distinct entity, were to first remove the German salient at St Mihiel and then advance with the French Fourth Army towards Mézières. As Foch explained to Colonel Charles à Court Repington, the London Morning Post war correspondent, it was a question of ‘Tout le monde va à la bataille . . . We hammer them everywhere. This will go on for six weeks . . . In the end they’ll be worn out.’ Haig was imbued with the same spirit. He returned to London on 9 September, after agreeing an attack in Flanders with the Belgians, and saw the Secretary of State for War, Lord Milner. He sought to impress upon him how much the situation had changed on the Western Front in recent weeks:
The discipline of the German Army is quickly going, and the German officer is no longer what he was. It seems to me to be the beginning of the end . . . What is wanted now at once is to provide the means to exploit our recent successes to the full. Reserves in England should be regarded as Reserves for the French front, and all yeomanry, cyclists etc. now kept for civil [home] defence should be sent to France at once [sic]. If we act with energy now a decision can be obtained in the very near future.
This should be set against the backdrop that at the time the Supreme War Council was looking to finish the war with a final offensive in summer 1919. It was called Plan 1919 and orders had already been placed for the production of a new tank, the Medium D, with the aim of having 1,000 of them ready for the offensive. The British and French governments were therefore bent on building up strength for this, rather than incurring heavy casualties during autumn 1918. In spite of this Lord Milner agreed to give Haig all the support he could.
Pershing’s First US Army duly attacked the nose of the St Mihiel Salient on 12 September, assisted by the French Fourth Army on the left. In the space of a week the salient had been eradicated, with 15,000 prisoners and 250 guns taken. On that same day of 12 September the 56th (London) Division (Third Army) captured Havrincourt and, aided by two other divisions, threw back a counter-attack by four of Germany’s best divisions. It was the last significant counter-attack to be made in the British sector. It also marked the beginning of the closing up to the Hindenburg Line phase.
While this was going on two further blows were struck. The Americans had extended to their left to take in most of the Argonne Forest. With Henri Gouraud’s Fourth French Army again on their left they struck northwards between the Rivers Suippe and Meuse on 26 September. The following day the British First and Third Armies resumed their advance towards Cambrai. On 27 September the Belgians and British Second Army joined in, with an offensive north of the Lys. Finally, on 29 September the British Fourth and French First Armies ruptured the Hindenburg Line, with the 46th Division crossing the Canal du Nord at a stroke, and began to fight their way through the rest of the German defensive belt. Ludendorff, who had been forced to take a short rest at the beginning of the month because of nervous exhaustion, looked at the situation map, and with Bulgaria already about to sue for peace, declared at a Council of War with the foreign secretary that Germany must seek an immediate armistice.
On 5 October the British armies finally fought their way through the complex of defences that made up the Hindenburg Line, with the Canadians fighting their way across the old Cambrai battlefield and into the town itself. In the north the Flanders offensive initially progressed well, but the ground which had been so fought over during the late summer and autumn of 1917 became almost as boggy as it was then. This time it was resupply that became badly affected, so much so that no less than 15,000 rations for Belgian and French troops taking part had to be dropped by air. This forced a pause. In the centre of the Allied line the French were advancing steadily across the Aisne and northwards, while the Americans had cleared the Argonne Forest and were now about to form a second army. In the meantime the Germans had appointed a new chancellor, Prince Max of Baden, to handle the negotiations for an armistice. He made a request to President Woodrow Wilson for an armistice based on the Allied terms issued under Wilson’s Fourteen Points at the beginning of the year. His reply was not that which von Hindenburg wanted. Wilson demanded the agreement to the evacuation of all occupied territory in the West as a precondition. Von Hindenburg, on the other hand, clearly hoped for an armistice with the German forces holding their present positions. As he wrote to his wife:
The armistice is militarily necessary to us. We shall soon be at the end of our strength. If the peace does not follow, then we shall at least have disengaged ourselves from the enemy, rested ourselves and won time. Then we shall be more fit to fight than now, if that is necessary. But I don’t believe that after two – three months any country will have the desire to begin war again.