Chris Bambery takes a critical look at ‘revisionist’ claims about the pre-eminence of the BEF in the Hundred Days Offensive of autumn 1918.
Whereas histories of the First World War were once dominated, in Britain at least, by the ‘lions led by donkeys’ stereotypes of Oh! What a Lovely War and Blackadder, the pendulum has today swung back, behind what was once regarded as the ‘revisionist’ school.
The argument is that the British Army followed a learning curve during the war, which meant that, by 1918, it was in prime position. The crisis in French morale revealed by the mutinies of spring 1917 following the debacle of the Chemin des Dames Offensive, and the fact that the newly arrived American units were not yet combat-experienced and battle-hardened, left the British Expeditionary Force as the only army capable of defeating Germany.
Further, while it is admitted that Haig was no genius, the argument runs that by 1918 he was able to co-ordinate successfully all elements of military force – artillery, armour, airpower, and infantry – to achieve a decisive victory in the series of operations known collectively as ‘The Hundred Days’.
That victory, revisionist historians maintain, grew out of his previous attrition strategy of 1916-1917, when, at the Somme and Passchendaele, while not achieving a breakthrough, he had substantially weakened the enemy.
Haig is credited with ensuring that Britain’s main war-effort was concentrated on the Western Front, while the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, looked to ‘get rich quick’ schemes in Italy, the Balkans, and Palestine.
Despite having to accept the overall command of the French Marshal Ferdinand Foch, Haig, we are told, insisted on his own plans, winning the Frenchman over.
There is much here which could be debated, but I wish to concentrate on the Hundred Days and the claim that the British Army defeated Imperial Germany in what might be considered its greatest ever victory.
The Hundred Days flowed from the eventual failure of General Erich Ludendorff’s Spring Offensive of early 1918, when he took the gamble of committing the German Army to an all-out effort with the aim of knocking Britain and France out of the war before American troops entered the field in substantial numbers.
Three blows left the Allies reeling. The first attack, aimed at the vital rail junction of Amiens, had led Haig to envisage a retreat to the Channel Ports and a Dunkirk-style evacuation and the French general Philippe Pétain to withdrawing southwards to cover Paris.
The British and French governments intervened, calling a conference where Foch was appointed supreme commander of the Allied armies, thus ensuring that from then on the whole Western Front was under one command.
The immediate crisis ended when Ludendorff changed the thrust of attack, dispersing his forces, and the Germans overran their supply lines. Ludendorff then attacked in Flanders, but he failed to break through to the sea. Then he aimed directly at Paris, but the French knew of his plan and acted effectively to parry the blow.
Judging the moment, Foch summoned Haig, Pétain, and Pershing to Château Bombon on 24 July, where he unveiled a plan for a series of surprise attacks in different places at regular intervals. Under his supreme campaign the Western Front could now be treated as one front, with the main effort being switched from one point of attack to another, and with the Germans constantly transferring their reserves, often to little effect.
GERMANY AT FULL STRETCH
The Spring Offensive had depended on bringing troops westwards after the peace had been signed with Bolshevik Russia. But that could not wholly alter the fact that the Germans were over-extended, committed on too many fronts, with 500,000 occupation troops needed in former Tsarist territories, and with German troops propping up their Austro-Hungarian, Bulgarian, and Turkish allies.
The British naval blockade meant food was in short supply, fomenting discontent at home for the Germans, as were vital raw materials like rubber and oil. Germany lacked trucks to bring up supplies from the railheads, and those they had lacked hard-wearing rubber tyres.
The new territories seized in the east could supply oil and wheat, but that required military-imposed order and the rebuilding of communications. Germany faced a manpower and supply crisis.
Despite this, the final months of the war were no cakewalk: Allied armies faced stubborn German resistance even as chaos mounted in the enemy’s rear and on their home front.
The order of events is important. The German imperial state was thrown into crisis before the Armistice. Popular unrest at home meant a choice between getting rid of the Kaiser and installing a democratic government, or running the risk of Bolshevik-style revolution.
In the event, revolution did finally break out in November 1918, only to be crushed two months later by an alliance between a Social-Democratic government and the German Army. Long before, certainly by early October, German soldiers knew that their government was seeking an armistice. It is perhaps remarkable that so many units remained in the field fighting on for as long as they did.
One historian writes of the British Army ‘herding’ the enemy towards the German border. The Germans were not being herded; they were retreating, for sure, but putting up stiff resistance all the way, as Allied casualty figures testify. The Canadian Corps took 45,000 casualties in just three months of fighting, the highest rate in the entire war and higher than any comparable period in the Second World War.
THE DOMINANCE OF MATERIEL
While the Germans had put the emphasis during their Spring Offensive on shock troops to achieve penetration that could then be rapidly exploited, the British increasingly relied on their material advantage, particularly in artillery (often overlooked by an emphasis on the role of the tank).
The first of Foch’s blows was landed by the French and the Americans along the Marne, where they employed 2,000 guns and 200 tanks, driving the Germans back four and a half miles.
The second was the British offensive at Amiens, something Foch had urged on Haig. On 8 August, 37,000 defenders were surprised by the 100,000 men of the British Fourth Army. The artillery had located German gun positions and was able to neutralise much of the defending firepower. This allowed 552 tanks to be deployed successfully. The Fourth Army captured 400 guns and inflicted 27,000 casualties.
Ludendorff famously wrote that, ‘The 8th of August was the black day of the German Army in the history of the war.’
Nonetheless, there was no decisive breakthrough. The Germans were battered and pushed back, but they remained intact. Ludendorff recovered his nerve for the while.
Yet clearly there was a problem with the morale of the army. German reinforcements moving up to the front at Amiens were jeered at as ‘strike-breakers’.
Haig’s old habit of refusing to desist from an assault that had ground to a halt remained, with Haig and his Fourth Army commander, Rawlinson, refusing to cease attacks lacking adequate artillery and armoured support, resulting in mounting casualties.
The Canadian and Australian commanders, Currie and Monash, demanded that Rawlinson tell Haig to back off, which he eventually agreed to.
A French offensive followed north of Compiègne, aimed at Lassigny. It took six attempts over four days, but their target fell.
This was followed by the Battle of Albert, where the British Third and Fourth Armies forced the Germans to withdraw to the Hindenburg Line.
In 50 days, British forces had advanced 25 miles on a 40-mile front, but at the cost of 180,000 casualties. A New Zealand officer wrote regarding the fighting on the Somme that:
The enemy has been indeed retiring, but his movements had up till this time been conducted in great measure deliberately, with marked skill and in good order… he had maintained unbroken a screen behind which he had withdrawn his guns and main force.
Further south, the Americans attacked against the St Mihiel Salient, just as the Germans began to withdraw. Nevertheless, it was an important victory, boosting American morale.
THE HINDENBURG LINE
The prospect of attacking the Hindenburg Line led to concern in London over prospective casualties, and Haig was warned that heavy losses would not be tolerated. He was livid, but grasped that his job was on the line, and henceforth was prepared to halt operations before they bogged down, and to delegate responsibility to able commanders like Currie, Monash, Byng, Rawlinson, and Horne.
In truth, any successful advance was still limited to the pace of an infantryman and of horse-drawn field guns. The difficulty of supplying armies from railheads over difficult terrain, allowing for combined operations, remained. Haig had to accept there was not going to be a decisive breakthrough – rather a sequence of offensives that would keep the Germans on the back foot.
British tactics had certainly developed since the battles of 1916 and 1917. Sound-ranging techniques located enemy batteries, which were destroyed, clearing the way for tanks and infantry. The creeping barrage meant German machine-gunners did not have time to emerge from their dugouts and mount their weapons before the enemy was upon them.
The British attacked without heavy equipment, in small groups of ‘blobs’ or ‘worms’, using cover and firepower. Enemy strongpoints were eliminated by flanking movements of troops armed with mortars, Lewis guns, and rifle-grenades, and by 400 of the more reliable Mark IV tanks now in service. In addition, the air force plotted enemy positions and movements.
Engineering units followed quickly, laying down cable to allow communications with front-line units.
All of this was underpinned by an impressive reorganisation of British railways in France, undertaken by Sir Eric Geddes, manager of the North-Eastern Railway, who had been drafted in by Lloyd George.
The tank, however, was prone to break down, and the Germans found new ways of dealing with them: by artillery fire, using bags of grenades, and firing at the slits. On the Amiens front, the number of British tanks in action fell from 342 on 8 August to just 38 on 11 August.
It was all a long way from the Somme! But major constraints on tactical advances and strategic breakthroughs remained.
THE BRITISH IN CONTEXT
Nor was there anything distinctively British about these advances. Haig never fully grasped the need for more machine-guns and automatic weapons.
Attackers needed automatic weapons to deal with German machine-guns and to beat off counter-attacks. By mid-1918, Canadian divisions had one automatic weapon – Lewis guns in the main – for every 13 men, while British divisions still had only one per 61.
What the British were doing was adopting tactics used by the Germans, by the French successfully on the first day of the Somme, and by the Russian General Brusilov in 1916. Exponents of the ‘learning curve’ thesis might ask what took Haig so long to grasp the lesson implicit in the appalling British casualty lists of 1916 and 1917.
In September, Foch launched a series of fresh offensives from St Mihiel to the Channel. At Cambrai, the Canadians crossed the Canal du Nord; while to the south, British territorial troops of the North Midlands Division did the same.
But a familiar pattern re-emerged. The Second Army advanced in the Ypres Salient, taking the Passchendaele and Messines ridges, but after nine miles the problem of supplying troops and bringing the guns forward over devastated ground imposed a halt.
By early October, logistical problems had halted operations in Flanders, German resistance had blunted the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, and the Canadians were held up outside Cambrai. And while the British Fourth Army had broken through the Hindenburg Line, overrunning the key Beaurepaire defenceline, this had taken longer than hoped, with German machine-gun posts maintaining stiff resistance; 200 were reported in just one village.
On 19 October, Haig reported to the War Cabinet that despite the successes achieved, Germany had not suffered a ‘decisive defeat’; its forces, he believed, could retreat to the border and hold out into 1919. Haig not only expected the fighting to go into 1919; he also assumed that British influence would wane in relation to that of the United States.
GERMANY’S UNBROKEN ARMY
Between 8 August and 20 October, almost half the Tanks Corps’ tanks were put out of action.
After the Battle of the Sambre, the BEF was effectively halted during the final days due to bad weather and the distance back to its railheads
The Allies could deploy better intelligence, enjoyed air superiority (ensuring effective reconnaissance), had huge quantities of gas available, and had a huge and growing manpower advantage.
But the German Army in the field was not broken. It continued to withdraw in good order. The problem their commanders and rulers faced was the collapse on the home front and then in the rear during the summer and autumn of 1918. By September 1918, Berlin police estimated there were 40-50,000 deserters in the city.
Germany’s allies were also collapsing: on 29 September Bulgaria surrendered, and on 3 November the Austro-Hungarians agreed an armistice. By then, the new German government had telegraphed President Wilson requesting an end to fighting.
On 29 October the German fleet mutinied, and by 4 November soldiers’ and workers’ councils – the equivalent of the soviets of the Russian Revolution – were spreading across Germany. The Kaiser was told by the High Command to abdicate, and he took flight to Holland.
The Allies, Foch and Haig included, believed the war would go on into 1919, and were planning for that. But the offer of an Armistice could not be refused, even though they knew the German Army had not been destroyed – because refusal would not have been accepted by war-weary populations, and because the Allied leaders feared that the ‘contagion’ of revolution, if not cauterised in Germany, might spread westwards.
HAIG: AN ASSESSMENT
Haig argued that the success of the Hundred Days was the result of the previous two years’ ‘stubborn fighting’. In reality, the return to open warfare was a consequence of the failure of Ludendorff’s Spring Offensive.
That failure, for sure, had to be exploited by the Allies – and it was a joint Allied effort, not simply a British one, and even the British relied very heavily on Dominion forces.
Haig’s strategy was relentless pursuit of the enemy as they withdrew and the use of his material superiority, particularly in artillery, to demolish resistance, but the Hundred Days was a costly and ultimately inconclusive affair.
In recent years, there has been a concerted effort to deconstruct previous notions that Haig overly relied on Canadians and, to a lesser extent, Australians as shock troops. The emphasis has been on how the performance of British units had improved.
Improvement there undoubtedly was, but Dominion troops were indeed often used to spearhead offensives, while improvement was equally apparent in the armies of both German enemy and French ally.
At 11am on 11 November 1918, the war ended – but without the German Army having been decisively beaten, a fact that the German Right, most notably Hitler’s Nazis, would use to create the myth of the ‘stab in the back’. What they could not admit was that it was popular revolution at home that ensured the fighting had to end.
Chris Bambery is an author and broadcaster whose books include Catalonia Reborn (Luath Press), co-authored with George Kerevan; A People’s History of Scotland (Verso); and The Second World War: a Marxist analysis (Pluto).