Year 1918

The situation at the fronts in 1918.

German infantry marches for Operation Michael

German infantry marches for Operation Michael to the Western Front.

With the end of fighting on the Eastern Front in December 1917 and the Italians still psychologically reeling from the Caporetto ‘Catastrophe’, Germany’s de facto supreme commander, General Erich Ludendorff (his official title was ‘First Quartermaster General’), had a breathing space to devote all his organizational and tactical skills to the problem of the stalemated Western Front.
He calculated that the American Army would be unable to intervene decisively in France before the early summer of 1918: It seemed to Ludendorff, therefore, that Germany could take no other course but to transfer divisions from Russia to the West and, by exploiting her temporary superiority in the field, achieve a decisive victory over Britain and France before the Americans began to arrive en masse – Germany’s last hope of winning the greatest conflict in history so far.

After prolonged discussion and disagreement, Ludendorff rather belatedly reached a decision to direct the main weight of his grand offensive on the British-held St Quentin (Somme) sector (code name ‘Operation Michael’). The aim was to drive west between Peronne and Arras towards the Channel coast. ‘If this blow succeeded, the strategic result might indeed be enormous, as we should separate the bulk of the English army from the French and crowd it up with its back to the sea…’ (My War Memories 1914-1918 by Erich Ludendorff).

The ambitious plan depended for success on the maximum exploitation of the novel’ storm troop’ tactics evolved in Russia (notably by General Hutier and artillery Colonel Bruchmueller) and first employed at Riga. These specially trained formations – armed with light machine-guns, rifles, flamethrowers, mortars and a sprinkling of field guns – had orders to infiltrate as fast as their legs could carry them, bypassing Allied strongpoints. In a reversal of accepted tactical doctrine, reserves would be put in where the attack was progressing, not where it was held up.

Special artillery tactics involved a crushing short bombard­ment of a fews hours’ duration using a 4:1 preponderance of gas projectiles, to dislocate and paralyse the defenders. But, despite the vital need to maintain the momentum of advance, no attempt was made to create a German tank corps on the British or French model, and both cavalry and supply units were seriously embarrassed by a lack of horses.

Nevertheless, the German Kaiserschlacht (‘Emperor’s Battle’) offensive began in spectacular fashion on 21 March 1918. Between 23 and 25 March Ludendorff was within reach of victory as the outnumbered British Third and Fifth Army began ‘the Great Retreat’. However, Ludendorff’s Teutonic inflexibility and his basic flaws of character and intellect now revealed themselves: the nearness of the Allied front and Allied solidarity to final collapse was not apparent from the reports of his own armies. Above all, the pattern of success on the ground had failed to correspond with the strategic character of the Michael plan, of the three attacking gener­als only Hutier [Eighteenth Army] had achieved the kind of swift, deep advance which Ludendorff had been count­ing on. Yet under the original Michael strategy, Hutier’s role was the subsidiary one of the flank guard. The German success was all on the wrong wing.

If on 23 March 1918, Ludendorff had chosen to throw all his ‘attack’ divisions behind a single thrust by Hutier and the left-wing of Marwitz’s Second Army towards Amiens (‘hinge’ of the Anglo-French front), there is every possibil­ity that an ineradicable wedge could have been driven between the British and French with devastating psycho­logical effects on the defeatist Petain (no longer the indomitable ‘Victor of Verdun’).

Instead Ludendorff waffled and ordered no fewer than three separate thrusts by his three armies. It was all a fatal dispersion of effort, a plan beyond the powers of his rapidly tiring troops. Although Hutier crossed the Somme on a broad front, even he fell 6-10 miles short of his objectives. On 25 March Ludendorff drastically revised his directive of the 23rd, but only succeeded in dissipating his chances of a decisive breakthrough. Only on 28 March (four days too late), did he order an all-out attack on Amiens. By then, the crisis in the Allied command set-up had been overcome, Foch being appointed Supreme Commander.

Throughout April, late May, early June and half of July, Ludendorff continued to ring the changes with another four massive blows, and bellow down the field telephone at his increasingly resentful and frustrated generals. Even so, by June the Allies had lost all they had gained since 1915 and the Germans had reached the River Marne for the second time in the war. But they had nowhere succeeded in permanently breaking the Allied line, while American troops were now in action in ever-increasing numbers. Fifteen US divisions landed in France between April and June 1918.

On 15 July the Germans attacked simultaneously on both sides of Reims (Aisne Salient). East of that constantly bombarded city, they made slight gains. To the west, they crossed the Marne. Foch replied with a massive artillery bombardment followed by a decisive counter-attack (18 July-6 August) spearheaded by swarms of fighters, light bombers and ‘fast’ light Renault FT-17 tanks. Nine American divisions supported powerful French units. In this Second Battle of the Marne, the Germans were forced back to the River Vesle.

On 15 September 1918, Salonika-based British, French, Serb and Greek units attacked the Bulgarian line in Mac­edonia. Bulgarian resistance soon collapsed. The following month Serbia was cleared of Austrian occupation forces and Germany’s Balkan flank lay exposed. The final Austrian offensive against Italy had soon petered out on the Piave (15-25 June 1918). An eleventh hour Allied offensive (Battle of Vittorio Veneto) from 24 October broke initial stubborn resistance and quickly developed into an Austrian rout, accelerated by the ever-increasing disaffection, desertion and mutiny by Serb, Croat, Czech and Polish troops and sailors of the finally disintegrating Imperial armed forces. Austria signed an armistice on 3 November 1918, her non-German subject peoples had already seized independence.

The British General Allenby captured a Turkish army at Megiddo in September and overran Syria. The surrender of the Turkish army on the Tigris followed. The Ottoman Empire signed an armistice on 30 October.
Foch launched a general counter-offensive in September. The tank-led British drove the Germans back 8 miles at Amiens on 8 August and attacked the Hindenburg Line in September. That same month, the Americans stormed the four-year-old Saint Mihiel Salient and Allied armies broke through the Hindenburg Line after 18 days’ continuous battle (26 SEptember – 13 October). During October, an Anglo-French-Belgian army group freed Flanders coast, the British reached the River Scheldt, the French drove east over the Aisne and the Americans down the Meuse to Sedan.

Mutiny gripped the German Fleet in the last days of October and revolution quickly followed in all the main cities. Armistice negotiations, on the basis of US President Wilson’s famous ‘Fourteen Points’ programme, began on 6 November; the Kaiser ‘abdicated’ on 9 November and, on 11 November, the Armistice was signed in Foch’s converted wagon-lit at Compiegne. The Great War had ended after 1,567 days.

Diary September 22, 1918

French cavalry with German PoWs

World War One Diary for Sunday, September 22, 1918: Southern Fronts Serbia: Serb Second Army reaches Negotino on river Vardar, 20 miles north of line from September 14. Prilep-Gradsko rail line cut, d’Esperey orders cavalry pursuit. Middle East Palestine: NZ… learn more

Diary September 21, 1918

planes strafing a Turkish column

World War One Diary for Saturday, September 21, 1918: Air War Palestine – RAF’S MOST DEVASTATING 1914-18 BATTLEFIELD INTERVENTIONS: Bristol Fighters and SE5s (105 planes in theatre) in 4 hours block, massacre or disperse Turk corps column descending to Jordan,… learn more

Diary September 20, 1918

U-47 in Pola

World War One Diary for Friday, September 20, 1918: Sea War Adriatic: Austrian coastal submarine U-47 (ex-German UB-47) sinks French submarine Circe (1 survivor) off Albania. Eastern Front Russia: Sovnarkom repudiates Russo-Turk Treaty from March 3, 1918. Don­: Krasnov’s 20… learn more

Diary September 19, 1918

British cavalry Palestine

World War One Diary for Thursday, September 19, 1918: Middle East Palestine – BATTLES OF MEGIDDO (until September 25): Bulfin’s XXI Corps (35,000 men) advances from 0430 hours behind 385-gun barrage. DMC follows by 0700 hours, takes’ 7,000 PoWs and… learn more

Diary September 18, 1918

Australian battery of 4,5-inch field howitzers

World War One Diary for Wednesday, September 18, 1918: Western Front Germany: Ludendorff warns Admiral Scheer of plans for abandoning Flanders coast. Somme – Battle of Epehy: British Third and Fourth Armies (1,488 guns and 300 MGs) attack from 0700… learn more

Diary September 17, 1918

Serb troops are pursuing

World War One Diary for Tuesday, Septenber 17, 1918: Southern Fronts Macedonia: Franco-Serb breakthrough now 6 miles deep and 20 miles wide. General Ruser orders his Bulgar 2nd Division to retreat from 3rd line behind river Crna leaving 5-mile gap… learn more

Diary September 16, 1918

SS class airship

World War One Diary for Monday, September 16, 1918: Sea War Channel: Monitor HMS Glatton scuttled at Dover following magazine explosion and fire. Coastal submarine UB-103, sighted by British blimp SS 21 (Pilot US Ensign NJ Learned), sunk by several… learn more

Diary September 15, 1918

Bulgarian machinge-gunners in action

World War One Diary for Sunday, September 15, 1918: Southern Fronts Macedonia: At 0530 hours 36,000 Serb, French and Italian infantry attack 12,000 Bulgars and Germans, capture Mt Vetrenik (4,725ft), Mt Dobropolje (6,125ft; French first use flamethrowers) and Mt Sokol… learn more

Diary September 14, 1918

Oil rigs in Baku in 1918

World War One Diary for Saturday, September 14, 1918: Middle East Azerbaijan – Turks capture Baku: 8-10 battalions capture Wolfs Gate. Dunsterforce evacuation ordered at 2000 hours after 180 casualties and 5 RAF sorties. 3 Royal Navy-manned ships take 1,300… learn more

Diary September 13, 1918

US gunners aim captured German guns

World War One Diary for Friday, September 13, 1918: Western Front Meuse – St Mihiel: Pershing takes 13,000 PoWs and 200 guns as salient closed at Vigneulles by 0600 hours as US 26th and 1 st Divisions meet (200,000 Americans… learn more

Diary September 12, 1918

Attacking US infantry

World War One Diary for Thursday, September 12, 1918: Western Front Meuse – BATTLE OF ST MIHIEL (until September 16): After 4-hour barrage from 0100 hours by 3,010 guns, 216,000 men of (10 divisions) US First Army (Pershing), supported by… learn more

Diary September 11, 1918

soldier throws a stick grenade

World War One Diary for Wednesday, September 11, 1918: Western Front France: Belgian King Albert meets Foch at Bombon and agrees to lead Allied Flanders offensive. Cambrai: German counter­-attacks at Gouzeaucourt and Moeuvres. British retake 3 villages to south. Meuse:… learn more

Diary September 10, 1918

Kaiser visits the Krupp works

World War One Diary for Tuesday, September 10, 1918: Home Fronts Germany: Kaiser addresses 1500 Krupp workers on only visit to Essen Gusstahlfabrik and gets no response. Eastern Front Volga: Red Fifth Army (aided by 4 Baltic Fleet destroyers) retakes… learn more

Diary September 9, 1918

German infantry attack

World War One Diary for Monday, September 9, 1918: Western Front Germany: Lieutenant-Colonel Wetzell, strategic adviser at OHL, superseded owing to rows with Ludendorff. Somme: British gain high ground commanding Hindenburg Line north of Havrincourt Wood. Aisne: Two German counter-attacks… learn more

Diary September 8, 1918

German PoW in an Allied camp

World War One Diary for Sunday, September 8, 1918: Western Front France: Foch visits King Albert and Haig (who tells Churchill ‘the Allies should aim at getting a decision as soon as possible’), decides to add Flanders offensive. Germany: OHL… learn more

Diary September 7, 1918

Russian gold as reparations

World War One Diary for Saturday, September 7, 1918: Eastern Front USSR: Lenin cables Trotsky ‘Recovery proceeding excellently’. First £12.5 million of war indemnity sent from Moscow. Germans receive at Orsha on September 10. Western Front Flanders: Skirmishing in Armentieres-Lens… learn more

Diary September 6, 1918

6-inch 26-cwt howitzers

World War One Diary for Friday, September 6, 1918: Western Front Flanders: GERMAN EVACUATION OF LYS SALIENT COMPLETE. At OHL Conference Hindenburg stresses gravity of situation; Boehn recommends 45-mile retirement to Antwerp-Meuse position, instead decision taken to halt (if necessary)… learn more

Diary September 5, 1918

French Schneider Modele 1912 railway gun

World War One Diary for Thursday, September 5, 1918: Western Front Somme: French Third Army (Humbert) advances on St Quentin from Noyon, retakes Ham on September 6, fights across Crozat Canal at two points, retaking 5 villages on September 8,… learn more

Diary September 4, 1918

Soldiers of the 'Armee l'Orient'

World War One Diary for Wednesday, September 4, 1918: Southern Fronts Britain: Lloyd George approves Macedonia offensive after Guillaumat visits London, latter then visits Rome who approve on September 10. Western Front Flanders: British 29th Division captures Ploegsteert and Hill… learn more

Diary September 3, 1918

British soldiers in action

World War One Diary for Tuesday, September 3, 1918: Western Front France: FOCH GENERAL ORDER SPECIFIES UNREMITTING ATTACKS ALL ALONG THE LINE. Germany: Ludendorff secret order deplores defeatist talk by men on leave. Artois: British re­enter Lens; rapid German retreat.… learn more