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 November 2, 1918

Italian troops advance across the Assiago plateau.

World War One Diary for Saturday, November 2, 1918: Southern Fronts Italy: Allied Supreme War Council approves plan (until November 4) for up to 40 Italian divisions (including 5 British and French) to invade Bavaria from Innsbruck and Salzburg areas… learn more

Diary November 1, 1918

captured British tank

World War One Diary for Friday, November 1, 1918: Western Front France: FOCH’S PLAN FOR FINAL PHASE OF GENERAL OFFENSIVE (until November 11): major thrusts by BEF in North and AEF in South, both supported by French armies on their… learn more

Diary October 31, 1918

Italian soldiers occupy an abandoned Austro-Hungarian position

World War One Diary for Thursday, October 31, 1918: Southern Fronts Piave: Italian Fourth and Sixth Armies occupy empty Austrian Grappa and Asiago lines, by 1700 hours 2 Alpini battalions clear Feltre. British and Italians reach river Livenza. British recapture… learn more

Diary October 30, 1918

Austrian PoWs at Vittorio Veneto

World War One Diary for Wednesday, October 30, 1918: Southern Fronts Piave: Italian Firenze lancers and Bersaglieri cyclists enter Vittorio Veneto (old Austrian Sixth Army headquarter). Third Army storms Lower Piave at four points as Italian cavalry and armoured cars… learn more

Diary October 29, 1918

Wounded Italians receive front-line medical aid

World War One Diary for Tuesday, October 29, 1918: Southern Fronts Italian Front – AT 0830 HOURS AUSTRIANS SEEK ARMISTICE: Captain Ruggera takes white flag to Italian lines at Serravak in Adige valley. Piave: Calabria Brigade storms Mt Asolone (Grappa),… learn more

Diary October 28, 1918

Turkish cavalry from Mosul

World War One Diary for Monday, October 28, 1918: Middle East Mesopotamia – Battle of Sharqat (until October 30): 1/7th Gurkhas ferried over to Cassels after 33­-mile march in 21 hours as he fights 6,000 Turks and 24 guns from… learn more

Diary October 27, 1943

New Zealand troops of the second wave of landings unload provisions from LPCs on Treasury Island

WW2 War Diary for Wednesday, October 27, 1943: Sea War Pacific: NZ forces land in Treasury lsland (Solomons). Home Fronts Britain: Death of (Miss) Radclyffe Hall, notorious author of ‘Well of Loneliness’ (1928), dealing with lesbianism. learn more

Diary October 27, 1918

British soldier guards a group of Austro-Hungarian PoWs

World War One Diary for Sunday, October 27, 1918: Southern Fronts Piave: Austrian counter­-attacks recapture Mt Pertica (briefly), Istrice and Valderoa (600 PoWs). After wading across from 0645 hours Italians and British form 3 bridgeheads over Piave up to 2… learn more

Diary October 26, 1918

Austro-Hungarian soldiers resting

World War One Diary for Saturday, October 26, 1918: Southern Fronts Piave: Italian Grappa attacks mainly fail, gaining only Peak 1186 and Col del Cuc (Aosta Alpini Battalion 568 casualties to date). Field Marshal Boroevic thanks defenders, confident ‘that they… learn more

Diary October 25, 1918

scout unit with fighting knives

World War One Diary for Friday, October 25, 1918: Southern Fronts Piave: ­British overrun rest of Papadopoli Island (night October 25-26) but flooding river delays main crossing. Italian Grappa attacks continue at heavy cost capturing and losing Mt Asolone again… learn more

Diary October 24, 1918

Skoda Model 1914 149-mm-howitzer in action with Italian forces

World War One Diary for Thursday, October 24, 1918: Southern Fronts Italian Front: BATTLE OF VITTORIO VENETO (THIRD PIAVE; until November 4) begins in rain on Caporetto first anniversary at 0500 hours with 1,402-gun shelling on Mt Grappa sector and… learn more

Diary October 23, 1918

Tank Mk V towed another tank

World War One Diary for Wednesday, October 23, 1918: Western Front Selle – Third phase: Byng’s Third Army (including 6 tanks) attacks Forest and Ovillers, captures Grand Champ Ridge, Rawlinson’s 18th Division (with 6 tanks) captures Bousies. BEF drives 6-mile… learn more

Diary October 22, 1918

Admiral Reinhard Scheer

World War One Diary for Tuesday, October 22, 1918: Sea War North Sea: Levetzow delivers verbal operational order (Operations Plan No 19) to Hipper at Wilhelmshaven: ‘High Seas Fleet shall attack and engage in battle the English Fleet.’ Nothing is… learn more

Diary October 21, 1918

Italian C-in-C General Armando Diaz

World War One Diary for Monday, October 21, 1918: Southern Fronts Italian Front: Diaz’s final orders for upcoming offensive stress aim ‘to separate the Austrian forces on the Trentino from those on the Piave’. Bulgaria: British 26th Division arrives by… learn more

Diary October 20, 1918

Corporal of a German infantry regiment

World War One Diary for Sunday, October 20, 1918: Southern Fronts Serbia – Battle of Paracin (­until October 23): Serb First Army attacks strong counter-attacking German rearguards in Upper Morava valley. Serb Second Army relieves French at Pristina before advance… learn more

Diary October 19, 1918

coastal battery position on the Belgian coast

World War One Diary for Saturday, October 19, 1918: Western Front France: FOCH’S LAST GENERAL DIRECTIVE to his 14 armies. Britain: Haig visits CIGS and War Cabinet in London, considers ‘enemy was not ready for unconditional surrender’ but urges terms… learn more

Diary October 18, 1918

Peugeot armoured car provides fire support

World War One Diary for Friday, October 18, 1918: Western Front Serre: Mangin’s French Tenth Army wins final victory breaking Hunding line astride river Serre (Czechs in action on October 22), north of Laon. Mangin and HQ withdrawn for planned… learn more

Diary October 17, 1918

Hungarian soldiers of the Austro-Hungarian army in Prague

World War One Diary for Thursday, October 17, 1918: Politics Austria­: Czechs proclaim Republic at Prague (Council in Paris declares formal independence on October 18); Hungarian Parliament declares independence except for Crown as figurehead. Germany: Kaiser, Ludendorff and Prince Max… learn more

Diary October 16, 1918

American Mk V Tanks

World War One Diary for Wednesday, October 16, 1918: Western Front Flanders: Last German shelling of Dunkirk. Corporal Hitler (16th Bavarian Reserve Regiment) wounded by BEF gas shell (evacuated half­-blinded to Pasewalk hospital, Pomerania). Aisne: FRENCH TROOPS (Gouraud) CROSS RIVER,… learn more

Diary October 15, 1918

section of Gordon Highlanders

World War One Diary for Tuesday, October 15, 1918: Western Front Germany: Since September 26, 43 German reserve divisions committed. Flanders: British 34th Division return to Menin as to south Second Army reaches and crosses river Lys (until October 16),… learn more