NOW WE ARE left wondering why.
The Germans knew it was over, bar the shouting. Bar the mutilation and dying, come to that.
Why did they not stop? Whatever a few demagogic ranters might have claimed, this was nothing to do with the national will. The German people were wearied, fearful, bereaved and hungry. They feared infinitely worse lay ahead. The autumn rains had now begun in earnest and the prospect of another brutal winter rose up before them.
On 29th September, Ludendorff came clean. He told the Council of War at Spa that
the situation of the Army demands an immediate armistice in order to save a catastrophe… our situation admits of no delay, not an hour is to be lost.
The Kaiser, who had arrived the night before, had to sit through this. Perhaps we should blame the decision to persist with the war on this wretched and scared man, for whom bombast and buffoonery were worn with the unselfconscious ease of a second skin.
But that too seems wrong. As disaster piled on disaster, His Imperial Majesty seems to have been more pensive — even fatalistic. At this awful moment, he appeared to listen to Ludendorff calmly enough. Only a few days earlier, he had been in Kiel, addressing the crew of a minelayer and treating 400 U-boat officers to a “traitors to the wall” speech. The impact may have been one of provocation rather than of inspiration, in view of the restive condition of the German navy just then. Now, back in Spa, his fiery rhetoric was all spent. Resignation alone survived.
If we seek to understand why fighting continued, it is probably fairer to blame Ludendorff and Hindenburg, two unregenerate members of an unregenerate military clique. Nowhere is the political immaturity of the Wilhelmine empire displayed so gaudily than in the prestige it accorded its military leaders. Alas for them, when they presided over failure, the whole sense of national identity was thrown into crisis. That now was what happened. The week which unfolded proved catastrophic for the German army, and witnessed also the fall of a key ally, Bulgaria.
Any commander’s resilience would have been tested. On 28th September, Ludendorff and Hindenburg agreed on the request to seek an armistice — a terrible moment the former recalled in his comically unreliable memoirs.
The Field Marshall and I parted with a firm handshake, like men who have buried their dearest hopes, and who are resolved to hold together in the hardest hours of human life as they have held together in success. Our names were associated with the greatest victories of the world war. We now shared the conviction that it was our duty to sacrifice our names to ensure the step being taken that we had done everything humanly possible to avoid.
What pious claptrap! We might laugh were it not for the fact that this attempt to square the circle became enshrined in the German national psyche for a generation — with unimaginably dark consequences.
Haig’s position could not have been more different. He was remarkably uninterested in what a later generation would have referred to as “securing his legacy” and instead confined his attention to winning the war. He believed now was the moment to throw everything into the struggle: a series of coordinated Allied attacks was imminent, and the first requirement was for a retreating enemy to be pursued hard.
On 24th September he wrote to Sir Henry Wilson, stressing the need for:
…Yeomanry, cyclists, motor machine-guns, motor lorries etc. In fact anything to add to our mobility. The resources of the French and of ourselves here are being strained to the utmost for the coming effort. Anything you can spare should be sent to us at once.
As a communicator of any kind, never mind as an epistolary, Haig may have lacked a certain je ne sais quoi. But this did not detract from the awe in which he was held, especially by some of his commanders. He noted in his diary on 26th September that Monash
begged me to go in and see them all, even at the risk of delaying matters. So I went into the room and shook the senior officers by the hand and said a few words of encouragement. I told them that the biggest battle of the war had started this morning, [saying] “the enemy would be attacked by 100 divisions in the next 3 days…” All seemed very much heartened by my brief address.
Monash was one of the toughest and most impressive commanders of the twentieth century. If Haig’s benediction were as important as these clumsy words suggest, we ought to be impressed.
The battle which was unfolding was a brute. The historian, tracing the apparently inexorable advance of Allied armies during these days and weeks, can be bamboozled into thinking that progress had become easy. Not a bit of it. From 24th September, the British and French were continuing their attacks in the St Quentin sector. Despite rounding up some 1300 prisoners, they faced a surprise enemy attack near Moeuvres and Epehy on the second day. It was quickly repulsed, but it was clear evidence — were it needed — that this was never going to be a rout.
Flight was imposed upon the German army, but they had no intention of giving up on the fight. On 26th September, the greatest American offensive of the war started in the Meuse-Argonne under General Pershing. The next day, the First and Third British Armies, under Generals Horne and Byng, launched their great attack on a thirteen-mile front, advancing to within three miles of Cambrai on the first day. All found themselves facing furious resistance. The Canadian Corps brought off a spectacular crossing of the Canal du Nord, but the attackers were under continuous fire while their engineers tried to build bridges over the canal.
Private Stan Colbeck of the 4th Canadian Division remembered:
Sergeant Major Rogers kept a lot of us young fellows from getting killed by our own barrage. He wouldn’t let us advance until our barrage lifted. We had to carry scaling ladders as the canal was very deep where we crossed over.
Myself and a pal named Brown, we carried the ladder so we were first up and had gone a little way when a shell exploded right behind us. It hit us like a giant fist in the small of the back. I thought I was blown in two. I was all numb. I asked Brown if he was OK. He said he thought so! The screams behind us I will never forget. Brown and I were fine, but that shell wiped out our whole section.
That action was followed by the capture of some 6,000 prisoners. The formidable Hindenburg Line was pierced at last. The following day, on 28th September, the Battle of Flanders began, with King Albert of Belgium in command of a force along a 23-mile front. Their attack was focused on the Ypres Salient, cradle of much that had been most terrible over the past four years.
Private Alexander Jamieson recorded:
That first day we didn’t suffer a great many casualties. I saw the terrible state of the Ypres Salient in daylight, I’d usually seen it in darkness: the wrecked tanks from 1917, dead horses and mules, shell holes everywhere.
This time, however, there was not much doubt as to who was winning. The Germans were crushed by the weight of artillery, and 4,000 prisoners were quickly taken.
Jamieson was incredulous:
By the end of the first day we were clear of that on a ridge where we could look ahead and see trees and all the rest of it that had never been affected by war. It was just unbelievable; we knew then that things were going well.
In addition to the progress in Flanders, the British penetrated the outskirts of Cambrai and, on 29th September, broke another six-mile stretch of the Hindenburg Line. In three days, they had taken 22,000 prisoners, at the same moment as the French were busily clearing the enemy out of Champagne and on the Aisne.
These were all actions which, a few months earlier, would have been beyond the imagination of even the starriest-eyed optimist. Perhaps the most memorable of the week’s achievements came when combined Allied forces attacked the Hindenburg Line where the St Quentin Canal ran underground for just over three miles.
The main assault was entrusted to Lieutenant General Sir John Monash with his Australian Corps, now augmented by the 27th and 30th American Divisions. This threatened to turn very ugly indeed. For one thing — did it need saying? — the mere prospect of surmounting the Hindenburg Line put most sensible Allied commanders in a cold sweat. For another, the Australian troops were seriously exhausted. To compensate for that, the Americans were sent in first.
Inexperience seems to have caught them out. The 27th and 30th Divisions had evolved an exuberant attacking style, which broke through the German defences well enough, but saw them advance too far. The need for mopping up — in other words, for ensuring the enemy had been comprehensively cleared out during any advance — which British and French forces had learned to their bitter cost over the years, was indispensable. Now it was the turn of the Americans, who found themselves attacked by German machine-gunners, emerging from the dug-outs and tunnels.
The Australians found themselves called upon to try to rescue the situation, but it all came at a price, as Private Willard Newton of the 105th Engineers noted in his diary entry on 29th September:
Scores of dead Americans, Australians and Germans can be seen lying here and there, some covered in overcoats, others lying just as they fell. Walking wounded are going back in twos and threes, while those unable to walk are being carried off the field as rapidly as possible under the circumstances. Men with arms shot off, men with slight shrapnel wounds and gassed victims are being helped to the rear by German prisoners and by other men similarly wounded…
The Australians were not merely exhausted but, in some cases, extremely distressed. There had been a recent attempt to combine some battalions and dismantle others. Although the reasoning behind this is not difficult to understand — losses had to be made good and small battalions made no military sense — such “rationalisation” undermined the deep intimacy which sustained small fighting units. When orders came for certain battalions to disband on 23rd September, some of the legendarily tough Australian troops simply refused to comply with them.
Common sense, on this occasion, prevailed. It was not the moment for a showdown. The plans were mysteriously put on hold and — quietly — allowed to gather dust.
29th September also saw the veteran 46th North Midland Division crossing the St Quentin Canal at Bellenglise. Such simple words cannot even hint at the formidable nature of this achievement. They took about 800 casualties along the way, but broke through German defences, bagging 4,000 prisoners and 70 guns as they did so. Their triumph also assuaged a deep psychological hurt insofar as the division had felt itself living under a cloud ever since the terrible attrition and reversals they had suffered during the 1916 Somme battle. No longer: now, for the Sherwood Foresters, North and South Staffs, Lincolns and Leicesters, came sweet victory.
Sixteen Victoria Crosses were awarded in the last few days of September — austere evidence of the ferocity of the fighting which had been endured. Nearly 13,000 British and Dominion soldiers were killed during the week. One, on 27th September, was 20-year-old Captain William Gladstone MC of the Coldstream Guards, grandson of the redoubtable Liberal Prime Minister. Canadian dead included another soldier with a famous grandfather: 21-year-old Private Joseph Standing Buffalo of the Manitoba Regiment died on 29th September, the grandson of Chief Sitting Bull, the Sioux chief who had destroyed Custer’s forces at the Battle of Little Big Horn. Very little else might ever have united these two men, but war did.
As well as the dead, there were the dying. The treatment of wounded this week demanded ingenuity and mind-sapping stamina. The diary of American surgeon, Harvey Cushing, testifies to that.
29th September 11 p.m. …The road from there to Esnes impassably blocked — was nearly ten hours in going as many kilometres; cars ditched everywhere — artillery, food, and ammunition trying to get up, empties and others with wounded trying to get down; some fools had double-banked; no lights permitted, even smoking prohibited — a hard regulation to live up to a night like this.
30th September The R.C. hospital here is choked with wounded — 500 preoperative cases just sent out and some 400 yet to be sorted; many in very bad shape — wounded last Thursday or Friday. Just like our experience of last summer — after things slacked up at the end of the third day the roads got opened and the wounded of the early days — wet, exhausted, and infected — begin to be brought down, to the despair of all… The Boche is certainly getting it on all sides…
Indeed he was. By week’s end, Haig could afford to feel vindicated. Despite all the discouragement he had received, and all the efforts of politicians to distance themselves from his strategy, the Hindenburg Line had at last been breached.
The dramatic retreat of German forces in the West this week was, moreover, matched fully by what was happening elsewhere. Along the Southern Front, Bulgaria collapsed totally.
At the start of the week, the Allied force had been continuing its advance along the Vardar river. The Bulgarians put up a strong rearguard resistance, but the combined efforts of the French and Serbians made this, by now, almost inconsequential. On 25th September, Bulgaria made the first of several proposals for an armistice which the Allied commander, General d’Espèrey, rejected out of hand — he wanted surrender, or something very near it.
The Bulgarians appeared to believe they still had some fight in them but, within a few days, were disabused. The British crossed the Bulgarian frontier, Serbian cavalry captured Kochana and, by 29th September, the town of Uskub. Tsar Ferdinand I, who had ruled Bulgaria since 1888, instructed his diplomats to sue for peace. Bulgarian troops were ordered to evacuate all occupied Serbian and Greek territory, and to surrender all arms and weapons of war.
An anonymous French cavalry officer described the entry to Uskub at 8.30 a.m. on 29th September:
…the city was full of fleeing and exhausted enemies, unable to fight… Uskub has been captured. The city’s leader met us at the entrance, behind a white flag and accompanied by French and Italian soldiers. The latter had escaped from Bulgarian prisoner camps, and had been hidden and fed by the local population.
Both the Serbian notables and the soldiers were shouting enthusiastically. The population’s emotion was deeply moving: the women kept kissing our hands while crying with joy…
Unsurprisingly, the reaction of the German Field Marshal Ludendorff to the news of Bulgaria’s capitulation was less euphoric. It was claimed that he suffered a seizure.
The victory marked a moment of sublime fulfilment for the Englishwoman Flora Sandes, who had become a major in the Serbian army. In a later military despatch, she would receive the highest praise from her commanders:
On [21st September] …in spite of the greatest difficulties arising from the inequality of the ground and from the lack of water she has supported all day upon the same position all the fatigues of combat in which she has equalled the soldiers of her company, surpassing them indeed to a certain extent…
On [28th September], she fought very courageously at [the Ovshe Plain], outstripping all the company, despite the open ground, and leading by her example as usual the soldiers to accept with joy even the roughest combat.
One of the British officers on the ground, Captain Townsend, wrote with some relief in his diary on 30th September:
At 5.30 this morning the wire was brought to me to say that Bulgaria had made peace. It came just in time to stop our attacks today which would have been very costly.
So the despised Salonika Army is the first to finish off its job. It has been a wonderful fighting campaign though our bit of it has only been tremendous marching and other people have been doing the fighting part of it especially the Serbs. Our Division and especially the Brigade have done especially well.
This afternoon we have moved back about five miles to a place called Dabilja for rest and re-equipment. I am quite glad of a pleasant spot with plenty of water under trees. I shall be glad of two days’ rest as I have got a mild dose of Spanish Flu and am feeling utterly bored with life.
Peace is very good and I think Austria and Turkey will follow Bulgaria’s example.
He had every reason to believe that the Turks were in trouble. All week, Allenby’s troops pursued the retreating Turkish Fourth Army while the Arab Force continued its sabotage work on the railways. On 25th September, British cavalry reached the Sea of Galilee and occupied Tiberias and later, Amman. A total of 45,000 prisoners and 265 guns had been taken. Four days later, as the Allies approached Damascus, 10,000 Turks surrendered.
An Australian airman, Ross Smith, wrote home in sanguine terms on 24th September, describing what was happening in Palestine.
You will have read of our great victory and our work is just beginning to ease off and we are not at all sorry because we are all tired of the killing.
…The success of the whole show has been largely due to the Air Service and not a Hun machine appeared over our troops during the whole of the fighting. The attack started on the 19th & I had the honour of beginning it by bombing a railway junction at about 3 A.M. with my big machine. The Infantry then attacked at dawn & captured the whole of the Turks front line on the coast & the Cavalry went through the gap & away up round the back of them. It was child’s play after that & we broke up all their telegraph & telephone offices with bombs so none of the enemy knew what had happened & as they retired they walked right into our cavalry who collared them.
Smith’s apparent relish for the slaughter may have been a bit of an act — perhaps he considered it was what was right for The Folks Back Home. It sits a little discordantly alongside the more muted tones of, say, Captain Townsend. Insofar as one can generalise, it is fair only to say that war weariness became ever more palpable in these final weeks, especially at home.
We have a clear hint of this in Britain, where civilian energies were obviously depleted, but there was an evident determination to see the job through to its completion. In this mood, sectional interests risked getting short shrift. A railway strike began on 24th September, but when it threatened to spread — Great Western, Midland and London and South Western were all affected – public sympathy imploded. The Daily Telegraph, seldom a friend of organised labour, dubbed it “criminal” and, in fact, the strike ended after only two days. More alarmingly to those who had downed tools, the union leader, J.D. Thomas, resigned in protest against it.
Few soldiers on the Front appeared, just then, to have much sympathy with those on the picket lines. With people daring finally to believe that an end to the war might not be too far off, this was not a constituency which anyone wished to alienate.
For the Germans, poisoned industrial relations would have seemed the most trivial of concerns. So they were, if you happened at the same time to be losing a war. Public pronouncements from Berlin continued to discount any prospect of defeat, however, and focused on demanding self-sacrifice. All kinds of draconian punishments were threatened for those who peddled defeatism. The Englishwoman, Princess Evelyn Blucher, railed at the refusal to acknowledge the tragedy which was unfolding:
And yet, with ruin staring at them on all sides, there are still people here who continue to protest that everything stands well, and that anyone who spreads a report to the contrary will be punished with five years’ imprisonment with hard labour.
The motives for official denial may have had more to do with self-interest than national interest. On 30th September, having received news of Germany’s intention to sue for peace, Chancellor Hertling and all the German Secretaries of State resigned from the government. Nobody wanted to lead a government which was likely to have to negotiate national defeat and humiliation. Plunging the country into a political crisis suited Germany’s ruling elite, in fact, rather well. Ludendorff, for instance, seemed suddenly to have developed a taste for democracy — quite a departure for him. He discreetly encouraged the establishment of some form of popular government.
There are no mysteries here. He knew only too well what the next weeks would bring. He was only too happy that a new civilian administration, one in which the centre and even the left were well represented, would incur all the odium which must accrue when Germany faced defeat. It would not be long now.