The German Ludendorff Spring Offensive, launched at the Allied lines in Spring 1918, proved to be perilously close the right solution to achieve battlefield victory. Typically for German initiatives it was meticulously planned with coordinated operations working along an established critical timeline. While initially highly successful, the advance took longer than expected and Allied tenacity resulted in ill-conceived remedial actions which stalled the rapid progress upon which ultimate success depended. Allied commanders noted well the most effective components of the German modus operandi and were able to take advantage of its inherent weaknesses, which were exacerbated by Germany’s comparatively limited and irreplaceable—in contrast to the Allied situation—resources in men and materiel. As it became clear the German attack had run out of impetus the Allies turned to the offensive and their own attack was launched in early August, 1918. Refined versions of the German grand-tactics were now turned upon them to great effect. This was at last a mobile campaign to be fought over terrain which favoured a rapid advance by all the resources the combined Allied armies could bring to bear. By mid-November the remaining forces of the Central Powers had been defeated, had recoiled towards the frontiers of their homelands and had agreed to an armistice which ended the First World War. How the Allied armies near defeat was so resolutely turned to total triumph in less than four months is the fascinating subject of this book by John Buchan which is supported by many maps, illustrations and photographs. A companion book, ‘1918—Catastrophe to Victory—the German ‘Ludendorff’ Spring Offensive’ by Buchan, which describes the events which led to the Hundred Days Offensive, is also available from Leonaur.
Leonaur editions are newly typeset and are not facsimiles; each title is available in softcover and hardback with dustjacket.
n the action, which began on 26th September, thirty British and two American infantry divisions and one British cavalry division had engaged and defeated thirty-nine German divisions, and taken over 36,000 prisoners and 380 guns.
Nor was the prospect brighter for the enemy on other parts of the front. Pershing had attacked again on the 4th, advancing at one point nearly three miles, while Gouraud on the 3rd had reached the southern bank of the Arne and compelled a withdrawal of the German right. Next day the enemy began to retire on the whole front between Rheims and the Argonne, and by the 6th had withdrawn everywhere to his final positions on the northern banks of the Arne and the Suippe. On the 6th Gouraud crossed the Arne at several points—an achievement of supreme importance, since it turned all the German positions on the Rheims heights and compelled an extensive retreat. With these positions gone the St. Gobain massif and Laon itself were in acute danger.
The Belgian advance in the Ypres sector continued steadily but slowly, for the nature of the ground greatly complicated the supply problem; indeed, this difficulty was only surmounted by dropping food and ammunition for the advanced troops from airplane squadrons. Meantime, Débeney at St. Quentin was now four miles east of the canal. If Pershing could get forward in time there was every chance of the retreat becoming a rout.
The great movement was begun early on Tuesday, 8th October, by Haig. It was a wild, wet autumn morning when Byng at 4.30, and Rawlinson at 5.10, attacked on a 17-mile front, from south of Cambrai to Sequehart, while Débeney extended the battle four miles farther south. The enemy resisted desperately, but no gallantry had power to stay the rush of the Allied infantry and the deadly penetration of their tanks. The whole Siegfried zone disappeared in a cataclysm.
On the right the 30th United States Division took Brancourt and Fremont; and, following the front northward, the 66th and 25th Divisions captured Serain; the 38th, Villers Outreaux and Malincourt; the New Zealanders, Lesdain and Esnes; the 3rd, 2nd, and 63rd, Seranvillers, Forenville, and Niergnies; while, on Byng’s extreme left, the 57th Division forced their way forward in the southern part of Cambrai, which the Germans had previously set on fire. By the evening Haig and Débeney had advanced between three and four miles, and the Siegfried zone was no more. The enemy was falling back to the Oise and the Selle, and for a moment his organisation had been broken. Every road converging upon Le Cateau was blocked with transport and troops, and our cavalry were galloping eastward to confuse the retreat. On that day we took over 10,000 prisoners and nearly 200 guns.
During the night the Canadian Corps forced their way at last into Cambrai from the north, and joined hands with the 57th Division in its streets. Next day, Wednesday the 9th, Byng and Rawlinson again advanced and pressed the retirement. Cambrai was occupied, and the Canadians pushed three miles east of the town. Bohain was in our hands, Caudry was outflanked, and our advance guards were within two miles of Le Cateau, the old battlefield where, on August 26, 1914, Smith-Dorrien and the 2nd Corps had saved the British Army. All day our cavalry had been hustling the enemy and cutting off his rear-guards.
By the 10th the Germans had found a temporary lodgement on the line of the little River Selle, and Haig’s front ran from Riquerval Wood along the west bank to Viesly, and thence by St. Hilaire and Avesnes to the Scheldt at Thun St. Martin. Débeney, in the meantime, had pressed east and south-east of St. Quentin, and held the west bank of the Oise-Sambre Canal as far north as Bernot. The lateral railway from St. Quentin by Busigny to Cambrai was wholly in our hands.
Subsidiary to this main action vital progress was made on other parts of the front. On the 8th Gouraud was two miles north of the Arne. Pershing, in order to clear his right flank for a further advance, attacked on the east bank of the Meuse and moved forward nearly three miles on a front of six, taking over 3,000 prisoners. By the 10th he had cleared that bank as far as Sivry, and his left and centre were able to advance and seize the Grand Pré defile, through which ran a lateral railway that for some days had been denied to the enemy. (On October 9th Pershing handed over the direct command of the First Army to Lt.-General Liggett, and constituted the Second Army east of the Meuse under Lt.-General Bullard.) Gouraud took Challerange, and by the 11th Mangin and Guillaumat had occupied the whole of the Chemin des Dames.
The battle of 8th to 10th October may be reckoned the determining action in the campaign. Consider what had happened in the fifteen days since the 26th of September. Foch had played on the whole front a crescendo of deadly music. First came the attack of Pershing and Gouraud; the next day Haig broke through the main defences of Cambrai; next day Plumer and the Belgians were through the Ypres front, and Mangin and Guillaumat were advancing between the Ailette and the Aisne; next day Haig smashed all but the last lines of the Siegfried zone; a few days later Birdwood was pressing the enemy retreat between Arras and the Lys; on 4th October Gouraud reached the Arne; on the 8th the British and Americans swept through the Siegfried zone to open country, and Cambrai fell; on the same day, in the south, Pershing and Gouraud, Mangin and Guillaumat were advancing in a linked movement.
The death-blow had been struck to the remnant of Germany’s military power. Lille must go, and Laon and the St. Gobain heights were as good as lost. The whole southern Hunding and Brynhild positions, where they had not been already broken, were outflanked from the north. Foch’s conception, indeed, had not been wholly realised. He had set Gouraud and Pershing too hard a task, and they were not far enough forward when the Siegfried zone fell to pin the enemy to the trap which had been prepared for him. Nevertheless, on 8th October Germany was finally beaten.