From the Aisne to the Marne
By the Military Critic of The Independent
[The Independent, June 15, 1918]
History reverses itself. In September, 1914, the French and British drove the Germans back from the Marne to the Aisne. In May, 1918, the Germans drove the French and British back from the Aisne to the Marne. Our old maps serve us for this new campaign. The familiar names of rivers and towns, reappear in the dispatches, the Ourcq, the Vesle and the Oise, Château Thierry, Villers-Cotterets, Fère-en-Tardennois, Fismes, Soissons, but read now down the page instead of up.
On three distinct fronts this spring the Allies have been caught unprepared. "We cannot say that they were taken by surprize, for in each case they had warning of the intended attack from the logic of the situation, from the observations of their avions, and from the information of deserters. But the Allied commanders either ignored the warning, underestimated the danger or were unable to meet it.
Last winter, for instance, the press of England, France and Germany frequently discussed the probability of a blow upon the British front in the early spring. According to Premier Lloyd George, the Allied War Council had accurate advance knowledge of the sector to be attacked and the number of troops gathered for that purpose. American officers returning from France confirmed this, and the German General Staff has admitted the accuracy of the British information. Yet the Chancellor of the Exchequer on March 8 said in Parliament that he was skeptical about a German offensive, and on March 15, General Maurice, Director of British Military Operations, gave out the statement:
Disbelief in an early development of the much-talked-of German offensive on the western-front is growing, owing to the fact that, after a period of weather favoring the air work preliminary to an offensive, there are still no indications of the opening of operations on a big scale.
Within less than a week the blow was struck. We may excuse these statements on the ground that they were given out, as is proper in war time, for the purpose of reassuring the public or deceiving the enemy, but unfortunately the Allied commanders acted as tho they were really skeptical of a German attack, for at any rate they neglected to take adequate precautions to meet it. According to rumor, General Gough was left on the extended British front with only fourteen infantry divisions to meet the shock of forty German divisions reinforced by eight or ten more during the next two days.
In April the Allied troops at Armentieres were likewise taken unprepared and overpowered. In May the same thing happened on the Aisne. Here it appears there were stationed along the Chemin des Dames four divisions of French and three of British troops, but the enemy brought forty-five divisions against them, and of course they gave way.
A deserter from the German side told of the intended attack on the Aisne, but he was disbelieved. Stegeman, the Swiss military critic, pointed out on May 24 that since Foch had concentrated his forces on the British side the Germans would be more likely to attack the French front between Compiègne and Reims. But Stegeman was discredited because of his German name, and Major de Civrieux, military expert of the Paris Matin, argued that such a change of plan was practically impossible because of the colossal preparations necessary for a modern offensive. Therefore he concluded that the preparations apparent on the Aisne were mere camouflage and that the Germans would attack the British front on the west as formerly. Three days after this opinion was published the Germans crost the Aisne.
All three of these German victories were then achieved in the same way, that is, by the swift and secret concentration of troops upon a weak sector. This new plan of attack is to be credited to French rather than Prussian genius, for its invention is ascribed to General von Hutier, who, as his name implies, is of French descent. His grandfather was a captain in the French army, but his father, Cölestin von Hutier, entered the German service and became colonel. Oskar von Hutier, the present general, married Fanni Ludendorff, presumably a relative of Quartermaster General Ludendorff, who planned the present German offensive in France. This was carried out by the tactics that Hutier first employed in the capture of Riga last year.
The essential feature of the Hutier method is night work. Parallel roads loading to the front, two for each army corps, are constructed at night. Ammunition dumps and heavy guns are placed as near as possible to the enemy lines. For the Somme offensive a book of 100 pages, giving full information and illustrated with maps and diagrams of the proposed movements, was printed weeks in advance and distributed to all officers down to the company commanders for study. Models of the terrain were constructed on a large scale and the operations rehearsed and timed. Finally the infantry were marched to the front by night in some, cases making sixty miles in three night marches. Then after a brief but intense bombardment, in which gas shells play a prominent part, the attack is launched, even in the face of machine gun fire. As it goes forward fresh troops are constantly sent to the front to replace those who have been exhausted. This, so far as can be ascertained, is the way in which the Germans achieved their recent advances.
It is now clear that the Allied commanders have made two mistakes. They have assumed, first, that entrenched positions adequately provided with artillery could not be forced beyond a few miles, or, in other words, that because they could not break thru the German line the Germans could not break thru theirs. Second, they have assumed that "the eyes of the army" had made it impossible to mass troops on a given front without the knowledge of the opponent. These two mistakes are really one, the mistake of relying too much upon modern mechanism, such as artillery and airplanes, the mistake of supposing that engineering could thwart ingenuity.
The first illusion, that modern military science had made the defensive stronger than the offensive, antedated the war and was the dominant opinion among strategists in England and France, tho not in Germany. The Allied experts were confirmed in this, opinion by the experience of three years of warfare on the western front, where the utmost efforts of French, British and Germans had not sufficed to carry a drive more than about five miles forward. The fact that the Germans had repeatedly broken thru entrenched lines on the Prussian, Rumanian, Serbian and Italian fronts did not shake Allied faith in the superiority of the defensive over the offensive, for these defeats were ascribed to deficiency of ammunition or inferiority of troops. The Germans, however, gained from these successes in the east confidence in their offensive policy and experience in practise of new tactics, which they have now applied in the west.
The prevailing British opinion was exprest by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in his volume on "The British Campaign in France and Flanders, 1914." After describing the vain attempt of General Haig to carry the Chemin des Dames hights above the Aisne River in September 12-18, 1914, in which 10,000 British soldiers were sacrificed, he says:
The net result was one more demonstration upon, both sides that the defensive force has so great an advantage under modern conditions that if there be moderate equality of numbers, and if the flanks of each be guarded, a condition of stalemate will invariably ensue, until the campaign is decided by economic causes or by military movements in some other part of the field of operations.
Yet this "stalemate" has been three times broken by the Germans in the last three months under just the conditions he specifies, and, lastly, in the very field from which he drew this deduction, the Aisne front! How it was done we must try to understand.
We have no difficulty in understanding the general aims and methods of German strategy, for it was expounded in innumerable-volumes before the war and is discussed with great frankness in the German journals at the present moment. Here, for instance, is the way the Frankfurter Zeitung in a recent issue explains the new offensive:
It can be regarded as the intention of the German Supreme Command first to loosen the whole front of stationary warfare and-to convert the stable wall of cement into an improvised front consisting of masses of reserves, and shaken at several points of vital importance—human bodies instead of armored works. As soon as this aim has been achieved, and as soon as the whole position of the English and French armies has become, so to say, ripe for storming and the development of the enemy reserves has been forced, the time has come for the last and decisive strategic blow.
It is, no doubt, a matter of very great importance whether Amiens or the English position on the hights in Flanders falls. . . . But the point of view which alone is decisive for the strategy of this campaign lies beyond these outward and visible battle successes the ultimate question is the question of the measure in which the preparatory strategic operations eat up the forces on both sides. When all the introductory blows have succeeded in loosening the rigid mass and our army undertakes the last and decisive stroke, will the German Command still, have preserved so much fighting strength that the favorable strategic situation can be thoroly exploited?
This German statement of the German aims agrees with opinions on our side. What Hindenburg is after in the present drive is not such ruined cities as Ypres and Reims, tho the capture of these would give a good excuse for flagging the streets. It is not primarily the taking of Amiens or Calais or even Paris, great as would be the advantage of their possession. The ultimate German aim is to reach and destroy the armies under General Foch, and the territorial gains are rightly regarded as subsidiary and preparatory to this. In August, 1914, General, von Kluck turned aside from Paris, which was within his reach if not within his grasp, to seek out the armies of Joffre and Foch on the Marne beyond. He found them, but failed to defeat them, otherwise the war would have been over in three months. The German command is pursuing the same plan as four years ago, and if Below and Böhm should get as close to Paris as Kluck in 1914 they would, like him, sweep past it if they thought they could get the armies on the other side. The Germans have succeeded in their first intention of loosening up the stationary warfare on a total front of more than a hundred miles. The great question is now—and we are glad to see that it is also worrying the Frankfurter Zeitung—-whether they have enough fighting strength left to take advantage of the favorable situation that they have gained.
Loosening up the line makes a game that two can play at. It is an advantage to whichever side can take advantage of it. The new situation opens up to the Germans, an opportunity to approach Paris from the northeast. But it also opens up to the Allies an opportunity to attack eighty miles of new and unfortified German lines. In March, as we were assured by the British and French governments, the Allies outnumbered the enemy. Since then the Germans have gained ground, but 'they have lost men. The Allies have lost ground, but not so many men as the enemy, while thru the new recruits pouring in from England and America they are continually gaining in man power compared with the Germans. Their latest drive has, it now appears, been brought to a halt, like the other two, without reaching any decisive objective. Their three salients are left hanging in the air, subject to assault from all sides. The enemy in his new position is more threatening, but also more vulnerable. It is easier—-as the Allies have found—-to defeat him on the Marne than on the Aisne.
© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013.
If you appreciate the articles, read the e-novel informed by them —
THE HEADLONG FURY
A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald