The Greatest Battle in the World
By Frank H. Simonds
[The American Review of Reviews, May 1918]
I. THE BLOW AT BRITAIN
On March 21 the Germans delivered their long-promised attack upon the Western front. The main blow fell upon the British Fifth Army on a thirty-five-mile front facing the towns of Cambrai, St. Quentin and La Fère. In the following weeks the zone of operations was extended northward from the Oise and the Scheldt to the Scarpe, the Lys and even toward the Yser. Before this western battle—the greatest battle in all human history—was three weeks old the whole British front from Amiens, in France, to Ypres, in Belgium, was aflame and assailed by the most terrific attack of the war.
At the outset of a discussion of this terrible month of military operations it is essential to revert for one moment to the conditions of the German gamble; for it was and is a gamble. Germany has staked all she has on the possibility of a military triumph—a decision, a win-the-war victory over Britain. These conditions are at once political and military.
With the collapse of Russia, Germany was at last able to reap a rich harvest as a result of her great efforts. Taken with her Balkan achievements, and her final destruction of Russian power of resistance (a destruction, to be sure, mainly accomplished by Trotzky and Lenine) Germany had now reached a point where she could erect new states and arrange new frontiers to the east and to the south, favorable to her future both politically and economically. Russia and the Balkans, together with Asiatic Turkey, were hers to exploit in the future, provided only she could get such a peace from her western foes as would leave her eastern arrangements undisturbed.
By negotiation Germany could not get such an arrangement. Her western foes were all the more determined to fight it out as they perceived the character and ultimate consequences of Germany's eastern settlement. The fate of Serbia, of Rumania, the still surviving German determination to enslave Belgium and to mutilate France still further—these were considerations which continued to weigh in the minds of the western allies who began the campaigning season of 1918 with as firm a resolution to go forward to victory as they had when they began the year 1915.
In this situation the German leaders felt the sheer pressure of time. The German people were becoming so weary of the strain of war that the prospect of a new campaign of great length might produce a grave weakening of morale. It was likewise impossible for the Germans to await attack, because the delay would give the Allies fresh American aid and it would disperse the temporary enthusiasm and confidence of the German people, evoked by the eastern settlement.
Thanks to this settlement, and to the-improved German prospects due to Russia's collapse, the German people believed that they could still win the war and make France and Britain pay the costs. They were willing to listen to military chiefs who told them that a short, tremendous effort would end the struggle and put the western enemies out as Russia had been put out. But they were no longer so confident as to insure their continued consent to a protracted struggle and another blood bath like Verdun, but even more costly in life. The German High Command, accordingly, determined upon one tremendous effort; a concentration of every man and gun available upon the western front; a super- Napoleonic campaign for a super-Napoleonic victory. From Russia all the best troops were brought west. From Russia and from Austria vast masses of artillery were transported. All the captures of guns arid material from Russia, Rumania and Italy, together with the best of Austrian artillery, were brought over to the western front.
As between the British and the French, the Germans decided to attack the British because they reasoned that a defeat of the French might put France out of the war without disposing of Britain; while a total defeat of Britain would inevitably compel France to make peace. They argued, also, that it would be easier to defeat the British than the French, because the British were a newly constructed army, while the French was a professional army officered by men who had made the problems of war the study of a lifetime. With the Verdun experience in mind the German elected to assail the British. How far his bitterness for the English influenced his decision one may not say. But in the main the decision grew out of the fact that Britain had become the principal enemy, the one great obstacle to German success, the corner-stone of the alliance against the Central Powers.
II. ALLIED POLICY
Germany had decided to attack, and to attack in the West, where alone she could obtain a decision of the war. And she had resolved to attack Britain. But why did the Allies wait for the attack instead of taking the offensive, since they had approximately equal numbers and at least as large a reserve of manpower, of artillery, and of munitions? I find this question asked by many of my readers, several of whom have written to me to ask it directly.
The reason, I think, was this: The Allies had tried the offensive in 1915 in Champagne and Artois without great success and at heavy cost. The Somme in 1916 had been a local victory purchased at very high expense. The Aisne in 1917 had been almost a disaster, so costly had been the early French attacks. And the British efforts in Flanders later were even bloodier and resulted in little more than local gains, useful in improving British positions, but valueless as anything else.
The Allies reasoned, therefore, that an offensive could not yield major results, since their offensives had failed to do this; and the single great German effort, that at Verdun, had been the worst failure of the lot. They believed that nearly four years of experience had proven that it was impossible to break through on the western front in such fashion as to dislocate the enemy front on a wide sector and compel a far-reaching withdrawal, if not a real disaster.
They reasoned, further, that, while the numbers of two foes were approximately equal, the great costs of an attack might weaken the assailant dangerously, while, should they wait, America was beginning to get troops over in some numbers and by 1919 would be able to supply the superiority in numbers which would enable the Allies to make an offensive without running risks patent in 1918. More than all this, the French public, after the Aisne last spring, and also the British people, after the Flanders struggle last autumn, were patently in no mood for bearing the costs of another unsuccessful effort to conquer, which might mean the expenditure of hundreds of thousands of casualties to take local objectives like Passchendaele and Pilkem Ridges, or the Chemin des Dames positions.
It would seem that the Allies renounced the offensive because they felt that it offered them too few chances of supreme success in 1918, while holding out the prospect of real disaster, if there were a costly failure. Disaster might be due either to a subsequent German counter-offensive or to a recurrence of war weariness in their own peoples behind the line, induced by failure, bloodshed, and disappointment.
In all this we are beginning to see that the German was nearer the truth than the Allied Staff in his estimate of the possibilities of the attack in great force and without regard to cost. His reasoning was sounder than that of his foes, although the failures of his foes were to explain much of his subsequent success. For the truth seems unmistakable that the British underestimated the weight of the blow that was to come and made insufficient preparation, and were caught just as the French were caught at Verdun with no adequate provision against the day when their first and second lines of defense might be broken.
But right or wrong, Allied reasoning was that no gains of the Germans could be made which would endanger the safety of the Allied armies; that the German attacks would be parried as the Verdun, Aisne, and Somme offensives had been parried; and that, after a brief rush, the campaign would settle down to another Verdun operation, vastly expensive to the assailant and limited to small and unimportant gains. The Allies forecast the German campaign in terms of their own experience in three years' of offensive in the West, and in terms of the German's experience at Verdun. They accepted the defensive and elected to await the coming of America before they passed to the attack.
The decision carried certain perils, which were obvious. The Allied overconfidence carried others which were not obvious. The German had now the choice of the front on which to attack. He could deal the first blow, which might be fatal and, for a certain period of time, his opponents would be outnumbered at the danger point and might suffer a supreme disaster, before they could get their reserves up. A second peril grew out of the fact that the Allied forces were made up of the troops of two great nations, each of which jealously guarded the command of its own soldiers and, in the present emergency, concentrated its reserves on its own front, expecting the German blow would fall there.
III. ON MARCH 21
On March 21, therefore, when the great offensive began, the Allies were handicapped: First, by the fact that their strategy had accepted the defensive rôle, which surrendered to the enemy the initiative and the chance to choose his point of attack. Secondly, by the fact that they were, particularly in the case of the British Army, almost absurdly overconfident of their ability to stop the attack at its inception. Third, by the division of command, which left the British alone to meet the storm, and delayed the transfer of French troops to the British front, when the initial disaster came. All of these weaknesses were to exact a high cost in the next few days and bring the Allied peoples the gravest apprehensions since the days of the Marne.
We may not yet speak with any clear authority upon German strategy. Military writers differ as to whether the German planned one mighty blow on a single front, or merely undertook to attack one after another of the British armies from south to north, using his great accumulation of reserves to exploit any local gain which his opening attacks might make. To me this seems the probable idea underlying the German attack. With good communications, and with a relatively restricted area involved, the German could hold the mass of his reserves in such positions as to throw them in north, south or in the center, wherever the storm troops, by the first assaults, opened the way.
In any event the first blow resulted in a tremendous success. It fell upon Gough's Fifth Army, standing from before Cambrai right down to the Oise, holding this rather extended front with fourteen divisions. The importance of the rôle of Gough's army lay in the fact that it was the connecting link between all the British and all the French armies. If it were broken then there would be a gap between these two allies, and this separation was bound to have the gravest possible consequences. The points of contact of this army were with the Third British Army toward Cambrai and well east of Arras, and with the French at the Oise west of La Fère.
The immediate purpose of the German attack seems to have been to smash through the Fifth Army, either as a whole or at several points opposite the important rearward roads, and by a rapid advance thrust a wedge between French and British armies, and advancing upon Amiens roll the British up and back upon the Channel away from the French and finally intern them in the narrow area north of the Somme. There was in this the original Napoleonic conception of the Waterloo campaign, which was an attempt to interpose between the British and the Prussians and destroy one, while the other was unable to come to its assistance. Napoleon failed because the Prussians arrived on the decisive battlefield in time. The Germans were to fail, too, for the same reason, but not for many days—days filled with peril and anxiety.
Advancing after a brief artillery preparation of unequaled intensity and covered by a fog, the Germans swept the British out of their advanced positions and in the first twenty-four hours broke through the British battle line in at least four places. Forty divisions against fourteen, they simply swamped the British by weight of numbers and by the relentless fury with which they pressed their attacks without regard to losses.
By Friday, March 22, the British Fifth Army had been cut off on the south from the French, on the north from the British Third Army and its center had been broken in two other places. The Germans were advancing with unequaled rapidity along the main road to Péronne and Albert, along the old Roman road which runs straight from the Scheldt north of St. Quentin to Amiens, and along two roads down the Oise valley, one leading to Paris, the other approaching the city of Amiens from the south. The thing that happened to the Northern Army at Chickamauga, as the result of a mistaken order, now happened, to the great Allied group of armies in Northern France. The Germans were sweeping forward between the Oise and the Scarpe, with only a broken army before them and with the very clear, purpose to deepen and widen the gap between the British and French armies. The fixed French front ended before La Fère, on the Oise, the fixed British line ended a little south of Arras, on the Cojeul, and between these two ends there was only a confused and beaten army, broken up into isolated groups, fighting gloriously but hopelessly outnumbered beyond all hope of resistance and rapidly being ground to powder. Friday, Saturday, Sunday and even Monday the Allies were in the presence of the possibility of a disaster of the very greatest proportions.
IV. THE SAVING OF AMIENS
Amiens was saved; and with Amiens the continuity of the Allied line and the contact of British and French troops. This resulted from the rapidity with which French reserves were moved from Champagne, where they had been concentrated against an expected attack upon Rheims, to Picardy and flung in front of the swift-rushing German flood. But two other factors contributed. First, the Germans had broken the British line right in front of the old Somme battleground, ravaged by the terrible struggle of 1916 and laid in utter waste by the German retreat of 1917. Second, toward the end of the critical period heavy rains turned this region into a waste of mud and slowed down the German rush.
In emphasizing the service of the French it is impossible not to pay equal tribute to the gallantry of the British. They fought with supreme courage and absolute self-sacrifice. They died without chance of victory and in the hope of delaying a little the German advance. But this heroism does not and cannot disguise the fact that; Gough's army had been utterly beaten; and the recall of the commanding general a few days later was final proof of this fact.
Once the Fifth Army had been driven from its battle-positions the problem was raised whether it could stop the Germans at any new line. A dozen miles west of its first positions, the Somme River makes a great bend and runs from south to north for twenty miles from Ham to Péronne, in a deep-cut, marshy valley dominated by high western banks. Here was an ideal defensive position. Here everyone expected the British to stand. But, it would seem that there had been no prepared positions here; that the British had repeated the error of the French at Verdun and looked only to advance, not to the possibility of retreat. In any event the Germans forced the passage of the Somme on the Sunday following the Thursday attack. They took Péronne, Ham and Nesle, and to the north they reoccupied Bapaume, while to the south they rolled on toward Noyon, Roye and Chaulnes, the advance points of their old front in the days before the British offensive at the Somme two years ago. By Monday they had overrun all the old battlefield of the Somme. At the north they had taken Albert, always in Allied hands since the early days of September, 1914. They had passed Roye and were reaching out for Amiens by the Roman road and by the Roye road. They were thrusting down the Oise valley along the road to Paris and toward Montdidier, which they presently took, along the road to the Seine south of Beauvais.
March 26 was the decisive day, just as February 26 was the decisive day at Verdun in 1916; and in both cases the original attack came on the 21st. On this day the French arrived in force not only along the southern front from the Oise just south of Noyon westward below Lassigny to the Avre above Montdidier, but also west of the Avre they joined hands with the British along the plateau above the Avre and at the little town of Moreuil on the Avre.
On this day, then, the gap was closed. The British and French armies were again in touch. The chance of rolling the British back north of the Somme and away from the French, of pushing the French back behind the Seine and the Oise, disappeared. Almost without warning the battle lines became stationary, just as they did on the Douaumont Plateau at Verdun, after the attack of the Twentieth Army corps under Balfourier. Six days of acute anxiety growing out of the realization of an ever-impending disaster, of another Waterloo or a colossal Sedan, came to an end. It had been a period exactly recalling the worst days before the Marne.
The German did not immediately accept his check. He continued to drive forward in the center between the Avre and the Ancre for several days. But his gains were slight, and he was still nearly a dozen miles from Amiens in an ever-narrowing salient between the Avre and the Ancre. His heavy guns had not arrived, and the cost to him of advancing under heavy artillery fire, supported only by field guns, was prohibitive. By April 1 there is a marked lull in the fighting and both sides begin to dig in. The German has recovered almost all the old battlefield of the Somme, and south of the Somme he has driven west of this area for something like ten miles from the vicinity of Bray to Montdidier, by way of Montreuil. He is in sight of Amiens, but firmly held outside the old capital of Picardy.
V. THE SECOND BATTLE OF THE SOMME
Feeling himself checked, the German suddenly transferred his attack to the North. At the outset he had assailed the southern flank of Byng's Third Army and driven it back from Monchy-le-Preux and other high ground won in the Battle of Arras, a year before. But his gains had been unimportant, although the southern flank of the Third Army was compelled to swing backward to keep in line with the remnants of the Fifth Army and try to keep in contact with it.
Now, in the first week in April the German suddenly delivered a tremendous blow at the Arras position, advancing astride the Scarpe and under the shadow of Vimy Ridge. If he could defeat this Third Army—if he could dislocate its front, which had become the pivot of the British, the fixed point on which hung all the battle line to the south, the hinge of the British battle line—the check at Amiens would be abolished, the whole British line would be thrown off its feet and a gap between the British and the French might open again.
This attack was an effort to restore the opportunity of. a supreme victory, at least temporarily postponed by the check before Amiens. It had enormous possibilities, but it never made the smallest progress. It was checked before the British battle positions, and it was checked with such promptness and with such heavy losses that the Germans did not engage all the reserves collected for the attempt. One day sufficed to establish the solidity of the Third Army positions.
Blocked thus at the North, the German now renewed his attacks to the South. He was now caught in a salient, a blunt-nosed wedge, with the point facing Amiens and the sides supplied by the Avre and Ancre streams, little more than large brooks, without value as military obstacles, but bounded on the western or Allied side by high ground, from which the Allied guns poured in a terrific cross-fire upon the Germans in the salient and facing Amiens. Unless the Germans could break the sides of this wedge they would presently be in a difficult position and might have to retire or risk disaster.
Accordingly toward the end of the first week in April and after the Arras blow had failed, Hindenburg began to throw great forces against the sides of the salient—against the British to the North along the Ancre above and below Albert, and against the French along the Avre and the plateau between the Avre and the Noye below Montdidier. The assault upon this plateau had the additional importance that on its western side, it looked down into the little valley of the Noye, through which runs the Paris-Amiens-Boulogne railway, the main route between London and Paris. To cut this line would be an important but not a decisive achievement.
Once more, as before Arras, the Germans were checked. Too much time had been allowed his enemy to settle down in new positions, which were now consolidated and backed by the concentration of Allied guns, while the German thrust was still weakened by the difficulties of transport of guns, munitions and men across the muddy desert of the Somme battlefield. For the moment the German was condemned to count his prisoners, his guns, his booty. His immediate success was over. He had to choose between following the old Verdun parallel and continuing his attack, with small prospect of great success, or of choosing a new point of attack. He chose the latter course and in a few days broke out in a new quarter.
Such briefly was the Second Battle of the Somme. It began by the piercing of the front of the British Fifth Army in four places, and in the dislocation first of the front of this army and then of all the Allied forces between the Scarpe and the Oise. The value of the Fifth Army as a link between British and French forces was promptly abolished. A major disaster faced the Allies for almost a week; and, at the end, the supreme defeat was escaped by a narrow margin after a retreat of thirty-five miles and the surrender of most of the ground won by the campaign of 1916 and of other ground beside.
The German estimated his prisoners at 90,000 and his captured guns at above 1300. The British challenge these figures, but they do not seem preposterous. In any event the British must have, lost between 50,000 and 75,000 prisoners—mainly their wounded, be it understood—and a thousand guns. Here is a real measure of defeat, unexampled in British military history. As for German losses, they were enormous; but advancing they saved their wounded, many of whom will reappear on the front, while the British wounded, who were captured, are a permanent loss. A loss of 250,000 for the Germans and perhaps 200,000 for the British and French, a loss chiefly British, of course, would seem a fair estimate of the cost of the Second Somme in the first three weeks.
VI. FOCH COMES
The disaster to the Fifth British Army and the consequent peril to the whole Allied fortunes in France and Belgium led to a decision which should have been made far earlier. Had it been made before the crisis of the Second Somme, it might have saved much temporary peril. This was the decision to name a Commander-in-Chief. The Allied armies had long suffered with respect of their operations by the independence of British, Italian and French High Commands. The British Government had many months before, on the morrow of the Italian disaster, urged such a coordination of Allied effort.
But the influence of the British Army with the British public and with Parliament prevented this eminently necessary step. Lloyd George was forced to go back on words spoken both in Paris and in Italy. For the moment the British soldier defeated the British statesman. But the subsequent failures of the British Staff, in the Battle of Cambrai, in the Flanders Campaign, where sterile local gains were the only reward for huge sacrifices in man-power, and finally in the newest offensive, destroyed the case of the British Staff. The people and the Parliament of Britain recognized the common-sense of the Prime Minister's conviction.
In the achievement of this long-sought goal America played an influential and an honorable part. The moment the storm broke, General Pershing offered our slender forces in France to the Allies without condition. He and his Government agreed that our men should be broken up into small units and put under French and British commanders, used as a French and British reserve, without regard to American pride in a separate organization, without regard to the jealousies and selfishness which nations and armies feel in such cases.
To her Allies the United States said, "We have so many men in France; take them and use them as you will, as a unit at the front, as reserves. We have only this to give, but we give it without condition." It was one of the wisest and best things Mr. Wilson has done; for he was primarily responsible for the offer. It gave the Allies, some 200,000 men for use at a critical hour, thus releasing other troops for the Somme front; and it silenced effectually further British military opposition to a single command. In the debate we have always stood with the French. Now, by surrendering all our own individuality, we gave final force to the general argument for the surrender of British pride.
Without further delay Foch was named. That the decision would be for Foch was never in doubt. No man in the Allied camp possessed anything like the claims of the victor of La Fère Champenoise, the man who had saved Nancy, who had blocked the German drive for the Channel ports, who had commanded the French in their first offensive in the spring of 1915 in Artois and directed the later French operations at the Somme in the following year, the man whom the Allies had sent to Italy after the Isonzo disaster last year. Every claim which achievement, experience, and esteem in all allied countries gave, could be made for General Foch; and his appointment was hailed in America and in Italy, quite as much as in France. In Britain, the public and the press, having recognized the necessity and concurred in the decision of the government, gave instant and unconditional support to the new commander-in-chief.
And with Foch came confidence. Within a few hours he gave the anxious Allied world the assurance that Amiens would not fall. His serenity and his calmness produced an instant effect. There was a feeling that the great man had arrived with the supreme crisis, and that Hindenburg was to find his match in Foch, as Moltke had found his master in Joffre. Henceforth the battlefront of the Allies from Venetia to Flanders became unified under a single commander; and the combined reserves of all the western allies were available for the immediate use of a commander-in-chief who was able to see the whole situation and not, as had seemingly been the case of both Haig and Pétain, conceive that a limited sector was all-important.
Yet even the terrible crisis could not entirely hide the greatness of the power that was now entrusted in the hands of one man. Napoleon had never commanded an army comparable with that of France alone at the present hour. Yet the French army was hardly more than a third of the army which Foch now ruled, since the command of the Italian army was, beyond doubt, included in the pooling of forces. French, British, Italian, American, Belgian, Portuguese, Australian, Canadian forces with contingents from Asia and Africa, were included in this mighty host. To its General it looked alike for deliverance from immediate peril and for ultimate victory. Despite, however, momentary relief at the Somme and satisfaction everywhere at the appointment of Foch, the Allied crisis was far from over; a new and equally terrible test was close at hand.
VII. THE BATTLE OF ARMENTIÈRES
The first week of April had seen the fighting in Picardy flicker out. The Germans were faced by the old Verdun dilemma. Any further effort on this front meant a long, slow pounding with great losses and little immediate profit, at least until guns and munitions could be brought up and communications created in the desert. In this situation the German turned north, perhaps in accordance with his prearranged plans, conceivably as the result of his check and following a strategy improved after the Somme fight had taken its later course.
In any event on April 9 he suddenly struck a heavy blow against General Home's British Army, which held the Armentières district, the sector between Ypres on the north and Arras on the south. His purpose in this attack was instantly plain. He sought to drive a wedge between the British troops in France and the British and Belgian forces in Belgium and advancing astride the Lys River, follow the historic roadway from the Plain of Flanders to the Channel at Calais.
In his larger conception the German dreamed of breaking through between the Arras and Ypres armies, isolating the Ypres force, together with the Belgians, rolling both in upon Dunkirk, and accomplishing on the North in a relatively smaller way what he had sought in the South. He hoped to crush Home's Army as he had smashed Gough's. He hoped to drive a wedge to the Channel like that he had almost driven through Amiens. His victory, if achieved, would automatically turn the British out of Arras and the strong positions about that town. It would compel the Arras Army to make a rapid and probably disorderly retreat south upon the French and the British Army would thus be divided, one half caught in a Super-Sedan at the North, the other thrust in rout back upon the French. The Kaiser would at least reach the Channel and turn his super-gun upon the British coast towns, upon Dover.
The conception was unmistakably grandiose, but it had elements of soundness which were not disputed in subsequent days, when the German advance crossed the Lys and approached Hazebrouck. It was a conception which resembled that of the March venture, which was, in fact, only one more of the familiar products of Prussian strategy which counts Sedan and Metz among its most characteristic achievements.
The front upon which the German made his attack was low and marshy, a twenty-mile stretch between the high ground facing La Bassée to the south and the ridges dominating Ypres to the north. It had been the scene of desperate fighting during the First Battle of Ypres, in October, 1914. Neuve Chapelle, where Sir John French made his abortive offensive in February, 1915, was almost on the front line of the British. Festubert, the scene of an even more ghastly offensive, was also on his pathway. As he advanced the German would push into an expanse of muddy plain, surrounded in a semi-circle by hills and, toward Hazebrouck, barred by the large and boggy Forest of Nieppe.
The German's immediate objectives were three: (1) Béthune, to the south, at the foot of the hills back of Arras, an industrial town of some importance and the last considerable coal town left to the French; (2) Bailleul, to the north, at the foot of the Ypres hills and on one of the main roads north to Ypres, and finally (3) Hazebrouck, sixteen miles due west, a railroad junction and the key to Ypres. Hazebrouck was his goal for the first phase of his offensive. If he got Béthune and the high ground east of it, the Arras salient would be imperiled. If he got Bailleul, the Ypres salient would be dangerous to hold. If he got Hazebrouck, the Ypres salient would have to be surrendered; the British would be compelled to retire out of Belgium and the whole Allied line swing back to the Channel at Dunkirk. More than this, Hazebrouck was at least a third of the way to Calais itself.
If the German got Béthune, Bailleul, and Hazebrouck in the first rush—as he had taken Péronne, Ham, and Bapaume at the Somme—towns as far from his earlier starting place, a new British disaster would inevitably ensue. Home's Army would be smashed, and the Arras and Ypres armies put in grave peril. His main purpose was still to smash British military power; and geographical objectives were only incidental. But he had again selected these geographical objectives with a clear eye to their bearing upon his main purpose. When he started on his attack on April 9, he was about as far from Calais as he had been from Ameins on March 21. A repetition of the Amiens sweep might get him Calais, and would certainly bring the town within range of his heavy guns and thus render it useless for British transport purposes, and Calais was one of the chief British bases in France.
VIII. THE ASSAULT
The assault in the opening phase of the Battle of Armentières differed materially from the assault at the Somme. There the German had attacked on a fifty-mile front, but now he began operations by a local thrust at the portion of Home's army lying along the Lys in the low ground near Laventie. Here he struck a Portuguese division, crumpled it up, and drove a wedge hardly more than two miles wide right through the British lines. Through this gap more troops poured and began to spread out. In the first day the crossings of the Lys and the Lawe were both stormed and the Germans reached the considerable town of Estaires on the main road to Hazebrouck.
As this advance widened its front it began to reach at the rear of Armentières; and the next day the Germans made a terrific drive on a narrow front north of Armentières and at the foot of the famous Messines Ridge south of Ypres. At this point they carried the village and forest known to the "Tommy" as "Plugstreet." Armentières was thus encircled and the position of the British in it was desperate. In point of fact several thousand were presently captured after a gallant resistance.
The German was thus widening his operative front. By April 11 he was making desperate efforts south of the Lys and east of Béthune against Givenchy and Festubert, facing La Bassée. Both of these towns were taken and lost many times in the first days of the struggle.
But despite all his efforts the German could not shake the British to the north or to the south of the plain on the high ground vital to the defense of Arras and Ypres. On the other hand, his advance on the plain continued rapid .and by April 13 he had progressed more than eleven miles toward Hazebrouck, which was less than five miles from his front lines. Merville and other considerable industrial towns were in his hands and he was within a mile both of Béthune and Bailleul.
Sunday, April 14, was in a sense a critical day. If the German could break down either side of the deep and narrow salient into which he had thrust, there was still the possibility for him of a major success, for neither French nor British reserves had arrived. Already, two days before, Sir Douglas Haig had made a stirring appeal to his troops to die where they stood, "fighting with their backs to the wall," and nowhere was there any effort to minimize the extent of the danger.
On the Sunday, however, the British situation improved. The German was checked on all three sides of the salient. He was thrown back to the north. It seemed as if what had occurred to the south would now take place in the north, and that the Germans would be halted before Hazebrouck as they had been checked before Amiens, without achieving any larger strategic end. But already, the extent of German advance had placed the troops in the Ypres salient in a dangerous position and steps were being taken to prepare for a shortening of the line in Belgium.
The next day the necessity for such a step was obvious, for the Germans, returning to the charge, broke through the northern side of the salient, took Bailleul and some ground about it—including Meteran still further along the road to Hazebrouck—and the next day stormed the famous Messines Ridge and took the village and hill of "White Sheet." This was a fatal stroke, so far as the Ypres position was concerned, for the Messines Ridge looked down upon the one railroad and the single highway by which all reinforcements, munitions and supplies reached the Ypres salient.
For three years the Germans had sat upon this ridge and shelled the British in the Ypres salient. They had not been strong enough to undertake an offensive, and so the British had held on; but always with the realization that if the Germans attacked from Messines, the whole Ypres salient would have to be evacuated. In June, 1917, General Plumer had stormed this ridge as the first step in the campaign to drive the Germans from the Belgian coast. This attack had been the most brilliant single feat of the British Army in the war.
Now the conditions were reversed; and the Germans, as a step in their dash for Calais, had retaken the ridge and the British were in the low ground. Where they stood on the ridge the Germans were but three miles from the vital communications of the British, while the British far east of Ypres from Lahgemarck to Passchendaele were eight miles from the threatened point. If the Germans could get forward these three miles before the British could get out of the Ypres salient, a new Sedan would result.
There was nothing for it, then, but to retreat; and by Wednesday the British were back on a narrow front before Ypres from Bixschoote through Pilkem to the famous ground about Zonnebeke. Almost but not quite all of the ground which had cost a half a million casualties to take less than a year before, was thus surrendered without a shot. Nor was this all. It was plainly recognized that this might prove but the first step in a withdrawal which would take the British out of Ypres altogether and back on the line near Poperinghe. Such a retirement was probable if Messines and "White Sheet" could not be retaken. It was certain, if the Germans should take Kemmel Hill, west of the Messines hinge and much higher. Kemmel was the key of the Ypres salient.
Accordingly the British undertook on Wednesday, April 17, still another vigorous counter-offensive against Messines, and took Wytschaete, but only to lose it. The Germans could not be shaken from their prize on this day or on the next. As it now stood the Ypres salient had been restored to approximately its lines at the close of the first struggle in October and November, 1914.
But, on the other hand, the British retirement had much reduced, if it had not totally abolished, the perils incident to the holding of a far-flung salient whose lines of communication and single avenue of retreat was within striking distance of the enemy. Marshal Bazaine had stayed in Metz too long in 1870, and had found the Verdun road closed when at last he tried to get out. The British held the corresponding Poperinghe road solidly, and they had moved their main force back out of the danger zone.
The surrender of this famous ground, the scene of so much sacrifice, and the graveyard of so much of the best of British manhood, was a terrible blow to British pride. It was a blow that had to be borne in the face of the possibility of a further surrender of Ypres itself, and for Britain, what Verdun represented for France. But the real consequences on the military side were relatively slight. Ypres was only a sector in the line from Belgium to Switzerland; and if the line held, it did not matter whether it ran before or behind Ypres. The values of the 1918 campaign were far different from those of 1914, and the British retirement, which would have been fatal in 1914, would have no major consequences, provided there were no concomitant disaster, no broken line.Thursday, April 18, the British official reports for the first time announced that the British line had been maintained everywhere and at the same time signalled the arrival of the French about Bailleul. Once more it seemed that a German thrust had been parried, this time not far from its inception. The troops attacked had held until the reserves could arrive, and Calais and the roads to the Channel seemed blocked against the Kaiser, as it had been blocked nearly four years before.
Yet the northern offensive was not over; and new convulsions and new crises were still to be expected. Nor was it unlikely that a third German blow, either at the Somme or in Belgium, would still further strain Allied resources and Allied man-power. Since the opening of the attack the Germans had used 126 divisions, 98 at the Somme and 28 at Armentières. Of these 60 had been put in during the first three days at the Somme, 82 during the first ten days, and the figure of 98 had been reached just before the southern battle closed. Of the 128, 79 had been used against the British, 24 against the French, who had come to the British aid in the south., and 23 had been used against both British and French units. In effect, then, the British had faced not less than 90 divisions, the French 36. And it had been against the British that the real blow had been levelled; for in the main the French had been far less heavily engaged.
In the four weeks, then, the British had borne the weight of something like 1,250,000 with a force manifestly inferior in numbers. It might be reckoned at 70 British divisions, which at their probable strength did not exceed a million. Contrast this with the seventeen divisions thrown against the French in the first days of Verdun, and the weight of the blow can be appreciated. The British had been, too, heavily outgunned; and the German superiority in artillery had perhaps contributed to the great successes which had been won in the opening phases of the two assaults.
And after four weeks the British army was still fighting back. Two of the armies had been beaten. The fifth had been practically routed. Home's army had been beaten back but never broken. But despite the reverses, the line still held and the effort to isolate the British and destroy their military establishment had so far been defeated.
In all human history there has never been such a blow, or such a month of carnage. "Germany is on the march," said one Prussian officer, recording in his diary his impressions of the great adventure. And Germany on the march had encountered Britain at bay, as Germany had encountered France at the Marne. The result was a struggle which for the future can hardly have lesser interest than the Marne—a struggle in which more men were engaged, more men killed, wounded and captured and more artillery used than ever before. And this battle after four weeks had not ended, and gave no visible sign of coming to an end.
On April 19, a date of utmost significance to the American troops, now beginning to play a modest part in the struggle, the Germans had not divided the British from the French, they had not opened a road to the Channel or isolated the British and Belgian troops in Belgium, from the British and French in France and thus produced a Super-Sedan. But, on the other hand, such checks as they had met with were still far from seeming complete and the greatest battle in the world, although still without decisive gains for Germany still saw the "good German sword" seeking its "victorious peace." The Allies were not beaten; they seemed in stronger position than at the outset and with reserves still unengaged—in fact, the Italian Prime Minister on this day announced that Italian divisions were on the way to France. But the ultimate outcome of the battle was as yet unrevealed to the world, who followed this struggle with an intensity which cannot be forgotten, and recalled the worst days of the Marne campaign; and it was the recollection of the Marne time, which in the black hours held out the brightest hopes for the future.
© 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