The Last Days of World War One
World War One, the War to End All Wars, lasted from 1914-1918. This is how it ended. In 1917 the Russian war effort against Germany and Austria collapsed and Russia sued for peace. In March 1918 the Rusians surrendered to Germany by signing the treaty of Brest-Litovsk. It ended the war in the east, ceded huge amounts of territory to Germany and its’ allies, and best of all for Germany, freed up more than 50 German divisions to use on the Western Front against France and Britain. That’s over 500,000 troops.
With these new troops and copious amounts of artillery the Germans launched their first offensive against France and Britain since 1914. And best of all, they had a “secret weapon.” Three years of bloody trench warfare on the Western Front had shown that massed artillery barrages followed by human wave attacks were pointless. The Germans had figured out a better way. Instead of massed artillery attacks against the front line trenches, there would be much more widespread artillery attacks against enemy HQ, supply, communication, and transport facilities located behind enemy lines. And instead of mass human wave attacks, there would be much smaller sneakier attacks by crack troops trained to go around enemy strong points, isolating them, and making them easy for following units to capture.
On 21 March 1918 the German attack got underway against the British Fifth Army and elements of the British Third Army. Operation Michael it was called. In the first five hours over one million artillery shells were fired, the largest artillery bombardment of the war. The British were caught by surprise, and in some cases hadn’t even fully dug in as they had recently taken over parts of the front line from their French allies. At the end of the first day the British had over 20,000 dead and 35,000 wounded and the Germans had broken through their lines in several places. At the end of the second day the British Fifth Army was in full retreat, and the greatest breakthrough on the Western Front since 1914 was well underway as fast moving German Shock Troops (Stoßtruppen) wreaked havoc behind Allied lines.
The rest, as they say, is history. The French commander, General Petain, underestimated the gravity of the situation and was slow to send troops north to aid the British. The British failed to adapt to the new German tactics, and their defensives positions quickly fell before they could get fully dug in. In a week the key town of Amiens fell to the rapidly advancing Germans, effectively cutting off the British from their French allies. Simultaneously the British Third Army failed to fall back fast enough, and was flanked by the Germans. British losses mounted as tens of thousands, then hundreds of thousands of surrounded British troops surrendered.
As shattered British armies fell back toward the channel ports, the second hammer blow fell on 9 April, the German Operation Georgette. This time the blow fell on the French. The French forces were demoralized before the British disaster at Amiens, and were even less prepared to cope with the new German infiltration tactics. By the end of the first day of Georgette the Germans had made even more progress than in operation Michael, with a forty mile section of the French line penetrated in multiple places.
The French Fourth Army fell back in disarray toward Paris, the German Stoßtruppen hard on their heals. It didn’t help that many of the German Stoßtruppen were using some of the hundreds of allied tanks they had captured during Operation Michael. The speed of the German advance surprised even the Germans, and by June the Germans were on the outskirts of Paris. General Petain bravely and personality led the defence of Paris but the French High command knew the game was over. The British troops that hadn’t been able to flee had been captured, there were over a million allied POWs in two months of fighting. Worse, the loss of the channel ports slowed the flow of supplies and ammunition to France to a trickle. And made it almost impossible for American troops to arrive in any numbers. Not that there was much chance of troops or supplies getting to Paris in any event as the roads were clogged with millions of fleeing French civilians.
On June sixth the German “Final Offensive” began. The French fought bravely, even heroically in places. There weren’t enough of them, they had no tanks, little artillery, and no idea how to counter the German infiltration tactics. The Germans had all three, and tens of thousands of crack Stoßtruppen. In a few weeks of bitter but scattered fighting it was over, and the Germans were doing what they had hoped to do in 1914, marching triumphantly through the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.
On July 1st 1918 the last French positions in Paris fell. On July 4th the French and British formally asked the Germans for an armistice. In some ways it was a formality, French troops were surrendering or deserting en masse, and the British had lost over half of their army and virtually all of their artillery and equipment. On July 5th 1918, Germany accepted their surrender, the War to End All Wars was over.
(The above image is Public Domain under US copyright law, as it predates 1927. It’s a picture of a German A7V tank, one of only fifteen tanks Germany field in World War One. They did field and use over 100 captured Allied tanks just as the post states. In fact a surprising amount of the above post is true, but Germany did not win the war. That part didn’t happen. This is the introduction post for my next post: “What would have happened if Germany had won World War One?”)