Spot and Sink

Richard J. Evans

  • With Our Backs to the Wall: Victory and Defeat in 1918 by David Stevenson
    Allen Lane, 688 pp, £30.00, May 2011, ISBN 978 0 7139 9840 5

In November 1918, after more than four years in the trenches, Adolf Hitler was in hospital away from the front, temporarily blinded by a gas attack. As he was recovering, he was told of Germany’s surrender and the overthrow of the kaiser. ‘Again,’ he later wrote, ‘everything went black before my eyes.’

And so it had all been in vain. In vain all the sacrifices and privations; in vain the hunger and thirst of months which were often endless; in vain the hours in which, with mortal fear clutching at our hearts, we nevertheless did our duty; and in vain the death of two million … Was it for this that these boys of 17 sank into the earth of Flanders? Was this the meaning of the sacrifice which the German mother made to the fatherland when with sore heart she let her best-loved boys march off, never to see them again?

Like many others in Germany, Hitler struggled to find an explanation for Germany’s apparently sudden collapse. How could it all have gone so wrong, so quickly?

Defeat was all the more puzzling since only a few months before, in spring 1918, victory seemed within the kaiser’s grasp. After years of stalemate, the war took a sudden turn in Germany’s favour. Early in 1917 the Germans decided to wage unrestricted submarine warfare – attacking civilian vessels – and U-boats were sinking a monthly average of more than half a million tons of shipping bringing supplies to Britain. The Americans had entered the war as a result, but it was taking a long time for them to mobilise. Allied troops were war-weary, and widespread mutinies in the French army, involving up to 40,000 men, were a stark reminder of the fragility of morale. In October 1917, German reinforcements enabled the Austro-Hungarian army to win a major victory at Caporetto: 265,000 Italians surrendered and 400,000 fled in confusion, while the pursuing forces advanced 50 miles in just over two days.

Most important of all, the October Revolution and the disintegration of the tsarist army took Russia out of the war. This enabled the Germans to redeploy huge numbers of troops – their forces on the Western Front increased from 3.25 million to more than four million men by April 1918. Paul von Hindenburg, a stolid general who effectively replaced the kaiser as the figurehead of the German war effort after being brought out of retirement to win spectacular victories on the Eastern Front early in the war, and Quartermaster-General Erich Ludendorff, the real driving force behind those victories, decided to capitalise on Germany’s strong position by launching a final, overwhelming attack on the Allied armies in the West.

Operation Michael, as it was named, deployed new and highly effective artillery tactics: enemy guns and command posts were targeted before a ‘creeping barrage’ that moved ahead of the advancing infantry was laid down, forcing the defenders to stay under cover until the Germans were almost upon them. With a superiority of more than two to one in men and guns, the Germans launched their attack on 21 March, firing more than three million rounds in the first day. Allied command posts some 30 miles behind the front were badly hit, along with gun positions, in the largest artillery bombardment of the war. As the German infantry swarmed over the Allied trenches, their advance concealed in a number of places by thick fog, the British and French were forced back along a 50-mile front. The losses on both sides were the heaviest of any single day in the war. On 9 April, a second major German attack further north was equally successful and was followed by an advance on Paris, creating panic in the city. In a relatively short space of time, the long stalemate on the Western Front had been broken. The Allied military leadership was traumatised, and by the end of June, Hindenburg and Ludendorff were celebrating a series of stunning victories. Yet little more than three months after that, the German leaders were suing for peace. How did this happen?

A first explanation has to do with military intelligence. Both sides in 1914-18 used traditional methods: gathering intelligence from POWs and from captured documents and equipment, keeping careful watch on the enemy front line, and sending spies out to gather information behind it. They also employed aerial reconnaissance and intercepted telephone and, increasingly, radio messages, decrypting them if necessary. Though they had not anticipated the spring offensive, the Allies were well prepared for the final German attack on 15 July. By contrast, the Germans never established an effective espionage network behind Allied lines, could not decrypt Allied signals and easily fell prey to deceptions and feints.

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