CLOSE
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

WWI Centennial: Disaster At Caporetto

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 291st installment in the series.

October 24-27, 1917: Disaster At Caporetto

In the spring and summer of 1917, the momentum of events in the First World War seemed to favor the Allies. The U.S. and Greece joined the war, a democratic revolution promised to revive Russia, and the British put the Germans on the defensive again at Passchendaele in Flanders. Just a few months later, however, the tables had turned in dramatic fashion: although American troops began arriving in relatively modest numbers, the British Flanders offensive was flailing in the autumn mud and Russia was teetering on the verge of another (far more radical) revolution.

Then, on October 24-27, 1917, the other shoe dropped. A combined Austro-German force launched a crushing offensive on the Italian front, achieving a successful breakthrough and the near-collapse of the Italian Army. Caporetto is commemorated as one of the worst battlefield defeats suffered by either side during the war, with the virtual destruction of the Italian Second Army ranked alongside debacles like the annihilation of the Russian Second Army at Tannenberg, the collapse of Austria-Hungary’s armies during the Brusilov Offensive of 1916, and the shattering of the British Fifth Army in March 1918 during the final German onslaught. Thanks to Caporetto and the Bolshevik coup in Petrograd, by the end of 1917—after more than three years of war—the fortunes of the Allies had never been at a lower ebb.

Crisis and Complacency

Following the surprise Italian victory at the Sixth Battle of Isonzo, which saw the fall of the town of Gorizia, stasis returned to the front until the Eleventh Battle of the Isonzo in August-September 1917, when the Italians once again managed to push the Habsburg defenders of the First and Second Isonzo Armies back near Montefalcone (though once again the gains came at an astronomical cost in human blood, including 30,000 Italian and 20,000 Habsburg dead).

The Italian conquest of the strategic Bainsizza Plateau during the Eleventh Isonzo threatened to isolate several Habsburg mountain strongholds, endangering Austro-Hungarian control of nearby Tolmein and the Slovenian hinterland to the east. Meanwhile, after 11 bloody battles, the Austro-Hungarian armies on the Isonzo Front were finally stretched to the breaking point. In short, the Central Powers could no longer neglect the Italian front.


Erik Sass

At the same time, the Habsburg military had new leadership at the very top. The young, reform-minded Emperor Karl I had succeeded his uncle Franz Josef on the latter’s death on November 21, 1916, and in March 1917 Karl sacked the imperious chief of the Imperial general staff, Conrad von Hötzendorf—one of the main advocates of war with Serbia in 1914, who had frequently butted heads with the empire’s civilian leadership, not to mention his equally imperious German colleagues.

Karl replaced Conrad with General Arz von Straussenberg, who had worked closely with the Germans on the Eastern Front and earned their trust. Straussenberg’s good relations with the German leaders, chief of the general staff Paul von Hindenburg and his own chief of staff, quartermaster general Erich Ludendorff, helped secure seven German divisions from the Eastern Front to bolster the overstretched Austro-Hungarian armies and spearhead a new attack on the Italian Front. The German contribution to the hybrid Austro-German Fourteenth Army, which remained totally under German command, included the elite Alpenkorps, specializing in mountain combat. The Austro-Hungarian Army contributed 10 divisions to the Fourteenth Army, as well as the Austro-Hungarian Second Isonzo Army (previously part of the Fifth Army under Svetovar Boroevic), Tenth Army, and Eleventh Army.

The arrival of 140,000 battle-hardened German assault infantry raised morale among their overtaxed Habsburg allies, and would soon strike fear in the hearts of their foes, according to Ernest Hemingway, whose character Lt. Frederic Henry observes in A Farewell to Arms (based on Hemingway’s own experiences as an ambulance driver on the Italian front): “The word Germans was something to be frightened of. We did not want to have anything to do with the Germans.”

The Germans and Austrians took elaborate precautions to conceal the movement of new troops to the front, as recounted by Erwin Rommel, then a 25-year-old lieutenant whose Württemberg Mountain Battalion, an elite assault unit, would play a major role in the victory:

Because of enemy aerial reconnaissance each prescribed march objective had to be reached before daybreak at which time all men and animals had to be concealed in the most uncomfortable and inadequate accommodations imaginable. These night marches made great demands on the poorly fed troops. My detachment consisted of three mountain companies and a machine gun company, and I usually marched on foot with my staff at the head of the long column.

The Central Powers’ attack at Caporetto would enjoy stunning success in large part thanks to storm trooper units like Rommel’s, using new “infiltration” tactics developed by German Army captain Willy Rohr beginning in the spring of 1915, refined at Verdun in 1916, and recently employed by the German Eighth Army under General Oskar von Hutier at Riga in September 1917.

The new combat technique centered on small, highly trained groups of Stosstruppen (stormtroopers) armed with machine guns, rifles, grenades, mortars, and even field guns, who would penetrate deep behind enemy lines following intense but localized heavy artillery bombardments, in order to neutralize enemy machine guns and artillery before the main infantry assault. The stormtroopers typically bypassed enemy strongpoints whenever possible, leaving them to be surrounded and destroyed by a second wave of larger assault squads with heavy weaponry, and enabling the stormtroopers to keep moving to sow chaos in the rear (below, a German assault platoon rests during the battle).


Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

For his part the Italian chief of the general staff, Luigi Cadorna, ignored repeated warnings of an impending enemy attack, noting the arrival of snow in the Julian Alps and ordering Italian troops to stay on the defensive before going on holiday in Venice in mid-October. Cadorna was confident that the Austrian attack would come 50 miles south of the Isonzo, on the Carso Plateau. Away from headquarters and distracted by growing political opposition to his command in Rome, he also failed to discern that one of his army commanders, General Capello, hadn’t move the Second Army to a defensive footing—leaving a large number of his troops forward deployed on the far (eastern) bank of the Isonzo River, where they could be stranded if the bridges fell. In many areas Italian defenses were discontinuous, with hillside trenches broken by outcroppings, gorges, and other rough terrain—making them perfect targets for infiltration techniques.

Amid heavy autumn rains the Austro-German hammer blow fell at 2 a.m. on October 24, 1917, when artillery unleashed a terrifying bombardment that some German soldiers said exceeded Verdun or the Somme. Even Rommel and his colleagues seemed impressed:

It was a dark and rainy night and in no time a thousand gun muzzles were flashing on both sides of Tolmein. In the enemy territory an uninterrupted bursting and banging thundered and reechoed from the mountains as powerfully as the severest thunderstorm. We saw and heard this tremendous activity with amazement. The Italian searchlights tried vainly to pierce the rain, and the expected enemy interdiction fire of the area around Tolmein did not materialize.

That was probably due in part to the deadly combination of phosgene and chlorine gas shells that overwhelmed Italian soldiers, many of whom failed to put on their gasmasks because the yellow gas blended invisibly into the heavy mountain fog. By dawn Rommel and his assault team, whose mission was to protect the flank of the Bavarian Life Guards in a dangerous mountain assault, were moving forward to their jumping-up points:

A few shells struck on both sides of the long column of files without doing any damage. The column halted close to the front line. We were frozen and soaked to the skin and everyone hoped the jump-off would not be delayed. But the minutes passed slowly. In the last quarter hour before the attack the fire increased to terrific violence. A profusion of bursting shells veiled the hostile positions a few hundred yards ahead of us in vapor and a gray pall of smoke.

At 6 a.m. Italian secondary lines were under fire, and German and Austrian assault groups began appearing in mountain valleys along the Tolmein portion of the Isonzo front, indicating a major assault was under way. However, Italian communications had already been severed by artillery fire in many places, preventing the still-confident Cadorna from learning how serious the situation really was.


Erik Sass

After jumping off at 8 a.m., Rommel’s unit passed through the smoldering remains of the Italian front line and swiftly ascended the spoke-like ranges around Mount Mrzli, towering over the Isonzo. On encountering a well-sited Italian strongpoint, Rommel simply moved laterally and continued infiltration techniques over the craggy terrain until he found favorable ground for an attack—using vegetation, outcroppings, and other natural features to shield his troop movements from enemy observation and fire, while platoons provided covering fire for each other as they advanced.


German Federal Archives, Image 146-1970-073-25 // CC-BY-SA 3.0

Of course the terrain provided risks of its own. Early in the ascent the Rommel detachment’s armed advance scout, or “point,” accidentally dislodged a small boulder:

At this moment a hundred-pound block of stone tumbled down on top of us. The draw was only 10 feet wide and dodging was difficult and escape impossible. In the fraction of a second it was clear that whoever was hit by the boulder would be pulverized. We all pressed against the left wall of the fold. The rock zigzagged between us and on downhill, without even scratching a single man.

Attracting the attention of large numbers of Italian frontline troops could be fatal, so the stormtroopers focused on enemy units that directly impeded their continuing ascent over the ridgelines. Later in the morning, Rommel used a favorite tactic—deception—to turn a dangerous Italian defensive position protecting an unsuspecting garrison:

I singled out Lance Corporal Kiefner, a veritable giant; gave him eight men, and told him to move down the path as if he and his men were Italians returning from up front, to penetrate into the hostile position and capture the garrison on both sides of the path. There were to do this with a minimum of shooting and hand grenade-throwing … Their rhythmical steps died away and we began to speculate on their success … Again long, anxious minutes passed and we heard nothing but the steady rain on the trees. Then steps approached, and a soldier reported in a low voice: “The Kiefner scouts squad has captured a hostile dugout and taken 17 Italians and a machine gun. The garrison suspects nothing.”

And still Rommel pressed on. After capturing an isolated garrison and taking around 60 prisoners, the German mountain assault team returned to the advance, penetrating deep behind the Italian frontlines:

Our thousand-yard column worked its way forward in the pouring rain, moving from bush to bush, climbing up concealed in hollows and draws, and seizing one position after another. There was no organized resistance and we usually took a hostile position from the rear. Those who did not surrender upon our surprise appearance fled head over heels into the lower woods, leaving their weapons behind. We did not fire on this fleeing enemy for fear of alarming the garrison of positions located still higher up.

Further south, as the Italian defenses collapsed, Caporetto fell to the advancing enemy at 3 p.m., and at 3:30 the retreating Italians blew up the bridge over the Isonzo. However, these defensive measures were belated or irrelevant: the German Fourteenth Army advanced with almost unprecedented speed, and by later afternoon the Germans had occupied the Isonzo Valley while forward units were seizing control of mountain slopes far to the west of Caporetto.

Yet as late as 6 p.m., Cadorna, isolated at his headquarters in Udine, still believed that the attack was a feint to distract from the main enemy offensive on the Carso. Only as October 24 drew to a close did the Italian chief of the general staff grasp the scale of the unfolding disaster, as news arrived that 14 infantry regiments had been pulverized and some 20,000 Italian soldiers taken prisoner, along with ominous reports of mass insubordination and desertion in several divisions.

Over the next three days, from October 25-27, 1917, the Germans brought up artillery and mounted additional attacks to exploit the breakthrough, capturing the plateau around Cividale and threatening Udine itself by October 28—forcing Cadorna and his staff at the Supreme Command to hastily evacuate the town for safer environs to the southwest. Perhaps most spectacularly, Rommel’s 200-man strong assault company scored a legendary battlefield victory on October 25-26, 1917, with the capture of Mount Matajur, the next major peak after Mount Mrzli.

The physical ascent was epic in its own right, and the Germans now faced more determined defenders practiced in mountain warfare. At one point Rommel took characteristically bold action to relieve a surrounded German unit:

The 2d Company held some sections of trench on the northeast slope and was encircled from the west, south, and east by fivefold superiority, an entire Italian reserve battalion … The wide and high Italian obstacles lay in rear of the 2d Company, making retreat to the north slope impossible. The troops defended themselves desperately against the powerful enemy mass; only their unbroken rapid fire prevented an enemy attack. If the enemy ventured to attack in spite of the fire, then the little group would have been crushed … My estimate of the situation was that the 2d Company could be relieved only by a surprise attack by the entire detachment … Under such conditions I believed that the superior combat capabilities of the mountain soldier would prevail.

By the time they conquered Mount Matajur, in two days Rommel’s small force of mountain troops had crossed 18 kilometers of very rough terrain, ascended almost 3000 meters, and captured 9000 Italian prisoners—all at a cost of six dead and 30 wounded.

Meanwhile, the Italian Second Army fell into headlong (though initially orderly) retreat, as described by Hemingway:

The next night the retreat started. We heard that Germans and Austrians had broken through in the north and were coming down the mountain valleys toward Cividale and Udine. The retreat was orderly, wet, and sullen. In the night, going slowly along the crowded roads we passed troops marching under the rain, guns, horses pulling wagons, mules, motor trucks, all moving away from the front.

By October 27 the Second Army under Capello had simply disintegrated, with tens of thousands of beaten, demoralized soldiers streaming towards the rear in pouring rain; the collapse in turn exposed the northern flank of the neighboring Third Army under the Duke d’Aosta, forcing the latter to fall back from Montefalcone before the Habsburg Second Isonzo Army. Within a few weeks Boroevic’s force would advance west to within sight of the lagoons of Venice, now facing the threat that so recently menaced its sister city, Trieste. Will Irwin, an American war correspondent touring the Italian front, described the worried reaction as news of the debacle arrived in Venice:

I was aware that a curious change had come over the appearance of the crowds. Ten minutes before they had been streaming across the plaza. Now there was no movement. They had congealed into groups, talking low and seriously … All that Italy had gained so splendidly in the August offensive gone in one stroke! If it would only stop there!

Elsewhere the Habsburg Tenth Army under Krobatin and Eleventh Army under Conrad (the former Austrian chief of staff, now with a field command) rumbled into action, brushing aside the thin Italian covering force in the Carnic Alps and forcing back the Italian Fourth Army under Giardino—the latter imperiled by the Austro-German advance towards its supply lines. Only the Italian First Army under Giraldi, at the extreme west of the Italian front by Lake Garda, was able to stabilize its position after Conrad’s advance around the Asiago Plateau (the situation was worsened by the decision to dissolve the Italian Fifth Army, a reserve force, in July 1916; below, a retreating Italian 305-millimeter howitzer).


Italian Army Historic Photogalleries // CC BY 2.5

And still the retreat continued amid chaotic conditions well into November, with thousands of Italian troops mixed up with civilians, constantly threatened by the lightning-fast German advance. Hemingway’s narrator Frederic Henry noted: “We were very close to Germans twice in the rain but they did not see us… I had not realized how gigantic the retreat was. The whole country was moving, as well as the army. We walked all night, making better time than the vehicles.”

“I Cannot See When or Where the Awful War Is Going to End”

By the time the Italian retreat finally ended on November 12, as the battered First, Third and Fourth Armies took up strong defensive positions behind the Piave River, Italy had lost most of the country’s northeast, exposing Venice to the enemy, at a cost of 305,000 casualties, including 10,000 dead and 265,000 taken prisoner (top, Italian prisoners of war crammed in an Austrian prison camp; below Italian lancers joining the reforming line at the Piave). By contrast the German and Austrian attacking forces suffered just 70,000 casualties, including killed and wounded. The victory also allowed the Central Powers to defend a much shorter line, running via the Asiago Plateau, Mount Grappa, and the valley of the Piave—helping ease a severe manpower shortage by freeing up German and Austrian troops for service elsewhere.


Italian Army Historic Photogalleries // CC BY 2.5

The severity of the defeat at Caporetto triggered a harsh reaction from Cadorna, who realized that he would be held responsible and swiftly placed the blame on the Second Army, openly accusing officers and ordinary soldiers alike of defeatism and cowardice. In fact morale had been at rock-bottom even before the German attack, and during the chaotic retreat thousands of Italian soldiers deserted, while tens of thousands more surrendered without a fight.

Reports of mutiny and mass desertion prompted arbitrary, draconian measures, including the execution of hundreds of soldiers by drumhead tribunals behind the lines. In A Farewell to Arms, Frederic Henry witnesses the execution of an officer who was separated from his troops during the retreat:

"Have you ever been in a retreat?” the lieutenant-colonel asked. “Italy should never retreat.” We stood there in the rain and listened to this. We were facing the officers and the prisoners stood in front and a little to one side of us. “If you are going to shoot me,” the lieutenant-colonel said, “please shoot me at once without further questioning. The questioning is stupid.” He made the sign of the cross. The officers spoke together. One wrote something on a pad of paper. “Abandoned his troops, ordered to be shot,” he said. Two carabinieri took the lieutenant-colonel to the river bank. He walked in the rain, an old man with his hat off, a carabinieri on either side. I did not watch them shoot him but I heard the shots.

Henry narrowly escapes execution himself by throwing himself in the fast-flowing river, swollen with rain. Unsurprisingly he decides to desert: “It was no point of honor. I was not against them. I was through. I wished them all the luck. There were the good ones, and the brave ones, and the calm ones and the sensible ones, and they deserved it. But it was not my show any more.”

The debacle at Caporetto had a devastating impact on Allied morale, leaving little doubt that Britain and France would have to send reinforcements to shore up the Italian front (probably forcing them to call off the Passchendaele offensive). Many ordinary people felt the defeat personally. Charles Biddle, an American pilot volunteering in the Escadrille Lafayette in France, wrote home as the scale of the disaster became known:

What do you all think at home of the recent Hun invasion of Italy? The outlook is pretty gloomy, is it not, but I hope it may serve to make people in America realize that this war is not won yet by a long sight, and that if it is going to be won they have to got to get into it for all they are worth. We certainly should do our utmost without complaining when one considers what a soft time of it we have had so far.

Clare Gass, an American woman volunteering as a nurse in France, noted simply in her diary on October 29, 1917: “The news that Italy has lost thousands of men & hundreds of guns to the Austrians is very startling, I cannot see when or where the awful war is going to end.”

See the previous installment or all entries.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Matthew Horsky, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0
arrow
war
WWI Centennial: Czech Legion Revolts, Sedition Act Passed
Matthew Horsky, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0
Matthew Horsky, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 307th installment in the series. Read an overview of the war to date here.

MAY 14-16, 1918: CZECH LEGION REVOLTS, SEDITION ACT PASSES

One of the most amazing stories of the First World War, and military history, began on May 14, 1918, in the Siberian city of Chelyabinsk.

As Russia descended into civil war following the Bolshevik coup, one group of foreign fighters found themselves stranded far from home. The Czech Legion was a special unit made up of a total of 61,000 Czech and Slovak fighters, recruited from among the ranks of Habsburg prisoners of war by Russian intelligence beginning in August 1914 and formed into their own units in 1916, who fought alongside the Russian Army against their former Austrian and Hungarian oppressors on the Eastern Front. In return for their service, the Allies, including France and Britain, agreed to recognize Czech and Slovak claims to independence from the disintegrating Dual Monarchy.

However, the collapse of Russia’s first revolutionary Provisional Government changed everything. Lenin’s Bolsheviks, who seized power ostensibly on behalf of the socialist Soviets in November 1917, were hostile to the French and British “imperialists” and determined to take Russia out of the war, leaving the Czech Legion isolated in a vast, unfriendly realm. At the same time, after the Bolsheviks signed the crushing Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with the Central Powers in March 1918, the Western Allies still hoped to employ the Czech Legion on the Western Front, if only they could extract them from Russia, now wracked by civil war between Bolshevik “Reds” and anti-Bolshevik “Whites.”

Thus the Czech Legion, now numbering around 40,000 men plus camp followers, began an epic journey planned by Tomáš Masaryk, the chairman of the Czechoslovak National Council (a sojourn with striking similarities, as it turned out, to the Anabasis by Xenophon, telling the true story of 10,000 ancient Greek mercenaries trapped thousands of miles from home in the Persian Empire during a civil war). In the spring of 1918 the Czech and Slovak fighters began retreating in front of German and Austro-Hungarian troops occupying Ukraine, fearing—probably correctly—that if they were caught they would be treated as traitors to the Habsburg crown. By March 1918 they had reached the Trans-Siberian Railway and, with the reluctant agreement of the Bolshevik regime, boarded trains bound for the Pacific port of Vladivostok, where they hoped to make contact with Allied fleets for the long trip to the Western Front.

Unfortunately, they encountered a few obstacles along the way. As the Czech and Slovak fighters headed east, the governments of the Central Powers furiously demanded that the Bolsheviks stop them before they could be added to Allied forces defending against Germany’s final spring offensives on the Western Front. Bolshevik control of the Russian hinterland was uneven, relying in many places on local Soviets and Left SR allies with their own agendas, but they weren’t completely impotent—thanks to tens of thousands of former Austrian and Hungarian prisoners of war, now being repatriated to the Central Powers under the terms of Brest-Litovsk, who were heading west on the same rail line.

On May 14, 1918, Czech and Slovak fighters clashed with Hungarian POWs at a rail station in Chelyabinsk, prompting Red Army commissar Leon Trotsky (under growing German pressure) to make his first serious attempt to disarm them. But the Legionnaires fought back in the “Revolt of the Czech Legion,” which saw a pitched battle between the rival groups of Habsburg fighters in exile as well as the Bolsheviks’ Red Guard and Red Army units.

Map of Russia in May 1918
Erik Sass

Now openly at war with the Bolshevik regime, the Czech Legion fanned out along the length of the Trans-Siberian Railway, using their fleet of dozens of trains to stage surprise attacks on lightly held or unoccupied Siberian cities all the way to Vladivostok, taking advantage of their control of communications as well as the central position of rail stations to seize important areas before their opponents could react. This inaugurated a remarkable phase of railroad-based warfare, in some cases led by special armored trains, with the frontline sometimes moving hundreds of miles in just a few days.

By the summer of 1918, the Legion, now aligned with the anti-Bolshevik “Whites,” were in control of virtually the entire length of the Trans-Siberian Railroad as well as all the major cities along it, suddenly making them one of the most powerful armed forces in Siberia and a key factor in the Russian Civil War. In August 1918 they scored a huge windfall in the city of Kazan, capturing six train-car loads of gold from the old Tsarist regime, which helped fund their operations; it’s also believed that the Bolsheviks executed the Romanov royal family because they feared the approaching Czech Legion was about to liberate them.

Under the protection of the Czech Legion, anti-Bolshevik forces established a civilian government, “the Committee of Members of the Constituent Assembly,” better known by its acronym KOMUCH, based in the city of Samara on the Volga River. Meanwhile the Czech Legion established their own state within a state, a unique rail-based traveling army and government aboard hundreds of trains, which not only carried fighters into battle but also serves as mobile barracks, canteens, medical facilities, morgues, and workshops. Even more remarkably, the Legion established a bank, published a newspaper, and operated an efficient postal service along the Trans-Siberian Railway (rare surviving postage stamps printed by the Czech Legion are now much sought-after by stamp collectors).

They would remain in Siberia, fighting the Bolsheviks up and down the Trans-Siberian Railroad, until the growing power of Trotsky’s reorganized Red Army finally prompted the Allies to evacuate them in 1920. They were greeted as national heroes when they returned to Czechoslovakia, the new country they had fought for, albeit thousands of miles from home; veterans of the Legion played a central role in the public life of the young nation, founding banks and civic organizations, participating in politics, and leading the armed forces.

WILSON SIGNS SEDITION ACT

On May 16, 1918, President Woodrow Wilson signed the controversial Sedition Act, the popular name given to legislation that greatly expanded the scope of the previous Espionage Act of 1917. These wartime laws made it a criminal offense for any individual to publicly state opposition to America’s participation in the war, which came to include the government’s management of the war effort and its largely successful attempts to raise money through the sale of war bonds.

The Sedition Act severely curtailed the First Amendment’s protections of freedom of speech and assembly, prohibiting private citizens from making statements about the United States, its government, or armed forces that were categorized as “disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive”—a vague, sweeping sanction that left considerable room for interpretation by police and prosecutors. Individuals found guilty of breaking the new law could be imprisoned up to 20 years.

The Sedition Act also reinforced and expanded existing wartime censorship, with measures instructing the postal service to intercept any mail considered to violate these standards. In fact it was just one part of a massive, if temporary, expansion of the powers of the federal government over Americans’ everyday lives. Most troubling, many of these powers were shared with semi-official citizens' groups who received legal sanction. In March 1917, A.M. Briggs, a Chicago advertising executive, formed a national paramilitary and vigilante organization called the American Protective League to monitor pro-German opinion in the American public, prevent sabotage and strikes, break up anti-war meetings, and hunt down German agents. Remarkably the APL received the official backing from U.S. Attorney General Thomas Gregory, and eventually grew to 250,000 members.

See the previous installment or all entries, or read an overview of the war.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
arrow
war
WWI Centennial: “With Our Backs To The Wall”
Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 306th installment in the series. Read an overview of the war to date here.

APRIL 9-MAY 1, 1918: “WITH OUR BACKS TO THE WALL”

The second mighty blow of the final German offensive on the Western Front in spring 1918, Operation Georgette, was German chief strategist Erich Ludendorff’s attempt to force the British Expeditionary Force into the sea with fresh troops arriving from the victorious eastern front. Known to the British as the Fourth Battle of Ypres or the Lys Offensive after its location along the Lys River, from April 9 to May 1, 1918 Georgette pitted a total of 35 divisions from the German Fourth and Sixth Armies against a defensive force initially totaling just 12 divisions from the British First and Second Armies around the village of Armentières, south of Ypres.

World War I in Europe, April 1918
Erik Sass

Once again, German gunners used the new mathematical registering technique perfected by Colonel Georg Bruchmüller, targeting artillery without the need for range-finding and test firing, helping to preserve the crucial element of surprise. The bombardment would be virtually unprecedented, with the German Sixth Army’s artillery firing a total 1.4 million shells on the first day alone, averaging 16 per second. As in Operation Michael, the German infantry advance would be spearheaded by thousands of storm troopers in special battalions armed with light machine guns, mortars, flamethrowers, and sometimes field guns.

World War I Operation Georgette, April 1918
Erik Sass

Georgette debuted at 4:15 a.m. on April 9, 1918, with 2210 German guns opening fire along a 25-mile stretch of front, including five miles held by the demoralized, undermanned Portuguese Expeditionary Corps. Following an Earth-shattering bombardment pounding the Allied artillery and saturating British and Portuguese trenches with a combination of high explosives, poison gas, and tear gas shells, the German guns laid down a creeping barrage with shrapnel and high explosives to protect the advancing stormtroopers and regular infantry (top, British soldiers wounded by poison gas). John Tucker, a 20-year-old British infantryman, described being wounded in the German bombardment on April 9:

"Suddenly a barrage of shells came screaming over and dropping a short distance beyond us, several bursting quite close. We moved to the trench side, bunching to get down at a convenient place. It is possible after a little experience to tell from the scream of an oncoming shell to know if it is going to fall within a few yards or to pass over one’s head. I heard one coming that I knew was going to land on us. I did not hear the final scream of the shell, nor what must have been the awful noise of its explosion. I felt a terrific blow on the left side of my back, like the kick of a horse, felt my knees buckle under me, and lost consciousness. I have no idea for how long I was in this state, but came to with an awful pain in my back and stomach, and hearing a lot of moaning noises. Realizing that some of the moaning was coming from me, I shut up, but there was much of it still going on around me … Now convinced that I was dying I had a peculiar hallucination of a light opening between clouds in the sky and voices singing and calling me in. I was not at all scared during all this, but apart from the pain felt quite calm. After a while I began to think how much I would like to see my mother, father, and sister just once again before I died, and then, of all things, a longing to walk once more at night along by Finsbury Park, and became determined that I would last out to do these things."

Chief strategic Erich Ludendorff had chosen his target with typical precision: the main blow fell squarely on the weak, demoralized Portuguese force in the middle of the line, causing the Portuguese divisions to simply disintegrate. British war correspondent Philip Gibbs described the overwhelming destructive power of the German shelling:

"It was a tragedy for the Portuguese that the heaviest bombardment, in a storm of gunfire as atrocious in its fury as anything of the kind since March 21, was directed against the center which they held. It was annihilating to their outposts and mashed their front-line defenses, which were stoutly held. It beat backwards and forwards in waves of high explosives."

Captain R.C.G. Dartford, a British liaison officer attached to the Portuguese 2nd Division, described the extraordinary speed of the German advance over the Portuguese positions, largely abandoned in panic, followed by the swift collapse of the Portuguese Expeditionary Corps on the morning of April 9:

"I think the Boche must have taken our front line about 8:30 and the B line 8:45 and was up to batt H.Q. by 9:15 or so. One message from X. de Costa (CO 29th Batt.) said he no longer had any command and that it was now a question of individuals fighting out. He was killed, we learnt after … Stragglers passed thro’ Laventie but most of them chose the open fields and wisely. We got hold of one and he said, “Everyone was running from the B line, so I did too,” though he hadn’t seen the Boche. We put two sgts to try and collect stragglers but they soon came back saying it was impossible to stop them and that officers were getting away too."

As during the first days of Operation Michael, the German Sixth Army’s steamroller of artillery and men advanced inexorably at first, taking over three miles by around noon on April 9, reaching one of their first day objectives, the River Lys, by mid-afternoon, and penetrating up to six miles by nightfall. Once again, however, the Germans failed to achieve all their ambitious first-day goals, especially on the left wing of the attack, where they faced a fierce defense by the British 55th Division around the villages of Givenchy and Festubert. And as in Michael, this delay gave the Allies critical breathing room, a few precious days in which to assess the direction of the latest German thrust and rush hastily summoned reinforcements to the battlefield, including ANZAC and South African troops.

The following day Ludendorff sent the German Fourth Army to the north, rumbling into action to support the Sixth Army’s attack, widening the scope of the offensive to include the whole Ypres sector. By noon the Fourth Army had captured the strategic area of Messines—first conquered by the British in summer 1917, and briefly recaptured by an Australian brigade on April 10 before being lost again. The combined advance by the Fourth and Sixth Armies threatened British control of the Channel ports, critical supply bases for the British Expeditionary Force—a disastrous scenario.

The ensuing struggle was undoubtedly grim for the Allies, as the Germans came alarmingly close to breaking through the British line in Flanders, and the Allies’ new supreme commander, Ferdinand Foch, claimed he was unable to send help. On April 11, as 31 German divisions battered 13 Allied divisions, British GHQ staff officer Brigadier-General John Charteris confided gloomily in his diary:

“It looks as if we should have to fight out this battle alone, and we have no reserves. It will decide the war. God grant the decision is not against us! Everything else fades into insignificance.”

That evening, as the Germans menaced Bailleul, closed on the rail hub at Hazebrouck, and almost split the British First and Second Armies, BEF commander Douglas Haig issued one of the most dramatic communiqués of the war, an order of the day reading in part:

"Many amongst us now are tired. To those I would say that victory will belong to the side which holds out the longest. The French Army is moving rapidly and in great force to our support. There is no other course open to us but to fight it out. Every position must be held to the last man: there must be no retirement. With our backs to the wall and believing in the justice of our cause each one of us must fight on to the end. The safety of our homes and the freedom of mankind alike depend upon the conduct of each one of us at this critical moment."

As Haig indicated, the Allies couldn’t expect to stop the German onslaught without suffering considerable further losses in terms of casualties and territory. With British losses mounting, thousands of Flemish peasants fled their homes to avoid falling into German hands, and once again the countryside burned. On the night of April 13, Gibbs, the British war correspondent, recorded the firelit spectacle:

"It was a clear, starlight night, and for miles the horizon was lit by the flame of burning farms and stores and ammunition dumps, and all this pale sky was filled with the wild glare of fires and by the flash of guns. German air-raiders came out dropping bombs. The sound of their engines was a droning song overhead, and our shrapnel winked and flashed about them."

SHIFTING BALANCE

However, the situation was already turning against the Germans attackers. As the German offensive surged ahead in the middle, the left wing of the advance remained stuck near Givenchy to the south, and everywhere progress came at a heavy price, as in the first offensive. Though forced to retreat again and again, the defenders of the British First and Second Army fought fierce rearguard actions as they withdrew; the Germans faced major difficulties bringing up artillery and ammunition over wrecked battlefields to keep the offensive going. One German soldier, Franz Xaver Bergler, noted their stalled progress—as well as the generally miserable conditions—in his diary entry on April 12:

"We have been back in position since 3 April and are still here. Right in the midst of a completely devastated area, everything is shot into pieces, only grenade craters are left. We haven’t even started yet advancing against the English. The Englishman is just firing against us with his massive grenade fire all day long … Now we have been sitting in this position for eight days, often covered in mud and dirt up to the knees. We are freezing during the night and have no shelter. Or we are lying in an old tunnel, so tightly squeezed against each other that all limbs hurt terribly."

Disappointed by the Sixth Army’s failure to advance on the left, Ludendorff allowed a brief pause to resupply and move up artillery before resuming the attack all along the front. Over the next few days the Sixth Army encircled and captured the village of Bailleul together with the Fourth Army, while to the north the Fourth Army forced the British to withdraw from the area east of Ypres, won at such a terrible price in Passchendaele. However, the Germans didn’t notice the withdrawal right away, while the British received a boost with the arrival of more French reinforcements sent by Foch.

On the evening of April 16, as the German Fourth Army tried unsuccessfully to separate the British Second Army from the Belgian Army to the north, Gibbs described the long, curving inferno of the Ypres salient to the south, where British and ANZAC troops were staging desperate counterattacks against the advancing Germans:

"It was just before dusk that counter-attacks began northwards from Wytschaete southwards for Meteren, and although before then there had been steady slogging of guns and howling of shells, at that time this volume of dreadful noise increased tremendously, and drumfire broke out in fury, so that the sky and Earth trembled with it. It was like the beating of all the drums of the world in a muffled tattoo … It was a wet, wild evening, with few pale gleams of sun through storm clouds and smoke of guns, and for miles all this panorama of battle was boiling and seething with bursting shells and curling wreaths of smoke from batteries in action … When darkness came each battery was revealed by its flashes, and all fields around me were filled with red winkings and sharp stabs of flame."

To the south the Germans renewed their attack on Festubert and Givenchy, without success, although at a heavy cost to both sides. A British soldier, Lance Corporal Thomas A. Owen, described being wounded and taken prisoner near Festubert on April 18, 1918:

"Looking over the top I saw the long gray lines sweeping along 400 yards away. They were marching slowly, should to shoulder, heavily weighted with picks, ammunition, and rations. We scrambled to the fire-step. We fired madly and recklessly. The Lewis gun rattled and the two magazine fillers worked with feverish haste … Still the gray hordes advanced … I thought my arm had gone. If it was death I was numb, careless, and content. I sank into a dull stupor and the hordes of gray uniforms trampled over me, round me and by me, and forgot me in their own terror. They swept on and on to meet another wall of steel and flame. How many of them would see another dawn?"

By April 18 and 19 it was clear that the German offensive had run out of steam, but Ludendorff was determined to win some objective of strategic importance in order to justify the terrible bloodshed. In a renewed attack on April 25 the Germans captured Mount Kemmel, an important observation point for targeting artillery, in a brilliant tactical maneuver, but there weren’t enough troops to exploit the victory, allowing the British to reform defenses at a safe distance.

Meanwhile, to the south the Germans still hadn’t captured Festubert or Givenchy, spelling the end of the strategic plan for Operation Georgette. The other final thrust of the German offensive failed at the Second Battle of Villers-Bretonneux from April 24 to 26, 1918, again due to challenges with artillery and ammunition, and the intensifying defenses of the enemy. Dominik Richert, a German soldier from Alsace, described the German attack at Villers-Bretonneux on April 24, 1918:

"At a blow, more than 800 guns sent over their iron greetings and then went on and on; for a full hour the guns thundered and roared. The shells flew over us continuously. From the other side you could hear the individual shell bursts. It was almost impossible to communicate with each other. You had to shout the words in the other person’s ear … The artillery fired continued unabated, we could now hear the crackling of the rifles as well. The attack was in full swing. Wherever you looked it was crawling with German soldiers pushing forwards. Infantry, machine guns, small and medium-sized mortars were all moving forward. A swarm of German aircraft flew low over us in order to contribute to the success of the attack with bombs, hand grenades, and machine-gun fire. As we approached the corner of the wood there were already a number of dead lying on the churned-up ground. We were suddenly showered with a hail of artillery and mortar shells, and all jumped in the shell-holes or holes that had been dug by the men."

It soon became clear that this attempt was also doomed to failure, although commanders far from the battlefield were either isolated from this information or simply indifferent, according to Richert:

"As a result of the enormous losses the attack had ground to a stop. Everyone had sought cover in the numerous shell-holes. The whole area was constantly covered in black shell smoke. All at once officers and orderlies ran around the occupied holes and shouted: ‘Divisional orders: The attack must be continued!’ We were all appalled. Individual groups who had been driven out of their holes started to jump forwards. Our captain got out of a hole near us and ordered us to advance. What choice did we have?"

The German troops were undoubtedly exhausted. On the other side, on April 25, 1918, Philip Gibbs described German prisoners of war captured during the fighting at Villers-Bretonneux:

"Many of the others whom I now saw, and who lay down on the grass in every attitude of exhaustion, were bespattered with blood, which mixed in clots on the white dust of their clothes. The field in which they lay was all silver and gold with daisies and buttercups, and these heaps of field-gray men, in their grim helmets, which gave them a strange malignant look, spread themselves out on this lawn, and some of them slept until their sergeants shouted to them again, and they lined up for their rations."

By the time Ludendorff called off Operation Georgette on May 1, 1918, both sides had suffered another round of nauseating losses. On the Allied side, British casualties stood at over 80,000, including killed, wounded, missing, and prisoners, while the French suffered around 30,000 casualties, and the unfortunate Portuguese Expeditionary Corps was devastated by the loss of a third of its total strength. On the other side the Germans had suffered at least 85,000 casualties in all categories—an intolerably high price, drawing down significantly on the roughly million men freed up from the Eastern Front—in return for few strategic gains and no strategic breakthrough.

THE AMERICANS ARE COMING

In fact, the conquests would soon become a positive liability, as the Germans were left holding longer defensive lines while the Allies drew strength from the arrival of more and more American troops. By the end of April 1918 there were 434,081 U.S. troops in France, while 245,945 more would embark for the continent in May alone. Stateside, the massive construction and training program was producing vast numbers of fresh troops: By June 1918, the U.S. Army’s total strength would approach 2.4 million and counting.

Although the Americans naturally took some time to learn the vagaries of trench warfare, usually starting in a relatively quiet sector along their French and British allies, during the dark days of the first German offensive General Pershing had committed to sending American troops wherever they were needed in the Allied line. Floyd Gibbons, an American war correspondent, described the scenes as the doughboys (widely considered overpaid) passed through Paris while moving up to the line in France:

"Other American troop trains had preceded us, because where the railroad embankment ran close and parallel to the street of some nameless faubourg, our appearance was met with cheers and cries from a welcoming regiment of Paris street gamins, who trotted in the street beside the slow moving troop train and shouted and threw their hats and wooden shoes in the air. Sous and 50-centime pieces and franc pieces showered from the side doors of the horses’ cars as American soldiers, with typical disregard for the value of money, pitched coin after coin to the scrambling move of children."

After more than a year of waiting, ordinary British and French civilians were surprised and relieved to finally see the long-promised troops arriving in large numbers. Vera Brittain, a young British woman serving as a volunteer nurse’s aid in France, remembered her initial mystification on encountering doughboys for the first time:

"They were swinging rapidly towards Camiers, and though the sight of soldiers marching was now too familiar to arouse curiosity, an unusual quality of bold vigor in their swift stride caused me to stare at them with puzzled interest. They looked larger than ordinary men; their tall, straight figures were in vivid contrast to the undersized armies of pale recruits to which we had grown accustomed … 'Had yet another regiment been conjured out of our depleted dominions?' I wondered ... But I knew the colonial troops so well, and these were different; they were assured where the Australians were aggressive, self-possessed where the New Zealanders were turbulent. Then I heard an excited exclamation from a group of sisters behind me. 'Look! Look! Here are the Americans!' I pressed forward with the others to watch the United States physically entering the war, so god-like, so magnificent, so splendidly unimpaired in comparison with the tired, nerve-racked men of the British Army. So these were our deliverers at last, marching up the road to Camiers in the spring sunshine!"

See the previous installment or all entries, or read an overview of the war.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER