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Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library Archives, Wikimedia Commons // No restrictions
Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library Archives, Wikimedia Commons // No restrictions

WWI Centennial: Wilson Presents ‘Fourteen Points,’ House Approves Suffrage Amendment

Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library Archives, Wikimedia Commons // No restrictions
Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library Archives, Wikimedia Commons // No restrictions

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 299th installment in the series. Read an overview of the war to date here.

January 8-10, 1918: Wilson Presents ‘Fourteen Points,’ House Approves Suffrage Amendment

By the beginning of 1918, it was clear to close observers that the United States of America was gearing up to make a significant contribution to the Allied war effort, though it would take some time (and President Woodrow Wilson insisted it was only as an “Associated,” not an Allied, power, limiting America’s obligations to Britain and France).

The size of the American Expeditionary Force was set to increase from 176,000 troops in January to 424,000 in May, 722,000 in June, and 966,000 in July, with troop shipments expedited in response to pleas from the French during the dark days of the German spring offensives beginning in March. Meanwhile America's financial contributions were soaring, with loans to Britain more than doubling from $1.5 billion in 1917 to $3.6 billion in 1918.

However, it remained to be seen what vision Wilson would present for the post-war order, now that America was in the driver’s seat, not just providing critical manpower but also supplying the Allied war effort and holding billions of dollars of their debt. On January 8, 1918 Wilson sketched out some of the foundational elements of his peace program, the “Fourteen Points,” in a speech to a joint session of Congress on “War Aims and Peace Terms.”

Wilson began by noting that Russia had made a reasonable peace offer to the Central Powers at Brest-Litovsk, but had been spurned, as the latter intended “to keep every foot of territory their armed forces had occupied—every province, every city, every point of vantage—as a permanent addition to their territories and their power.” Denouncing the brazen imperialism of the authoritarian governments that ruled the Central Powers, which were running roughshod over their parliaments, Wilson went on to lay out the principles of a just world order built on the democratic ideal that all governments must have the consent of the governed. However, in this, as in his other idealistic programs, the goals remained vague, unrealistic, or contradictory.

First among the Fourteen Points, Wilson insisted that the age of secret alliances, of the sort which brought Europe to war, was over: henceforth all treaties and covenants should be open, public knowledge. He also called for free navigation on the seas, implying the lifting of the Allied naval blockade and the end of U-boat warfare, free trade, and arms reduction agreements.

Most of these proposals were reasonable enough, but others were less plausible. For example, during the adjudication of colonial disputes in which European powers drew and redrew the boundaries of African and Asian possessions, the Europeans were somehow supposed to take into account the interests of the colonial populations themselves—even though the whole colonial enterprise limited native voices to exclude them from politics by design. Calling for self-determination and new national boundaries in Europe, Wilson ignored the fact that the Allies couldn’t even reconcile their own contradictory postwar territorial claims (see cartoon below). Returning to open diplomacy, how could anyone guarantee that countries weren’t engaged in secret alliances behind the scenes?


Burt Randolph Thomas, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Meanwhile, it came as no surprise that Wilson’s most immediate and concrete demands—including the Central Powers evacuating all their conquests in Russia, Poland, France, Belgium, and the Balkans—were non-starters for the Germans, as the military party led by chief of the general staff Paul von Hindenburg and his chief strategist, Erich Ludendorff, still believed the war could be won, allowing Germany to keep at least some of her conquests. Wilson’s call for Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire to grant full autonomy to its various subject peoples was, in effect, calling for the dissolution of Germany’s allies.

Coincidentally, on January 8, 1918 Ludendorff also began planning Germany’s giant springtime offensive, “Operation Michael,” in hopes of knocking Britain and France out of the war with 1 million German troops transferred from the dormant Eastern Front, before American troops could arrive in France in large numbers. The mighty blow would fall in late March 1918.

U.S. House Passes Women’s Suffrage Amendment

On January 10, 1918 the U.S. House of Representatives passed the 19th Amendment, later known as the Women’s Suffrage Amendment, by the necessary two-thirds majority—but a one-vote margin. This was a huge breakthrough, but by no means the end of the struggle: the Senate would reject the bill twice before approving the amendment for ratification by the states and final adoption on August 18, 1920.

The suffrage movement, demanding voting enfranchisement for women, dated back to the mid-19th century, when it originated in connection with both the American abolitionist and temperance movements, thanks to activists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Carrie Chapman Catt, Clara Barton, and others. New western territories gave a boost to the cause: in 1869 the Wyoming territory granted women the right to vote, perhaps in hopes of attracting more women of marriageable age for their male-dominated frontier population, followed by Utah (1870), Washington territory (1883), Kansas (1887), and Colorado (1893)—the latter delivered by a referendum, with 35,798 or 55 percent of male voters voting in favor. A majority of male voters in California chose to give women the right to vote in 1911.

However, the First World War galvanized the women’s suffrage movement across the west, as women demanded recognition of their many personal sacrifices and contributions to the war effort, giving the issue a sense of inevitability. In August 1917 the debate was already considered old news in enlightened circles, according to Mildred Aldrich, a retired American writer living in France, who wrote:

I imagine we have buried for all time what has for so many years been known as the “women question.”… The beauty of the whole matter is that woman has won by acts, not words. She has won by doing a woman’s work ... In every branch of war work done by unarmed men, women have appeared and shown the same courage and the same unfailing patriotism as men … No wonder the suffrage excitement is already ancient history.

Although American women would have to wait a few more years, neutral Denmark adopted women’s suffrage in 1915, and a number of Canadian provinces followed in 1916-1918. Russia’s post-revolutionary Provisional Government granted women the right to vote in 1917. Britain’s Parliament passed the Representation of the People Act, granting the right to vote to 8.4 million female householders, on June 19, 1917, taking effect with elections in December 1918. Germany enshrined women’s suffrage in the Weimar constitution adopted in 1919.

Women’s Work, Women’s War

The wave of women’s suffrage reflected massive social changes that took place during the war, shifting the balance of power between the genders, as European women shouldered heavy duties to sustain the war effort but also gained economic leverage thanks to higher-paid work. In 1917 Julia Stimson, an American chief nurse, proudly noted the changes wrought by the war in Britain, especially the influx of women into what was previously men’s work—while wondering about the long-term consequences:

From the highest to the lowest each woman has her work … Of course the street-sweeping by women is a kind of war work, and the bus conductoring, and delivering mail and telegrams, and driving cars and ambulances. The streets are full of women in uniforms of all sorts, all smart and business-like. Women in England are coming into their own … What is to happen after the men come back can well fill the [mind] … for a change is taking place here that can never be undone.

The huge changes were evident on both sides of the conflict. Ernest Bullitt, an American woman visiting Germany, wrote in her diary in June 1916:

The munition factories pay the highest wages. The average wage for these women now is about eight marks a day. In Germany, as in the other warring countries, there is little the women are not doing. Sturdy peasant girls pace the streets, dig ditches, lay pipes. Women drive the mail wagons and delivery wagons, deliver the post, work in in open mines, work electric walking cranes in iron foundries, sell tickets and take tickets in railway stations, act as conductors in the subway.

Later Bullitt noted that female industrial workers were central to maintaining Germany’s war effort—and like Stimson, predicted a gender clash when the war ended:

There are great numbers in the metal industries doing half-skilled work, and also women doing the skilled work. They manage the travelling cranes in iron and steel foundries, a thing no employer believed was possible. They do what is called “electro-technical” work … They dig the coal and also load the cars … The employers declare they wish to keep the industries which they have entered, and it will be quite a fight to prevent their going on working in many of them.


Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The numbers of women employed were in keeping with the scale of the conflict. In Britain, in addition to organizations like the Women’s War Auxiliary Corps, which allowed thousands of women to serve in non-combat military roles, and the Women’s Land Army, which employed a quarter-million women in agricultural work, 1.7 million women entered the labor force during the war, bringing the total number of women at work to 4.9 million by 1918, and increasing the proportion of women in the industrial workforce from a quarter to nearly half (46.7 percent).


Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In France, women constituted 38 percent of the country’s total work force in 1914 but this increased to 46 percent in 1918, including 430,000 women who made up 30 percent of the total workforce for the arms industry. In Germany the proportion of women in the labor force jumped from 22 percent in 1913 to 35 percent in 1918, including 700,000 in the armaments industry. In Austria-Hungary 42 percent of the empire’s heavy industrial workforce was female by the end of the war.

The move to well-paid factory jobs was economically liberating, allowing women to scale the wage ladder from traditional, poorly compensated female employment. In Britain the number of women working in domestic service fell from 1.66 million to 1.26 million over the course of the war, and the number of British women in trade unions jumped from 437,000 in 1914 to over 1.2 million in 1918, reflecting their growing economic and political clout.


Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Across Europe, governments and private businesses were compelled to provide childcare for female workers, sometimes in the form of “factory nurseries.” Bullitt noted other concessions to women workers in Germany in her diary in June 1916:

Employers are not allowed to discharge women for child-bearing. They must give them two weeks’ holiday before the child’s birth, and four weeks after. During this period they get two thirds of their wages from their sickness insurance. Also, they may get their doctor and medicines free.

However, not all the new employment was new or liberating, especially in sectors like agriculture. Across Europe, peasant women did their best to maintain homesteads in the absence of husbands and sons, relying on older children for labor and using the local church or informal arrangements for childcare for the rest. Elizabeth Ashe, an American woman volunteering with the Red Cross, described one guest of a “refuge” for women with children. “We saw a woman who was here for a few days’ rest, she works in the fields at night with a helmet and gas mask, because the shells drop on her so in the day time she can not work," she wrote. "She has a baby two months old whom she leaves in this refuge.”


Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Although used to hard work, many peasant women were unused to the physical strain involved in activities like horse-drawn plowing. Emilie Carles, a Frenchwoman who maintained the farm while her brother was a way, remembered:

Before he left, Joseph taught me to plow. The hardest part wasn’t so much dealing with a mule or yoke of cows as holding on to the handle. I was not tall. I remember we had an ordinary plow, the swing type, with a handle designed for a man. It was far too high for me. When I cut furrows with that contrivance, I got the handle in the chest or face every time I hit a stone.

Nothing Romantic About It

It is important not to romanticize the plight of ordinary women separated from male loved ones and breadwinners and plunged into hardship and uncertainty. Peasant women faced acute financial pressures as they struggled with reduced incomes. One war widow wrote to the French journalist Rene Bazin, explaining her reasons for throwing in the towel:

Although I myself drive our horses, who are too strong to be entrusted to the old men or the boys, and I load the wagons, I’m not making the value of the rental contract owing to the poor harvest and the increases in wages … At present, I can only sow wheat in two-thirds of the land that should be planted in grain. Thus, certain deficit for next year. If I stay on, the little that my husband left to his children will be swallowed up.

At the same time industrial work was hardly a panacea. The fact is, like their peasant counterparts numerous women cracked under the dual strains of factory work and caring for their families. Madeleine Zabriskie, an American socialist activist visiting Germany in 1916, received the following description of one woman from a social worker at a German arms factory:

The woman you inquired about lives in a suburb. She must have been good-looking when she was young, but she has given birth to 12 children, the oldest is thirteen and the youngest six months. Four of her children died … Her husband worked for nine years in the factory. When the war broke out he was mobilized and joined the army August 4, 1914. Until then they had been happy, but that changed everything. They had to move out of their house. They took an apartment of two rooms. It was crowded with nine people in two rooms, but they could not afford anything better. The birth of the last child caused the mother great suffering and she had to give up her factory work … The woman is weak and much shaken in health. At night she worries about her husband and cannot sleep. She weeps a great deal and really the burden laid on her is almost too heavy.

Another German woman wrote to her husband, a POW in France, in August 1917:

I am so sick and tired of human life that I want to cut my own and my children’s throat, I am not afraid of committing a sin, after all I am forced by misery. You have to be the most stupid person on God’s earth when you have children. They take the breadwinner away from the children and let them starve to death, they are crying for bread the whole day long … I have got our four little children, none of them can help earn some money. I have to feed them, wash them, have to mend their clothes, etc. I have to stand in the street all day long and wait for hours until I get a few things to eat … But who cares about a soldier’s wife with a lot of little children, she can perish together with her children.

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

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Matthew Horsky, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0
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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.

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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.

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