The Hundred Days (18 July-11 November 1918) was the final Allied offensive of the First World War on the Western Front. The stalemate on the Western Front had been broken by the great German offensives of the spring and summer of 1918, which had pushed the Allies back up to forty miles and created a series of huge salients in the Allied line. They had failed to achieve their main objective, which had been to separate the British from the French and capture the channel ports, and had drained much of the strength out of the German army.
One result of the crisis caused by the first of the German offensive (second battle of the Somme), had been the appointment of Marshal Foch as commander-in-chief of all Allied armies on the Western Front. As the German offensives began to run out of power, Foch began to plan the Allied counterattack. This was to begin with a series of attacks designed to eliminate the salients in preparation for a final campaign in 1919. If the initial attacks went well, then Foch hoped to launch a major offensive that he hoped would push the Germans back off French soil. Even if that succeeded, there was every chance that the Germans might choose to defend their own borders, leaving the final campaign still to be fought.
Phase One – Clearing the Salients
The Hundred Days began with a French counter-attack. The final German offensive, the Champagne-Marne Offensive, 15-18 July, made very little progress, and on 18 July the German salient (Château-Thierry or Marne salient) was attacked from the west (Aisne-Marne Offensive, 18 July-5 August). By the time the French offensive ended, the Germans had been pushed back to the line of the Aisne and Velse rivers.
The next step was the elimination of the Amiens salient. This had been created during the second battle of the Somme, and extended over the old Somme battlefield of 1916, past the Somme River and almost to Amiens. The battle of Amiens began on 8 August with a surprise tank attack by the British Fourth Army (Rawlinson). This broke through the German lines, destroyed six divisions and forced the Germans back nine miles in one day. Ludendorff described 8 August as the “Black Day of the German Army”. The second phase of the battle (battle of Bapaume) saw the Germans forced back to the line of the Somme, and then to the Hindenburg Line, their starting point back in March. The most important feature of this battle was that it saw entire German units collapse for the first time during the war.
The final salient to be cleared was at St. Mihiel (12-13 September), south of Verdun. This was the first major battle fought by the American army since their arrival in France. The Germans were caught in the process of evacuating the salient and after some fierce fighting the Americans captured 13,000 German prisoners and cut off the salient.
Phase Two – The Hindenburg Line
The great success of the battles to clear the salients encouraged Marshal Foch to launch his great triple offensive. The Germans had been forced back to the strong defensive line they had held at the start of 1918, known in English as the Hindenburg Line. To the Germans this was the Siegfried Stellung (the Siegfried Position), a series of defensive zones constructed over the winter of 1916-17 twenty five miles behind the then front line on the Somme. Operation Alberich saw the Germans withdraw to the new shorter stronger front line in four days (March 1917). Ludendorff’s five great battles of the spring and early summer had seen the Germans advance well beyond the line, but now they were back in place. This would be the big test of Allied strength.
Foch decided to launch a three pronged attack on the German lines. In the north King Albert of Belgium, with a force of British, French and Belgian troops, would attack through Flanders. In the centre of the line Haig would command three British and one French army in an attack on the heart of the Hindenburg line between Cambrai and St. Quentin. Finally, to the south the French and Americans would attack on the front between Reims and Verdun.
The great offensive was timed to begin at the end of September. A number of preliminary operations were required to bring the Allied line into place for the assault; amongst them the battle of Epehy (18-19 September) but the Allies were soon in place ready for what was hoped would be the final “big push”.
The southern part of the great attack was the Meuse River-Argonne Forest offensive of 26 September-11 November. This saw the America First Army attack on the front west from the Meuse into the Argonne Forest and the French Fourth Army from the Argonne Forest east towards Reims. The first phase of this battle began on 26 September. The Americans advanced two miles through the difficult Argonne Forest and five miles along the Meuse. Further west the French pushed forward nine miles. The Americans were then forced to take a short break to rotate fresh troops into the front line, before beginning the second phase of the battle on 4 October. Between 14-17 October they forced their way through the main German defences, and by the end of October had cleared the Argonne forest. On their left the French advanced twenty miles, reaching the Aisne River. By the end of the war the French and Americans had reached Sedan and had cut the Sedan-Metz railway line, one of the main supply lines to the German front.
The northern attack began on 28 September and was a dramatic success. The British and Belgian armies advanced across the old Ypres battlefield and recaptured all of the ground lost during the Lys Offensive. In three days the Menin Road Ridge, Passchendaele Ridge and all of the familiar landmarks of four years of fighting were back in Allied hands, and at the end of three days the Allies had advanced ten miles, reaching the Menin-Roulers road. This phase of the fighting was officially designated the battle of Ypres, 1918, but is also sometimes known as the fourth battle of Ypres.
Rain, mud and inadequate planning then delayed the offensive for a fortnight. The second phase of the northern offensive began on 14 October (battle of Courtrai) and continued until the end of the war. On 17 October Lille, Ostend and Douai were liberated. The Belgian army reached Zeebrugge and Bruges on 19 October. By the end of the month the Allies were at the Schelde and by the time of the Armistice the Allies had advance fifty miles.
Haig had been given the hardest job. His was the only front where the Germans still outnumbered the Allies, although not by a great deal, and the quality of their troops was in some doubt after the fighting of the spring and early summer. Forty British divisions supported by the American II corps faced fifty seven German divisions protected by the powerful fortifications built before the German withdrawal of 1917. The German defences took advantage of a series of wide canals which ran though deep cuttings. The cuttings on the Canal du Nord and the St. Quentin Canal were up to sixty feet deep.
The central attack began on 27 September with an attack on the Canal du Nord by the 1st and 3rd Armies (battle of Cambrai-St. Quentin). Two days later the 4th Army began the main attack on the St. Quentin Canal. The main set-piece attack, aimed at a gap in the line where the canal went through a tunnel, got bogged down, but an attack by the 46th (North Midland) Division further south captured a bridge over the canal at Riqueval, and captured a key beachhead across the canal, along with a stretch of the main Hindenburg line. A second set piece attack on 3 October met with more success, pushing the Germans out of their reserve line. The Hindenburg line had been broken.
If the British had expected a rapid advance beyond the Hindenburg line they were to be disappointed. German resistance was stubborn, if unsuccessful, and every advance was contested. The Germans held a new line running south from Cambrai, forcing another set-piece attack. On 8 October the British Third and Fourth Armies and the French First Army attacked along a seventeen mile front extending south from Cambrai. The town was captured on 9 October and the Allies advanced four miles before the Germans took up another position on the Selle.
After a brief pause another set-piece attack was launched on 17 October (battle of the Selle). The British were now back on familiar ground from 1914, fighting around Le Cateau (17-18 October). The Germans retreated to yet another river line, this time on the Sambre. Once again a set-piece attack was launched. A preliminary attack on 1-2 November saw the Canadians capture Valenciennes, and then on 4 November Haig’s armies launched an attack on a thirty mile front along the Sambre. This was the final British set-piece of the war. The fighting from 4-11 November was officially designated the Pursuit to Mons. One of the last actions of the war saw Canadian troops liberate Mons on the morning of 11 November.
This final phase of the fighting on the Western Front was amongst the most costly of the war. The British suffered 350,000 casualties between August and the end of the war, 200,000 of them between the start of September and 9 October, of which 140,000 were suffered at Cambria-St. Quentin. Only the first battle of the Somme was more costly. The difference this time was that the Allies finally achieved all of their objectives, for the fighting since August had finally broken the German will to continue the war.
Phase Three – The German Collapse
The three pronged Allied offensive triggered a process of collapse inside the German establishment. On 28 September Ludendorff had his own black day, spending most of the day in an incoherent rage. That evening he told Hindenburg that Germany needed to seek an armistice, as it was no longer possible to win the war on the battlefield. The spring and summer offensives had been designed to win the war before the Americans could arrive in numbers. Now an increasingly large number of American troops were taking part in the fighting and the British and French were demonstrating an ability to force their way through the strongest of defensive lines.
The crisis soon spread. On 29 September the Kaiser visited headquarters as Spa to be told that victory was no longer possible. On the same day the Bulgarians began armistice negotiations – the first of Germany’s allies was about to be knocked out of the war.
On 3 October the Kaiser appointed Prince Max of Baden, a political moderate, as Chancellor of Germany. It had been decided that the only way to gain a good peace was to transform Germany into a democracy. There was also an increasing amount of unrest on the home front, where the Allied blockade was being felt. Sacrifices that were acceptable while the German armies were advancing were not tolerable now they were in retreat.
German hopes were based on President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points. These peace terms had been announced on 8 January 1918 in a speech to Congress, and were seen as the basis for an honourable peace. That speech had been made before the massive battles of 1918, and the eventual armistice terms would be rather less generous.
Prince Max had the sense to get Hindenburg to admit in writing that there was no further chance of forcing a peace on the enemy. This was fortunate, as towards the end of October Ludendorff had recovered his nerve. The German army was still in retreat, but it was now a fighting retreat. On 24 October Ludendorff issued and then withdrew a proclamation denouncing Prince Max. One copy was leaked, and on 27 October Ludendorff was ordered to resign.
At the British prepared for their attack on the Sambre, the Kaiser left Berlin and moved to the military headquarters at Spa (29 October). There he soon lost all contact with reality, and began to plan to use the army to restore order in Germany.
30 October was a key day. On that day Turkey surrendered. Germany’s only remaining ally, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was in the process of dissolving. With defeat clearly imminent the German High Seas Fleet was ordered to sea, to seek a final suicidal battle with the British Grand Fleet. Not surprisingly the fleet mutinied, and refused to take to sea. On 4 November the Kaiser’s brother, Prince Henry of Prussia, the commander at Kiel, was forced to flee. On the previous day the Austro-Hungarian cease fire had come into effect.
Negotiations with the Allies were now under way. The only stumbling block was the Kaiser, who was unacceptable to the Allies. On 9 November, under increasing pressure from revolutionary forces in Berlin, Prince Max handed power to Friedrich Ebert. He was a moderate socialist, who despite being a monarchist saw that any attempt to retain the Kaiser might lead to revolution. On 10 November Willhelm II went into exile in Holland, from where on 28 November he signed his abdication papers. At 11 am on 11 November the fighting stopped on the Western Front.
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