Although the Hindenburg Line plays a major role in British accounts of the First World War, its exact nature is rarely appreciated. There is a tendency to focus on the part of the line involved in the German withdrawal on the Somme front early in 1917 (the Siegfried-Stellungen to the Germans), but that was only one quarter of the entire defensive structure, which spread from the Channel coast to the St. Mihiel salient east of Verdun. In two areas – on the Somme and at St. Mihiel – the new lines were built a significant distance behind the current front lines, in order to allow salients to be abandoned if required, but for most of its distance the new German lines were only a few miles to the rear, and were to be used as a 'withdrawal position' if the pressure on the existing front line became too intense.
This study of the Hindeburg Line begins with an examination of the motives behind its construction – the severe manpower losses suffered by the Germans at Verdun and on the Somme in 1916 and the possible need to shorten the front line to compensate. We then look at the various sections of line – the Flandern-Stellungen in the north, the Wotan-Stellungen in the middle of the British sector, the Siegfried-Stellungen on the Somme, the Hunging-Stellungen from the Somme to Verdun and the Michel-Stellungen at the St. Mihiel salient. Next comes a look at the design and construction of the actual defences. This where it becomes clear just how much effort went into the construction of this line, and why constructing all of it a reasonable distance behind the existing lines was essential. Countless concrete bunkers and pillboxes were built, many involving the construction of dedicated light railways. Entire construction industries had to be created behind the lines, and in a foreshadowing of events in the Second World War, 50,000 Russian POWs were illegally used to help construct the line. The author finishes with a look at the acid test for the new line – their performance in battle. This is generally overshadowed by the final battles of 1918, in which the line was punctured and eventually abandoned along almost its entire length, and the new lines were hardly touched during most of the battles of 1917.
This book makes it clear that a vast amount of effort went into the production of these new defensive lines, along with a large proportion of Germany's industrial capacity. Many British memoirs of the period comment on how much better built the German lines were than their own, but one does wonder if this emphasis on the defensive was a mistake, leaving the German army less resources to devote to its offensive capabilities (including the near total absence of any German tanks). In the battles of 1918 the Germans were unable to maintain the early momentum of their attacks, while the Allies were able to keep on pushing throughout the 'Hundred Days'. The eventual failure of the Hindenburg Line perhaps also played a part in the collapse of German morale in this period – if these purpose built defences, constructed with such impressive effort, couldn't be held, then how could any impromptu lines?
This is a useful study of this key part of the overall German strategy for 1917-18, the defensive shield that was hoped to reduce the heavy casualties suffered by Germany in the battles of 1916 and give her the freedom to go onto the offensive when required.
Design and Development
Principles of Defence
Organization of a Defensive Position
Author: Patrick Osborn & Marc Romanych