German Armies Retreat 25 Miles to New Hindenberg Line
As They Withdraw, German Army Destroys 2,000 Villages, Towns and Cities
Allied Forces, 2,500,000
General Robert Nivelle, Commander-in-Chief
British Armies—General Sir Douglas Haig, Commander
French Armies—General d'Esperey, Commander
German Forces, 2,500,000
General von Hindenberg, Commander
General von Ludendorff, Chief of Staff
Germany was compelled to relax her grip on the throat of France, in the spring of 1917, only to acquire a fresh and firmer hold. It was in March, just on the eve of a formidable offensive planned by the French and British forces, when the German armies suddenly evacuated their ghastly, crumbling trench positions on the Ancre-Somme front and retreated eastward, at depths varying from five to twenty-five miles, until they had gained the security of the new fortified zone, known variously as the Siegfried or Hindenberg line, which curved southeast from Arras 100 miles to Soissons.
As they retreated, the vandals wantonly destroyed everything in their path, reducing to ashes 2,000 villages, towns, and cities in Central France, and leaving in their wake no roof, or tree, or shrub. This evacuation restored to France 1,000 square miles of territory, once rich in verdure and teeming with life, but now a blackened desolate waste, with only the myriad pillars of smoke to indicate where populous and prosperous towns once had stood. Its immediate military effect was to shorten the Western battle line by 40 miles. Inasmuch as 300,000 cover troops were thus released from the old sectors, the striking force of both armies in the restricted area of battle was by so much improved.
Ever since the Battle of the Somme was brought to its indecisive close by the torrential floods of November, the Allies had been planning on a colossal scale for the resumption of their offensive in the spring. Throughout the winter, a million soldier-artisans had been employed in laying the groundwork for the coming assault, which it was confidently believed would result in the dispersion of the Kaiser's armies. Hundreds of miles of railroad extension had been laid to facilitate the movement of troops and supplies behind the line. Immense munitions depots had been erected. Plank roads had been laid across the muddied terrain. The assemblage of artillery was greater than had been attempted hitherto on the Western front, the British alone having 4,000 field guns in position along their frontier.
A Garrison of Gibbering Lunatics
These elaborate preparations were destined to come to naught. The Germans, well aware of the magnitude of the Allied offensive, and realizing that their own line could not long withstand the pounding of the Allied guns, decided to forestall the Allied attack by adroitly retreating to the Hindenberg line, where they expected to "regain the aggressive initiative." With characteristic egotism, they described their retirement as a "Retreat to Victory." It was, nevertheless, a compulsory retreat and in effect an acknowledgement of defeat in the Somme Battle.
The Germans were compelled, for other than strategic reasons, to vacate the position in the Somme-Ancre sectors which they had held for three years. Their whole battle front was become a charnel house too horrible for human nerves to withstand. The ceaseless pounding of the British guns had churned up the ground in the German defense zone from five to sixty feet in depth. These pits were now filled with mud, and in the bottomless depths of these mud holes, hundreds of German soldiers had been swallowed alive. Wherever the eye could reach throughout that devastated region, no sprig of grass, no sign of tree, no weed even, met the vision.
Toward the butte of Warlencourt, one reached "Hell's own acres," where the water covering the slime in the crater beds had become reddened with blood. Bodies littered the region for miles around in all imaginable conditions and position; arms sticking full length out of mud; terrible faces grimacing at the trenches; legs, feet, and half bodies protruding everywhere. Day after day, the dead had been simply tossed out of the German trenches into the open and as often blown back again in fragments by the explosion of the British shells.
All the German communication trenches had been smashed by the British guns as fast as dug. Food and ammunition supplies had to be carried at night in the open across the shell-swept, pitted field, and since the British shells never ceased falling in the battle area, the needed supplies rarely reached the German trenches. What with the fear of slow starvation or sudden death in the muddied pits, and with the gruesome spectacle of the dead forever before their eyes, the German soldiers had all but lost their reason when the time came to withdraw. They were become as a "garrison of gibbering lunatics." Their retirement was rather a retreat to sanity than a "retreat to victory."
German Retirement Begins
Early in February, the Germans had quietly evacuated one important sector on the Ancre front, all unknown to the British, whose guns for a week or more continued to bombard the empty German trenches. Hence, the subsequent British Infantry advance was destined to converge on emptiness. Soon the whole sector was in motion and by February 21, 1917 the British had captured the villages of Beaucourt, Beaumont, Bailiescourt, Grand Court, and the outskirts of Serre.
On February 24, 1917, under cover of a curtain of mist, the Germans began a partial retirement in the sector between Gommecourt and Le Transloy. Pressing close on their heels, the British on the same day swept into possession of Serre, Miraumont, Pys, and Petit Miraumont. Two days later, the British regained Warlencourt and Irles. All that remained of these towns were huge heaps of pulverized stone and brick. The northern pivot of the German retreat was taken on February 28, 1917, when the British entered Gommecourt.
British Enter Bapaume and Perenne
Early in March, the general retirement of the German Armies set in along the great salient from Lille and Arras to Rheims. Troops now fought in the open, for the first time in two years, and cavalry was used on a large scale. On March 17, 1917, the British and French troops forced a German retirement in three places on a front of 45 miles. After stiff fighting with the German rearguard, the British entered Bapaume and the French occupied both Roye and Lassigny. By March 18, 1917, the Allied Armies had advanced ten miles and "liberated" the hideous ruins of 70 villages and towns. Peronne, Chaulny, and Nesle were soon occupied by the British, while the French took Noyon, the largest of all the strategic centers to fall.
German Vandalism in France
The Germans spared nothing in the path of their retreat. Every village throughout the countryside was destroyed with systematic and detailed destruction. In Bapaume and Peronne, they had blown up or burned all the houses which were untouched by shell fire, but in scores of villages they laid waste the cottages, the little farms and the orchards of the poor peasants.
In the cities they blew out the fronts of houses, and with picks and axes smashed mirrors, furniture, and picture frames. In the country, not only were the farmhouses destroyed, but fruit trees throughout the whole zone were either cut down or so mutilated that they would perish. Agricultural implements which could not be removed were broken up with sledge hammers or burned. Spokes of cartwheels and other vehicles were sawed off.
Thousands of French civilians succumbed to exposure and slow starvation, the greatest mortality resulting from a barbarous system of "inspection" which the Germans employed. Having first concentrated the French civilians in great camps, the Germans then ordered the peasants to present themselves at a given date for final identification. Although the temperature ranged from zero to 9 below zero, everyone—the sick carried on stretchers, the exhausted and the infirm borne on the shoulders of their less helpless friends—was forced to enter an open square and wait there in the freezing cold winter weather for six hours, until some superior German officer had arrived to take charge. At Chaulny, where 6,000 women and children and aged men underwent such an ordeal, hundreds died from pneumonia or pleurisy. The same was true of other concentration centers.
The Looting of French Cities
In some towns, weeks before the German retreat began, the population was massed in cottages, 20 or 30 persons being crowded in a single room, without heat and almost without food. As the looting proceeded, thousands of moving vans carried off to Germany furniture and valuables belonging to the thrifty people of France. Not a cow, or horse, or pig, or chicken, was overlooked by these thievish vandals. Every living animal had been killed, eaten or carried off by the Germans. The impression of a stricken and scourged land was deepened by the endless miles of flooded country in the Valleys of the Oise and Ailette, where the waters of canals had been used to flood the land and to create great desolate areas, waveless and dead.
Women and Girls Carried Off Captives
From Noyon, every woman and girl between the ages of 13 and 30 had been carried off into German captivity nine days before the retreat began. The survivors, crowded in cellars, had many hideous tales to tell. None of the French civil population had been given meat of any kind to eat for 17 months; all the captives had been restricted to a diet of black bread and rice. In consequence of this harsh dietary, thousands had died of starvation, the mortality among children being appalling. Children had been required to sleep in their unwashed clothes, without mattresses, pillows or coverings, all through that bitter cold winter. No words can describe the filthiness of these children when found by their compatriots.
The vandalism of the Prussians exceeded that of their ancestors, the Vandals, Huns, Tartars, and Mongols. Thousands of pretty and prosperous villages had been destroyed for the barbaric joy of destroying. Even the vandalic destruction witnessed in Belgium was less dreadful than that in France. In the fields, as in the towns, there was systematic ruin. Near the debris of each wrecked farmhouse, there was the inevitable record of ruined utensils, choked up wells and of orchards with prostrate fruit trees. Sacrilegious acts were of frequent occurence. Graves in numerous cemeteries were evacuated of their dead and not infrequently a tomb had been violated, a coffin opened, then emptied of its remains and filled with filth.
German "high authorities," in their attempt to forestall neutral criticism, described these acts of vandalism as "a war measure dictated by military necessity!" This from a nation which, as a signatory at the Hague Convention, had given a "guaranty against abuse of person or property!"
Germans Reach the Hindenberg Line
The German retreat ended on April 5, 1917, when the new Hindenberg line was reached. In evacuating the Somme Basin, the Germans had destroyed 2,000 towns, cities and villages. In order to hinder the Allied pursuit, they had uprooted every stretch of railroad, demolished every stone wall, leveled every building, razed every tree in their path. A thaw had set in, converting the roads into rivers of mud and hampering the Allied operations. It was especially difficult to bring forward the Allied field guns, but this feat, though delayed, was finally accomplished.
The so-called Hindenberg line, to which the Germans had retreated, was a fortified zone, 12 miles deep, consisting of parallel trench lines, covered with vast meshes of barbed wire and lined with immense concrete gun positions so spaced as to permit of deadly cross-fire upon attacking troops. Behind the main line there were support or "switch" lines, in which entire groups of armies might hide while enemy armies were attacking the front line.
The pivots of this line were Vimy Ridge, near Arras, in the North, and the Craonne Plateau, just above Soissons, in the southeast. The Douai Plain, through which it extends in its 120-mile course, is cut with many canals and rivers, which in themselves constituted a difficult barrier for an attacking army to overcome, affording especial protection against tanks. Of these waterways, the
most important were the Canal du Nord and the Scheldt. In addition, the Oise River was transformed into an impassible lake. Besides the water obstacles, there were the Havincourt Woods and Bourlon Woods, overlooking Cambrai and the St. Gobain Forest. Against all these barriers in front of their series of concrete trenches, the Germans expected the Allied attacks would spend themselves in vain.