Battle of Picardy
On March 21st, 1918, Germany opened the great engagement which will probably prove to be the decisive battle of the war.
This designation has already, but not altogether correctly, been given to the Battle of the Marne. The Marne did decide that the Germans were not to capture Paris in their first great rush through Belgium and France. It did not only halt the German advance, but threw it back behind the Aisne, thus preventing Germany from winning the war in 1914. But it did not defeat the German army decisively. Nor did it make an ultimate German victory impossible. It left the German army still in the field, its strength practically unimpaired, still capable of strong defense, still with great striking power in attack. It made possible for the future a decisive Allied victory, but it did not achieve it. The German defeat at Verdun, indeed, did more harm to the German army, lessened to a greater extent its power of defense and its strength to attack than did the Marne, because through the French defense and counter-efforts, the German army lost nearly half a million men. But the battle now raging, which for convenience of reference is called the Battle of Picardy (although it embraces Picardy, Artois, and Flanders), will do more than did either the Marne or Verdun. It will place irrevocably and unmistakably upon Germany the laurel of victory or the thorny crown of defeat. It is, therefore, the decisive battle of the war. It is the final struggle of the civilized world against the domination of the beast. It is Germany's final effort, and, in order that this may be appreciated, it is necessary only to recount the conditions which impelled Germany to take the offensive at this time.
The developments in Russia, so entirely favorable to Germany, led many to believe that, having attained so completely their eastern ambitions, the German leaders would rest content with what they had, and, strengthening their lines in the west through reinforcements drawn from the Russian front, remain on the defensive on the western front until a peace could be arranged. With the German talons firmly fixed in the throat of Ukraine; with Poland, Courland, and Lithuania practically annexed, there was a certain element of reason in this contention. It was entirely conceivable that with such strength in the west, Germany could set in motion the machinery of a peace propaganda, and obtain a peace conference which would enable her to work out a programme of concessions in the west for concessions in the east--a peace by compromise which would answer present needs while furnishing all future requirements in case she decided to provoke another war. Thus Germany would end the war with a victory just as truly as if she had won it on the field of battle, and without the terrific loss in man power that an offensive on the western front would entail.
In constructing this theory, however, certain essentials were ignored. German voraciousness can never be satisfied. It is a bottomless pit which can be filled only by pouring into it the world. When there is nothing more to be had, Germany would perforce rest content. The possession of Russia only whetted her appetite for France and Belgium and the life of England. Moreover, the Allies, having now learned Germany, and having acquired a sense of their own safety and of the future peace of the world, had no thought of permitting Germany to remain in possession of western Russia, of Serbia, and of Rumania, and thereby not only perpetuating but actually aggravating the condition out of which grew the present war. They had, therefore, notified Germany that they would lay down arms only when she was willing to disgorge what she and her allies had swallowed, and had rectified their frontiers in accordance with President Wilson's fourteen conditions and with Lloyd George's statement on the same subject.
In other words, Germany was to be permitted to emerge from the war with a profit only through military victory; she would have to defend her conquests. This negatived the idea of a peace through negotiation.
Having absorbed the fundamental fact that the Allies proposed to continue the fight to the end, what then was Germany's position? I am not one of those who cherish the fatuous delusion that this is a war in which the German people are not equally involved with their government. At the same time, it is undeniable that there existed in both the German and the Austrian empires a considerable internal pressure, induced by hunger and by privations (but not by any moral or ethical considerations), to bring the war to a close. The cupboards of Russia were neither so full nor so readily available as had been anticipated. Suffering was general, and, with the scarcity not only of food but of wool and of cotton, made the prospect of going through another winter of war a gloomy contemplation. In Austria the situation was worse than in Germany. The letter of the Austrian Emperor to his brother-in-law, Prince Sixtus of Bourbon-Parma, which the French Government published in April, gives sufficient indication of the Austrian need for peace. It shows also that Germany must have had doubt of the loyalty of her ally, and German knowledge that conditions had come to such a pass in Austria that a separate peace would be more welcome to Austria than no peace at all, regardless of the sacrifices which had to be made to obtain it. How long Austria could be held Germany did not know, but it was evident that she was not to be trusted too far. Austria is as unscrupulous, as hypocritical as is Germany, and Germany knows it. And while there may be honor among thieves, there is also suspicion.
But, aside from internal and political considerations, the military situation itself was one which demanded immediate action or none at all. It is an elemental military fact that a war cannot be won by defensive action alone. Defeat may be averted by such means; but victory cannot be achieved. Germany, with the exception of a single incident south of Cambrai, had been on the defensive since the close of the battle of Verdun early in the summer of 1916. The necessity for offensive action at some time was therefore absolute if Germany was to win. But there were many considerations which made that time the present. Germany could not afford to wait.
The middle of March found Germany at the height of her man power. Never before since the outbreak of war had the opportunity been presented for the concentration on the western front of practically her entire effective strength in both men and guns. For this, of course, Russia was responsible. The divisions which were holding the Russian lines had been carefully picked over, and from men thus selected new divisions were formed and old ones filled up. All were sent to France as rapidly as possible, the movement occupying the time from September, 1917, to March of this year. Similarly, all available artillery was concentrated in the west, the eastern front being practically denuded. Germany then was in immediate danger of being diverted by activities of the Allies in other fields.
The Allies on the other hand were by no means at their full strength. America, who stepped into the war just in time to take Russia's place, still remained impotent, unable to place in Europe numbers in any way commensurate with the situation. But America was gathering impetus as she went. And while she was a negligible force in 1917--except in the matters of food and money--and would probably be a negligible force in 1918 subject to the same exception, in 1919 she was almost certain to turn the tide strongly against the Central Powers. Even in 1918 there could be expected a steady though small stream of men across the ocean, who being fresh, eager, and unwearied, might cause trouble. Germany then had the one chance to win, and that chance demanded that she strike with all her power before America reached the field. To delay meant not a drawn game but certain defeat. For if Germany is ever confronted in Europe with the full strength of America in men and in the machinery of war, she will be crushed.
Finally, the situation in Russia boded ill for Germany. Great rejoicing has taken place in Berlin and in Vienna over peace with Russia. But it is a peace which has not altered Germany's inability to keep faith with any Power. Her persistent worship of materialism and force has created a situation in Russia not at all to Germany's liking. Once the Russian border was absolutely undefended and the way to Petrograd and Moscow wide open, Germany could not resist the temptation to march on in continued aggression, regardless of treaty or promises or peace or morality. And Russia has furnished strong evidence that she is not at all complacent under such aggression.
The Russians are in a stage of transition, and are, therefore, unstable, mentally unsettled. They are completely dissatisfied at Germany's interpretation of the peace terms. They see themselves being starved that Germany may fatten on their granaries. They are reaching the point where organized resistance is the only answer of which the situation is capable. Steps have already been taken to form a new national army, to offer organized resistance to further encroachments. There are also large elements which have never accepted the unconditional surrender and which never will. At any moment in this land of instability, the fires which have been kindled by German bad faith and duplicity may break into a conflagration. There is no danger at the present time--there is danger that before the year is out public dissatisfaction and unrest may crystallize and Germany be faced with the most colossal guerilla war the world has seen; and while warfare of this kind cannot defeat Germany, it can neutralize many divisions of German troops and pin them down to the eastern front while the Allies make the finishing stroke in the west. This situation, out of which anything can grow, made it strongly advisable that Germany should act before the crystallization should take place.
Realizing that she could not wait without serious danger to herself, Germany mustered all her resources in the west for the great blow she was to deliver. The problem which confronted the German General Staff was to destroy one of the two great armies, that of France or that of England. Both could not be handled together. Germany did not have the strength. The attack had to be delivered against one or the other. Which should it be?
An attack against the French had certain advantages. The French army was unmistakably the weaker of the two. In the early days of the war, while the British army was being formed, it was the French who had to stand the brunt of the fighting. At Verdun it was the French who from February to July beat back the German assaults along the Meuse time after time in the most tremendous duel of the war. In the Battle of the Somme it was the French who fought their way forward south of the river to the outskirts of Péronne and Chaulnes. The French losses had, therefore, been very much greater than the British. As the populations of France and of the United Kingdom are about the same, the French people had, therefore, suffered much more than had the British, and were correspondingly less able to stand such a blow as Germany was able to deliver.
But there was one great disadvantage in attacking France. The blow could not be delivered against the front from St. Mihiel to the Swiss frontiers. This front is vulnerable only where the Vosges Mountains are broken by the great gaps at Belfort, Epinal, and Nancy; and these gaps are easy to defend and well backed up in rear by great bases of supply excellently served by many radiating railroad lines. It could not be delivered at Verdun, because France had not only retaken all the ground of military value which had been lost; but Verdun had become to France a religion, a fanaticism. To France it was a symbol of French love of country, of French patriotism. Verdun meant France. Germany, therefore, had no desire to test this fortified area again. This left only the Champagne line between the Argonne Forest and Rheims.
If Germany had attacked this front, the British army, the stronger of her enemies, would soon have struck, and whether Germany so elected or not, she would nevertheless be running two major operations at the same time--one offensive in Champagne, the other defensive in Picardy or in Flanders. Again, suppose her army did bend the French line back, as it undoubtedly would, how far back would it have to go in order for Germany to reach a complete military decision? There would indeed be no such decision in sight, almost regardless of the depth of penetration. The lines might have to be rectified; Verdun might have to be abandoned; the Vosges frontier line might have to be drawn in. But even so the French and British armies would both be intact; both biding their time when, with full force of their own and a million or more American troops, Germany could be beaten. In short, an attack against the French at any point, while promising new gains in territory, promised nothing in the way of a decision, and, be it remembered, this is Germany's last effort; it must reach either victory or defeat. The Battle of Picardy must and will produce a definite, positive result. It cannot end in indecision.
An attack against the British offered none of the disadvantages which attended an attack against the French. The British were stronger it is true. But this army, unlike that of the French, was trained for but one thing--trench warfare. If Germany could restore war in the open--a war of movement--this strength might be offset by a wider experience. In attacking the British, the French could be held in check by defensive tactics with not a great deal of difficulty; as in such operations the terrain was greatly in Germany's favor. To take a hurried glimpse of the French positions, we find them in the valley of the Ailette north of the Chemin des Dames facing the high slopes of the plateau on which is found Laon. In the Champagne they are facing a high rolling country, studded with good artillery positions and points of observation. In the Vosges, their problem is identical with that of the Germans--forcing the gaps in a barrier otherwise impassable. There would be then a minimum of danger from the French while Germany was engaged on the British front. Moreover, behind the British line was, first, Amiens, through which passed the great railroad systems from Calais, Boulogne, and Abbeville, binding together the British north of the Somme to the French in the south. With Amiens in German hands this connection would be badly ruptured. And farther on still was the sea, which, if Germany could reach it, would physically separate the great Allied army into two armies, without connection, each of which could be dealt with separately. And unlike an advance through Champagne, the farther the Germans pushed through, the closer the Allies came to total disaster and defeat. Germany, therefore, selected the British front for attack and took up the task of destroying the British army.
The German plan of campaign was simple in its essence, although involving great numbers of men and an inconceivable mass of material. It was to strike the main blow along the Oise on the front between St. Quentin and La Fère, while a subsidiary attack was to be simultaneously delivered on the northern side of the Cambrai salient between Cambrai and Arras. This subsidiary attack was designed to break the salient and destroy the danger of a flank attack against the movement to the south. In the main attack, delivered with 15,000 men to the mile of front, it was intended to break the connection between the British and the French along the Oise, push a great wedge through at the point of rupture, and then roll the British line back to the north, leaving the French to be taken care of later. Failing in this (and Germany had taken into account the possibility of failure), the British were to be forced back through Amiens to the sea, and the split in the armies accomplished by interposing between the parts a section of the seacoast. This operation would automatically flank the positions held by the British at Arras, force the British to fall back from Vimy Ridge, and from Lens toward St. Pol, and, as they retreated, to uncover the Ypres salient and the positions held in the high ground to the east and south of Ypres--that is, the Messines and the Passchendaele ridges.
This is PART TWO of J.B.W. Gardiner's perspective
After a brief but very intense bombardment the German infantry went
forward on March 21, 1918. They were favored by a heavy mist which
concealed their movements until they were within fifty yards of the
British trenches, between La Fère and St. Quentin. By sheer weight of
numbers these trenches were overrun and the German infantry poured
through the gap. The line to the north was at once affected by the break
in the southern line, and taken in flank, was also forced to fall back.
But a few hours after the attack was launched, the entire fifty miles of
line north of La Fère was ablaze and the British were in retreat. In
this attack the Germans threw in on the first day 80 divisions--about
one million men--nearly 20,000 men to the mile--a heavier concentration
of men than had ever been used in an attack since the war began. Against
this number the British, in the opening attack could oppose only 5,000
men to the mile. It is not surprising in view of this disparity in
numbers that the British were completely overwhelmed. In spite of the
rapidity of the initial German advance and the strength of the German
attack, the hoped-for rupture of the Allied line at the Oise did not
occur. The British and French, though retreating steadily, kept in close
touch and preserved intact the continuity of their line.
As the British section of the line withdrew, the French, in order to
preserve this continuity, were necessarily affected. The French extreme
left withdrew behind the Oise to throw this defensive screen before the
German attack, gradually extending their left as the British retreat
continued, passed Noyons and Pont l'Eveque. As the Allies in their
retreat approached the Somme River, the German progress became slower,
the efforts were labored. From this point indeed, the huge battle took
on something of the nature of the battle of Verdun. It became a fight
for limited objectives. Each village offered resistance and became the
object of an independent battle. The German advance, however, though
slow was not the less persistent and steady.
With the crossing of the Somme and the Somme-Aisne Canal on the front
between Peronne and Noyons, the battle was automatically divided into
two well defined areas by the east and west course of the Somme between
Peronne and Amiens. In the southern area, the Allied line was held by
both British and French in about equal proportions. But the French were
not yet in great force. The Germans, having passed both the Somme and
the Canal, fought their way westward step by step, in total disregard of
losses, until the line of the Avre River was reached. Here the French,
who held the line from the Luce River south and then east, made a
position stand, and a series of pitched battles occurred for the river
crossing. The first of these to fall was Montdidier at the head waters
of the Avre. This enabled the German army to reach westward of the river
and spread out after crossing to flank the defenses to the north.
Gradually the left bank of the river was cleared as far north as
Moreuil. Here the high ground on the left bank between Moreuil and the
mouth of the Luce enabled the French to beat off all German attacks for
several days. Finally, however, both Moreuil and Morisel were taken and
later the village of Cassel, the Avre being thus cleared of the Allied
troops as far north as the mouth of the Luce. From Cassel to the Somme,
however, the German forces found themselves in serious difficulties.
About Hangard, particularly, the fighting was exceptionally heavy; but
after changing hands several times, the Germans were finally thrown
across to the southern bank of the Luce and there held in place. From
Hangard north to the Somme the result was the same. After struggling for
days against the troops on the high plateau of which Villers-Bretonneux
is the centre, the Germans were brought to a standstill in their
attempts to approach Amiens by way of the Avre-Somme angle.
In the battlefield north of the Somme, the British retired slowly until
they were safely behind the Ancre River, which figured so prominently in
the battle of the Somme in 1916. Taking Albert, an important British
base, the Germans tried desperately to push beyond and reach the
railroad which runs along the lower Ancre from Amiens to Albert. Failing
in this, they struck heavily in the angle between the Somme and the
Ancre in order to flank the line north of Albert from the high ground
north-east of Corbie. Here also they met with defeat, so that from
Beaumont-Hamel southward the Allied line became stationary.
At this point in the battle the Germans found themselves in this
situation: from Montdidier westward the French lines were firmly
established first along a series of small but well defined heights as
far as Noyons and thence along the southern bank of the Oise as far as
the lower forest of Coucy. This side of the wedge was firmly fixed and
capable of great resistance. Moreover, to expend time and men in an
attack on this front would mean a serious departure from the German
plan, as success here would mean an advance toward Paris instead of
toward the sea. And at this stage of the war, peace cannot be obtained
by the capture of any city, even the French capital. The price of peace
is the destruction of an army, either that of the British or that of the
French. This can be accomplished only through reaching the sea at some
central point such as Abbeville at the mouth of the Somme.
Therefore, the German problem had of necessity to find its solution
north of Montdidier--between that town and Albert. There is not much
doubt that by concentrating sufficient artillery and by the expenditure
of sufficient men, the German leaders would be able to push their way
farther westward, even beyond Amiens. But as the wedge deepened it would
gradually draw down to a point so that the ultimate situation would be
that the German lines would form an acute angle, the vortex of which
would be on the Somme at or west of Amiens, one side passing through
Albert, or possibly through the village of Bucquoy, the other through
Montdidier. Such a formation would mean positive disaster. It would be
worth a quarter of a million men to the Allies to strike both north and
south across the base of this angle and snuff it out. It would mean to
Germany the loss of a mass of artillery and tens of thousands of men.
And the Allies would not be slow to see this opportunity and strike. The
German High Command, therefore, did not dare to take the chance with
matters as they then were.
In order that the German army might continue its march to the sea then,
it was necessary that the line north of the Somme should advance,
synchronizing its movement with the point of the wedge along the river.
Thus only would the wedge be sufficiently wide to avoid disaster. But
the entire northern wing of the British army was guarded by Vimy Ridge
and the heights of Notre Dame de Lorette. It was impossible that the
advance could be made, leaving these positions directly on the flank.
The combination of these two heights forms a huge semicircle concave
toward the south. The British batteries posted on these heights could
continue to rake the German advancing troops in flank and rear with most
destructive effect. Therefore, after the fighting in the south came to a
halt, the Germans undertook to open the way by forcing these two
positions. Using seven divisions--about 90,000 men--the Germans attacked
on a front not exceeding ten miles from Arleux to Fampoux on the Scarpe.
The attack continued for two days, but was an absolute failure. The
German advance had to be made down the slopes of one hill, across a
stretch of flat, open valley, and up the sides of another. Down in the
valley were the British outpost positions which were overwhelmed and
driven in. But in attempting to cross the valley floor the Germans
literally withered under machine gun and rifle fire. At the end of two
days' fighting, during which the greater part of these divisions were
cut to pieces, the attack had to be abandoned. The fighting then from
Lens southward to the Avre came to an end with the Germans completely
halted. The first definite stage of the decisive battle of the war was
But the Germans were by no means ready to acknowledge defeat. The
Lens-Arras sector had to be cleared up. The attack from the south,
crystallizing about Bucquoy, and from the east both having broken down,
there remained but to attack from the north. Utilizing to the utmost the
advantages of the great railroad system which parallels this front,
connecting in a single chain all of their great advance bases, the
Germans effected a heavy concentration at Lille, and, using about twenty
divisions (which were afterward increased to thirty), struck the British
line between Givenchy--just north of La Bassée--and Warneton on the Lys
River. The initial successes were considerable. The Germans penetrated
to a maximum depth of more than four miles in the centre, although on
both right and left the line held fast. North of Armentières, however,
the British line gave ground, which enabled the Germans to pocket this
city and to capture it on the second day of the attack. On the
succeeding days, the British centre continued to give way until the edge
of the Forest of Nieppe was reached. The German position at this point
in the attack became practically untenable. The northern side of this
wedge was lined with heights from which the British artillery was
pouring a devastating plunging fire. These heights, beginning farther
east, began with the famous Messines-Wytschaete Ridge and extended due
west through Kemmel to Cassel. Moreover, in falling back the British
pivoted on Messines, which left this strong bastion from which to strike
out against the very heart of the salient. Accordingly, to remove this
danger the German leaders swung the attack north against the Messines
Ridge. After days of fighting in which Bailleul was taken and the foot
of the Kemmel series of hills was reached, the Messines Ridge was taken
in reverse and the British line was withdrawn until it passed over the
ridge just north of Wytschaete. Still pressing on the north, the Germans
attacked the Kemmel position, but the British, now reinforced by the
French, threw the attacks back as rapidly as they formed. Failing here
and at the centre in Nieppe Forest, still another attack was delivered,
this time against the southern side of the wedge from Givenchy to St.
Venant. The first two days of this fighting was also disastrous to the
Germans who were entirely unable to dent the British positions. In
brief, the Germans were then enclosed in a huge semicircle about fifteen
miles in diameter. All parts of the area enclosed were subject to
artillery fire from three sides and the Germans were striking first on
one side then on the other in frantic efforts to break the Allies'
grip--and giving no indication of sufficient power to succeed.
The objects of the German effort in the north were several. Primarily it
was intended as a means of breaking the defenses of Arras and of Lens by
cutting in behind the heights of Notre Dame de Lorette and Vimy Ridge.
Again it was intended to take Hazebrouck, Bethune, St. Pol, Aire, and
St. Omer, through which the distribution of supplies and men landing at
Calais is effected. Finally it was intended to take from the British the
high ground in Flanders, uncover Ypres, and open the way to the coast.
But for many reasons, now that the Allies had caught their breath for a
moment, so to speak, the advantage appeared to have passed from German
hands. The element of surprise, so essential to success even in trench
warfare, was no longer possible. The gradual retirements of the British
around Ypres were not costly nor did they "open a way" to the channel
ports as the Germans hoped. The Germans had fixed the points of
attack--and these were the only possible points: southern Flanders and
from the Avre to the Scarpe. Germany had already used in the offense 130
divisions out of 204; and of these 50 had been in action twice--while
the British had been heavily engaged from the outset, the French have
had but few divisions in action. There was, therefore, apparently much
greater reserve strength behind the Allies' battle line than Germany
could possibly muster. And it is reserve strength which must ultimately
decide the issue.
Germany has taken the great plunge--the concentration and utilization of
her entire resources in man power in a final effort to win. It is
Germany's last bid for victory before the peace propaganda is launched.
Germany must win or go down to defeat. But Germany cannot stop. She must
go on and on regardless of cost. She has expended literally hundreds of
thousands of men, not for territorial conquest as the German press has
pointed out and emphasized, but to destroy the British army. What
figment of pretense is left if the battle remains indecisive? None the
less, for the Allies as well the situation is serious though not
critical. The crisis of the Great War is truly at hand. None can doubt
the outcome who has any belief in honor and justice among civilized