After some three and a half years of global carnage on a scale never seen before in history, World War One was still in the balance, and would go through one more tremendous convulsion of death and horror before it finally ran its course.
On 21 March 1918 the German Army launched a massive series of attacks along the Western Front – the famous Operation Michael that was designed to finally overcome British and French resistance and bring a quick victory to the Kaiser. The German forces were heavily bolstered by the return of large numbers of troops from the Eastern front following Russian withdrawal from the war in late 1917 and these extra troops were immediately thrown into battle.
Michael was one of four large attacks, later named the Spring Offensive that produced spectacular advances in the first four weeks or so and threatened to trigger the Allied collapse the Germans were hoping for.
The timing of the Spring Offensive was vital. The formal entry of the United States into World War One had begun on April 6 1917, but because of the state of preparedness of the US Army at the time, there was a considerable delay before large numbers of fully equipped US troops were able to reach the battlefield. The Germans, fully aware of the devastating impact that this would have, attempted a quick victory before the American presence was fully realised.
The Spring Offensive got off to a great start for Germany – the Western Front was pushed back up to 60 km in some areas – representing the biggest Allied retreats seen since the beginning of the War. But the impetus of the attacks could not be maintained with dwindling food and ammunition supplies gradually weakening the advance, and the once mighty German Army slowly ground to a halt. It had suffered more than half a million casualties in a little more than three months and by early August had lost the ability to launch a major attack.
The Allies, also suffering heavy casualties during this time, were more resilient, massively assisted by the increased manpower and industrial might of the United States that grew stronger by the day. The Allied Supreme Commander Ferdinand Foch ordered a counter-offensive on 18 July, and a massed allied force, consisting of French, British and US troops and supported by several hundred tanks smashed the German positions along the River Marne. It was from this point onwards that the pendulum swung decisively in favour of the Allies, who began an inexorable advance towards Germany itself. The so-called “Hundred Days Offensive” began on the 8th August – a rapid series of Allied attacks that eventually led to the end of the War.
The last military resort for Germany was the formidable Hindenburg Line, designed to form an impregnable defence against advancing enemy forces. The Hindenburg Line was named by the British after the German Commander in Chief, Paul von Hindenburg, but was known to the Germans as the Siegfried Line.
It consisted of six defensive lines that extended from the north coast of France to Verdun, running roughly parallel with the Belgian border and had been largely completed by late 1916. It was a zone more than 5 kilometers deep, heavily fortified with barbed wire and concrete gun emplacements.
This was attacked in force by Allied troops in late September with massed assaults by French, Australian, British and US forces. A colossal artillery barrage preceded the infantry with a gigantic bombardment firing over a million shells at the German defences. On September 29, after 4 days of intense fighting, the Hindenburg Line was breached with the Germans forced to retreat en masse.
The social structure of the German Empire also began to collapse at an increasing rate, with acute food shortages leading to mass starvation in German cities. There was mounting civilian agitation to end the war and on September 29 the German High Command sought an Armistice from the Allies – but this was refused.
Four days later, German sailors at the naval base at Kiel openly refused an order to engage with the Allied Fleet and mutinied – and this helped trigger a much wider movement of dissent that eventually became known as the German Revolution. The Kaiser abdicated on 9 November, and the Germans were forced to finally surrender.
On 11 November at 5 am an Armistice was signed between Germany and the Allied Forces with the formalities taking place in a railroad carriage at Compiègne in northern France. It was agreed that a formal end to the war would take place at 11 am – but in the 6 hours between the signing of the document and the actual ceasefire, fighting continued along the Western Front, with both sides trying to improve their territorial position before the end of hostilities. The last man to die in the war was the American soldier Henry Nicholas Gunther, who was shot dead by machine gun fire at 1059 am, in the last minute of the war.
The “Eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month became famous in history as the time that the guns fell silent and the “war to end all wars” was finally over.
The British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George remarked, later on the same day
“At eleven o’clock this morning came to an end the cruellest and most terrible War that has ever scourged mankind. I hope we may say that thus, this fateful morning, came to an end all wars.”
By: R. Whitaker
Image: An Australian machine gun position located at Peronne in France, on 2 September 1918. A Lewis gun can be seen lying across debris in the lower centre. This was a light machine gun used by Australian troops during the war. A standing 303 rifle with fixed bayonet is visible on the left, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.