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The Campaign That Ended World War I
By Nick Lloyd
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In Hundred Days, acclaimed military historian Nick Lloyd leads readers into the endgame of World War I, showing how the timely arrival of American men and materiel-as well as the bravery of French, British, and Commonwealth soldiers-helped to turn the tide on the Western Front. Many of these battle-hardened troops had endured years of terror in the trenches, clinging to their resolve through poison-gas attacks and fruitless assaults across no man’s land. Finally, in July 1918, they and their American allies did the impossible: they returned movement to the western theater. Using surprise attacks, innovative artillery tactics, and swarms of tanks and aircraft, they pushed the Germans out of their trenches and forced them back to their final bastion: the Hindenburg Line, a formidable network of dugouts, barbed wire, and pillboxes. After a massive assault, the Allies broke through, racing toward the Rhine and forcing Kaiser Wilhelm II to sue for peace.
An epic tale ranging from the ravaged fields of Flanders to the revolutionary streets of Berlin, Hundred Days recalls the bravery and sacrifice that finally silenced the guns of Europe.
Preface: Death at Gouzeaucourt
There war’s holiday seemed, nor though at known times
Gusts of flame and jingling steel descended
On the bare tracks, would you
Picture death there.
Edmund Blunden, ‘Gouzeaucourt: The Deceitful Calm’1
Gouzeaucourt lies nine miles southwest of the town of Cambrai. Like many villages in this part of northern France, it consists of one main street, lined by small brick buildings, and is surrounded by farmland. It sits in a flat landscape of fields, occasional copses and low slopes, which may be marked as ‘ridges’ on local maps, but are, in reality, barely noticeable. In the years 1914–18 this village found itself in the zone of conflict known as the Western Front; the sliver of land that was fought over repeatedly between the Allies (the French, Belgian, British and Imperial troops, and later the Americans) and the invading German forces. It had been occupied in 1914, but, given its small size, it was generally left to itself. Then, during the Battle of Cambrai in November 1917, it was fought over between British and German troops, which left it shattered, its buildings pounded into the ground and its fields pockmarked by shellfire. By the following year it was a ruin, with just clumps of shattered buildings and mounds of rubble; the home of crows and foxes, but little else.
The war poet Edmund Blunden served at Gouzeaucourt in the cold spring of 1918. ‘At first the whole area was deathly still,’ he wrote:
as though no war ever happened here. The civilians had not yet attempted to resume their properties and all the farms for miles were only shells of brick. It was truly a devastated area, apart from all question of the cutting down of orchards and the dynamiting of churches or cross-roads. Upon our arrival (in open trucks on a light railway) a heavy hoar-frost was loading the trees and telegraph wires and all projections and points with beards of greyish crystal – a singular sight, and the air’s near whiteness thickened into the impenetrable at a few yards’ distance.
No-man’s-land may have been particularly wide here, with both sides remaining out of sight, but on closer inspection Blunden began to see how vicious the fighting had been. ‘Strewn about this sector were relics of the Cambrai fight of the previous November,’ he wrote, ‘cavalry lances, guns with crumpled barrels, tanks burnt out, German machine-gun belts and carriers, and a few dead, preserved by the cold weather.’2
The British would return to Gouzeaucourt in the final months of 1918 as the Allied armies, now advancing on a broad front, began to approach the main German defensive position, the so-called Hindenburg Line, which lay along the Saint-Quentin canal to the east. Around this area the small villages that dotted the landscape – Villers-Plouich, Beaucamp, Trescault and Gouzeaucourt – had been turned into veritable fortresses, ringed with support trenches and dug-outs, and bristling with machine-guns. On the morning of 27 September 1918, Private George Thomas Cotterill (known as Tom) of the 15th Battalion, Royal Warwickshire Regiment, serving with 5th British Division, was killed in action here. Cotterill was, in many ways, typical of what the British Army had become after four years of war. He was just nineteen years old and had been conscripted in 1917. He arrived on the Western Front determined to do his bit in a war that had lasted longer and cost so much more than anyone had imagined. And again, like thousands of his comrades, he would never return home or live to see the Armistice six weeks later. Taken on its own Cotterill’s death was hardly unique in a war that would kill over 700,000 British soldiers and take the lives of millions more, from every corner of Europe and every continent in the world. But it was unique in the grief that his death caused to the family who had lost a son and a brother. Private Cotterill was my great-uncle.
This book is, in part, inspired by Tom’s story. The memory of his tragic loss, barely six weeks before the Armistice, has always haunted my family. His portrait, taken while on leave in 1918, shows an earnest young man dressed in his best suit; sitting in a chair in a photographer’s studio, waiting no doubt to return to the front. As a historian, I have always been fascinated by Tom’s life and death, and this book was born of a desire to learn more about how he was killed. He grew up in the village of Sealand, near Shotton, in Flintshire in northeast Wales; a thin strip of coastal land on the Dee estuary, perhaps best known as the home of John Summer’s steel mill. In 1914 the steel mill at Shotton was the largest producer of galvanized steel in the country, and I imagine, like many in his family, Tom would have been destined to spend his life working there had the Great War not intervened. But in June 1914 Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was assassinated in Sarajevo, thus sparking off a fatal chain of events that brought Europe to war the following month. Because of his age Tom did not join the colours until late 1917, and it was only the following January that he found himself in the front line. He had been sent, not to France, but to one of the least known British deployments of the war, stiffening the Italian Army against the Austrians on the northern Italian border, where they had the novel and somewhat unique task of regularly patrolling no-man’s-land in collapsible canvas boats (their front lying along the River Piave).
A letter from this period of Tom’s life has survived the passage of time and offers a poignant insight into his character. It is dated 7 January 1918, and although it does not reveal his location, battalion records confirm that they were stationed in the village of Sant’Anna Morosina, northwest of Venice, over that Christmas period. The regimental history noted that ‘Billets were good in barns and houses, rations were plentiful and could always be supplemented with specialities of the country, such as spaghetti and polenta.’ The local ‘vina rosso’ was also ‘very popular and cheap’.3
My dear Mum, Dad and all.
First a few lines in answer to your most welcome letter and parcel which I received today Monday. Hoping you are all in the best of health as I am still in the pink. Well dear Mum, I was very sorry to hear of my uncle Fred being so ill, hoping he will soon get better and also have better luck this year than last . . . I think Maud will keep on hoping for her fur till I come on leave again. We got half a quid this week, but it seems to go almost as quick as before. I think the rumour about us going away from here is cancelled at least – that is the latest – I hope it’s not true, there are no signs of the boys going on leave yet . . . We have just had a little fall of snow here but it freezes as it fell [sic]. It is very cold. Hoping you are getting better weather at home . . . I am on guard tomorrow. I could do with a good pair of mittens as you can do drill better with those than with gloves and almost as warm. Hoping you are going on well with the socks. Well dear Mum, I think I have said all this time so please excuse [my] last letter, [I] will now close with fondest love to yourself, Dad and all, Bill, Maud, and all at home. Glad to hear Harry is a lot better.
From your ever loving son Tom XX
This letter, in jagged handwriting, allows us a glimpse into the thoughts and feelings of a youthful British conscript in the final year of the Great War. His thoughts, perhaps inevitably, concentrate on home: how the family are doing; his sister, Maud, and her long-desired fur coat; his Uncle Fred, who had not been well. The letter also gives us an insight into daily life in snowy Italy: the drills (which would be so much easier with mittens than gloves!); the eternal need for new socks; how his pay disappears very quickly; and the rumours of leave or where they may be sent next.
Tom’s battalion, 15/Royal Warwicks, was better known as the Second Birmingham ‘Pals’ and had been raised in the frantic days of August and September 1914.4 After leaving for France in November of the following year, the battalion had first seen action along the trenches of the Western Front around Arras in the cold spring of 1916. It was during this time that the battalion first experienced the realities of trench warfare: the biting cold of a winter in the open; the long marches to and from the front; the intermittent shellfire; the sight of dead French soldiers buried in the parapet; the occasional strafes from enemy aeroplanes.5 Although it was one of the few British units to take part in the famous storming of Vimy Ridge in April 1917 (when 13 Brigade was ‘lent’ to 2nd Canadian Division), there was little to distinguish the second Birmingham battalion from many other British units on the Western Front. It had a sprinkling of regular officers, including the pipe-smoking Captain Charles Bill, who would write the battalion history, but the experience of soldiering would have to be learnt in the trenches for the majority of the battalion, including most of the junior officers. It was in places like the Somme and Ypres, names that have come to define the British memory of the conflict, that they would learn the meaning of war.
By the summer of 1918, after a winter on the Italian Front, the battalion was back on the Western Front, in the Forêt de Nieppe area southwest of Arras. Here it held the line, took part in the occasional trench raid, and tried to avoid the enemy snipers that were particularly pernicious on this part of the front. Its Commanding Officer was Lieutenant-Colonel G. S. Miller, a special reserve officer of the 4th Battalion, who had joined in August 1916. Some said he never wanted to command a New Army (or service) battalion – a sentiment many old regulars would have sympathized with – but, as Captain Bill later wrote, ‘time brought about a change of heart. He came to appreciate that even a Service Battalion can be good, and soon developed a real pride in his command’; he was later awarded the Distinguished Service Order and bar. His Adjutant, Major George Wilmot, was a more popular man, who had, like Miller, joined the battalion in 1916, having been transferred from the Manchester Regiment. He was not only well-liked, but also terrifically brave, and was awarded the Military Cross for gallantry in January 1919.6
During August and September 1918, Tom’s battalion was heavily employed in the final battles of the Great War. The attack in which he was killed was technically part of the Battle of the Canal du Nord, which the British official history informs me took place between 27 September and 1 October 1918. It did not involve (as far as I can find) any notable participants or any new or untried weapon; it was not interesting for any particular savagery or unique military manoeuvre. Yet from what we know, it was entirely typical of the experience of combat witnessed by the average British ‘Tommy’ during the last days of the First World War: battalions moving forward to flush out German positions; heavy machine-gun fire; confusion; swift enemy counter-attacks (primarily using bombs and close-quarter weapons); and then finally the German defenders vanishing like wraiths in the morning, leaving nothing but empty ration cans and piles of spent cartridges. The advance would then continue until the next defensive position was reached. As was to be expected, Tom’s death caused a huge gulf in the family and a set of wounds that never healed. Family legend has it that on the morning of his death, his mother, Florence, woke up with a searing pain in her head. When she recovered, she had a dark sense of foreboding that Tom had died. And then the dreaded telegram came on 23 October – nineteen days before the Armistice – confirming that her son had been killed in action.
Tom Cotterill died taking part in one of the last great campaigns of the First World War, what has become known as the ‘Hundred Days’ or the ‘Advance to Victory’. The term ‘Hundred Days’ is a British one – redolent of the last battles against Napoleon in 1815 – and refers to the period between the Battle of Amiens on 8 August and the Armistice on 11 November 1918, a total of ninety-five days. This marked the decisive moment in the course of a war that had been waged for over four years, but these battles, epic in their scale, intensity and ferocity, remain only patchily remembered.7 While thousands of books have been written (and continue to be published) on the causes and origins of the First World War, sadly and somewhat intriguingly, the same cannot be said of how the war ended. In the opening sentence of his To Win a War in 1978, the British historian John Terraine complained that ‘The final campaign of 1918 – the last victorious “Hundred Days” – is virtually an unknown story’, and this remains the case today.8 Private Cotterill was one of a whole generation who were wiped out in the final months of the war, but who remain lost to history.
The campaign of 1918 remains one of the most important, yet least understood, periods of the war. Writing in 2011, the historian David Stevenson claimed that ‘whereas modern comprehensive investigations now exist into the outcomes of other modern conflicts, the First World War still lacks one’.9 It had begun on 21 March, when the thunderous opening of the German Spring Offensive shattered the trench deadlock that had gripped the opposing armies for the best part of three years. Having been able to redeploy large numbers of troops to France after the collapse of Russia, Germany’s leaders vowed to strike before the Allies, buttressed by powerful American support, became invincible. The aim was to conduct a massive attack in France, separate the British and French Armies, and win the war before Germany’s perilous strategic situation worsened even further. But this great masterstroke failed. Although manoeuvre returned to the Western Front and the German armies advanced deep into northern France, the Allies evaded this knock-out blow and held on. And it was in July, when Germany’s strength began to fade, that the Allies hit back, thus beginning the final campaign of the Great War: the Hundred Days.
When I began researching this period, the lack of a really satisfactory account of these final battles, particularly one that analysed the situation from the point of view of all the main warring sides, became immediately apparent. Although there have been many good books on 1918 – a personal favourite being Gregor Dallas’s epic 1918. War and Peace (2000) – their coverage remains patchy, selective and frequently drawn from a few well-worn sources. Anglophone historians have understandably focused on the battles fought by the British Expeditionary Force and have relatively little to say about the important roles played by the French or the Americans. Other writers have claimed that the war was effectively over by the summer of 1918 – meaning that the Hundred Days was not especially important – but this remains a narrow and selective approach dependent upon hindsight. The Germans may have lost the war by July, but the Allies had certainly not won it and there was much still to do, as the staggering toll of losses reveals all too clearly. Between 18 July and 11 November the Allies sustained upwards of 700,000 casualties while the Germans lost at least another 760,000 men.10 Indeed, casualty rates among British units were some of the worst of the war, leading many commentators to assume that nothing had been learnt from previous offensives; that it was the same old story of fruitless slaughter and sacrifice in 1918 as it had been in earlier years. This may not have been the case, but the death toll of those final days – increased tragically by the so-called ‘Spanish flu’ – remains remarkable and deserves greater examination than it has hitherto received.
The reason why this last phase of the Great War has remained relatively unknown is not hard to find. For ninety years it has been overshadowed by the major trench warfare battles of the middle years of the war, those on the Somme, Ypres or Verdun in 1916 and 1917, which seem to sum up the experience and (apparent) futility of the war: the mud; the blood; the pointless slaughter. In Germany, the last battles of the war remain under-researched and little known. During the interwar period it was perhaps understandable if these battles were not greatly appreciated given the growth of a ‘stab in the back’ legend which claimed that the German Army had not really been beaten in 1918, but had been betrayed and sabotaged by a group of pacifists, Jews and socialists at home. The widespread belief that Germany had not really lost the war meant that the final battles were seen as being neither especially important nor as interesting as the great German offensives of the spring and summer of 1918. These operations, which restored movement to the Western Front and were notorious for the use of Stosstruppen (stormtroopers), have long fascinated historians and thus distorted our view of the collapse of the Army in late 1918. Therefore, for various reasons, all the combatants of the Hundred Days had their own reasons for ignoring or neglecting the last phase of the war, and this is perhaps why this period is much less well-known than others. The war had destroyed old certainties, killed millions, and this meant that the end came as a blessed relief and saw only muted celebration. It was over. That was enough.
This book tells the story of those final days, the last four months of combat on the Western Front. It begins with what would become the turning point of the war in the west, the Second Battle of the Marne in July 1918 (which preceded the Battle of Amiens), and follows the course of the fighting right up to the Armistice. It does not intend to offer a full operational history of how the war ended or the justice of the subsequent peace. David Stevenson’s 2011 account, With Our Backs to the Wall: Victory and Defeat in 1918, provides as comprehensive a picture as could be wished for. This book concentrates on the fighting in France and Belgium, with brief discussions of the war elsewhere, from Italy and Salonika to Palestine. It seeks to explore two main questions: firstly, to what extent had the Allies improved their so-called tactical ‘learning curve’ on the battlefield; and, secondly, was the German Army really defeated in 1918? It is based on the testimonies of those British, Commonwealth, French, German and American soldiers who served during those final days and left vivid, frequently haunting, recollections of what they went through. These accounts, drawn from the archives of five countries, offer a valuable and moving picture of what it was really like to experience the twilight of the Western Front: the shattering bombardments; the storm of machine-gun fire; the sight of hundreds of dead and wounded; the exhaustion of endless marches; the glow of burning French villages; the comradeship and fear. It ends with a description of perhaps the most iconic event of the twentieth century, the Armistice on 11 November 1918, when the guns fell silent.
Like millions of others, Private Cotterill did not live to see the Armistice celebrations. His war came to an end in the empty fields north of Gouzeaucourt. He was evacuated from the lines and buried in the British cemetery at Neuville-Bourjonval several miles to the rear. The cemetery is small by Great War standards and sits forlornly in the middle of a field, just a short way from the village, bordered by a low rubble wall. The British cemeteries in this part of France rarely see visitors. The main draws of the Western Front, Ypres and the Somme, attract thousands of tourists every year, but relatively few make their way to the bare ridges south of Cambrai, and those that do are often on the lonely pilgrimage to find a lost loved one. When I visited there was no one else around. It was a cold, wet day in spring, with a bitter wind blowing across the flat fields, and one could only be struck by the loneliness and sadness of the scene. Tom is buried in plot C30, alongside 200 other soldiers, most of whom were killed in the last year of the war. As I stood there I was filled with a powerful urge to write a history of those final days; to do all that I could to bring him home.
1. Decision on the Marne
It remains for the living to finish the glorious work of the dead.
18–25 July 1918
The retreat from the Marne began on 20 July. In the coming days three German armies trudged northwards in long grey columns; giving up the ground they had gained during the spring and occasionally looting French villages. One observer, Rudolf Binding, remembered being ‘sick at heart’ after seeing soldiers running around taking everything they could get their hands on; a dangerous illustration of the disorder and ill-discipline that was beginning to grip the German Army after four long years of war. ‘In the twinkling of an eye everything was turned upside-down, as if the looters were professionals,’ he wrote. ‘The soldiers hacked whole beds to pieces for the sake of a length of sheeting the size of a towel and worth about one-fiftieth of their value; thousands of sheets of paper were thrown into the mud for the sake of a single picture postcard, and whole cupboards burst open for the sake of a reel of cotton.’2 And it was not just the property of the enemy that was being grabbed; German supply trains and depots were increasingly being targeted by groups of deserters and looters desperately searching for food. ‘This conduct on the part of German soldiers,’ so one report read, ‘constitutes a defiance of discipline, and must be repressed with the utmost vigour.’3 Even worse, it was anything but an isolated incident and was happening right across the front. The German war effort, it seemed, was rapidly coming apart.
The morale of the Army remained steady, but it was increasingly fragile. Hope in victory was now being replaced by disillusion and weariness. Georg Bucher, a soldier who fought throughout 1918, remembered that life was viewed with ‘a crazy indifference’. ‘We had become hard – a frozen, inarticulate hardness which was yet an agony when, thinking ourselves unobserved, we allowed our faces to betray our thoughts.’ Many had long since ceased to hate the enemy and looked upon the ‘terrified agitation’ of recruits – who seemed to become younger and younger with every passing week – with distrust and unease. ‘We had nothing left to hope for,’ he wrote, ‘even our last desperate hope, the hope of victory, had deserted us.’ There was nothing left to do but keep going.4 Even the Army Group commander, Crown Prince Wilhelm, began to notice that things were not as they should have been. ‘I entered every morning the office of the Army Group,’ he wrote. ‘I was always prepared for bad news and received it only too often. The drives to the front, which had previously been a pleasure and recreation for me, were now filled with bitterness. The staff officers’ brows were furrowed with care. The troops, though still almost everywhere perfect in discipline and demeanour, willing, friendly and cheerful in their salutes, were worn to death. My heart turned within me when I beheld their hollow cheeks, their lean and weary figures, their tattered and dirty uniforms . . .’5
The growing problem of looting, poor discipline and desertion could be traced back, in some respects, to a simple lack of food. By 1918 the German nation and its army were starving. During the great offensives earlier in the year, in March and April, German troops had been amazed by the amount and variety of food and drink they found in British and French supply dumps; things like tinned stew and jam that had disappeared from the German diet years ago. Officers would stumble across groups of men gorging on captured rations or drunk on whisky, and unconcerned about the urgent need to press on. This lack of appropriate nutrition also meant that German soldiers were unable to resist the influenza pandemic that swept across the front during the summer. A number of divisions could only muster company strengths of around sixty men, about 30 per cent of their manpower being sick with flu, and this seems to have been entirely typical of what the German Army suffered in this period. In the Army as a whole a staggering 135,000 men were taken ill with influenza in June; the following month another 375,000 men had to be excused duty for this reason.6
Given the extent of the problems facing the German Army – which had sustained nearly 800,000 casualties in the last six months – it was little wonder that a growing number of senior officers were advocating a withdrawal from exposed and over-extended lines to a shorter, more easily defensible position. Many argued that they should retreat to the Siegfried Stellung (or Hindenburg Line as the Allies called it), the formidable series of defences that had been prepared in 1916 as a kind of German insurance policy in the west. Here, they argued, their armies should rest and reform, and then let the Allies break themselves upon it. Major-General Friedrich Karl ‘Fritz’ von Lossberg, Chief of Staff at Fourth Army and one of the best defensive tacticians, admitted in the days after 18 July that the position on the Marne should be given up immediately.7 Others advocated even more radical action. Crown Prince Wilhelm reported to OHL that the front should be immediately withdrawn to the so-called Antwerp–Meuse position, which lay far behind the Hindenburg Line. This would give their troops a breathing space, shorten the front considerably, and free precious reserves.8 These concerns were eminently sensible and a valuable recognition of Germany’s dangerously exposed position in the west, having gained large amounts of territory that was difficult to defend and strategically useless, but they would not be received well by the men who ran the German war effort: the Kaiser, Wilhelm II; the Chief of the General Staff, Paul von Hindenburg; and his right-hand man, General Erich von Ludendorff.
- "A readable, instructive, and compelling narrative of Allied successes and German failures.... Lloyd adroitly combines sweeping historical scope with the perspectives of the men who did the fighting on the ground. All this in a history that taps the latest relevant scholarship without sidetracking the narrative." —Michigan War Studies Review
"The real strength of Lloyd's work is his treatment of the experience of the war from an individual perspective. He paints vivid portraits of the character and motivations of the various commanders and draws on a variety of first hand accounts from men at all levels on both sides of the front."
—History in the Margins
- "Lloyd...enters the upper tier of Great War historians with this admirable account of the war's final campaign.... Lloyd's unfailing eye for telling anecdotes vitalize his narrative.... The text brims with archival research."—Publishers Weekly
- "A sobering but essential read on the last days of a horrific conflict."—Washington Times
- "A brilliantly enlightening approach to war and men's lives.... Lloyd has provided an accessible overview of how strategic and tactical shifts--like the surge in Iraq and the associated urban outposts--can help alter the course of a war and indeed end it."—Daily Beast
- "Lloyd's narrative is first-rate.... With clarity and genuine sympathy for the combatants, Lloyd tells the story of the summer fighting that led to the long and increasingly rapid retreat of the German armies in the fall.... Ten million soldiers died fighting in World War I, and perhaps as many as 20 million more were wounded. Their stories deserve to be told. Professor Lloyd has done so very well indeed."—Army Magazine
- "One of the few truly noteworthy WWI books to issue in the centennial flood from the presses of the Western world in observance of anniversary of the war's beginning.... Hundred Days is a bracing re-dramatization of the horrors that were most fresh in the minds of all concerned when those days were over."—Open Letters Monthly
- "Brisk and thoroughly engrossing."—Evening Standard (London)
- On Sale
- Jan 28, 2014
- Page Count
- 384 pages
- Basic Books