Armistice Centennial: The Final Days Of The Great War Part One – The Hundred Days

October 29, 2018 by oriskany

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Here at OnTableTop, we play wargames for fun. Yes, even the dourest and grim-eyed historical grognards have been known to crack a smile at the gaming table now and then.

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Armistice Centennial: The Final Days Of WWI Interview

That said, there come occasions when we should take a reflective pause, a quiet moment to genuinely remember that for too many people, this was not a game.

I respectfully submit that this is one of those times.

November 11th, 2018 marks the centennial anniversary of the end of the Great War, the Armistice that ended the “War to End All Wars.” Still observed as Remembrance Day, Armistice Day, or Veterans Day, it endures as a sombre touchstone when we remember those who served not only in World War I, but all wars of the past century.

At the time, World War I was the greatest conflict humanity had yet seen, and wars this big do not end quietly. There was chaos, controversy, complications, and consequence echoing long into future decades. It can be argued that every war’s end sows the seeds for the next one, and rarely has this been brought to starker relief than November 1918.

In this article series, we’ll take a look at the final desperate battles, offensives, and campaigns of that momentous autumn, and make a humble effort to bring just a sliver of these tectonic events to the gaming table.

1918: An Overview

After four years of unprecedented, industrial-scale butchery, 1918 would be the last year of the Great War. Yet this year would also see tumultuous swings in fortune shift rapidly between the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire), and the Allies.

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At the beginning of 1918, Germany seemed to have the upper hand. Imperial Russia had been knocked out of the war by the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, freeing millions of German troops to fight Britain and France on the Western Front. Conversely, newly-arriving American armies were not yet in a position to have a decisive impact.

Thus, German commanders (Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff) launched a series of huge offensives from March through July 1918, including the St. Michael, Georgette, Blücher-Yorck, Gneisenau, and “Peace” Offensives.

Fighting had been nothing short of apocalyptic, and casualties skyrocketed into the hundreds of thousands on both sides. British, French, American, Belgian, Australian, Canadian, even Portuguese lines had buckled but held, and by mid-summer these German armies were a spent force.

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As the last German offensives withered, it became clear to Allied commanders that the advantage had shifted their way. German losses have been catastrophic, and they’d lost their numerical edge. American armies were now also in position, gaining in both strength and experience, and quickly tipping the balance further against the Germans.

By the middle of July, strong French and American counterattacks were already shoving the Germans back in certain sectors, most notably the Second Battle of the Marne. Allied Supreme Commander (Generalissimo Ferdinand Foch) followed up with the Battle of Soissons starting on July 18, which quickly unfolded into another major Allied success.

The Soissons attack was spearheaded by hundreds of French tanks, backed up by ten American and two British infantry divisions. The battle was a costly one but won back most of the ground the French had lost to the German Spring Offensives. Foch was made a Marshal of France for his victories at Second Marne and Soissons.

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Yet Foch would not be the only soldier rewarded for his performance during this battle. On August 4th, 1918, a twenty-nine-year-old Austrian “Gefreiter” (lance corporal) fighting with the 16th Bavarian Reserve Rifle Regiment was also awarded the Iron Cross First Class for courage under fire. His name was Adolf Hitler.

Eager to capitalize on their victories at Second Marne and Soissons, Allied generals (Marshal Foch for the French, Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig for the British, and General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing for the Americans) agreed to open an expanded series of coordinated offensives extending through the rest of summer, 1918.

Battle Of Amiens

While the French and Americans had been winning at the Marne and Soissons, British Field Marshal Haig was already drawing up his plans for his own counterassault in the Amiens sector, where the Germans had hit the British with everything they had in the “St. Michael” Offensive in March.

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The British had held this mightiest of all the German 1918 attacks...barely...in a series of bloodbath defensive battles near Amiens and Villers-Bretonneux, where history’s very first tank vs. tank shootout had taken place on April 24th. Yet now the British stood poised to hit back, and eliminate this “Amiens Salient.”

As early as July 4th, the commander of the Haig’s Australian Corps, Lt. General Sir John Monash, had launched successful counterattacks against German positions at the Battle of Hamel. Dispensing with traditional massed artillery, the Australians had instead employed surprise, aggressive infantry tactics, and innovative coordination with British tanks and artillery.

The results of these new tactics, plus further recommendations from Monash, had been passed to Haig and then to Foch, Supreme Allied Commander, who gave the go-ahead for a front-wide assault using a similar model. The hammer fell in the pre-dawn hours of August 8th...now officially recognized as the beginning of the “Hundred Days.”

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Haig’s attack was spearheaded by Fourth Army (General Rawlinson), led in turn by the Canadian Corps (General Sir Arthur Currie) and the Australians under General Monash. Each of these corps was supported by about 150 Mark V and Mark V* trench-crossing tanks, along with a cavalry corps with about 100 lighter “Whippet” tanks.

The results were stunning. After years of stalemate, the German front split wide open. Although tanks and artillery had been used to support infantry assaults many times over the past two years, this time the close coordination of these arms delivered an overwhelming tactical victory and nearly immediate operational breakthrough.

So thorough was the Australian, Canadian, and British victory at Amiens that German General Erich Ludendorff would record the opening day of Amiens as “the black day of the German Army.” For the first time, whole German units simply fell apart on the battlefield. A psychological, as well as military turning point, had been reached.

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Part of the reason stems from the state of mind of the German soldier. By 1918, Germany had suffered four years of not only war but naval blockade. The men knew their families back home were starving. They were starving themselves and had poor supplies and medical care. New recruits (when they arrived) were depressingly young.

Nevertheless, Allied progress at Amiens soon slowed to a grinding, bloody crawl, thanks less to German resistance than to Allied infantry outpacing their own artillery and slow, creaking, mechanically unreliable tanks.

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On 15th August, French Marshal Foch requested that Haig gather reinforcements and continue this successful Amiens attack. Haig, however, refused, recognizing that the shock along the Amiens-St. Quentin sector was spent. Rather, he activated his Third Army and opened a new attack to the north, sparking the Second Battle of Bapaume (sometimes called the Third Battle of the Somme).

Old Battlefields, New Victories

Haig’s new offensive opened along the general Albert-Cambrai west-east axis on 21st August 1918. The British Third Army would strike northeast just off the northern shoulder of the successful Amiens attack discussed above.

This was actually the third engagement to rage across the Picardy countryside of northern France. The most famous Battle of the Somme had burned for 140 blood-soaked days in 1916. The Germans had then stormed through with their Spring Offensives in March 1918. Now the Allies would retake these fields again...for good.

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As at Amiens, there was no lengthy artillery barrage preceding the attack - only a sharp, accurate, and devastating salvo immediately before a closely-coordinated infantry and tank assault. Initial objectives included the Albert-Arras railway line, the loss of which would hamper German ability to bring in reinforcements to stabilise their defence.

The Germans mounted a brief counterattack on August 22nd but were quickly defeated. The British offensive soon expanded, drawing in elements of the First Army from the north and the Fourth Army from the south. By August 26th, Ludendorff bowed to the inevitable and began a well-ordered withdraw to better defensive ground.

This withdrawal, however, was frustrated by a New Zealander attack at Bapaume, by Australian troops capturing Mont St. Quentin and the town of Péronne, and Canadians who cracked the German line wide open at Drocourt-Quéant.

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These setbacks forced the Germans to give up any idea of a defensive line along the Somme, and fall back further to the so-called “Hindenburg Line” (as known by the British, the German name was Siegfried Stellung, or the “Siegfried Position”).

This was a fortified line built in 1916-17 to protect the territory they’d taken in France and Belgium and maintain it as a buffer zone against possible Allied counter-invasion into Germany. This was also the line from which they’d struck with their “Spring Offensives” of March-July. Now they were right back to where they’d started.

This Is Only The Beginning

The Allies, however, pressed the advance. As we’ll see in Part Two, the French and Americans pushed up from the south, opening the bloody Meuse-Argonne Campaign in September. The British, Australians, and Canadians also struck out of the west, opening the Battles of the St. Quentin Canal and the Second Battle of Cambrai.

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Further to the north, the British Second Army, together with Belgians under King Albert I, opened the Fifth Battle of Ypres. Here, the battlefields of Flanders and Passchendaele, which had seen such unspeakable suffering through previous years, would finally be claimed for the Allies once and for all.

But we’ll dig into these actions in greater detail in the coming weeks. For now, post below and tell us what you think. Books, documentaries, movies, family connections, past wargames, plans for future wargames, suggest anything and everything that commemorates the centennial of these fateful few weeks.

It’s not every day we mark an anniversary milestone like this one. Don’t let the Centennial of the 1918 Armistice pass without making yourself heard.

Come and take part in the discussion below and follow along with the article series as it develops...

"At the beginning of 1918, Germany seemed to have the upper hand..."

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"It’s not every day we mark an anniversary milestone like this one..."

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