2018 marks the end of the First World War Centenary. Over the last few years, you’ve been visiting the battlefields with your students to help them better understand the scale and futility of the conflict. As we approach the end of the Centenary, make sure you don’t miss out on one last chance to experience the battlefields at this incredibly poignant time!
In terms of the Great War, 1918 was a year that can be broken down in to three bite-size chunks: the German ‘ Spring Offensive ’, the Allied ‘ Hundred Days Offensive ’ and the Armistice itself.
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a.k.a Kaiserschlacht (Kaiser’s Battle) or the Ludendorff Offensive
With the Russians signing an armistice with the Central Powers in December 1917, the Allied Powers had lost a major player. However, with the US entering the war in April 1917, Germany was keen to end the conflict before too many American boots could reach European soil.
And so, the Spring Offensive, codenamed Operation Michael, was planned for early 1918 (and launched on 21st March 1918). The aim would be to divide the French and British forces, pushing the British westwards. The French were to be kept busy in their own defence, preventing them from helping the British forces.
To begin with, it looked like Operation Michael would be a success. The British were pushed far back across the Somme, and the front moved to within just 120km of Paris, which allowed the Germans to shell the French capital. Certainly, there was a belief that Germany could win the war.
As Operation Michael drew British forces westwards to defend Amiens, the train lines through to the ports of Calais, Boulogne and Dunkirk were left exposed. The second phase of the offensive, codenamed Operation Georgette, was launched on 9th April 1918 and aimed to seize Hazebrouck, an important Allied rail centre. If successful, the Germans would cut off the Allied forces holding the Ypres Salient.
However, the devastation of the landscape and infrastructure around them meant that the German army really struggled to supply its troops, who soon became exhausted.
This was exacerbated by counterattacks by British, French and ANZAC forces, stalling the German advance. Both Operation Michael and Operation Georgette were called off, having failed to achieve the strategic results the Germans had hoped for.
The third phase of the offensive, Operation Blücher-Yorck, focused on drawing French forces to defend the Aisne sector, preventing them from supporting the British defence in Flanders.
And the Germans continued to launch offensives throughout the summer of 1918. As with the first two phases of the offensive, the Germans initially made fairly significant gains, until they faltered due to the difficulty in supplying the troops in order to maintain the advance.
In the end, the Spring Offensive left German forces dangerously exposed in positions which were difficult to defend. Rather than end the conflict before American troops arrived on European soil in great numbers, the Germans were left vulnerable strategically, and had lost many of their best trained soldiers through their use of stormtrooper tactics.
Allied and German losses were fairly equal, but the Germans now had just 4 more divisions than the Allies – with the imminent arrival of American forces, this left the German army at a disadvantage.
Hundred Days Offensive
The Hundred Days Offensive marked the beginning of the end of WW1.
From 8th August, the Allies launched a series of offensives against the Central Powers along the Western Front.
The offensive began with the Battle of Amiens and a surprise attack by 10 Allied divisions. By the end of the first day, German forces had been pushed back 10 miles east from where they started the day. Two days later, the Allies had recaptured the important Paris-Amiens railway line.
The second phase of the offensive began with the Second Battle of the Somme 1918 on 21st August. By 4th September, German forces had withdrawn behind the Hindenburg Line.
By 8th October the Allies had broken through the Hindenburg Line, leading the German High Command to conclude that the war had to be ended. Their forces were completely exhausted and demoralised and there was domestic unrest too, as German citizens were .
This all came to a head during the night of 29th -30th October, when several German navy crews revolted (with some even committing mutiny). This inspired civil unrest throughout Germany, leading to the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II and the proclamation of a republic on 9th November.
The German government initially approached the US on 4th October in the hope of arranging an armistice based on President Woodrow Wilson’s ‘Fourteen Points’. Wilson responded with a number of conditions to be met in order for negotiations to be opened.
He demanded that German forces evacuate the occupied territories and insisted on dealing with a democratic government.
On 8th November the German delegation, led by Matthias Erzberger, arrived in the Compiègne forest. It was here, in aboard Marshal Fedinand Foch’s private train, that the armistice was negotiated.
As the German leadership was fearful of exacerbating the unrest at home, Erzberger was ordered to accept the terms placed in front of him, however harsh.
The main terms of the Armistice were:
• The evacuation within 14 days of all the occupied lands in Belgium, Luxembourg and France, as well as Alsace-Lorraine, which had been held by Germany since 1870.
• The Allies would occupy the land to the west of the Rhine, and the bridgeheads on the east bank up to 30km.
• German forces on the eastern front were to be withdrawn from Romania, Turkey and Austria-Hungary.
• Germany must surrender 160 submarines, 10 battleships, 6 battle cruisers and 8 cruisers.
• Germany must also surrender 25,000 machine guns, 5,000 artillery pieces and 2,000 airplanes.
• The naval blockade would continue.
• Germany would accept blame for the war and would have to pay reparations for the damage caused.
The Armistice came into effect at 11am on 11th November 1918, although peace was not formalised until the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919.
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