|Endgame in Flanders, 1918
by Ronan Thomas
Ieper, Flanders – 2009 marks the 91st anniversary of the end of the Great War of 1914-18. On 11 November, 1918, the guns finally fell silent across the entire length of the Western Front in France and Belgium. After four shattering years of fighting, an armistice - at the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of the eleventh month – came into force and finally ended the Great War of 1914-1918. In November 2008 the conflict’s 90th anniversary was marked by dozens of moving ceremonies and in sombre contemplation by the combatant nations.
America was a late entry into the war; the AEF (American Expeditionary Force) under General Pershing was robustly in at the kill in autumn 1918, suffering thousands of casualties in the Meuse/Argonne region of France and in (lesser known) offensives in Flanders, Belgium. But for the nations of Europe, the war of 1914-1918 was a true cataclysm - the damage wrought and disastrous political settlements of 1918-1919 arguably led directly to the outbreak of WWII in 1939-1945. The Great War was the world’s first industrial-scale joint force conflict. The figure for total casualties suffered during 1914-1918 is still disputed by historians. An accurate figure will never be agreed. But an estimated ten million men were killed in battle. Between 15 and 20 million more were badly wounded.
1918 is also remembered not merely for the November armistice but also as one of the war’s costliest years. The first three years of the conflict had witnessed savage losses incurred by both the Allied and Central Power nations in set piece engagements on the Western Front. At Neuve Chapelle and Loos in 1915; at the Somme and at Verdun in 1916; in three terrible battles at Ypres in Flanders during 1914-17. But from March to November 1918, each side lost over one million casualties in France and Flanders during a series of last ditch German offensives and allied counter attacks. In the last hundred days of the war – in 23 gruelling battles from August to November 1918 - the British alone suffered around 300,000 casualties, 80,000 of these in August, a higher rate of British battle attrition, chronologically, than at any comparable period in the war.
By March 1918, the Great War was entering its final, decisive phase on the Western Front.
In the face of allied naval blockade, severe food shortages, unending battle losses in men and material and growing domestic revolutionary political agitation, Kaiser Wilhelm II’s Imperial Germany was facing starvation and possible internal collapse. After America’s entry into the war in April 1917 – 200,000 fresh US troops of Pershing’s expeditionary force were pouring into French ports by the early months of 1918 - Germany’s strategic window to win the war on her own terms was closing. It was against this background that the German Army High Command grimly resolved on a new assault on the Western Front of Wagnerian proportions. In both France and Flanders, spring 1918 would be marked by two massive German offensives conceived and executed by German Army commanders, Chief of the General Staff Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg and his deputy, General Erich Ludendorff.
Both offensives were code-named after sword-wielding Saints of Victory. In France, ‘Operation Michael’, was originally designed to smash the British Third and Fifth Armies and their French allies on a 50-mile front running between the rivers Oise and Scarpe. The advance would then pass over the old Somme battlefield - so dearly achieved by the British in 1916 - drive on to St Quentin and to the city of Amiens. If successful, Michael then envisaged a wider German breakout aimed at knocking the French out of the war and seizing the main ports along the French coast. In Flanders,
‘Operation George’ – later reduced in scale and renamed ‘Georgette’ – aimed to obliterate the British First and Second Armies and their Belgian and French allies entrenched in the Ypres Salient. If this could be achieved quickly – the planners predicted – the allied armies could be chopped in half, the British army defeated in the field and the Kaiser’s forces could similarly break out to take the Channel Ports. By 1918, Germany already operated U-Boat bases at the ports of Zeebrugge and Ostend. With the British and French armies rolled up the plans for
Michael and Georgette implied that Calais, Dunkirk and Boulogne might also be used for new lethal submarine attacks against Britain. The British might then sue for peace to avoid total ruination. Thus, Ludendorff and Hindenburg hoped that
Michael and Georgette would deliver complete German domination of north Western Europe by mid-1918 and the prize of winning the war outright before the growing American presence became irresistible.
Hindenburg and Ludendorff’s high hopes for the new offensives were further boosted by the transfer to France and Flanders of hundreds of thousands of battle-hardened German troops released from the Eastern Front after Russia’s defeat and revolution in late 1917. These forces had spent months perfecting new storm troop infantry tactics – as vividly described by German officer Ernst Junger in his classic account
‘Storm of Steel’. These elite, highly motivated infantrymen were well equipped with flamethrowers, grenades and newly-designed semi-automatic weapons. They were trained for whirlwind attack after surprise artillery and gas barrages, leaving points of stubborn resistance to supporting infantry formations. Above all, their assault tactics emphasised speed of advance and rapid trench infiltration over attritional battle. It was a new form of mobile infantry warfare which would come of age in 1918. By March, as Ludendorff put it, his crack troops ‘pined for the offensive’.
France would face the onslaught first. Ludendorff deployed three German armies, the Seventeenth, Second and Eighteenth, to execute it. 74 assault divisions, supported by over 700 aircraft, were assembled to attack the British and French line. Facing them, the British Third Army (under General Julian Byng) the Fifth Army (under General Hubert Gough) together had 30 divisions. Many of these were under strength.
Michael wields the sword
At dawn, 21 March 1918, Ludendorff unleashed Operation Michael against the British Third and Fifth armies and the French Sixth Army along on a 43-mile front between Arras and La Fere. In what became known as the ‘Kaiserschlacht’ – ‘Kaiser’s Battle’ - 6,500 German guns first pounded the British line. For five hours the British and French front line trenches were subjected to a typhoon of three million high explosive, phosgene and lachrymatory shells. Advancing through fog, the German divisions, led by large groups of storm troops, overwhelmed the British forward and battle zone defensive positions, many of which were still under construction. The attack gained all its initial objectives. By the end of the first week, at a cost of 10,000 killed and 29,000 wounded, Ludendorff’s divisions had killed 7,000 British soldiers, wounded 10,000 others and taken a further 21,000 prisoner. By 28 March, the Germans had advanced a shocking 40 miles and had reached a line due south of Arras. The storm troops pushed the British back relentlessly although their front retreated broadly intact. Later on the 28th, Ludendorff also launched a subsidiary attack,
Operation Mars, south of Arras on a direct line to the town of Doullens.
The British Third and Fifth armies reeled from the assault. Up until 5 April, the British fought and lost six major engagements and were forced back to a line just outside Amiens. The Germans captured some 1,000 British artillery pieces; General Gough was relieved of his command of Fifth Army. But the speed of the
Michael offensive had brought severe problems for the Germans despite its initial successes. After a week of continuous fighting, the German infantry were exhausted and their supply line failed to keep pace. After seizing several British supply dumps, German officers reported instances of drunkenness and looting among their own men, slowing the pace of the advance further. Meanwhile, from 1 April the newly formed Royal Air Force (replacing the former Royal Flying Corps) maintained air superiority above the advance, strafing the German infantry remorselessly. Eventually, on 5 April, Ludendorff called a halt to
Operation Michael. The price was high; Michael’s sword proved a double-edged weapon. 250,000 German soldiers had been killed or wounded in little over a fortnight versus around 200,000 British and French casualties. Worse, the storm troops and their support infantry had failed to achieve the general breakout to the Channel ports as called for under Ludendorff’s plan of attack. Much now depended on
With Operation Michael inconclusive, Ludendorff turned his attention to Flanders. Operation Georgette had been conceived as a lightning blow by two German armies against the allied front line running from the Belgian coast in the north to Givenchy in French Flanders in the south. Though much smaller in scale than
Michael, Georgette was also designed to deliver a general breakout to the Channel ports. Indeed, of the two,
Georgette was probably the shrewder strategic choice by virtue of the lesser distances involved. The plan called for the German Sixth Army (under General Ferdinand von Quast) to attack first along the southern Armentieres–Givenchy front in French Flanders. Further north, in Flanders proper, the German Fourth Army (under General Friedrich Sixt von Arnim) would then punch through the Ypres Salient.
Georgette’s main objectives included the city of Ypres, Hill 60 at Zillebeke, the Messines-Wytschaete and Mount Kemmel high ridges in the southern Salient and the key British rail junction and logistics base further west at Hazebrouck. Facing von Arnim in the north, the allied line was defended above Ypres and the Yser Canal by the Belgian Army and in the centre by IX and XXII Corps of General Herbert Plumer’s Second Army. In the south, von Quast was faced by the Portuguese 2 Division around Neuve Chapelle, the French 28 Division and XI and XV Corps of General Henry Horne’s First Army in the Lys Valley, west of Armentieres.
Georgette looked good on paper, offered the illusion of victory in Flanders and a second chance for a German breakout to the Channel. But the Ypres Salient was a place of broken military dreams, from Langemarck at its northernmost tip to the high ridges at Messines in the south. For three and a half years it had frustrated all offensives and all proffered military solutions. The Salient was a story of layer piled upon layer of visceral military experience, a violent cauldron which swallowed armies whole. It was a place of sacrifice with few parallels on the Western Front. Since 1914, in bitter fighting, the British had doggedly held onto Ypres and its 20 km square Salient bulging into German-held territory. They devoted huge resources to fight a series of major attritional battles in the Salient despite the fact that the German army held most of the high ground for most of the war. The First Battle of Ypres in 1914 cost over 58,000 British casualties and destroyed the British pre-war professional army; Second Ypres in 1915 saw the first use of poison gas in military history; at Messines in June 1917 the British destroyed whole German-held sections of the southern Salient using a series of huge mines; Third Ypres (31 July- 10 November 1917), otherwise known as the Battle of Passchendaele, exacted a colossal price for little strategic gain. Stalemate resulted. By early 1918, the Salient had been ravaged several times over into a landscape of near total desolation.
The British had defended the city of Ypres (Ieper in Flemish) with particular resolution. Ypres - a prosperous centre for the European cloth trade since medieval times – was an obstinate ruin by April 1918. Yet the city was a critical consideration for the British Imperial General Staff. Its real importance was as a key strongpoint frustrating German access to the ports of Calais, Boulogne, Dunkirk and Nieuport, a mere 25 miles north. For Ypres’ defenders and for public opinion back in Britain, the city was also a symbol of British fortitude and defiance in the face of German predation. Britain’s wartime political leadership, led by Prime Minister David Lloyd George, simply could not afford its loss. To this day the city retains a semi-sacred status in the popular memory of all the nations who fought there; Great Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India, France, Germany, Belgium and America. At Ypres, the dedication on the city’s Menin Gate 1927 memorial arch is sobering: ‘To the Armies of The British Empire who stood here from 1914-18 and to those of their dead who have no known grave’. 55,000 missing men are recorded here in memoriam. In turn, visitors to Langemarck German cemetery, north east of the city, all pass through a gate inscribed with the following: ‘Germany must live, even if we must die’. 44,000 German battle dead are commemorated within its precincts. With this previous investment in Flanders, both sides were thus prepared to commit everything.
So Georgette promised breakout yet faced formidable obstacles. Ludendorff had drawn back the bow on an unprecedented German strike against the Salient, yet the British knew the ground intimately and would strain every military sinew to defend it. The prose of British soldier poet David Jones, a veteran of fighting in Flanders, powerfully captures what happened next. In his 1936 work,
‘In Parenthesis’, he wrote: “Sweet Sister Death has gone debauched today and stalks on this high ground with strumpet confidence”.
Georgette – Michael’s sister– was about to make her debut.
On 9 April 1918 – after a 36 hour preliminary high explosive and gas artillery barrage - the Georgette offensive began. It was Ludendorff’s 53rd birthday. The fighting which followed up until 29 April 1918 - a total of eight separate battles – is variously known as the Battle of the Lys or the Fourth Battle of Ypres. In dense fog, 14 assault divisions from von Quast’s Sixth Army, including 35 Division, 42 Division, 43 Reserve Division and the 1st Bavarian Reserve Division, attacked between Armentieres and Givenchy as planned. Here, the allied line, defended by the XI and XV Corps of Horne’s First Army and the 2 Portuguese Division, buckled. 2 Portuguese Division around Neuve Chapelle collapsed wholesale and retreated in disorder as the advancing German storm troops dropped into their trenches and seized their supplies. Over 7,000 Portuguese soldiers were killed and 6,000 taken prisoner on the first day. Two British divisions – the 55th and 40th were likewise overwhelmed. Under severe pressure from von Quast, First Army was obliged to fall back three and a half mile to the banks of the Lys. By the end of the first day, von Quast’s troops had taken Givenchy, La Bassee canal and Merville. On 10 April, von Arnim’s Fourth Army attacked the Ypres Salient toward Messines, crossed the Lys and seized parts of the Messines-Wytschaete ridge (held by British and Empire troops since June 1917), Ploegsteert (‘Plug Street’) and Neuve Eglise villages. Desperate resistance was made by soldiers from 34 Division, the South African Brigade and 2nd Bn Worcestershire Regiment. Hours later, Armentieres, Estaires and Steenwerk fell to Von Quast’s troops and German forces advanced north to within four miles of Ypres. On 11 April, German infantry captured Hill 63 and Ploegsteert Wood in the Douve Valley. The same day, Field Marshal Douglas Haig, responding to these German gains and the desperate allied position in France, issued his famous ‘Backs to the Wall’ Order of the Day. It read: ‘There is no course open to us but to fight it out! Every position must be held to the last man; there must be no retirement. With our backs to the wall, believing in the justice of our cause, each one of us must fight on to the end’. The moment of greatest crisis for the British in Flanders had come; their retreat continued in the teeth of
Georgette’s determined advance. By 15 April, the German Fourth Army had taken Bailleul and lead elements were approaching the base at Hazebrouck. Hazebrouck was tenaciously defended by reinforcements from 1 Australian Division and the British 33 Division but on 16 April the rest of the Messines-Wytschaete ridge was lost. Depressingly, General Plumer of Second Army was also forced that day to relinquish three miles of territory in the central Salient – including all the ground around Passchendaele, achieved at the cost of so much British and Empire blood in 1917. German heavy artillery was swiftly deployed further forward in the Salient and shelled targets previously out of range west of Ypres. The city itself was now directly threatened. Plumer’s forces just managed to hold the line in front of Ypres but the German infantry reached Hell Fire Corner on the Menin Road, barely one kilometre short of the ruined city centre itself. Today, stone memorials on this busy Belgian crossroads recall the highest watermark of German advance in Flanders.
The fighting blazed on. On 24 April, German and British tanks fought a confused engagement south of Ypres; the German armour was forced to withdraw. On 25 April, German Alpine troops made a major gain in the southern Salient, capturing Mount Kemmel from the French 28 Division after an attack on 17 April had been repulsed. These strategic heights remained under German occupation until September 1918 when they were retaken by the 27 and 30 American Divisions. On 27 April, a second strongpoint, the Scherpenberg, fell to a surging German attack.
But the clock was now ticking on the German army in Flanders. By the end of April Georgette’s whirlwind momentum was spent, its assault divisions depleted and its storm troops exhausted. The Germans kept the pressure up on Horne’s First Army, aiming to push northward and finally take the base at Hazebrouck. The attempt failed just five miles from its objective as First Army managed to frustrate further progress. For all its fury
Georgette – like Operation Michael - had also not delivered a German breakout to the Channel coast. Herculean efforts by the German Fourth and Sixth Armies had failed to take the elusive prize of Ypres, although they had bitten off a sizeable chunk of the Salient and grabbed most of the strategic ridges and high ground in the south. Ludendorff finally called
Georgette off on 29 April, ordering its gains to be consolidated and the new German front line positions reinforced. The Battle of the Lys was over. In three weeks,
Georgette cost the Germans around 100,000 casualties; British and Empire forces some 120,000 casualties. For its part, the British Army command drew second breath – Ypres had been defended successfully throughout April although the cost was 12 British divisions mauled to the bone. Field Marshal Haig now set in motion plans for a new offensive later in the year. On 19 July, General Plumer kept the cauldron boiling, launching an attack by 9 Division, XV Corps, Second Army which recaptured the village of Meteren, just south of Bailleul.
Elsewhere on the Western Front, growing German military exhaustion after the failure of two further summer offensives in France–
Blucher and Goerz - and new allied counter attacks during the so-called Last Hundred Days of the war from July to November 1918 ensured all the gains of both
Michael and Georgette would ultimately be wiped out. In France, British and Empire forces under General Henry Rawlinson had regained the initiative after decisively winning the Battle of Amiens of 8-12 August 1918. Ludendorff could see the end coming, writing that ‘August 8 was the Black Day of the German Army in the History of this War’.
In Flanders, nemesis for the Germans finally arrived in late September 1918. On 28 September – in combination with new attacks launched in France – Plumer’s Second Army and the Belgian Army launched a combined offensive to retake the Gheluvelt ridge in the Ypres Salient, advanced through the Lys valley toward Roulers, and retook Houthulst Forest and Wytschaete. A day later Belgian forces retook the ruined village of Passchendaele in a matter of hours and then Dixmude, north of Ypres. The 9 (Scottish) Division subsequently liberated Becelare. On 13 October, during a British mustard gas bombardment of Werwick, south of Ypres, a German Army corporal serving in the List Regiment - Adolf Hitler - was gassed, temporarily blinded and invalided out of the war. By 19 October fighting was still raging at Courtrai on the River Lys but the port of Zeebrugge fell to the Belgian army at day’s end. On 21 October, sailors of the Imperial Navy mutinied at their base in Kiel. On 9 November, Kaiser Wilhelm abdicated and a civilian German government under Friedrich Ebert was formed in Berlin. The armistice ending the Great War came into force at 11.am two days later.
In purely strategic terms, Georgette clearly did not deliver on its potential in 1918. But the offensive’s legacy was far from over. The plan was basically sound. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, German military veterans of Flanders – including ex-Corporal Adolf Hitler – pointed to the storm troop attacks there in 1918 as an opportunity which had tantalizingly slipped through their fingers. In 1940, the British Army failed to protect Ypres from German occupation as it retreated to Dunkirk. A new variant of
Georgette– Blitzkrieg- succeeded where her older sister had failed. The Germans would make it to the Channel ports after all.
Copyright © 2009 Ronan Thomas
Written by Ronan Thomas. If you have questions or comments on this article,
please contact Ronan Thomas at:
About the author:
Ronan Thomas is a British journalist published in over 40 leading newspapers and magazines. His great uncle served in the Ypres Salient during 1917-18.
Published online: 03/12/2009.