With the German Army gearing up for an attack, the British and French were still recovering from a disastrous 1917.
Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War episode 158. Last episode we discussed a lot about the German plans for 1918, this episode we shift our focus over to the situation of the Allies at the beginning of the year. Before I talk about it for the next half hour, we can summarize the situation for the British and French in one word, waiting. They were waiting for the Germans to attack, the only questions were when and where. They were waiting for the Americans to arrive at the front, the only questions were when and how many. They were waiting for their armies to recover from a disastrous 1917, the only question was if they could. All of this waiting, and at least for the German attacks they would not have to wait long. A good amount of our discussions today will be on the political side of the situation and it will lead us right up to discussing the state of the British 5th Army which would bear the brunt of the German attacks on March 21st. The political build up is important background information because it both created the situation for the 5th Army and why it was for the most part hung out to dry and because the coming attack would strain the relationship between the Allies in ways that no previous campaign had done unless maybe the opening German attack of 1914.
On the Allied side of the Western Front the status of Russia hung heavy at the end of 1917, and even if Russia was not yete officially out of the war, it was clear that the German troops would soon be free to move West. The Americans would arrive to counteract this, but it was taking time to train and prepare them for their time in the front lines, and until they were ready the Entente stood alone. In mid-September 1917 a French strategic assessment was completed and for the first time it explicitly listed territorial gains as a goal but not as a way to win the war but instead to enhance France’s bargaining position during negotiations, this was a serious shift from previous years and it was a reflection of a realistic appraisal of the situation by Petain and other french leaders. While Haig still wanted to attack early and often Petain would only support such actions after the Germans had already attacked. The events of late 1917, especially at Caporetto, only reinforced his beliefs because the British and French were forced to send not just artillery but also troops to Italy to keep it from totally collapsing, which only worsened the numerical disadvantage they were also experiencing. While there were some problems at the front, back at home and especially in Britain and America things were looking up. The constant flow of raw goods, and money, from America sent war production into overdrive all over Western Europe. A quarter of a million tons of shells were bieng shipped across the channel every month, and twice that was being shipped in other goods. That is just one example of the incredible amount of material goods that were flowing into the Western Front armies. But, about those armies.
Supplies are only important if there are men to use them, and for 1918 that would be the first problem for the Entente. In 1917 the British had suffered over 850,000 casualties, and the French almost 600,000, and it was becoming almost impossible for the French to make good those losses. This meant that for the first time in the war both countries would have fewer divisions on the Western Front in 1918 than they had the previous year, with the French dropping from 104 to 98 and the British fro 62 to 47. This reduction was due partially to having to break up divisions just to keep others up to a reasonable level of strength. Notice I don’t say full strength here, just reasonable. In total the British army was about 70,000 men under establishment and on average each division was somewhere around 2,000 men short. The French were having similar difficulties, but their problems were unavoidable, for the British they were actually self inflicted. Lloyd George had decided to reduce the flow of men to the continent as a way to influence the actions of Haig and to allow Lloyd George more control over the course of the war. This resulted in hundreds of thousands of men being in Britain in early 1918 instead of in the army on the Wester Front.
After the Battle of Caporetto the Allies had taken an important step towards combining their war efforts. They met in Italy and agreed to create an Inter-Allied Supreme War Council. Its would be be described at the time as “The Supreme War Council has the mission of watching over the general conduct of the war. It prepares recommendations for the decisions of the governments, assures the execution, and renders reports aboutt them to the respective governments.” This most important bit about that sentence was that it prepared recommendations, this was not a commanding body, and it did not have any control over the armies, it was only created to help improve the coordination of the administration and efforts of the various armies. The French had hoped that the body would exercise far more direct control, it would of course be headed by a Frenchman, but since this was not possible in late 1917 the French were forced to make due with it just being an advisory body. It should be noted that neither Haig or Petain really liked the idea of the War Council as they saw it as interfering with their autonomy of command. Over the course of December 1917 the War Council met and during those meetings they created and distributed many notes to the armies that covered a variety of topics like advising the armies to create a reserve of several divisions that could be used to counter a German attack anywhere along the line and many other topics.
Four our current story the most important meetings of the Supreme War Council would occur in early February 1918. The week before these meetings the British, French, and American army leadership had assembled to discuss, amongst other things, the topics that would discussed at the next War Council meeting. In general this meeting did not result in any great understanding or a unified front from the army commanders and so they would enter the next full Council meeting divided. During the discussions at the next Council meeting things would get a little heated. Foch would accuse Lloyd George of not really making a full effort in the war, possible a reference to the men held back in England. Lloyd George would push back by saying that the last year and a half the British had done most of the fighting on the Western Front and all over the world, so they could do what they wanted. He would also use this opportunity to once again push for a greater commitment to the campaign in the Middle East. This suggestion did not get anywhere. Another topic that would be discussed, as it always would be at these kinds of meetings, was getting the British to take over more of the front. Since the beginning of the war, and especially since 1916 when the British army began to grow very quickly the French had constantly been trying to get the British to man more of the front. In this case the French wanted the British to take over 25 more miles. Haig never liked agreeing to this type of line extneion because it meant he would have fewer troops to launch attacks. In this case he was concerned that if he extended his front his would not be able to launch an attack in Flanders during 1918. But, with the pressure from both the French and little assistance coming from his own government Haig was forced to agree. However, instead of moving too many troops south he just told General Gough, commander of the 5th army, which we will be discussing in much greater length later, to just stretch out his army to gover the new area. This would make the army very weak if the Germans decided to launch an attack in that area, but surely they would never do that, right? The good side of this line extension was that it allowed Petain to shift up to 6 divisions into reserve.
Along with the British manning this new area of the front another huge topic of discussion both at the War Council meeting and then for most of early 1918 was the topic of a General Reserve. Throughout both the meeting on January 24th between the armies and the War Council meeting there were discussions about creating a general reserve where both Haig and Petain would contribue divisions that could be sent wherever they were needed. If they agreed on nothing else, both Haig and Petain agreed in the strongest posssible way, that they hated this idea. During the War Council meeting Lloyd George, having already discussed this step with Clemenceau and the French, nominated Foch as the chairman of an executive committee to create the new reserve. This did not do much to get the effort moving forward though. Petain and Haig were still entirely against it. To be clear neither general was necessarily against helping the other, they both understood that the other army was important, but they were just concerned about losing control of those troops. In fact, Haig and Petain had gotten together and worked out their own agreement, resulting in an agreement to send up to 6 divisions to help the other if they were attacked. They believed that this agreement was totally sufficient and there was no need to get the politicians involved. They were probably was, and as it was, when the Germans attacked on March 21 and the British 5th Army started to fall apart Petain would start sending French troops north to assist almost instantly and this quick response would be critical to keeping the front from collapsing entirely.
One item that we have not discussed is the change in French political leadership that would happen in late 1917. Painleve’s government, which had been in power for several years, would fall on November 13th due to several contributing factors, one of whih was the trip of the French delegation to the Socialist conference in Stockholm in September. Painleve would be replaced by Clmenceau who was fresh off of a stint as a member of the Chamber of Deputies’ Army Committee, and because of this he was familiar with the situation in the war which made for a quick and easy transfer of power. Clemenceau would spend a good amount of his time visiting French army units and generally just being as involved as possible in the military situation. When he had come into power he had promised a redoubling of the French war effort at the front, politically, and industrially. During 1918 the French would pursue new and larger goals in their manufacturing including in aircraft production where they aimed to have 4,000 active aircraft at the front. They would also greatly increase their tank production especially of the first light tank to make it to the front the Renault FT-17 which had started trials in Spring 1917. There would be over 3,000 of these small tanks created before the end of the war. The French also shifted to more of a support role to their allies, a position that they would maintain until the armistice. The British would benefit from some areas of French industry, like the production of aircraft engines, but the Americans would be the biggest benefactors. Huge quantities of manufactured goods and weapons would go to the new American Expeditionary Force instead of to French units. Speaking of the Americans, they would begin to arrive in mid-1917 and throughout the next year and a half they would be very cooperative with the French. Interestingly enough part of the reason was due to Joffre. Joffre, after being removed as the commander of all French armies, had been appointed the French representative to liaise with the Americans. He would constantly warn the French against insisting on bringing American men into French units since he knew that the Americans would never agree. In this way, while the British kept hounding Pershing and the Americans, the French took a more palatable stance. When this was combined with their ability to supply American units their influence with the AEF continued to grow. This would eventually result in the Americans taking over part of the French lines, starting in Lorraine.
We shift now back to the north and the British area of the front, since they would be the target of the first German attack. At the start of the year Haig realized that he was short of men, and not just fighting men, but also labor troops. He would tell the Cabinet that “The whole difficulty presented to him was one of labour.” He had to somehow rest and train his current and future soldiers while also finding the manpoer to build defenses. Due to the lack of men he had to make choices about where to put his effort and reserves. He would decide that Flanders was the priority. While this would set the British army up precisely how the Germans wanted them for Operation Michael, it was not the wrong move. In Flanders the British were pretty close to the sea and if they were pushed out of the area they would lose the ports that provided their largest links back home. If the Germans attacked in Arras they could cut the army in two, which was just as bad. However, in the far south of the British front there was ground that could be given away if needed. Hundreds of square kilometers with nothing truly important within them. While his troop dispositions would be wrong, Haig did misjudge how fast the Germans would advance and how quickly his army would fall apart, but his overall theory was not incorrect.
It was also not a guarantee that the Germans would attack the 5th army, not matter how weak it was, and there was the possibility of attacks all along the British front. If you remember last episode the Germans had three possible attacks that they considered launching against the British front, in Flanders, Arras, and Picardy. The British knew that all of these were possible. Having so many avenues for an attack may not have been as much of a problem if the British had spent more time on their defenses. In many areas of the Front they had held onto their positions just as long as the Germans, but the British lines were not nearly as imposing as the German defenses. This was all about priorities, and the belief by the British that these positions had always been temporary while waiting for the next attack to take place. If their defenses had been up to snuff the shortage of soldiers and laborers may not have been felt so sharply but in 1918 they found themselves trying to play catchup since early in the year it became apparent that the German army would attack somewhere, and at the very least they would have the initiative on the Western Front for many months at the start of the year.
To try and sort out some of the manpower problems the British decided to reorganize their army, which would eventually result in the disbanded divisions I mentioned earlier, however the specifics of how they reorgnized are important. In general the divisions that they disbanded were not entire divisions, instead divisions all along the front were reorganized to be closer to what the French and Germans were doing at this point in the war. This meant that divisions went from having three brigades, each with four battalions to three brigades each made up of 3 battalions. This resulted in the removal of about 145 battalions from the British Order of battle. This caused some administrative problems and required rethinking of some basic systems that had been in place for years, like the rotation of troops in and out of the line which had been done on a battalion level for years. It also resulted in the Fifth Army being weaker. Just like in other areas of the front the Fifth army disbanded its battalions, but in several cases the resulting manpower was actually sent north, making the 5th army even smaller than before. The reorganization would not be complete until early March, which meant that the British were still getting used to the new force structure when the Germans attacked.
The Fifth Army, by far the most important army during the first part of our story here, was commanded by General Gough. Gough did not have the greatest command record, having played a roll in the failures at Third Ypres and Lloyd George had even tried to get him removed from command, but Haig protected him. He made it very clear that he was concerned about the weakness of his army even before the front was extended. After the extension his front measured about 42 miles and he had roughly 14 divisions to cover that distance. I realize that this means nothing to anybody, including me, so lets look at a comparison. To Gough’s north there were two armies that each had 16 divisions, and they were covering a front of 61 miles, combined. So Gough had fewer troops and a third more front than the other British armies. On top of this, most of his troops had been in the fighting at Passchendale and had been moved south as a way to rest them, not exactly the type of units you want to meet a large enemy attack. In many ways it is hard to see that the failure during Operation Michael was his fault. In some ways it might have been better for him if Haig had not protected him and he had been removed. He would end up getting most of the blame for the coming British collapse, I personally think it was an unwinnable situation. Gough had been given some permission to retire from Haig, who had told him that it was just important that he conduct a fighting retreat. Giving ground was not too much of a problem. now might be as good of a time as any, since we are talking about senior commanders, to talk about how much they actually mattered to the soldiersin the front lines. It is somewhat humours that while Army commanders play such a role in the story of the war, on all sides, to the troops in the trenches they probably mattered not at all. This was especially true late in the war when divisions were shifted all along the front constantly being reassigned to different corps or armies. Here is Martin Middlebrook from his book The Kaiser’s Battle “Infantry divisions came and went, sometimes frequently if operations were intensive. Because of this, front-line soldiers were rarely conscious of being members of a corps, still less of an army, and these senior commanders, Byng and Gough, were virtually unknown; at best they were mere shadows to the trench soldiers.” I bring up this subject not because i have some real huge earthshattering new perspective but just because I find it interesting that the shorthand many people have developed to discuss actions during the war are based on these army commanders instead of necessarily actual army names, and those commanders may have been unknown to the people involved.
Much like the rest of the British army the Fifth Army had some problems getting their defenses in order. Creating defenses took time and a lot of effort and while they might have looked good when drawn on a map they were completely worthless until they were actually created. The British official history says that the Fifth Army had about 40,000 labor troops by March 1918 but most of these were not working on actual defenses but were instead focused on building and improving roads and railways which were just as critical to keeping an army in the field. This meant that the main line of British defenses were not complete, especially in the areas where they had just taken over part of the line. This was true of the Forward and Battle Zones, but especially for the reserve lines which were often times just lines on a map, sometimes with some light digging done, sometimes with nothing. There was also some issues with the British defensive doctrine. AFter their experiences against the German elastic defense of 1917 the British had attempted to do something similar, but the British version was something of a pale imitation. There would be a lightly held Forward Zone, but troops there would still say and fight instead of falling back, then that was followed up by the Battle zone which the troops were expected to hold at all costs. So really not much different than previous efforts except for the fact that there were troops in the very front that were basically just sacrificial lambs. This simple defensive strategy put the British behind even the French, at least officially. Earlier in the year Petain had issued Directive No. 4 which brought the idea of flexibility into the French defenses. Petain had some problems getting his army to actually follow it though. Even the thought of giving up French ground voluntarily was seen as heresy by many French commanders, and in many cases they purposefully ignored Petain’s advice. For the British their alterations to their defensive strategy would be a difficult shift that was never fully figured out and implemented.
As is tradition on the podcast, it is now time to talk about what the defending army knew about the upcoming attack. As I have mentioned before, both Petain and Haig thought that the Germans would attack at some point. Part of this reasoning was due to figuring out which troops and commanders were moving where on the Western Front. Here is another quote from Martin Middlebrook about one of the ways that the British determined which commanders were on the other side of the line “Haig’s Intelligence section had been trying to establish the German intentions for many weeks. The first hint had come as early as 5 January, when two letters of sympathy signed by General von Hutier appeared in German local newspapers. This was the first sign that this well-known general had arrived from the Eastern Front. The letters were to the families of a senior officer, known by the British to have died on the St Quentin front, and of a young airmen who had died when his plane crashed in the Fifth Army’s area.” By early March they knew it was probably going to happen soon, there were constant movements behind the German front and commanders like General von Below, the German commander who had led the effort at Caporetto was known to have arrived. All of these bits of information pointed to an attack, but it was still difficult to pinpoint exactly when and where. Interestingly enough, neither Haig or Petain really expected Gough’s Fifth Army to be the target of the upcoming effort. The German deceptive efforts, where all along the front they had their armies make a bit of a show out of preparing for a future attack were at least partially successful. In this way the indecisiveness of Ludendorff and the German leadership actually was a benefit since it created a lot of preparation for attacks that did not actually happen, which greatly confused the entire situation for the British and French. This confusion resulted in Petain believing that the Germans would attack the French army while Haig believed that the attack was coming in Flanders, perhaps mirroring his own obsession with the area. On March 12th the French noted that the Germans had changed their telegraph codes, a step usually taken before an attack to ensure communication security. The attack was coming soon.