The German focus shifts north, and Georgette is launched in Flanders.
Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War episode 163. Last episode we wrapped up our story of Operation Michael, the first of what would eventually be 5 German offensives in spring and summer 1918. This episode we continue past Operation Michael and to do so we will split the episode into two pieces. The first of these will discuss the end of Michael and the preparations for Operation Georgette, the second German attack. The second part of the episode will be covering the events of Georgette. An important thing to remember when thinking about Michael and Georgette is how close together they were from a timeline perspective. Michael would officially wrap up on April 5th and Georgette would begin on April 12th. This was a really fast turnaround, even when you consider the fact that troops had been moving north for the effort since March 22nd.
Michael had been much more costly than the Germans had expected, the original plan had been to move over 30 assault divisions north to take part in the attack in Flanders once Michael was complete, but on April 12th there would only be 11 available. This would result in vast alterations to the original Operation George, which would be renamed to Georgette. It probably would have been wise for the Germans to reconsider their entire plan at this point, they had launched their first attack and it had not gone completely according to plan. However, even though the Germans were in their best position in the west since 1914, negotiations were still not an option, the Allied leaders just were not beaten down enough yet, and so the only option for the German army was to try again.
On the Allied side there were reactions though, and one of the biggest stories of spring and summer 1918 was the rise of Foch and the continued increase in his power and authority over all Allied armies. A big step in this story occurred on April 3rd. It was on that day that there was a meeting of all of the major politicians and Generals from the French, British, and American armies. At this meeting Foch would say that if he was to fulfill the objectives set forth for him at the earlier meeting he was going to need more power. If you remember, at that time Foch had been given the authority to coordinate the various armies, but now he wanted the power to initiate, plan, and direct operations. This would make him, truly, the commander of all of the armies. There was generally unanimous agreement from thosepresent that this was needed, although Haig was far less enthusiastic than he had been the week before since it appeared that the point of greatest danger for the British had now passed. With the agreement at the April 3rd meeting, for the first time, there would be a single person who could direct the war effort along the entirety of the Western Front. This also included American units. Up until this point Pershing and the Americans had constantly been fighting to keep their army together, but they had eventually been convinced that it was necessary to move some large American formations into the Entente Armies. This meant thta American Divisions and Corps would maintain their commanders and their American officers but they could be placed into French armies where they would take order from French commanders. This was an important step to getting the Americans really into the war, instead of just endlessly preparing for action.
While Foch has played a small role in our story up to this point, now that he has fully risen to prominence we should probably take a bit to review his views on the conflict and his future plans. Foch had started the war firmly ensconced in the French offensive school of warfare, and he never really shifted from that mindset. He would constantly push for more attacked when he had commanded first a Corps, then an Army, then an Army Group. However, after the Battle of the Somme, where he had commanded the French troops, Foch had been moved to first to Italy and then through a series of administrative posts. He was good with the politicians which greatly helped his eventual rise to command in 1918. One of Foch’s viewponits which separated him from some of his contemporaries was his views on the goal of all of the fighting. Sure, he wanted Germany defeated like everybody else, but he did not believe that unconditional surrender was required, and in fact should not be pursued at all since it would continue the fighting far longer than was necessary. He would tell Edward House, and emissary from the United States, that “I am not waging war for the sake of waging war. If I obtain through an armistice the conditions we wish to impose on Germany, I am satisfied. Once this object is attained, nobody has the right to shed one more drop of blood.” During the Versailles negotiations Foch would be a constant advocate for very specific pieces of the treaty, especially disarmament and the usage of the Rhineland as a buffer zone between Germany and France. After he was given more power on April 3 one of his first moves was to strip the southern end of the French front of reserves. American units were brought in to take up some of the slack, especially in the south where no action was expected. This allowed more French units to be brought north in anticipation of either meeting more German attacks or, if Foch had his way, launching Allied offensives.
It is difficult to discuss Foch’s ideas and his leadership without discussing his relationship with Petain. To put it simply, the two Frenchmen would never really get along very well. they disagreed heavily on the best way to fight the war, the best way to win it, and in early April 1918 they also disagreed on what they believed would happen next. Petain was still convinced that the Germans were planning an attack to the east of Paris, with the goal of capturing the city. Foch disagreed and believed that the next German attack would come in the north. In reality, they were both right, in a way. The next German attack would be in Flanders, but then they would launch one in the south. Even though both of them were correct in this instance, there would still continue to be friction between the two highest ranking French officers for the rest of the war.
I have mentioned the Americans a few times now and the American Expeditionary Force was in an interesting position when the Germans attacked on March 21st. There was a huge number of American troops in Europe, around a quarter of a million men. However, even at the points of greatest crisis during Operation Michael they were not involved in the fighting, which was a bit frustrating for the British and French. The key to the entire situation was that Pershing had been insisting for almost a year that American troops would only fight under American commanders in an American army, it was a matter of national prestige that this be the case and it was non-negotiable. Then when the Supreme War Council was originally created the Americans had specifically not sent a military representative but instead a political one. This was done to keep it clear that America was not a member of the British and French Alliance and was simply an associated power. While Pershing continued to keep his distance from even the suggestion that the American troops be moved into the other armies, he would eventually come around. It was clear that the British and French were in a tight spot and so in a late March meeting Pershing would say to Petain that “I have come to tell you, that the American people would consider it a great honor for our troops to be engaged in the present battle. I ask you for this in their name and my own. At this moment there are no other questions but of fighting. Infantry, artillery, aviation, all that we have is yours. Use them as you wish. More will come, in numbers equal to the requirements.” This would then lead to Pershing voluntarily agreeing that Foch’s authority extend to American troops at the April third meeting, which meant that the American Expeditionary Force was really in the war.
While the Americans were in the war, they would not be involved in the next German attack. When looking at their next attack the Germans were going to have to try and replicate the situation from March 21st that had allowed them to be as successful as they had been. These specific conditions would be challenging to recreate as shown by the attack on March 28th. During these attacks, which were a scaled down version of the originally planned Operation Mars, the Germans had launched an attack by 29 divisions after a well prepared artillery bombardment. However, the barrage had been less effective and the fog that had been so helpful during Michael were absent. On top of these problems they were also attacking far better defenses and when the infatnry went forward they did not produce the expected results. The March 28th attack would be more indicative of what the Germans could expect to experience on other areas of the front as they moved their attacks up and down the line, and it was not a good sign. While this was a worrying trend up at the front, another one was happening back at German High Command. It was around this time that Ludendorff started a sprial that would continue until he would be dismissed from command. This spiral would revolve around a fixation on the growing American army, and the need to push faster and harder to end the war before it was fully available. Then once it was impossible for the German army to attack in the West the spiral would send him into a deep depression and ever greater desperation, an important part of our story later this year.
But, back to Georgette, or as it was originally known, Operation George. The original plan for George was to shift from Michael to Flander and then launch two attacks, George One and George Two. If you remember, these attacks had been considered as an alternative to Michael, but the ground in Flanders would be too wet that early in the year. After Michael became the first attack the George attack changed into two attacks both involved 30 divisions or more. These would hit the British while their reserves were down in the south, and it would hopefully knock the British back into the sea. Before Michael was complete German troops and guns were already moving north, and when that attack came to an end Ludendorff set George in motion, but now it was different. Instead of thirty or more assault divisions the German Army only had about 11 to throw into this attack, and that meant the plans had to change in a pretty drastic way, it had to get a lot smaller. This meant instead of two large attacks there would just be one, and it would be much smaller, and the name would be changed to Georgette. Even though the attack would be smaller, Ludendorff was convinced that it had to happen soon, before the British could recover, so he accepted the reduced resources and objectives to allow for the attack to kick off as quickly as possible. Of note here, as always the names for this battle are a complete mess, everybody calls it something different. For the French it would be the Third Battle of Flanders, for the British the Battle of Lys, and the official name from the German side was the Fourth Battle of Flanders.
The attack would take place to the south of the Ypres salient, on a front narrower than during Operation Michael, with the main objective being the city of Hazebrouck. This was the most important rail junction on the northen side of the British front, similar to the importance of Amiens in the south. If it could be captured then the British supply situation all along the front would be heavily impacted. The attack would be executed by the Fourth and Sixth armies with a combined total of 28 divisions. Many of of these divisions had already participated in Michael, which meant they were not completely fresh. Bruchmuller had been brought north to the Sixth Army to prepare the artillery but here he would have just 9 days to prepare for the attack, unlike the 7 weeks before Michael. There was also less artillery this time, with about 2000 guns, about half of which were heavy. Because of the lower number of guns both armies would not be attacking at the same time, instead they would attack at two different times. The Sixth Army would launch their attack on April 9th while the 4th army would go forward the next day, after the guns had been repositioned. While there were some problems for the Germans to overcome, they did still greatly outnumber the British forces, as there would be just 8 divisions. To make matters worse, 5 of the 6 British divisions in the front line had been involved with Michael and were not fully back up to strength. Then there was the Portuguese Division. Portugal had entered the war in 1916 and had sent two division to the Western Front. Since that time the government in Portugal had changed, to one far less supportive of the country being int he war, and so the Portuguese divsions were not well supplied, or well supported, and in fact the 1st Division had already been pulled out of the line, and the 2nd division was scheduled to do the same shortly after the attack was scheduled to begin. The British were so weak in this area because this sector had been pretty quiet for almost the entire war and had been seen as a good place for divisions to be sent while they recuperated, or in this case a good place for token divisions from allies to be sent so they could take part in the war. The British did know that there were German troops moving north after Michael but they assumed that the attack would come in a different location, either to the north around Ypres or two the south near Vimy Ridge.
The attack would begin at 4:15AM on April 9th with 9 Divisions attacking on an 11 mile front. They were once again gifted with the presence of heavy fog. The artillery fire would fall the hardest right on the Portuguese troops who were already looking for their relief. When the fire came down these troops broke and ran, and when the German attack began the advance would experience little resistance. Throughout the dy the advance would continue until they had advanced over 5 miles on a front of 10 miles. Haig would once again to the French and ask for assistance, he also started moving the Second Army, fresh from their tour in Italy and under the command of General Plumer, towards the attack to try and stem the tide. On the next day the German 4th Army would attack, again under the cover of fog, and again a German attack resulted in a steady advance. Now the two German armies were advancing, and on the second day they would take over 11,000 prisoners. Once again a German attack was off to a good start.
It was in these circumstances that Haig would issue what is almost certainly his most famous order. It would go on to inform the name of many books on the topic, and is generally widely quoted. The order would say “Many amongst us are now tired. To those I would say that Victory will belong to the side which holds out the longest. The French Army is moving rapidly and in great force to our support. 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 and believing in the justice of our cause each one of us must fight on to the end. The safety of our homes and the Freedom of mankind alike depend upon the conduct of each one of us at this critical moment.” While the order is a great read, and just recording it now it definitely has a good effect it was almost universally derided at the front. Soldiers, from the lowliest private to General Plumer knew that holding every position was almost certainly not the best course of action, and Haig knew it as well. But the order played well back on the homefront, which was always important. In reality Haig was fully aware that his army had all kinds of options available to it but manufacturing a narrative of great danger was good way to make a possible British victory an even larger one.
On April 12th the attack would continue with both armies continuing the advance, then for the next several days they would do much the same. After Plumer arrived he would begin to pull troops back all along the area of the attack. His concern was that if the line was broken then certain positions would be very vulnerable to encirclement, the most critical of these areas were to the north, and they included almost all of the gains made by the British in the long and costly Third Battle of Ypres. All of the ground gained during that attack near the tip of the Ypres salient was even now being abandoned, and the first to go was the areas in front of Passchendaele that so much blood had been spent trying to capture in the last weeks of the attack. The concern for these positions was that they could be cut off from the south, and so the British defenses were brought back very close to Ypres itself so the city could be evacuated quickly. It also had the side benefit of freeing up some British units that could be moved south to assist in the defense. French troops would also begin to arrive during this period of the attack. Haig had gotten more French troops by agreeing to send tired British divisions to the south to help cover quiet sectors on the French area of the front. This was another important step in getting the two armies properly intermingled. Even though the French were sending troops, they would arrive after the point of greatest danger. The German attacks were already running into the same problems as they had during Michael, although on a smaller scale. The biggest problem was once again supplies. In this area there were not very many roads, and those that were present all ran north and south, not east and west like the Germans required. This meant that supplies were hard to come by for the forward units, which made them more likely to stop the attack to partake in captured goods. All these difficulties, and the increasing resistance from the growning number of British and French troops caused the attack to grind to a halt on April 19th, without the capture of any important areas like Hazebrouck.
While the main Georgette attacks were at an end, various smaller attacks along the front continued, I am going to focus on just two of these that were made in the last weeks of April, one in the south near Amiens and another in the north in the Georgette salient. There were numerous small attacks like these two, but for our story these are the two most immportant. In the south, even though most of the excess German troops had already moved north, they would launch an attack with 9 divisions against Amiens on April 24th. The goal was the capture the high ground around Villers-Bretonneux which would give the Germans the ability to bombard Amiens more directly and it would also give more security to the German troops in the south. This attack would be one of the first German attacks to feature their A7V tanks ,these huge vehicles, with a crew of 18, were never available in great numbers but there would be 13 used in this attack. They would have some initial success, and the Germans were able to make a good initial push, even capturing the village of Villers-Bretonneux itself and some of its surroundings. However, British tanks and guns arrived to neutralize the German tanks and then an Australian counter attack would be launched later in the day, resulting in the Germans losing most of their gains.
In the north another operation was launched, this time with the goal of capturing Mont Kemmel. Mont Kemmel was a hill that rose just over 300 feet over the Flanders plain. It had good observation of the surrounding area and as such was an improtant position. French troops had just taken over its defense from the British and the French were even preparing to launch an attack against the nearby German positions. As the attack was preparing on April 25th it ran directly into the pre-attack bombardment from the Germans. With such a start it was unsurprising when the Germans were able to capture the summit of Mont Kemmel in just a few hours. But then the Germans, just stopped. The way was open to the next set of hills, which were just as important as Kemmel itself, but the German orders were explicit that they were to stop and wait for further orders once they captured Kemmel. This was a change, but it was an effort by Ludendorff and the German commanders to prevent their troops from advancing too far and then just getting counter attacked back to where they started. In this case, it greatly reduced possible German successes because while the German troops were milling around on Kemmel for most of the day the British and French were rushing troops to the defenses beyond, and when the Germans finally did try to attack again they were stopped. There would be a few more attacks in Flanders before April was over, but they would be even less successful than at Kemmel.
When Georgette and the other attacks in Flanders had ended the Germans once again found themselves in possession of a good amount of territory, but not much else. Just like the south where the Germans had been stopped just short of Amiens in the north the Germans had been stopped just a few miles short of Hazebrouck. In the month since MIchael they had suffered another 326,000 casualties, with the British suffering 260,000 and the French 107,000. The Germans had also extended their lines oncce again, and while the Allies also had to man these new areas, they were able to shift troops around the front to make up for the shortages, especially with American troops now available. One area that would become weaker with all of these movements was on the French area on the front. The Germans noted that with so many French troops now in the north the French had to be weaker in the south. This resulted in Ludendorff ordering Crown Prince Wilhelm to prepare for an attack in Champagne. While the next attack would be launched, and we will cover the attack next episode, the German army was now at the point where it would never be the same again. And it was no longer just a physical problem, or a numberical problem, it was becoming a mental problem, and I will let Colonel Thaer of the IX Reserve CCorps explain “They had too much hope that this great blow in March would end the war. Thereupon, they had once more summoned together all their courage and all their energy. Now the disappointment is here, and it is great.”