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Ludendorff’s Last Swing I THE GREAT WAR Week 209

August 25, 2019


He’d been planning for it all spring and
summer, his baby, what all of his offensives had been leading up to, but this week, Ludendorff
cancels his plans. I’m Indy Neidell; welcome to the Great War. Last week saw the beginning of the Second
Battle of the Marne, but the German advance was stalled by the French defense-in-depth
system, and the Allied counterattack, spearheaded by Americans and Senegalese and using some
500 tanks, smashed through the German lines at the end of the week. A German attack on the British in Palestine
failed, the Army of Islam is stalled by dysentery in the Caucasus, and the former Russian Tsar
Nicholas and his family were executed in Yekaterinburg. Here’s what followed. The salient on the Western Front that the
German advance in late May and early June had created was no longer really holdable
by the middle of the week. On the 21st, the Germans abandoned Chateau-Thierry. On the 22nd, they were pushed back nearly
10 km, and again on the 23rd, as British tanks advanced up at the Somme. Still, the action by the Marne was mainly
a French battle, and French General Philippe Petain had followed up last weeks counter
attacks with new attacks on the 20th at the south and east sides of the salient. David Stevenson points out that he committed
50 reserve divisions to this, leaving exactly zero fresh reserves left. But after the 20th, the Allied advance couldn’t
help but slow down, since 1) they were beyond their artillery’s range, and 2) the wooded
countryside they had to cover was dotted with German machine gun nests, 3) they no longer
had the element of surprise, and 4) a lot of their tanks were out of action. In Martin Gilbert I read something German
Chancellor Georg von Hertling wrote about the first few days of the battle, “The Germans
were still expecting to receive peace proposals within two months, with Paris at their mercy. That was on the 15th; on the 18th even the
most optimistic among us knew that all was lost. The history of the world was played out in
three days.” Having said that, when Hertling asked German
Quartermaster General Erich Ludendorff if the German army could ever take the offensive
again, Ludendorff said (Gilbert), “Five times thus far during the war I had to withdraw
my troops, and was still able, at the end, to beat the enemy. Why shouldn’t I succeed a 6th time?” But let’s look at the new situation after
the attacks and counter attacks of last week. In mid March, when the German Offensives were
just about to begin, they had 300,000 more troops on the Western Front than the Allies,
but between then and now a million German soldiers had been killed, wounded, or captured,
and a lot of these were the storm troops, who were not easily replaced. The French and the British had also lost a
million men together, and though the French would have problems replacing theirs, the
Americans were now pouring in at like 250,000 per month. And now they were fighting too. So by this time it was the Allies that had
a few hundred thousands more troops there than the Germans, and that gap was widening
every day. This week, on the 24th, Allied leaders Ferdinand
Foch, Sir Douglas Haig, Petain, and John Pershing met and agreed that they would soon launch
a series of coordinated offensives. Haig’s guys would attack eastward from Amiens,
Petain’s north from the River Marne, and Pershing’s south of Verdun. All of the main objectives were railway lines. On the 25th, the Germans made another desperate
attempt to surround Reims. This was a complete failure, since the German
armies just didn’t have the bite any more, though their retreat was an orderly one, even
with Allied counterattacks. Remember our episodes from September and October
1914? Doesn’t it sorta seem like that all over
again? The Germans reach the Marne, the Germans cross
the Marne, they can’t maintain the pressure and get pushed back, and then they regroup
along the Aisne. Thing is, the German army now faced a stronger
enemy, and a lot more of them, and we’ve talked to the point of boredom about the German
lack of resources or replacement troops. It was a grim situation. But everything wasn’t exactly rosy for the
Allies. G.J. Meyer points out in “A World Undone”
that the end of the German threat to Paris meant the end of any chance for the Clemenceau
government to fall, which meant the end of any chance for a French government that would
seek peace instead of prolonging the war for who knew how long. The French now had combat units that were
entirely made up of men over 40; the British were drafting men of 50 into their army. And look at the map- Germany not only had
basically all of Eastern Europe, they had more of the Western Front than they had just
a few months ago. But Germany had fresh problems. On the 20th, the Flanders offensive that Quartermaster
General Erich Ludendorff had been waiting to launch all summer, Operation Hagen, hit
some hitches. That day, German Command received recommendations
to postpone it for a few days, in light of the ongoing German failures in France. Now, the Battle of Soissons, the Allied counterattack
that began at the end of last week, ended after just four days, but it had cost the
Germans 168,000 casualties to just over 100,000 for the Allies. German General and strategic planner Fritz
von Lossberg recommended now executing Hagen with whatever was available, but as a limited
tactical attack and not a big operational one. He also recommended that after that putting
the whole front on the defensive, with lines further back behind areas that could be flooded. Ludendorff, though, could not bring himself
to give up all the ground gained over the spring and go back into an attritional war
of defense. Still, after the next couple of days, forced
by circumstance in France, Hagen was called off indefinitely. (Meyer), “The Great Flanders Offensive that
was supposed to be the point of everything the Germans had done was overdue and unlikely
to ever take place. Ludendorff himself was in obvious torment… To all the weight of his military problems
was added the fear of what would happen when the German public, still assured daily that
its armies were victorious in the field, awoke to the magnitude of his failure.” So in a general view, all of that force, all
of that fighting, all that the Germans had done in even getting to the Marne was for
nothing. But you know who’d done a whole lot more
travelling? The Czechoslovak Legion. On the 24th, Legionnaires reached the Volga
River and now held a neatly 5,000km line from the Volga to the Pacific. The next day they reached Yekaterinburg, where
the Tsar and his family were recently murdered. At the end of the week in the north, French
troops added their numbers to the British at Murmansk, so if you look at the big picture,
including the Germans holding the formerly Russian shores of the Black Sea, the Bolsheviks
were now struggling just to hold power in the center. And here are a couple notes to end the week. On the 22nd- Ernst Seidler von Feuchtenegg
resigns as Austrian Minister-President, succeeded by Dr. Maximilian Hussarek von Heinlein. On the 25th, British aircraft dropped 300
tons of bombs behind the German lines near Amiens, but the following day, the top scoring
British flying ace of the war, with 72 kills, though only 61 officially, Edward “Mick”
Mannock, met his fate. He shot down his 73rd plane, but after that
disregarded his own rule and flew low over the wreckage, and into a storm of German small
arms fire. As he and his New Zealander wingman flew away,
the wingman saw a blue flame spout from Mannock’s engine cowling. Them the left wing of Mannock’s plane broke
off and he plunged to his death. Interestingly enough, it was really unlikely
that Mannock should’ve ever been in the skies in the first place. When the war broke out, he had been in Turkey
laying telephone cables, and being British, he was imprisoned. After a failed escape attempt, he was put
in solitary and then contracted dysentery. The American consulate got his release, but
when he tried to enlist back in Britain he was at first classified as “unfit for military
duty”. It would not be until late 1916 that he qualified
as a pilot. And the week comes to an end, with the Allies
still gaining ground in the west, and making plans for new offensives, even as the Germans
are forced to cancel theirs, and the Bolsheviks, who are not even fighting this war, find themselves
surrounded by its participants. It’s been exactly four months since Operation
Michael began the German Spring Offensives and the Germans have lost a million men. And the Allies have lost a million men. Two million men in four months – one third
of one year. And you think, that can’t be sustainable,
I mean, how long can that go on? And then you realize that next week, it’ll
be four YEARS its been going on, and that’s just par for the course, and there’s still
no end in sight. If you want to learn more about the German
Spring Offensive 1918 and how it all started, you can click right here for our weekly episode
about that. Our Patreon supporter of the week is Patrick
McColgan. Please support us on Patreon if you want better
maps and more animations for our show. Don’t forget to subscribe, see you next
time.

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