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Thursday, November 11, 2004
a satire of circumstance: 1918
the next major event was a shocking reversal. during the last half of 1917 the germans had been quietly shifting their eastern forces to the western front. their armistice with the bolsheviks gave them the opportunity of increasing their western forces by 30 per cent. at 4:30 on the morning of march 21, 1918, they struck in the somme area, and on a forty-mile front. it was a stunning victory. the british lost 150,000 men almost immediately, 90,000 as prisoners; and the total british casualties rose to 300,000 within the next six days. the germans plunged forty miles into the british rear.
the impact of the crisis on the home-front morale can be inferred from london newspaper reaction. the following it typical:
WHAT CAN I DO? -- How the Civilian May Help in This Crisis.
Write encouragingly to friends at the front.
Don't repeat foolish gossip.
Don't listen to idle rumors.
Don't think you know better than Haig.
haig, back-pedaling, felt sufficiently threatened to issue on april 12 his famous "backs to the wall" order of the day. this registered the insecurity of the british position in some very rigid and unencouraging terms: "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 must fight on to the end." in its dogged prohibition of maneuver or indeed of any tactics, this can stand as the model for hitler's later orders for the ultimate defense of positions like el alamein and stalingrad. there are conventions and styles in orders of the day just as for any literary documents.
hardy would have been pleased to know that of this famous order one corporal noted: "we never received it. we to whom it was addressed, the infantry of the front line, were too scattered, too busy trying to survive, to be called into any formation to listen to orders of the day."
during may and june the germans advanced to great effect near the rivers lys and marne. but unwittingly they were engaged in demonstrating the most ironic point of all, namely, that successful attack ruins troops. in this way it is just like defeat. this is a way of reiterating blunden's point that it is the war that wins. the spectacular german advance finally stopped largely for this reason: the attackers, deprived of the sight of "consumer goods" by years of efficient allied blockade, slowed down and finally halted to loot, get drunk, sleep it off and peer about. the champagne cellars of the marne proved especially tempting. the german rudolf binding records what happened when the attack reached albert:
today the advance of our infantry suddenly stopped near albert. nobody could understand why. our airmen had reported no enemy between albert and amiens.... i jumped into a car with orders to find out what was causing the stoppage in front.... as soon as i got near (albert) i began to see curious sights. strange figures, which looked very little like soldiers, and certainly showed no signs of advancing, were making their way back out of town. there were men driving cows before them...; others who carried a hen under one arm and a box of notepaper under the other. men carrying a bottle of wine under their arm and another open in their hand. men who had torn a silk drawing-room curtain from off its rods and were dragging it to the rear.... more men with writing-paper and colored note-books.... men dressed up in comic disguise. men with top-hats on their heads. men staggering. men who could hardly walk.
by midsummer it was apparent that the german army had destroyed itself by attacking successfully. on august 8, designated by ludendorff "the black day of the german army", the allies counterattacked and broke through. in the german rear they found that maneuver was now possible for the first time since autumn 1914. from here to the end their advance was rapid as the german forces fell apart.
the german collapse was assisted by american attacks in september at the st. mihiel salient and between the river meuse and the argonne forest. simultaneously the british were advancing near st. quentin-cambrai and the belgians near ghent. despite exhaustion and depletion on all sides -- half the british infantry were now younger than nineteen -- the end was inevitable. on november 9, 1918, the kaiser having fled, germany declared herself a republic and two days later signed the armistice in the forest of compiegne. the war had cost the central powers three and a half millions men. it had cost the allies over five million.