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Podcast 45: The Beginning Of The End

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But it was a morning of victory. You could feel the hair prickling up your spine with the excitement because we knew that that was going to be the end of the war…

By the summer of 1918, the German offensives on the Western Front had stalled. The Allies suffered greatly in these attacks – but held on. By August, they were ready to launch an offensive of their own. Keith Officer worked with Lieutenant-General Sir John Monash, Commander of the Australian Corps, to plan their part in its opening stage.

He then told me his plan. How that there was to be… the two divisions were to continue to hold the line and to make the first advance on the morning of the 8th of August; two other divisions were then to leapfrog over them; and then the 5th the 1st Australian division which had just – if I remember rightly – recently joined us, was to go right through and put out a line ahead. There was to be no preliminary bombardment for days beforehand; there was to be a short sharp barrage just before the battle. And we were to have practically unlimited tanks, for those days, and that a cavalry division were to be waiting behind us to follow up success if we attained it. And he said, of course, I was to tell nobody, I was to consult nobody and that I’d better invent some excuse. I remember he said, ‘You can tell any lie you like and I’ll support you.’

The offensive was planned in great secrecy. William Davies of the Machine Gun Corps described what he noticed of the preparations.

Then of course it became apparent that other divisions’ infantry had joined ours, just behind the line. And of course Oldsmith said, ‘Oh that means that there’s something coming off.’ When they, before an advance all the divisions’ infantry… not every division was in the line at once, as you can gather: some were in support; some were in reserve. And the artillery thickened up without necessarily carrying out any bombardment or anything. Although I do believe that we had to… our officer was very keen on any shelling that we had at night, or even in the daytime, to try and observe from whence it came. And they did say that that was passed back and headquarters were making a note of every German battery or whatever.

The Allies had learned many lessons from previous Western Front campaigns. This new attack would combine surprise, flexibility and all the new weapons and tactics that had been developed. Murray Rymer-Jones of the Royal Field Artillery remembered the shift in tactical planning.

Well we did all right things for a change. We’d fought a war over the years where we let them know we were coming and in this case we’d learnt to hide our attacks. And this was funnily enough everywhere that we changed our methods and disguising the attack; moving at night from one place to another, so we weren’t where we were expected and then putting in your strong attack and going right through.

In the early hours of 8 August, the Allies launched their attack against the German lines near Amiens. It started with a sudden, devastating artillery barrage. The infantry followed it up, advancing through thick mist. British private William Gillman took part in the assault that day.

We went a very good distance, considering we were all on foot: there was no transport, everything you did was foot slogged. And you went until you got an order to stop and you might take one or two lines of Gerry. It all depended on what the resistance was, you see. We were still belting them: our artillery was still going over, you know and it was hell, you know. You couldn’t hear yourself speak and shells were exploding all round you and there was smoke and shouting and hollering and all this kind of thing, you know. And it was a real good old battle, really. It got hold of you, sort of. You just knew that you’d got to get on and you were making advances, instead of sitting on your backside in the trench, you know, waiting for something to happen. There was a certain amount of excitement in this that removed fear. We cleared the lot in front of us. You would get machine-gun posts that could hold you up for perhaps an hour or two. And you got to hand it to them that they put up a resistance and a line there that was very, very difficult. And I think our people realised it. It took all that we’d got and that they produced to shift it. Which we did, eventually. Because from then on it was advance. From then on it was always advance.

The Germans were completely taken by surprise, and the advancing Allied troops were able to make significant gains. But there were still pockets of fierce German resistance that inflicted losses on the attacking troops. Royal Fusiliers officer Jim Davies was wounded in the battle.

I’d been going forward I suppose about 10 minutes when I got it. This machine gun got me through both legs I went down and the bloke next to me was killed. He was one of my men and I couldn’t see who he was because he was lying about four feet away from me. I realised then what I’d got and I put a tourniquet on: took my scarf off; put it round my left leg and my pistol through and tightened up. I was lying there, it was daybreak. I couldn’t move at all and then there was a sergeant and about four Fusiliers appeared. Told them to move me into a shell hole because there were bullets – I had been wounded again, I’d had another piece of shrapnel through the knee while I was lying out there, two or three hours afterwards, from a shell. And I wanted to be moved into a shell hole. I was past commanding anything then, so I said, ‘Move me into a shell hole.’

As part of the new all-arms battle, tanks were used to great effect at Amiens. They were able to crush German defences and clear a path for the infantry. Ralph Cooney was an officer in the Tank Corps.

We had then the experience of Cambrai we knew that we were going to do it properly and that was all our training was. We knew that we would be used as an attack of surprise without any artillery preparation, so that the going would be good and we could make lots of headway and we weren’t going to be fouled up horrors like we were in the early days. And that we would also be supported by adequate forces of the other arms – and we were. And the thing was an immense success from the start. I was commanding a section of tanks and they went over on the 8th of August in the initial attack. We went over at zero hour and everything went according to plan. We had no troubles or difficulties and we went to our objective and we reached it without any absurd incident. We just motored straight through and attacked such enemy as we found and saw them off and the infantry came along and in due course occupied the line. And in due course, two cavalry divisions went through and as far as we were concerned the day’s battle was over. We got a couple of cavalry horses and went off to see the fun!

Norman Dillon explained how the tanks were able to deal with the German’s deadly barbed wire defences.

The anchors were only used after the battle to clear the way for other troops to get through. You could walk through the barbed wire after the tanks on the track marks where the tanks left by them. Although there would be six to eight inches or more of solid barbed wire under where the track had been, which shows how thick it was. It was all flattened completely down and you could walk on it like a road, but you couldn’t take animals over it very well and you couldn’t take wheeled transport over it. So what they did was to get two tanks together, to go into the wire, drop their anchors and drive away from each other. And the wire would roll out into an enormous ball and clean the ground as clean as a whistle.

Allied forces advanced 7 miles on 8 August. They also dealt a huge psychological blow. German general Erich Ludendorff called it ‘the black day of the German army.’ Australian officer S Evers remembered the buoyant mood of the Allied forces that day.

The tanks were going forward and taking position after position, the infantry following up behind and even though the Germans brought their artillery up out of their pits, it was of no avail that the Australians got all round them. While this was taking place the Horse Artillery, with the howitzers and the 18-pounders, galloped into action. The horses would be turned round, the guns turned round and then pipped off their different amounts of fire there and limbered up again. In the meantime the German prisoners were coming up and I saw one Australian private actually prodding the rear of a German brigadier, much to the amusement of everybody else at the time. But it was a morning of victory. You could feel the hair prickling up your spine with the excitement because we knew that that was going to be the end of the war.

Around 12,000 German prisoners were captured on 8 August. Walter Grover of the Sussex Regiment recalled the demoralised state of the POWs he saw.

The Germans were beginning to realise now the number was up and they gave themselves up quite a lot. I remember one party came over with their hands up, there must’ve been about 40 or 50 of them came over with their hands up. That was on August the 8th. I think they called that the black day of the German army that was. They were just giving themselves up ad lib, you know. They made a bit of resistance for a start but not for long, not like they did in 1916. They weren’t a very – the lot I saw were a very bedraggled-looking lot, you know. All sorts, not like the big hefty fellows that we saw on the Somme, the Bavarians you know, six feet or so, odd. These were small, like the scrapings of the barrel I should think they were. You felt like we were just kingpins when the Germans were coming over with their hands up and surrendering.

Fighting continued for the next three days. William Tobey of the Lancashire Fusiliers described the busy, chaotic scenes near the front line on 10 August.

We were carried towards front in lorries and then the traffic on this Amiens-Roye road, which is where we were advancing along, was so terrific. Coming back from the front in all the thousands of prisoners that were being marched back and the ambulances, captured guns, wounded etc. etc. that we couldn’t advance any further in our lorries. We got out and we started to march in columns of four and we found that that was quite impracticable. We had to march in single file with many halts, filtering through the oncoming traffic. And this took us a great deal longer to get to the front than had been anticipated.

After the stunning success of the opening day, the Allied momentum began to slow down. The attack was called off after 4 days in order to regroup and prepare for the next assault. The new phase began on 21 August, this time centred around Albert. Harry Smith of the Royal Field Artillery described his role in the battle.

Well the bombardment lasted about two and a half hours to three hours. And during this period there was over 400 shells per gun, six guns fired well over 2,000 shells – between 2,000 and 3,000 shells – for the six guns. Of course, they were firing all the time and occasionally some of the breaches overheated. I had to oil them and ease them as best I could so that the shells could be fired. It didn’t take long but it was only occasionally, an odd one or two. There was one occasion one shell stuck and I had to get it out. I had a long stick with a rubber end and it’s a very difficult job but of course when you’re young enough there’s no trembling hands or anything like that, you can do the job and… Confidence – you needed confidence to do it. If you hit the right spot you were alright, but if you hit the wrong spot, well you and the gun would have been blown up.

Intense fighting continued over the following days as Allied forces sought to push the Germans back. Ground troops had aerial support as they advanced. Russell Tapp of 20 Squadron, RAF remembered his work at this time.

Well we did various things. Sometimes we did purely offensive patrols and other times we would escort bombers and then after we left them we would do an offensive patrol on our own, afterwards. And other times we actually carried bombs ourselves, as well. And we would go over on a bomb raid, drop our bombs wherever we had to and then become an offensive patrol afterwards. An offensive patrol is offensive against the German aircraft; whereas a bomb raid you would fly in direct as far as you can, avoiding any kind of contact with the enemy, who would sometimes come in and make things difficult. You reached your target and dropped your bomb, so purely on the bomb running you were purely defensive.

August 1918 developed into a month of Allied advance and German retreat. Hartwig Pohlmann was one of the huge numbers of Germans who were captured during that period.

I myself didn’t experience the end of the war in the front line. On the 27th of August I was taken prisoner by a highlander division in the Battle of Bapaume. It was the big advance of the British forces again back to the Siegfried Line. So I came over to England and experienced the end of the war in a prisoner of war camp in Skipton, Yorkshire.

British private Herbert Cooper described the Germans as they retreated.

When we went up to the observation post we noticed quite a lot of movement: Germans here and there and so on. And then it was really from our own troops that we heard that they were going forward and finding all the German posts had been vacated and they were withdrawing. Owing to the British attacks in the north of us and in the south and even right down to the Americans were making advances in the south – well that meant to say if the Germans didn’t withdraw, they were going to be left in the salient and the troops would go in behind them and capture the whole division perhaps. So that’s why they withdrew, so as to straighten their line and not be left behind between the two advancing armies.

On 2 September, Allied troops attacked the German defensive system known as the Drocourt-Quéant Line. James Lovegrove took part in the fighting there.

Each bay, when I got there, had a German and a machine gun and all of them were lying like that, dead, from this barrage. My men, when I found them, were sitting down eating the Germans’ breakfast: we’d never got our rum ration – the Munsters got that – we never had anything to eat or drink from the previous night when we got there. And I’ve never heard such a barrage, all these shells fell at… they caught… the Germans were out wiring if you please. They had no idea that anything was happening like that. First of all I told the men, ‘Keep away from the tank; it’s out of action.’ And all the bullets were ricocheting off, you see, and I was afraid that we’d get hit that way. I forget how many of my men were killed.

The Allied offensive now began to close in on the infamous Hindenburg Line – the Germans’ heavily fortified system of defences. A successful attack at Épehy on 18 September was part of this phase. Arthur Smith of the Royal Fusiliers took part in the battle.

So right, we are there. Then a barrage starts – a terrific barrage, straight in front of us and terrific hullabaloo, all daylight I mean, not daylight, but the light of all this shelling and so on. So then we had to get up and Lieutenant Isaacs had to move us up and forward. And we got forward about five or six hundred yards, probably no more. And then terrific machine-gun fire, cross machine guns from the Germans and ghastly, and a lot of barbed wire. We could see people falling down all over, all the way along, just terrific collapsing everywhere. And I was here and Lieutenant Isaacs and Lance Corporal Green, they were just there. And I heard Isaacs say to Green, ‘Now in all this din, we’ll all be killed tonight.’ He was, by the way, and so was Green. ‘We’ll all be killed tonight.’

The Allies had to fight hard for their gains, and suffered significant casualties throughout September. British private Samuel Short was the victim of a German gas attack on 24 September.

Well I woke up and found my… I started my… vomiting and our eyes were beginning to close and we realised that somehow or other we’d got gassed. I remember, he was a Welshman Davis, the most frightful language I’d ever heard! And the other boy was ill, he was crying for his mother. Four of us got the gas. There was quite a number, I think about 12 of us, ultimately that formed a crocodile and were led out of the trenches down to the Casualty Clearing Station. We couldn’t see, we was holding on to everybody’s shoulder in one line. And the first man was being led out of the trenches and we followed, holding onto the shoulders.

Step by step the Allies fought their way through the outer defences of the Hindenburg Line, slowly closing on the main positions that lay beyond them. On the 27th September, assault troops attacked an incomplete section of the Canal du Nord. British officer Wilfrid Tatham’s battalion took part in the action.

Just on our left, there was a bridge over the canal. It had been blown up and one half had collapsed on the German side. Behind a tangle of girders, concrete and so on were two machine-gun posts. They were called Rat and Mouse. It was thought that they had been abandoned. They had not! Imagine the problem of crossing a dry canal filled with barbed wire, entailing scrambling or sliding down a 20 foot sloping brick wall, fighting through the wire and climbing up the other side with machine guns not more than 30 yards away. Was it surprising that the front troops hesitated? But the company commander did not hesitate. He knew that the whole operation involving divisions on right and left depended on the kernel of the nut being crushed. He immediately called for volunteers, leapt up himself and slid down the bank, followed by three equally brave men. Somehow they got through the wire and up the other side; and the gunners surrendered.

John Grainger of the Lancashire Fusiliers was wounded on 27 September.

It was about 8 o’clock in the morning when we got through the wood and just outside the wood about say halfway up that hill there, there were trenches. And then we went in there, in those trenches. And that’s when we got our rum ration and everything and we were waiting for going. You were just waiting and hoping to God it’d soon be over! When it came, when it started – what started it was when the 45’s put a big barrage on and we were off. Well of course when we got so far, there it was: barbed wire, about 4 feet high, an apron of barbed wire and of course we couldn’t do much about that. We had to get through it, obviously. We’d got wire breakers and all that. We were going on quite nicely for so long, shells were flying hither and thither. And then the next thing that happened, I’d got my rifle like that and all of a sudden this left arm dropped and of course me rifle went with it. And I just said, ‘Corporal, I think I’ve been hit.’

Finally, on 29 September, the main Hindenburg Line itself was broken by Allied troops.British private Horace Calvert remembered the impressive nature of the Hindenburg Line’s defences.

I’ve never seen a trench system like it in my life. This enormous strength, there were wood I should think two feet square, tremendous strength. All well built up, everything was immaculate as regards the firing positions. There were dugouts as well, plenty of dugouts there. There were enormous trench system and the strength was tremendous. How it was taken like that, it must have been the artillery fire. The artillery fire had kept them, knocked them out. There were quite a few wounded and dead in the trenches that we went through. It was a tremendously strong area, the Hindenburg Line. I went round it again, later on, and I was… never have I seen anything as strong. The supporting beams they had, and the dugouts.

Over the following days, the Allies sought to maintain the momentum of their attack. Frederick Plimmer of the Machine Gun Corps described the character of the fighting that took place during this time.

Well in a machine-gun company there was four sections with four guns each, so there were 16 guns in a company. Well, your section would be working in a particular area – you wouldn’t know what the other people were doing. You’d know probably that they were going to do the same thing as you and support you and you would support them. But as far as people out to the right of you, you wouldn’t be aware, you’d have an idea. But you would say, ‘Look, there’s a village there called Jones we’ve gotta capture that.’ And the infantry would go forwards and capture it with the tanks, you see. And then we would consolidate it. The infantry would be there as well to consolidate it, they wouldn’t go back and say, ‘Well we’ve done our job it’s yours now,’ – they would be there. But we would join in with them and dig machine-gun posts and find out the best place to be to defend it and all that sort of thing. And then sometimes, the Germans would counter-attack and we’d have to beat them off, that’s happened.

After the breach of their fixed positions on the Hindenburg Line, the Germans were forced into open retreat. British officer George Jameson recalled the steady advance the Allies made.

The advance was kept up, the pressure was kept up. There was some very severe fighting – rather sticky in a way – but it was progressively just edging forward again all that time. Which was, although it was a bit difficult, it was satisfactory. From then on, the pressure and the movement forward was sometimes slow, sometimes a bit speedier but generally speaking it was all progressive. We were really getting things stirring up a bit and so we were gradually progressing all the while.

By early October, it was clear that the strategy of the Allied offensive was working. Murray Rymer-Jones witnessed the impact that this had on the Germans.

I came out where there was open country and this was to me terribly important… And there were our troops, the most frontal troops, and suddenly across from the other side – there was quite an open space – came running hundreds of Germans to give themselves up. Because they were losing morale, which was stabilised by those magnificent machine guns still. And to my horror, I saw the German guns and machine guns turned on their own people, trying to give themselves up. And I thought, ‘Well, this is the beginning of the end, obviously.’

Find out more about the First World War at iwm.org.uk. We’d really like to know what you think of these podcasts. Please rate us or leave a comment on iTunes. Listen out for Podcast 46: The Allied Advance to Victory