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The Western Front, 1914-18
Battles - 5 case studies
The Battle of the Somme
1918 Allied counter-offensive
The Battle of Jutland
The Gallipoli campaign
The Mesopotamia campaign

The 1918 Allied counter-offensive

In the spring and summer of 1918, replenished by new divisions transferred hurriedly from the East after the crushing defeat of Russia, the German army launched a bold new campaign on the Western Front. Appearances, however, were deceptive. Imperial Germany, as many army staff officers admitted, was playing its 'last card', and after initial successes, the Glossary - opens new windowLudendorff offensive ran out of steam.

On 18 July, having rebuffed the last major German assault, French forces in the Glossary - opens new windowMarne area launched a surprise counter-attack. This marked the beginning of the 'Hundred Days', an Allied counter-offensive that finally broke the military stalemate on the Western Front and brought the First World War to a close.

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Central to this triumph was the Battle of Glossary - opens new windowAmiens (8-11 August 1918). This combined air, artillery, infantry and tank offensive was prepared in utmost secrecy, with the aim of driving the German forces away from an area with vital railway links. Glossary - opens new windowLudendorff famously described 8 August, the first day of the battle, as 'the black day of the German army'. By 13 August, British and French forces had advanced up to 11 miles eastwards on a 47-mile front, killing, wounding or capturing 48,000 enemy troops.

Although the offensive, hampered by heavy tank and aircraft losses, slowed down as it reached the old battlefields of the Glossary - opens new windowSomme, the psychological damage that it wrought within the German army was immense. Both Ludendorff and Glossary - opens new windowKaiser Wilhelm II now concluded in private that Germany could no longer win the war.

Thanks to RAF at Amiens - opens new window
RAF support in
Battle of Amiens

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The final stages
Throughout the rest of August, in accordance with Glossary - opens new windowDouglas Haig's new strategy, the Allied armies advanced across a wide front, forcing German troops under Glossary - opens new windowCrown Prince Rupprecht and Glossary - opens new windowMax von Boehn into rapid retreat. They captured towns such as Glossary - opens new windowAlbert (22 August) and Glossary - opens new windowPéronne (30-31 August) that had been in German hands for much of the war. The area that had witnessed the bloody stalemate of the Battle of the Somme two years earlier now fell within a matter of days.

The Glossary - opens new windowHindenburg Line - the series of German defensive fortifications stretching from Cerny, east of Soissons, on the Aisne to a point near Beaurains and Neuville Vitasse, just south of Arras - was broken by a series of four major Allied offensives at the end of September. The final phase of the war was characterised by inexorable German retreat, albeit amid continued fighting. Just two minutes before the signing of the armistice, at 11 am on 11 November 1918, a Canadian soldier in a village to the east of Glossary - opens new windowMons was killed by a German sniper.

Allied attack near Amiens - opens new window
Foch's orders for
Allied attack at Amiens

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How the Allies won

How were the Allies able to defeat Germany in 1918? By this time, as the Battle of Amiens illustrated, the British army had learned how to successfully combine infantry and artillery in a co-ordinated attack. The Allies had superior air power at their disposal and made better use of intelligence resources. They also possessed brave and durable troops - witness, for example, the efforts of Australian troops at Glossary - opens new windowMont Saint-Quentin on 1 September and Canadian troops at Glossary - opens new windowCanal du Nord on 27 September.

The claim that the USA 'won the war' for the Allies in 1918 is an exaggeration. In fact, notwithstanding successes such as the attack on the Glossary - opens new windowSaint Mihiel salient (12-16 September 1918), the Glossary - opens new windowAmerican Expeditionary Force (AEF) was used sparingly until late in the war and casualty rates within its inexperienced ranks were disproportionately high.

Performance of AEF troops - opens new window
AEF performance at the
Saint Mihiel salient(230k)

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British cavalry - opens new window
British cavalry in Albert, 1918
Nonetheless, the presence of almost 2 million American troops on the Western Front by the autumn of 1918 gave the Allies a vital edge over Germany, whose own ranks were dwindling fast. Equally important was Allied material superiority in a wide range of areas, from artillery, ammunition and machine guns to food supplies and even horses.

Cude's diary - opens new window
Battle of Amiens:
diary entry (310k)

Declining morale within the ranks of the German army also played a part in the final outcome. However, as many advancing British soldiers testified, large parts of the German army continued to fight ferociously during the last months of the war. Allied casualties at this time were still very heavy - the Glossary - opens new windowCanadian Corps, for example, lost a greater percentage of its men (20%) at Canal du Nord in September 1918 than it did at Glossary - opens new windowVimy Ridge (16%) in April 1917.

The German retreat never degenerated into a rout. Much to the disappointment of Glossary - opens new windowGeneral Pershing, Glossary - opens new windowRaymond Poincaré and others, Allied troops did not end the war by marching into Berlin.

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Further research

The following references give an idea of the sources held by The National Archives on the subject of this chapter. These documents can be seen on site at The National Archives.

WO 106/426: Narrative of Somme-Oise battle, Aug-Nov 1918.
WO 106/1456: British mission with General Foch: diary of Colonel Grant, Mar-Nov 1918.
WO 153/309-324: Allied offensives: Battle of Amiens and Hindenburg Line, Jul-Oct 1918.
WO 158/105-106: General Foch's directives and telegrams, Jul-Oct 1918.
WO 256/33-37: Diaries of Sir Douglas Haig, Jul-Nov 1918.

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