ArticlesBlog

Backs To The Wall – All Eyes On Amiens I THE GREAT WAR Week 192

Backs To The Wall – All Eyes On Amiens I THE GREAT WAR Week 192


The war in the trenches really began in the
fall of 1914, after the race to the sea. For nearly 3.5 years since then, the western front
has been in stalemate, despite a death toll in the millions, but this week that finally
changes. This week, the Germans break through. I’m Indy Neidell; welcome to the Great War. Last week two new offensive began, a minor
British one in Palestine, and the mother of all offensives by the Germans on the Western
Front, which broke through the British lines. Both attacks continued this week. The British took es Salt on the 25th and advanced
on Amman, but it was a fiasco. The camels could not make the climb to Salt,
and when the attack on Amman began the 27th, the men were exhausted and the week ended
without any successes. But someone was still seeing success over
on the Western Front. A side note from that front first. Back on
the 21st, shells began to fall on Paris. These came from one of the “Paris Guns”, specially
made by Krupp for the Germans, to fire on that city from a distance of over 100km. The
shells took four minutes to arrive and were the first manmade objects to reach the stratosphere.
When aiming the guns, the curvature of the earth must even be considered. The worst Paris
Gun incident happened the 29th, when a shell collapsed the roof of a church during Good
Friday services. 91 died and 68 were wounded. As for the rest of the German attack. They crossed the River Somme and the Crozat
Canal since the British hadn’t been able to blow the bridges, and General Hugh Gough
and the British 5th army continued their hasty retreat. The Kaiser declared, “the battle
won, the English utterly defeated.” And, as you may imagine, the Allies were seriously
worried at the speed of the German advance. The amazing progress so far had mostly been
by Oskar Hutier and the German 18th army, but by the 23rd, even Georg von Marwitz’s
forward troops were over 20km past their starting points in the British center. Philippe Petain
and the French had by now sent 13 divisions to help stop the disintegration of Gough’s
army, but as they began to arrive they too were pushed back. By the 24th, the entire
British line was pulling back. British PM David Lloyd-George asked the British
ambassador to Washington, Lord Reading, to explain the situation of the British manpower
to President Wilson (Gilbert), “You should appeal to the President to drop all questions
of interpretation of past agreements and send over infantry as fast as possible without
transport or other encumbrances. The situation is undoubtedly critical, and if America delays
now, she may be too late!” Wilson received Reading at the White House,
acknowledged the severity of the situation and asked what to do. Reading told him to
send a direct order to Commander John Pershing that the American troops in France should
be put in brigades with French and British troops, without waiting until they had sufficient
numbers to make their own brigades. Wilson said that under the US Constitution he had
the power to decide without consulting his cabinet, and he would give the order. Pershing had been planning to make war in
1919, but Operation Michael – the code name for the breakthrough part of the German offensive
– had changed his mind too. At the end of the week, he will invite the Allies to use
American troops however they see fit, and the Americans will finally really be part
of the fight. The Germans by now threatened to drive a wedge
between the British and French armies. Over 40,000 Allied prisoners had been taken.
The British line east of Amiens was in danger of being overrun, and if Amiens – a vital
communications hub – fell, the British army would be cut off from the ports of Rouen and
Le Havre, not to mention being separated from the French. A special force of 3,000 men was
assembled to help hold the line. This force included 500 American railway engineers, thrown
in out of desperation. German Quartermaster General Erich Ludendorff,
did not, however, send his armies against that major prize just then. Instead, he sent
them in three directions. Von Below was now given reserves and told to head north. Marwitz
was to head west on a line to between Arras and Amiens. Hutier was to head southward toward
Noyon and Paris. In “A World Undone”, G. J. Meyer thinks
the only explanation for this is that Ludendorff thought he could beat both his enemies at
once with separating and enveloping movements. This was beyond German capability, though,
“It brings to mind the campaigns of Conrad von Hötzendorf, who had wrecked the Austro-Hungarian
armies with theoretically brilliant but unrealistic lunges at instant glory.” On March 25th, the Germans broke through between
the British and French armies, and took Noyon and Bapaume. That day, the decision was made
in the Allied High Commands to give French Marshal Ferdinand Foch overall command of
the forces. There’s some detail behind this. British Commandeer Douglas Haig had learned
to his dismay that if the Germans continued to advance, the French would fall back to
the south, and the two allies would be truly split. This was not Petain’s choice – he
had been ordered by the French cabinet to defend Paris at all costs and as sole priority.
Haig also knew, though, that if there was a Supreme Commander of the Entente forces,
Foch would likely get the job, and he would be much more willing to advance north instead
of retiring south, so he was all for it. On the 26th, Foch was given responsibility for
the Western Front. The first thing he did was order the French
army holding St. Mihiel to head to Amiens. Petain suggested a line 30km back and not
in front of the town, Foch said, “We must fight in front of Amiens. We must stop where
we are now. As we have not been able to stop the Germans on the Somme, we must not retire
a single centimeter!” Ludendorff finally realized how major Amiens
was. He ordered Marwitz to link his left with Hutier’s right and take it. But the Germans were also hitting the French
hard at the Aisne. In fact, they drove the French back across it and forced them back
toward the Marne. It was September 1914 again. On the 27th, they pushed the French from Montdidier,
just 80km from Paris. However… That day, near Noyon, the French stopped the
Germans. Also that day, the British took 800 German prisoners on the Somme. Okay, the gap
between the British and French was still over 15km wide, but still. At the end of last week,
the Germans launched operation Mars on both sides of the Scarpe River, but this was a
failure and was shut down immediately. On the 28th, Gough was removed from command
of the 5th Army and left the front the 29th. In the House of Commons a couple weeks from
now, Lloyd-George will skewer Gough and the 5th army for their “failure”. The lack
of manpower, the nature of the attack, and the fierce resistance of the defenders will
go unmentioned. Gotta admit, for all of his shortcomings in earlier offensives that I’ve
repeatedly talked about, I think this was very unfair to Gough. I doubt there was a
general on earth who could have held the line with what he had against what he had to face. Ludendorff, for all of the gains, was seeing
the real weakness of his attack force by the middle of the week. He wasn’t able to pursue
and run down the defeated British. The German cavalry was still in the east with the big
open spaces. He didn’t have tanks or enough armored cars to do anything quickly. Germany
had no access to rubber, and the steel wheels of the cars he did have destroyed the roads
they used. Hutier’s men could only go as fast as they could walk, and they’d been
walking – and fighting – for a week now. Still, on the 26th and 27th, they advanced
30 km total and toward the end of the week, the Allied retreat continued everywhere except
Amiens, where the French and British reserves were pouring in, and the Germans were waiting
for their heavy guns to catch up. As the week ended, all the focus, and the entire meaning,
the entire value of Operation Michael, was on Amiens. The world was watching. One of the British soldiers killed during
the fighting on the 24th, was Lieutenant R.B. Marriott-Watson, son of the novelist H.B.
He wrote the short poem, “Kismet”, which I’ll close with here. Opel fires in the western sky,
For that which is written must ever be, And a bullet comes droning, whining by,
To the heart of a sentry close to me. For some go early, some go late
A dying scream on the evening air And who is there that believes in fate
As a soul goes out in the sunset flare? If you want to learn more about the Race to
the Sea in 1914, you can check out our weekly episode about that right here. Our Patreon supporter of the week is Alicia
Ashby – your continued support on Patreon is what makes this show possible and we are
grateful for every dollar you can spare. Don’t forget to subscribe and see you next
time.

Comment here