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62. The frontlines in 1923: the Western Front -4- New

Men of the 11th Bn, Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, 109th Bde, 36th (Ulster) Div
in captured makeshift German trenches in the outskirsts of Mons

62. The frontlines in 1923: the Western Front -4-

Having dealt a huge blow to the German army on the Western Front and not willing to wait too long for the next one, Plummerg began in late July to prepare for the big advance into Belgium that would utterly cripple the enemy. It first phase, the French armies under Petain broke the defences of Valencienness. Weakened by the hard fighting of the previous weeks, the German units could hardly hold their positions and simply broke under the Allied pressure (July 21, 1923). Then Plummer launched his offensive all along the line, with the British tanks, which had been used again in great numbers, leading the attack against Mons, which was retaken by the BEF on August 1st. To the south, General Petain, not willing to be just a sideshow in the final defeat of the German Reich, put his own plans to work as Plumer advanced to Antwerp facing a determined but weak enemy resistance. The French general ordered to the Tenth Army (General Georges Humbert) to attack Metz, aiming to capture the city at the earliest opportunity, while Generals Marie Fayolle's Sixth and Adolphe Guillaumat's Firth Armies advanced towards Longwy. At first, German resistance around Metz was notably solid, reflecting the crucial importance of the city. The defences surrounding it were solidly constructed and complimented by a complex trench system. The French attack began on August 4.

Fayolle, an experimented artillery officer, proved that he was still a magnificient gunner who would have made Napoleon feel proud by releasign a thundering bombardment against the enemy trenches and, then, the most precise barrage ever seen to the date. In fact, the effect of Fayolle's artillery was such that his troops took the enemy trenches with light casualties. To the right, Humbert's army enjoyed the havoc caused by his neighbour, and just added their guns to the inferno that fell upon the German trenches. Then the only failure of the offensive took place, as the bulk of the French armored force was assigned to Humbert's and Fayolle's armies (25 FCM 2C heavy tanks) moved towards Metz and Logwy, they meet a a complete disaster as most of them were cut to pieces by German artillery that covered the withdrawal of the main force. Ironically, the other French tank, the Char B1, which barely 100 of them joined the offensive, was quite effective at destroying German gun emplacements. However, when movility was required, this tank also became a failure and the offensive bogged down in front of Metz.

The first Char B1
The German line surrounding Brussels was the most formidably defence in Belgium and Plummer had set grandiose objectives for the campaign: he was determined to expand the scale of operations and sought to make the Flanders campaign more than just a killing zone for the Germans. He wanted to give the knock-out blow to the German Army and to achieve that he took a heavier hand in planning the second phase than he had the first., outlinning a massive pincer movement around Brussels that would encircle 25 enemy divisions. The first stage of Allied offensive began on September 1st, 1923. The Battle of Namur developed with the British Fourth Army on the left, the AEF Second Army on the center and the French First Army on the right, and it included 450 tanks, and 200,000 men. A key factor in the final plan was secrecy. There was to be no pre-battle bombardment, only a creeping barrage by 1,386 guns and howitzers covering the advance of the allied forces forces. They advanced 12 kilometres into German-held territory in just five hours, capturing 13,000 prisoners.

Once Namur was taken, the second stage began. The British Third and Fourth, the AEF First and Second and the French First Armies plus the Belgians attacked on September 6th, without delay or pause to recover. Ruined villages had been turned ino German strongholds and they had to be subdued to enable the troops to progress. Consequently, they were subjected to the same precision bombardment that had characterised the first phase of the campaign. By sheer luck, the weather was clear and the Allied infantry faced few difficulties in advancing. Supported by the Royal Flying Corps and the US Air Service, the tanks made excellent progress, despite the frequency of breakdowns and the fact that only 200 tanks were available to the BEF and 100 to the AEF at this stage of the battle. Even the cavalry made impressive advances, but eventually the Germans were able to bring some order to their shattered front line and successfully inflicted numerous losses on the troopers. It took almost two weeks to free Antwerp (September 17), and then the bulk of the Heeresgruppe Kronprinz Rupprecht von Bayern was trapped in Brussels. Rupprecht, prince of Bavaria and commander of the 27 divisions surrounded in Belgium, had to face the black reality. Most of his men were badly demoralized and the stocks of ammunition and food were too small for such a big force. Thus, on September 19th, 1917, he surrendered with his belagered army to General Plumer's forces. However, he had managed to win some time for the German Army.

This defeat signalled the death's knell of the Imperial German army, or so it seemed, when the combined US and French forces broke the Front in Metz and flooded the city with their soldiers (September 30) with the outnumbered and demoralized German forces withdrew in disarray. Some German divisions, reliable during the whole war, now creacked and large numbers of troops surrendered or deserted. If one was to believe the reports of the British newspapers, the end was at hand.
63. The frontlines in 1923: the Western Front -5- New

During the last stages of the war, the raising number of
German prisoners took by surprise the Allied authorities.

63. The frontlines in 1923: the Western Front -5-

As King Albert entered in Brussels and the planification for the next Allied offensive began, Lord Hugh Cecil and Theodore Roosevelt made public their plans to create an international order for peace. The British Prime Minister expressed his desire to eliminate war as a method of avoiding disputes by creating a formal structure, a “great international organisation [to settle] international disputes” to bring about this reformed, peaceful world. Next, he turned his attention to Germany. Cecil warned Germany that, as a base of any peaceful negotiation, the Reich would had to adopt a democratic constitution, Belgium was to be restored to full independence and Alsace-Lorraine to be returned to France. The Prime Minister then gave his support to a fully independent, sovereign Poland. Moving onto the subject of reparations, he announced that although they should not be punitive, they should help to repair the great damage suffered by France and Belgium. Thus, the message to Berlin was blunt: reform and surrender.

In Paris, Raymond Poincaré was aghast by Cecil's proposal and warned that those terms would leave Germany as strong as ever. Then Roosevelt spoke. Apparently it was an address to his nation but, in fact, his words were directed to Berlin. He stated in his usual bully way that the United States were “defending civilisation against the forces of barbarism and tyranny”. If Germany surrendered, renounced to the Prussian miiltarism and democratized herself, she would be granted a place in the future of Europe. However, if she rejected these demands, the war would go on “until Germany is brought to her knees”. He also agreed with Cecil in the need of creating an international organisation for the promotion of global peace backed by military force, as only “naïve trust in fantastic peace treaties, impossible promises and scraps of paper without backing in efficient force.” However, several Republicans and Democrats senators opposed this idea. Internationally, reactions swere mixed. Cecil felt apalled by the bloodthirsty language of the President while Poincaré was very pleased with it, even if Roosevelt had not mentioned Alsace and Lorraine at all. In Berlin, General Groener, the new head of the OHL, stressed the need to resist and fight or face enslavement by the Allies while Georg von Hertling, the Reichschancellor, stated that it was time to negotiate a peace that would leave Germany dominant in Central and Eastern Europe. Colonel von Haeften, from the General Staff, stated that Germany could not hope to win the war.

The unexpected death of Roosevelt on September 20th, 1923 was met with shock and grief across the USA and around the world. In Berlin, the news were received with joice by a small number of courtiers and politicians. For them, it was the "Mirakel von Brandenburg" all over again. They thought that the current situation of Germany mirroed the death of Czarina Elizabeth died in 1762, during the Seven Years War (1756-63), when Prussia was the only continental ally of the United Kingdom and had to defend itself against Austria, Russia and France, fighting on several fronts just like in 1923 and facing a sure defeat after the disaster suffered at Kunersdorf (1759). However, when the Czarina died, her successor Peter III, who was a big fan of Prussia and Frederick II, sued for peace and Prussia was saved. Thus, some voices were heard in Berlin pointing out that history was to repeat itself and that the new US-President, that many hoped it would be William Borah, who would sue for peace. It must be added that neither Kaiser Wilhelm II (1) nor the chancellor, von Bülow, were very optimistic about the chances of such unexpected turn of events.


AEF soldiers sniping from their trenches.

The Germans' moral rose when the Allied forces struck at the lines of the Heeresgruppe Herzog Albrecht von Württemberg. Its commander, the duke of Württemberg, had had plenty of time to dig and to reinforce the defences of the so-called "Wotan Stellung", that ran from Aachen to Metz. Against it, the tired Allied troops were unable to overcome the enemy machine gun nests and barb wire without the support of the tanks and the heavy guns, that were still being moved to the front. Thus, the offensive stalled and died after two days of fighthing. Meanwhile, someone in London resurrected an old plan designed by Admiral Fisher: to land troops on the German Baltic Coast. In spite of the victorious defence of the "Wotan Stellung" and the end on the war on the Eastern Front, which allowed to move fifty divisions to the West, the string of defeats had depleted the German armies, which was exhausted and in exposed positions. In the last seven months, the strength of the German army had fallen from 5.1 million fighting men to 4.2 million. No one could deny that the manpower of the Reich was exhausted. The OHL predicted they would need 200,000 men per month to make good the losses suffered, but even calling the 1925 class, only 300,000 recruits would be available for the year.

Field Marshal Plummer, General Lyautey and General Wood convened in Reims in late September 1923 to discuss their strategy for the Western Front in 1924. The eventuality of German reinforcements from the East meant a major problem for any Allied offensive. Consequently, the British Supreme War Council, in its capacity as an advisory body, recommended to carry out several secondary offensives in the Balkans and the Baltic to further debilitate the German reserves. Of course, Plummer was of different opinion and argued for a general offensive to be carried out on the Western Front as soon as possible. The German Army, he insisted, was evidently waning. He stated that the victory in Flanders must be exploited before the arrival of German reinforcements from the East. In this he was supported by Wood, but Lyautey was less certain, agreeing in principle that maintaining pressure on the Germans would be preferable but making light of his reservations about the ability of his forces to sustain protracted offensive operations.

With the Belgian, the British and the American armies, plus the Spanish, Portuguese, Canadian, South African and ANZACs Expeditionary Forces concentrated in Belgium, Albrecht von Württemberg had a hard time to prepare its bealeguered forces to stop the incoming assault. For this he attempted to reinforce the dozen forts that surrounded Liège, although some of them were nothing but wrecked structures. At his disposal he had twelve divisions, three of them dismounted calvary forming a reserve to reinforce or to counterattack as required, and an assorted variety of artillery. His staff contained several extremely capable officers, notably Major Georg Wetzell, Colonel Max Bauer and Captain Hermann Geyer, who, until recently, had served in the OHL. Thus, he had a decent force under his command when the Allies attacked on October 19.

The war did not limit itself to the ground battle. The RAF and the Luftstreitkräfte kept fighting in the sky. The RAF had been created in late 1923 when the RFC and the RNAS were amalgamated to form a new service. Dominance of the air space over Liège was essential for reconnaissance, and the British carried out many artillery spotting, photography of trench systems and bombing missions. These missions, an hazardous works due to the German AA defences, were made even more dangerous with the presence of the "Red Baron", Manfred von Richthofen, with his elite unit, the Jagdgeschwader 1, known as the "Flying Circus". The combined effort of the JG 1 and JG 3 led to an increased Allied casualty rates, although the RAF maintained a degree of air superiority, with heavily escorted artillery observation and reconnaissance planes operating effectively over the rapidly moving ground battle below. It was during one of those dogfights (October 20th) when von Richthofen was shot down and captured. Captain Eric Bets, DSC, Croix de Guerre, was officially credited with this victory. Von Richthofen had shot down 85 enemy planes but now he was to see the rest of the war as a prisoner (2).

Then, on October 17, the offensive began in the Alsatian Front too, with the roar of the guns of two French Armies, plus two US army corps. Defending the area was German "Army Detachment C" (General Georg von der Marwitz ), consisting of ten divisions in the line and about four divisions in reserve. The Germans, now desperately short of manpower, had built many in-depth series of trenches, wire obstacles, and machine-gun nests, which also included many fortified villages, including the fortified city of Metz, part of the "Wotan Stellung". However, the huge superiority of the attackers blasted away any resistance that the weak German defenders could attempt to offer. By no means the Allied advance was easy and without troubles. It took a whole month to reach Strassburg and by then most of theAllied reserves had been sent to the frontline to keep the offensive going on. To the north, two days after the French offensive had started, Plummer attacked Liege, making use of all the available tanks against the well prepared German frontline. It was to be a long bloody battle.

(1) Not that on, but OTL Wilhelm, Crown Prince, son of OTL Wilhelm II
(2) Edward Rickenbacker (1890-1973, USA) ended this war with 61 victories, Georges Guynemer (1894-1953, French) with 57 victories, Max Immelmann (1890-1951, German) with 55, Wilfred Beeaver (1897-1926, USA) with 44, Godwin Brumowski (1889-1951, German) with 41, Francesco Baracca (1888-1925, Piamontese) with 39, William "Billy" Bishop (1894-1956, Canadian) with 35, Robert Little (1895-1923, Australian) with 32, Quentin Roosevelt (1897-1963, USA), with 31, Raymond Collishaw (1893-1976, Canadian) with 30, René Fonck (1894-1922, French) with 29, Ernst Udet (1896-1921, German) with 28, Edward Mannock with 27 (1887-1942, British), Alexander Kozakov (1889-1953, Russian) with 26, Gervais Lufbery (1885-1921, USA), with 19.
64. The frontlines in 1923: the end of the war New

Bulgarian forces leaving Varna (olater September 1923)
64. The frontlines in 1923: the end of the war

After the Ottoman collapse, the Allied attention turned again to Bulgaria. The combined Greek, French, American, British and Commonwealth Forces broke through the Bulgarian front at Plovdiv after two days of heavy figthing (21-23 August 1923) and ended in a huge defeat to the defenders. For a moment Tsar Ferdinand I of Bulgaria and his government panicked. The arrival of German reinforcements managed to stall the Allied offensive at the gates of Sophia, but the damage was already done: the Bulgarians could see the war was lost - the Ottoman Empire had collapsed and the mighty German Army was beaten on the all-important Western Front. The Bulgarians were not willing to fight and die for a lost cause.

Hardly two weeks later, the Allied offensive resumed and the Greek Second Army defeated the German Alpine Corps which, along two Bulgarian Corps, defended the Stip area and the Allied divisions marched towards Sophia, which was now threatened from the East and from the South. Then, General Franchet d'Esperey raced to Varna in a French rendition of Sherman's March to the Sea, aimed to bring havoc over Bulgaria and to damage further the Bulgarian will to fight. The Allied forces took four days to reach the Black Sea coast (September 22-26), following a demoralized Bulgarian army that fled in all directions while being straffed by the Allied air units present in the area. Then, on September 30, the Bulgarian government asked for a ceasefire. This led to the Armistice of Salonica, signed on on October 5.

While this was going on, partisan rising took place in the northern part of east Serbia. Bulgarian garrisons either joined the partisans or deserted. The German forces kalaunched a strong attack agains Zaječar on September 8, and on September 11 defeated a Serbian attack against Negotin and Donji Milanovac at the same time. Volunteers were joining the patisans in large numbers and the Germans reacted by sending a Mountain Division. However, the defeat in Stip changed the strategic situation in Serbian and the Germans limited themselves to launch defensive attacks trying to deny the Serbian access to the Danube at Negotin. The Serbian Front would remain quiet until September 30, when the Serbian guerrilals began to attack the German columns as they were withdrawing from Bulgaria..

Thus, as the Hungarian and German units faced the Romanian uprising (October 1st), the German units in Bulgaria and Greece towards Bosnia and Hungary, repelling with sucess the attacks of Allied and Bulgarian troops as well as the Serbian guerrillas. Thus, General Mackensen, the new German commander of the Balkan front, stopped the withdrawal on the Bosnian-Macedonian border, where he was able to establish a stable defensive positions, where they would hear about the end of the war.


German troops leaving Belgium
If the German attack against Liège in 1919 lasted four days, the Allied onslaught conquered the city in thrity-six hours (October 19-20, 1923). It must be said that the German defenders were heavily outnumbered, outgunned and outwitted. In fact, it was not an isolated defeat, albeit an important one, as the whole German line had been broken: Arlon fell into French hand four days later (October 24). Facing the whole might of the combined BEF, PEF, CEF, SAEF, ANZAC, SEF (1) and Belgian army, the German defenders had no chance. However, we shall not be fooled by sheer numbers, as many Allied units had suffered great losses in the previous battles and had no time to fill the gaps in their lines. For the PEF, for instance, it was the last battle of the war, as the manpower of its two corps hardly gathered the combined force of three infantry divisions plus two brigades. As the replacements kept arriving too little and too late, the PEF was withdrawn from the frontline. The SAEF was also in tatters, and Plummer withdrew it force too.

Such was the feeling of elation and victory, however, that not even the arrival of a new body of reinforcements (three whole armies strong) coming from the Eastern Front could damage it. On the French sector of the line, General Lyautey concentrated his advance against Luxembourg, facing three German corps defending the Bastogne area and the few bits of Belgium that Germany still controlled. At once General Maxse began to pound them, followed suit by the bulk of Plummer's forces. Now the British General decided to keep the German on the run, hitting here and there, opening gaps for the cavalry, which were, quite often, decimated by the machine guns of the Germans rearguards spo by the first week of November, the only cavalry units that were still actively attacking the German withdrawal were the ones that had replaced their horses with Rolls Royce, Austin (1918 Pattern) and Lanchester armoured cars. Then events began to unravel too fast for both Germans and Allies politicians and generals to keep track of them.

As the advance to the Rhine began, Petain and his commanders faced the formidable defenses that the Germans had built from Saaarbrucken to the Swiss frontier and, bearing in mind the exhaustion of his American-French force after freeing Alsace-´Lorraine, decided that caution was the best course of action while reinforcements were still quite far on the rearguard. Then the end of the war took all by surprise. In Berlin, Wilhelm II, the Supreme Warlord, was shocked. He had suddenly been told the truth, which was worse than he thought. The Western Front was going to collapse in any moment. The OHL now demanded an armistice within 24 hours, otherwise the military catastrophe on the Western Front could not be avoided. There was no other way out. Then, on November 10th, the Allies conquered Aachen: the enemy had entered into the Vaterland; worse still, the counterattacks to retake the lost ground n Luxembourg were a complete failure. There were increasing rumours which talked about social unrest in some German cities tha resembbled what had hapepend in Italy and Russia. It was obvious that Germany could not kept figthing. Believing that an armistice was necessary to save Germany, Groerner, the new and last head of the OHL, suggested that the German government should accept the Allied peace proposals.

However, the Kaiser hesitated once mor as the Allies commenced a general advance along the length of the front on November 11th. In spite of the spirited defence, the British and Canadian infantry kept an steady advance while the French and AEF pressed towards Saarbrücken. After a long week of bloody fights Cologne (November 18-25) was taken and the Allies washed their feet on the Rhine. Groener rushed reinforcements from other quiet parts of the front, but to no avail, as they could not stop the Allied steamroller. However, it was not until the Allied crossed the Rhine in strenght that Berlin finally gave up. In those savage days of relentless fighting the British and Commonwealth army had sufferend almost 350,000 casualties, plus 200,000 French, 150,000 American and 100,000 Spanish and Latin Americans. The German army had been bloodied: 550,000 casualties and 400,000 prisoners. No army in the world could stand this rate of loss. The proud German army was broken in the field. The Times wrote: "All the World awaits with equal desire the news that Germany has taken the next step towards peace. Each hour of delay increases her losses and her dangers".

In Germany, many voices on the left called for the abdication of the Kaiser and even for a republic. Prince von Bülow, who had recently replaced Georg von Hertling as Chancellor leading a government composed of members from the SPD, the Catholic Centre Party and the National Liberals, saw that it was time to take a profound step towards democracy. Events had moved much too quickly for von Bülow, who had to take much hastier – and humbler – approach to the Allies. Thus Germany, send a note asking for an armistice to London, Paris and Washington on November 27th. It asked for a truce. It also stated that Germany would retreat to her 1919 borders and to adopt a democratic constitution. Upon learning about the Berlin appeal, Lord Cecil wrote that ‘Germany is badly shaken and has changed her tune…could it be the end?’ On November 29, London and Paris informed Washington that they were prepared to accept the peace offer. Meanwhile, in Germany the peace offer brought more discord at home and a breakdown of spirit and discipline in the German Army. Now that the prospect of victory had vanished, the Germans could tolerate any kind of hardship no longer. The news of the peace offer triggered a new wave of strikes in Hamburg, Lübeck and Wilhelmshaven. This worried the Allies, who interpreted the event as a purely Bolshevik venture, and prompted Lord Cecil to advocate pursuing the armistice negotiations with greater haste, declaring that “I would sooner negotiate with a reasonable statesman than a representative of the revolutionary mob.” Paris and Washington agreed at once. Germany was not to be pushed towards revolution.

On November 30, the Hungarian Prime Minister, Baron István Burián von Rajecz, asked too for an armistice, just as Czech politicians peacefully took over command in Prague on December 1-2 and declared their independence from the German Empire. On the following day, the Slovaks did the same, rejecting their allegiance to Hungary. Only the German Austrian provinces remained loyal to Berlin. Upon receiving the first news of the Czech troubles, the German government was aghast. Pressure from the SPD to accept the Allied armistice terms increased with the outbreak of disturbances. As von Bülow refused to accept that the Kaiser should abdicate, the Foreign Minister, Lichnowsky, General Groener and influential figures such as Prince Max of Baden, all urged Wilhelm II to abdicate to save the dynasty and the country. This intervention caused von Bülow’s anger and he submitted his resignation on December 4th. His departure left no credible candidates willing to prolong the war. Wilhelm II had little choice but to ask Ebert to become Imperial Chancellor, hoping that he could keep his party away from revolution. One of Ebert's first actions was to present the Kaiser with a dire choice: abdication or revolution. Ultimately, the Kaiser opted to sacrifice himself for his country and the Hohenzollern dynasty. Thus, on December 6th he abdicated the throne and left for Sweden. Crown Prince Wilhelm Friedrich, who was 16 years old, ascended the throne as Wilhelm III. His oldest uncle, Prince Eitel Friedrich, was installed as Regent. As these arrangements were hurriedly made, Phillip Scheidemann proclaimed the Regency in the Reichstag as a victory for democracy.

As soon as Wilhelm II abdicated, Ebert informed the Allies of Germany’s readiness to negotiate a settlement and sent a delegation headed by Matthias Erzberger to obtain a ceasefire at any price. Erzberger crossed the front line and was taken to a secret destination: Foch's private train parked in a railway in the forest of Compiègne, where Erzberger pleaded for a ceasefire. He was astonished when Fieldmarshall Ferdinand Foch, the Allied supreme commander, demanded that the German High Command had also to be present in the negotiations. Foch was quite clear about it: for him the presence of Major General Detlof von Winterfeldt, an army officer, and Captain Ernst Vanselow, from the Kaiserliche Marine, was not enough. First Sea Lord Admiral Rosslyn Wemyss, the British representative, agreed with Foch. Thus General Groener had to leave Berlin in a hurry. The considerations behind this demand were to prevent that, later on, it could be claimed that the High Command was not responsible for the defeat. There was no question of negotiation. The German delegates managed to correct a few impossible demands (for example, the decommissioning of more submarines than they possessed) but they were in no position to refuse to sign. Having read out the terms, and after discussing their details with the assembled officers and politicians, at 5:20pm, Fieldmarshall Wilhelm Groener, as Chief of the Großer Generalstab (German General Staff) and as the representative for the new Kaiser and the new Reich Chancellor, added his signature to the armistice. The terms would come into effect at 8am the next morning, December 8th, 1923.

The Great War was over.

(1) BEF = British Expeditionary Force, PEF = Portuguese Expeditionary Force, CEF = Canadian Expeditionary Force, SAEF = South African Expeditionary Force, ANZAC = Australian and New Zealand Army Corps. SEF = Spanish Expeditionary Force (included the Latin American forces figthing in Flanders/Belgium)
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