Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Shouldn't Those "Last 100 Days" Be the "Last 120 Days"?

I have been thinking of writing this posting since we published a positive review of Nick Lloyd's Hundred Days: The Campaign That Ended the War a few weeks ago.  That book is well written and highly informative, but the focus on the "Last 100 Days" has rubbed me the wrong way since the late, and great, historian John Terraine first laid it on me in 1989.

First, it is factually wrong!  It presumes, argues, or suggests that the tide of battle in the Great War was turned due to the victory east of Amiens on 8 August 1918.  The turning point of the war — the beginning of the end game — indisputably, came on 15 July 1918. That was 120 days from the end of the war, not 100 (or 96 if you are counting accurately).

Second, examinations of  the "Last 100 Days" tend to be heavily Anglo-centric and downplay the contributions of the other Allies,  the AEF for sure, but most glaringly, the French Army. None of these comments are meant to disparage the tremendous achievement of the BEF in this period, but the French after their 1917 debacle were recovering.  By the second half of 1918 they were once again mounting significant and large offensive operations, without which the broad Allied "push back" of the war's concluding days would not have been possible.

Third, the role played by most important general of 1918, Ferdinand Foch, is almost always downplayed when the "Last 100 Days" are the topic.  (Nick Lloyd's work is a BIG exception to this.) It appears to me, in some cases (not all), the successes of the British Army and its commander-in-chief in this period are emphasized to bolster the arguments of "pro-Haig" elements (not without some justification) in that never ending debate over the field marshal's merits.

In his memoirs, General Ludendorff wrote that the Second Battle of the Marne had been the critical turning point in the war: "This was the first great setback for Germany. There now developed the very situation which I had endeavored to prevent. The initiative passed to the enemy. Germany's position was extremely serious. It was no longer possible to win the war in a military sense."

Fighting Along the Marne, 15 July 1918

The battle opened with the fifth German offensive of 1918 and was followed three days later by an Allied counteroffensive, which lasted until early September. That initial defeat, in what amounted to a single day, of a German attack on a 55-mile front from Ch√Ęteau-Thierry to east of Reims, would be the Allies' first clear victory in 1918 on the Western Front. Germany would never mount another offensive nor celebrate another victory after 15 July 1918.

Furthermore, by the date of this fifth German offensive, General Ferdinand Foch had learned to read Ludendorff's strategy.  He had anticipated it and prepared his own strike against the bulge southward in the 1918 front between Soissons and Reims.  As Michael Neiberg describes in his history The Second Battle of the Marne (Indiana University Press, 2007):

Mangin's Tenth Army began the second phase of the battle at 4:35 a.m. on July 18. More than 21,000 artillery pieces opened fire simultaneously on German positions.  Unlike the German barrage just three days earlier, the Allied cannonade of July 18 caught their enemies completely by surprise. The first day of the Allied counteroffensive was a massive success. In total, the Allies captured 20,000 prisoners of war. One American regiment had captured 3,000 prisoners from five different German divisions, an indication of the confusion in German lines. The number of German prisoners on this first day exceeds the number of Germans taken on the first day (17,000) of the Battle of Amiens, which began on 8 August 1918, in Ludendorff's words the "black day" of the German army. A black day it surely was, but in terms of both raw number of Germans who had surrendered and the tremendous shift in momentum, July 18 was significantly more important.

"Les Fantomes" French Memorial for the Second Battle of the Marne

One additional point is worth noting.  The reserves that Ludendorff called upon to prevent an utter disaster in the Marne salient in July were those intended for another German offensive against the British Army in Flanders, Operation Hagen, scheduled for 1 August. Thus, had the Allies not administered the double defensive/offensive defeats of the German forces in July, the British forces would have had the Germans at their throats soon again in Flanders and very likely would not have had the freedom of action to launch their 8 August attack in the Somme sector.

In any case, I look forward to publishing someday a review of  a work titled The Last 120 Days of the Great War.

This is an opinion piece by the editor, Mike Hanlon, who takes full responsibility for what is written herein.

Photos from Tony Langley and Steve Miller

6 comments:

  1. Um...well, if we want we can go back to 15 May (Cantigny), that would be 180 days, but that was traditionally an American show with French assistance. But if we stick with Second Marne, then we have to let the Americans in again, along with the French.

    But with the traditional "100 days of 1918," the British victory at Amien is the beginning of the end of the war, just as the "100 days" in 1815 were primarily said to be due to British arms and Wellington's genius.

    I submit that the notion of the "last hundred days of 1918" originated with the British, who would take the credit for starting the last campaign, just as they took it for the end of Napoleon. This would allow them to ignore the American contribution completely as too little and too late, and force the French into some supporting role, at least in the Imperial press and imagination.

    We don;t often think in terms of pride and how history is written, but many of the catch phrases are created by those who control the narrative for a given audience. The "hundred days" of both 1815 and 1918 were created in the popular imagination to steer not only education but future historians, just as the "lost cause" of the Confederacy was made by southern school districts demanding that early 20th century history books include it, forcing the publishers to either comply or have to publish separate texts. We can assume from this example that British and Imperial textbook publishers were given similar choices, just like German publishers were likely stuck with some version of the "stab in the back."

    So much for the "history is written by the winners" myth.

    Just a thought.

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  2. Really excellent thought piece and food for thought in a number of areas. Communications being my trade, I think the British did an excellent job of positioning themselves as those most responsible for the turning point with "The Last 100 Days" - defined, memorable, resonant, a catch-phrase much more likely to stay in the memory than, say, "The Last 62 Days." The post also stimulates thought on when and how turning points in a war are seen & defined, both by the participants and those living through it at the time and by the historians later on. One thinks of Gettysburg of course, because of its scale and because it brought the war firmly into Union territory, but strategically the losses at both Gettysburg and Vicksburg in July 1863, on different fronts, would have given citizens cause for hope (or despair, as the case may be).

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  3. Mike:

    Good post. Thanks for the clarity, and thanks everybody, for the comments.

    Robert Warwick

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  4. I LOVE READING THIS BLOG
    IS THERE A WW1 MUSEUM ANYWHERE
    ALEX

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    1. Hi Alex, Where are you located? I'm sure there is probably some museum with WWI content near you.

      Mike

      PS: Thanks for the nice comment.

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  5. Thanks Mike for this post. My great uncle died July 29th and is buried at Oise Aisne. I have been looking for any bits of information about battles there to piece together what may have been the one he was in since his military records no longer exist due to the fire in 1973. A comrade of his died on July 18th in the same area but was in a different division. They were both from Aberdeen, SD, USA and left home together when they enlisted. I WILL read the book the "Second Battle of the Marne".

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