The campaign of 1918 remains one of the most important, yet least understood, periods of the war. Writing in 2011, the historian David Stevenson claimed that ‘whereas modern comprehensive investigations now exist into the outcomes of other modern conflicts, the First World War still lacks one’. It had begun on 21 March, when the thunderous opening of the German Spring Offensive shattered the trench deadlock that had gripped the opposing armies for the best part of three years. Having been able to redeploy large numbers of troops to France after the collapse of Russia, Germany’s leaders vowed to strike before the Allies, buttressed by powerful American support, became invincible. The aim was to conduct a massive attack in France, separate the British and French Armies, and win the war before Germany’s perilous strategic situation worsened even further. But this great masterstroke failed. Although manoeuvre returned to the Western Front and the German armies advanced deep into northern France, the Allies evaded this knock-out blow and held on. And it was in July, when Germany’s strength began to fade, that the Allies hit back, thus beginning the final campaign of the Great War: the Hundred Days.
When I began researching this period, the lack of a really satisfactory account of these final battles, particularly one that analysed the situation from the point of view of all the main warring sides, became immediately apparent. Although there have been many good books on 1918 – a personal favourite being Gregor Dallas’s epic 1918: War and Peace (2000) – their coverage remains patchy, selective and frequently drawn from a few well-worn sources. Anglophone historians have understandably focused on the battles fought by the British Expeditionary Force and have relatively little to say about the important roles played by the French or the Americans. Other writers have claimed that the war was effectively over by the summer of 1918 – meaning that the Hundred Days was not especially important – but this remains a narrow and selective approach dependent upon hindsight. The Germans may have lost the war by July, but the Allies had certainly not won it and there was much still to do, as the staggering toll of losses reveals all too clearly. Between 18 July and 11 November the Allies sustained upwards of 700,000 casualties while the Germans lost at least another 760,000 men. Indeed, casualty rates among British units were some of the worst of the war, leading many commentators to assume that nothing had been learnt from previous offensives; that it was the same old story of fruitless slaughter and sacrifice in 1918 as it had been in earlier years. This may not have been the case, but the death toll of those final days – increased tragically by the so-called ‘Spanish flu’ – remains remarkable and deserves greater examination than it has hitherto received.
23 February 2014
1918: How the Great War Ended
From Hundred Days: The Campaign That Ended World War I, by Nick Lloyd (Basic Books, 2014), Kindle Loc. 305-326: