With the German failure at the First Battle of the Marne, both the Allies and the Germans began “The Race to the Sea” with each army moving north from Paris in an attempt to outflank each other, all the while leaving a line of trenches to their rear. The race came to an end at the Flemish city of Ypres (pronounced “ee-priss”), near the channel coast.
The French Army was overextended occupying the trenches all the way to the Swiss border so the inevitable battle was fought by the Belgian Army which had just recently escaped the capture of Antwerp, a single French army, and “The Old Contemptibles” of Sir John French’s British Expeditionary Force (Kaiser Wilhelm made an offhand comment that he would “destroy French’s contemptible little army”, the name stuck.) The highly trained and experienced British Expeditionary Force was comprised of all volunteers, seasoned veterans from colonial campaigns, and reinforced by tough Indian troops.
In mid-October 1914, French Marshal Ferdinand Foch, Sir John French, and German Field Marshal Erick Von Falkenhayn all came to the same conclusion: this was the last chance to maneuver before winter set in and the trenches solidified. Both sides attacked.
On 19 October 1914, the Allies struck first and ran directly into German troops staging in their assault positions. The two sides hammered at each other for a month. The First Battle of Ypres was characterized by failures of command and control, leadership, logistics, fratricide, and tactics. It was confusement of the highest order. The First Battle of Ypres was the wake up call that 19th century systems could not keep up with 20th century warfare. Veterans on both sides referred to it as “The Battle” for the rest of their lives, including a young Austrian corporal in the German Army, Adolf Hitler, who received the Iron Cross 2nd Class during the battle for rescuing a comrade under fire.
The British, Germans, Belgians and French were spent by the middle of November. Von Falkynhahn had done the Kaiser’s bidding and destroyed the Old Contemptibles, but he had not broken through. British veterans of “The Battle” were disbanded and they formed the cadres for a larger British Expeditionary Force with Lord Kitchener’s “New Armies”. The battle cost the four armies nearly 300,000 casualties, or almost 9,000 a day. The British, Belgian, Canadian, German, Indian, and French soldiers spent the rest of the cold and wet maritime winter in the brown, barren, and bleak moonscape around Ypres digging the trenches that became a symbol of what they would call “The Great War”.
The next spring the soldiers were greeted with what would become another of the First World War’s symbols: the poppy flower. In those Flanders’ fields, the first flower to bloom every year is the poppy. In May 1915, the shattered fields around Ypres were a sea of blood red poppy flowers. Canadian Lt Col John McCrae was inspired by the sight to write the hauntingly beautiful poem “In Flanders Fields” that would come to define the war. It begins:
“In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row…”
Germany’s plan in the event of war with both Russia and France in the beginning of the 20th century was to defeat France with the Schlieffen Plan and then concentrate on Russia. The Schlieffen Plan was named for the former German Chief of Staff Count Alfred Schlieffen. The idea was to let the French advance in the south and then seize Paris unexpectedly from behind from along the Channel coast. First, German armies on the left in the south would fix French forces in Alsace/Lorraine and the Saar, and even allow them to advance. Using this as a hinge, the Germans on the right in the north would swing like a door through Belgium, then along the channel coast, then finally down around the concentration of French forces and seize Paris from behind. On his death bed in 1913, just before the First World War, Schlieffen’s last words were, “Keep the right wing strong!” (The attack through Belgium and along the Channel coast.)
Unfortunately for Germany, the egos of the various German commanders couldn’t accept their roles. The prestigious commands were obviously on the right (those that were to seize Paris). These went to two very competent, but not very ambitious commanders: Generals Karl Von Buelow and Alexander Von Kluck. The commander on the left wing, i.e. the one who was supposed to let the French advance so they would be encircled by the right wing, was a very ambitious and out spoken Erick Von Falkynhahn. Finally, the commander in East Prussia, the stately Paul Von Hindenburg who was pulled out of retirement for the job of facing the Russians, also had an outsized influence on the Schlieffen Plan.
When the war started, the Russians mobilized much more quickly than expected and the proud Hindenburg refused to abandon East Prussia. So he essentially bullied the Chief of Staff, Helmuth Von Moltke the Younger (the Elder was his uncle who won the Franco Prussian war in 1870) for more forces. Naturally, they needed to come from Falkynhahn for the Schlieffen Plan to work. But Von Moltke was not his uncle. At the mere suggestion of giving up troops, Von Falkynhahn threw a fit, so Von Moltke the Younger took them from Buelow on the right wing, Moreover, Von Falkynhahn couldn’t contemplate the possibility of letting the French advance into his territory: It would look like he was losing in the newspapers. So instead of defending as per the Schlieffen Plan, he attacked… and kept attacking… and kept winning… and winning some more. Von Falkynhahn insisted that Von Moltke reinforce success, not Von Buelow who couldn’t even reach the sea without over extending himself (thanks to Hindenburg). More importantly though, Falkenhahn’s success pushed the French back – towards Paris.
Despite Schlieffen’s dying words, the German right wing was so weak that in the beginning of September, 1914, instead of attacking Paris from behind (north), Von Buelow and Von Kluck could only attack it from the front (east). Von Moltke still thought this would be good enough to seize Paris, except that Falkynhahn was too successful. Von Falkynhahn had basically bulled his way through the horrible terrain of the Ardennes forest, and was now spent. The French facing him were then in a perfect position to be sent to face Von Kluck and Von Bulow, a short cab ride away.
On 5 September 1914, the French commandeered 600 Parisian taxi cabs in a desperate attempt to move troops to the front along the Marne River in order to save Paris from the Germans. In actuality, only about 6000 French soldiers were ferried to the front in cabs, but afterwards hundreds of thousands would claim it. For the next week, more than one million British and French fought 1.5 million Germans to a standstill in the First Battle of the Marne. By 12 September, the German advance was stopped and Paris was saved. Over the next month, the front was solidified, and millions of soldiers dug their trenches. The war of maneuver was over , and the war of attrition began. The front line, which extended from the North Sea to Switzerland, wouldn’t change significantly for another four years.
The British Navy was bored. The British Army just won a “great” victory on the continent against the advancing Germans at Mons. (But they were forced to retreat when the French on their flank fell back, 250 miles.) The stalwart British Army was the talk of the court and newspapers, while the Navy… patrolled the North Sea.
On 25 August, 1914, two British commodores were sitting around over a glass of whiskey just thinking shit up, because that’s what field grade officers do when they’re bored. They devised a plan to ambush one of Germany’s destroyer flotillas. They would send three submarines to surface off of Heligoland Blght, deep in German territorial waters. German destroyers would have to respond. Waiting for them would be the commodores’ own destroyers and a few cruisers. It would be a cracking good time.
Three days later on the 28th, the submarines surfaced, were spotted, the Germans responded, and the British flotillas ambushed them. It went exactly as planned, except that the late summer North Sea fog reduced visibility to two miles. The clean and orderly “Crossing of the T” envisioned by the commodores turned into a melee in the fog, consisting of a dozen separate duels. The Germans immediately sortied a light cruiser force. The British risked losing the battle altogether.
Fortunately, there were other bored British naval officers. At a dinner party on the 26th, Adm Beatty heard of the plan from First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, who just approved it. Beatty wanted in on some of the action too. He wired forward to Scapa Flow to get his ships ready, and then raced back to the port. But he didn’t tell anyone.
Just as the chaotic battle was beginning turn against the British, a beautiful sight emerged from the mist: Admiral Beatty’s six heavy cruisers and six big battlecruisers. Commodore Tyrwitt would remark “they looked like a line of elephants amidst a pack of wild dogs”. And the Germans, to continue the animal metaphors, “scattered like cockroaches”. In minutes the battle was over. The Germans had three cruisers and a destroyer sunk, and seven more ships heavily damaged, almost all by Beatty. And the British had one cruiser and two destroyers slightly damaged.
In an age of dozens upon dozens of giant dreadnaught battleships on each side, the Battle of Heligoland Bight, a very minor action by small ships, had outsized influence over the war. As the British celebrated, Kaiser Wilhelm was convinced by the battle that the British could not be defeated at sea, and ordered that the German High Seas Fleet be kept in port except by his express permission. The war at sea from then on would be fought by German U-Boats and not by German battleships.
On 25 April 1916, the first anniversary of the Battle of Gallipoli, the British Commonwealth commemorated the Australian and New Zealand troops that fought and died on the Gallipoli peninsula in Turkey during the First World War. The original commemoration set the format that we still follow today: the day’s activities started off with a dawn parade (to signify the traditional time of the landing) and sunrise mass, followed by a boozie coffee breakfast, a mid morning non-denominational service with a two minute moment of silence, with sports, a bit of gambling, and a march in the afternoon.
By late October 1918, the Allied victories during Hundred Days Offensive tore huge gaps in the Hindenburg Line on the Western Front and the German Army conducted a fighting retreat to shorten their lines and hopefully reestablish a defense. The Austro-Hungarian Empire dissolved and with it Germany’s food and oil supply. Morale plummeted among both the military at the front and the civilians at home. Erich von Ludendorff knew he needed to “restore the valor” of the military in order to stop the Allied offensive and gain an acceptable negotiated peace. To convince the retreating German Army that this was truly the “Endkampf” or “Final Battle”, a valiant sacrifice was needed, one worthy of emulation. The German High Seas Fleet would provide that sacrifice.
Without approval by the government (because it would certainly be denied) and despite vehement objections by the Chief of the German Admiralty, Adm Reinhard Scheer, Ludendorff issued the Naval Order of 24 October 1918 to the commander of the High Seas Fleet Adm Franz von Hipper. Hipper was warned of the order two days before and began concentrating the fleet at Schillig Roads off Wilhelmshaven. The concentration itself was break from the norm which didn’t bode well for the sailors.
The High Seas Fleet last saw serious action at the Battle of Jutland two years before and had sortied only three times since then, conspicuously returning to port without engaging any Allied ships each time. After the Battle of Jutland, the High Seas Fleet was no match for the British Grand Fleet, especially after the addition of four American battleships, so it sought to avoid contact with their British adversary. However, that did nothing for the morale of the average German sailor who toiled under bad conditions and ruthless discipline while conditions at home and news from the front grew steadily worse.
Rumors swirled below decks as to the reason for the concentration. On 29 October 1918, the crews’ worst nightmares were confirmed: The German High Seas Fleet was to sortie and engage the British in a decisive battle that could only end with their glorious destruction. That night, several crews of the capital ships at Schillig Roads refused orders to weigh anchor and some began sabotaging equipment and machinery. Sailors on shore leave refused to return to their ships and had to be forcibly returned. Mass insubordination occurred on at least seven ships. It took three days, and loyal sailors from torpedo boats, U-boats and minesweepers, before control was restored. Nevertheless, Admiral Hipper ordered the operation cancelled. Ludendorff was cashiered by the Kaiser when he learned of the Wilhelmshaven mutiny. The most mutinous squadron, the Third Naval Squadron, was ordered to return to Kiel in order to isolate them from the rest of the High Seas Fleet.
Kiel was not an optimal choice for the mutineers’ ships to harbor. Kiel had a long history of socialist and workers’ agitation stemming from the Russian Revolution of the previous year. The addition of the crews of the mutinous ships to the city proved to be the spark needed for open rebellion. Mass demonstrations and riots were organized and soldiers, sailors, and workers’ councils took over the ships and the city. Imprisoned mutineers were freed, but the demands for “Peace and Bread” were not forthcoming. German troops resorted to firing into the protesters which only enflamed the crowds and caused many soldiers to desert and join the mutineers. By 3 November, red flags replaced the Imperial German ensign on the fleet’s masts. On the 4th Kiel was controlled by more than 40,000 workers, sailors, and soldiers and the mutiny had spread back to Wilhelmshaven. That evening, their leaders met at the Kiel Union House and formed a ruling council. The council issued demands for a “social, liberal, and democratic” political system.
The successful Kiel Mutiny inspired countless other mutinies, revolts, and defections on the Western Front and in the town and cities behind the frontlines, and quickly spread as far south Munich by the 7th. On the 9th, Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated. Almost immediately, a democratic republic was announced, and 30 minutes later its first vote turned the nascent democratic republic into a socialist republic, which tore the country apart. The German Revolution continued until the Weimar Republic was established in August of 1919. Peace talks with the Allies commenced on the 10th, the day after the Kaiser abdicated, and an armistice ending the fighting began at 11 am on 11 November 1918.
The Kiel Mutiny and the uprisings it inspired gave rise to the “Stab in the back” legend that the German Army was not defeated on the battlefield in the First World War but by civilian agitators at home. German Nationalists and National Socialists promulgated the patently false legend later in the 1920s, which combined with the denouncement of the onerous (to Germans) clauses of the Treaty of Versailles, caused significant political gain for them, leading directly to the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Second World War.
“The deadliest weapon in the world is a Marine and his rifle.”
When the Germans started the Kaiserschlacht, the 1918 Spring Offensive with the troops released by victory against the Russians on the eastern front, Gen Pershing was under immense pressure by the British and French to get American troops into the trenches in number. The British wanted the Americans as replacements for Allied casualties. The Commonwealth commanders wanted smaller American formations i.e. battalions and brigades, to augment British and French divisions, just as they were doing. The French just wanted the Americans to enter the lines in any form whatsoever despite any deficiencies in training, though they supported Pershing’s views. As commander of the American Expeditionary Force, Pershing was under explicit instructions from President Wilson that Americans would fight under their own flag and in their own formations, and not as part of another national army. To this end, Pershing told the French that the Americans wouldn’t be ready to assume a portion of the front until late 1918, or more probably 1919.
In mid-April 1918, only five American divisions were trained to the point where they would be effective in the trenches, despite hundreds of thousands of Americans arriving in France each month. Under pressure from the French, Pershing relented and the American troops were placed at the seam between the British and French armies just south of Amiens and just north of Paris. Previously in the war, whenever the inexperienced American troops took over part of the line, they were specifically targeted by the Germans, with predictable results. With rare exceptions, the Germans had their way with the novice doughboys, and the British and Canadians had no respect for the soldierly prowess of American troops. According to many a British officer, American soldiers may have been good at subjugating Indian tribes, but they were a detriment to the continuity and contiguousness of the front on a modern battlefield.
The French recommended a small American counterattack to exhibit the battle prowess and state of American training. The attack would take some pressure off the British, who were suffering from the bulk of the Spring Offensive, and announce to the world that the Americans were finally capable of offensive operations. Of the five available divisions, Pershing chose his favorite, the 1st, to make the assault. The selected objective was a small German salient around the town of Cantigny, which sat on high ground that offered the Germans excellent observation of the surrounding area.
The commander of the 1st US Infantry Division, Maj Gen Robert Bullard, chose the 28th Infantry Regiment supported by two companies of the 18th, with machine guns, artillery and engineers from the division troops to conduct the attack. Lieutenant Colonel George Marshall (you might have heard of him) wrote the 34 page operations order detailing the movement, rolling barrage schedule, and the general scheme of maneuver. The Americans rehearsed the attack for three weeks prior. The Germans spotted the two American companies that arrived in the trenches a day early. They pounded them with artillery. Nevertheless, the 28th went “over the top” at dawn on 28 May 1918.
The French were wedded to a successful American assault. They didn’t want to squander the immense advantage that America gave the Allies in men and material if the British were knocked out of the war, which was the aim of the Spring Offensive, and would result in the Americans taking over their portion of the front. A successful American attack would put them in the line that much faster, and most importantly, where the French wanted. So the French supported Bullard’s assault on Cantigny with prodigious amounts of artillery and transport. With the copious amounts of French support, the 28th secured their assigned trenches and dugouts, and cleared the cellars of Cantigny of Germans. That night there was a great celebration in Pershing’s headquarters.
The German artillery wasn’t to disrupt the American attack, it was to presage Operation Blücher–Yorck, the third phase of the Kaiserschlacht. The German operation aimed straight at Paris in order to pull Allied troops away from assisting the British farther north. All along the front, French units demanded support. The French artillery and the dedicated resources to the 1st US Infantry Division disappeared on the night of 28/29 May. Overnight, Cantigny became solely an American operation.
The German counterattack started shortly thereafter, and the 28th screamed for more support. Several requests to pull back to the original 27 May start lines were sent. All were refused: American national pride and the fate of the American Expeditionary Force was on the line with this single battle. The 28th had to hold, and Pershing needed to assure that that happened with just American resources. The Americans had relied on French support since they landed in the country 11 months before. No more – the Americans were on their own.
For two days and nights the novice 1st US Infantry Division slugged it out at Cantigny with waves of German attackers. The final German assault came at dusk on 30 May. The next morning, Cantigny was still in American hands, albeit tenuously. Nonetheless, the amateur Americans proved they had what it took to fight, and prevail, on the Western Front. There would be no more talk of amalgamating the American troops into the French or British armies. They had received their baptism of fire. The 1st US Infantry Division, soon to be known as “The Big Red One” from their distinctive shoulder patch, proved they could stand their ground in the face of the best the veteran Germans could throw at them. The Americans had finally entered the First World War in earnest.
With a few limited exceptions, the Allied offensives on the Western Front were all failures. The naïve, but enthusiastic, American army inoculated with the bloody and hard won experience of the Allied failed efforts, would soon go on the offensive… and surprise the hell out of the Germans.
In late April 1918, the German troops opposite the French in the Argonne Forest began a series of trench raids and reconnaissance patrols in preparation for the third phase of the Spring Offensive – Operation Blücher–Yorck, whose objective was Paris. The Germans were surprised to find not French troops but African American soldiers of the 369th US Infantry.
Formerly known as the 15th Regiment of the New York National Guard, the 369th was re-designated when they got to France in the First World War. The 369th was recruited primarily from Harlem, where 50,000 of New York’s 60,000 African Americans lived. When they landed in France on New Year’s Day 1918, the regiment was assigned supply, labor and support jobs because many of the American regiments from the South refused to train with them. When the Germans launched their Spring Offensive in March, the French were in need of men to fill their trenches. However, the commander of the American Expeditionary Force, General John “Black Jack” Pershing, was under orders from President Wilson that American troops were to fight together, and not used as replacements for British and French casualties. Pershing recognized that because of the discrimination, it would be difficult to assign the 369th to an American division. By assigning the 369th to the French, under the strict provision that they fight as a regiment, Pershing was assisting his distressed French allies and getting the 369th into the fight, while still adhering to the letter of Wilson’s orders, if not the spirit.
In early April 1918, the 369th was assigned to the 16th French Infantry Division. Because American equipment would be difficult to get in the French army, the 369th turned in all of their American equipment, except their uniforms, and drew French equipment, including weapons. They were then assigned to partner, man for man, with a French regiment for three weeks of grueling training behind the front. In the mid-April 1918, the 369th took their place in the trenches opposite the Germans.
On the night of 15 May, a 24 man German patrol crept through No Man’s Land opposite the 369th. In a small listening post to the front of the American trenches, Pvts Henry Johnson and Needham Roberts heard the distinct clip of wire cutters. Johnson told Roberts to run back to the trenches to warn the rest. Just as he departed the first German grenades landed. Johnson was wounded by shrapnel in the hip and back, but Needham was nearly killed. Johnson threw his own grenades. Then as the Germans charged, he shot three with his French rifle, the last with muzzle directly in the chest of the German. Johnson then noticed two Germans trying to carry off Needham. With no time to reload (the French Labille Rifle only had a three-round magazine), Johnson pulled his US Army issue bolo knife, essentially a Filipino machete, disemboweled one German, and then sunk the heavy blade into the skull of the other. By this point the rest of the German patrol arrived, so Johnson attacked them too. His aggressiveness and ferocity surprised them. In the ensuing melee, Johnson suffered 21 separate wounds, but drove the Germans off and saved Needham.
The German patrol stated later that they had been assaulted by “Black Death”, and the name showed up in propaganda specifically directed at Johnson. The name stuck.
The French awarded both Johnson and Needham the Croix de Guerre, the first American soldiers to receive the honor in the First World War. Over the 191 consecutive days of combat the 369th fought in, their French partner referred to the unit as the “Harlem Hellfighters”. That name stuck too.
The Harlem Hellfighters hold the honor of having served the most time in combat of any American unit in the First World War. President Obama awarded a posthumous Medal of Honor to Henry Johnson on 2 June 2015. The medal was received by the New York National Guard, as there was no next of kin.