The Hundred Days Offensive was the final series of battles in World War One during which the Entente forces launched a series of attacks against the German empire on the Western Front. Beginning with the Battle of Amiens the offensive pushed the Germans out of France, forcing them to retreat beyond the Hindenburg Line. The offensive ended the war with the Armistice of 11 November 1918. The term ‘Hundred Days Offensive’ does not refer to a single coordinated attack, but rather a rapid succession of battles that followed the Battle of Amiens.
Bolstered by their triumph during the Second Battle of the Marne, Entente officers began to plan a much bigger battle to capitalize on the German weakness. This was emphatically not the work of one man, or even of a small group of officers, but rather the synthesis of all that the British – aided by the French – had learned over the previous three years. It was a collegiate effort, marked by the wholehearted involvement of experts at all levels of the British Expeditionary Force and fully integrating all the new weapons into one ferocious methodology of modern war.
When the guns blazed out at Zero Hour, the battle plan began to work like clockwork. As the infantry attacked, helped by the cover of fog, they were simply unstoppable. On most of the front, the Entente surged through the German lines. It was a disaster that General Erich Ludendorff could not deny: ‘August 8 was the black day of the German Army in the history of this war.’ The British and French continued to move forward. The Battle of Amiens ended after just three days. A total advance of twelve miles had been achieved, but what really mattered was the severe blow it had inflicted on the German Army.
The Battle of Albert was significant in the fact that it was the opening push that would lead to the Second Battle of the Somme. General Sir Julian Byng’s Third Army hammered forward between the Ancre and Scarpe Rivers north of the Somme. Considerable progress was made as the German line began to fragment. Haig urged his generals to seize the moment.
The British and French ground their way forward as the Germans, struggling to prevent them, threw in more reserves. Soon it was the turn of the First Army of General Sir Henry Horne, which attacked in the Arras sector, pushing the Germans back towards Monchy le Preux. In the Somme area the German retreat became more widespread, and General John Monash was determined to use the momentum gained for his Australian Corps to jump the Somme River, behind which the Germans were trying to stabilize their front. But the Germans were now being thrown back everywhere.
The fighting included a significant event: the launch of the first fully fledged offensive by the Americans, on the St Mihiel Salient. It was the supreme learning experience for the inexperienced Americans. The barrage was ferocious, although here the Americans had wisely leaned on French artillery expertise and support. The advance was a relatively easy triumph for the AEF as the Germans had been preparing in any event to evacuate the salient. But the Americans had achieved their objectives and gained experience that would stand them in good stead for greater trials.
Foch brilliantly coordinated the attacks up and down the Western Front: on the first day the French and Americans would strike hard in the Meuse-Argonne area, while the very next day the British would launch their First and Third Armies at the Hindenburg Line attacking towards Cambrai. On the following day the French, the Belgians and the British Second Army would attack in Flanders in the Ypres area. Finally on the fourth day, a fourth offensive would take place as the British Fourth Army attacked the Hindenburg Line in the Somme region.
This stupendous series of attacks, mirroring in scale the huge Battle of the Frontiers clashes of 1914, commenced when the French Fourth Army and the American First Army attacked along a huge 44-mile front stretching between the Meuse and Reims. The French had done it all before. But the Americans were still raw and this time they found the Germans had no intention of retreating. The fighting in the Argonne forest would continue with only short lulls throughout October and into November 1918.
The second of the great attacks was launched by the British First and Third Armies. Here the greatest obstacle to progress lay in the partially constructed Canal du Nord. Although for the most part empty of water, it still presented a major obstacle in its own right, whereas behind it lay three German defence systems stretching back some five miles. The Entente captured all their objectives and, indeed, all along the front of the First and Third Armies they threw back the Germans.
Herbert Plumer’s Second Army, accompanied by the French and the Belgians, sought finally to eradicate the Ypres Salient from the map. They were walking in the footsteps, indeed, treading over the graves of hundreds of thousands of their predecessors. But this time the German artillery were rendered silent by their counter-battery fire, the dreaded pillboxes blasted from the earth. In just one day they swept across the whole of the Ypres battlefields to breast the Passchendaele Ridge.
Last but not least was the attack on the Hindenburg Line by Henry Rawlinson’s Fourth Army. American troops, placed for the occasion under the command of Monash, would attack where the St Quentin Canal ran underground between Bellicourt and Vendhuile. The Australian Corps would be ready to exploit any success. The Fourth Army completely ruptured the Hindenburg Line, and the advance on the German borders had begun. The deep-flowing Rhine might threaten to hold them up but the Entente had won the war; the only question was whether they could finish it in 1918.
In October, the individual German soldiers could not help but know that they were beaten. Years of privation and suffering culminated in severe political unrest. A new Chancellor, Prince Max von Baden, was appointed. His cosmetic liberal reforms and the appointment of a few token socialist ministers did nothing to appease the raging left while still provoking the establishment right. The combination of defeat at the front, political division at home and no hope for the future was a potent brew that unsettled the troops in the line.
The Entente armies, British, French, American and Belgian, moved forward along most of the Western Front. They were winning all right, but casualties were still high – this was a truly murderous form of warfare. It is a sobering statistic that of the 1.2 million men serving in the BEF between August and November 1918, some 360,000 become casualties. This was unsustainable: the BEF was being consumed. The French and Americans were also suffering. This was Armageddon. But Germany was finally beaten; more than that, the Central Powers were finished.
The German High Command knew it was beaten, but at the same time sought an exit strategy which would allow it to resume the battle in 1919. Both Hindenburg and Ludendorff clung to the idea that they could defend the German homeland and that their enemies were themselves tottering, at the end of their endurance. Unsurprisingly, the Entente refused to fall into this obvious trap. They were collectively determined to impose conditions to any Armistice negotiations that would cripple the German war machine for the foreseeable future.
By this time Ludendorff was suffering the after-effects of a partial mental breakdown and seemed unable to maintain a consistent approach from one day to the next. Finally he offered his resignation after a dispute with the Kaiser on 26 October. He was replaced as Hindenburg’s Chief of Staff by General Wilhelm Groener.
The final offensives began. The British Fourth, Third and First Armies attacked on a wide front. The attacks were broadly successful, but blemished as ever by painful casualties. November was nearly always a miserable, desperate time for fighting, but with the war teetering to its long-awaited close, it was a particular trial in 1918. Wet weather hampered progress, but the Germans were still trying their best to hold back their pursuers, blowing up bridges, felling trees and blasting houses to block the roads. Booby traps and delayed-action mines added to the delays inflicted on the advance.
For the British there was a peculiar irony in the site chosen by the German Seventeenth Army for a rearguard stand: the Mons area where for the BEF it had all begun, hundreds of thousands of lifetimes ago. By early morning of the next day the Canadians had cleared away the last of the Germans, and Mons was returned to British control. They were truly back where they started.
The surrender negotiations were based on the framework of President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points. These attempted to set out a vision as to how the Great Powers could co-exist after the war. The Allied Supreme War Council offered Germany peace on the basis of the Fourteen Points, but also announced that it would be Foch who would negotiate the terms for an Armistice before a peace conference was convened. Foch, aided by Haig, Pétain and Pershing, had worked out exactly what was wanted from his negotiations with the German representatives: absolutely no chance that Germany would resume the war after a short armistice.
In Germany itself there was a tremendous state of political flux. The High Seas Fleet was in open mutiny and there were crowds demonstrating on the streets of Berlin. Prince Max von Baden, the recently appointed Chancellor, realized the game was up and he dispatched a joint military and civilian negotiating team led by a relatively moderate politician, Matthias Erzberger, charged with the thankless task of sorting out the terms for an Armistice with the forbidding figure of Foch. The Kaiser, who at first refused to abdicate, crossed the border into the Netherlands and formally abdicated after the Armistice was signed.
The German delegation finally met Foch in the inauspicious surroundings of a railway carriage in Compiègne Forest, where he gave them no real choice but to sign, which they duly did at 05.15 on the morning of 11 November, allowing just a few hours before the Armistice was promulgated to the world. Men carried on dying right up to the very end, but finally the rumble of the guns stopped at 11.00. The soldiers reacted in different ways. Maybe a few career soldiers or adventurers were disappointed, but most were delighted.
There was scant sympathy from the victorious side. During the Armistice negotiations, the humiliated Erzberger had read out a statement to Foch protesting at the stringent terms demanded: ‘A people of 70 million men are suffering, but they are not dead.’ In his reply Foch encapsulated the Entente reaction to German anguish: ‘Très bien!’ The war was over, but the hatred would linger on.