The agony of the German army
My War Memories
8 August was the black day of the German Army in the history of this war.
Early on 8 August, in a dense fog, rendered still thicker by artificial mean, the English mainly with Australian and Canadian divisions, and the French attacked between Albert and Moreuil with strong squadrons of tanks but otherwise in no great superiority. Between the Somme and the Luce they penetrated deep into our positions. The divisions in line at that point allowed themselves to be completely overwhelmed.
Divisional staffs were surprised in their headquarters by enemy tanks.
The breach very soon extended across the Luce stream; the troops that were still gallantly resisting at Moreuil were rolled up.
By the early hours of the forenoon of 8 August I had already gained a complete impression. of‘the situation. It was a very gloomy one. Six or seven divisions which could certainly be described as battle- worthy had been completely broken. Three or four others, together with the remnants of the battered divisions, were available for closing the broad gap between Bray and Roye. The situation was uncommonly serious. The report of the Staff Officer I had sent to the battlefield as to the condition of those divisions 3 which had met the first shock of the attack on the 8th perturbed me deeply ... I was told of deeds of glorious valour but also of behaviour which, I openly confess, I should not have thought possible in the German Army; whole bodies of our men had surrendered to single troopers, or isolated squadrons. Retiring troops, meeting a fresh division going bravely into action, had shouted out things like `Blackleg', and 'You're prolonging the war', expressions that were to be heard again later. The officers in many places had lost their influence and allowed themselves to be swept along with the rest. A battalion commander from the front, who came out with a draft from home shortly before 8 August, attributed this to the spirit of insubordination and the atmosphere which the men brought back with them from home. Everything I had feared and, of which I had so often given warning, had here, in one place, become a reality. Our war machine was no longer efficient. The Entente began the great offensive, the final battle of the world war, and carried it through with increasing vigour, as our decline became more apparent.
"We took 13,000 Boche that day"
Lieutenant Phelps Harding,
306th Infantry Regiment, 77th Division
American Expeditionary Force
Before we had gone far prisoners began to come in first by twos and threes, then by platoons and companies. We took 13,000 Boche that day. We passed dead men of both armies, but many more Boche than Americans. I was surprised at the indifference I felt toward dead Americans they seemed a perfectly natural thing to come across, and I felt absolutely no shudder go down my back as I would have had I seen the same thing a year ago. We kept on going forward until we reached the cresi of a hill, and here the shelling became so heavy that we made ourselves as small as possible in ditches and holes. Shells were striking all around us, and too dose for comfort. A big 'dud' — a shell that failed to explode landed in the middle of my platoon and hit a man from the Engineers on the thigh, practically taking bis leg off and tearing him up pretty badly. He died in a short time. The company at our right had sixteen casualties from this shell fire, but we, apparently being better duckers, carne out without a scratch except for the Engineer who had happened to take cover with us. After taking the shelling for possibly twenty minutes our artillery spotted the Boche batteries, which were either destroyed or withdrew, permitting us to move forward again. After this the Boche did not make much of a stand. His artillery was apparently too busy moving homeward to bother about fighting. The first day we covered nearly sixteen kilometres, reaching our objective on scheduled time. It was pretty hard work, for the going was often bad, even after leaving the front line area. It was up and down hill, and at a fairly fast pace. That night we slept on a hillside, and since then we have been moving around slightly, digging in each time, and acting as a reserve for the troops ahead who, with Engineers, are making a line of trenches andputting up wire, placing machine-guns and doing everything necessary to give the Boche a warm reception if he attempts a counter-attack. In this recent drive, our artillery moved almost as rapidly as our Infantry — sometimes faster than our kitchens and wagon trains — and a Boche battery would hardly open up before a plane would go over it, signal the battery location, and presto! American shells would drop on it. The Boche may not have had much respect for the American Army a few months ago, but from what prisoners say now, we are about as welcome as the proverbial skunk at a lawn party!
Just one more item before I end this letter: and go to inspect my platoon. We had expected to be relieved before now, but yesterday news arrived that changed all our plans. Probably my battalion will go into the new line in a day or so, possibly to stay for a fairly long period,
We may even move forward again - no one knows definitely. Anyway, you may not hear from me for a couple of week or so - longer, if we push on toward Berlin.
"No more Germans. No more artillery."
Madame Legrand Willerval
We were preparing to leave Briastre as the battle approached, but a German said, "Madame nix partie. Les Anglais venir". Others said, "Tommies kom!" etc. We went to bed, but towards morning the cannonade redoubled and we went down to the cellar and stayed there most of the day, because the fighting was very near. Towards midnight, when it became quieter, we went upstairs to bed. We were still in bed when we heard a tremendous noise outside and voices speaking with a strange intonation. A soldier in khaki came into my room, smiling broadly and said, 'Bonn' jour, Madam!' He was English! We left Briastre reluctantly, because shells were falling, even on the road we had to go along, but the English led us across the fields and into the trenches where we were sheltered. They helped us carry our baskets. They wanted to get us away out of gun-fire range and we eventually arrived at a camp filled with carts and beautiful horses with harnesses shining like the sun. All the soldiers we met said, "Bonn'jour, Madame! Comment allez-vo?" They offered us food and at first we took it gratefully. We were soon absolutely gorged, but we couldn't refuse, we had to go on eating, because: they were so pressing and good-hearted. Then at five o'clock ever so many soldiers offered us tea! The roads were broken and very bad. As we got further away from the bombarded zone, my small grandson, Edouard, after many stumbles, climbed up on a gun carriage. When we at last arrived two kilometres from Caudry, we flopped down to rest with other refugees who told us that an English officer had promised a vehicle to take them into the town. It was evening, and it had begun to rain when a wagon drawn by two superb black horses came up to take us to the Hotel de Ville in Caudry. From there we were taken to the hospice where they made up makeshift beds in a sort of wash-house. But there, at last we could breathe again. We were saved! No more Germans. No more artillery.
"Beyond was open country"
Lieutenant Phelps Harding,
306th Infantry Regiment, 77th Division
American Expeditionary Force
The last tlme I wrote you I was in Paris, having received my Commission and about ready to start for my new Division. Since then I have covered a lot of territory, both in lorries and on foot, and I have passed over a battlefield that has but recently been the scene of some mighty hard fighting - some that my new Envision and people of New York will long
My orders took me first to Chateau Thierry. You have probably read about the fighting in that city. The place is pretty badly banged up from shell fire, but not as badly as most of the smaller villages beyond it. The Huns tore things up in great shape - statues, ornaments and pictures in homes were broken and cut up as if by a band of plundering outlaws.
From Chateau Thierry my trail led toward the Ourcq River, which our men had to cross under heavy machine-gun fire and artillery shelling. Beyond was open country. You will see what a tough proposition it was when you read the casualty list for the few days when the Boche were retreating. They retreated, but they put up a stiff resistance with machine-guns, artillery and planes - and taking machine-gun nests is a real man’s job.
On the Somme again
59th Siege Battery,
Royal Garrison Artillery
In March 1918 our retreat had taken us straight across a series of the old Somme trenches. These had been bridged by the Sappers with temporary wooden bridges of doubtful strength and just wide enough to take the gun wheels, Any mistake at one of these bridges would have been disastrous - for a gun wheel dropped in a trench would have blocked the whole road. However, with the Hun behind us and perhaps not too far at that, the driving was superb. No body, nor horse, put a foot wrong. But when we were advancing across the Canal du Nord in September our route went across a large open field in which there was one solitary shell hole. One of the guns managed to put a wheel into that Shell hole! Such is the difference between withdrawing with the threat of a German bayonet behind you and advancing against crumbling opposition.
My War Memories
On 9 November, Germany, lacking any firm guidance, bereft of all will, robbed of her princes, collapsed like a house of cards. All that we had lived for, all that we had bled four long years to maintain, was gone.
We no longer had a native land of which we might be proud. Order in state and society vanished, All authority disappeared. Chaos. Bolshevism, terror, un-German in name and nature, make their entry into the German Fatherland. Soldiers' and Workmen's Councils, an institution prepared in long, systematic under round work, were now established.
Men had worked at this who might by service at the Front have secured a successful issue of the war, but who had been dubbed 'indispensable' or had deserted.
The bulk of the troops in depots, among whom the idea of revolt had long been gaining ground, went over to the side of the revolutionaries.
On the fighting-front in the west, Soldiers' Councils, with approval from high quarters, could not be formed fast enough. The new rulers and their bourgeois camp followers abandoned all resistance, and without a shred of authority signed our unconditional capitulation to a merciless enemy.
"The war will be over at 11 o'clock"
Private Frank J. H. Dunk,
Queen's Own Royal West Kent Regiment.
On 10 November, my gun team was moving forward with a troop of the 12th Lancers. We came to a farm on the road towards the Belgian village of Sevry and we went up and knocked on the front door. A woman opened it and was very surprised to see us. She put her fingers to her lips and, pointing inside, said, Boche!' When we went in, the Germans left by the back door, leaving their breakfast behind them on the table. They ran as fast as they could across the orchard and left us to eat their breakfast which was one black loaf, one tin of fat pork, a dixie of coffee made of burnt wheat. We shared it and went on to some crossroads about half a mile nearer the village. We found that it had been tunnelled ready to blow up, so we took up our positions about fifty Yards back. We had been there for about an hour when a German patrol, nine in all, came, intending to blow the crossroad up. I shouted, 'Eh up' and let fly with one pannier of bullets into the whole patrol. They ran in all directions, dropping the sticks of explosives. In the afternoon we were relieved by a Battalion of the Manchester Regiment. We went back to Solre le Chateau and we were billeted for the night in a German bread store. We had to sleep on stacks of black bread with rats running all over the place. The next morning we got up to see our Officer coming down the street in his shirt and braces with a barrel of beer on a big French wheelbarrow. He came into the billet and said 'Come on lads, the war will be over at 11 o'clock.' When the French folks heard, out came the flags and wine, beer, all sorts, and everybody got totally pickled.
"Can you realise hostilities have ceased?"
Gunner B.O. Stokes,
New Zealand Field Artillery.
France. 18 November 1918
My Dearest Mum & Dad and all, Hurrah for our side! Can you realise hostilities have ceased? I'm sure I can't. It seems too wonderful to believe, yet here there is no excitement, no celebrations, and everything is going on in the same old way. We still have horses and guns to look after, but of course we miss the screeching and screaming of the 'old gentleman's' shells. Really though, the army has taken the happenings of the past few weeks in a calm and subdued manner. Not even a cheer was raised when first we heard the official news. But away deep down there is the knowledge that soon we shall be seeing the home shores appearing on the horizon, and that is what the signing of the Armistice means to us. It means home. We are now at a village called Quesnoy near Caudry, south-east of Cambrai. We are having a good time here, but the sooner we get rid of horses, harness and guns the better. We will then realise the war is finis. The main question now is when are we going to get home. You may now address me Bombardier B. O. Stokes. While I was on leave I was promoted Bombardier, so what do you think of me now, a one-stripe artist? The war has just lasted long enough for me to get a stripe. After two years in France my turn has come round! Lots & lots of love & kisses to all. Soon be marching home again, so cheero Mum, Dad, Chris & Sid.
Your ever loving boy Bert xxx xxxxx
P.S. 30 Nov. Sorry have not been able to post this letter before, we are on our way to Germany now and are near Bavai about 5 kilos from the Belgian border.
Colonel W.N. Nicholson,
Suffolk Regiment, Staff Officer attached,
1st Highland Division.
The Armistice was timed to commence at 11 a.m. on 11 November and till that hour there was heavy firing from the German lines. A German machine-gun remained in action the whole morning opposite our lines. Just before 11 a.m., a thousand rounds were fired from it in a practically ceaseless burst. At five minutes to eleven the machine-gunner got up, took off his hat to us, and walked away. At II a.m., there came great cheering from the German lines; and the village church bells rang. But on our side there were only a few shouts. I had heard more for a rum ration. The match was over; it had been a damned bad game.
Corporal O.W. Flowers,
Motor Transport Section,
Army Service Corps.
I was with the 8-inch Howitzers and we got to the point when we were too slow. The troops was going pretty quickly following after the Germans and we couldn't keep up, so it was left to the field guns to finish it and we pulled out into fields on the roadside near Lille, between Roubaix and Tourcoing. When we heard the Armistice was signed we thought we'd have a bit of fun. There was a lot of small dumps about, ammunition and Verey lights, so we set them alight — firing shots into them, and then of course you only wanted one to go up and all the rest went. We had a real Guy Fawkes. The officers never interfered, but a bit later I was with the lads round the lorries and we was all jostling together, talking, having a bit of sport because all work had finished, and the officer came across to me. He says, 'Flowers, I want to have a word with you.' I thought it was about this stuff we'd blown up. He said, 'Come across to my office' and he linked me — and that struck such a note in my head, because I was only a corporal and there was this officer linking me with his arm!
Lyn Mcdonald, 1914-1918: Voices & Images of the Great War, Joseph, 1988