The great retreat of '17 in the soldiers' words

The Hindenburg Line was conceived as an impressive line of strategic retreat, behind which bleed the Allies, waiting for the German industry and the situation at the front would lay the favourable conditions to launch the final assault on the Anglo-French. It was built through a salient of the German front, so the Deutsches Heer would have shortened their front fifty kilometres, taking the availability of thirteen divisions and fifty heavy artillery batteries. The new line was long 140 km and could seat about twenty divisions, two every 7 kilometres. The telephone wires were buried deep, while light rail could supplies to defences quickly. The first line consisted of two trenches placed at about 180 m away, with advanced trenches to break and canalise the enemy advance to the machine guns. The main defence was the second line, which was equipped with dugouts, barbed wire fields more than 90 m deep and placed in a zigzag, allowing the machine guns to sweep a wide range of shooting. During the retreat, the Germans adopted a “scorched earth” policy, destroying anything that might be useful to the occupants, deporting bodied men and disseminating the land of booby traps. For their part, the Allies did not grasp the German preparations and only belatedly tried to impede the retreat. Numerous testimonies - both Germans and Allied - report the great hopes in the retreat of ‘17, as well as there are numerous references to the devastation carried out by the Germans.

 

German retreat

From My War Memories of General Ludendorff

         The decision to retreat was not reached without a painful struggle. It implied a confession of weakness bound to raise the morale of the enemy and lower our own. But as it was necessary for military reasons, we had no choice; it had to be carried out. [...] The fact that much property belonging to the inhabitants was destroyed was to be deplored, but it could not be helped. The bulk of the population was transferred eastwards, only a small proportion being collected in certain places, such as Noyon, Ham and Nesle, and provided with rations for several days and if behind. On the one hand it was desirable not to make a present to the enemy of too much fresh strength in the form of recruits and labourers, and on the other we wanted to foist on him as many mouths to feed as possible. […] The great retreat began on March 16th, according to plan, and was carried through without a break in a few great stages. The object of GHQ was in general to avoid battle, and to allow the troops time to prepare the Siegfried Line before the enemy reached it in superior force. […] The Entente armies followed closely on the heels of our retiring forces and tried to make out that our retreat was a great success for themselves [...] As a matter of fact they had not gained any military triumph. Thanks also to the false intelligence we had circulated, they had not even interfered with our work of demolition and clearance. The whole movement was a brilliant achievement on the part of both commanders and troops, and is evidence of the careful foresight and work of the German General Staff.

 

“An orgy of destruction was going on”

Lieutenant Ernst Junger

73rd Hanoverian Fusiliers

         The villages we passed through as we marched to the front line had the appearance of lunatic asylums let loose. Whole companies were pushing walls down or sitting on roofs of the houses throwing down the slates. Trees were felled, window-frames broken, and Smoke and clouds of dust rose from heap after heap of rubbish. In short, an orgy of destruction was going on. The men were chasing round with incredible zeal, arrayed in the abandoned wardrobes of the population in women's dresses and with top hats on their heads. With positive genius they singled out the main beams of the houses and, tying ropes round them, tugged with all their might, shouting out in time with their pulls, till the whole house collapsed. Others swung hammers and smashed whatever came in their way. From flower pots on the window ledges to the glass work of conservatories. Every village up to the Siegfreid line was a rubbish-heap. Every tree felled, every road mined, every water-course dammed, every cellar blown up or made into a death-trap with concealed bombs, all supplies or metal sent back, all rails ripped up, all telephone wire rolled up, everything burnable burned. In short, the country over which the enemy were to advance had been turned into utter desolation.

 

Chasing the Germans

Private William Parry-Morris

1st Royal Welch Fusiliers

       We suddenly discovered one night that the Germans had retreated. The German Army retreated all the way from the Somme, right back to the Hindenburg Line. We followed the Germans up and although they were retreating, they fought what we call rear guard actions in all the villages that they retreated to. They would stop at a village and try to hold us back for as long as they could ... The village of Serre, Gommecourt, Bucquoy...about eight or nine villages and each time we lost a lot of men in these attacks.

 

Booby Traps

An anonymous Post Office Rifles fusilier

        In casting one's eye memory back to the German withdrawal on the Western Front in the early part of 1917, a host of place names came to mind, Miraumont, Mory, Achiet-le-Grand, Achiet-le-Petit, Gommecourt, Behagnies, Loupar Wood. To mention but a few, but with the passage of time the association of places with particular incidents has, in my case, faded. But I recall vividly the extreme caution which had to be exercised in the course of our follow-up, [...], owing to the large number of 'booby traps' which had been set to which in the earlier days some of our chaps fell victim, in some instances due to an over eagerness to acquire souvenirs! I remember a German helmet, left hanging temptingly on the wall of an abandoned trench, which on being lifted triggered off several explosions. Then there were the detonated duck-boards which wreaked havoc when trodden upon. This type of trap was responsible for quite a number of casualties. And there was a brazier standing outside a dug-out, neatly filled with coke and shavings and just waiting to be ignited to afford heal to a Tommy's cooker. We did not fall for this one fortunately and it was carefully dismantled, revealing a neat wad of high explosives. The entering of dug-outs was a highly dangerous undertaking because in most instances they contained traps of varying nature. We usually threw Mills bombs down the entrances of these and passed on. Delayed action mines were another feature of this period and I remember one of these which went off at a busy crossroads probably a week or more after the German evacuation, causing destruction of divisional transport and very heavy casualties among the troops gathered there. The resulting cavity was large enough to accommodate a church! Throughout their withdrawal, the enemy practised what in later years would be described as a “scorched earth” policy. Trees were felled across all roads, water supplies contaminated and all villages in the vacated area razed to the ground. This latter destruction was so complete that the villages were no longer recognizable as such, and in consequence it became commonplace for the British troops to erect a signboard at the entrance to each with its name, e.g. “This is Mory”. The optimism of many of us was sadly removed when, upon reaching the limit of the German withdrawal, we were confronted with the new strongly fortified line, which for us was to result in the grim battle of Bullecourt, in the course of which many P.O.R.s laid down their lives.

 

 

The Champagne in the Pond

Major R. Macleod

C.241 Battery, Royal Field Artillery

         I have been over most of the reconquered country now. In one village a civilian came along in a cart and started dragging box after box out of a filthy pond near a ruined farmhouse, and loading them on his cart. We asked him what he was doing, and he said that when the Germans advanced here in 1914 he had dumped all his cases of champagne in the pond so that they wouldn't find them. They had lain there for two and a half years. He presented us with a case. We did not much fancy the idea of drinking it after lying at the bottom of a dirty pond for so long, but when we opened a bottle in our mess that night it tasted excellent. The Germans seem to have indulged in an orgy of destruction. Houses, and even whole villages, have been blown up and burnt, and nearly all trees have been cut down. The few houses left standing have been thoroughly looted. There may be some military object in destroying villages. The Germans may think that it will delay our offensive if there is nowhere to billet our troops, and we have to get up hutting or other accommodation for them. The systematic destruction of trees has no military object that one can see. In fact, the Germans have provided us with an almost unlimited quantity of firewood, and wood for repair of roads, etc. The fruit trees and trees along roads that they have not had time to cut down have been ringed round so that they will eventually die. The only object seems to be political. They seem to be trying to handicap France so that when the war is over all her resources for some years will be spent in restoring the invaded country, and she will not be able to compete with Germany in trade. The bad weather, I think, hampers us rather more than the Huns, as we have to advance over the strafed country which has been very much cut up by shell fire. The Germans have blown up several crossroads, but the success of their object is doubtful as a track round them can be made very quickly. I am keeping fit. I have not very much work to do, but it takes me a long time to get anywhere now owing to the long distances to be covered.

 

From the Allies’ point of view, the German retreat was seen as a success. Undoubtedly, after the great pressure exerted on the Somme by the British and the stubborn French resistance in Verdun, the German General Staff was forced to rethink the strategy. However, the Germans were far from the surrender, while the new defensive line was suited to a protracted war. The extent of German defences impressed so much the Allies that the "breaking" of Hindenburg Line became the "yardstick" to measure the success or the failure of an operation and of the outcome of the war itself, giving further credence to the theoretical “offensive to the bitter end”. During the Battle of Arras - unleashed by the British in April 1917 - the Germans were taken by surprise by the creeping barrage of artillery, from percussion fuses, and the use of underground mines, so much so that they were forced to abandon the first two lines of defence and, partially, the third. Although the early and overwhelming British advance - was even fielded the cavalry to give greater emphasis to the success - was soon arrested in front of the Wotanstellung between the river Scarpe and Hendecourt-lès-Cagnicourt, with increasing losses for the attackers. The battle ended with the capture of Bullecourt between 3 and 16 May, winning paid dearly by Australian troops. For the standards of that time, the battle was a great military success with the breakthrough of some points of the Hindenburg line, the conquest of Vimy Ridge, and the advance of several kilometres, which proved spectacular in a war where the results were measured in a few hundred meters. However, analysing the strategic environment the clash ended in a stalemate, with about 150,000 Allied and 120,000 German losses. Numerous testimonies reconstruct the stages of the battle, the enthusiasm aroused during the initial advance, the tragic crash of the offensive in the face of impenetrable German defences:

 

“To win a battle was a new experience for me”

Captain R.J. Trousdell

7th Royal Irish Fusiliers

          Easter Monday, 9 April Breakfasted at our assembly area near St Nicholas and proceeded to the attack at 10 a.m. The first attack commenced at 7.30. Prisoners began to appear in large numbers soon after the show began. They must have run to us from 'Zero' itself and they looked delighted when they reached the cage. It was an encouraging sight for our men. The 9th Division carried out the attack in front of us, our job being to pass through them on the Blue or Black line and establish ourselves in the dim distance beyond Fampoux. This we considered a perfectly impossible task and hardly took it seriously, expecting to be switched as a reinforcement somewhere else. But we were wrong. It was a grand success and we gained our objective with very slight losses, taking Fampoux and the 4th German trench system, over 20 guns and about 250 prisoners. Total bag for the Corps about 3,000. The attack seems to have been successful all along the line. It was a most exciting day. To win a battle was a new experience for me. We moved on about 3 p.m., when our troops advanced and we saw them crossing the distant rise as though they were on parade. It was a magnificent sight. Tuesday 10 April It was much colder today and snow fell. Moved our HQ from the railway cutting to a cellar at l'Abbayette — a ruined farmhouse on the northern outskirts of Athies. Several of us shared a heap of filthy straw. The General has a large double bed in the next cellar which bed also serves as our mess table!

 

“from a copse on our right there emerged the Cavalry”

Corporal J.G. Mortimer MM

10th Battalion - The York and Lancaster Regiment

          When zero hour arrived the officer would blow a whistle. If you didn't hear it you saw everybody mounting the parapet, so you did the same and on you went, with the best of luck and a spoonful of rum. On the tenth we went over the top in the second wave and we passed through the first wave when they reached their objective on the Hindenburg Line. We carried on until we reached a network of shallow trenches at the front of Monchy-Le-Preux where we avere ordered to stay put and we spent the night in these trenches. It was open ground between these trenches and Monchy-Le-Preux. Just after dawn, we got the surprise of our lives when from a copse on our right there emerged the Cavalry. It was a thrilling sight to see them line up in one long line. Then, with the officer and standard-bearer in the centre they set up a yell and set off hell for leather towards Monchy-Le-Preux. We all stood up in the trench and yelled with them. The element of surprise was on their side because they got half-way to Monchy before the Germans realised what was happening then all hell was let loose and Jerry threw everything he had got at them. They disappeared into the village, where they must have dismounted because groups of about eight to ten horses were brought back to the copse, each group led by one man. They captured Monchy. But at what a price of horses and men!

 

“Come on, let's get this bloody job over!”

Rifleman Ralph Langley

16th battalion – King’s Royal Rifle Corps

          The funny part about it is that you don't feel things so much going forward. It's when you're being shot at, when you stop, that's when you get the wind up — before you get moving to go over the top and then again when you get to the other side. Of course they got their guns on us when we were going across No Man's Land — and it was such a wide space to go across. I should think it was two thousand yards from where we started — it was certainly a mile — a long distance, because the Germans had fallen back towards the Hindenburg Line and we didn't have our noses right up against it. I remember cursing as we were going across this great wide space and thinking that the Higher-ups had put us in to test us. We got tested all right! It had been snowing all night and we were wet through. We were happy lads! It went on snowing all the time we were advancing, and when we got up towards the German wire, our guns that had been shelling it to smash it up, didn't lift soon enough for us. So we laid out there for some minutes, and there was a little Jock officer he'd only just joined us — and he said, “Come on, let's get this bloody job over!” Off we went - and just as we got up to the wire the Germans got me through the leg with a bullet. A rifle bullet. You could see them tiring at us. And there were machine-guns going too, but being five or ten metres apart they didn't get as many of us as they might have done. I don't know what the Generals wanted to do that attack for, because it was murder, it was often spoken of between us. They had a job to do, of course, but there were too many lives lost.

 

Into the Barbed Wire

Private Oswald Blows

28th Battalion - 7th Brigade

               When our line went forward to the wire they were mown down by enemy machine guns, when the wire was reached, it was almost intact. Our guns opened up more at 12.15 and then some played on the barbed wire and amongst our own men, and what with the enemies' artillery, […] bombs and machine guns, men dropped in dozens, many on the wire. It was impossible to get through, the barbed barrier was thick, and the enemy being in the know, he put up a living hell. Shell holes were filled with dead, dying and wounded men, and others, and so it was till daybreak. No one retiring until ordered to do so. The boy's all fought gamely, up against certain death whenever they stood up, and the whole ground was swept with shrapnel.

 

Bibliography:

Lyn MacDonald, 1914-1918: Voices and Images of the Great War, Penguin Books, 1988

Paul Kendall, Bullecourt 1917: Breaching the Hindenburg Line, The History Press Ltd, 2010