Being as I am a fan of AJP Taylor, I have long been of the view that Cock-Up- rather than Conspiracy theories of History tend to hold more water – that the great events of the past were shaped more by blunders and mishaps than devious cunning and ingenuity. This is borne out by, among other things, the various misunderstandings that shaped the development of the French Revolution, and eye-popping governmental incompetence that lay behind the outbreak of the Russian Revolution.
The course of wars, like that of revolutions, can also be rooted in mistakes or accidents, and there were few more serious than that of the sudden breakdown in discipline among the victorious German soldiers who featured in Ludendorff’s last great offensive on the Western Front in the First World War in March 1918. It was Germany’s last best hope of winning the war, and they came shocking close to doing so in those early spring days. Earlier that month they had got the Russians to sign a punitive peace treaty at Brest-Litovsk, and so could transfer many of their troops (though not all – as some were needed to hang on to their conquests in Ukraine and the Baltic) westwards – and this was at a time when US President Woodrow Wilson’s promised American soldiers hadn’t yet arrived at anything like their full numerical strength.
The attack began in the morning of 21 March 1918, and inside a week the Germans had made stunning gains, advancing twenty miles, and coming within five miles of the strategically crucial city of Amiens (situated as it was on the River Somme, smack-bang between the British and French lines). In Berlin, the Kaiser, confident of final victory, ordered a public holiday in celebration. Yet, after a week the advance in the Albert and Champagne sectors suddenly halted, and the initiative ultimately lost, with the German high command forever ruing a missed opportunity thereafter. And while it did have something to do with matters like the British and French forces’ tougher-than-expected resistance and the Germans’ over-extended supply lines, there were other, more human, reasons for the failure.
Over the previous 3½ years the Royal Navy had successfully used its vessels to seal off the North Sea at both the Dover Strait and the stretch between Scotland and Norway, seizing any ships ultimately bound for Germany and then compensating the relevant shipping firms for their lost business. The effect of this blockade was gradual starvation, with a 1928 academic study estimating it as having resulted in over 420,000 deaths. There were also the miseries of food riots and inflation. Soldiers at the front were given higher rations than civilians, but not by much. So, the first ports of call for the hungry German soldiers who captured the towns of Albert and Neuville included the Allies’ supply depots, and they duly took possession of copious amounts of cheese, sausages and wine – especially wine. Similar scenes were reported among German troops in the Champagne region.
Such behaviour held the German advance up, to put it mildly. One disgruntled officer noted how some of his soldiers had been seen “staggering” rather than drilling:
As soon as I got near I began to see curious sights. Strange figures, which looked very little like soldiers, and certainly showed no signs of advancing, were making their way back out of town. There were men driving cows before them… others who carried a hen under one arm and a box of notepaper under the other. Men carrying a bottle of wine under their arm and another one open in their hand… Men dressed up in comic disguise. Men with top hats on their heads. Men staggering. Men who could hardly walk.
Another officer, a general in the German 6th Army, reported to HQ that the offensive would have to be cancelled, as his men could not and/or would not fight. The initiative was thus lost, and the British, French, American and Belgian forces were able to use what little time they had to re-group and prepare for the next attacks. True to form, Ludendorff persisted with his grand plan, with further offensives from April to July, but each time his armies sustained ever greater losses, culminating in the final failure to take Amiens on 8 August, which was grim enough for him to dub that date the “Black Day of the German Army”.
War is first and foremost a human experience, and the reasons for how its course runs can often be very human, too. The failure of Ludendorff’s big push of 1918 had many causes, but the collapse in discipline in the Albert/Neuville and Champagne areas could well have proved crucial in how the rest of the events of 1918 panned out. Moreover, the idea that the difference between victory and defeat in the last year of the Great War hinged on various divisions of the German army deciding to forget about fighting for a bit, and instead have a huge booze-up, can’t but help raise a laugh or two…
Based in Birmingham, Dan is a journalist, broadcaster and actor.