We’ve fallen a little behind on our World War I series. Over the next few months, we’re going to work to get caught-up to the calendar.
For months, the rumors had trickled through the Entente lines in France. From the highest levels of government, down to the individuals soldiers in their trenches, talk had persisted that after a year of bloodshed, and the loss of over 960,000 dead, the German army might finally begin to retreat.
On March 14, 1917, the rumors appeared to become facts. Following several weeks of localized German retreats, the British 4th Army at Sailly-Saillisel in the Somme region began to spot the early signs of a massive German withdrawal. Cautiously, British and French units began to advance – the Germans had used similar withdrawal tactics in 1914, luring Entente soldiers into salients and then attacking at the edges of the withdrawal; a sort of Great War pincer maneuver. Yet as the British and French occupied territory long since lost, no counter-attack occurred. Almost 10 miles past the original front, the armies of the Entente met at Nesle, their forces so congested into the abandoned front that the resulting march halted due to the traffic jam.
For the Entente, the retreat signified Germany’s weakening position. In reality, the Germans had retreated behind a nearly impregnable wall of concrete bunkers and interlocked defenses. After nearly three years of war, Germany was learning from the slaughter of the trenches. The newly built German line might have been formally called the Siegfriedstellung or Siegfried Position, but as the brainchild of the Chief of the German General Staff Paul von Hindenburg, the “Hindenburg Line” would be the lynch-pin of Germany’s solution to the conflict – an embrace of “total war.”
From the earliest days of the Great War, German strategy had been to force a conclusion on the Western Front. Whether represented by offensives such as the Schlieffen Plan or Verdun, the German General Staff had operated under the assumption that France and Britain could be knocked out of the war. Despite ample evidence that Russia was the far weaker of the major powers of the Entente, General Staff Chief Erich von Falkenhayn had persistently vetoed shifting German resources to the East. The pure vastness of Russia – in terms of territory, manpower and apparent indifference to casualties – had historically bested other commanders. Falkenhayn was determined not to join their company.
By the fall of 1916, such views had changed along with the General Staff’s leadership. In a conflict that had disgraced countless generals, Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff had risen by their successes on Berlin’s secondary front. Winning battles against the Russia juggernaut with far fewer men, and despite being encumbered by the failings of their Austro-Hungarian ally, Hindenburg and Ludendorff were seen as the ideal candidates to solve the bloody dilemma of the Western Front. Continue reading