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.
The duo’s tour of France in September of 1916 convinced them of the folly of offensive actions in the West. The casualty rate in the West was requiring a fresh division’s worth of men every day. German artillery were daily firing more shells at Verdun and the Somme alone than German industry could produce. Worse, the British and French appeared to have more available reserve divisions than Germany could muster. British conscription had allowed for nearly a fourth of their army in France to be new recruits, or so German intelligence believed.
Lt. Gen. Hermann von Kuhl, head of the Bavarian army group, summarized Berlin’s new assessment of the war in the West pithily in his diary: “I spoke…with Ludendorff…We were in agreement that a large-scale, positive outcome is now no longer possible. We can only hold on and take the best opportunity for peace.”
Germany’s best generals had both looked at the Western Front and come to the same conclusion – the war was no longer winnable in any traditional sense.
The inability to deliver a victory for Germany did not, however, assume the certainty of defeat. Hindenburg and Ludendorff still saw opportunities to force the Entente to the negotiating table.
The strategy of Erich von Falkenhayn would be reversed – Russia would driven out of the war while Germany would remain on the defensive in the West. Despite the crushing Russian victories of 1916, the Eastern Front remained fluid and the Tsar’s forces weak. A major influx of German reinforcements had been required in the East to prop up Vienna and strike back against Romania. Instead of moving those reinforcements back to the West, they would stay in the East.
The asymmetrical attempts to weaken the Western Allies would be increased. Unrestricted submarine warfare and the air campaign would resume, despite the fears from Berlin politicians of provoking an American response. Russian revolutionaries and German mountain troops in Italy would provide efforts to destabilize the Entente on other fronts as well.
The Western Front would be consolidated. The lines of defense would be shortened, and while doing so would require surrendering miles of hard-won gains, the result would be a front easier to defend. The reformed line would be 90 miles long and able to be defended by only 20 divisions, or one every 4.5 miles. Telephone cables were deeply buried and light railways built to carry supplies to the front. Instead of amassing fortifications at the primary trench, the main defense would be the second line, which was equipped with dug-outs for most of the front garrison. Fields of barbed-wire up to 100 yards deep, covered in a zig-zag position so that machine-guns could sweep the sides placed in front of the trench system. Artillery observation posts and machine-gun nests would also be built in front of and behind the trench lines. When completed, the “Hindenburg Line” would rival the Atlantic Wall just a generation later.
Tens of thousands of laborers – most of whom were Russian POWs – hurriedly constructed the line from October of 1916 to March of 1917. While the many fortifications of the Hindenburg Line were impressive in their scale and complexity, for Hindenburg and Ludendorff, the greatest value of the new front lay within the new command flexibility. Greater independence would be given to Corps commanders, who were no longer ordered to hold front-line trenches at all cost. Rather, units were encouraged to retreat but immediately counterattack if overwhelmed. The all-or-nothing philosophy of trench defense had finally given way to tactical fluidity, allowing for more men to be held in reserve, the result being fewer casualties in the front.
In five months time, Hindenburg and Ludendorff had completely changed the otherwise rigid German doctrines of warfare. But wholesale changes wouldn’t be limited to the German military.
German society had long since begun to crack under the strain of the war. Food lines, manpower shortages, and the demands of war-time industry had pushed the German people to the limits of their endurance. Hindenburg and Ludendorff would now demand even more.
“The Hindenburg Programme” would be Germany’s experiment with the concept of “total war” – a complete centralization of the German economy to provide war material. The Programme called for massive increases in heavy industrial output of weapons and ammunition, often with goals of doubling, even tripling production. Industrialists, military men, and individuals from many parts of the political spectrum would cooperate in working out the details of the Programme – some of whom would later assume the same role in Hitler’s economic and strategic-planning in the 1930s.
In December of 1916, Hindenburg’s legislative allies pushed through parliament the Patriotic Auxiliary Service Law to make every German citizen from 17 to 50 liable to involuntary wartime service. Trying to shore up labor shortages from other sources as well, Ludendorff oversaw the rounding up of tens of thousands of forced laborers from Belgium and northern France to work for the German war effort. Some parts of the Programme were never realized before the war ended: closing of universities, calling up all the weak and unfit so that they could heal at “suitable stations,” compulsory labor for the whole population in return for “food tickets” – essentially, you would only be allowed to purchase food if the State deemed you as having properly served it. As Hindenburg wrote in September 1916, “The whole German nation must live only in the service of the fatherland.”
Food supplies were already short as a result of the British Blockade, but an amazing array of substitute products had up to now staved off starvation. Now, as more of the country’s resources went into war production, food supplies dropped dramatically. Bad weather also produced a poor harvest. The first winter of the Hindenburg Programme was remembered bitterly as the Turnip Winter – the allotment of food in Berlin consisted of between two and six pounds of turnips (or, if available, two pounds of bread), less than two ounces of butter, and one ounce of margarine. Inadequate food supplies led to strikes in Berlin, the Ruhr, and other areas in early 1917 while German scientists were employed to perform lecture series on how Germany was not only not starving, but actually getting healthier from the new “war diet.”
The Hindenburg Programme may have re-committed the German populace to the war, but it achieved few of its targeted goals.
Hindenburg and his allies pointed out that his Programme had returned 125,000 skilled laborers back to their jobs and had exempted 800,000 men from the compulsive service requirements. In reality, the Programme had taken more skilled laborers than it had returned, with most of those “exempt” workers being men otherwise too infirm to possibly serve.
Steel and explosives production both missed their new production marks, and while German troops had more artillery shells and machine guns than ever before, it would come at the cost of a Germany poorer and hungrier than ever before. Only the Hindenburg Line performed as intended.
Hindenburg’s attempt at centralizing the economy likely only added to the strain placed on German production. In the end, a commitment to “total war” would have only one outcome – a total defeat and collapse of German society.