Erich Ludendorff (1865–1937) (wikipedia)

The Black Day of the German Army: 8 August 1918

“Schwarzer Tag des deutschen Heeres”,  the Black Day of the German Army – this is how Erich Ludendorff, (one of) the supreme leader(s) of the empire characterised 8 August 1918. And this day was only the beginning of the series of attacks called Hundred Days Offensive in German military history launched by the Entente that decided the First World War between August 8 and November 11 in 1918. This latter day was the date of signing the capitulation in Compiègne and of the end of the war.   

“The English started an offensive between the Ancre and the Avre. According to the German evening report, »the enemy has invaded our positions«. A few days ago, as memorable, the Germans cut their front before Amiens on both sides of the Ancre: this move was obviously based already on the calculation that the enemy’s offensive can be faced by the divisions of Crown Prince Rupprecht in better positions”, wrote Pesti Hírlap on August 9, 1918, the day after the Entente attack deciding the world war.

Though the Germans had already cut their positions earlier, for example, they gave up the Marne salient following the Entente attack on 18 July. With this move, they gave up one of their most significant conquests from 1918, but even more importantly, it reversed the course of the war: the Germans attacked until July, but after these events, the Entente took the initiative. However, the other remark of Pesti Hírlap was not true at all: Ludendorff, the German Supreme Leader did not expect the attack of the Entente in early August. This is known from the book of László Merényi on the battle of Amiens: “In the second half of July and early August, the German General Staff expected the opponent to be tired after the success of 18 July and not to launch an attack again soon.” Therefore neither the supreme leader, nor lower-level commanders paid attention to the scouting reports or to the accounts of the front soldiers, stating that there was an increasing number of tanks in the Amiens area on the Entente side and the sound of engines is continuous in the early days of August at this section of the front.

The hum of engines signalled the gathering of tanks for everyone who heard it. But the Germans did not have enough aeroplanes to carry out a more thorough aerial reconnaissance, so even though many suspected the tank attack, Ludendorff, the Supreme Leader was not prepared for defence against the battle tanks. The pretentious co-commander-in-chief, who followed outdated tactical and military strategy, made several mistakes. Not only he did not expect the tanks (even though the successes of the Entente on 18 July were partly due to their recent deployment as well as the Renault tanks with revolving turrets), but he did not expect any attacks at all. Thereby, the Germans expected the British and the French in positions that were not really strengthened. The commander of the front section where the Entente finally broke through was also aware of this – this commander was no different than Bavarian Crown Prince Rothschild, who had previously told the following about this French battlefield: “Intensive position development is neither necessary, nor expedient.”

The recent deployment of tanks meant – and this decided ultimately on the First World War and the Battle of Amiens – that the Entente deployed the tanks densely side by side, with infantry support. In the foggy weather, the British and French attackers used poor visibility to surprise the enemy. (And they even increased the fog artificially.) When, however, the weather was clear, the tanks received aerial support, so the attackers eliminated the German artillery. This is when the Entente came to the use of all-armed assault units: they did not deploy the infantry, artillery, cavalry, air force, or tanks separately, but set up units that were built on combined forces (tanks, infantry and air force) – this trio broke even the previously most unconquerable resistance points. The concrete or wire barriers, reinforced trenches, emplacements and the precise artillery were not enough protection from then on. So the end of the First World War was similar to the second one: the bunkers, trenches, reinforced emplacements were unable to withstand the bombing of the air force, the attack of tanks and the infantry accompanying and covering the tanks. The tanks themselves would be extremely vulnerable in close combats: even the infantry can stop them.

But let us have a look at what happened on August 8, 1918 according to Pesti Hírlap: “Apparently, the English offensive on the Western front is the intro to the great offensive of the Entente, which is likely to be joined by the French and American military as well. The aim of the English attack is obviously the elimination of the threat to its strategies at Montdidier; the direction of the attack points towards the Bapaume-Péronne-Roye line. ” The paper, of course, did not completely tell the truth: the American and French armies were fundamental to the attack, from the very first moment, although the greatest successes of the offensive were achieved by the 4th British Army. The Americans usually fought under the command of the English (assisted by Australian and Canadian forces), but two armies of the French, the 1st and the 3rd, formed the middle units and the southern wing of the offensive. All three armies (both the British and the two French) were under the command of the British Douglas Haig, and these forces were also referred to as Haig’s army groups. Pesti Hírlap also highlighted the bold acts of the British commander on August 10 and asked the question: “How could Haig achieve such a success similar to which he has never boasted about and the size of which on the first day of the attack can be equated with what the German offensives produced during the first attack?” The paper provided several answers, but only Ludendorff is worth mentioning, who explained it with the fog and tanks – quite narrowly. In fact, at that time, the Entente already had twice as many soldiers than the Germans. In addition, they filled up the lines of the exhausted British with fresh American forces, and in the summer of 1918, separate American units appeared on the Western front. In comparison, the Germans have already mobilized the 17-year-old age group, whose members lost their lives in masses due to the Entente’s offensive.

Montdidier, mentioned by Pesti Hírlap, eventually did not get out of the focus of the attack: this settlement was attacked by the 10th and 35th French corps, and this French town was one of the southernmost targets of the offensive. Bapaume, Péronne, and Roye were indeed in the direction where the Entente’s forces were proceeding, but on the first day, on August 8, the Western Allies did not yet arrive here. Until August 12, they only got close to Roye from the three towns. (Roye lies along the river Avre, this river significantly made the Entente’s advance in the area more difficult.)

Of course, on August 9, Pesti Hírlap could not yet know when reporting on the news of the German headquarters what would happen a few days later; but it also reported on the situation on the 8th in a misleading manner, writing about the Western war theater, about the army group of Crown Prince Rupprecht as follows: “We have beaten back partial advances of the English on both sides of the Lys. to the north of the Somme The enemy fiercely attacked our new positions to the north of the Somme, on both sides of the Bray-Corbie road, which we repelled. During the night, we experience artillery reconnaissance and combat operations from time to time. To the west from Montdidier, a partial attack by the French failed.” All this – and the other not-quoted quibbling news – would have been reassuring, but there were two sentences, the two latest sentences at the end of the news that dropped the whole circumlocution. “German evening report: (evening of 8 August) The English attack between the Ancre and the Avre. The enemy has invaded our positions.”

The meaning of the last sentence is more obvious from the next day’s Pesti Hírlap. On 10 August, the paper wrote in the article entitled “The first day of the offensive of the Entente at Amiens”, which also quoted a British report – this time, in accordance with the happenings –: “According to the Reuter report”, the Entente advanced “at a depth of 18 kilometres“, “captured 10000 captives and seized 100 cannons”.

The paper attempted to fake the events, referring to the deceptive reports of the German General Staff. The following was written: “According to Ludendorff’s report, the hostile push was stopped directly to the east of the Morcourt-Harbonnières-Caix-Fresnoy-Contoire line by German reserves; it is therefore probable that the enemy originally got deeper to the east and only a rapid counter-attack could bring Haig’s advancing divisions down.” The newspaper mixed reality with imagination: there were indeed German counter-attacks, but they did not stop the attack of the Entente, but they devoured seven or eight German divisions. The attackers quickly eliminated the isolated centres of resistance, and on 12th, they achieved significant territorial gains. However, the psychological impact of the offensive was far more demoralizing. German soldiers surrendered in large numbers, which the military leadership tried to conceal from the public, but Ludendorff was aware of it. He even resigned from his post during the attack by the Entente, but the offensive indeed came to a halt in the middle of August, so sadly for Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, the Commander-in-Chief remained in his post and due to his stubbornness, he continued to hinder the conclusion of peace, or more specifically, Germany from making a peace offer that is also acceptable for the Entente.

Germany’s leaders started to use tactics in order to achieve somewhat better peace conditions by holding back the British, French and American advances that had indeed come to a halt on August 15 and playing with time. However, this tactic failed in the autumn, when the Balkan allies of the Germans, Bulgaria and Turkey collapsed, and the Monarchy was unable to keep up thereafter. In addition, the Entente did not leave time for the Germans to settle their forces in the West either, after August 20, the most strengthened German defence posts were also broken through, using the already mentioned combined units (tanks, infantry, air force).

In 1974, however, József Galántai historian explained the decisive success of the Entente not only with tactical and tactical novelties: “At the beginning of the year, there were only 170,000 American soldiers in France, in July there were already 1,200,000, with a huge mass of military equipment. In this success, finding the methods of making German diving boats harmless after the serious losses of the first months also played a significant role.” He characterised the course and consequences of the Battle of Amiens as follows: “The emperor and the German army, who had trusted in planned defence, were shaken. In his memoir, (…) Ludendorff called 8 August the »Black Day« of the German army in the history of the world war. However, at the Crown Council on 14 August, Germany’s leaders still hoped that they could end the war while keeping the conquered territories – and not just in the east.”

However, A. J. P. Taylor British historian interprets the events slightly differently. In his view, Ludendorff realized on 15 August that the war has to be finished not by victory, but by concluding peace. However, the German supreme leader was wrong when he thought that he can wait with the conclusion of peace until 1919. Finally, the last British, French and American offensive began on September 26 in the West but the real success was, according to Taylor, achieved by the Entente on the Balkan fronts: on 29 September, Bulgaria asked for armistice and thereby “the gate of Southern Europe was opened“. Ludendorff was no longer able to hurry to help the fighters on the Balkan front. He needed each and every soldier in the West, so “the war ended when the »Western« and the »Eastern« strategy was combined” on the part of the Entente.

So 8 August was a black day, the beginning of the end – but not the end. The Entente still needed the Hundred Days offensive after 8 August to force Germany to capitulate on November 11, 1918. Taylor even noted about the “black day” that the positions lost then were not strategically essential, even more, the “one-month fight until 12 September did not cut the German line anywhere“. In addition, the Entente’s human loss was greater. However, according to the British historian, “the real effect of August 8 was psychological: it made the hope in victory vanish, which had led the Germans forward. Until then, the German soldiers had been told that this would be the decisive battle. Now they understood that it was indeed. They did not want victory any more. They only wanted to finish fighting.”

This is also supported by the joint work of Tibor Hajdu and Ferenc Pollmann: on 8 and 9 August, 30,000 soldiers of the Germans were captured, which resulted in the sinking of the morale of the army. The break-up of the army was also shown by the sudden increase of the number of people missing: from 18,000 to 119,000. From March to September, the German army lost 1.34 million people, which the empire could not replace any more. The German military leadership had to fall sooner or later. Delaying the fall eventually resulted in the significant deterioration of the situation of the country and the German allies as well.

References:
Az angolok offenzívát kezdtek az Ancre és Avre között = Pesti Hírlap, 1918. augusztus 9.
Esti német jelentés = Pesti Hírlap, 1918. augusztus 9.
Az amiens-i antant offenzíva első napja = Pesti Hírlap, 1918. augusztus 10.
Galántai József: Magyarország az első világháborúban 1914–1918. Budapest, 1974.
Merényi László: Amiens, 1918. Budapest, 1986.
J. P. Taylor: Az első világháború képes krónikája. Budapest, 1988.
Hajdu Tibor–Pollmann Ferenc: A régi Magyarország utolsó háborúja. 1914–1918. Budapest, 2014.

Written by: Iván Miklós Szegő