How the war was won

The primary reason for the Allies' dramatic victory over Germany in 1918 was their ability to win the tactical and technological war on the western front, argues Jeremy Black

German Spring Offensive: reserve troops in Saint Quentin on their way to the front, March 1918. (Photo by ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

This article was first published in the June 2011 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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In January 1918, many thought a German victory in the First World War possible. Defeat and revolution had left Russia tottering and at Brest-Litovsk in March the Bolsheviks accepted harsh German terms. This allowed large numbers of German troops to transfer from the eastern to the western front. On 21 March 1918, the Germans launched the first of their spring offensives, devastating the British Fifth Army on the Somme. That day, 21,000 British troops were captured and the British pushed back, leading Viscount Ebrington to note in May: “I am where I was in March and April 1915 – little did we think we should be here now.” Yet, six months later the Allies had won the war and Germany was suing for peace. How did this happen?

Q: What explanations have traditionally been offered for the German defeat?

A: Allied victory has been explained in two different fashions. Some accounts focus on Allied forces out-fighting the German army on the western front. Others emphasise, instead, the German internal crisis created by the strains of the war, specifically the Allied blockade of the country.

The latter approach has tended to predominate, and the extent to which the Allies bettered the Germans militarily has not received the attention it deserves, including among the victors. The Germans, in particular, preferred the ‘stab-in-the-back’ legend, attributing defeat to leftwing disaffection at home, an argument that was to be employed by the Nazis. Yet, in reality, the German forces in 1918 were defeated and dramatically driven back on the western front, in the very theatre where their strength was concentrated.

Q: So assuming that 1918 was very much a military victory, how were the Allies able to achieve this? Was it the impact of the Americans?

A: In April–October 1918, over 1,600,000 American troops crossed the Atlantic, transforming a German superiority on the western front of 300,000 men in March 1918 to an Allied one of 200,000 men four months later. This was the largest movement to date of troops across an ocean.

The Americans were fresh and well fed, and had the war continued longer, they would have made a crucial difference – not least as they would have been better trained and many would have been blooded. The knowledge that they would be a factor certainly helped stiffen Allied resolve and influenced the German Supreme Army Command. From July, when they formed part of the effective French-commanded Marne counter-offensive, the Americans made a difference to the fighting.

Q: What about developments in weaponry?

A: Artillery was very important. By 1918, Allied offensives were far more sophisticated than earlier in the war, featuring precise control of the infantry, massive artillery support, and better communications between the two.

German officers no longer felt they could rely on their units. For the first time, significant numbers of troops deserted

With 440 heavy artillery batteries in November 1918, compared to six in 1914, the British army had far more firepower to call upon too. British gunnery inflicted considerable damage on German defences. The use of the creeping barrage (where artillery fire advanced slowly in front of the troops) had developed appreciably, as had counter-battery doctrine, science and tactics.

Aside from artillery-infantry co-ordination, the British had successfully developed planned indirect firepower. In contrast to direct fire (which relies on a direct line of sight between the weapon and its target), the use of indirect fire depended on accurate intelligence including the extensive use of aerial photography as well as of sound ranging, surveying and meteorology. The use of artillery indirect fire has been seen as the birth of the modern style of warfare in that it signalled the advent of three-dimensional conflict. Artillery certainly emerged as the key element in after-action reports in 1918.

Q: One important weapon introduced in the conflict was the tank. How useful an innovation was that for the Allies?

A: The British and French easily out-produced the Germans in tanks, and their availability contributed to a strong sense that the Germans had lost the advantage. However, as was only to be expected of a weapon that had not had a long process of peacetime development, there were major problems with the reliability of tanks – and these were exacerbated by the shell-damaged terrain across which they had to operate. Many tanks broke down even before reaching the assault point, and in battle tanks rapidly became unfit for service. They were not yet a fast-moving mechanised force.

Q: Were there tactical improvements on the Allied side during the First World War?

A: Tactics were linked to technology, and the tactical dimension was important: more and better guns alone did not suffice. This dimension reflected the long-term development of training, organisation and equipment, one that began for the British in 1915 and gathered pace in 1916. The rapid infantry advance tactics that the British, like the Germans, employed in the latter stages of the war were linked to the development of more portable weapons, which could be carried forward by the infantry while still providing considerable firepower. Grenades, both thrown by hand and fired from rifles, were important, as were lightweight machine guns and mortars, and light artillery pieces.

The British also developed ‘deep battle’, in which they bombarded targets beyond the front, including reinforcements and headquarters. This development benefited greatly from aerial reconnaissance and air-ground support – all made possible by advanced and reliable aircraft, which were not available to the British before 1917.

Q: How did the Allied military leadership contribute to victory?

A: Command factors were significant to Allied success. There were mistakes in planning and execution but, by 1918 – alongside improvements in the effectiveness of staff work at the General Headquarters and at corps headquarters – British commanders had greater relevant operational experience than in 1916. The adoption of unity of command under Ferdinand Foch in the last few months of the war also greatly helped the Allies.

Q: How was Germany finally overcome?

A: By late October 1918, the continuation of the Allied advance indicated that this campaign was to be different from the others. Not only had the Allies overcome the tactical problems of trench warfare, but they had also developed the mechanisms and deployed the resources necessary to sustain their advance in the face of continued resistance, and across a broad front.

The Allies broke through successive German defence lines, and defeat hit German morale. This led to a loss of fighting resilience and of unit cohesion, a situation exacerbated by the increasing superiority of Allied forces. Large numbers of troops surrendered as the Germans were pushed back onto the defensive, and German officers no longer felt they could rely on their units. For the first time in the war, significant numbers of German troops deserted. On 26 October, German commander Ludendorff was dismissed. The German army had been beaten.

The Allies also defeated Germany’s allies: Bulgaria, Turkey and Austria. The first to go was Bulgaria, and its collapse showed how quickly an army could be defeated and how rapidly a state could give in. Launched on 15 September, an Allied attack on the Salonica front rapidly met with complete success. Allied troops were on Bulgarian soil by 25 September, and within days the Bulgarians were asking for an armistice. The news led Ludendorff, on 29 September, to also recommend an armistice. However his decision was probably more affected by Allied successes on the western front than events in south-east Europe.

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Jeremy Black is professor of history at the University of Exeter and author of The Great War and the Making of the Modern World. (Continuum, 2011).