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Campaigns of World War One:
The Allies overestimating German losses believed that just one more major offensive would be enough to break through their lines. This caused them to rejected German peace overtures made at this time that largely called for a return to the old status quo. General Nivelle was determined to launch another major offensive with British help at Champagne salient, but just before the attack in March, the German withdrew to the Hindenburg Line disrupting his plans. Refusing to call off his plans to break the German line and end the War, Nivelle launched an attack against the new German positions at Chemin des Dames in mid-April. The offensive dragged on into May with the French capturing portions of the ridge at a tremendous cost but no breakthrough was made. Nivelle’s optimism made his failure more acute.
To support the Nivelle offensive, Field Marshal Haig’s British Expeditionary Force renewed it attempts to pin down German reserves. At Arras they managed to gain some ground, but the real bright spot was the well planned attack by the Canadians of the dominating heights at Vimy Ridge in April, which the Germans had heavily fortified early in the War and held against numerous attempts to take it. Though a success, the battle was only meant to be a diversion to the French attack at Champagne that failed, so its value was limited.
Taken as a whole the Nivelle offensive of April and May were a disaster. The losses from these failures were so high that many French units began to question their leadership and mutiny. At first French troops only refused to move up to the front lines, but eventually the mutiny took on political tones as they became evermore agitated by Bolshevik influence. Nivelle was then replaced in May by General Philippe Petain who began to quell this potentially disastrous situation by halting futile attacks. A mixture of arrests, executions, and providing French soldiers with better quality food and other amenities, which had been very poor up to this time, began to halt the mutiny’s momentum. Strict use of censorship prevented news of the situation from reaching the Germans. Although French morale would continue to improve as the War went on, some of these troops could never be relied on again to do more than defend their positions.
Morale was usually the lowest among colonial troops serving in France because they were not only far from home but they often faced an unaccustomed diet and a disagreeable climate. While some have claimed their high rate of casualties, three times that of white solders, was due to the indifference of generals, it is most likely based in another form of racism. The Senegalese were perceived by many whites as having a naturally savage nature that made them the perfect for the role of shock troops. Despite all this they remained loyal fighters and were not to be found among the mutineers. While the French made use of colonial troops from all their colonies, it was the Senegalese that were most often pictured on postcards. They appear in great numbers on both French and German cards, perhaps more than there actual presence might dictate. This may be due to them being perceived as curiosities, and their colorful uniforms also enlivened the appearance of the card. There presentation however is quite different on French and German cards. While most French cards show them in camp or as brave soldiers, they tend to be mowed down in great numbers on German cards. Despite these different approaches to the same subject, both depictions are probably quite accurate.
Continued losses to the U-boat war at sea prompted the United States to declare war on Germany in April. Despite its long neutral stance, President Wilson had already seen to it that Britain received both weapons and loans but now they could be provided in even greater abundance. The first troops of the American Expeditionary Force would arrive in France under the command of General Pershing in June. General Petain saw to it that they not only received the heavy weapons they so desperately needed but had additional training as well. Despite this help, the Allies wanted American troops to be divided up to reinforce their own depleted ranks. Pershing knew he must keep his army together to achieve President Wilson’s political objectives, so he ignored these demands and kept the Americans out of action. This would be a point of contention for the rest of the War.
Far away from home with a lot of money in their pockets and time to spare, they became a prime audience for postcards. French postcards were already being made to cater to the English speaking British Expeditionary Force but their production picked up greatly with the arrival of the Americans. Many were published with both French and English captions and some entirely in English. While many of these cards depict American troops they are lacking in drama as they were not yet deployed on the front lines.
After the failure of the Nivelle offensive in spring, the French mutiny caused great concern among the Allies. To distract the Germans from noticing this potentially disastrous situation, the British resumed their offensive around Ypres. Field Marshal Haig had hoped to achieve a major breakthrough that would allow him to seize the Belgian coast and eliminate it as a base for German U-boats. To help in this operation a large amphibious assault on the coast above Nieuport (Operation Hush) was to be made once a breakthrough was achieved. Haig’s offensive opened with an attack on Messines Ridge in June, which only gained him some devastated land.
The particular features of certain battles raised public interest in them over others, and postcard publishers responded accordingly. One such incident that caught the public’s attention was the attack on Messines Ridge that began with the detonation of an expansive network of mines. The explosion supposedly devastated the German defenses along with thousands of its defenders, which allowed the British to take the position. This battle was celebrated as a great coup but it was all propaganda. The trenches were indeed destroyed and the ridge removed from the landscape in a dramatic fashion, but there were few Germans there as they had pulled back their line in anticipation of this attack. Drama and propaganda value ensured this event would be publicized on postcards despite its lack of any real significance. These cards have helped propagate the myth until it became the standard historical narrative.
After taking Messines Ridge Haig’s followup was delayed by a long bombardment of his line with mustard gas shells that caused substantial casualties. In July the British finally launched their main drive toward Passchendaele (Third Ypres) but it achieved little as oncoming storms made the already muddy terrain nearly impassible. Enemy defenses here was already formidable as the difficulty in digging trenches in water saturated ground had led the Germans to rely on strengthening their line with many concrete pillboxes.
With the timeline for favorable tides that would support a British amphibious landing on the Belgian coast drawing to a close, an attack toward Langemarck was conceived. Bad weather pushed it off until mid August when the ground dried out a bit. To the north near Dixmude, the Germans had flooded the countryside to protect their line but the French making a concentrated attack in this sector still managed to capture the bridgehead at Drie Grachten, which secured the British flank. It also demonstrated the feasibility of the new tactics adopted by General Petain, which boosted French morale. The British attack only managed to gain some modest ground before being pushed back in a counterattack. German attempts to exploit their success also failed as they were thrown back with heavy casualties. With the British no longer able to support the attack against the German marines holding the Belgian coast, the amphibious assault was canceled.
With the timeline for favorable tides that would support a British amphibious landing on the Belgian coast drawing to a close, an attack toward Langemarck was conceived. Bad weather pushed it off until mid August when the ground dried out a bit. To the north near Dixmude, the Germans had flooded the countryside to protect their line but French attacking in this sector still managed to capture the bridgehead at Drie Grachten, which secured the British flank. The British attack only managed to gain some modest ground before being pushed back in a counterattack. German attempts to exploit their success also failed as they were thrown back with heavy casualties. With the British no longer able to support the attack against the German marines holding the Belgian coast, the amphibious assault was canceled.
By August the French army had not yet completely recovered from its mutinous state, though Petain had restored enough morale to launch another offensive against the German lines at Verdun. Although the Germans had been reinforced since their last poor showing at the end of 1916, the French still managed to regain a good portion of their old defensive line. While this set them up in a good position for a further drive up the Meuse, they had reached the end of their offensive capabilities. Though the Germans were driven back they still posed a substantial danger to Verdun, but they were also too exhausted to launch a new offensive. This front had finally stalemated. While this was the first real French victory of note, very little of this fighting appears on French postcards because propagandists had already claimed this territory was recovered back in 1916.
The British would make another attempt to break the German line with an offensive against Cambrai in November. The German defenses here were extensive but the British added the greatest number of tanks yet deployed to their arsenal. When the attack came they ripped through the bands of barbed wire, and many panicked Germans abandoned their forward defenses. The generous use of tanks was largely responsible for the breakthrough and the steady advance over the days that followed. While tanks could inspire terror, they weren’t very reliable machines and the Germans were discovering ways to destroy them. As the number of tanks in service dwindled, the Germans finally counterattacked regaining all ground they lost and more.
The Battle of Cambrai was another example of drama and propaganda usurping reality. The massive use of tanks on this battlefield fed the public’s fascination with them, causing much publicity to be generated. Reports abounded of how the tanks initially savage the German line and were responsible for a great breakthrough, but there was little mention of their general poor performance or that the battle ended in a German victory. Many of the British tanks abandoned on the battlefield ended up being repaired by the Germans for their own use. Even though the British did not accomplish anything, this was forgotten in the end, and the romance of the indestructible tank remained.
With the Bolsheviks in control of Russia after the November 1917 Revolution, Lenin publicly repudiated the secret agreements the Allies had made with the Czar. While calling the conflict a war for civilization, the Allies had already drawn up maps of how the Central Powers would be dismembered to satisfy their own imperialistic ambitions. This embarrassment forced the Allies to clarify their war aims. President Wilson announced his Fourteen Points in January, which he considered the only possible program for peace. They generally outlined what Wilson saw as universal principals of justice that were remarkably akin to Lenin’s call for no annexations, no indemnities, and the right of self determination of peoples. This pronouncement would strain American relations with Britain and France.
Fearing that fresh American troops might turn the tide of war, Germany believed they must achieve victory against the Allied forces already in the field before too many reinforcements arrived. They had not only been amassing troops in the West brought in from the defunct Eastern Front, many units were retrained in stormtrooper tactics. In March the Germans began the first of a series of planned offensive actions against the Allies (Kaiserschlacht). The first German offensive struck out at the Somme retaking all the Allied gains of the previous years. The British were expecting an attack, but they fell prey to their own propaganda and believed the Germans to weak to break through their defenses. Now as their morale collapsed, the surviving British units were pushed all the way back to Amiens, severing their connection with the French Army.
As Field Marshal Haig moved British reinforcements toward the Somme to hold back the fast paced German advance, the Germans shifted their efforts further to the north launching a new offensive into Flanders in April. Their main thrust was directed against British defenses on the Lys River in hopes of advancing all the way to the Channel ports. Haig now isolated want to withdraw to the coast, but this disaster led to General Ferdinand Foch being brought out of retirement and made Supreme Commander of all Allied forces to bring some cohesion to the Allied defense. Generalissimo Foch then ordered Haig to stay where he was, a move that prevented the Germans from taking all of Flanders. They did however destroyed much of the remaining offensive capabilities of the British and Portuguese Expeditionary Forces, who would not be able to help when the Germans struck at the French.
The Germans launched their third offensive in May, attacking the French at Soissons centered on Dames Ridge. It was originally planned as a diversion to draw Allied troops out of Flanders so the stalled campaign there could be revived, but after shattering the French line, resources were poured in to turn it into a major offensive. The attack took the French completely by surprise and they were quickly pushed back toward the Marne. The British in Flanders were still trying to shore up their own defenseless and were no longer in a position to offer any help.
Although all three of these German spring offensives made great headway, they began to lose momentum as the armies racing forward outpaced their heavy artillery support and supplies. Another problem was that in many places they were advancing over territory that they once held and had completely devastated upon their withdrawal. Now the transportation network within these areas was no longer capable of supporting the great transport needs that were being placed on it.
While the front against the British in Flanders was of greater strategic importance, Ludendorff kept the German offensive toward the Marne rolling with new attacks against the French in June. There seemed to be an unexpected chance of taking Paris, which might now knock France out of the War considering their morale. The German army was now close enough to Paris for its long range railway guns to bombard the city and set off panic. The French government began preparing to evacuate the capital as the Germans seemed unstoppable.
Though not yet as prepared as he hoped to be, Pershing saw the German advance toward Paris as critical and agreed to ad the American Expeditionary Force to the French defense with assurances they would be deployed as a unified command. As the Germans pushed toward Reims a counter attack was launched at Chateau-Thierry, which blunted the German spearhead. The first American troops went into action at Belleau Wood, throwing the Germans off the high ground but at a high cost. While this place held little strategic importance, the Germans became much more worried over the American presence after having lost ground to them. They were now a fighting force that could no longer be ignored.
Ludendorff was unsure if the next German Offensive should be launched in Flanders aimed at driving the British into the sea or whether he should take advantage of his gains in France. In July a new push was made along the Marne. Despite his success so far, he failed to comprehend that the high casualties the German army had taken could no longer be replenished at the rate required to carry out operations. This new offensive only made modest gains before he was surprised by a major Allied counterattack. The inclusion of new American divisions added greatly to its weight. Without any reserves available to them, the German army began to be rolled back out of their salient. Their offensive capabilities had come to an end. The Germans however had taken so much territory that they could easily afford to give up ground in order to take up good defensive positions of their choosing. There was however a very unexpected element that began to seriously eat away at German strength; the Spanish Flu.
Symptoms of the Spanish Flu had become noticeable on the Western Front during the spring and by summer there was a full blown epidemic, which grew into a pandemic by fall. There was no treatment for this strain of influenza and it took a severe toll on the servicemen of all nations as quarantine was impossible to achieve on the battlefield. There is no true accounting to its effect on the War since these reports where highly repressed by censorship in fear that it would reveal weakness to the enemy but it is probably safe to say that it deprived armies of at least twenty percent of their manpower just when it was needed the most. The pandemic had far more devastating effect on civilians. By the time it petered out in 1919 it inflicted more deaths than the Great War. There are postcards that depict routine inoculation and the sick in hospitals but no reference is made to influenza as both sides made an effort to keep its spread and devastating effects secret. While military cards from the front lines were censored, there are postcards passed between civilians to be found with written messages referring to the worries over illnesses and death from this outbreak.
While there is still debate as to the origins of the influenza outbreak of 1918, no one today believes it had anything to do with Spain. It received the name Spanish Flu because as a neutral country Spanish media were able to cover the news story while it was hidden away through censorship elsewhere. This secrecy combined with troops being transferred all over the globe most likely contributed greatly to the worldwide pandemic.
In August a well executed Allied attack surprised the Germans at Amiens, breaking through their defenses and pushing them much further back until their salient was eliminated. By the end of the month successful British attacks at Peronne and Queant disrupted the planned German pullback from that sector. Ludendorff then ordered a general withdrawal to the Hindenburg line from where a more sustained resistance could be made. The Germans were now be defending their last well fortified position.
In September, British and Belgian troops attacked German entrenchments in Flanders with mixed success. Army Group Flanders headed by King Albert recaptured Kemmelberg after the Battle of the Peaks, but his advance in Belgium was checked when German reinforcements arrived. As the British were breaking through the last set German defensive position at the St. Quentin Canal, their extended lines of supply began to be threatened by the advancing American offensive in the Argonne. This forced the Germans to slowly but steadily retreat. Although the Allies were only closely following rather than driving the German withdrawal, they still wound up fighting in many sharp engagements where they took many prisoners, most notably in mid-October at the Battle of Selle.
By September, against the wishes of Haig and Foch, the Americans launched their own independent operation against the St. Mihiel salient and the Woevre. The Germans who had given up on all offensive actions against Verdun, were already withdrawing troops from this sector to shorten their defensive line. Though the salient was still heavily defended, they were no longer able to properly man all their defensive positions when the Americans attacked from three sides. With the aid of an enormous air support, the Germans were forced to retreat and abandon the salient. Allied generals, resentful of Pershing’s victory played down its importance and thus the victory is barely represented on British or French postcards. Most images of this front are to be found on real photo cards.
After St. Mihiel fell, Pershing wanted to advance onto Metz, which would bring the War to Germany but Foch ordered them to redeploy to the west in order to support another French offensive in Champagne. This time Pershing acquiesced, and took up a position north of Verdun stretching across the Argonne Forest to the Meuse River. His next goal was to break through the heavily fortified Kriemhilde line and then move on Sedan, an important rail hub though which the German army in Flanders was supplied. When the offensive began in late September the American quickly broke through German defenses except at Montfaucon, which held up the entire operation. This provided time for the Germans to regroup and receive heavy reinforcements to set up a new defense. The Americans would capture Montfaucon, Varennes, and the Butte at Vacquois but hopes for a rapid push forward had ended.
Pershing had managed to redeploy his army to a new front in an astoundingly short time but this left his supply lines in a shambles. The poor terrain on this front only added to his inability to bring up adequate supplies. This curtailed further American movement down the Meuse Valley but Pershing was still forced to engage the Germans in the Argonne to protect his left flank. After Pershing reorganized his forces an assault was launched into the Argonne but it only managed an advance to Romage while heavy casualties were taken. This campaign would now evolve into a war of attrition.
The rugged nature of the Argonne Forest was not conducive to large scale maneuvers, causing fighting to be reduced to close encounters between small units who sometimes lost contact with one another. One such unit commanded by Major Charles White Whittesey was made up of elements of the 77th Division. After advancing further than their support on either flank, they were surrounded and cut off by German infiltrators. General orders prevented all units from retreating and so they dug in. Help only arrived after suffering through six days of German attacks, but by then most were dead or wounded. This episode of the Lost Battalion was widely publicized and it became part of the popular mythology surrounding the Great War. Although a prime subject for postcards, the saga received scant attention from publishers, possibly due to it occurring so close to the War’s end.
Although the Americans were fighting their way through the Argonne at a very slow pace they were advancing. By the end of October they had taken a number of German positions to form a more cohesive battlefront. After American forces captured the German strongpoint on Blanc Mont Ridge, the French army operating in Champagne was able to meet up with them. This was such a threat to the German flank that they made repeated attacks to regain Blanc Mont but none succeeded. When the Americans took control over Consenvoye Heights on the east side of the Meuse, it threatened the other flank and turned the Argonne into a precarious salient. Fearing they might be cut off in another attack, the Germans withdrew all troops and took up defenses behind the Kriemhilde line.
The Allied strategy of applying unrelenting pressure along the entire German line forced them to steadily retreat, but most of the territory they gave up was only recently captured and they made no serious effort to hold it. The Germans continued to find good defensive positions from which they could slow the Allied advance while they withdrew. Ludendorff’s defensive strategy was sound but he failed to take into account the disorganization and failing morale of the German army. Reinforcements brought in from Russia had not only swelled German ranks, many of these soldiers had become sympathetic to revolutionary ideas and were now causing dissension on the Western Front and even forming soviets. While the policy of withdrawal and pursuit generated very little combat, order still began to collapse. Germany then approached the United States requesting an armistice based on President Wilson’s Fourteen Points. When the Americans refused to negotiate with the current German leadership, steps were taken to create a constitutional monarchy under Prince Max of Baden in early October.
Totally delusional over their own capabilities, Britain and France wished to ignore these peace overtures and launch new offensives into Germany. The French were particularly adamant on bringing total defeat onto Germany, and Generalissimo Foch ordered Pershing to press the Germans hard. General Pershing was in agreement with Foch and did not want to see the lenient terms that President Wilson was willing to offer be accepted. He believed that unconditional surrender could still be forced on Germany if he was allowed to pursue a total military victory. Though still too short of supplies to launch an effective offensive against the Kriemhilde line, Pershing would defy the Presidents wishes and attacked.
The British and French armies were following closely behind the retreating German armies so not to give them a chance to create a new trench line. Although they still encountered German strongpoints that slowed their advance, warfare remained semi-open. By mid-October they were slowed further as they began to outpace their own supplies, which allowed the Germans to set up a more coherent line along the Conde Canal. This position was taken in the Battle of the Sambre and the British continued onward to attack Mons. Canadian troops found themselves fighting in Mons up to the last minutes of the War.
General Pershing had taken extraordinary care to keep the fate of American lives out of the control of incompetent British and French generals, but his antiquated ideas on open warfare had wasted the lives of many in the American Expeditionary Force. Now he was willing to go further and sacrifice the lives of his own men to meet his personal political agenda. Though the massive assault on the Kriemhilde line at the beginning of November was premature, the Germans had no reserves left to oppose the ever increasing strength of the Americans. The position was quickly taken but at a very high cost in casualties. With the Germans offering little further resistance, Pershing was able to secure a bridgehead across the Meuse, and seize the heights above Sedan.
There still remains much confusion regarding the capture of Sedan on November 6th to this day. As the site of the French surrender to Prussia in 1870, its retaking was of great symbolic importance to France, and so it was placed within the French sector of military operations. While it is often stated that the American advance toward this city was halted so that French units could catch up and enter it first seems to be a half truth. Attempts by Generalissimo Foch to remove more men from the American Expeditionary Force to suite French needs led to a retaliatory move by General Pershing. He decided take this honor away from the French by beating them to Sedan. Unfortunately the two American divisions directed there unexpectedly crossed paths due to vague orders and the delay this caused allowed the French to enter first. This is a good example of how the propaganda war showed the Allied generals all united toward achieving victory, while they actually hated each other and it sometimes seemed they were more interested in the destruction of their rivals than the enemy.
As German resistance stiffened on the battlefield, Ludendorff began to regret his peace overtures but now it was too late to turn things around and he would be forced to resign. October found Germany in turmoil and confusion. A revolution in Bavaria overthrew the Monarchy while the sailors of German High Sea Fleet mutinied rather than make one last attack on the Royal Navy. As the Spartacus movement in Berlin began calling for a socialist revolution, Prince Max turned the chancellorship over to the socialist Friedrich Ebert hoping to calm the situation. Kaiser Wilhelm tried to find support within the military to overthrow this socialist regime but none was forthcoming. After abdicating the throne he fled to neutral Holland.
President Wilson had achieved his goal of toppling the German autocracy but he lost control over the peace The German delegation brought to the armistice negotiations by Wilson unexpectedly found itself only receiving demands from the French. After Chancellor Ebert declared a new German republic on November 9th, he gave the delegation to sign at any cost. On November 11th Pershing’s new drive toward Germany had begun but he had to halt his troops advancing on Montmedy after learning of Armistice ending the War.
Within fifteen days of the Armistice being signed, Belgian and French troops reoccupied all territory that had been lost to the Germans during the War. Much fanfare was made of the French army marching victoriously into Strasbourg and Metz, the capitals of Alsace and Lorraine provinces, which had reverted to French control. By the end of 1918, Allied bridgeheads were created at Mainz, Coblentz, and Cologne to support the occupation of the Rhineland. Postcard publishing seemed to get its second wind, and many cards were produced of its victorious army entering Alsace and Loraine. Many of these cards are of poor quality, which possibly reflects the rush to get them out while demand was high or the poor state of the printing industry at this point.
Unrest in Germany grew even stronger as the new year arrived. The armed Spartacus Revolt led by Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxembourg would try to overthrow the new republic in January to form a communist state. Their failure not only led to their arrest and murder, it strengthened the power of the military who would scapegoat the socialists for Germany’s defeat. A final peace treaty was signed at Versailles with the new German republic in June. It would formally transfer the provinces of Alsace and Loraine lost in the Franco-Prussian War of 1871 back to France. President Wilson unhappy with the drastic terms of the treaty made a separate peace with the Central Powers.
When Germany was given the final draft of the peace treaty in April, it was astounded that it was presented as un ultimatum that they could not negotiate. German leaders saw that its harsh terms violated all the principles that the armistice was based on and felt betrayed. They were particularly upset over the clause in which Germany had to admit its guilt in starting the War. Representatives wanted to reject the treaty and continue the War, but after Hindenburg met with other generals, he informed chancellor Ebert that the depleted German army could not resist an attack from the allied bridgeheads on the Rhine.
The end of the war did not mean the end of postcard production. The need for occupying troops meant there was still a need for cards so soldiers could write home. Though a number of cards depicting troops carrying out their new assignment were produced by various charities just like they did during the War, some publishers only began producing cards tracing the War’s history once the fighting was over. Many ordinary view-cards were also used for soldiers mail.
Even though publishers produced cards targeting the large occupation force, those armed with cameras did not stop shooting once the war ended. This seems especially true of American soldiers who produced a large number of real photo cards. It is difficult to know what official military policy was; messages were still censored, but the large number of real photo cards indicate that the ban on photography was probably relaxed if not eliminated. Most of the hundreds of thousands of images taken by official war photographers however were still kept hidden from the public. American troops taking part in the occupation of Germany left in January of 1923.
A great influx of war tourists, especially from Great Britain, began pouring onto the former battlefields of the Western Front as soon as the fighting stopped. While some were just curiosity seekers, many more were driven by a compulsion to see where a loved one died. Not only were hundreds of thousands of remains left unidentified at the War’s end, almost as many soldiers simply diapered into the chaos of battle without a trace. Some real photo postcards from this time depict visitors posing with unburied remains. Former battlegrounds remained dangerous as they were littered with unexploded shells, so guides became essential for touring. This new tourist industry created an audience for postcards that could serve as mementos not only for the visit but for the dead, and publishers took advantage of this demand.