1918 saw the dramatic end of trench warfare as both sides used new tactics and colossal firepower to break the deadlock.
The German Army launched gigantic offensives on the Western Front. For the first time since 1914 the Allies feared defeat. They held on, but only just.
From July, the Allies counterattacked. They had more weapons and more supplies. All along the Front they struck devastating blows against the Germans.
Germany’s army retreated. Its allies crumbled away.
Its people began to revolt. Germany’s army was defeated. On 11 November 1918 a beaten Germany signed the Armistice. The fighting ended.
Hell breaks loose
‘Tomorrow there will be nothing to keep secret – for then hell breaks loose.’
On 21 March 1918 ten thousand German guns began to pound the British lines. German troops surged through British defences. With Russia out of the war, German military leader Erich Ludendorff had decided to gamble on outright victory and attack in the West.
He launched a series of powerful offensives. The Germans advanced up to 40 miles.
Germany seemed on the brink of victory.
How did the Allies survive? By July the attacks had broken down. The Germans were exhausted. The battles cost them their best men. German soldiers advanced so fast that guns and supplies could not keep up.
Many stopped to plunder abandoned British supplies or get drunk on looted alcohol.
With their backs to the wall, the Allies stood firm and fought back.
The German Army massed its best troops and nearly all its artillery on the Western Front ready for the 1918 offensives.
In just five hours on 21 March, German guns fired twice as many shells as the British had during the week-long bombardment before the Somme. Highly trained ‘stormtroopers’ led the attacking forces, soon overrunning Allied positions.
But by the end of June over 800,000 German soldiers had been killed, wounded or captured. The Germans realised that their chance for victory had gone.
Uniform and equipment
On 21 March 1918 Lieutenant Ernst Jünger of the German 73rd Fusilier Regiment recorded attacking the enemy, ‘in a mixture of feelings brought on by excitement, bloodthirstiness, anger and alcohol’. The uniform and equipment of the 73rd Fusilier Regiment includes a shovel for rapid digging-in. The ‘Gibraltar’ cuff title commemorates the unit’s historic 1779 defence of Gibraltar alongside British troops
German light machine gun
Like the Allies, the Germans had developed a machine gun that could be carried into the attack.
However, the German MG 08/15 light machine gun. was ‘light’ in name only. It weighed 22 kilos including the ammunition belt and water for cooling. It provided the main firepower of German infantry from 1917 onwards.
The Germans had few trucks. Most of their guns and transport were horse-drawn. This is a sign for a horse collection point. By 1918 horses were in short supply and weak from lack of feed. Rudolf Binding, a German officer, wrote that, due to lack of horses, ‘we...have to leave guns behind, ammunition wagons and so on. This will reduce our artillery strength by about a quarter. It would not be safe to let the infantry know that.’
Toby jugs and Beauvais Agreement
These toby jugs represent Allied commanders who attended a crisis meeting in late March 1918. The Beauvais Agreement put French General Ferdinand Foch in command of the Allied armies. British Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig and US General John Pershing willingly accepted. Foch sent troops where they were most needed, rushing in reinforcements to help the British. This unity would be the key to Allied victory.
Flamethrowers added to the attacking power of German assault troops. The Wex Flamethrower could project ten bursts of blazing fuel for up to 30 metres.It was operated by two soldiers, one to carry the pack of fuel, the other to direct the flame. The Germans pioneered the use of this terrifying weapon.
A German transport advancing across the old Somme battlefield, March 1918
Suddenly the tide turned. In July 1918 the French threw back the attacking Germans in the Second Battle of the Marne. On 8 August an Allied offensive, spearheaded by Australian and Canadian troops, smashed the Germans at Amiens.
Marshal Foch, overall Allied commander, masterminded further blows against the Germans. By October, British and Empire forces had broken through the main German defences - the Hindenburg Line.
Why were the Allies now successful? Foch could draw on the combined power of all the Allies, now including the fresh American Army Successive attacks gave the Germans no respite.
German soldiers became demoralised in the face of ferocious Allied firepower. The Allies had victory in their grasp.
From summer 1918 the French and British armies were finally able to apply the attacking lessons they had learnt, at such cost, since 1915. They were joined by the inexperienced but powerful US Army. Together, they drove the Germans back. At the end of September General Ludendorff told the Kaiser that Germany could no longer win the war.
On the left of the showcase is the uniform worn by Private Gilbert Wien of the US 1st Gas Regiment. The rapid build-up of an American army of fresh, enthusiastic soldiers was a powerful boost to Allied morale. By November there were 1.3 million US combat troops in France. On arriving, one US officer wrote that, ‘This country is well-nigh bled white...and our coming is hailed as the coming of the Lord’.
In the centre of the showcase is the uniform of a warrant officer of the Canadian 22nd Battalion, which fought at Amiens in August 1918. On 9 August, British general Sir Henry Rawlinson wrote, ‘I think we have given the Boche a pretty good bump this time – the Australians and Canadians fought magnificently’. British and Empire forces played a key role in the Allied victories, breaking the ‘impregnable’ Hindenburg Line.
In spring 1918, France still fielded the Allies’ largest army. On the right of the showcase is the uniform of a warrant officer of the French 113th Infantry Regiment, which fought alongside the British during the first great German offensive that year. It later fought in the July counterattack on the Marne. The M1917 RSC, used by platoon leaders and selected marksmen, was the war’s most technologically advance rifle.
British and Empire soldiers took more German prisoners between August and November 1918 than during the whole of the rest of the war. The British V Corps took shoulder straps from captured Germans to identify their units, and mounted them on boards as trophies. A French Intelligence report revealed that German soldiers were depressed by ‘heavy losses, by the poor quality of their food, and by the crisis inside Germany’.
‘Turkey left the struggle yesterday.’ Turkey’s army was in tatters, its people facing famine. This leaflet tells German soldiers that a new Turkish government has signed an armistice with the Allies, on 30 October 1918, and that Austria-Hungary has asked for ‘special negotiations’. As a result, ‘Germany is now quite alone in the struggle!’.
‘Bulgaria has given up the war.’ Millions of demoralising propaganda leaflets were dropped on the retreating German Army from unmanned balloons. Many carried news of the collapse of Germany’s allies. Bulgaria, starving and on the brink of revolution, left the war on 29 September 1918.
‘Immediate ceasefire on all Austro-Hungarian Fronts.’ This propaganda leaflet brought German soldiers news of the collapse of their closest ally. In November 1918, Austria-Hungary’s army was breaking under an Italian offensive, and its empire disintegrating. Hungary ordered its troops home and declared independence. Austria too gave up the fight. Germany now stood alone.