How the war was won

Foch de­vised a plan to com­pletely ex­haust the Ger­man army’s ca­pac­ity to fight


“Ev­ery­one into the Bat­tle!” Al­lied gen­er­alis­simo Fer­di­nand Foch was ac­cus­tomed to de­clare when ques­tioned on his method. From the end of Septem­ber un­til the ar­mistice on 11 Novem­ber the whole Western Front, from the Chan­nel coast to Ver­dun, would be aflame as the Ger­man army that had oc­cu­pied and rav­aged France for the pre­vi­ous four years was de­stroyed once and for all.

This fi­nal of­fen­sive had three stages. First, the fixed de­fences of the Hin­den­burg Line had to be over­come. Foch would do this with a se­quenced se­ries of of­fen­sives all along the front that cul­mi­nated with his cen­tral ar­mies storm­ing the Hin­den­burg Line be­tween Cam­brai and Saint-quentin. Sec­ond, the Ger­mans had to be driven from their sup­port­ing line of de­fences, the so-called Her­mann-hund­ing Line. Third, the Al­lied ar­mies had to sus­tain their pur­suit of the re­treat­ing en­emy as ar­mistice terms were be­ing ne­go­ti­ated.

Sur­vey­ing the im­prov­ing Al­lied mil­i­tary po­si­tion in late Au­gust, Foch had to de­cide whether there was a re­al­is­tic prospect of de­feat­ing the Ger­man army and end­ing the war be­fore win­ter. His sum­mer coun­ter­at­tack had seized the ini­tia­tive and in­flicted sig­nif­i­cant dam­age on the en­emy – ma­te­ri­ally, morally and through large num­bers of ca­su­al­ties and pris­on­ers. But so far it had only re­stored the po­si­tions held at the start of the year, and the Ger­mans still pos­sessed de­fen­sive re­serves.

Plans were in hand for crush­ing the Ger­mans in 1919, with vast num­bers of Amer­i­can sol­diers backed by masses of war ma­te­rial. But for Foch, a breath­ing space for the en­emy and a re­turn to po­si­tional war­fare was un­think­able. It was his in­ten­tion that the bat­tle should con­tinue un­til one side broke, and on the bal­ance of ev­i­dence, it would be Ger­many and its al­lies: an in­ten­si­fi­ca­tion of pres­sure would work bet­ter and more quickly than a de­lay un­til Al­lied strength was over­whelm­ing.

Mo­men­tum and morale were suf­fi­cient to carry on, although as the fi­nal stage of the cam­paign de­vel­oped Foch had to mon­i­tor his own forces care­fully. Man­power and mu­ni­tions short­ages, re­sult­ing from the in­ten­sity of op­er­a­tions, were im­pact­ing the fight­ing ef­fec­tive­ness of all his ar­mies in the fi­nal months of the war, and lo­gis­ti­cal prob­lems caused by the rel­a­tively rapid pace of ad­vance had to be sur­mounted. On 30 Au­gust, he de­liv­ered his sec­ond set of in­struc­tions to the Al­lied army com­man­ders, out­lin­ing a “gen­eral bat­tle of the Al­lied Ar­mies… with the max­i­mum of Al­lied forces, in the short­est pos­si­ble time,” that would spread the pres­sure on the Ger­mans from the cen­tre of the Western Front out to the wings. It was a judge­ment with which his sub­or­di­nates con­curred. “It seems to me the be­gin­ning of the end,” Bri­tish Com­man­derin-chief Field Mar­shal Sir Dou­glas Haig noted in his di­ary on 8 Septem­ber: “If we act with en­ergy now, a de­ci­sion can be ob­tained in the very near fu­ture.” Ev­ery­one un­der­stood that to reach that end, much hard fight­ing still lay ahead.

LEFT: Men of the 46th Divi­sion pose for a group pho­to­graph after their suc­cess­ful as­sault cross­ing the St. Quentin Canal

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