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