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Webmatters : The advance from Arras to Cambrai in 1918

The Battle of the Scarpe

Introduction

The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk between Germany and Lenin’s Russian Republic was signed on the 3rd March 1918 and brought an end to the war on the Eastern Front.

At a summit on 11th November 1917 General Ludendorff proposed the idea of a scheme of large scale offensives against the Allies before the growing numbers of American soldiers in Europe swung the advantage away from the Central Powers. This series of offensives would become known as the Kaiser’s Battle — the Kaiserschlacht.

On 21st March 1918 the Germans launched the first of these offensives, Operation Michael, against the British, at St Quentin. The unheard of ferocity of the bombardment and their crushing superiority in numbers allowed Ludendorff’s storm troopers to crack the British front.

This powerful blow was repeated along the Western Front against French and British alike until June 1918. The German infantry smashed their way through the British and later French defensive systems recovering huge amounts of territory that had cost the Allies dear to gain in previous offensives.

The old battlefields of the Somme (1916) and the Chemin des Dames (1917) were back in German hands within days and not the months that it had taken to win them. But, the tide had turned. The British and French had been flung back, their lines had been buckled, but not broken.

Under their recently appointed Supreme Commander in Chief, Général Ferdinand Foch, the Allies began to take the initiative.

Foch would be promoted to the rank of Maréchal de France on 6th August 1918. Sir Douglas Haig commanding the British Army had already been promoted to Field Marshal on 1st January 1917.

On 18th July 1918 the French launched their counter-offensive, commanded by Général Mangin, at Soissons and this was followed on 8th August 1918 with Field Marshal Haig launching the British Empire nations in a counter attack to secure the city of Amiens. The soldiers under his command would not have realised it at the time but they had begun the final advance: the advance to victory.

There was a difference, however, between this advance and that of the German Spring offensive. Earlier in the year General Gough’s Fifth Army had defended a weakly held front line with no prepared positions to fall back on. Now as summer turned to autumn the Germans were retreating back towards the Hindenburg Line (as it was known to the Allies), perhaps the most formidable system of entrenched defensive positions the world has ever seen. In April 1917 the British and Australians had dented it but never found the ability to crack it open.