First World War - after the stalemate of trench warfare was broken by a successful but ultimately unsustainable German spring offensive, the Allies launched a counter-offensive and finally swept to victory
The withdrawal of Russia from the war in 1917 released substantial numbers of German troops for use elsewhere. Aware that submarine warfare had failed to defeat Britain and that large numbers of American troops would soon be committed to the war, the Germans prepared for their final offensive in the west.
On 21 March 1918, the Germans launched a massive offensive. Around 10,000 guns fired over a million shells in five hours against the British Third and Fifth Armies. Then, 47 German divisions attacked. Heavily armed German ‘storm troopers’ then infiltrated weak-points in the line. They by-passed pockets of resistance and broke through the British trench system, leaving subsequent waves of troops to ‘mop up’ any enemies to their rear. Lacking reserves, the British line soon gave way. By the evening of 23 March the Germans had advanced up to 19km in some sectors.
This early success belied the core weaknesses of the plan. The Germans were too exhausted to sustain the offensive and lacked the transport to convert local tactical triumphs into strategic victory. They struggled to move men, supplies and guns across the shattered landscape of the Western Front. But, in the first few days, panic spread along some sections of the Allied front. It looked like the Germans might win a stunning victory.
Total British losses were 178,000 men. The French, who became engaged as the battle developed, lost 77,000 and the Germans 240,000.
Germany’s attempt to break through had exhausted its army and the initiative passed back to the Allies. On 8 August, General Rawlinson’s Fourth Army launched a major attack at Amiens against the vulnerable salient created by the German offensive.
Rawlinson used over 2,000 guns, 450 tanks and 1,900 aeroplanes to support the attack by 13 divisions. The subsequent Battle of Amiens illustrated that the British had learned how to combine infantry, artillery, tanks and aircraft in a co-ordinated ‘all arms’ attack.
This time it was the German front that broke. By the end of the advance, a gap of 24km had been punched in the German line south of the Somme.The Fourth Army had taken 13,000 prisoners and over 300 guns. Total German losses were estimated to be 30,000 on 8 August. The Allies suffered about 6,500 killed, wounded and missing. It was the first time that such large-scale capitulations had occurred. The German Commander-in-Chief, General Ludendorff, called it 'the black day of the German Army' due to the collapse in morale. Both Ludendorff and the Kaiser now concluded in private that Germany could no longer win the war.
Amiens began the period known as the ‘Hundred Days’, a series of offensives along the line, which drove the Germans back.
On 26 September, the British broke through the Hindenburg Line and on 29 September they successfully crossed the St Quentin Canal. Nevertheless, parts of the German Army continued to fight ferociously and Allied casualties remained very heavy.
During the next two months, the Allies continued to pursue the Germans. Under relentless pressure, they were forced to sue for peace.
National Army Museum - 1918: Year of Victory
Imperial War Museum - Voices of War: The Allied Advance to Victory
History Hit - How the Allies Turned Retreat into Victory on the Western Front in 1918
Armistice Day - Allies and Germans negotiate an end to the war and cease fighting on land, sea and air
On the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, the incessant boom of artillery abruptly went silent along the Western Front in France.
All of the men knew what the silence meant, but nobody shouted or threw his hat in the air. It took hours for the reality to sink in. World War I—the bloodiest conflict so far in human history, with more than with more than 8.5 million military casualties—had finally ended.
But the war ended with an armistice, an agreement in which both sides agree to stop fighting, rather than a surrender. For both sides, an armistice was the fastest way to end the war's misery and carnage.
By November 1918, both the Allies and Central Powers who’d been battering each other for four years were pretty much out of gas. German offensives that year had been defeated with heavy casualties, and in late summer and fall, the British, French and U.S. forces had pushed them steadily back. With the United States able to send more and more fresh troops into combat, the Germans were outmatched. As Germany’s allies crumbled around them as well, the war’s outcome seemed clear.
Even so, both sides were ready for the carnage to stop. An invasion of Germany would have required too much in terms of morale, logistics and resources. On the other hand, Germany’s political and military situation were dire, while the people of Germany were suffering from starvation.
Following a meeting with Marshal Foch, the Germans agreed to pull their troops out of France, Belgium and Luxembourg within 15 days, or risk becoming prisoners of the Allies. They had to turn over their arsenal, including 5,000 artillery pieces, 25,000 machine guns and 1,700 airplanes, along with 5,000 railroad locomotives, 5,000 trucks and 150,000 wagons. Germany also had to give up the contested territory of Alsace-Lorraine. And they agreed to the indignity of Allied forces occupying German territory along the Rhine, where they would stay until 1930.
Once the news was announced, people raced to the street to commemorate the news, waving flags as they gathered to celebrate the end of bloodshed and hope for a more peaceful future.
Eyewitness to History - Armistice: The End of World War I
Evening Standard - How People Celebrated WW1 Ending Around the World
Imperial War Museum - Voices of the First World War: Armistice
The Guardian - Armistice Day: Victory and Beyond
Spanish Flu - the deadliest pandemic in history infected an estimated 500 million people worldwide—about one-third of the planet’s population—and killed an estimated 20 million to 50 million victims
The 1918 flu was first observed in Europe, the United States and parts of Asia before swiftly spreading around the world. At the time, there were no effective drugs or vaccines to treat this killer flu strain. Citizens were ordered to wear masks, schools, theaters and businesses were shuttered and bodies piled up in makeshift morgues before the virus ended its deadly global march.
The first wave of the 1918 pandemic occurred in the spring and was generally mild. The sick, who experienced such typical flu symptoms as chills, fever and fatigue, usually recovered after several days, and the number of reported deaths was low.
However, a second, highly contagious wave of influenza appeared with a vengeance in the fall of that same year. Victims died within hours or days of developing symptoms, their skin turning blue and their lungs filling with fluid that caused them to suffocate. In 1918 the average life expectancy in America plummeted by a dozen years.
One unusual aspect of the 1918 flu was that it struck down many previously healthy, young people—a group normally resistant to this type of infectious illness—including a number of World War I servicemen. In fact, more U.S. soldiers died from the 1918 flu than were killed in battle during the war. Forty percent of the U.S. Navy was hit with the flu, while 36 percent of the Army became ill, and troops moving around the world in crowded ships and trains helped to spread the killer virus.
When the 1918 flu hit, doctors and scientists were unsure what caused it or how to treat it. Unlike today, there were no effective vaccines or antivirals, drugs that treat the flu. Officials in some communities imposed quarantines, ordered citizens to wear masks and shut down public places, including schools, churches and theaters. People were advised to avoid shaking hands and to stay indoors, libraries put a halt on lending books and regulations were passed banning spitting.
The flu took a heavy human toll, wiping out entire families and leaving countless widows and orphans in its wake. Funeral parlors were overwhelmed and bodies piled up. Many people had to dig graves for their own family members.
The flu was also detrimental to the economy. Businesses were forced to shut down because so many employees were sick. Basic services such as mail delivery and garbage collection were hindered due to flu-stricken workers. In some places there weren’t enough farm workers to harvest crops.
By the summer of 1919, the flu pandemic came to an end, as those that were infected either died or developed immunity.
National Geographic - Inside the Swift, Deadly History of the Spanish Flu Pandemic
The Atlantic - The 1918 Flu Pandemic: Photos From a Century Ago