French General Explains the German Offensive
How They Secured Surprise—Blames British for Secrecy of Plans.
A REMARKABLE article on the Western offensive of the Germans appears in Collier's Weekly from the pen of General Malleterre, who is now Governor of the Invalides, and was on the staff of General Joffre, being wounded at the Marne. General Malleterre makes statements which may be based on his own opinions rather than on facts, and which are distinctly sensational. He shows that the Germans actually achieved a measure of surprise in their first blow in March and how they managed to effect this. Their success he attributes to the lack of unity of command, and in that connection he asserts that the French generals knew nothing of the British surprise attack at Cambrai. They were as much unprepared for it as the Germans, and to this fact he attributes the setback which resulted. He shows, however, that Germany has succeeded in winning Pyrrhic victories only.
It is surprising to find a man still holding a high military post writing so frankly about operations, and for that reason special interest attaches to what he says. The article reads in part:
Since the offensive started, the German press has been unwearying in its eulogy of Ludendorff’s genius. It is claimed that Ludendorff was able to concentrate secretly an overwhelming number of divisions at the points chosen for the offensive, and that the Allies were in the dark until the very day the battle began. These divisions are said to have been gathered in the Ardennes and in the region of the Sambre, where they were carefully trained for several months in the new methods of attack. They are said to have been brought by auto trucks and by night marches several days before March 21 to the centers from which they were to storm the British lines.
The Allied general staffs were not ignorant of the return to the western front during several months of dozens of divisions that had been occupied for more than three years in the East. They knew that the armies of the Crown Princes of Germany and Bavaria were growing steadily in numbers and in artillery. It seems impossible, moreover, that the Allied chiefs had not been informed of special concentrations of troops and of the movements of the last few days to the centers from which the offensive was to begin. Our air service has always been tireless and constant in its reconnoitering activity—and armies have other means of knowing what is going on behind enemy lines. Aside from the movements of troops, the Allied general staffs knew also that in addition to an important increase in heavy artillery, the German divisions trained for the spring offensive were provided with a
special mobile artillery, mnnned and transported by the infantry.
Having once decided to attack where alone victory could be found, Ludendorff sought for the weak spot of the western front. The arrangement of the British and French armies pointed out to him the weak spot. He knew that the British army had recently taken over the linos up to the Oise, and that the Oise thus separated the front into two great sectors, the British army occupying the one on the left between the Oise and the Channel. The British had remained a long time on a front much more limited, first ns far ns Arras, then ns far as SaintQuentin, and in the last operations in Flanders they wore still supported by a French army. The regular increase in the size of the British army and its progress in fighting value had permitted, little by little, the diminution of the aid that the French General Staff was lending generously to its ally, and it is thus that in February last the French army was able to narrow its front to the lines of the Soissonnais. Champagne. Lorraine, and Alsace. LudendortT knew all this, and also that unity of command had not been realized on the western front because of the unfortunate pride of certain Englishmen. The Inter-Ai'.iod Council of Versailles, established after the Italian defeat, was succeeding in co-ordinating the operations under the leadership of General Foch: there was the beginning of a real entente between the English and French General Staffs. But recent incidents, such as the affair of Cambrai, had shown that the British intended to keep their independence of action in certain circumstances. Do we not remember the British tanks which swept over the Hindenburg line before Cambrai and brought the Tommies to the gates of the city —a success unfortunately not sustained by reserves? It was a sporting chance, an experience which ended in a German counter-offensive very costly for the British. The surprise would have become, on the contrary, disastrous for the Germans if it had been exploited in concert with the French General Staff. But the French had not been notified beforehand that the attack was to be made.
After Cambrai the British army had its own front, wholly autonomous, in Picardy and in Flanders. The little Belgian army was faithfully guarding the Yser. The liaison with the French army was effected on the Oise, between Noyon and Torgnier. The left wing of the French army held the northern slopes of the hills of Saint-Gobain, north of the Aisne. The weak spot was at the junction of the two Allied armies, in the region of Saint-Quentin, classic battle field. But, for Ludendorff, the weak point was especially the British army, which he believed to be inferior to the French. These considerations led him to strike it. He saw on the map the possibility of repeating, in almost the same proportions, the manoeuver of 1914 in Belgium.
In this region of the north of France, between the valley of the Oise and the Channel, the British army was spread out from the Yser to the Oise in an oblique line, of which the pivot was in the Pas de Calais, and whose future advance was toward the north, with the right wing on the Oise, to liberate, in conjunction with an advance of the French army, the invaded portions of France and Belgium. This army, with revictualment bases in the ports of Havre, Calais, Boulogne and Dunkirk, was, in fact, backed against the sea. Were it overthrown by a powerful attack, were it compelled to bend, to retreat, it ran the danger of being thrown into the sea, and that under conditions very serious if the victorious attack crowded it into the narrow triangle of the Artois and Belgian Flanders, north of the Somme against Calais and Boulogne. But it was necessary to forestall the intervention of the French armies going to the aid of the British. The new arrangement of the Allied lines, after the first period of the German offensive, showed how the intention of the German High Command was to attack and force the lines of Arras and complete the encirclement of the British center —what a conception! Even if the British
were to re-form and propose a desperate resistance north of the Somme, the disintegration of the British army would be such that the German General Staff could hope, by using all its reserves, to push the British to the sea. This was the plan, with its incalculable consequences, of the German statesmen and military leaders.
Indeed, we have reason to believe that the present offensive intended to carry out this strategic conception. But it has not had the “kolossal" consequences that were hoped for. Begun on March 21 by an impetuous attack on a front of sixty kilometers, between Croisilles and the Oise, the offensive did push back the British right wing, first south of the Somme, then in the direction of Montdidier. In several days the Germans won back the ground abandoned a year ago by Hindenburg. There was a moment, on March 24 and 25, when the German General Staff was able to believe that it had indeed found its way between the two armies in the district between Roye and Noyon. For the retreat of the Fifth British Army took a wrong direction toward Montdidier, leaving uncovered the way to Compiegne by Noyon and an undefended strip up to Lassigny. Von Hutier, commanding the right of the group of armies of the German Crown Prince, pushed in here immediately, to form the defensive line planned for against the French left wing. But the French General Staff was watching. Warned immediately of the violence of the attack and of the retreat of the British right, Generals Petain and Foch threw on the bank of the Oise infantry divisions brought in auto trucks and a cavalry division. These troops took their position on the heights north of Noyon. The battle was engaged so brusquely that the auto trucks were landing the poilus within rifle range, and the infantry entered the struggle almost without the support of ar-
This rapid movement surprised the Germans. They attacked to the limit of their reserves with the advantage of numerical superiority. But the defence of the French divisions was more than heroic; it was intelligent. The soldiers, fully as much as their leaders, understood the value of the sacrifice they were making. The British recovered themselves, and the liaison was maintained.
On April 1, if the strategic plan of the Germans had been realized, we should have seen the mass of their armies crossing the Somme between Picquigny and Corbie, and the Ancre between Albert and Arras, and a decisive battle engaged in the neighborhood of Doullens, while the French armies would be hurling themselves in vain against the Crown Prince’s defensive line between Breteuil and Noyon. But this did not happen. The Germans were holding with great difficulty Noyon, Roye, Montdidier, Albert. Amiens was not taken. They had failed before Arras. The Anglo-French front remained solid.
The first phase ended on April 1. None would deny the tactical success of the Germans, but their strategical failure was equally evident. The British army was neither outflanked nor disorganized. The
French army remained in liaison with the English army and successfully resisted the Germans.
In the present offensive, as in the offensives of 1914 and 1915, the German General Staff has been able to attain on the point of initial attack numerical superiority which it has known how to conceal up to the last moment, and even superiority of artillery.
It is in the latter especially that the Allies have to confess the surprise.
The German attack began by a short and extremely violent bombardment, the effectiveness of which was due to the intensity of toxic gases. Then the waves of assault swept over the British lines, not blindly in the desperate madness of victory or death, but methodically organized and powerfully equipped with mobile artillery. We know now the new composition of the German battalions, and just how they are armed with Minenwerfer, mitrailleuses, and demountable cannon of 77 millimeters, all manned by the infantry and transported by the infantry. The new German infantry cannon suddenly
revealed itself as the decisive factor in the assault.
Thanks to the ability of this cannon to be moved quickly and at will and to fire with precision at short range, the British, already half asphyxiated, had to evacuate their trenches.
It seems that orders had been given to the first and second lines to hold their positions to the bitter end, relying upon the usual support of barrage fire. With the intention of holding at all costs, the British probably used their reserves. The Germans broke through, in spite of the heroic resistance of the British, as much by the unexpected short-range fire as by the mass of assailants. This explains the retreat of the Fifth British Army, which was overwhelmed as a result of new methods of attacking. It would be difficult to lay too much stress on this proof of the value of the German mobile infantry cannon. Even in 1915 we and our allies had not sufficiently developed the use of heavy artillery. It is the same now with infantry cannon. We shall soon be amply equipped—but we are late. Will not this lesson teach us?
No longer can one affirm the impossibility of breaking through trench defences. For the present battle has taken the classic form of war in the open which the belligerents have been seeking for three years on the western front.
The Allies, in 1915 and in 1916, in Artois, Champagne, and on the Somme, failed to force the fighting into the open. The German retreat of March, 1917, was voluntary. Our offensive of April 17, 1917, which had certainly been conceived and organized to break the German lines and to exploit strategically the success of the rupture in the open field, did not succeed for reasons that were probably not of a military order. But all these offensives, like those of Verdun, were preceded by long and careful heavy artillery bombardments. This means alone was believed capable of destroying trenches and barbed wire, of leveling the ground for the ^ assault. Trench cannon, mortars, crapouillots, light cannon manned also by the artillery, worked in conjunction with the 75-millimeter and the field artillery, but as barrage and complement fire more than as destructive fire.
Little by little our old traditions of the bayonet had given place to grenade fighting in our infantry training. Because of the bloody and deplorable sacrifice in men necessitated by attacking dines insufficiently broken, the role of the heavy artillery had become of prime importance. The formula of General Petain, a formula to economize men, was: “The artillery conquers, the infantry occupies!” But the play of the artillery was limited by distance and especially by the difficulty of moving forward the heavy artillery to keep pace with the progressive occupation by infantry columns. The ground torn by the heavy shells became impracticable for the advance of heavy artillery. Successive linos of trenches, skilfully made on counterslopcs and extending far to the rear, escaped more and more the effect of the shells. The infantry stopped after a gain of several kilometers at the most. It was all to begin over again! And it goes without saying that the expense of shells of all sizes was taking fantastic proportions.
Heavy artillery had to be supplemented by cannon that could accompany the infantry and aid each storming party in destroying whatever obstacles were in the way. It was necessary that these cannon be small enough to escape destruction by heavy shells and light enough to be transported and served by the infantry. The new conditions of fighting gave birth to the idea of light and mobile infantry cannon, demountable, easy to feed, accurate in its fire. At the same time, to avoid the effect of barrage fire and the enormously increased use of mitrailleuses, the idea of armored cars was conceived. The problem of using them to advance in the torn-up ground of the battle line was solved by adopting the American caterpillar device.
The first armored cars, called tanks, were used by the British in 1917 for offensive work. The British tanks were equipped
with mitrailleuses and cannon. But last year the armored car not only transported cannon—it became a means of attack directly with the infantry, carrying soldiers, mitrailleuses, and special cannon.
There were competition and rivalry between the two new ideas. The infantry cannon pure and simple, working in the open air, and the tank, both had ardent advocates. After much argument. the rather tardy conclusion was to manufacture both. But the Germans got ahead of us. They adopted a light infantry cannon, of the Minenwerfer type, but more easy to manufacture and more accurate in action. They also made tanks, but these were designed rather for revictualment than for attack. We have not yet had enough perspective on the Battle of Picardy to form a fixed opinion on the use of the new engines of war. However, it is certain that the German light infantry cannon have aided powerfully the attacking troops, and it is regrettable that the Allied armies have not yet been sufficiently provided with them.