A Chacun Son Boche:
The Allied Push On Berlin, 1917
by Chris Oakley
For nearly a century, there has been vigorous debate among historians as to where to place ultimate responsibility for the final collapse of the Second Reich in late 1917. On one point, however, they are in almost unanimous agreement: the first step on the road to that collapse was taken on August 11th, 1914 when French general Michel-Joseph Maunoury persuaded his superiors in Paris to scrap Plan XVII, a proposed campaign whose objective had been to retake Alsace and Lorraine from the Germans. Although this made Maunoury quite a few enemies among the French civilian leadership, French army commander-in-chief General Joseph Joffre staunchly defended him on this score. Like Maunoury, he suspected that Plan XVII would do more harm than good as far as the Allied cause was concerned; it was, after all politically motivated for the most part and showed little regard for strategic necessities. With Belgium already under the Kaiser’s thumb and much of France in danger of being overrun by his armies, the last thing Joffre wanted was to lose the war simply to satisfy a few politicians’ misguided priorities and inflated egos.
Shortly afterward, on September 1st, an armored dispatch car attached to German general Alexander von Kluck’s 1st Army had the misfortune to be captured by a patrol from Maunoury’s newly formed 6th Army. Among the prisoners was a cavalry officer whose satchel contained maps and documents with a crucial information about an impending all-out German drive on Paris; Maunoury promptly ordered the prisoners interrogated to ensure that the papers were genuine. The next day, aerial reconnaissance missions confirmed what the captured German officers had told Maunoury’s intelligence staff, and on September 4th he launched a massive attack against von Kluck’s exposed flank.
The main thrust of the 6th Army’s attack was directed against von Kluck’s western flank, while a two-pronged diversionary thrust hit his southern front. Their British allies, sensing an opportunity to get some of their own back after having been chased almost entirely out of Belgium by the 1st Army, joined Manuoury’s troops in their assault on the German front in the west.
Kluck’s men barely knew what hit them. They found themselves on the defensive; before long, they had lost at least a third of the ground gained in earlier offensives and were under simultaneous pressure from Maunoury’s troops and the British Expeditionary Force. By the end of the month German troops had been pushed back further still and Kluck was finding himself more and more out of favor with the Imperial high command back in Berlin. The French 8th and 10th Armies, set up by Maunoury shortly before Plan XVII was cancelled, added to the strain von Kluck’s men were under by mounting hit-and- run offensives against the 1st Army’s southwestern front.
This dire situation on land was a sharp contrast with the triumph the Germans were enjoying at sea; while the surface ships of their Hochseeflotte1 kept the British and French navies busy enforcing an Allied naval blockade of the German coast, U-boats waged a predatory assault on Allied commerce, sending merchant ships to the bottom of the sea almost as fast as the Allies managed to get them out of drydock. If this could be kept up long enough, the German navy’s top admirals believed, the Kaiser’s armies might yet be able to recover from the blow Maunoury had dealt them on the Western Front.
Von Kluck, however, wouldn’t be around to witness that recovery; in November of 1914 he was relieved of his command and recalled to Berlin in disgrace. By that time, German troops had been pushed back to within six miles of the Belgian-German border and were holding only a sliver of the vast territories they had occupied in France just a short time earlier. Thoughts of taking Paris were forgotten as the Imperial General Staff racked their brains trying to come up with a strategy for regaining the initiative on the Western Front. Even the famed "Christmas truce" of December 1914 did little to ease the tension the Kaiser’s generals felt.
The Austrians, meanwhile, had their hands full trying to cope with the Serbian army in central Europe. They would have liked to have German assistance in turning back the Serb threat, but with the Germans’ own armies on the Western front in crisis, there was little chance of getting assistance from that quarter. Italy’s King Victor Emmanuel III was keenly aware of this, and was busily making his armies ready for the moment when they might strike at Italy’s northern foe.
That moment came during the third week of January in 1915 when, shortly after Italy declared war on the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Italian Alpini units launched an assault on Austrian army outposts along the Brenner Pass. The Austrians quickly counterattacked, and Germany’s main European ally found itself locked in a full-tilt border war with a country which, though it had only existed in its present form since 1870, possessed a military tradition dating back before the birth of Christ.
The Alpini were hardy men, ideally suited for waging war in the rugged terrain of the Brenner Pass region. Their seeming indifference to cold and their ability to negotiate even the roughest ground made them formidable opponents for the Austrians; they endured not only harsh weather but also murderous cannon and machine gun fire as they fought to wrest the Brenner Pass from Austrian control.
In the east, the Germans were finding the Imperial Russian Army a surprisingly tough nut to crack. In spite of less-than-competent leadership and serious equipment deficiencies, Russian troops were serving a valuable purpose for the Allied cause by tying up German divisions that might otherwise have been used to support Austrian counterattacks against Italy or the 1st Army’s operations on the Western Front. Their offensives against the Austrian province of Galicia and the German enclave of East Prussia2 made life miserable for General Erich von Falkenhayn, the chief of the Imperial German Army’s general staff.
In the Balkans, Greek prime minister Eleftherios Venizelos successfully fended off attempts by King Constantine I and Constantine’s son Crown Prince George to have him ousted from power. This further complicated things for the Germans, who had hoped that the pro-German Constantine would bring Greece into the war on their side; instead, in late April of 1915, the Venizelos regime formally declared war on the Central Powers and committed the Greek army to support the Allied cause.3
But it was on the Western Front that the Allied forces were experiencing their most consistent success. One month after Greece joined the Allied war effort, French advance troops crossed the frontier into Germany. Though the initial Allied thrust into German territory only penetrated a mile and a half, it was still far enough to upset Kaiser Wilhelm’s high command-- and more to the point, the Kaiser himself. Several times during the late spring and early summer of 1915, General von Falkenhayn and his colleagues on the Imperial General Staff were threatened with court-martial if they didn’t push the Allied armies out of Germany at once.
As bad as things had been for the Second Reich before, they were about to get exponentially worse. America, although its government was officially neutral in the early days of the First World War, had long been a hotbed of anti-German sentiment thanks to reports of atrocities said to have been committed by German occupation troops in Belgium; such sentiment only grew after 128 Americans were killed when U-boats torpedoed and sunk the passenger liner Lusitania. In fact, by August of 1915 it had become what one German diplomat’s cable to Berlin called "a volcano of hate against the Reich".4
That volcano erupted full blast two months later when US security officials presented the White House with hard evidence of a German plot to aid Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa’s campaign to take over Mexico in return for Villa’s guarantee that he would side with Germany in any future war against the United States. An incensed President Woodrow Wilson quickly severed diplomatic ties between Washington and Berlin and went before Congress on October 8th, 1915 to ask for a declaration of war against Germany.
The declaration passed with only one dissenting vote, and within 24 hours the US armed forces had started mobilizing to take on the Central Powers in Europe. Even before the vote was over, one branch of the services had already struck a blow against Germany: a Navy destroyer on patrol off Cape Cod sighted and sank a German U-boat that had been shadowing her for the past 48 hours.
It would take at least a year for American ground forces to begin making a difference in the war in Europe; not only was time needed to properly train and equip the troops of the American Expeditionary Force(AEF), but President Wilson was justifiably concerned about the risk of Pancho Villa’s guerrilla bands taking advantage of American preoccupation with Europe to attack the border towns of New Mexico, Arizona, and Texas.
But American naval power made itself felt early and often. The U- boat sinking off Cape Cod was only the first skirmish in what then- Secretary of War Newton D. Baker rightly called "the most important American naval campiagn since the War of 1812"5; just three weeks after the American declaration of war on Germany the US Navy scored its first confirmed kill of a German surface ship when the Atlantic fleet battlewagon USS Texas sank a commerce raider that had been harassing French merchant ships.
By March of 1916 American surface vessels were a sufficiently large presence in European waters to cause concern for Hochseeflotte strategic planners; around that same time the US Navy’s submarine branch began giving Germany a taste of its own medicine, sinking German merchant craft the same way U-boats had sunk Allied merchant ships since 1914. Despite starting the war with Germany at something of a technical disadvantage, American submarines did manage to bag some impressive targets; on one occasion in late April of 1916, US Navy subs sank eleven vessels out of a twenty-ship convoy that had been trying to ferry critical supplies to the German troops on the Western Front.
The Southwest invasion by Villa’s guerrilla troops that President Wilson had been so worried about never came; on May 3rd, 1916, Villa was assassinated by a jealous rival within his own ranks, and as a result the insurgent force he had labored so long to build gradually became subsumed by infighting, losing much of the effectiveness it might have had as a threat to America’s southern border. This came as a grievous blow to the Germans, who had hoped that Villa might keep the Americans distracted long enough for the Kaiser’s armies to get their second wind so to speak and initiate a counterattack on the Western Front against the Allies.
Nor were German efforts to foment an insurrection against the British in Ireland much more successful. In fact, a tactical error by one of the German agents charged with stirring up such a revolt would spark a chain reaction that eventually led to the collapse of the German espionage network in Britain. Fearful that the Americans might land in Europe before the Imperial Army could finish preparing its Western Front counteroffensive, this agent started a premature uprising that the British suppressed within 48 hours; adding insult to injury, the agent was among the first to be captured by British forces when his ill-timed uprising collapsed. Under interrogation, he broke like a dry twig and disclosed reams of damaging information about German counterintelligence operations in Ireland and Great Britain.
On May 27th, 1916 a combined Anglo-American naval task force left the British naval base at Scapa Flow to intercept a Hochseeflotte squadron that had been sighted near Denmark’s Jutland coast. Allied intelligence sources were uncertain as to whether this squadron was an invasion force or an attempt to break the Allied naval blockade of Germany, but that made little difference to senior Allied naval commanders-- the enemy flotilla had to be stopped, and fast.
Four days later, the Allied and German squadrons collided with each other in the heart of the North Sea, and the biggest naval battle the world had seen up to that time was underway. The Anglo- Americans opened fire on the German ships the moment their guns were within range, and the Germans were quick to return fire; in the titanic eleven-hour clash that followed, a combined total of 12 surface warships would be sunk before the carnage was done. It was a costly affair for both sides, but the Germans came out of it the worse-- two of the Hochseeflotte’s best battlecruisers were among the vessels lost in the battle, depriving the Imperial Navy of their firepower at exactly the moment in the war when it needed every gun it could get hold of.
The Hochseeflotte’s senior admirals dreaded having to inform their Kaiser of the defeat at Jutland, and sure enough Wilhelm II exploded when he heard the news. He blamed them for the loss and banished them from his court for the rest of the war; thereafter these unfortunate men had to resort to using telegrams when they wanted to communicate with him, and some of them eventually got kicked out of the Imperial Navy altogether.
While Berlin was still trying to recover from the Jutland disaster, new complications arose on the Eastern Front: in the second week of June of 1916, Russian general Alexei Brusilov started a three-pronged assault against the Austro-Hungarian province of Galicia, forcing the German army to divert men and resources from the Western Frount to counter the Russian attack. Consequently, the already long-delayed German counterattack on the Allied lines in the West was postponed yet again.
The Brusilov campaign ended after six weeks with the Russian army in retreat, but during that time Brusilov’s troops had been able to advance to within 55 miles of Hungary’s future postwar capital, Budapest. Driving them back used up valuable resources and manpower and stuck a spoke in the wheel of German war plans to boot, allowing the Italians to expand their foothold in Austria and the British and French to further chip away at German defenses on the Western Front. Back in America, the AEF continued to make preparations for the day when it would enter the fighting in Europe.
That moment came on October 20th, 1916 when the first advance units of the AEF disembarked at the French port of Cherbourg. In an act that invoked the historical memory of France’s support for the American colonists during the Revolutionary War, the AEF’s commander-in-chief, General John J. "Black Jack" Pershing, said: "Lafayette, we are here!"6 Those words would echo across Europe-- and put a chill in the spines of Kaiser Wilhelm and his generals. From the autumn of 1914 on they’d more or less been playing for time, and when the first American soldiers reported for combat duty on the Western Front it became clear Berlin’s time had run out.
General Pershing’s troops hadn’t known much about trench warfare when they first got into uniform, but to the Kaiser’s dismay they proved to be quick learners. After some embarrassing and costly setbacks in their early encounters with the Imperial German Army, the AEF retooled its battle strategy and rid its officer corps of a considerable amount of deadwood. The Americans also mastered the new art of air warfare, harassing the Germans with tactical bombing raids on their front lines.
In early February of 1917 the AEF launched its first major offensive on the Western Front, a three-column push against a German salient along the Belgium-Luxembourg border; it took the Americans over two months to penetrate the salient, but when they finally succeeded in breaching it it collapsed on itself like a punctured balloon, enabling Allied ground forces to thrust deeper into German territory and triggering a major shakeup in the Imperial Army as Kaiser Wilhelm sacked the field commanders he deemed responsible for the debacle.
In March of 1917 Czar Nicholas II, faced with popular discontent over his domestic policies and mounting criticism from his generals of the Russian government’s conduct of the war with Germany, heeded the advice of his premier Alexander Kerensky and abdicated. For a time Berlin dared hope that Vladimir Lenin’s Bolshevik revolutionary movement might seize power in Russia and take her out of the war; those hopes were dashed, however, when British secret agent Sidney Reilly assassinated Lenin at his Swiss home-in-exile. Lenin’s top aides, Leon Trotsky and Joseph Stalin, were subsequently arrested and Kerensky began instituting land reforms that won over many of the lower classes, yanking the weapon of peasant discontent out of the Marxists’ hands.7
As if Lenin’s demise had been a signal for a change on the Eastern Front, the Russian army started a new Galician offensive in the spring of 1917. This time, Brusilov’s divisions advanced to within thirty miles of Budapest before their progress was halted; a secondary Russian assault against German defenses in Poland captured Brest-Litovsk and encircled Warsaw. For General von Falkenhayn and his staff, the surrounding of the Polish capital was a particularly alarming development: if Warsaw fell, then it was only a question of time before the Russians started advancing on Vienna or Berlin-- if not both.
The Russian thrust into Poland wasn’t the only thing giving the Austrians cause to fear for Vienna’s future; by now the Italians had crossed the Isonzo River and were besieging the vital Adriatic port of Trieste. Both sides were well aware of Trieste’s significance in the overall strategic picture, and that made the Central Powers as committed to holding the port as the Italians were to taking it. In spite of a naval blockade that had closed off most maritime supply routes to the city’s defenders, a thin trickle was managing to reach them via overland roads defended ferociously by Austro-Hungarian troops.
To cut the overland route, the Italian general staff devised a plan which called for two divisions of Alpini to make a rear flank assault on Trieste; among the soldiers that would take part in the first wave was a platoon sergeant who would become one of the most notorious political figures of the postwar era-- Benito Mussolini. Mussolini’s habit of self-aggrandizement would later cloud his postwar recollections of the offensive; at times he made it sound as if he’d fought the Trieste campaign singlehanded. But he did in fact play a considerable role in the offensive, and his wartime journals were the first major written account of that campaign other than the Italian general staff’s official reports.
On May 27th, 1917 Mussolini’s platoon was one of the first Italian units to hit the Austro-Hungarian lines at Trieste; caught unprepared, the Austro-Hungarian forces, who’d been expecting a frontal amphibious attack, found their overland supply route cut in half and soon lost several of Trieste’s outer districts to the Italians.
It took the badly shaken Austro-Hungarian army nearly three days to launch its counterattack. By then more than half of Trieste was in Italian hands and additional Italian troops had been landed at the mouth of the city’s harbor in a determined effort to capture the rest; the Italian navy’s surface fleet did its part to assist their comrades on land by first smashing an Austro-Hungarian naval task force in the Adriatic in a ferocious two-day naval battle and then bombarding Trieste’s main Austro-Hungarian garrison. On May 31st, Italian cavalry troops headed off a Hungarian regiment deployed to reopen the overland supply route.
The last pockets of resistance inside Trieste collapsed on June 4th, sending shockwaves throughout the Balkans and putting Allied troops in position to begin pushing further into southern Austria. The next day, Russian advance units began entering Warsaw.
Just over two weeks later, Allied divisions on the Western Front began their long-awaited drive to take Berlin. Another soldier who would play a substantial role in the politics of the postwar era was a participant in the city’s defense: Austrian-born corporal Adolf Hitler, who at the time the Allies began their thrust on Berlin was posted to a Bavarian infantry detachment. In his autobiography Mein Kampf, the future tyrant would recall: "The tension was almost too much to bear as the Allies started marching on our sacred capital. Men were pacing, smoking, playing cards-- generally doing anything they could think of to keep their minds off the apprehension they felt."
But it hardly seemed to do as much good as they would have hoped; something always came along to stir up their fears again, reminding them that they were about to go nose-to-nose with the Allied armies and that more likely than not they would come out on the losing end of the struggle to come.
The Allied armies in the West began their march on Berlin on June 20th, 1917; barely one week later the Russians launched their own drive towards the capital of the Second Reich. The Imperial German Army’s worst nightmare-- simultaneous assaults on Berlin from east and west --had become a grim reality. During these first days of the great campaign to seize the heart of the German empire, legendary fighter ace Manfred von Richtofen, the famed "Red Baron", was killed leading his squadron in close support attacks on the Allied lines; another great flying ace, American pilot Eddie Rickenbacker, pounced on him from a blind spot off his left wing and shot his Fokker D-VII triplane to pieces.
The Germans fought like tigers for every inch of ground on their home soil; the Imperial General Staff as a whole and Field Marshal von Falkenhayn in particular were determined to make sure that the Reich did not collapse on their watch. Von Falkenhayn had special reason for wanting to see the Allied pushes toward Berlin defeated: Kaiser Wilhelm II was threatening to relieve him of his post and demote him to private if the Allies weren’t driven out of German territory by the end of the month. The marshal, who at that time was nearly fifty-six years old, found the prospect of being sent to the trenches at his age rather disturbing and would do anything he could to keep his exalted rank.
Unfortunately for him and his career ambitions, the Italians chose that precise moment to add to his woes by staging a blitzkrieg that pushed the Austrian army back 30 miles north of the Austro-Italian border. On July 3rd, 1917 Warsaw finally fell to the Russians; by then von Falkenhayn had been sacked as chief of the Imperial General Staff and reassigned to a so-called "punishment battalion"8 on one of the worst sectors of the Western Front. He was a virtual pariah to the men of his new assignment, who wasted no time handing him over when their position was overrun by Allied troops. The Allied supreme commander in Europe, British general Sir Douglas Haig, saw to it the news of Falkenhayn’s capture was spread far and wide; as British, French, and American troops advanced deeper into Germany, they took with them propaganda leaflets describing the capture down to the smallest detail.
The first major German city to fall into Allied hands was Mainz, captured on September 5th after some of the bloodiest land battles of the First World War. The United States Marines, who’d been in the vanguard of the American Expeditionary Force from the time it was first established, distinguished themselves to the tenth degree in the fight to take Mainz; at least two Congressional Medals of Honor and five Silver Stars were awarded to USMC troops for heroism under fire. One week after Essen fell, British and Canadian troops seized the port of Bremerhaven in an amphibious assault that is touted even today as a model of speed and co-ordination by strategic planners. By September 20th Essen and Cologne were in Allied hands as well and British troops were pushing hell-for-leather towards Bremen; a few days after that Frankfurt capitulated.
By October 1st, Russian advance battalions were less than forty miles from Berlin and Italian artillery was within shelling range of Vienna. The Kaiser and his imperial court were in a state of full- blown paranoia as his enemies closed in on him from both east and west; that paranoia was exacerbated by the increasingly large and vociferous antiwar demonstrations taking place just a few miles from his palace. Even many of those who’d supported the Kaiser’s war in the past were now calling for him to make peace with the Allies lest Berlin be turned into a battleground; the thought of the Reich’s capital coming under enemy fire chilled them to the bone.
Wilhelm, however, saw even the vaguest suggestion of capitulating to the Allies as tantamount to treason; to him, anyone who harbored notions of quitting the war before it was done was guilty of nothing less than stabbing the Second Reich in the back....
To Be Continued
1High Seas Fleet, the Imperial German Navy’s main battle force in the Atlantic and the North Sea at the time.
2A region which included what is now the Polish city of Gdansk.
3By then Constantine and George had both been sent into exile and George’s brother Alexander, who was little more than a rubber stamp for the prime minister, occupied the Greek throne.
4That cable is preserved at the National Archives in Washington; its author was recalled to Germany shortly after sending it and later became foreign minister for the post-1919 German government.
5Quoted from Secretary Baker’s commencement address to the US Naval Academy graduating class of 1916.
6A reference to the Marquis de Lafayette, who from 1778 until the Revolutionary War ended in 1783 served as a strategic advisor to General George Washington and also led several regiments of French soldiers in combat on the American side.
7The story of the assassination, and Reilly’s subsequent mission to arrest the Kaiser in the final days of the war, were the basis for the 1981 PBS-TV miniseries Reilly: Ace of Spies.
8A special unit to which the Imperial German Army assigned malcontents, incompetents, and other undesirables as a disciplinary measure; these units were later revived by the Nazis during the Second World War.