For years, it was virtually impossible for either side in the war to break thorough enemy lines. The generals tried out a number of ways to break the stalemate; using artillery barrages, going “over the top”, using gas, using tanks etc, but all to no avail. So how was the stalemate finally broken, and what tactics were used? In 1917, a chain of events helped make 1918 a decisive year to combat the war. President Wilson had been re-elected in 1916 after promising to keep the USA out of the war. The USA was officially neutral, but supplying loans and equipment to the Allies.
America wanted to remain neutral, but it was more loyal to Britain; this is for two reasons. One reason is that, historically, Americans were descended mainly from the British, which gave two of the countries a strong link. Secondly, it would be dangerous to the USA and other countries if Germany won the war, as they were fast developing into a vast empire. So, the Germans retaliated and attacked and destroyed many American ships which they suspected of carrying supplies to the Allies. This was unrestricted U-boat warfare. The Americans were angered as it led to a loss of American lives and goods.
The Germans had been threatening the Americans regularly, namely with the sinking of the liner “Lusitania “in 1915, that led to the loss of 1,200 passengers, including 128 US citizens. Despite this, the Americans did not bring themselves into war until 1917. The final straw was when British intelligence intercepted a telegram sent by the German foreign minister Zimmerman in early 1917. The telegram stated that Germany was to undertake unrestricted submarine warfare against the USA and indicated that Mexico would be rewarded with the territories of Arizona, New Mexico and Texas if it declared war on the USA.
British intelligence notified Woodrow Wilson about Germany’s secret suggestions; it was one of the deciding factors in the USA joining the War on the side of the Allies. The USA declared war on 1 April 1917. Another factor in trying to break the stalemate was the tank. The tank was a British invention. The tanks were used for the first time at the Battle of the Somme. They advanced ahead of the infantry, crushed barbed wire defences and sprayed the enemy with machine gun fire, but still did not achieve any great success, until November 1917.
The tanks in 1915 weighed in some 14 tons and bearing 12 feet long track frames, the tank could carry three people in cramped conditions. In the event its top speed was three miles per hour on level ground, two miles per hour on rough terrain (actual battlefield conditions in fact). The ‘Little Willie’ was notably restricted in that it was unable to cross trenches. However, the British army officer Colonel Swinton remained enthusiastic about the tanks, and gradually the tanks kept improving until they were used to their full advantage a few years later.
The tanks showed how successful they could be at the Battle of Cambrai, when British infantry and 400 tanks crashed through the Hindenburg line with great success. The Hindenburg Line, the last and strongest of the German army’s defence, consisted of three well-defended trench systems, established in 1917. Throughout September 1918, Australian forces had helped the British army to secure positions from which an attack on the Hindenburg Line could be launched. Planning began for a major attack at the end of the month. It was hoped that this attack would finally break the power of the German army.
The attack caught the Germans by surprise in the early morning. Then the tanks began to move forward, crashing through the wire, and leading the infantry and cavalry through. The Allies managed to capture 8000 of the enemy and 100 guns. Unfortunately for the British this enormous initial success was effectively cancelled out in German counter-attacks because the British did not possess sufficient infantry troops to exploit the breach they had created. Nevertheless the successful use of tanks at Cambrai restored dwindling faith in tank development.
The U. S. army took note and undertook development of its own tank series. From the start of the war, both armies tried to prevent each other from receiving essential supplies to its soldiers. The British had been blockading German ports since 1914. The blockade was supposed to strangle German industry so that it could not supply the German army. The loss of supplies reduced German trade from $5. 9 billion in 1914 to just $0. 8 billion in 1917. By 1917, Germans were experiencing severe shortages; both civilians and soldiers were suffering.
Russia, prior to the war, was worried about the growing power of Germany, and signed the triple entente with Britain and France. The objective of the alliance was to encourage co-operation against the perceived threat of Germany. However, it all changed in 1917 when the Russian revolution brought in a communist government. Now Russia was out of the war and had made peace with Germany, therefore the German Army no longer had to fight a two front war. It could transfer all its troops back to the Western Front.
Despite the good news of the Russian surrender, the Allies blockade of German ports had starved the economy of raw materials and the population (including the soldiers) of food. Worse still, the USA was transferring tens of thousands of its troops to France per month. The German High Command decided to launch one massive attack to achieve a military breakthrough and win the war. They selected General Ludendorff (a successful German general from the Eastern Front) to lead the attack. The attack began in March and was at first successful in breaking out of the stalemate.
General Ludendorff used heavy guns and gas attacks to start with. Then small groups of well-armed, well-trained, fast-moving soldiers called “storm troops” broke through at many points in the Allied line. Ludendorff had failed to see the importance of tanks, and in Germany tanks had not been put into production early enough for significant use in 1918. On June 9, the Americans entered the war in force — well nourished, lively and eager to show the world what they could do. They attacked the Germans at the tip of the German advance, in the Marne Valley at Belleau Wood, near Chateau-Thierry.
On August 8, the British, with French support, began a minor offensive along ten miles of frontline, against a thinner line than the Germans had maintained in previous years. The assault caught the Germans off guard. With 430 tanks, the British advanced nine miles by evening on the first day, and they captured 16,000 German prisoners, including division staffs, and 161 big guns. By August 10, the British and French had suffered 20,000 casualties, and only 67 of the 430 tanks remained in service, but by then they had inflicted 70,000 casualties on the Germans and had taken 50,000 prisoners.
Ludendorff saw the war as hopeless; hence the offensive had been a failure and the Allies defeated the Germans. In my opinion, the USA’s entry into the war and the blockading of German ports were the two most important factors in breaking the stalemate. The entry of the USA in the war caused a severe blow to the German army. America’s entry into the war ensured reinforcements on the Western Front, and a continuous supply of food and materials. The Germans knew that if the war went on there would be a large number of fresh US troops added onto the Allied side, and realised it would be difficult to defeat such a vast army.
Also, the blockading of German ports was momentous setback to the German army. The blockade had brought terrible food shortages, affecting everyone, both soldiers and civilians. Many of their best soldiers had been killed and morale was low. There were 300,000 deaths related to malnutrition during 1914-18 among civilian population. The blockade cut supplies of nitrates to Germany; vital for explosives for the army and fertilisers for the farmers. The adult meat ration in Germany for one week was the equivalent of two burgers in a modern fast food restaurant.
Naturally, the German army would have grown increasingly desperate to overcome the famine. At the Battle of Cambrai, Germany was faced with 380 tanks breaking through enemy lines. The tank offered a significant boost to the Allies morale, and showed what it was capable of at the Battle of Cambrai in 1917, where it achieved great success. The two most important reasons in overcoming the stalemate would be the British blockade and the American entry; as they both made a big impact in forcing the Germans to act quickly and fight.
By 1918, German forces were using armour-piercing machine-gun bullets to deadly effect, and had learnt how to adapt field guns to fire at tanks. Tanks were virtually impossible to miss because they were so large and slow; a sign that the invention had not yet completely come of age. The German offensive was an important factor in breaking the stalemate, but the USA’s entry into the war and the blockade triggered Ludendorff’s attack. Tanks did play a vital role for the Allies, but didn’t really have much of an effect in overcoming the stalemate, as there were a number of technical difficulties attached.
The British blockade, however, starved thousands of Germans of food and thousands of other people died of malnourishment. The USA’s entry into the war ensured reinforcements on the Western Front and a continuous supply of food and materials. The Allies and the Germans knew that if the war went on there would be a large number of fresh US troops ready for war coming on to the Allied side. The Germans would have realised the USA would have been a difficult problem to overcome in their battle. Hence, the blockade and the USA’s entry were the two most important points in overcoming the stalemate.