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Comparing the Hundred Days Campaign of 1918 to the Ukrainian Counteroffensive
A historical perspective on long, hard battles
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“The Germans may have lost the war by July, but the Allies had certainly not won it and there was much still to do, as the staggering toll of losses reveals all too clearly,” Nick Lloyd writes in his 2014 history Hundred Days: the Campaign That Ended World War I. The War to End All Wars did not sputter to a halt out of exhaustion. Instead, “between 18 July and 11 November the Allies sustained upwards of 700,000 casualties while the Germans lost at least another 760,000 men.” Rather than decline, “casualty rates among British units were some of the worst of the war, leading many commentators to assume that nothing had been learnt from previous offensives; that it was the same old story of fruitless slaughter and sacrifice in 1918 as it had been in earlier years.” So slow was the perceived advance at times that to many “it was plain that the fighting was reverting again into trench warfare.”
Now in its second week, the Ukrainian counteroffensive in Zaporizhzhia began with similar anguish, mainly expressed on Twitter, after a breaching operation went wrong near Mala Tokmachka. Attempting “one of the most dangerous and complex maneuvers possible … without air support and questionable suppressive artillery fire,” a mechanized company hit mines and took fire from Russians at close range. Yet “under the circumstances the Ukrainians performed as well as could be expected and as close to established doctrine as possible,” according to one expert in Bradley tactics who talked to Howard Altman at The Drive. Combat is chaos and the commander was trying to save his command in the hardest circumstances imaginable. “You get jacked up all the time” in offensive operations against prepared defenders, the unamed official tells Altman. About “90% of breaches that we do for the first time [in training] are failures.” Even with western training and equipment, the best unit can end up reinforcing failure.
More to the point, however, Ukrainians did not stop advancing. They hold that contested ground today and one of the Leopard tanks knocked out in the battle has already been shipped off to Poland for repairs. The 47th Mechanized Brigade did not continue reinforcing failure, as Russians did at Vuhledar in February. Rather, a costly reconnaissance in force has revealed how Russians plan to defend Zaporizhzhia. Electronic warfare systems had to be turned on, exposing their locations for targeting with HIMARS. Orichiv was not the only focus of operations, either, or the largest. At least twice as many Ukrainians advanced on Velyka Novosilka, now developing as the more significant threat to Russia’s position.
Similar to the Kherson offensive of 2022, which also faced prepared defenses and succeeded through relentless pressure rather than sweeping breakthrough, this phase of the counteroffensive will be a slog, not a race forward. Nor are the tanks and armored vehicles supposed to be miracle weapons. On the contrary, Germany and the United States are sending hardware to get destroyed in Ukraine, or to get damaged and hopefully repaired, or perhaps even get captured by Russians, with deliberation. Cannons and planes and even air defense systems are consumable items that reduce the manpower necessary to fight modern wars. Ten days and one armored company are not enough evidence to judge the success of a “force-directed” offensive — that is, a sequence of operations aimed at reducing Russian forces that is probably going to last for months, not weeks or days.
The Battle of Kherson lasted 90 days before Russian forces withdrew from the right bank of the Dnipro. A better yardstick for Zaporizhzhia might be 100 days, or the same amount of time it took the allies of 1918 to force the German high command to make peace. Germany was on the path to defeat after the French 4th Army and American divisions rebuffed their offensive at the Marne in July and then followed up with a counteroffensive of their own. Despite the victory, “casualties in the Marne sector had been enormous,” Nick Lloyd writes.
The French, who had borne the brunt of Allied casualties, had lost over 2,500 officers and nearly 93,000 other ranks. They had captured 25,000 German soldiers and 600 officers, and seized 3,300 machine-guns, 221 Minenwerfer and over 600 artillery pieces, the vast majority by Mangin’s Tenth Army, but it had come at huge cost. Figures for German dead, wounded and missing have never been calculated with any precision, but were, if anything, even worse. Medical reports show that the German Army suffered 165,000 casualties during the month of July, the majority of which would have been sustained in the heavy fighting on the Marne.
British tanks had undergone rapid doctrinal development. For example, the “Star” variant of the Mark V tank was six feet (about 2m) longer than the regular variants, with room inside for 20 soldiers, creating the first armored personnel carrier. These weapons did have an impact on the German infantry, which quickly learned to fear them. As the Battle of Amiens began on 8 August, however, Germans stood to their guns and returned fire. The new tanks were powerful, but they were not indestructible.
One German veteran, Leutnant Reisinger of 43rd Division, remembered seeing four tanks around Cerisy in the north. They were ‘immediately dispatched by direct fire’ and were, as he put it, ‘burned’. Indeed, even on such a successful day as 8 August, losses were heavy. The Mark V may have been protected by 14mm of plate armour, but it was widely noted that German artillery batteries, usually the 77mm field gun, were brutally effective against it. For example, of the thirty-four tanks that were supporting 4th Canadian Division, only six were able to reach the final objective, known as the Blue Dotted Line. ‘A’ Company of 1st Battalion, in particular, lost nine tanks owing to heavy anti-tank fire from Le Quesnel, and were unable to cross the open ground in front of the village without being hit. It was no surprise that after-action reports would later stress the importance of engaging field guns ‘immediately they are observed, irrespective of any other targets that may present themselves’, even suggesting that Whippets should be sent ahead of the heavier, slower Mark Vs ‘in order to draw fire and so disclose the positions of anti-tank guns’. Le Quesnel was the one objective that would remain out of Canadian hands on 8 August.
Sending elements forward to draw fire and reveal enemy positions is a very old tactic (see “forlorn hope” and “vanguard”). A few soldiers embrace high risk service to minimize the risks taken by the larger army. Similar to siegecraft, breaking through minefields and entrenchments often requires taking some risks in order to discern just where and in what way the enemy is vulnerable. Reconnaissance — on foot, or by air, now with drones — is both dangerous and essential. Liberated areas must by systematically de-mined and cleared out to make them safe staging areas for further operations. This inhibits lightning advances.
Battlefield friction also makes progress difficult to discern. Although history records Amiens as a British victory, to the survivors, it may have seemed a kind of defeat, or at least a Pyrrhic kind of victory. “Even if they were fortunate most of the crews were suffering from minor ailments: cuts and grazes from bullet ‘splash’; burns from the engines and exhausts; and confusion and exhaustion brought on by carbon monoxide poisoning and petrol fumes,” Lloyd writes of the tank crews.
If they were unlucky, they were likely to have sustained more serious casualties, perhaps fatalities, and already certain sections of the battlefield were littered with the ghastly remains of burnt-out tanks and incinerated crews. Moreover, because a considerable proportion of tanks had been put out of action, it was necessary to form composite battalions – often composite crews – from unfamiliar units in unfamiliar tanks. It was no wonder that the second, third and fourth days of Amiens were, in the words of Hugh Elles, ‘a great test of training and the spirit of cohesion in the corps’.
Cannibalizing and consolidating units, teams, weapons: this is all normal in a war of attrition. All donated equipment is destined for the maelstrom in Ukraine, written off in the transfer; they are not toys to be borrowed and politely returned later. Western capitals expect fits and starts. Military historians certainly do. Even the best allied formations made errors in 1918, Lloyd notes.
On 10 August, 4th Canadian Division, supported by 32nd British Division, which had moved up to the front, continued their drive southeast, intending to push on towards the village of Hallu. The British and Canadians, supported by the French on their right flank, made some progress, but enemy machine-gun fire and shelling were becoming impossible to ignore, making any advance increasingly costly. Forty-three tanks had been scraped together for the operation, but because of the late issue of orders, the attack went in without the benefit of a smoke screen and in broad daylight. During the day, over half were put out of action, mostly by German guns firing over open sights.
A month later, Germans were still putting up a fierce resistance and inflicting serious losses. “Typical of the experience of Third Army was 5th Division,” Lloyd writes, which “was in almost constant action between 21 August and 4 September, pushing eastwards along the Bapaume Road, watching its flanks, taking prisoners, and dealing with the occasional machine-gun position.” If the progress in Zapporizhzhia seems slow now, the 5th Division moved at a comparative snail’s pace to “succeed” at an agonizing cost. “It advanced over fourteen miles, but suffered casualties of 210 officers and 4,065 men. This was, as the divisional history admitted, ‘severe’, but not ‘out of proportion to the results gained’.”
As the Imperial German Army fell back on the Hindenburg Line and prepared to make a hard stand at the Saint-Quentin Canal, the British Army was actively planning for the war to drag on another year. “If the war continued at this intensity for much longer, Haig would be forced to disband more than single battalions — entire divisions would have to go,” Lloyd explains. Machinery was replacing men. “It was no wonder that many in the War Cabinet in London, including the Minister of Munitions, Winston Churchill, were planning for 1919 on the assumption that hundreds, if not thousands, of tanks and aeroplanes, and the mass employment of poison gas, would be required to offset the shortages of men that would increasingly afflict the British and French Armies.”
It is therefore hardly surprising that western allies signal their willingness to continue supplying Ukraine with weapons in 2024. To borrow a sports metaphor, they are “running through the tape.” Mobilization curves and production economics shape morale, not the other way around. A society that has accepted heavy wartime casualties will endure war until it cannot.
In 1918, the Germans were even more demoralized, even more disorganized, even more damaged than their enemies. Field Marshall Erich von Ludendorff regretted his decision to forego tank development, saw a dangerous indiscipline breaking out in the ranks, and suffered a near-nervous breakdown. Nor was the fallback position any better. “Those who had hoped the Hindenburg Line, with its miles of bunkers and acres of concrete, would be a place of safety and refuge were to be disappointed,” Lloyd writes. “Far from being an unbreakable bastion, this last line of defence was fast becoming an anvil upon which the remaining German armies would be broken.”
Currently Ukraine has two main “anvils” on which to break the Russian Armed Forces (RuAF), Zaporizhzhia and Bakhmut. However, the great majority of their offensive brigade formations have not even been committed to combat, yet. This week, attacks across the Dnipro, which has just about finished subsiding after the breaching of the Nova Kakhovka dam, have been “repulsed” by Russian forces that might otherwise have reinforced the lines elsewhere. Tokmak has the most elaborate defenses because the RuAF is expecting Ukraine to attack in the most obvious place. Less-obvious avenues of attack, such as Velyka Novosilka, can only be exploited while Ukrainian forces pin down the Russian troops at Tokmak. Key to the whole project is where, and when, the RuAF reserves are committed to fight.
Ludendorff knew his army was broken after 8 August, which he called “the black day of the German Army.” Five days of bloody fighting later, British and French armies had advanced 11 miles along a 47-mile front. He had lost a small slice of “temporarily-occupied France” but Ludendorff did not regret losing the geography so much as the nearly 50,000 troops killed, wounded, or captured there. German society could no longer endure the losses. By the time his armies were cracking at the Hindenburg Line, Ludendorff had come to accept that politics would have to resolve the conflict. He had no military solutions left. German war demands had never really diminished and now they would have to be entirely abandoned in capitulation and royal abdication.
It was only then, with a million Americans still being inducted and carried across the Atlantic Ocean, far short of even reaching France, that German armies stopped fighting. Still: when the guns fell silent at the appointed moment on 11 November, both sides were fighting hard, taking casualties, inflicting them on the enemy. The storm of steel thundered, the bleeding was not stanched, until both sides agreed to stop fighting. Gen. Vasily Gerasimov and Vladimir Putin have not had their “black day” yet. Ukraine wants to give it to them and Kyiv has accepted there will be losses in the attempt. The west has already written off the material losses. We are all just waiting on the inevitable, now.
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