By early 1917 the German high command had definitely decided upon a purely defensive policy in the west, while awaiting the effects of the submarine campaign and exploiting their gains in the east. The Maneuver of the Somme left the Germans holding a front which was longer than they could effectively man, insufficiently protected by natural obstacles, and forming a salient which might some day prove a trap. The results of the Somme battle were soon to make themselves evident. Possession of the crest of the low arch between the Ancre and the Tortille gave the Allies such command of the enemy terrain to the north that broad areas became untenable, and during the month of February 1917 the Germans evacuated one position after another. Late in February and early in March these local withdrawals became merged in the great Hindenburg Retreat, the main movement of which began March 16, and which was the sequel to the two great struggles on the Somme plain.
The Hindenburg system of defenses, an exceptionally strong system of trenches and concrete pillboxes, was constructed by General Hindenburg in early 1916 when he perceived that he would not be able to hold his original front on the Somme against the offensive which the British were preparing to deliver the following spring. It was well chosen and constructed. The Germans were forced to the construction of the Hindenburg Line far in the rear, and to fall back upon it at the earliest opportunity. The power of the defensive was well understood by the German High Command. They expected to win the war by offensive action, but failing in that it was their plan to fall back behind the impregnable defenses of the Hindenburg Line, and as a result of unsuccessful attacks against it to make peace upon terms satisfactory under the conditions, though not, of course, as satisfactory as could be made following a completely successful offensive.
Commonly the whole line as it existed prior to the Allied Offensive of 1918 was called the Hindenburg Line, but more accurately the line was limited to the central sector, really a zone of defensive works several miles in width. By one account the Hindenburg Line, which was maintained through 1917 and until open warfare suddenly began in 1918, consisted of three main sections, the northern end being the "Wotan" line, the center the "Siegfried" line and the southern end the "Albrecht" line. It had the general shape of a crescent, with the horns at the North Sea on the north and the Aisne River on ihe south. On the northern end before Arras the natural weakness of this junction was covered by extensions of the Hindenburg line, named after the heroes of the "Nibelungenlied." Of these the "Wotan line" extended from Queant twelve miles southward and the "Siegfried line" extended from Queant fourteen miles northward to Drocourt. In the battle of Cambrai in November, 1917, the British had flanked the Siegfried line on the south, but could not get in its rear on account of the Wotan line.
Some accounts report that the Wotan Line, Alberich Line [or Albrecht Line], Siegfried line, Bunding and Brunhilda lines were the names the Germans gave their lines behind the Hindenberg Line. In the librettos of Wagner's Nibelung cycle, Bunding was a shocking cur, Alberich was a sneak and a villain, Siegfried came to a violent and untimely end, Brunhilda mounted her funeral pyre and was consumed in the flames, and Wotan was so snarled up his own laws and violated his own codes that there was no escape, for him from ruin of his own creation. On the other hand, General Ludendorf in his memoirs makes no mention of a "Hindenburg Line" and writes only of the "Siegfried Line" throughout.
The central figure of Siegfried ("who knew not what fear meant") as a personification of will-power, the only force which rules life, represents his conception of Schopenhauer's Will. How popularly-effective this artistic teaching has been is illustrated by the simple fact, that, after the Hindenburg-line, the chief remaining trench-lines of German defences were all named after these heroes of the "Blond Beast" as embodied in the Wagnerian rendering of Nordic mythology. In addition to the Siegfried-line were the Briinhilde-line, the Hunding-line, the Wotan-line, etc.
This Siegfried Line (Siegfried Stellung), called by the British the "Queant-Drocourt switch-line," ran north and south across the Scarpe River eight miles east of Arras. East of the Somme-Tortille barrier there was no serious north-south obstacle until one reached the Crozat-St. Quentin-Scheldt canal, which follows in part the marshy valleys of the Somme headwaters and upper Scheldt. Between Cambrai and St. Quentin the new Hindenburg Line was based on this obstacle; but south of St. Quentin it swung southeastward to follow behind the Oise valley and canal to a point south of La Fere. The Siegfried Line made full use, along extended stretches, of the front line of defenses afforded by the Bellicourt-St. Quentin Canal. The strength of these defenses, increased as it is by inundated areas, the very extensive possibilities of mutual flanking support by the different sectors, and the generally considered good artillery observation render the line very strong.
The Hindenburg Line could not be "broken through" or turned on its pivots. The season of 1917 was largely wasted in futile attempts to break, outflank or even to reach the new German positions that stretched in front of Cambrai, St. Quentin and Laon. Only at the ends of the Hindenburg line where it joined the old front did the British and French make any gains and these were very costly. The main German positions were too strong and too stubbornly defended to be taken by open, spectacular assault, but such assaults functioned less to recover square miles of desolated territory than to wear down the man-power of the Germans by cautious but incessant offensives. This was, in fact, the great lesson of the Hindenburg Line, and one which, when taken to heart, augured best for the ultimate victory of the Allies.
During the summer of 1917 the battle line across the Somme plain remained essentially stationary. The Germans had retreated to the Hindenburg Line for the express purpose of standing on the defensive there, while the British were forced to consume the time in re-establishing their trench systems, shelters, roads, railways, and other equipment in the new areas which the Germans had abandoned to them. Only at Cambrai was the usual monotony of dogged positional warfare broken by an important operation, designed to pierce the enemy's line by a surprise attack. Sir Douglas Haig had decided to try the effect of massed tanks as a means of destroying the elaborate wire entanglements of the Hindenburg Line. On November 20 the British started a drive toward Cambrai, which for aTtime threatened to smash the Hindenburg Line and possibly put an end to the deadlock on the Western Front. With scarcely any artillery preparation, the infantry, aided by a large number of huge tanks, plunged forward. The battle of Cambrai ended on December 7, with honors - and losses - about evenly divided. In one respect this battle was enormously significant: it heralded the break-through and the open warfare of the succeeding spring.
It was the skillful siting of the defenses on the topography of the plain, more than the formidable entanglements themselves, which gave the famous line its great strength. The high defensive value which the Germans attached to lines of rivers, marshes, and canals, was never more clearly evidenced than during this retreat. The intervention of the tank as a major offensive weapon had given a new and increased importance to these topographic features. Massive barbed wire defenses, to which the German infantryman had once trusted for protection, were easily smashed through by the ponderous machines, and the whole German army was now suffering acutely from "tank fright." Ludendorff avowed that mass attacks by tanks under cover of artificial fog were now his most dangerous enemy.
The strength of this line fully justified the repute in which it was held. The entanglements were of the most formidable character, broad belts of rigid iron posts closely set and intricately woven with extremely heavy barbed wire, while the open space in front was swept by machine-gun fire directed from heavily armored concrete "pill boxes" skillfully concealed in the trench system.
Four distinct types of shelters were found in the area: "Front Line Type," "Support Line Type," "Reserve Line Type." and "Turret Type." with, however, considerable variation in detail and dimensions between specimens of same type. Also, there were found many shelters constructed apparently for special purposes: signal stations, aid station, etc., which could not be classified in any of the four types. The Front Line Type was designed to shelter four men, with comfort reduced to bare necessity. The doors are low and enter directly into the room. The ceiling is so low a man can not stand upright. Machine guns were fired generally from each end of the firing step. The Support Line Type Shelter has two rooms, each accommodating four men. with ample room for bunks, tables and chairs. The arrangement of entrances and hall protects the occupants. Loopholes are provided to command the steps at the entrances. As in the case of the Front Line Type this type is provided with a firing step, and both entrances lead from one open trench with camouflaged cover. This type is sometimes provided with a turret. The Reserve Line Type was characterized by simplicity of design and lighter construction. There is no firing step, though in some cases excavated machine-gun emplacements are found near the entrances. Designed evidently for a general utility shelter, it was widely used in the rear areas and in artillery positions.
The Turret Type was a more elaborate installation combining the features of observation with those of defence. Note the thick walls, defiladed entrances, and the two turrets of standard type. Bunks for four men in each room were found in most cases. Examples of this class were found in the first stages of construction by November 1918.
The Front Line Shelters were placed at intervals of about 100 yards along the front and 30 to 50 yards in rear of the front band of wire. The Support Line Shelters were spaced at approximately the same intervals and occupied a similar position with respect to the second band of wire. The Reserve Line Shelters were placed at closer intervals, in some places one every 50 yards of front, but echeloned from front to rear in checkerboard fashion over a zone 800 to 2,000 yards deep. The forward shelters of this type were placed about 200 yards in rear of the support line. These shelters were extensively used in artillery positions, and for special purposes in the zone of artillery fire.
Although "turrets" were found in combination with each of the other types, the typically turret type shelter was found in numbers only along the crest of high ground northwest of Mon Plaisir Fme. They were placed in echelon to a depth of a mile behind the front line. There appeared to be no material difference in arrangement of shelters between woods and open terrain.
Instead of being a single line of entanglements defending the usual trenches, the so-called "Line" was a zo:e 4 to 6 miles wide composed of a network of the heavily wired trenches linking up the town and village fortresses and their subterranean caverns in the chalk, and supplemented by numerous concrete fortifications. But the peculiar strength of the barrier, as already noted, lay in the remarkable skill with which the defenses were sited so as to take advantage of the natural features of the terrain. Not only did they command every approach by grazing fire across smooth, cleared ground, but they were in addition so disposed across the plain as to prevent the Allied artillery from obtaining any positions from which to bring an effective fire to bear upon them. The upper valleys of the Somme and Scheldt, which are followed by the canal system and which determined the general position of the Hindenburg Line in this region, were utilized as a natural fosse, to the west of which were the advanced defenses, including one or two of the continuous lines of trenches and heavy wire, while the double line of wired trenches, sometimes called "the Hindenburg Line proper" lay behind the canal to the east.
On the Somme-Scheldt drainage divide there is a break in the surface barrier, but the tunnel in the chalk which carries the canal from one valley to the other was turned to good account, serving as shelter for large bodies of troops who could reach their trenches above by shafts driven for that purpose. The open canal added materially to the shelter from enemy fire. Machine guns in armored emplacements at the tops of the walls could sweep the approaches on the western side and the great trench itself in case it were entered by the enemy. Subways connected the valley-canal trench with the wired defenses east and west of it. For convenience one usually speaks of "the line of the canal;" but it should not be forgotten that, as Sir Douglas Haig has so well pointed out, it was not so much the artificial canal itself as the skillful use of the topographic features associated with it which gave to the Hindenburg Line its great strength.
Such was the well-nigh impregnable belt of intricately combined natural obstacles, artificial waterway, and newly executed military works behind which the badly beaten and much depressed German armies had sought protection and along which they held at bay for the moment their victorious pursuers. But the Hindenburg barrier had a greater significance than serving as a line of defense for the Kaiser's field armies. Back of it lay the railway cordon skirting the southern and western base of the Ardennes Mountains and passing through Maubeuge, Hirson, Mezieres, and Sedan to connect the northern group of German armies on the western front with the southern group. From this central artery there branched out to the south and west the lines feeding the German front in Champagne, on the Marne plateau, and in the Somme plain.
The Allied plan of campaign involved concerted blows at this vital railway artery, the British striking for the Maubeuge sector, the French and Americans at Mezieres and Sedan. If the railway were cut the two groups of German armies would be separated, and one group forced back along the northern side of the Ardennes, the other along the southern side, with no effective lateral communication between them across the intervening mountain wedge. The Hindenburg Line was the most formidable barrier protecting the railway artery from the British blow. If that barrier were breached the whole German front would be endangered, while the political effect produced among the peoples of the Central Powers by the collapse of their strongest defensive position would be most far-reaching.
The western front broke up like a frozen river in the spring freshets. The lines that solidified in the fall of 1914 melted away in the spring of 1918. Beginning 21 March 1918 the Germans delivered three successive offensives, on the Somme, the Lys and the Aisne respectively, and all made unprecedented gains. Beginning July 18 the Allies delivered three successive offensives on three fronts and in each case wiped out the greater part of the German salient.
The Agache River Canal du Nord sector west of Cambrai was attacked first on 27 September 1918. The entire Hindenburg Line, from St. Quentin to Cambrai, was soon in Allied hands, after one of the greatest battles of the war. A strong natural position, to strengthen which every device of art had been most skillfully employed, had not long sufficed to shield the enemy. That the barrier fell as soon as it did is undoubtedly due in part to the fact that the German army was no longer what it had been. Excessive losses had greatly reduced its numerical strength. A long series of defeats and the knowledge that unlimited American reserves would surely crush them in the end had dangerously lowered the morale of the German soldiers. Ludendorff complains of passive resistance, skulking, desertion, insubordination, and mutiny among his troops at this time.
As soon as the security of the Hindenburg Line was imperiled, German General Headquarters ordered the preparation of a new defensive position along the Selle. This formed a part of the Lys-Hermann Line, extending from the Dutch frontier along the Eecloo canal, then the valleys of the Lys, the Scheldt, and the Selle, to reach the Oise near Guise. As the lower Selle makes an awkward angle with the Scheldt, the Hermann Line was here carried along the Ecaillon River 2 or 3 miles to the east. On 09 October 1918, after the collapse of the Hindenburg Line, the German armies retreated across the plain to the Hermann Line, taking up their new position behind the Selle. But the resistance of the demoralized German army was broken. The Teutonic hordes were now sullenly retiring eastward, cowed and whipped.
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