On 29th September 1918, after a ferocious 56-hour artillery bombardment, allied soldiers finally battered their way through a section of line that had come to symbolise the final German defensive stand. Finally, they were through the Hindenburg Line.
It was an action that finally forced the Germans into retreat. Short on food, ammunition and morale, this was a shadow of the army that had fought tooth and nail in France and Belgium during World War I. A few days later, the German government requested an armistice and on the 8th October, the final soldiers still clinging to the Hindenburg Line were ordered to retreat. The bloodiest war the world had ever known was almost at an end.
Though combat would continue for another month, this was the end of the Siegfriedstellung – known to the allies as the Hindenburg Line. A vast German defensive position stretching for 140km (90miles) from Arras to Laffaux in Eastern France. From now on I’ll just refer to it as the Hindenburg Line, but a little tidbit of information – the German name comes from Siegfried, a mythical dragon-slayer, while Hindenburg was the Field Marshall who oversaw the Line’s development.
But as impressive as the line was, it was a reflection of the failing war strategy that Germany began experiencing from 1916. After the chaos of the Somme and the hell of Verdun, the Germans knew they were wobbling. They simply did not have the man-power to withstand much more pressure. The Hindenburg Line was the largest of a series of positions that were created further back from the front line – a fallback position designed to enable them to shorten their lines and so be able to use fewer soldiers.
The Hindenburg Line has gone down in history as a formidable defence, but in reality, its life was short-lived. This was an incredibly well structured defensive position, but it all came far too late for the German army.
Battle of the Somme
The carnage that took place in the Somme area of France during the First World War saw casualties top 1 million, making it one of the bloodiest battles in history. To make it worse, very little, if any, ground was made by either side over the 140 days.
The British army suffered its biggest single-day loss of life on the first day of the Somme, with nearly 20,000 men dying. The Germans, who remained on the defensive for much of the early stages of the battle, also suffered horrific casualties but for the most part, their defences held – just about.
But make no mistake about it, the Germans were in a terrible situation. Any future offences were out of the question due to a lack of numbers, working weaponry and overall battle fatigue. Not only did the Germans have to contend with the Somme, but the Battle of Verdun, which had been anticipated as a shorter offensive, was quickly becoming the longest and most costly battle of the entire war. As if that wasn’t enough, Romania had also joined the war on the side of the Allies and soldiers would need to be redirected to face another army to the South-East. Quite simply, the front lines had become too long and the Germans no longer had the man-power to hold it.
The idea for a rear defensive line that the Germans would withdraw to was first raised at a conference in the small town of Cambrai 100km (62 miles) north-east Amiens on 8th September. A week before, General Erich von Falkenhayn, the German Chief of the General Staff, had been replaced by Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg who had recently completed an inspection of the front lines. His impression of his soldiers and their defences was bleak, to say the least.
It was at this meeting that Hindenburg told commanders that no extra troops would be made available to them but that a staunch defence was still expected. Generalleutnant Georg Fuchs was the man who first proposed a new defensive line running from Arras to the west of Laon, which would shorten the front line by 40 km (25 miles), meaning 10 divisions worth of soldiers could be freed up, possibly to be used in future attacks. A week later on 15th September, the order went out to begin construction of the Hindenburg Line and work officially started on 23rd September.
The Hindenburg Program
The Hindenburg Line was only part of the initiative that Field Marshal Hindenburg set in motion towards the end of 1916. Alongside the new defensive position was a wide-ranging set of actions that have come to be known as the Hindenburg program.
This was a program that would focus not on the hellish battlefront, but back in Germany. It included the Auxiliary Service Law – known back in Deutschland as the Gesetz über den vaterländischen Hilfsdienst – which rolls off the tongue doesn’t it – which approved all Germans from 16 to 50 years old for compulsory service. This was designed to not only boost the numbers in the army, but also those working in factories delivering much-needed munitions and weapons to the battlefield.
This was a delicate balancing act that the Germans had serious problems getting right. At the end of 1916, there were 1.2 million skilled workers in German factories, who had either been withdrawn from service or were exempt, and that number climbed to 1.64 million by October 1917. But manpower wasn’t everything. Throughout the final years of the war, Germany suffered serious shortages of raw materials. In February 1917, steel production was 256,000 tons short of their target, while explosives production fell 1,100 tons below expectations. To give you an idea of how much was required daily, 34 ammunition trains were needed each day to simply maintain consumption on the western front.
Building the Line
As I mentioned earlier, construction of the Hindenburg Line began on 23rd September 1916, but this was only one of five defensive positions that would combine to form the Abwehrschlacht (defensive battle). Along with the Hindenburg Line, the Flandernstellung (Flanders Position) would stretch from the Belgian coast to Lille in France, the Wotanstellung (Wotan Position) from Lille to Sailly. The Hundingstellung (Hunding Position) was to run from Péronne to Etain, while The Michelstellung (Michel Position) would thread from Etain to Pont-à-Mousson.
The quality of this line certainly varied depending on where you were. In fact, when the Germans finally made their withdrawal to it, parts hadn’t even been finished. In general, it followed the same kind of pattern that we had seen with defensive positions throughout the First World War, but was not so much of a line as a thick wedge of land, measuring 12km (8 miles) deep in certain places. The area behind the line came to be known as the rückwärtige Kampfzone (rear battlezone) which the Germans hoped would be able to slow, or even stall an advance should it make it through the line. This would be done through booby traps, flooded rivers, destroyed bridges and so on. At the back of this area was the artillery which would rain down fire on any Allied advance.
Concrete pillar boxes were installed along the entirety of the Hindenburg Line with the feared German machine guns lurking in wait. The area around the line was designed in such a way that troops could quickly withdraw and then counter-attack at speed and this was part of a general evolution in German military planning which called for a much more fluid approach to defence, instead of the rigid, hold the line at all cost mantra we had seen earlier in the war.
The Hindenburg Line was built by German construction companies who began by focusing on the ferroconcrete emplacements and pillar boxes, which were made with a combination of wire mesh and concrete. The Mulberry Harbours that the Allies used on D-Day were built in the same way and remain on the beaches of Normandy to this day. The amount of gravel, sand and cement needed was so much that it exhausted production in occupied France, Belgium and in the West of Germany.
Roughly 12,000 German and 3,000 Belgian labourers were recruited, along with around 50,000 prisoners of war, most of whom were Russian, to dig the trenches. The Hindenburg Line measured 140km (90 miles) and was designed to accommodate twenty divisions (each usually composed of between 10,000 and 15,000 men). This meant that there would be one division every 7.2 km (4.5 miles).
Telephone lines were buried along the entire line but also stretched back to deeper positions.
The line was composed of two main trenches roughly 180 metres (590 ft) apart. The second trench was considered the main line of defence and it was here where the majority of the soldiers would be based.
In front of the trenches was the hated barbed wire with fields of it sometimes as much as 91 metres (298 ft) deep and positioned in a zigzag formation which would allow the machine guns placed behind to be able to sweep the sides and so maximising casualties.
Building a huge defensive line further back was one thing, but how do you safely move hundreds of thousands of troops back to it without leaving gaps. Luckily for the Germans, they had winter on their side, and with little appetite for an Allied offensive towards the end of 1916, discussions began over how the withdrawal would take place.
Come January, most agreed that the Allied strength was both too great to be defeated through an offensive, and perhaps even too strong for the German defenders to hold them at bay. Allied commanders had been careful not to visibly amass troops in any certain areas which would have indicated where an attack might take place and would have at least allowed the Germans to reinforce the sectors. Instead, according to German surveillance, it appeared that allied forces were gaining strength across the front line – the time to withdraw was closing in.
A complex plan of deception was laid out with the hope of throwing off the Allies, and to a degree, it worked. The Allies were at least in part convinced that a limited offensive was about to take place further north in Flanders or possibly nearer to the channel ports, but this was simply a ruse to mask one of the most complex military withdrawals of the war.
The German withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line came to be known as the Alberich Bewegung (Alberich Manoeuvre), and it came with a 35-day timetable, in which everything needed to be moved from the forward lines or destroyed. Germany commanders also ordered plenty of booby traps to be laid throughout the old defensive position. These traps ranged from the fairly straight forward buried devices to the more complex with delayed-action fuses often attached to useful devices such as stoves or to items likely to be taken by soldiers as loot. The Allies countered this by often sending captured German soldiers into enemy trenches first where they were ordered to scour for booby traps.
On top of this, roads had to be damaged, bridges destroyed, water supplies contaminated and the civilian population forced to leave (although certain villages were given exceptions out of fear such scorched earth tactics might provoke a strong backlash – which after three years of war on French soil sounds a little rich).
Troops began moving on 16th March 1917. Reserve soldiers were brought up from behind the new Hindenburg Line and took their place on the main defensive line, while the shattered soldiers on the front line began moving back behind the Hindenburg Line. It was like a large scale choreographed dance routine, set in an area of the world that was beginning to look like the end of the world. Vast sways of land had been completely destroyed, with thousands of bodies swallowed up by the hellish winter mud. If there was a hell, it was here.
Over the next month a bizarre cat and mouse game ensued as the German took a step forward, then two steps back, nearing the Hindenburg Line with every passing day. As early as the 14th March, the Allies had an inkling that the Germans were retreating, but to where they still were not sure. It was a chaotic time when casualties across the board began to mount, but by early April, the two sides had met on a new battlefront – the Hindenburg Line.
Breaking the Line
The battle to break the Hindenburg Line began almost immediately and with some early success. On 3rd May an Australian division reached the line and briefly gained control before being forced back. This was a pattern that was replicated many times in the coming months with the Allies throwing everything they had at the line. On the rare occasion, they did reach it or surpass it, they often became caught in the rear battlezone giving the Germans the opportunity to counterattack.
As summer dragged on, Allied casualties climbed steadily with little to no gains to show for it. But as August began, a series of massive attacks were being planned, which would eventually end the war. Collectively they came to be known as the 100-day offensive.
Now remember the Germans were in a poor state at this point, and their initial success at holding the Allies at bay probably said more about the quality of the Hindenburg Line, rather than the German army. Britain’s General Rawlinson even wrote,
“Had it been defended by the Germans of two years ago, it would certainly have been impregnable….”
But the pressure was mounting and on the 28th September 1918, the Grand Offensive began. The cataclysmic finale of the Great War was here and the following day the main assault on the Hindenburg Line commenced. The fighting over the following week was fierce, Allied soldiers would battle through the defensive line only to be pushed back and it wasn’t until 5th October that they began streaming through the Hindenburg Line over a 31 km (19 mi) front. Three days later the British First and Third armies also breached the line and on the same day, German commanders ordered the full withdrawal from their prized defensive position.
36,000 German soldiers were taken prisoner in the attack as the full extent of the German capitulation became clear. Their armies slumped backwards towards their homeland, desperately fighting a rearguard action. It is perhaps one of the most shocking aspects of the entire First World War, that bloody combat continued right up until the Armistice was signed on the 11th November 1918. The last known soldier to die in combat was American Henry Gunther, who was killed just one minute before the Armistice came into effect. The carnage that had lasted since 1914 finally came to an end.
As for the Hindenburg Line, what was undoubtedly a formidable defensive position came far too late for a Germany that was already frantically holding on at that point. With its soldiers in a terrible shape, low on ammunition and morale collapsing, many argue that the breaching of the line was the final nail in the coffin which led to any remaining German hope evaporating both on the battlefield and back in Germany.
Others claim that even the construction of the Hindenburg Line and subsequent withdrawal to it caused serious damage to German prestige. In 1916 Germany had little hope of winning the war, but what they could do was to make it as hard as possible for the Allied forces. This was not the glorious German army that had long been touted. What had been billed a defiant stand, lasted less than seven months and accounted for tens of thousands of deaths. The bloody, hopeless defence at the Hindenburg Line was just the closing chapter of what had been the most brutal war of attrition the world had ever seen.