[Page 11] At the beginning of July Hitler and his regiment found themselves back in the same area of Ypres where the List Regiment had fought its first battle nearly three years before. Hitler would later write:
There, in October and November, 1914, we had received our baptism of fire. With the love for the fatherland in our hearts and with songs on our lips, our young regiment had marched into battle as to a dance. Valuable blood gave itself up joyfully in the belief that the fatherland's independence and freedom would endure.
In July, 1917 we stepped for the second time on that soil that was sacred to us. For under it there slumbered the best comrades, some little more than boys....The older soldiers among us, who had been with the regiment from the beginning, were deeply moved as we stood on this sacred spot where we had sworn 'Loyalty and Duty unto Death.' Three years before the regiment had taken this position by storm: now it was called upon to defend it in a grueling struggle."*
For months the British had been preparing to launch their largest offensive for 1917. The Third Battle of Ypres (as it became popularly known) was to become "the blindest slaughter of a blind war."* The British Generals were determined to bolster the lagging French morale and kill Germans. There were those among the British officer class who were determined to achieve victory on their own before the Americans arrived. The British preliminary bombardment began on the 16th of July and continue for a full two weeks. It would be one of the longest continuous bombardments of the war.
The Germans had been forced, by the water soaked soil in the region, to abandon deep dugouts in favor of small concreted pillboxes which held machine gun crews and twenty to thirty men during heavy shelling. As the men huddled in their shelters the bombardment continued and churned the wet soil. Between the rounds of exploding shells, the British also began hurling their latest inventions--new deadlier forms of gas and "cylinders of liquid fire." Although the pillboxes could resist the shells of light artillery, many were engulfed by the early form of napalm or torn to shreds by the heavier shells.
For some of the lucky soldiers, death came quickly. Those in the area of an exploding shell, simply vanished.* For others, all that was left behind were a few body parts. Most men however, did not die so easily. Men who survived saw friends with half their legs missing running to the next shell hole on splintered stumps. Between bursting shells they saw burning men running in circles. They saw men running with their entails dragging twenty feet behind them. They saw living men without legs, without arms, without jaws, without faces. They saw opened chests, opened stomachs, opened backs and opened skulls. Clumps of flesh that no longer resembled anything human continued to breath. Mercifully some men never knew how badly they were hit and died in the middle of a sentence. Others died slowly as they looked on in shock at a large part of their body laying yards away. Some looked at their deadly wounds in bewilderment and their long faces seemed unable to accept the fact that it had happened to them. Others gasped in horror, looking and longing for help they knew would never come.
Hitler's regiment, incredibly, was moved up in the line during the bombardment to make up for those already lost. For the next ten days he and his comrades lived under the net of arching shells. As Hitler would later write: "The regiment dug itself into the mud, clung to its shell-holes and craters, neither flinching nor wavering, but growing smaller in numbers day after day. Finally the English launched their attack on July 31,1917."*
As the bombardment lifted off the German forward positions that morning, the British went forward. The fighting was fierce along fifteen miles of front. The British never broke the elastic German line but they made some advances here and there. The next day it began to rain. As the shells and bombs churned the ground, the soil dissolved and the whole front became a slimy, sinking pit, dotted with shell holes filled with murky water. As the British attack continued, so did the rain. More shells turned the mud into an all consuming, semi-liquid slime. Movement became almost impossible as guns, supplies, horses, and even tanks sank into the muck. Men carrying their heavy packs slipped off hastily made wood covered pathways and disappeared. Bodies and parts of bodies became part of the trench-works. A German soldier at a related site would later write:
We did not bury our dead [anymore]. We pushed them into the little niches in the wall of the trench [that we earlier had] cut as resting places for ourselves. When I went slipping and slithering down the trench, with my head bent low, I did not know whether the men I passed were dead or alive; in that place the dead and the living had the same gray faces.*
Gas attacks caused additional burdens on the troops and the living were forced to keep their suffocating gas masks on twenty-four hours a day.
With no objective, and for no other purpose but to "kill Germans and shake their morale,"* the British soldiers were ordered to press on. The British leaders would sacrifice 325,000 of their soldiers before calling off the senseless attack. Mathematically, however, attrition was working--the Germans would suffer 200,000 casualties defending their positions.
Hitler's shattered regiment could no longer sustain is losses and was relieved. "The regiment had been reduced to a few companies," Hitler would later write, "these now made their way back, stumbling and encrusted with mud, more like ghosts than human beings."* The Regiment was loaded onto a train and shipped to a quiet section of the front south of Colmar,* Alsace for a months rest.*
During the fighting, at either Arras or Ypres, Hitler had been recommended for another citation. While stationed in Alsace the decoration came through--the Military Cross for Merit, 3rd class with swords.*
"All Hitler's commanding officers agreed that he was a brave and exemplary soldier"* with an "upright and honorable nature."* Yet, it was surprising to many that he still remained a lance corporal. With the high casualties among the lower officer class, there had been more than one discussion among Hitler's superiors about promoting him* to a rank equivalent with Sergeant. Although most biographers have accused Hitler of joining the army to satisfy his "cravings for prestige" he never requested a promotion. He was content with his job as runner and never applied for promotion to the rank of non-commissioned officer let alone a commission.* As Ignaz Westenkirchner, his fellow runner and friend, would later state: "He never wanted to be anything more than the others."* This may have been the reason for Hitler's "unmilitary manner,"* and his refusal to snap heels at the approach of an officer,* that later caused an adjutant to remark that he found "no leadership qualities in him."* The army, therefore, never voluntarily promoted him and he remained a lance-corporal throughout the war.
A more likely reason why Hitler was not promoted was that he had made himself indispensable to regimental headquarters and they didn't want to lose him. As one finds in any big organization, people are apt to get pigeon-holed if they excel at their job. Advancement becomes almost impossible except for the well-connected. The officers of W.W.I soon learned which soldiers were the most reliable and Hitler's commanders considered him the best. As one of Hitler's officers, Reserve-Lieutenant Horn, would state: "If Adolf Hitler had been promoted to the rank of sergeant, he could not have remained a battle orderly and the regiment would have lost one of its best dispatch carriers."*
On the other hand, armies, since the beginning of time, have always had an aversion to men who "think" for themselves, and "a bright button is weightier than four volumes of Schopenhauer."* Consequently, it could have been as Erich Remarque stated in his novel, All Quiet on the Western Front, when he referred to one of his front line characters as "the clearest thinker among us and therefore only a lance-corporal."*
Hitler's position as a dispatch runner, nevertheless, gave him a very unique position in the war. As neither an officer nor a common soldier, he was continually moving between the two. He came to understand both points of view and, as in Vienna, was able to observe at first hand the wall that separates one class from another. He also "gained inside knowledge of the way a regiment is commanded and accumulated insights and a fund of experience such as no General Staff officer could hope to acquire in peacetime."* In the course of his years on the battlefield he came to view military matters on the level of one who leads a regiment. For the rest of his life "he always remained at heart a regimental commander who thinks it incumbent on him to know all, miss nothing and decide everything, down to the smallest detail himself."*
While Hitler was still stationed near Colmar someone rifled his knapsack and stole his case containing his art equipment and other personal items. Hitler was furious and the incident did nothing to diminish his feelings against "criminals" and their "lack of morality." To make matters even worse, Hitler's dog, Little Fox, disappeared. Although Hitler was "desperate" and did his best to locate Fuchsl he never saw him again. Hitler was convinced that a "slacker," a railroad official who had offered him two hundred marks for the dog, had stolen it. "The swine who stole my dog doesn't realize what he did to me,"* Hitler remarked.
It may have been because of the loss of his dog, or that he had time to "wind down" after being out of harm's way for two weeks, but Hitler's comrades finally convinced him to take a furlough. Hitler was given eighteen days to do what he wanted. It was his first furlough in three years.
Towards the end of September, Hitler and his friend Schmidt boarded a train for Dresden where Schmidt had relatives. Between stops along the way they went sightseeing in some of the German cities. When they arrived in Dresden they visited its art galleries and Schmidt pointed out the city's famous landmarks. Hitler was eager to attend an opera but three years of war can magnify the triviality of most of man's entertainment and Hitler found nothing worth attending. He then went on to Berlin where he stayed with another comrade, named Arendt. Before heading to Spital for a visit to the family farm,* he sent a postcard to Schmidt, postmarked October, 6 (Saturday), 1917:
Did not get here until Tuesday. The Arendts are very kind, couldn't have wished for anything better. The city is marvelous, a real world capital. Traffic is still tremendous. I am out and about almost the whole day. At last I have a chance to study the museums a bit better. In short; I am lacking nothing. My regards.
Yours, A. Hitler*
Considering the misery on the battle front, it is not surprising that Hitler's letter appears upbeat. Conditions, however, were not as rosy in the 2nd Reich as Hitler's letter suggested.
When the United States entered the war the British naval blockade, which deprived the Germans of everyday humanitarian essentials, was never discontinued. Although "freedom of the seas" was supposed to be one of the main reasons America went to war, US leaders adopted, in full, the British naval policies that US leaders had condemned so vehemently before entering the war. In Germany, prices soared and the working classes suffered.
Working class children went barefoot in summer and wore shoes of wood in winter. Cloth was scarce and they wore clothes made of rags. Rubber for rain gear was nonexistent. Medical supplies were lacking. Milk and meat were almost unattainable and horse meat was becoming a luxury for the working classes. Turnips, mixed with other foods to "stretch" them, became the principle staple at every meal. Bread made of wheat was a luxury, consequently, potato peelings, at times mixed with sawdust, was used in its place. Birds, cats, and dogs were consumed whenever they could be caught or bought. People roamed the streets looking for anything edible at any price. For the year of 1917, 260,000 additional civilian deaths would be attributed to the blockade.
As the war dragged on an increasingly belligerent attitude began to take shape within the German Social Democratic Party. Earlier in 1917 the more left-leaning members formally broke away and formed the Independent Social Democratic Party. They openly started agitation against the war and the German government. Some of them worked alongside the more radical factory workers in Berlin and other large cities to further revolutionary agitation.* Within the Independent Party was an even more radical group calling itself the Spartacus League (Spartakusbund) which would help finance its activities by robbing civilians on trains. The Spartacus (or Spartacists), were headed by two fanatical communists named Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg. Karl, whose father had been a close friend of Karl Marx, co-wrote the Spartacus Manifesto in tribute to Marx's Manifesto. Karl's co-leader, Rosa, a Pole, was a tiny but explosive revolutionary agitator and a veteran of German and Russian prisons. Like many of the Independent Socialists, Karl and Rosa did not hold the "moderate" socialist view of a patient steady progress toward change. They believed in the Marxist view that any action was acceptable if it promoted their ideas or helped them grasp power. Their actions, and those of the Independent Socialists, had a tendency to pull the moderate Social Democrats further to the left. Unrest reached new heights in the Reich.
Earlier in 1917 the Independent Socialists called on strikes to protest food shortages and the war. The Social Democrats, afraid of further loss of membership, supported the action. Karl Liebknecht rose in the Reichstag and shouted: "Down with the war!" The first great munitions strikes got under way. In Berlin alone, 200,000 men and women stayed away from their jobs. Munitions factories and transport facilities nearly ceased to function. In seven major war factories, striking workers were informed by the government that they would be arrested and shipped off to the front if they didn't return to their jobs. The strike was put down in a few days but beneath the surface the discontent was greater than ever.
The war was also having its impact in Bavaria and discontent was especially pronounced in Munich. Berlin was blamed for the set backs at the front and the hardships at home. Long standing rivalries between Bavaria and Prussia were "aggravated to a degree damaging to the whole war effort."* At one point a delegation of noblemen and prominent citizens advocated the wresting of the leadership of the Reich from Prussia so as to make Bavaria the determining voice in the conduct of the war and the goals of the nation. Munich soon became the gathering place for extremist opposition from the left as well as the right against the established order.
Hitler detested the "accursed feud between the German tribes,"* and with his rigid belief in nationalist principles he regarded all the Marxists actions, especially the strike, as treasonous. "What was the army fighting for if the homeland itself no longer wanted victory?" Hitler would write. "For whom the immense sacrifices and privations? The soldier is expected to fight for victory and the homeland goes on strike against it."*
Hitler returned to his regiment which was stationed south of the Ailette River (seven miles north of the Aisne River) on October seventeen. On the same day the French began a bombardment of intense fury in preparation for a "minor offensive." Their point of attack fell on the Chemin-des-Dames, the scenic chain of heights between the Ailette and the Aisne Rivers where suicidal attacks a few months before had led to the French army mutiny. Held by the Germans, the hills were honeycombed with caves, grottoes, and tunnels created by centuries of stonecutters extracting limestone. Since many of the caves were 30 to 40 feet beneath the surface it was thought by the Germans to be an impregnable position.
Watching the French bombardment get underway was none other than John J. Pershing, Commander in Chief of the first American forces which were just beginning to arrive in France. The French were determined to show their new partner how it was done and were intent on victory. The French general staff had provided the attacking forces with a number of batteries of their heaviest 15 and 16 inch siege-artillery which fired a one ton shell with an armor-piercing point.
When the bombardment started the German soldiers fled to the caves expecting to sit out the fire storm. The French, however, began firing salvoes with their heavy guns on the same spot over and over until the rock over the Germans began to clear away and finally collapsed in some places. The caves became death traps as shells found their way into the grottoes and their killing power was increased by their containment. The men above ground in their trenches and pillboxes fared little better. Besides being deluged with all calibers of shell fire they were also bombarded with gas-shells to an extent never before experienced. The whole Ailette valley lay under an almost unbroken cloud of poisonous gases. In one four day period it was hardly possible for men to take off their masks or protective clothing in order to eat, drink or relieve themselves. The once beautiful spot of nature became a dreary, forbidden expanse of monotonous mud, pock-marked with craters and ragged ramparts. After six days, the bombardment lifted and the French went forward along a five mile front.
When the surviving Germans crawled out of their holes to meet the attack they were greeted by a new tactic. The attacking French infantry was supported by aviators who, flying all over the German positions at an altitude of only 150 feet, used their machine guns against any German who poked his head out of the ground.* With such close support the French drove the Germans from the heights and advanced so quickly they took thousands of prisoners and captured 25 heavy guns within the first few hours. The French drove forward over the next four days until the whole plateau was in their hands down to the meadows bordering the Ailette. The hole they punched into the German line threatened the German flank on either side. When German attacks failed to recapture the lost ground, the Germans began to retreat to the north bank of the Ailette along a 15 mile front.
Hitler and his regiment fought a fierce rear guard action as the main body of Germans crossed the river. On November third, what remained of the List Regiment also retreated to the north bank of the Ailette.* The effectiveness of planes used in close support of troops was an innovation Hitler would never forget.
The German retreat to the Ailette was one of Germany's greatest defeats of 1917. Around 12,000 Germans were captured and another 30,000 lay dead or seriously wounded. In proportion to the battle front, this "minor" engagement was one of the heaviest losses Germany had sustained in a single military action. The "heights," which had been considered impenetrable two weeks before, were now in French hands. The retreat not only reduced German moral but the loss of the heights jeopardized the whole of the German defensives in the south. The French, however, had consumed a horde of men and supplies and were forced to pause and replenish their loses.
As the French attack sputtered down, 50 miles to the north at Cambrai, the British attempted for the first time to use tanks as they were meant to be used, on hard ground and in mass formation.
On November 20, 400 tanks went forward without a preliminary bombardment and took the Germans by complete surprise. The tanks drove a gap in the German front four miles wide, broke three German lines, and advanced five miles. At a cost of "only" 1500 men the British captured 200 German big guns and 10,000 prisoners. It was the greatest success the British had achieved in three years of war in France; but, no one knew how to take advantage of it. The infantry could not keep up with the tanks, and the cavalry that had been standing by for two years to take advantage of another breakthrough was easily mowed down by the German machine guns. A wide gap developed between the tanks and infantry. The closely interlocking mutual support required between infantry and tanks was lost. Unhampered by the British infantry, the Germans easily knocked out the tanks one at a time. They plugged the gap, counterattacked, and after ten days of fighting recovered nearly all they had lost and in some sections captured ground.
Because of the sacrifices of the German infantry at Cambrai, the German High Command failed to appreciate the significance of the tank which heralded a new era of warfare. No one knew it better than the German front line soldiers who opposed them. The tanks not only broke the German lines but their spirit. As Hitler would later state:
In 1917 the military authorities refused to make available the men required for the manufacture of tanks. In this the High Command committed a fatal error...for the decisive factor in any war is the possession of the technically superior weapons....If during the war...technicians had been released from the army at the appropriate moment--say after the battle of Cambrai--for the construction of armored fighting vehicles, and particularly of tanks, [they could have saved] the soldiers untold loss of life....*
The fact that there was no recognition of our side of the need for tanks, or at least for an anti-tank defense, is the explanation of our defeat.*
The situation on the Western Front appeared bleak to the Germans in November of 1917. A ray of hope, however, glittered again from the east. In the previous months, another 2,500,000 Russian troops had either been killed, wounded or captured as the Germans slowly continued to advance. Only the logistics of transporting German supplies and troops kept Russia from falling apart. Four days after Hitler and the German army retreated across the Ailette, a group of radical Russian socialists, Bolsheviks, effected a coup and toppled the short lived previous revolutionary socialist government. They were led by the rigid Marxist, Lenin.
Though the Bolsheviks had only 115,000 Russian adherents (in a population of 150,000,000), Lenin acted quickly. A congress of soviets pronounced a new government led by a council of "People's Commissars," and Lenin put Marxist ideology into action. Backed by Trotsky, Stalin, revolutionary sailors, and a newly organized armed Red Guard, the "progressives," "intellectuals," "constitutionalists," "bourgeois democrats," "Liberals" and other "leftists," were either absorbed into Lenin's party, imprisoned or shot. Shortly after, the Bolsheviks renamed themselves the Communist Party.
Lenin's most pressing problem after taking power was to end the war. By now Russia was in complete turmoil. The army was disintegrating, transport had broken down, farm production was at a standstill, food shortages were worse than in Germany and the Germans were advancing. Civil strife was tearing the country apart and Lenin's second in command, Trotsky (who unquestionably read his Marx) was threatening to use the "guillotine" against any Russian who opposed them.*
In early November Lenin decreed at the Soviet Congress that there should be an immediate peace among all the belligerents without annexations or reparations. The German government, with their armies occupying foreign lands in the east, south and west, responded favorably. France, Italy and Britain, on the other hand, still had big expansionist dreams and "peace without victory," was again, unacceptable to them.
A few days later Trotsky began to publish openly the secret deals made between the former Russian governments and the Allies. The Allies were outraged and turned their back on Russia. The Government in London saw "victory in unity, without Russia." Italy urged America to "declare her solidarity...by declaring war on Austria."* France claimed that her only policy was to "wage war." President Wilson (although embarrassed and angered to find himself linked with such immoral and obstinate allies) urged American leaders that "victory alone spells peace."*
Lenin's and Trotsky's "vain attempts to induce the Allies to consent to peace without annexations or indemnities," failed.* On Nov. 27, therefore, three Russian envoys, under a white flag, crossed the German lines to begin negotiations with the "Teutonic Allies." On Dec. 5, Germany recognized the revolutionary Russian government. Ten days later an armistice (cease fire) was signed and negotiations for peace between Russia and Germany began. Although the Allies and the Americans were invited to the talks in hopes that they would lead to a general peace conference, the Allies and America declined.
Wilson chose this time (Jan 9, 1919) to announced to the world "Fourteen Points" which he hoped would persuade Russia to continue the war on a defensive basis, and also to show that he did not support the Allied expansionist dreams. Although much of Wilson's Fourteen Points outraged the Allies ("the Lord God had only ten," remarked the French leader), the Allies took comfort in the fact that the entire address rested on the defeat of Germany. As one American official pointed out, Wilson's address "was an outline of war aims, not a peace address."*
Wilson's address also called for revolution in Germany. As with all the leaders of the western "democracies" (they're really republics), America's leaders were also intent on forcing their political system on others. The fact that Germany, while under a "monarchy," had placed herself among the world's greatest powers while at the same time offering its common citizens abundant social programs, made many prominent Americans nervous. How could the leaders of the "democratic" nations keep telling their less fortunate citizens how glorious their form of government was if those living under a different system had it bountifully better. From the day Wilson committed himself to the war, "his speeches were one prolonged instigation [for Germans] to revolt. He and Lenin were the champion revolutionists of the age."* In one of his speeches, for example, Wilson addressed the dissatisfied elements among the German people and asked for whom their rulers spoke, for the "majority" or "for the military party and the men whose creed is imperial domination."* Wilson's address, along with the British and French unwavering position that "no fair or even tolerable peace was possible until Germany had been defeated,"* effectively forced the German government into a corner. All attempts at ending the struggle by negotiated compromise with the West ended again. From the German standpoint, the only way to win the war on the fields of France, was to end it on the steppes of Russia. (Hitler would take the same deadly course in W.W.II when Britain refused to mediate.)
With over a million Germans on the Russian border it became clear to Lenin and Trotsky that if a peace was not reached with Germany soon, the armistice would end, and there would be nearly nothing to prevent the Germans from overrunning all of Russia. During the past winter the German Army had not only made great gains in Russia before the peace talks began, but the Italian front had also collapsed when the Austrians (backed by six German divisions) inflicted 900,000 casualties on the Italians and drove almost within shell shot of Venice. Von Hindenburg and Ludendorff were in no mood to be conciliatory. The price Russia was to pay for peace was colossal.
Since the Allies had shown that a peace without annexations and indemnities was unacceptable to them, Hindenburg and Ludendorff would let Germany's greatest dreams concerning the East run wild. Besides turning over large chunks of land to Turkey and accepting the loss of Finland, Russia was to give up the Baltic states (Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia), Poland, the Ukraine, and parts of White Russia. These areas represented 15% of the Soviet Union's land, 30% of her industry and 32% of her population. Besides an indemnity of six billion marks, the Germans also wanted large amounts of raw materials and industrial goods.
When the Russians were presented with the harsh terms they refused to sign. Hindenburg and Ludendorff would not be put off. They terminated the armistice and began to advance. They met almost no resistance and drove deep into Russia. German soldiers joked that to advance, one boarded a train, went to the next stop and fired a shot; as the Russian army retreated, the Germans got back on the train, went to the next stop and repeated the procedure over again. In the north, it seemed Petrograd itself would fall. The communist government headed east and later moved their capital to the safety of Moscow.
Lenin and Trotsky believed that after the communists rose to power in Russia, revolution would break out in the other belligerent countries. Like Wilson, they especially appealed to the dissatisfied elements in Germany. In support of their communist brothers, the Independent Social Democrats demanded peace with Russia "without annexation or indemnities." With their organization now reaching all over Germany, a renewed wave of strikes broke out. Supported by the Social Democrats, 400,000 strikers left their machines and work stations in Berlin alone.
Although nearly a million workers were involved in the strike nationwide, Lenin's unveiling of the Allies' intentions to tear Germany apart galvanized most other Germans. They viewed many of the Communists and Socialists as defeatists, pacifists or outright traitors. Ludendorff and von Hindenburg decreed a state of siege. The military moved into the cities and took control of the factories. Strike leaders were arrested and sent to the front regardless of their condition or draft status. The strike was over in a week.
In Russia, Lenin was ready to sign the peace treaty. Although Trotsky did not want to sign, Lenin believed no matter what Russia gave up she would have back when the workers came to their senses and revolutions in the other countries broke out in earnest. Although Allied and American forces occupied sections of Russia in an attempt to force her back into the war, on March 3, 1918 Russia signed the treaty with Germany. The Germans took away all the conquests the Tsars had gobbled up in Europe in the last 200 years. The Baltic states, Poland and the Ukraine became "independent" states under German domination. The Germans would moved east and south and linked up with the Turks on the east side of the Black Sea and surrounded it like a German lake.
With 12,000,000 Russian soldiers no longer available as cannon fodder, the war of attrition lost its glamour for the French and British. All Allied offensives were abruptly and "reluctantly" broken off. As Hitler would write: "At the front sleepy silence prevailed. Suddenly their high mightinesses lost their effrontery."* Hitler added:
Since the September days of 1914, when for the first time interminable columns of Russian war prisoners poured into Germany...it seemed as if the stream would never end but that as soon as one army was defeated and routed another would take its place. The supply of soldiers which the gigantic Empire placed at the disposal of the Czar seemed inexhaustible; new victims were always at hand for the holocaust of war. How long could Germany hold out in this competition? Would not the day finally have to come when, after the last victory which the Germans would achieve, there would still remain reserve armies in Russia to be mustered for the final battle? And what then? According to human standards a Russian victory over Germany might be delayed but it would have to come in the long run.
All the hopes that had been based on Russia were now lost.*
A few days after Russia came to terms, Rumania, which had for the most part had been overrun by the Germans, also came to terms. Germany now had only one front to contend with--the Western Front.
The German attitude concerning the war changed overnight. Germany appeared within sight of victory which would make her undisputed mistress of Europe. Supplied with the corn and mineral wealth of the Ukraine, the oil of the Caucasus, the inexhaustible supplies of iron ore from the Baltic, additional heavy industry, and with her command of the Adriatic and the Aegean, with her dominant position in Turkey penetrating to the Persian Gulf and to Suez, Germany would soon be in a position to break the British naval stranglehold and if necessary to conquer Egypt and North Africa.* Talk of peace in the Second Reich almost stopped except for the Communists. Even most of the Socialists were mute. If Germany could break the French and British now, before America's millions could be brought into play to make up for the loss of Russian bodies, might not a glorious victory, never seen in the modern technical age, be hers?
Hindenburg and Ludendorff were generals and, like the Allied generals, were inspired to aim at complete victory. They chose to have their showdown in France. They moved one million German soldiers, 52 divisions, out of Russia. After learning what France and Britain were planning to do to Germany, the thought of victory appealed greatly to them. They called the task ahead "the greatest in military history."
German strength was brought up to the same level as that of the French and British for the first time during the war--3.5 million German soldiers in 200 divisions. In equipment and arms, however, the German army was still inferior. They had no new offensive weapons, no tanks, no mechanized transport, nor a superiority in artillery. Although the Germans had 14,000 heavy artillery pieces, the Allies had 19,000. Because of the blockade, the British and French soldiers were also better equipped and fed. Ludendorff believed, nevertheless, that what the German soldier lacked in material could be made up in determination and innovation.
Unlike the Allies, who had thousands of men and boys to squander before Russia deserted them, Hindenburg and Ludendorff were less prone to sacrifice their soldiers so readily. They developed new tactics and brought back the art of surprise. There would be few lengthy preliminary bombardments and attacking forces would take up their positions secretly by night. Selected light companies of Storm Troops were to go forward undercover of a barrage to find weak spots to be attacked instead of mass infantry throwing themselves against strong points. If resistance proved too stubborn, the area was to be by-passed or the attack was to be broken off. Ludendorff declared that for Germany it was to be "victory or doom."
While the Austrians and Bulgarians guarded the fronts with Italy and Greece, the millions of German soldiers in France "were exulting over German power and burning with impatience for the attack." After occupying their defensive positions against superior forces for three years, troop morale was high. The decisive battle was about to be fought. At stake was the conquest of Europe. They were "intoxicated with the fever to fight."* They believed in peace, striving, and brotherhood no longer, they believed in the war.* One solider would later write that war and the hope of victory is to man what childbirth is to woman--a burden, a fount of suffering, and yet in the end, glory. As Hitler would later write:
A sigh of relief went up from the German trenches and dug-outs when finally, after three years of endurance in that inferno, the day for the settling of accounts had come.*
At 4:40 in the morning of March 21, six thousand German heavy guns opened up with high explosives and gas shells along a 100 miles of front as the first of five massive assaults was about to be launched. Over a million German soldiers eagerly awaited the word to attack. Five hours later, under cover of fog, specially trained Storm Troops led the way. The German army drove forward on a front nearly a hundred miles wide and overran the British forward machine gun posts almost unobserved. Within hours the whole British line began to crumble.
In two weeks the Germans advanced up to 45 miles across much of the old battlefields of the Somme driving the British and French armies before them. They inflicted over 160,000 casualties on the British alone and captured 1,500 square miles of territory. German troops were advancing so quickly they began outrunning their ammunition, guns, food, and everything else. Excited by success, Ludendorff broke his own rule and went on attacking when the resistance stiffened.
Hitler's regiment, which had been pulled out of its position on the Ailette, was in the thick of it again. In the first week of April they were thrown against Fontaine, one of the furthermost advance points two miles west of Montdidier.* During the fighting they came under a heavy bombardment and could neither advance or retreat. Their ammunition carts and field kitchens were lost and the soldiers were not only in danger of running out of ammunition but of dying of starvation.* Rations were almost nonexistent and the troops were forced to eat anything they could find, including cats and dogs. Possibly because of Little Fox, Hitler's comrades recalled that he preferred the meat of cat to dog.*
One dark night Hitler and one of his comrades, Westenkirchner, decided to find something suitable to eat. They crawled out of their trench and after stumbling around the shell holes for sometime, they found a dead horse that didn't smell too bad. While Westenkirchner cut out a large chunk of its quarters, Hitler found some drinkable water and filled a large gas can he was carrying. They returned unscratched and handed over their find to the cook.*
Although the world looked for a German breakthrough any day the German advance gradually began to run down. Allied reserves arrived faster by train far behind the lines than attacking German infantry could move forward on foot over broken terrain. Ludendorff and Hindenburg shifted their main attack north in hopes of finding another soft spot while Hitler's regiment endured another three weeks of bombardments and gas as it pushed on toward Cantigny.
At the end of April Hitler and his regiment were pulled out of the line and sent back to their old position on the Ailette to be refitted and reinforced. On May 9, 1918 Hitler received his third citation for a feat performed at Fontaine:* the Regimental Decoration for "outstanding"* "bravery in the face of the enemy."* A week later he also received his Medal for Wounded (Category Black, for those wounded once or twice) for his previous leg wound.*
Since the British and French appeared ready to crack, Hindenburg and Ludendorff continued their attacks in quick successions. Near the end of May, Hitler and his regiment, along with thousands of others, was brought into position along the Ailette for an attack meant to retake the Chemin Des Dames with hopes of pushing on to Paris.* "We started our marching on the evening of the 25th." Hitler later stated. "We spent the night of the 26th in a forest."*
At 1a.m. on May 27, over 5000 heavy guns opened up on a front forty miles across. For the first ten minutes many of the guns fired gas shells to create panic and fear among the British and French forces. Shell fire was then concentrated on the crest of the Chemin des Dames and was unprecedented in previous German bombardments. Within moments French and British counter fire began to slacken. For the next two hours a equal combination of gas and high-explosive shells were fired on the Allied positions. At 3:35 a.m. all German guns abruptly concentrated on the Allied front line. Five minutes later the exploding shells began to creep back up the Chemin des Danes. Within minutes German storm-troops swarmed across the Ailette and began climbing up the steep side of the ridge. Right behind them, "at 5:00 A.M.," Hitler later recalled, "we attacked."*
The Germans quickly overran the Allied forward positions and arrived on the top to find the trenches in complete shambles with resistance sporadic. The French and British soldiers were completely broken by the intensity of the barrage. Any soldiers putting up resistance were quickly cut down.
Shortly after sunup ten miles of the Chemin des Dames was back in German hands and over it poured the German regiments. They marched down the reverse slope and rolled up the British flank on the left and the French flank on the right. By noon the Germans were strutting across the bridges of the Aisne. By dusk they crossed the Vesle. The next day they passed through Soissons and were two miles from Reims. On June 4 they were on the Marne which had not seen German troops for three years. In Paris, panic reigned as thousands fled the city.
Hitler took part in all phases of the massive offensive: at Soissons, Reims, and in the Champagne; on the Rivers Ailette, Aisne, and on the Marne. For three months his regiment was shifted from one position to another in the giant salient.
With a war of movement, as opposed to static trench warfare, the lines were constantly shifting and messengers found themselves at double risk since one never knew exactly where the lines were. In June, while running a message, Hitler spotted what appeared to be a French helmet moving in a trench. He drew his pistol and crawled forward like a cowboy he had read about in one of those "westerns" he fondly used to read. There were four French soldiers of the avant-garde in the trench and they had not noticed Hitler's approach. After making sure there were no other French in the vicinity, Hitler began shouting orders as though he had a squad of men. He convinced the "surrounded" French to lay down their arms and surrender. Hitler led his four prisoners back behind German lines and personally delivered them to Colonel Anton Freiherr von Tubeuf.* The esteem that Hitler's comrades felt for him reached new heights. The story was repeated so many times over the years that the four French prisoners grew to eight, twelve, and even twenty, who were sometimes describe as Englishmen.
During the same campaign a breakdown occurred between the German forward positions and the heavy artillery in the rear. There had been a small German advance and German artillery was shelling their own positions. In addition to the heavy bombardment, the area between the forward positions and the artillery was under heavy English machine gun fire. Someone was needed to get a message to artillery telling them to advance the shelling off the German positions. With the area above ground alive with sheets of flame, shrapnel and bullets, the dispatch runner who crossed the area would have to be a very courageous man indeed. Hitler volunteered and carried out his almost suicidal feat without a scratch.* Lieutenant-Colonel von Luneschloss would later say of him: "Hitler never let us down and was particularly suited to the kind of task that could not be entrusted to other runners."*
Although Hindenburg and Ludendorff were on the attack, their new tactics had created a war in which their casualties were about even with the Allies. Few front line infantrymen, however, survived three and half years of combat and much of Europe's manhood had been consumed in the fighting. Many divisions on either side had been so decimated they were disbanded. For those destined to be rebuilt, young German and French boys, fresh from school, were being conscripted and sent off to the front. Even the British were sending hurriedly trained conscripts who had previously been rejected as physically unfit.*
The new conscripts were fitted out with large boots, gray trousers and coats which hung on their frail limbs. It was these newer, younger recruits who had not learned to take advantage of the terrain or use their "instinct," that suffered the worst. They accounted for the overwhelming number of those killed or maimed. Although the older soldiers showed them "all the tricks" that could save them from death, when the bombardments and fighting began, excitement and fear overwhelmed their thinking processes and the younger ones did everything wrong. Surprise gas attacks also carried off a lot of them for they had not learned to act quickly, or they took off their masks too soon, had their lungs scorched, and slowly choked to death. Their blue faces and black lips spoke for what happened.* As the attacks continued, the "meat wagons" never ceased hauling the bodies and fragments to a common burial dump.
There were those who were aghast at the price the belligerents were prepared to pay for victory. The American ambassador in London wrote:
There are perhaps 10 million men dead of this war, and perhaps 100 million persons to whom death would be a blessing. Add to these, many millions more, whose views of life are so distorted, that blank idiocy would be a better mental outlook; and you'll get a hint, and only a hint, of what the continent has already become--a bankrupt slaughter house.
Hitler saw the List regiment decimated, rebuilt and then decimated time after time. His "charmed life" slowly began to solidify his long-held conviction that "fate" was watching over him. Every soldier who survived the List Regiment "could consider himself fortunate, enjoying the special protection of Providence,"* and Hitler became convinced that he was being spared for a reason. "You will hear much about me," Hitler told a comrade, "Just wait until my time comes."* When another comrade asked him what he was going to do after the war, Hitler was letting fate decide the issue when he answered: "I'll become an artist or go into politics." When asked which political party he liked, he quickly answered, "none."
By mid-July the Germans had inflicted 600,000 casualties upon the Allies during their massive offensive and as many on themselves. By throwing in most of their reserves they drove forward another ten miles in the direction of Paris and within view of the Eiffel Tower. With over half a million American troops now in France and tens of thousands arriving every week, the British and French officers ordered their men not to retreat and to "fight to the end." These men sacrificed themselves as they absorbed the brunt of the German offensive. On July 14 the German armies launched an offensive that was supposed to carry them from the Marne into Paris. They were met by French and fresh American troops. For the first time since the beginning of the offensive the Germans were halted.
Ludendorff's overall strategy from a military point of view had been "brilliant but hopeless."* Technology had not given the generals what they needed most at this time--speedy, mechanized vehicles carrying men and guns over open and torn country, vehicles that could push on through weak defenses before enemy reinforcements could arrive by rail far behind the lines and plug the gaps. Although Ludendorff's strategy had pushed the Allies back, the hoped for breakthrough, which alone could bring victory, never materialized. What Ludendorff had acquired was a number of dangerous bulges.
The artillery duels between the adversaries reached a crescendo in July as the Germans attempted to break the stalemate. The Allies and Americans hammered back. Civilians in Paris 40 miles away were awakened from their sleep by the magnitude of the exchange. During the fighting south of Courthiezy, seven miles east of Chateau-Thierry, Hitler "saved the life of the commander of 9 Company when, having found him severely wounded by an American shell, he dragged him to the rear."*
With US forces now up to battle readiness and adding moral support, the Allies were ready to take the initiative. On July 19th, French and American troops launched a series of counterattacks on, and north, of the Marne. The Germans were caught by surprise and many of their divisions were decimated or badly mauled. Backed up by French tanks, and copying many of Ludendroff's tactics, the Allies began to creep forward. As always the fighting was tremendous and the List Regiment was in the thick of it.
In August, Hitler received his fifth and sixth medals. One was the Military Service Medal, 3rd class, for outstanding service. The other (recognizing his special mission to notify the artillery to advance their fire plus other previous acts of bravery) was "one of the highest distinctions to which a common soldier in the German army could aspire."* On Aug 4, Hitler was awarded the Iron Cross, 1st Class,* "for personal bravery and general merit."*
This was an uncommon decoration for a soldier of Hitler's rank since it was normally reserved for officers. "Hitler was one of the very few common soldiers of World War I to be awarded the Iron Cross, First Class"* Of the 11,000,000 men mobilized for the German army during W.W.I, only 163,000 first class crosses were awarded during the war* and only a handful went to enlisted men. Colonel von Tubeuf, the officer Hitler delivered his captives to, commented about Hitler:
There was no circumstance or situation that would have prevented him from volunteering for the most difficult, arduous and dangerous tasks, and he was always willing to sacrifice his safety and life and tranquillity for his fatherland and for others.*
Shortly after the war, when there was no reason whatever to refer to Hitler in glowing terms, one of his officers, Colonel Spatny, would also recall:
Hitler set a shining example to those around him. His pluck and his exemplary bearing throughout each battle exerted a powerful influence on his comrades and this, combined with his admirable unpretentiousness, earned him the respect of superiors and equals alike.*
Major-General Friedrich Petz, a former commander of the List Regiment would also state:
Hitler...was mentally very much all there and physically fresh, alert and hardy. His pluck was exceptional, as was the reckless courage with which he tackled dangerous situations and the hazards of battle.*
The recommendation for Hitler's Iron Cross First Class was signed on July 17, 1918 by Lieutenant-Colonel Michael Freiherr von Godin and read:
As a runner his coolness and dash in both trench and open warfare have been exemplary, and invariably he has shown himself ready to volunteer for tasks in the most difficult situations and at great danger to himself. Whenever communications have been totally disrupted at a critical moment in a battle, it has been thanks to Hitler's unflagging and devoted efforts that important messages continued to get through despite every difficulty.*
Even biographers who hated Hitler wrote that there was no disputing the fact that "Hitler was a brave soldier,"* and that "he was entitled to the honor."*
The awarding of the Iron Cross was initiated and presented to Hitler by his battalion adjutant, First Lieutenant Hugo Gutmann.* The Iron Cross was to be worn on the left side of the chest and if one had been awarded a Medal for Wounded it was to be worn under the Iron Cross. Hitler seldom wore any of his other four medals but when he wore these two, he wore them with pride for the rest of his life--he knew he had earned them.
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