Volume 23: 1918, An Alternative History
What if the Allied Line Had Broken?
“It has been a close run thing – the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life,” – Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, 1815.
If the goal of a war is to be remembered in history, World War I suffers from its proximity to the only war of greater size and scope. Of course, despite military leaders’ desire for fame since time immemorial, we don’t generally fight for only glory. In the famous words of von Clausewitz, “war is politics by other means.”
But this is little solace to the historians; if a war is not remembered, or is misremembered, how can we hope to gain from its political lessons? Much like its bigger brother 25 years later, World War I became a fight between two incompatible systems of government: those that allow popular involvement and those that give nearly all power to a hereditary monarch. One result of the Great War was the extinguishing of the latter from the Western world. There are still kings and queens in Europe, but they hold little power.
Today we often forget that the outcome of World War I was in serious doubt until its final 100 days, causing us to wonder what would have happened had events evolved with a few slight differences. Perhaps the systems of government in the following decades would have been very different. Perhaps this would be true in the present day.
In our first foray into fiction, we consider precisely this. Could the Central Powers have won the war? What would such a victory have looked like? Would the ensuing global geopolitical events of the last 100 years have still occurred?
[if !supportLists][endif]We set the scene: Amiens, France, 1918.
[if !supportLists][endif]We change the battle – slightly.
[if !supportLists][endif]We think about what happens next.
We set the scene: Amiens, France, 1918.
The Battle of the Marne. The Race to the Sea. Trenches, “over the top,” mustard gas, gains measured in yards, at the cost of thousands of lives. This had been the life on the Western Front for nearly four years of war. A lack of strategic vision and creative tactics had produced a gruesome, horrifying standoff. But this was about to change.(1)
The greatest stalemate the world had ever known was about to come to an end, due to the exit of one ally and the entrance of another. Starting in 1917, a series of revolutions had left Russia in a state of civil war: White versus Red. Far too preoccupied to carry on a fight with a strong external enemy, the nominally-in-control Communists were forced to sign the humiliating Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. Cleaving off much of Russia’s eastern territory,(2) the treaty not only greatly increased the German sphere of influence, but also freed 50 divisions to be redeployed against the French and English on the Western Front.(3) This would create a numerical advantage, but the German High Command knew it would be a temporary one.
When the United States declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917,(4) it had a pitiably small standing army. Thirteen belligerents had larger militaries at that moment. The logistical requirements to move an army across the Atlantic Ocean meant that General John Pershing’s American Expeditionary Force (AEF) wouldn’t fire its first shot until October. By the end of 1917, only four American combat divisions were in France.
Both the Allies and the Central Powers knew this situation was soon to change. While deliberate, the AEF’s buildup carried great momentum. The Americans were laying telephone lines and railroad track. They were building new ports at which they would soon unload masses of men and materiel. A draft would soon swell the military ranks to more than four million men. The Yanks were coming indeed, fresh divisions of Yanks, as many as 10,000 per day by June 1918. The German numerical advantage would be short-lived. Their optimal strategy was in little doubt: they must end the war while they had the chance.
Figure 1 - Relative Strength, Eastern Front, 1918
Thus was devised the Spring Offensive. In its first phase, it would consist of four German armies, more than 1,200,000 soldiers.(5) The location of the battle provided a stark reminder of the risks involved. The fiercest fighting would take place in the same fields as the Battle of the Somme, where the British had attempted a breakthrough in 1916. That move “over the top” had caused more than 57,000 casualties in a single day, the deadliest in British history.(6) A repeat of that debacle, taking ground by the yard rather than the mile while losing a generation of her finest soldiers, would soon have left Germany unable to defend itself.
German planning focused on avoiding this outcome. Troops were told to advance rapidly, quickly crossing the repeating lines of trenches. The strike would happen at the textbook weak point of any military force: the joint between two commands. In this case, the spear would point directly at the spot where the British right flank touched the French left; German command expected that the Allied lack of a supreme command would impair coordination. German forces would drive west and then north; should they reach the ports on the English Channel, the British would be isolated and could be pushed back into the sea. The key intermediate objective would be the city of Amiens. Although it was more than 40 miles from the coast, the loss of this key transportation hub would severely inhibit the ability of the British and French to mutually reinforce.
On the morning of March 21, the Germans began an artillery barrage, eventually launching 3,500,000 shells in a span of just over five hours.(7) The initial attack went well and German soldiers began to occupy the first line of trenches. At this point, however, the retreat was orderly; a defense in depth had been the British plan. But the advance kept coming. In just nine days, the front lines had advanced more than 30 miles. The outskirts of Amiens were in sight for advance German units.
It is on this date, March 28, 1918, when we will depart onto our alternate timeline.