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9 The Western Front Imperiled General Erich Ludendorff, the German army's de facto commander, rejected a defensive policy designed to achieve a negotiated peace. Instead, he gambled on victory in Western Europe in 1918 through battles of annihilation against the Anglo-French forces. His all-ornothing strategy depended upon delivering a knock-out blow before the Americans arrived in sufficient strength to change the balance of forces decisively in favor of the Entente. The BEF was his initial target. On March 21, called by Hankey "one of the decisive moments of the world's history,"1 the main German blow fell on General Sir Hubert Gough's Fifth Army, which had been weakened by continuous fighting in the Flanders quagmire. British defenses were beached in two places, and attempts to plug the gaps failed. The Fifth Army started to disintegrate. On the first day of the battle, Haig requested three French divisions as reinforcements. On the following day he issued a panic-stricken plea for twenty. Yet the French initially responded by withholding their forces from the great battle. By Saturday , March 23, the shape of the military catastrophe was becoming clear to the civilians in London. Lloyd George, who had spent the night at his home in Walton Heath, rushed back to London. "The news is very bad. I fear it means disaster," he told his newspaper friend Lord Riddell.2 Canceling a meeting of the War Cabinet, he took charge in the War Office, seeking to locate and send every available rifleman to France. At 4:00 P.M. the other members of the War Cabinet joined him to review the military situation. The deputy director of military operations on the General Staff, Walter Kirke, who had just arrived by plane from Haig's headquarters , presented a report that mirrored the approaching gloom of a March evening in London. The British had been thrown back twelve miles, lost some 40,000 men, and abandoned not less than 600 guns. After hearing Kirke's report, General Wilson spoke bluntly: The British army was now under attack by "a large proportion of the German Army" and was "menaced with a possible attack by the whole."3 150 Trial by Friendship jmh Chalonsiur -Mame 40 kilometers Map 2. Five German Offensives, March 21 -July 17, 1918 The Western Front Imperiled 151 Lloyd George's plan of conserving British manpower by gradually shifting the burden of the fighting to the United States lay in ruins. As Robertson had forecast, Germany now confronted the British with a life-or-death struggle on the western front. There no longer seemed any way of preserving Britain's staying power with a prudent manpower policy that protected industry and maintained morale on the home front. In time, British forces could be transferred from other theaters— Italy, Palestine, perhaps even Mesopotamia—but Haig needed reinforcements immediately. All available men in uniform in Britain were rushed across the Channel. There were 88,000 members of the BEF on leave. An additional 50,000 trained boys, over eighteen and a half but under nineteen years of age, could be sent into combat earlier than previous practice had permitted. More soldiers could be found by diverting drafts for other theaters and advancing the orders of drafts to go overseas. In all, the War Cabinet discovered 170,000 men who could be sent to Haig within the next three weeks.4 But the vast majority of these reinforcements were not new men to add to Haig's existing or anticipated numbers. They were already either a part of Haig's establishment (those on leave) or boys who would soon have been sent to join the BEF anyway. On March 25 the War Cabinet held one of its most painful meetings of the war. Extraordinary suggestions were advanced to find additional soldiers. The eyesight test for recruits could be modified. Conscientious objectors could be used as non-combatant workers behind the front. Men released from the Territorials "on compassionate grounds" might be recalled, along with men who had been discharged because of wounds. Coal miners, munitions workers, and even ministers of religion were considered as possible recruits.5 Many of these measures were impractical, politically dangerous, or potentially ruinous to the economy. "We might almost as well recruit Germans," H.E. Duke, the chief secretary for Ireland, exclaimed when the proposal was made to impose conscription on rebellious Ireland.6 These manpower discussions provide convincing evidence that no "secret army" existed...


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