In April 1918, Germany renews its offensive on the Western Front, attacking this time in Flanders. As German forces advance to and across the Lys River, British Field Marshal Haig orders his troops, with their “backs to the wall,” to “fight to the end.” Marshal Foch is given command authority over all Allied Armies on the Western Front. American troops turn back a German attack at the village of Seicheprey, near St. Mihiel. The “Red Baron” Manfred von Richthofen, Germany’s leading ace and commander of the “Flying Circus,” dies when his airplane is shot down over France. Gavrilo Princip, the Bosnian Serb whose assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie in Sarajevo in 1914 set in motion the events that led to the outbreak of war, dies of consumption in an Austrian prison. Revelation of an earlier unsuccessful attempt by the Emperor of Austria-Hungary to make a separate peace leads to the resignation of his Foreign Minister, Count Czernin. American President Woodrow Wilson, opening the Third Liberty Loan Campaign in Baltimore, calls for “force to the utmost” to win the war. British and Japanese marines land in Vladivostok.
Still attempting to capitalize on its temporary manpower advantage, Germany mounted another offensive this month on the Western Front. Originally named Georg and envisioned as a major operation to capture the railway junctions of Ypres and Hazebrouck and drive the British Army to the channel coast, it was scaled back (and renamed “Georgette”) in the wake of Operation Michael. The initial German attack on April 9 succeeded in routing the Portuguese Army on the sector of the front defending Estaires. By the next day the Germans had captured Estaires and established a bridgehead across the River Lys.
Continuing the Georgette offensive, the Germans attacked to the northwest, capturing Armentieres, Ploegsteert Wood and most of Messines Ridge, and threatening the railway junctions of Ypres and Hazebrouck. As his armies were forced to retreat, British Field Marshal Haig told his troops on April 11 that “every position must be held to the last man …. With our backs to the wall and believing in the justice of our cause, each one of us must fight to the end.” Allied resistance stiffened, aided by French reinforcements and a breakdown in German discipline caused in part by looting opportunities. The German attack, initially directed toward Hazebrouck, shifted its focus to the Flanders Hills, where the Germans captured Mount Kemmel on April 25. They failed to follow up, however, and by month’s end Operation Georgette had lost its momentum.
Last month in a conference at Doullens, the British and French agreed to give Marshal Ferdinand Foch coordinating authority over military operations on the Western Front. On April 3, in a conference at Beauvais, the British and French, joined this time by American General Tasker Bliss, went a step further, agreeing to give Marshal Foch actual command authority with the title “General-in-Chief of the Allied Armies.”
The American Army fought its first battle on April 20 at the village of Seicheprey, on the southern edge of the St. Mihiel salient. Until then this had been a relatively quiet sector of the front, defended by the 26th Infantry Division, the “Yankee” Division, made up of National Guard units from New England. German Storm Troopers mounted a surprise attack in the early hours of the morning, driving the Americans from the village. After a day of fierce hand-to-hand fighting in which the Americans suffered heavy casualties, the Germans withdrew from the village to their original lines, either forced to retreat by the Americans’ vigorous defense or satisfied with having conducted a successful raid. The village was left in ruins.
Baron Manfred von Richthofen, the “Red Baron,” was shot down and killed this month over the Somme. He took off on Sunday morning, April 21, to engage a squadron of Sopwith Camels on an offensive patrol. He was pursuing one of them, piloted by Lieutenant Wilfred “Wop” May, at a low altitude when another Camel, this one piloted by Captain Arthur “Roy” Brown, dove on him and fired a machine gun burst. Richthofen crash landed, and was dead when rescuers reached him and pulled him from his cockpit. He had been shot in the chest, possibly by Captain Brown and possibly by ground fire. Baron Richthofen was the commander of the German squadron called the “Flying Circus” because of its brightly colored aircraft (Richthofen’s, of course, was red). He succeeded to the command of the squadron when the previous commander Oswald Boelke died in combat in 1916. Boelke developed many of the tactics later used by Richthofen.
On St. George’s Day, April 23, the Royal Navy conducted simultaneous raids on the Belgian ports of Zeebrugge and Ostend. The purpose of the raids was to block access to the North Sea from the Bruges Canal, the principal route of German destroyers, torpedo boats and U-boats to the open sea. At Zeebrugge, under cover of a smoke screen, the cruiser HMS Vindictive landed an assault force on the mole protecting the harbor while two obsolete submarines filled with explosives aimed for the viaduct connecting the mole to the shore. One of the submarines reached its objective and blew up the viaduct as the assault force attacked the guns on the mole. The main object of the operation, meanwhile, was carried out by three obsolete cruisers filled with cement. As they raced toward the canal entrance, one ran aground but the other two made it into the canal entrance and were scuttled by their crews, who escaped in dinghies. The raid succeeded in impeding traffic through the canal for a few days, but the Germans were able to dredge a new channel that enabled passage around the sunken ships at high tide. Unlike the Zeebrugge raid, which was a partial success, the raid on Ostend was a failure. The German commander, anticipating a possible nighttime attack, had moved the buoys marking the approach to the harbor, causing the cement-filled cruisers to run aground before they reached their objective.
Gavrilo Princip was the Bosnian Serb who shot and killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg, in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, the event that triggered the Great War. (See the June 1914 installment of this blog.) Because he was only nineteen years old at the time of the assassination, he could not be sentenced to death under Austrian law. He was sentenced instead to a twenty-year prison term, and on April 28 he died of tuberculosis in a prison hospital in Theresienstadt.
Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination left his nephew Charles next in line for the Austro-Hungarian throne, and Charles became emperor when his grandfather Franz Joseph died in November 1916. Shortly thereafter, Charles began efforts to bring the war to an end. Using his brother-in-law Prince Sixtus of Bourbon-Parma as an intermediary, he sent a secret letter to Premier Clemenceau of France proposing peace terms favorable to France and acceptable to Austria-Hungary but unlikely to find favor with Austria’s principal ally Germany. The peace initiative, in which Austrian Foreign Minister Count Czernin was involved, went nowhere. Over a year later, in the midst of mutual charges between Austria-Hungary and France regarding responsibility for the continuation of the war, Clemenceau released the letter. The ensuing political crisis led to Count Czernin’s resignation on April 14.
On Saturday, April 6, the anniversary of America’s declaration of war on Germany, the Third Liberty Loan Campaign began. In Baltimore, President and Mrs. Wilson joined Cardinal Gibbons and others in reviewing a parade of 12,000 troops from the 79th Division of the National Army, which had marched downtown from Camp Meade. The President and his party joined in the cheering that greeted several regiments of Negro soldiers as they came into view led by a Negro band. As it reached the reviewing stand, the band took up a position directly in front of the President and played “Over There” and other military and popular airs. That evening the President addressed a crowd of 15,000 inside the Fifth Regiment Armory. He ended his speech by declaring that America accepts Germany’s challenge of force, to which there is “but one response possible from us: Force, force to the utmost, force without stint or limit, the righteous and triumphant force which shall make right the law of the world and cast every selfish dominion down in the dust.”
On the next business day, April 8, hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers attended Liberty Loan meetings and demonstrations throughout the city. The biggest was on Wall Street, where motion picture stars Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin entertained a massive crowd from the steps of the Sub-Treasury Building.
The withdrawal of Russia from the war has stranded the Czech Legion, a force of approximately 100,000 men who joined the Russians to fight the Austro-Hungarians and advance the cause of Czech independence. An agreement by the Bolshevik government to allow safe passage of the Czech Legion out of the country has broken down, and the Legion is fighting its way across the Trans-Siberian Railway to Russia’s Pacific coast. To secure the eastern terminus of the railway and to safeguard Allied supplies stockpiled there, British and Japanese troops landed in Vladivostok on April 5. Japanese detachments of three to ten men are now patrolling the Japanese section of the city, and tents have been erected at the end of the Chinese street and in the churchyard of the Japanese church. When the Vladivostok Council of Soldiers’ and Workmen’s Delegates protested to the Consular Corps, the American and British Consuls consented to receive them as representatives of the Council, but the Japanese Consul agreed to deal with them only as private persons and the French Consul refused to see them at all. Meanwhile, the presence of the potentially hostile Czech Legion in central Russia has caused the Bolshevik government to remove the former Tsar Nicholas II and the rest of the imperial family from Tobolsk, where they have been imprisoned since last year, to the city of Yekaterinburg in the Ural Mountains.
April 1918 – Selected Sources and Recommended Reading
American Review of Reviews, May and June 1918
New York Times, April and May 1918
Books and Articles:
Scott Berg, Wilson
Britain at War Magazine, The Fifth Year of the Great War: 1918
Winston S. Churchill, The World Crisis 1911-1918
John Milton Cooper, Jr., Woodrow Wilson: A Biography
John Milton Cooper, Jr., The Warrior and the Priest: Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt
John Dos Passos, Mr. Wilson’s War
David Fromkin, A Peace to End All Peace: Creating the Modern Middle East, 1914-1922
Martin Gilbert, Churchill: A Life
Martin Gilbert, The First World War: A Complete History
Martin Gilbert, A History of the Twentieth Century, Volume One: 1900-1933
Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill Volume IV: The Stricken World 1916-1922
Ann Hagedorn, Savage Peace, Hope and Fear in America, 1919
August Heckscher, Woodrow Wilson: A Biography
Godfrey Hodgson, Woodrow Wilson’s Right Hand: The Life of Colonel Edward M. House
Roy Jenkins, Churchill: A Biography
John Keegan, The First World War
David M. Kennedy, Over Here: The First World War and American Society
Ian Kershaw, To Hell and Back: Europe 1914-1949
Bruce Lincoln, Passage Through Armageddon: The Russians In War and Revolution 1914-1918
Arthur S. Link, Woodrow Wilson and the Progressive Era, 1910-1917
Robert K. Massie, Nicholas and Alexandra
G.J. Meyer, A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914 to 1918
G.J. Meyer, The World Remade: America in World War I
Michael S. Neiberg, The Path to War: How the First World War Created Modern America
Jonathan Schneer, The Balfour Declaration: The Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict
David Stevenson, Cataclysm: The First World War As Political Tragedy
David Stevenson, With Our Backs to the Wall: Victory and Defeat in 1918
Lee Thompson, Never Call Retreat: Theodore Roosevelt and the Great War
Adam Tooze, The Deluge: The Great War, America and the Remaking of the Global Order, 1916-1931
Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns, The Roosevelts: An Intimate History
The West Point Atlas of War: World War I
This article is reprinted from the Centennial Countdown to the Great War blog published by Dennis Cross. Read the original post and access an archive of previous posts at: