Memoirs & Diaries - The German Retreat to the Hindenburg Line

Hindenburg Line at Bullecourt To their hunger war, the Entente forces intended to add a new offensive of which the hell of Verdun and the bloody horror of the Somme were to be only foretastes.  Once more they wanted to try it; they felt it must succeed.  Therefore they armed themselves anew.

They set up new divisions after divisions, new batteries after batteries; heaped up ammunition on ammunition all winter.  America and Japan kept sending over their iron-freighted giant ships.  Our foes gathered together all possible war material for their colossal army.  They had the whole world in its service to be strong for the decisive struggle.

Our enemies did more.  For months past they had built and built.  A thick network of railroads and roads was constructed from deep in their country to their positions.  At one word of command fresh material from the depots in the hinterland and fresh masses of troops could pour through a thousand arteries to the fire front.  And they supplemented these lines of approach by a system of tracks paralleling their lines.

The idea was to give their front an almost unlimited inner mobility.  For example, the troop masses that yesterday stood on the English left wing were to be able suddenly to appear today in the centre or south of the Somme and be thrown into battle there to our consternation.

A network of communications at their back was to make it possible for them at any time in this second Somme battle, which was finally to break our wall in the spring, to rapidly shift their forces and with completely surprising power to change the point of attack according to the conditions of battle.

And not only the troops but artillery ammunition depots and war material depots were through this system of railways to receive unprecedented mobility.

St Quentin canal tunnel under ridge at Bellicourt, on the Hindenburg LineThe working strength of millions of men in France, England, and overseas has for months had only one creative goal - to build the foundation for the crushing blow - and the thought that the enemy might be able to avert this fate probably never occurred to them.

The German highest leadership, which had no intention of leaving the initiative to the foe, thought otherwise, however.

The aim of our leadership was to create a wholly new situation and thereby be spared the colossal bloodshed which an offensive against the enemy's Somme positions would have entailed.  Our leadership found the way to render null and void all the preparations of our enemies, and which in front of the new rearward positions at the same time gave us a free, wide-open battleground.

Our retreat from the old positions on the Ancre and the Somme [note: the retreat to the Hindenburg Line] has frustrated the whole of the planned great French and English spring offensive against our centre.  The enemy, advancing behind us, finds a zone which has been prepared by us as a battle glacis in front of our new positions.

Every German who knows the character and sensibilities of our highest leaders knows that it was no easy decision for them to make the terrain, which for two and a half years we had carefully spared, now ruthlessly serviceable for military purposes.  But here there were greater things at stake than considerations for part of a country which had refused us peace.  Here the guiding principle for our military decisions could only be that which would bring us the greatest advantages, and for the enemy the most frightful disadvantage.

Therefore, in the course of the last month great strips of France were converted by us into a dead land, which, ten, twelve to fifteen kilometres broad, stretches in front of the whole length of our new positions and offers a ghastly wall of emptiness for every enemy who designs to get at them.

No village, no hamlet, remains standing in this glacis - no street remains traversable; no bridge, no railway tracks, no railroad embankment, remains.  Where once were woods, only stumps are left.  The wells have been blown up; wires and cables destroyed.

Like a vast band, a kingdom of death stretches before our new positions.  And this is the terrain over which the enemy must now attack us.

Entrance to St Quentin canal tunnel under ridge at Bellicourt, on the Hindenburg LineNo cellar that might serve his troops for shelter remains from which he might build.  All our own material was long ago removed, and all local sources from which they might be obtained have been annihilated.  The giant trees lining the chaussees have been felled and lie across the roads, and the meadows were ploughed up in the early rain; cannon that would attempt to pass here would be swallowed up.

To be sure, this had to entail hardship for the once beautiful country and for its inhabitants.  The men who are leading us through the last phase of the war to victory have done everything humanly possible to soften the lot of the inhabitants.  Many of them, including all men and youths capable of working, were sent to the rear, for no man capable of carrying arms was to be allowed to swell the line of enemy forces.

On the other hand, such women, children and old men as desired to return to France were brought to a number of villages, including Noyon and Roye, lying beyond the devastated area, which were spared by us as much as possible.

In my visit, I entered at Ham upon the Empire of Death - a Death which lays the shrivelled hands of destruction upon all the works of men and all the bloom of Nature.  We are in that broad zone of devastation which stretches from the Scarpe to the Aisne.

A year back and earlier I was so often in this country - and I do not know it again.  The war has set its mark upon it.  Old giant trees once stood here on either side of the road - they are no more.  There were houses by the road and farms.  There is nothing left of all that, and nothing of the bloom and prosperity of the countryside.

As far as the eye can see, the land is bare and desert, a uniform, forbidding, open field of fire, through which the ribbon of road we are following runs as a last remnant of extinct civilization.  And even the road will only give passage for a few days longer across the desert.  At the crossways it is mined.

Troops meet us on the march and wagons piled high with the men's kit and properties.  They have packed up at the front and have left those who will succeed them in the abandoned places nothing, nothing whatever, not a tub, not a bench.  And what they could not take with them they have burnt or smashed.  They have blown up behind them the shelter in which they had lodged; they have filled up or made undrinkable the wells that gave them water; they have destroyed the lighting and set the barracks on fire.

Paul von Hindenburg in 1927We push on further into the undulating distance caught in the paralysis of death, and its horror knows no end.  Here there once stood villages on either hand, estates, chateaux - all gone.  Burnt-out ruins with a spark glowing here and there are the only vestige left of the past that has been swept away - and in the air a sharp, pungent smoke from green wood, beds, dung-heaps, still smouldering.

Occasionally, in the distance, the fires still flicker on into the light of day - yellow flames, which now and then veil themselves completely in murky smoke, and then shoot up again, hungry yet almost colourless in the bright light.  Any piece of wall that still stands after the burning, is blown up or battered down by engineers.

The enemy, when they come, shall not find here so much as a miserable half-burnt wall to shelter them from the wind.  Even the cellars have been blown up.  But all this is not the work of a few days; it was carried out systematically for weeks and months on end - it had to take months, if it was to pass unnoticed by the enemy.  A zone of burning villages would have shown the enemy airmen in a flash what was afoot.

No, one village was burnt somewhere one day, and the next day, if the weather was hazy and there was low visibility, two more somewhere else went up in smoke and flames.  For the final days nothing was left but what was needed up to the last moment for the accommodation of the troops.

And now the sorry remnant goes to ruin, that this stern work of destruction may be complete.

Source: Source Records of the Great War, Vol. V, ed. Charles F. Horne, National Alumni 1923

Photographs courtesy of Photos of the Great War website.

"Boche" was a disparaging term used to describe anything German.

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