1918: How the Allies Surfed to Victory on a Wave of Oil

French troops are transported by truck to the front, as shown on a bas-relief of the Monument of the Voie Sacrée near Verdun. Photo by J. Pauwels.

Virtually everybody knows that the First World War came to an end when Germany capitulated on November 11, 1918. But very few people are aware that, earlier in that same year, the Reich came tantalizingly close to winning the so-called Great War, but ultimately snatched defeat, so to speak, from the jaws of victory.

In the spring of 1918, the Germans launched a major offensive on the western front. This undertaking, orchestrated by General Ludendorff, actually amounted to a big gamble because, though still very strong militarily, Germany was in very bad shape. Blockaded by the Royal Navy, the country was plagued by shortages of all kinds of products, including crucially important raw materials and food. German civilians and soldiers were undernourished and hungry; they were so disgruntled that it was feared that they might follow the revolutionary example set by their Russian counterparts in 1917. Already in the beginning of the year, Berlin and other big cities were the scenes of demonstrations and riots, as well as strikes. Moreover, Germany’s Austro-Hungarian, Bulgarian, and Ottoman allies had started to display alarming signs of war weariness. And on the western front, the number of Germany’s enemies was mushrooming as more and more American troops were joining their French and British brothers in arms.  It was therefore fervently hoped that the offensive launched in March 1918 would conjure up the great victory that, like a deus ex machina, would cause all these problems to evaporate.

The attack was launched on the first day of spring, March 21, at 4:30 in the morning, after a mammoth artillery bombardment, and the “theatre” was a stretch of the front in the same area where the Battle of the Somme had taken place in 1916. The results were extremely impressive. The German attackers managed to break through the British lines and make rapid progress. The British lost all the terrain they had conquered in 1916 and suffered huge casualties in the process. Later in that spring as well as in the early summer of 1918, more German attacks followed against the British in Flanders and against the French along the Aisne River, and the results were always very similar: the Germans achieved impressive territorial gains, but the hoped-for big prize, total victory, kept eluding them. The German advance towards Paris was halted by the French, albeit with considerable American assistance, in the famous “Second Battle of the Marne” between mid-July and early August 1918. Symbolically, however, the tide turned on August 8, when the French, British, Canadians, and Americans launched a gargantuan counterattack; the Germans troops were henceforth pushed back systematically and inexorably. Ludendorff was later to describe August 8 as the blackest day in the history of the German army.

A number of factors contributed to the failure of Ludendorff’s offensive. First, as the Germans made good progress and carved deep pockets in the Allied lines, they stretched the front line, requiring their resources in manpower and materiel to be dispersed rather than concentrated; this made their attacks less forceful, and their increasingly long flanks more vulnerable to Allied counterattacks. Second, while they inflicted huge losses on their enemies, the Germans also suffered considerable casualties: at least half a million, and possibly as many as a million, between March and July. Another factor was psychological. The German soldiers realized that the chances of victory on the Western Front were better than they had been since the beginning of the war in 1914. And they understood that their commanders had committed all available resources to ensure the offensive’s success. It was all or nothing, now or never. Paradoxically, the success of the attack was also responsible for its failure, at least partly. When the German soldiers overran British positions, they noticed that these were bursting with weapons and ammunition as well as stocks of food and drink that they themselves had not seen in years. The officers often tried in vain to incite their men to attack the next British or French line of trenches; the soldiers simply interrupted their advance to feast on canned meat, wine, and white bread.

These losses of momentum permitted the British and French to reorganize, shore up defences, and bring up reserves, many of them American soldiers, who surfaced just about everywhere to help plug gaps in the allied lines. That demoralized the Germans, who got the impression that the Allies disposed of unlimited reserves not only in food, weapons, ammunition, and all sorts of war materiel, but also in men, in “human material.” How many more times did the Germans have to attack allied positions before the enemy would capitulate? How could one defeat an enemy who commanded such inexhaustible reserves of men and equipment?

But another factor played the most important, and almost certainly most decisive role in the failure of the German offensive of 1918. If again and again the Allies succeed in bringing up the reserves in men and materiel that were needed to slow down and eventually stop the German juggernaut, it is because they disposed of thousands of trucks to do the job. The French, in particular, who already made good use of motorized vehicles earlier, for example taxis to transport troops to the battlefield of the Marne in 1914 and trucks to supply Verdun along the voie sacrée, the “sacred way,” in 1916, had excellent trucks, mostly models designed and built by Renault, a manufacturer that was to end up producing more than nine thousand of them for the French army during the Great War. As for the British, who started the war without a single truck, in 1918 they had fifty-six thousand of them at their disposal. On the other hand, as in 1914, the Germans still transported their troops mostly by train; however, many sectors of the front, for example the Somme battlefields, were hard to reach that way. (In northern France, the railway lines run mostly north-south, towards Paris, and not east-west, towards the coast of the English Channel, which was the German army’s major line of advance.) In any event, in the immediate vicinity of the front, both sides would continue until the very end of the war to rely heavily on horse-drawn carts to transport equipment. But in this respect too, the Germans were disadvantaged, as they suffered from a serious shortage of draft horses as well as fodder, while the Allies were able to import large numbers of horses and robust mules from overseas, especially from the US. The greater mobility of the Allies undoubtedly constituted a major factor in their success. Ludendorff would later declare that the triumph of his adversaries in 1918 came down to a victory of French trucks over German trains.

This triumph can also be similarly described as a victory of the rubber tires of the Allies’ vehicles, produced by firms such as Michelin and Dunlop, over the steel wheels of German trains, cranked out by Krupp. Thus it can also be said that the victory of the Entente against the Central Powers was a victory of the economic system, and particularly the industry, of the Allies, against the economic system of Germany and Austria-Hungary, an economic system that found itself starved of crucially important raw materials because of the British blockade. As the French historian Frédéric Rousseau has written, “The military and political defeat of Germany is inseparable from its economic failure.”

The economic superiority of the Allies clearly had a lot to do with the fact that the British and French — and even the Belgians and Italians — had colonies where they could fetch whatever was needed to win a modern, industrial war, especially rubber, oil, and other “strategic” raw materials, as well as “coolies,” that is, cheap colonial manpower mobilized to repair and even construct the roads that were used in the spring and summer of 1918 by the trucks transporting allied troops. The Great War happened to be a war between imperialist rivals, in which the great prizes to be won were territories bursting with raw materials and cheap labour, the kind of things that benefited a country’s “national economy,” more specifically its industry, and thus made that country more competitive and more powerful. It is hardly a coincidence that the war was ultimately won by the countries that had been most richly endowed in this respect, namely the great industrial powers with the most colonies; in other words, that the biggest “imperialisms” — those of the British, the French, and the Americans — defeated a competing imperialism, that of Germany, admittedly an industrial superpower, but underprivileged with respect to colonial possessions. In view of this, it is even amazing that it took four long years before Germany’s defeat was a fait accompli.

On the other hand, it is also obvious that the advantages of having colonies and therefore access to unlimited supplies of food for soldiers and civilians as well as rubber, petroleum, and similar raw materials could only become decisivein the long run. The main reason for this is that in 1914 the war started as a continental kind of Napoleonic campaign that was to morph — imperceptibly, but inexorably — into a worldwide clash of industrial titans. Its opening stages typically conjure up images of cavalry, more specifically paintingsof German uhlansand French cuirassiers,sporting fur hats or shiny helmets and armed with sabre or lance, appearing proudly on the scene as vanguards of armies trudging through open fields towards hostile horizons. In the photostaken on the battlefields in 1918, however, the men on horseback are absent and we see infantrymen being transported to the front in trucks or advancing behind tanks, armed with machine guns and flame-throwers, while airplanes circle overhead. In 1914, Germany still had a chance to win the war, especially since it had excellent railways to ferry its armies quickly to the western and eastern fronts, which is how a big victory was achieved against the Russians at Tannenberg. But by 1918 Germany’s prospects of victory had long since gone up in smoke. (Hitler and his generals were to draw the conclusion that Germany, in order to win a second edition of the Great War, would have to win it quickly, which is why they would develop the concept of Blitzkrieg, “lightning-fast war,” to be followed by Blitzsieg, “lightning-fast victory.” This formula was to work against Poland and France in 1939–1940, but the spectacular failure of the Blitzkriegin the Soviet Union in 1941 would doom Germany once again to fight a long, drawn-out war, a war that, lacking sufficient raw materials such as oil and rubber, it would find impossible to win.)

Rubber was not the only strategic type of raw material that the Allies had in abundance but the Germans lacked. Another was petroleum, for which the increasingly motorized land armies — and rapidly expanding air forces — were developing a gargantuan appetite. During their final offensive in the fall of 1918, the Allies consumed 12,000 barrels (of 159 litres each) of oil daily. During a victory dinner on November 21, the British minister of foreign affairs, Lord Curzon, would declare, not without reason, that “the allied cause floated to victory upon a wave of oil,” and a French senator was to proclaim that “oil had been the blood of victory.” A considerable quantity of this oil had come from the United States. It had been supplied by Standard Oil, a firm belonging to the Rockefellers, who made a lot of money in this type of business, just as Renault did by producing the gas-guzzling trucks. (Of all the oil imported by France in 1917, the United States furnished 82.6 per cent and Standard Oil alone 47 per cent; in 1918, the United States furnished 89.4 per cent of the oil imported by the French.)

It was only logical that the Allies — swimming in oil, so to speak — had acquired all sorts of modern, motorized, and oil-consuming war materiel. In 1918, the French disposed of not only phenomenal quantities of trucks, but also a large fleet of airplanes. And in that same year, the French as well as the British also had a considerable number of automobiles equipped with machine guns or cannons, a combination pioneered by the Belgian army in 1914, as well as tanks. The latter were no longer the lumbering, ineffective monsters that first showed up at the front in 1916, but machines of excellent quality such as the light and mobile Renault FT “baby-tank,” considered the “first modern tank in history.” If the Germans had only very few trucks or tanks, it is because they did not have sufficient fuel for such vehicles — or for their planes; only comparatively small quantities of Romanian petroleum were available to them.

A Renault FT “baby-tank,” in the Brussels War Museum. Photo by J. Pauwels.

After that fateful eighth of August of 1918, the majority of the German soldiers on the western front realized that the war was lost. They now wanted to get it over and done with and go home. They did not hide their contempt for the political and military leaders who had unleashed the conflict and thus caused so much misery, and they were not willing to sacrifice their lives on the altar of a lost cause. The German army began to disintegrate, discipline broke down, and the number of desertions and mass surrenders skyrocketed. Between mid-July 1918 and the armistice of November 11 of that year, 340,000 Germans surrendered or ran over to the enemy; of the casualties Germany suffered at that time, prisoners represented an unprecedented 70 per cent. The epidemic of mass surrenders and desertions mushroomed during August and September 1918, so much so that this state of affairs has been described as a Kampfstreik, an “undeclared military strike.” And that is certainly how the German soldiers themselves saw things. The men who were leaving the front often insulted those who were marching in the opposite direction, calling them “strike breakers” and Kriegsverlängerer, “war prolongers.”

The German war machine sputtered because it was quickly running out of soldiers. In addition, the situation on the home front was simply catastrophic. Because of the British naval blockade, not enough food had been reaching Germany, so the civilians were starving, and malnutrition caused diseases and high mortality rates, especially among children, older people, and women. It is estimated that during the Great War no less than 762,000 Germans died of malnutrition and associated diseases. The most infamous and deadliest of these disorders was the “Spanish flu,” originally called the “Flemish flu” because it was brought to Germany by soldiers coming home from the front in Flanders. This epidemic is believed to have caused the death of four hundred thousand Germans in 1918.

Already in 1917, the misery and mortality caused by the war had started to drive a wedge between pacifists with predominantly democratic, radical, and even revolutionary aspirations, and “hawks” who remained loyal to the Reich’s established order and cherished traditional conservative, authoritarian, and militarist values. In the fall of 1918, the former gained the upper hand because most Germans now wanted peace at any price. As in Russia one year earlier, this combination of war-weariness and longing for radical political and social change among soldiers and civilians caused the war to close in a context of revolution.

Shortly before and after November 1, the revolutionary flames flared up as sailors mutinied in the ports of Wilhelmshaven and Kiel and revolutionary “councils” of soldiers and workers, inspired by the “soviets” of the Russian Revolution, were set up in cities such as Berlin and Munich. Ludendorff – figureheadpar excellenceof discredited militarism, authoritarianism, and conservatism – resigned and fled abroad. On November 10, a newly formed government, consisting of liberal and social-democratic politicians, asked the Allies for an armistice. Very early in the morning of the next day, the unconditional German capitulation was signed in the railway car that served as headquarters to the allied commander in chief, Marshal Foch, and at 11 a.m. the guns fell silent.

During the final months of the war, as hundreds of thousands of German soldiers, mostly of plebeian background, “gave their lives” for the glory of the German Reich, Kaiser William had been ensconced in his headquarters in Spa, a Belgian resort whose very name conjures up relaxation and luxury for the upper class. On November 10, having abdicated, he left to seek salvation in the neutral Netherlands. His inglorious disappearance from the scene reflected the fact that Germany’s defeat was mostly due to a shortage of motorized vehicles as well as the petroleum needed to use them: he departed not by automobile, but by train.

Jacques R. Pauwels is the author of The Great Class War 1914-1918 (James Lorimer, Toronto 2016).

Jacques R. Pauwels is the author of The Great Class War: 1914-1918 and Myths of Modern History: From the French Revolution to the 20th Century World Wars and the Cold War (forthcoming).