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Stumbling towards victory

Early in the morning of 21 March 1918, General Erich von Ludendorff – thick-set, mustachioed, power-hungry – launched Germany’s last great onslaught of the First World War. In tactics that anticipated the Nazi blitzkrieg of 1940, Ludendorff funneled his most effective troops into spearhead units called storm troops that would penetrate deep into Allied defenses. Follow-up units would mop up any lingering resistance.

Black and white archive image of men stood in line in trenches

Men of the 11th Battalion, Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, in a captured German communications trench near Havrincourt during the First Battle of Cambrai, 20 November 1917.

A few short miles away, British and French troops huddled in their trenches and steeled themselves for an imminent attack. They had seen four years of indescribable bloodshed. Four years of viscid mud and hollow sacrifice. Four years of War Office telegrams arriving like whispers of death. Four years of nerve-shredding, gut-wrenching stasis punctuated by episodes of terrible carnage – yet until now, the trenches of Western Europe had remained as intractable as ever.

Far beyond the rising sun, the Eastern Front was already silent. Russia, incapable of fighting and destroyed by internal faction, had abandoned the war in November 1917. Tsar Nicholas II and his family had been squirreled away in Tobolsk in the Urals, and were later to be shot and bayoneted to death in a cellar in Yekaterinburg. One-time combatants met to hammer out peace terms, their base a grey, nondescript town on the Polish border. Despite huge resistance at home, Lenin and Trotsky instructed their Bolshevik delegates to sign the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918.

Black and white archive photograph of a man pulling a mule and cart through mud

But if the Germans finally had the war on one front they had long desired, it was soon to be a front bolstered by vast numbers of American troops. President Woodrow Wilson had committed the United States to war the previous year when British signals intelligence confirmed that Germany intended to pursue a policy of unfettered submarine warfare against neutral and enemy alike. The decoded ‘Zimmerman Note’, in which the German Foreign Minister proposed an alliance with Mexico against the United States, did even more to turn American public opinion against Germany than had the torpedoing of the Cunard liner Lusitania in 1915, when more than 1,100 passengers and crew were drowned.

The US declaration of war injected an almost unlimited supply of troops to the Allied war effort and to some degree drowned out the growing feeling of war weariness that swept across Britain and France in the winter of 1917-18. Yet such advantages did not appear immediately. Only a single American division was battle-ready: not for many months would sufficient men cross the Atlantic to make a difference to the balance of power.

Black and white archive footage of men stood in a line trying on gas masks

It was for this reason that Ludendorff and his staff hatched their plans. With Russia out of the fighting and the Eastern Front clear, Operation Michael was the first phase of a move designed to collapse the British front and drive a wedge between the Allied armies at the point where they came together. It would force the British Expeditionary Force back across the Channel, and leave the French with no alternative but to sue for peace. After four years in the field and a nervous eye on the American troop carriers, Germany too was seeking respite.

Archive photograph of soldier sat in front of a chalkboard taking notes

This is the story told in Stumbling Towards Victory: the Final Year of the Great War. It contains a selection of photographs – many previously unpublished – from the Royal Armouries archives, all of which were taken in the last twelve months of the war. From homes and factories to the skies and the oceans, Stumbling Towards Victory displays the whole range of human emotion seen in that final cataclysmic year, as the Central Powers launched their final, doomed offensive and the Allies counter-attacked in the Hundred Days.

Stumbling Towards Victory: the Final Year of the Great War is now available from the Royal Armouries shop (RRP £14.99)

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