US Ambassador’s Report of German Retreat in France Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

After two years of devastating warfare, during late 1916, reports began to surface that the Germans were building a series of extensive defensive fortifications, which became known as the Hindenburg Line (or Siegfried Line, though that term would be more commonly used during World War II), some distance behind the current front line in the Somme. This would allow the Germans to defend a front that was twenty-five miles shorter and more heavily fortified than their current exposed positions. In late February and early March, the German armies fell back to the Hindenburg Line, in what would become known as Operation Alberich. But what was noteworthy and became an additional component of the idea of “total war,” was the scorched-earth policy the Germans followed as they withdrew. US Ambassador to France William Sharp toured the region soon after the Germans had left and was appalled to find nearly every facility that could be of any human use utterly destroyed.

Summary Overview

After two years of devastating warfare, during late 1916, reports began to surface that the Germans were building a series of extensive defensive fortifications, which became known as the Hindenburg Line (or Siegfried Line, though that term would be more commonly used during World War II), some distance behind the current front line in the Somme. This would allow the Germans to defend a front that was twenty-five miles shorter and more heavily fortified than their current exposed positions. In late February and early March, the German armies fell back to the Hindenburg Line, in what would become known as Operation Alberich. But what was noteworthy and became an additional component of the idea of “total war,” was the scorched-earth policy the Germans followed as they withdrew. US Ambassador to France William Sharp toured the region soon after the Germans had left and was appalled to find nearly every facility that could be of any human use utterly destroyed.

Defining Moment

As World War I dragged on through the latter half of 1916, it became clear to the German Chief of the General Staff, Paul von Hindenburg, that the number of troops the German armies could field could not possibly continue to hold off the advance of the English and French armies across the front line in the Somme region of Northern France. The prior two years, and especially the recent battles at Verdun and the Somme, had taken their toll on the German armies, producing heavy losses. In order to give their troops the best opportunity to hold off the Allied advance, it was decided to construct a series of defensive positions that would span a much narrower portion of the former line of defense against any advance into Germany. Constructed to reduce the front lines by over twenty-five miles, and built into positions that had natural tactical advantages, the new Siegfried Stellung–or, as the Allies called it, the “Hindenburg Line”–was expected by the German military leaders to reduce the pressure on German armies and allow them to reconstitute their forces.

In executing the pull-back, German soldiers were ordered to destroy nearly everything in their path. Reminiscent of General William T. Sherman’s “March to the Sea” during the American Civil War, during the first month of Operation Alberich, which began in early February 1917, the German troops destroyed railroads; cut down trees; placed explosives on roads, so as to cause craters; poisoned drinking water wells; booby-trapped anything that might be considered a strategic military point; and even razed entire villages. Many French civilians in the region were removed from their homes and force-marched to other parts of German-occupied territory, where they were required to labor for their oppressors. The plan was so destructive that Rupprecht, the Crown Prince of Bavaria, who commanded four German armies, considered resigning in protest. Once the destruction was complete in early March, the German armies in the region withdrew back to the Hindenburg Line.

By the time British patrols discovered empty German outposts along what was formerly the front line, the withdrawal was well underway. The scorched-earth policy was effective in slowing the advance of the Allied troops, as all transportation routes had largely been destroyed. The British and French troops pursued the Germans as far as the Line, but then were stopped, and a new front established. This new front, however, was much more heavily fortified and defensible than the prior one in the Somme. When the American ambassador to France, William Sharp, arrived, the devastation was still fresh and the region’s people were willing to tell of the horrors that had been perpetuated by the Germans.

Author Biography

William Graves Sharp had served in various government capacities during his career. A three-term congressman from Ohio, he had sat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and was, by all accounts, a very knowledgeable and effective diplomat. Just as World War I was beginning in June 1914, President Woodrow Wilson appointed Sharp ambassador to France, a position he maintained through the conclusion of the war. As the ambassador of an ostensibly neutral nation until 1917, Sharp visited prison camps to check on conditions, maintained good relations between the United States and France, and reconnoitered recent battlefields, in order to provide information to the American government. By the time of the German pull-back and Sharp’s letter report, it was beginning to become apparent that the United States would likely have to become involved in the war on the side of the Allies. (Indeed, on April 2, 1917, President Wilson asked Congress to declare war on Germany.) Sharp’s war memoirs were published in 1931, nine years after his death.

Document Analysis

Hearing stories of the destruction committed by the German armies as they tactically retreated from their positions on the front line in the Somme region of France to the Hindenburg (or Siegfried) Line, which was approximately ten to twenty miles behind the front, American Ambassador to France William Sharp accepted the Allies’ invitation to view the region. Much of what Sharp wrote of the destruction was not without a purpose, as it had become very clear to Sharp, as well as with many associated with the Woodrow Wilson Administration, that American involvement in the war in Europe was becoming inevitable, however much public opinion in the United States reflected a more isolationist sentiment. Stories of German atrocities were having the effect of changing that opinion, however, as the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare in February brought back memories of the sinking of the RMS Lusitania, only two years earlier.

Sharp was aware that stories of the destruction in the Somme had been reported in American newspapers, and he specifically sought to verify those stories in his report, describing the wholesale destruction of a number of villages and larger towns, reporting that a “scene of desolation reigns everywhere over the reconquered territory.” Further, Sharp accuses the Germans of overstepping the normal bounds of war, by targeting civilian infrastructure and homes–“some of the most beautiful chateaux”–and not just military targets. Farms were gutted and cathedrals were “reduced to a mass of ruins.” Americans, not yet used to the concept of “total war,” would certainly have seen this as a violation of common decency.

If that were not enough, Sharp pointed out that many French civilians–especially women–had been forced to accompany the Germans on their march to the east. To Sharp, all of the destruction of persons and property added up to a situation unparalleled in human history–a greater destruction than had been seen in any war to that point. Though Sharp’s statement can be seen as wartime hyperbole, it certainly demonstrates that Sharp himself was of the opinion that only American involvement could rectify the situation and save Europe from itself. Sharp’s wartime memoirs bear this out, as scenes, such as this, greatly impacted his view of the war and of the importance of America’s involvement in what Wilson would once call the “war to end all wars.”

Essential Themes

The significance of Sharp’s tour of the Somme is less important than the timing of his report, as well as the brutality it demonstrated on the part of the Germans. Up until 1917, many Americans had remained steadfastly neutral about the conflict in Europe, even if their sympathies were largely with the Allies. But events during the first months of 1917 went a long way toward changing Americans’ opinions about US involvement.

The British interception of what became known as the Zimmerman Telegram was shocking to many Americans, as it detailed Germany’s proposal of an alliance with Mexico should the United States enter the war, guaranteeing Mexico the return of lands in the US Southwest, much of the territory they had lost during the Mexican War of the 1840s. Close on the heels of the Zimmerman Telegram, Germany resumed unrestricted submarine warfare on February 1, 1917, essentially declaring all ships in the Atlantic Ocean to be targets for German submarines, in an attempt to cut off the flow of war matériel to the Allies. Two American ships were sunk in February and many more companies simply refused to send their ships into the region. This not only was terrifying for the American public, who might be traveling on ships like the Lusitania, which had been sunk in 1915, but also impacted American business, which was profiting handsomely from the sale of goods across the Atlantic.

Adding reports like Sharp’s to the list of troubling German actions helped to shift public opinion in the direction of the United States joining the Allies to fight Germany. Indeed, the very day after Sharp filed his report, Wilson requested Congress to approve a declaration of war against the Central Powers, a request that was formally approved four days later (April 6, 1917). About a year after that, after having completed preparations for all-out war and having recruited and trained sufficient numbers of troops, American forces engaged in battle (May 1918) with the German Army in Cantigny, France, only about 100 miles southeast of the towns mentioned by Sharp as having been destroyed during the earlier German pullback. The “war to end all wars” would become the first of two world wars that would dominate the first half of the twentieth century and permanently change the geopolitical landscape of Europe and the world.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Black, Jeremy. The Age of Total War, 1860–1945. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2006. Print.
  • Chickering, Roger, and Stig Föster. Great War, Total War: Combat and Mobilization on the Western Front, 1914–1918. New York: Cambridge UP, 2000. Print.
  • Coffman, Edward M. The War to End All Wars: The American Military Experience in World War I. Lexington, KY: U P of Kentucky, 1998. Print.
  • Hart, Peter. The Great War. London: Profile Books, 2013. Print.
  • Philpott, William. Bloody Victory: The Sacrifice on the Somme and the Making of the Twentieth Century. London: Little, Brown, 2009. Print.
  • Sharp, William Graves. The War Memoirs of William Graves Sharp: American Ambassador to France, 1914–1919. London: Constable & Co., 1931. Print.
Categories: History Content