On this day in 1944, the British 8th Army breaks through the Germans’ “Gothic Line,” a defensive line drawn across northern Italy.
The Allies had pushed the German occupying troops on the Italian peninsula farther and farther north. On June 4, U.S. Gen. Mark Clark had captured Rome. Now the Germans had dug in north of Florence. Built earlier in the year, this defensive line consisted of fortified towns, stretching from Pisa in the west to Pesaro in the east. One of these towns was Siena, home to much glorious medieval art—also home to the Italian partisans, guerillas who had been harassing the Germans and remnants of Italian fascists since Italy had surrendered. Their ability to create chaos and confusion behind the Germans’ own lines was of great aid to the Allies.
Expert strategic maneuvering by British General Harold Alexander, who opened his offensive on August 25, surprised the Germans, and the 8th Army swept through the Plain of Lombardy, crashing through the Gothic Line.
Battles of the Frontiers fought near Ardennes and Charleroi
On this day in 1914, the second and third of what will be four “Battles of the Frontiers” fought between German and Allied forces on the Western Front during a four-day period in August 1914 begin near Ardennes and Charleroi in northern France.
During the first month of the Great War, with Germany advancing on France through Belgium, cutting a wide swath of violence on its way, French Commander in Chief Joseph Joffre pushed his 1st and 2nd Armies into the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine—forfeited to Germany after the Franco-Prussian War in 1871—against the German left wing. Joffre left the French 5th Army to counter the German right flank, which was swinging down north of the Meuse River, and sent his 3rd and 4th Armies to attack in the forests of Ardennes, where French army headquarters believed the enemy was relatively weak. Though German forces entered and occupied the Belgian capital city, Brussels, on August 20, French morale was strong, and Joffre remarked to his minister of war, Adolphe Messimy, that night: “There is reason to await with confidence the development of operations.”
In fact, the German 4th and 5th Armies were pushing into the Ardennes as well, and on the foggy morning of August 21, French and German troops clashed in the second of four bloody confrontations that would collectively become known as the Battles of the Frontiers. (The first had occurred the day before, in Lorraine, when the French 1st and 2nd Armies were battered by the Germans at Sarrebourg and Morhange and forced to retreat.) At Ardennes, the French threw themselves forward with bayonets in a classic offensive maneuver—in accordance with their Plan 17 strategy, the French were convinced their glorious élan, or spirit, would carry them inexorably to victory. Instead, they came face to face with the superior artillery and entrenched machine guns of the Germans, and were brutally mown down in great numbers.
On the same day, August 21, the French 5th Army, commanded by General Charles Lanrezac clashed with General Karl von Bulow’s 2nd German Army in the Battle of Charleroi, located to the north near the junction of the Sambre and Meuse rivers. The 5th Army, due to be supported by the newly arrived 100,000 soldiers of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF)—the largest number the tiny, professionally trained British army could send at the beginning of the war—instead had to fight alone, as a British delay and poor relations between Lanrezac and the BEF’s commander, Sir John French, resulted in the British and French fighting two separate battles simultaneously—the Battle of Charleroi and the Battle of Mons, the fourth of the Battles of the Frontiers, which began on August 23—instead of fighting together as planned, to the detriment of both armies.
Over the course of the next three days, French, German and British forces would confront the strength of modern firepower for the first time, and all were shocked and devastated by its effects. In terms of numbers engaged and number of losses suffered over a comparable period of combat, the Battles of the Frontiers would remain the greatest struggles of World War I. More importantly, as a result of its convincing defeat of the French forces over those four days, Germany began consolidating its eventual hold on Belgium and northern France, which would give it control of the majority of the industrial power of both nations—coal, iron ore, factories, railroads and rivers—and give it the confidence to pursue its goal of victory to the bitter end.
On August 16, 1917, in a renewed thrust of the Allied offensive launched at the end of July in the Flanders region of Belgium—known as the Third Battle of Ypres, or simply as Passchendaele, for the village that saw the heaviest fighting—British troops capture the village of Langemarck from the Germans.
The ambitious, meticulously planned offensive, masterminded by the British commander in chief Sir Douglas Haig, began on July 31 with a British and French attack on German positions near the village of Passchendaele, located in Flanders in the much-contested Ypres Salient. After the initial assault met with less success than had been anticipated, heavy rains and thickening mud bogged down the Allied infantry and artillery and prevented them from renewing the offensive until the second week of August. On August 16, at Langemarck, to the west of Passchendaele, four days of fierce fighting resulted in a British victory; the gains were small, however, for the high number of casualties incurred.
Though a German counterattack recovered much of the ground gained at Langemarck, British forces retained the initiative in the region, aided by the use of tanks and by a diversionary attack by the French at Verdun, where more than 5,000 German soldiers were taken prisoner. By the end of September, the British were able to establish control over the ridge of land to the east of Ypres, and Haig pushed his commanders in the region to continue the attacks towards the Passchendaele ridge. As the offensive stretched into October, Allied troops reached near-exhaustion as the Germans reinforced their positions in the region with reserve troops released from the Eastern Front.
After Canadian and British troops finally captured Passchendaele on November 6, 1917, Haig called off the offensive, claiming victory for his men. In sum, a total of some 310,000 British casualties, as opposed to 260,000 on the German side, and a failure to create any substantial breakthrough on the Western Front, made the Third Battle of Ypres one of the most costly and controversial offensives of World War I.
Two days after sealing off free passage between East and West Berlin with barbed wire, East German authorities begin building a wall–the Berlin Wall–to permanently close off access to the West. For the next 28 years, the heavily fortified Berlin Wall stood as the most tangible symbol of the Cold War–a literal “iron curtain” dividing Europe.
The end of World War II in 1945 saw Germany divided into four Allied occupation zones. Berlin, the German capital, was likewise divided into occupation sectors, even though it was located deep within the Soviet zone. The future of Germany and Berlin was a major sticking point in postwar treaty talks, and tensions grew when the United States, Britain, and France moved in 1948 to unite their occupation zones into a single autonomous entity–the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany). In response, the USSR launched a land blockade of West Berlin in an effort to force the West to abandon the city. However, a massive airlift by Britain and the United States kept West Berlin supplied with food and fuel, and in May 1949 the Soviets ended the defeated blockade.
By 1961, Cold War tensions over Berlin were running high again. For East Germans dissatisfied with life under the communist system, West Berlin was a gateway to the democratic West. Between 1949 and 1961, some 2.5 million East Germans fled from East to West Germany, most via West Berlin. By August 1961, an average of 2,000 East Germans were crossing into the West every day. Many of the refugees were skilled laborers, professionals, and intellectuals, and their loss was having a devastating effect on the East German economy. To halt the exodus to the West, Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev recommended to East Germany that it close off access between East and West Berlin.
On the night of August 12-13, 1961, East German soldiers laid down more than 30 miles of barbed wire barrier through the heart of Berlin. East Berlin citizens were forbidden to pass into West Berlin, and the number of checkpoints in which Westerners could cross the border was drastically reduced. The West, taken by surprise, threatened a trade embargo against East Germany as a retaliatory measure. The Soviets responded that such an embargo be answered with a new land blockade of West Berlin. When it became evident that the West was not going to take any major action to protest the closing, East German authorities became emboldened, closing off more and more checkpoints between East and West Berlin. On August 15, they began replacing barbed wire with concrete. The wall, East German authorities declared, would protect their citizens from the pernicious influence of decadent capitalist culture.
The first concrete pilings went up on the Bernauer Strasse and at the Potsdamer Platz. Sullen East German workers, a few in tears, constructed the first segments of the Berlin Wall as East German troops stood guarding them with machine guns. With the border closing permanently, escape attempts by East Germans intensified on August 15. Conrad Schumann, a 19-year-old East German soldier, provided the subject for a famous image when he was photographed leaping over the barbed-wire barrier to freedom.
During the rest of 1961, the grim and unsightly Berlin Wall continued to grow in size and scope, eventually consisting of a series of concrete walls up to 15 feet high. These walls were topped with barbed wire and guarded with watchtowers, machine gun emplacements, and mines. By the 1980s, this system of walls and electrified fences extended 28 miles through Berlin and 75 miles around West Berlin, separating it from the rest of East Germany. The East Germans also erected an extensive barrier along most of the 850-mile border between East and West Germany.
In the West, the Berlin Wall was regarded as a major symbol of communist oppression. About 5,000 East Germans managed to escape across the Berlin Wall to the West, but the frequency of successful escapes dwindled as the wall was increasingly fortified. Thousands of East Germans were captured during attempted crossings and 191 were killed.
In 1989, East Germany’s communist regime was overwhelmed by the democratization sweeping across Eastern Europe. On the evening of November 9, 1989, East Germany announced an easing of travel restrictions to the West, and thousands demanded passage though the Berlin Wall. Faced with growing demonstrations, East German border guards opened the borders. Jubilant Berliners climbed on top of the Berlin Wall, painted graffiti on it, and removed fragments as souvenirs. The next day, East German troops began dismantling the wall. In 1990, East and West Germany were formally reunited.
On this day in 1943, German forces begin a six-day evacuation of the Italian island of Sicily, having been beaten back by the Allies, who invaded the island in July.
The Germans had maintained a presence in Sicily since the earliest days of the war. But with the arrival of Gen. George S. Patton and his 7th Army and Gen. Bernard Montgomery and his 8th Army, the Germans could no longer hold their position. The race began for the Strait of Messina, the 2-mile wide body of water that separated Sicily from the Italian mainland. The Germans needed to get out of Sicily and onto the Italian peninsula. While Patton had already reached his goal, Palermo, the Sicilian capital, on July 22 (to a hero’s welcome, as the Sicilian people were more than happy to see an end to fascist rule), Montgomery, determined to head off the Germans at Messina, didn’t make his goal in time. The German 29th Panzergrenadier Division and the 14th Panzer Corps were brought over from Africa for the sole purpose of slowing the Allies’ progress and allowing the bulk of the German forces to get off the island. The delaying tactic succeeded. Despite the heavy bombing of railways leading to Messina, the Germans made it to the strait on August 11.
Over six days and seven nights, the Germans led 39,569 soldiers, 47 tanks, 94 heavy guns, 9,605 vehicles, and more than 2,000 tons of ammunition onto the Italian mainland. (Not to mention the 60,000 Italian soldiers who were also evacuated, in order to elude capture by the Allies.) Although the United States and Britain had succeeded in conquering Sicily, the Germans were now reinforced and heavily supplied, making the race for Rome more problematic.
On August 11, 1919, Friedrich Ebert, a member of the Social Democratic Party and the provisional president of the German Reichstag (government), signs a new constitution, known as the Weimar Constitution, into law, officially creating the first parliamentary democracy in Germany.
Even before Germany acknowledged its defeat at the hands of the Allied powers on the battlefields of the First World War, discontent and disorder ruled on the home front, as the exhausted and hunger-plagued German people expressed their frustration and anger with large-scale strikes among factory workers and mutinies within the armed forces. Beginning in 1916, Germany had basically been operating under a military dictatorship, the Supreme Army Command, led by Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff. In late October 1918, however, with defeat looming on the horizon, Hindenburg pushed Kaiser Wilhelm II and the German government to form a civil government in order to negotiate an armistice with the Allies. The kaiser and Reichstagsubsequently amended the latter organization’s constitution of 1871, effectively creating a parliamentary democracy in which the chancellor of Germany, Prince Max von Baden, was responsible not to Wilhelm but to the Reichstag.
This was not enough, however, to satisfy the far leftist forces within Germany, who capitalized on the chaos of the last days of a losing war effort to lead a general workers’ strike that November 7, and call for the establishment of a socialist republic along the lines of the Bolshevik government in Russia. Hoping to pacify the radical socialists, von Baden transferred his powers to Ebert, the leader of Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SPD), on November 9. Over the next six months, the Reichstag, led by the SPD, worked to write a new constitution that would solidify Germany’s status as a parliamentary democracy. Meanwhile, many within Germany blamed the government for what they saw as the humiliating terms imposed on the country by the victorious Allies in the Treaty of Versailles, particularly the treaty’s demands for German war reparations, justified by a clause that placed blame for the war squarely on the shoulders of Germany.
Under vicious attack from both the militarist right and the radical socialist left and identified by both sides with the shame of Versailles, the Weimar government and its constitution—signed into law on August 11, 1919—seemed to have a dim chance of survival. In this atmosphere of confrontation and frustration, exacerbated by poor economic conditions, right wing elements began to take an ever more pervasive hold over the Reichstag. This process, intensified by the worldwide depression that began in 1929, would culminate in the rise to power of Adolf Hitler, who exploited the weakness of the Weimar system to lay the foundations for himself and his National Socialist German Workers’ (or Nazi) Party to dissolve the parliamentary government and take absolute control over Germany.
German Military History with a focus on World War 2 History including other areas of German History