- During World War I, the Second Battle of the Somme, the first major German offensive in more than a year, ends on the western front.
On March 21, 1918, a major offensive against Allied positions in the Somme River region of France began with five hours of bombardment from more than 9,000 pieces of German artillery. The poorly prepared British Fifth Army was rapidly overwhelmed and forced into retreat. For a week, the Germans pushed toward Paris, shelling the city from a distance of 80 miles with their Big Bertha cannons. However, the poorly supplied German troops soon became exhausted, and the Allies halted the German advance as French artillery knocked out the German guns besieging Paris. On April 2, U.S. General John J. Pershing sent American troops down into the trenches to help defend Paris and repulse the German offensive. It was the first major deployment of U.S. troops in World War I. Several thousand American troops fought alongside the British and French in the Second Battle of Somme.
By the time the Somme offensive ended on April 4, the Germans had advanced almost 40 miles, inflicted some 200,000 casualties, and captured 70,000 prisoners and more than 1,000 Allied guns. However, the Germans suffered nearly as many casualties as their enemies and lacked the fresh reserves and supply boost the Allies enjoyed following the American entrance into the fighting.
- On this day in 1918, German forces in the throes of a major spring offensive on the Western Front launch a renewed attack on Allied positions between the Somme and Avre Rivers.The first stage of the German offensive, dubbed Operation Michael, began March 21, 1918; by the first days of April, it had resulted in a gain of almost 40 miles of territory for the Germans, the largest advance in the west for either side since 1914. After the initial panic, the Allies had managed to stabilize and strengthen their defense, stopping the Germans at Moreuil Wood on March 30 and continuing their hardy defense of the crucial railroad junction and town of Amiens, France, just south of the Somme.
With a bombardment by more than 1,200 guns and a total of 15 divisions sent against only seven of the enemy’s, the Germans attacked in force at Villers-Bretonneux on April 4. Again, British and Australian troops reacted with panic in the face of such an onslaught but soon rallied to drive back their attackers. At the same time, French divisions made their own advances along the front running between the towns of Castel and Cantigny, to the south of Villers-Bretonneux.
Also on April 4, German military officials announced that their attacks in the Somme region had claimed a total of 90,000 Allied prisoners since March 21. The following day, Erich Ludendorff, chief of the German general staff, formally closed down the Michael offensive; the second phase of the attacks, Georgette, would begin four days later in Flanders.
- In North Africa, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel captured the British held town of Benghazi.
- During World War II, U.S. forces liberated the Nazi Concentration Camp Ohrdruf in Germany.
- Hungary was liberated by the Soviet Union.
- The United States and 11 other nations establish the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), a mutual defense pact aimed at containing possible Soviet aggression against Western Europe. NATO stood as the main U.S.-led military alliance against the Soviet Union throughout the duration of the Cold War.
Relations between the United States and the Soviet Union began to deteriorate rapidly in 1948. There were heated disagreements over the postwar status of Germany, with the Americans insisting on German recovery and eventual rearmament and the Soviets steadfastly opposing such actions. In June 1948, the Soviets blocked all ground travel to the American occupation zone in West Berlin, and only a massive U.S. airlift of food and other necessities sustained the population of the zone until the Soviets relented and lifted the blockade in May 1949. In January 1949, President Harry S. Truman warned in his State of the Union Address that the forces of democracy and communism were locked in a dangerous struggle, and he called for a defensive alliance of nations in the North Atlantic. NATO was the result. In April 1949, representatives from Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Great Britain, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, and Portugal joined the United States in signing the NATO agreement. The signatories agreed, “An armed attack against one or more of them… shall be considered an attack against them all.” President Truman welcomed the organization as “a shield against aggression.”
Not all Americans embraced NATO. Isolationists such as Senator Robert A. Taft declared that NATO was “not a peace program; it is a war program.” Most, however, saw the organization as a necessary response to the communist threat. The U. S. Senate ratified the treaty by a wide margin in June 1949. During the next few years, Greece, Turkey, and West Germany also joined. The Soviet Union condemned NATO as a warmongering alliance and responded by setting up the Warsaw Pact. The military alliance between the Soviet Union and its Eastern Europe satellites in 1955.
NATO lasted throughout the course of the Cold War, and continues to play an important role in post-Cold War Europe. In recent years, for example, NATO forces were active in bringing an end to the civil war in Bosnia.