The Hindenburg Line – Ludendorff’s Defence In Depth I THE GREAT WAR Special

The Hindenburg Line – Ludendorff’s Defence In Depth I THE GREAT WAR Special


It was one of the most unusual moves of this
unusual war, and in some ways you could call it the boldest. It happened in early 1917 when the Germans
on the Western Front turned their backs on the ground they had soaked with their blood
for over two years and established a new line of defense, the Hindenburg Line. I’m Indy Neidell; welcome to a Great War
special episode about the Hindenburg Line, also known as the Siegfried Line. On February 24th, 1917, something remarkable
happened that was very strange to the British troops who reported it. The German lines opposite them were being
shelled. But by German artillery. Scouting parties were sent out and they found
something even weirder – the German trenches were abandoned. It was obvious that the shelling was meant
to destroy what the Germans had left behind. The Germans were pulling back. It wasn’t really apparent to the Allies
what the extent of this was, but over a period of a few weeks the Germans withdrew 20 miles
– 32 kilometers – on a front 70 miles wide- 116 kilometers – between Arras and St. Quentin. This meant giving up 1,000 square miles of
hard won French land. This withdrawal was German Quartermaster General
Erich Ludendorff’s idea, and it was very risky. If the British and French had attacked while
the Germans were leaving their old positions and before they settled into the new ones,
disaster would have been the result. It was also a task of enormous magnitude not
just to move to new lines, but ones that were far stronger than the old ones. 370,000 men worked for four months to build
the new defenses. They were German reserves and civilians and
Russian prisoners of war, and they dug trenches and underground chambers for hiding men and
equipment, fortifications of concrete and steel, and enormous wire barricades. 1,200 trains brought in materials put together
by a further 170,000 workers. And except for that artillery barrage at Arras,
it was pretty much all done in secret. Ludendorff had decided to build it after visiting
the Western Front in the aftermath of Verdun and the Somme. He thought that too much of Germany’s diminishing
manpower was being wasted in defensive doctrines that needed to be scrapped. He would later write (A World Undone), “The
decision to retreat was not reached without a painful struggle. It implied a confession of weakness bound
to raise the morale of the enemy and lower our own… we had no choice.” But if it could be pulled off there would
be great benefits. The current front ran from Arras to Soissons
and the region called Chemin des Dames was a huge 90 mile bulge – 150 kilometers. The new line would be 25 miles – 40km – shorter
and it would free 13 divisions and 50 artillery batteries for other uses. This was the big thing, because the German
manpower situation had been serious for a while now. At the beginning of 1917, the Germans had
two and a half million men on the Western Front in 134 divisions. But the Entente had nearly four million men
facing them in 175 divisions, and that number would only grow as the British army continued
to expand, so every month seemed to bring greater danger that Germany would become mathematically
overwhelmed. A new line would also allow Ludendorff to
build from scratch his ideal defenses. What he planned was not really a front line
in any traditional sense. It wouldn’t even be continuous, but would
feature a series of mutually supporting camouflaged steel and concrete blockhouses in a sort of
checkered pattern manned by machine gun crews. Where it was possible, these were positioned
on the front slopes of hills to look down on the enemy. They were shielded by high rows of razor wire
designed to funnel an advancing enemy into lethal passages. The men there were not supposed to stand their
ground if the enemy arrived. They were to fall back after slowing the advance
as much as they could. They new system was far more flexible than
the old way of troops massed in the forward trenches and would ideally be far less costly
in lives. The first actual defensive line in the new
system was way to the rear, up to a mile from the blockhouses and beyond the reach of enemy
mortars and light artillery. Another line was another mile further back,
and the reserves were even further back than that, out of the reach of most enemy artillery,
but ready to quickly counterattack. So this elastic defense network was designed
to lead the enemy into a killing zone several miles deep where the reserves were not really
reserves anymore, but a strike force of their own. Thing is, this all looked great on paper but
had that one enormous risk – that the Allies would launch an offensive that would catch
the Germans halfway between the old and the new. They were certain to launch such an offensive
soon, possibly as soon as February, and the risk seemed so great that Ludendorff wasn’t
going through with the plan. Until fate intervened. As February began, the Germans intercepted
and decoded a message from Rome to Petrograd. The news wasn’t that surprising. The British and French were planning an attack
on the Western Front, another colossal offensive, even bigger this time than the Battle of the
Somme using up to 100 divisions. There was also some really good news for the
Germans, though – the attack would not begin until April, two months or more in the future. The Germans would have time to build the new
lines. They would have time to train the men in how
the new system worked. On February 4th, 1917, Erich Ludendorff ordered
the work to begin. The new system did actually begin with a trench,
but one 3 meters deep and 4 meters across. This was to be unoccupied and was a trap for
tanks and a huge obstacle for men. Behind that were at least five rows of barbed
wire, 4 meters deep and twice a man’s height, and 20 meters apart from each other. Then came the blockhouses and then the first
real line, a mostly underground anthill of rooms and passages under up to 8 meters of
earth, designed to be impregnable to artillery. Two lines of big guns were further back, on
reverse slopes wherever possible, to be out of sight of enemy artillery. This was to be invulnerable, and it was made
possible by the fact that the Allies wouldn’t attack in the west until April, and the Germans
knew it. French Commander Robert Nivelle had actually
planned on a February attack. British Commander Sir Douglas Haig wanted
to wait until May, so they compromised and set the date for April. That raises a big what if, of course, since
the new lines couldn’t have been built had the Allies attacked sooner, but built they
were and they took defensive warfare to a new level, and they were the work of a single
man of great vision, ambition, and energy, Erich Ludendorff. If you want to know more about the change
of German offensive tactics, check out our episode about Stormtroopers right here. We hope you liked our visualisation of the
Hindenburg line. To pull off more complex animations like this,
we need your support on Patreon. So, please consider donating, every dollar
really makes a difference. Don’t forget to subscribe, see you next
time.

100 comments

  1. Hello, Indy and Team!
    I have a question for out of the trenches:
    What happened to the Russian and other prisoners of war, whose countries went out of the war?
    Thanks for the good work.

  2. I love this channel. Btw Im sure there's going to be a time when you basically cover all ww1. Are you going to expand to ww2? or talk different history?

  3. How was the Hindenburg line constructed in secret when the allies would have had reconnaissance aircraft? Surely they would have noticed something like this right? How could such a thing be overlooked?

  4. You might consider presenting a "special" episode on the development of the concept of "defense in depth", which was apparently initiated by the French in 1915. See, for example:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fritz_von_Loßberg
    "On the OHL staff Colonels Max Bauer and Bussche and Captains Geyer and Harbou liked the idea of defense in depth and discussed making it flexible, by permitting the garrison of the front line to retreat to join the main line of resistance if the front was breached."
    "Their thinking was stimulated by instructions captured from the French Fifth Army in May 1915 stipulating three lines of defense. The first line was manned by sentry groups, with listening posts in front. It was to be strongly built but lightly garrisoned. If attackers broke through they would face a second, main line of resistance, which included dugouts to accommodate all of the defenders of the first two lines. A third line incorporated shell-proof shelters for the reserves. The artillery was just behind it."
    See also: Timothy T. Lupfer (1981) "The dynamics of doctrine: The changes in German tactical doctrine during the First World War" ( http://usacac.army.mil/cac2/cgsc/carl/download/csipubs/lupfer.pdf )
    See also: Spencer Tucker, ed., World War I: Encyclopedia, volume 1, pp. 342-344. ( https://books.google.com/books?id=2YqjfHLyyj8C&pg=PA342#v=onepage&q&f=false )

    Also, consider a special on the development of infiltration tactics / storm troops, which were developed by (among others) the Russian General Aleksei Brusilov for the 1916 Brusilov offensive. ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aleksei_Brusilov ) Such tactics were eventually adopted by all of the combatants.

  5. Great Animation .. makes things much clear. I have a question, though. Correct me if I am wrong .. During the trench war can either of side bomb/shell the hell out of their opponent. I imagine rain of shells continuously for a day covering every inch of enemy's trench. Is that even possible? Were artilleries to weak to penetrate bunkers.

  6. "as the british army continues to expand" But isn't the army expanding in every country ? I mean France's army is probably expanding as well.

  7. If this was clearly Ludendorff's idea, why is it called the Hindeburg Line?
    (I'm guessing this was all due to politics)

  8. Hello Indy greetings from Turkey. Great channel. I have a question though. Can we really summarise Hindenburg Line was a sucess ? After all the effort to build that it was eventually broken through by Entante (mainly by Canadians and British I think ) in September 1918. It was not that impegnable.

  9. Curse of a Ludenddorf: Doing a great job with his superior taking most of the credit. Omnipresent in today's corporate world.

  10. Why they didn't build line in the beginning of war and play defence in western front and concentrate all efforts on Balkans and Russia? probable because Hindenburg was not chief of army staff at that time.

  11. I can imagine the irony of it. It is risky, we are going to withdraw. Usually you don't think of withdraws as risky but at this scale it sure is.

  12. The Hindenburg Line should be called the Ludendorff Line b/c it's Ludendorff's idea! Hindenburg's just a figurehead for German military leadership. he received too much credit for victory at Tannenburg when it was the planning devised by Ludendorff and Max Hoffman that ensured Germany's annihilation of the Russian Second Army.

  13. Hi gang, love the show, just a quick question. Is there any particular reason that this is known as the "Hindenburg Line" as opposed to the "Ludendorff Line?" Was it just because Hindenburg was the head man at the time, or did he have a bit more to do as an architect of the plan than implied?

  14. Good animation. That is a very effective defense in depth. As far as i know, that is widely taught in military academies all over. Much more effective than the Maginot Line- oh wait, the Germans went AROUND that!

  15. Ludendorff came up with a design for a defensive line that was remarkably similar to the Soviet defenses at the battle of Kursk in 1943.

  16. What I'd like to ask is if the Allies had attacked the Germans while they were pulling back to the Hindenburg Line, could you elaborate on how it could have been disasterous to the Germans? My logic would think that the Germans may have thought that an attack could have been possible or the new defenses would have been ready for absortion of an Allied attack (pre-fortified) and "ready to go". Not doubting….just unenlightened!

  17. Quick question: Did the soldiers ever 'frag' their own officers like they did during the f.e. Vietnam war? I mean, if I was ever inclined to 'frag a mofo' it would be the bastard sending me to my death in another pointless assault. I know soldiers did get creative at points to avoid getting slaughtered. Like the story of some allied soldiers who had been ignoring orders to go on raids. And, after command had found out and subsequently demanded proof of the raids, got hold of(maybe stole of traded) a coil of German wire so they could send bits of it to their officers as proof that they had been on a raid. That story always makes me smile for some reason. But I bet there were more incidents like that. Maybe even some more 'direct' approaches? I mean it wouldn't be difficult to just throw a grenade into the CO's bunker and claim it was a German raid or an accident..

  18. I got a somewhat strange question. Why would Entente advance to fight on the new front line? Why would they abandon their defensive positions to those that benefit the Germans more? I know that would create a huge tract of no man's land, but so what?

  19. To paraphrase Sun Tzu: A general who can advance without pride and retreat without shame is a treasure to the nation.

  20. Man, that was some sweet defenses with the perks that is not really that expensive.
    (At least if you compare to some big defenses systems, like the Atlantic Wall.)

  21. Ludendorff "a man of great vision and energy"? Indy surely you jest. Ludendorff is one of the great villains of Europe. He perpetuated and helped foment hate for Jews He refused to take any blame for Germany's failed campaign to take over Belgium and parts of France. Instead after the war he set about rewriting history and blamed the loss on Jews.

  22. In Operation Alberich the Germans destroyed anything of use to the Allies in the area from which they withdrew.They felled trees , poisoned wells and I read they left behind booby trapped pickelhauben in their dugouts.

  23. There is something I still don't get about this sistem, and it's the exact use of the first line of blockhouses. I take that they were expected to not hold the enemy on their own, since that was the purpose of the sistem as a whole and the blockhouses were pretty isolated, a mile away from any friendly positions if I understood correctly. So what happened to the soldiers manning them and their weapons when their positions were overwhelmed? Did they run away before it happened? Did they carry their guns with them? Were they ordered to bunker up in the blockhouse and resist no mater what? Were they consciously sacrificed just to soften up the enemy? How effective were they, apart from wrecking some havoc and destruccion on the early stages of the attack?

  24. As far as i know, this kind of defense in depth with the front line composed of nothing more than a screen of troops had been in use since 1916 and not the invention of any one man but a gradual evolution through trial and error of defensive warfare in the Western Front.

  25. Really amazing channel do hope you start covering some more stuff in more modern times like afghanistan, kosvo, balkan so on and so on.

  26. German soldiers , Allied soldiers , soldiers worldwide put so much Into fighting for their own countries under the worst conditions with little sleep or food. Finally a general who recognised these brave soldiers. So many others could have learned from him. Especially the French Generals.

  27. Do you guys think that this Hindenburg line could work in modern combat? Of course with the modern adjustments and advancements, taking acount modern artillery, weaponry, trucks and cars, and all that such.

  28. The first signs of sensibility. Where Britain and France decided to rely on tanks, Germany relied on defense in depth and stormtroopers. The doctrine used for the spring offensive is also very advanced for its time putting more in to local commander's decisions. Problem as it was in Schlieffen plan, slow flow of supplies.
    Won't be solved until the late 20s and 30s with motorization and specifically mechanization being more advanced. At least to a degree, WW1 muddy terrain is hard to go through even by today's standard.

  29. So, The German Empire had the Seigfried Line in WW1 and France had the Maginot Line in WW2? Next World War, another country needs a defensive line. Please make it happen.

  30. Very well explained video! What I’d like to see is a follow up video to address two points; was it successful and what was its place in the greater strategy? I believe the purpose of these defenses was to reduce the number of divisions required to defend the western front so a greater resources could be transferred to the east for a killing blow against Russia. So in this sense I believe that it was very successful but in the end it wasn’t enough to overcome the superior levels of manpower and resources of the allies, especially once the American resources came into play.

  31. i love the depth you went into this episode but was a little annoyed that you didn't go into how effective this new defensive line no im just assuming/hoping that your going to do another episode on the Hindenburg line and if so you can disregard my annoyance or if you have covered it already how effective it was during your week by week series 🙂

  32. raises a question on what was the end goal of germany at this point.

    I mean, their manpower was not enough to go for an offensive operation, so what the hell was the plan, they couldnt hold off forever

  33. Ludendorff plans were all for nothing.The Australians destroyed the offensive in its tracks causing Ludendorff to say it was Germany,s blackest day.

  34. There’s a great section in “Storm Of Steel” by Ernst Junger where he describes the German soldiers who were put in charge of a scorched earth policy for the land they left behind. He basically says they all went apeshit dressing up in woman’s cloths and getting hammered on stolen booze as they dismantled the towns and villages in their wake.

  35. Great video. Can you do one in the Allied responce to the Hindenburg line? As the line was miles behind the old ones How did the Allies dig their own trenches?

  36. The moment you said they left their lines I immediately thought of youjo senkai, thought they were going to leave a bunch of buried explosives and then blow them up when the enemies invaded the empty trench

  37. Your studies are very successfull and I like these.However,I have a question.What is your resources ? Could you share with me ?Because I am a history student at university and I have not enough resources about world war 1 and world war 2.

  38. I gotta thank Australian General John Monash who planned executed and commanded the breakthrough of the hindenburg line and won ww1.

  39. Imagine this is build early in the war…Or even in germany without entering belgium… Instead, russia and Italy is dealt with and AH doesnt lose so much… Imagine this : France is attacking Germany in a suicidal mission on someone who even didnt attack them and is just defending and pleading for peace in support of a fallen country that is in chaos because of a civil war. How much reverse this situation would be and France would be the "villain"

  40. This channel is by far the best educational / history site on the entire internet. It's informative, factually accurate, entertaining, and the production quality is top notch. Thank u for giving WW1 the attention it deserves.

  41. Whats strange in all this bullshit is that none of these guys learned about the FUTILITY of trench warfare from the American Civil War. ..

  42. 3:45 – 4:41

    You know, if you're going to rip sections from A World Undone nearly word for word, the least you could do is cite it as a source in the description.

    Edit: Actually, it’s the whole video pretty much.

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