This article was first published in the March 2018 issue of BBC History Magazine
On the night of 20–21 March 1918, anticipation, apprehension and hope hung over the lines in Picardy, France, where two great armies awaited an offensive expected to end nearly four years of war. On the German side, excitement was at fever pitch. Behind the front, a mighty force of 1.4 million men was arrayed. In the dark, 6,600 artillery pieces and 3,500 mortars were being pulled into position or undergoing final checks. The assault infantry of 32 divisions was quietly filing to jump-off points, ready to advance in the first wave.
British commanders, warned of the coming attack, felt supremely confident that they would halt it, but their men were less sure: “I could understand the feelings of prisoners of the 16th century who had been sentenced to have their heads chopped off at dawn,” fretted a veteran officer.
At last, at 4.40am precisely, the German guns opened up all along the 50-mile attack front, firing the heaviest bombardment the world had ever known. To one German storm troop officer in the front line, it was a sudden “gigantic roar of annihilation”. The earth trembled. Jumping onto the parapet, he and his men “looked with wonder at the wall of fire towering over the English lines”.
This Spring Offensive was Germany’s last chance to win the war. The remarkable strategic swings of 1917 had led General Erich Ludendorff, the German army’s First Quartermaster General and its de facto operational commander, to this desperate gamble. In April that year, Germany’s long-term prospects, already dimmed by years of gruelling attritional combat and hunger at home, had been doomed by the United States’ entry into hostilities.
The American menace
Across the Atlantic, a millions-strong army was in training. Its fresh soldiers could be expected to flood the western front in 1919, providing Britain and France overwhelming strength against Germany’s own weary troops. Yet hope remained. Revolution in the east, the collapse of the Russian army over the summer of 1917 and a Bolshevik coup in November opened a narrow window to avert this fate.
In December, an armistice ended the fighting on the eastern front and Ludendorff was able to transfer more than half a million soldiers. “All that mattered,” he recalled, “was to get together enough troops for an attack in the west.”
Planning for the great offensive, codenamed Operation Michael, was complete in January 1918. Ludendorff positioned three powerful armies against the British Army’s southernmost sectors either side of the Somme river. Under army group commander Crown Prince Rupprecht, the 17th Army, a force of 21 divisions, had the main task of breaking through British Third Army’s lines and then advancing north-west. Together with its southerly neighbour, the Second Army (19 divisions), it would roll up the British towards the Channel. Another royal, Crown Prince Wilhelm of Prussia, oversaw 18th Army, which was to attack the British Fifth Army further south along the Somme with 27 divisions. It had the subordinate role of protecting the main attack’s left flank.
Unusually, Ludendorff refused to set any final objectives. Drawing on his experience of the eastern front, he hoped the offensive’s shock and speed would paralyse the enemy command and break its troops’ cohesion and morale. Restoring movement to the battlefield was the key aim; where German troops went afterward was of lesser importance.
To this end, Ludendorff obsessed about how to break through the fortified front. This was no easy task, as the French and British failures of 1917 had shown. “Concentrated preparation by massed artillery,” he recognised, “was of utmost importance.” To maximise the opening bombardment’s impact, a seven-phase fire plan of unparalleled sophistication was developed.
Enemy headquarters and telephone exchanges, as well as defensive positions, were identified by aerial reconnaissance and would be wiped out, paralysing the opposing force’s command. The guns ranged on these targets early and unobtrusively. To compensate for shortages, Ludendorff divided his 191 divisions into basically equipped ‘trench divisions’, tasked with holding territory, and 56 elite ‘assault divisions’, which would spearhead the attacks and were allocated enough horses to guarantee mobility, the best weaponry and the youngest and fittest soldiers. Their infantry was given four weeks’ instruction in innovative infiltration tactics. Secrecy and surprise were paramount.
At 9.40am on 21 March, after five hours in which 1,160,000 shells had pummelled enemy lines, the German infantry charged forward through thick fog. In the north, the main attack stalled in front of the well-organised defences of the British Third Army. Further south, however, the 18th Army won a major success. Its opponent, the British Fifth Army, was weak, with only 12 divisions to guard a 42-mile front. Worse, it was badly deployed.
The British had just adopted a German-inspired ‘defence-in-depth’, in which their front was divided into a Rear Zone (mostly notional due to labour shortages), a Battle Zone, where the main resistance could develop at a distance from enemy artillery, and a Forward Zone garrisoned with outposts to slow any attack. However, the system was poorly understood. The Germans stressed flexibility and immediate counterattacks. But far too many Fifth Army troops were deployed in the Forward Zone in a chain of loosely linked redoubts and machinegun posts, with no arrangements made for rapid assistance. As the first day of the offensive demonstrated, this was a recipe for disaster. In the Forward and Battle Zones, recalled an officer of the Second London Regiment, the troops’ “sense of loneliness was acute”.
“All communication was cut at an early hour; and each garrison was left to fight its fight against odds entirely unsupported… Their trenches were blown in, the wire in front torn and twisted into uselessness, their leaders and comrades killed or wounded, the few survivors, blinded by the mist, stunned by the tremendous explosions, were suddenly confronted by lines of grey-clad figures.”
Hardly surprising, then, that most positions fell quickly. One-third of the Fifth Army’s infantry was lost in the first 90 minutes of the attack. Some units did hang on grimly. ‘A’ Company of the 2/2nd Londons defended Travecy village in the Fifth Army’s Forward Zone for a desperate day-and-a-half before surrendering. Stranded and surrounded, at one point bombed by their own side, 60 survivors expended all their 200 trench-mortar shells, 400 grenades and 18,000 rifle and machinegun rounds defending their position.
Wallowing in a wasteland
Determined to push forward, Ludendorff reinforced 18th Army’s success in the south. At first, this paid dividends. The Germans had targeted the British Army because they rated it as too tactically clumsy to survive fast-paced mobile warfare. Sure enough, its army and corps commanders, under intense pressure, soon lost control of the battle. Their troops, outmatched by the enemy’s ability to infiltrate between their positions, fell into helter-skelter retreat.
Yet on 23 March, just three days into the offensive, Ludendorff overreached. Assuming the British already defeated, he dissipated his force’s strength by ordering attacks northwest, west and south-west. This was a fateful error. The crucial rail hub at Amiens, through which half of all the British Army’s supplies passed, lay 40 miles ahead. If the Germans were to win the war, it was here they needed to concentrate their efforts. As a senior British general anxiously observed, it was the only place whose capture would “force the Allies to discuss terms of peace”.
Ludendorff’s blindness to operational objectives meant a priceless opportunity was missed. In the following days, the Germans wasted their strength pushing in three directions to destroy the British, prise them from their French allies and eliminate French reserves. They overran a huge area: by 5 April, when the offensive ended, 1,200 square miles had been captured. No advance on this scale had been seen on the western front since 1914.
Yet it was all worthless. The German armies wallowed in the wasteland devastated by the Somme battle in 1916, trailing grossly overstretched supply lines and with an intact enemy to their front. As for Amiens: after belatedly designating it an objective on the offensive’s sixth day, the Germans came within 7 miles. But promptly dispatched French reinforcements and determined British resistance saved the city.
Casualties had been extraordinarily heavy. 178,000 British and 34,000 French soldiers had been lost, nearly half of whom (90,000) were prisoners. Ominously for the Germans’ ability to continue offensive action, their 239,800 killed, missing and wounded included a particularly high proportion of veteran officers and elite assault troops.
Ludendorff continued to seek a decisive victory. On 9 April, he launched the ‘Georgette’ offensive in Flanders, to the north. The sector was crucial, for it guarded the Channel ports, and this time the assault targeted a valuable objective, the British Army’s second rail centre at Hazebrouck. The German attack force was smaller than in March, with 2,000 guns and 26 divisions, but it faced a weak defence of eight British and one demoralised Portuguese division. This latter broke on first contact. The German advance spread panic and inflicted a further 112,000 casualties on the Allies, prompting the usually unflappable British commander-in-chief, Sir Douglas Haig, to issue an emotional appeal to his men to stand fast for “the safety of our homes and the freedom of mankind”.
However, already the tide was turning. Shocked by the Germans’ near success in dividing their armies in March, the Allies had appointed a general-in-chief, Ferdinand Foch, better to co-ordinate their defence. American troops were being embarked at an accelerated rate, with 117,200 shipping for Europe in April – more than in February and March combined. Most important, at the front morale held firm. Among the British rank and file, “the will to beat the enemy” was, reassured their army’s postal censor, “as firm and definitely expressed as ever”. Prisoners under German interrogation criticised their commanders as incompetents but remained convinced of their own martial superiority. “In the English army,” reported one bemused intelligence officer, “the opinion is widespread that, under German leadership, English soldiers could conquer the whole world.”
Hope fizzles out
The Germans were now under considerable pressure. Ludendorff had learnt nothing. As in March, he failed to concentrate his forces, blowing any chance of taking Hazebrouck. After weeks of continuous combat, his men were tired: three-quarters of divisions engaged in ‘Georgette’ had already fought in ‘Michael’. Their infantry was depleted, and a shortage of horses impeded their mobility.
Most seriously, morale and discipline were shaken. Already during the March operations, troops stopping to plunder British depots for food and alcohol had delayed advances. As casualties mounted through April – the Germans lost 86,000 men – commanders started to suspect their soldiers had lost the heart to go forward. The chief of IX Reserve Corps, a formation deployed in ‘Georgette’, perceptively analysed his men’s mood. “They had too much hope that this great blow in March would end the war,” he observed. “Now the disappointment is here, and it is great. It is the main reason why even attacks well-prepared with artillery fizzle out as soon as our infantry goes beyond the heavily bombarded zone.”
The Germans’ final offensives in 1918 offered the ultimate display of their tactical prowess – and their strategic bankruptcy. After a month’s pause in operations, on 27 May 5,263 guns suddenly obliterated French defences on the Chemin des Dames, and 25 infantry divisions attacked. ‘Blücher’ – the offensive was named hubristically after the great Prussian general of Waterloo – was diversionary; Ludendorff merely sought to draw Allied forces south so he could try again for a big victory in Flanders. However, when his troops pushed up to 14 miles, achieving the furthest advance ever in a single day on the western front, the general could not resist expanding the operation. The result was predictable: another exposed salient was added to those created by the ‘Michael’ and ‘Georgette’ offensives.
Tanks on the attack
Subsequent attacks in June and mid-July failed to improve the position. By these operations’ end, the Germans had inflicted another 220,000 losses on the Allies and stood on the Marne river, just 40 miles from Paris. Yet they had lost the war.
On 18 July, two French armies suddenly counterattacked, deploying hundreds of tanks against which the Germans had no answer, and a rout ensued. This was the start of a relentless retreat that led directly to capitulation on 11 November 1918.
Did Ludendorff’s great gamble ever stand a chance of success? The German army’s official history argued that German forces simply lacked the strength to win a decisive victory. And, as their numerical advantage in the west in March 1918 rested on just 13 divisions, it had a point. Thanks to the arrival of 500,000 US troops, Allied combat strength overtook that of the Germans in mid-June.
Nevertheless, the Spring Offensive was dangerous. In April, Haig feared for Calais and the Germans came very close to capturing key rail hubs, whose loss would have paralysed the British Army. Improved Allied co-operation under Foch and the influx of fresh Americans helped thwart them.
But, at root, Ludendorff bore blame for the German failure. Through strategic myopia and refusal to set firm objectives, he squandered slim chances to force a decision. He also underestimated the defenders’ resilience. Though poorly led and pushed back, British soldiers kept fighting. In the end, German troops folded first. Tired, despondent and defeated, facing unbeatable numbers and under constant attack, hundreds of thousands would surrender from the summer, bringing the war to its now inevitable conclusion.
Alexander Watson is professor of history at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is the author of the Wolfson History Prize-winning book, Ring of Steel. Germany and Austria-Hungary at War, 1914-1918 (Allen Lane, 2014).
For more on the First World War, listen to the drama series Home Front, which is currently airing on Radio 4.