Ger­many’s fi­nal gam­ble

A cen­tury ago, the Ger­mans went on the at­tack in a bid to win the First World War be­fore Amer­ica brought its power to bear. The Spring Of­fen­sive spread ter­ror among Al­lied ranks – so why, asks Alexan­der Wat­son, did it end in dis­as­ter?

BBC History Magazine - - Contents - 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)

The Spring Of­fen­sive was Ger­many’s last bid to win the First World War. But why, asks Alexan­der Wat­son, was it a fail­ure?

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 wellor­gan­ised 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 Ger­manin­spired ‘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

The Ger­mans un­leashed a sud­den “gi­gan­tic roar of an­ni­hi­la­tion”

No ad­vance on this scale had been seen on the western front since 1914. Yet it was all worth­less

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-in­chief, 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.

Three Bri­tish sol­diers taken pris­oner in spring 1918. Such PoWs re­peat­edly ex­pressed their ab­so­lute con­fi­dence in the Bri­tish Army’s mar­tial abil­ity

LEFT: Our map shows Ger­man ter­ri­to­rial gains dur­ing the se­ries of at­tacks that made up the Spring Of­fen­sive, March– July 1918 BE­LOW: Amer­i­can troops march past rest­ing Bri­tish Tom­mies in France. By early 1918, the Ger­mans were acutely aware that...

Ger­man re­serves gather in St Quentin, north- east France. They would at­tack Al­lied troops reel­ing from the heav­i­est bom­bard­ment the world had ever known

Gen­eral Erich Lu­den­dorff be­lieved that restor­ing move­ment to the western front was the key to Ger­man vic­tory

This ( pos­si­bly staged) im­age shows Bri­tish ar­tillery in ac­tion at Haze­brouck, the tar­get of the sec­ond great as­sault of spring 1918. The Ger­mans would threaten this vi­tal rail hub, but never seize it

Ger­man troops plun­der a cap­tured sup­ply train. Their propen­sity to loot Al­lied pro­vi­sions slowed their army’s ad­vance on a num­ber of oc­ca­sions

Once fa­tigued Ger­man troops re­alised the of­fen­sive wasn’t de­liv­er­ing a quick vic­tory, their morale col­lapsed

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