Early in 1918 the German High Command decided on a plan for a major campaign to win World War I by driving the British Expeditionary Force off the Continent and shattering the Allied coalition before fresh American troops arrived. But the final, ambitious offensive in the campaign, Operation Hagen, was never executed.
By the end of 1917 time was not on Germany’s side. The Allies had tried and failed for more than three years to defeat the German army on the Western Front. Both sides were exhausted, their resources almost completely expended. The Germans had finally defeated Russia in the east, but the Allies’ economic blockade was slowly strangling Germany. Even worse, the United States had just entered the war in response to Germany’s unrestricted submarine warfare campaign, a ham-fisted attempt to break the Allied blockade. Germany was almost out of manpower, while the United States was gearing up to send some two million fresh—albeit inexperienced and marginally trained—troops into the fight. Time was running out for Germany to seize the strategic initiative.
On November 11, 1917—exactly one year before Germany would be forced to surrender—the German High Command convened a planning meeting at Mons, Belgium, chaired by General Erich Ludendorff, first quartermaster general of the army. The chiefs of staff of the various army groups and their operations officers had developed a set of attack options. On January 21, 1918, the German leadership met again, and Ludendorff chose the option called Operation Michael, a massive attack against the southern half of the British sector, designed to separate the British and French and then roll up the British Expeditionary Force from the south.
Launched on March 21, 1918, Operation Michael produced stunning battlefield gains, with the Germans taking far more ground than in any prior Western Front battle. The reason for the huge German advances was a combination of new infantry and artillery tactics they had developed earlier against the Russians on the Eastern Front. Their new infantry infiltration tactics—also known as stormtroop tactics—emphasized reinforcing only success, not failure, and bypassing and isolating enemy defensive strongpoints. New artillery tactics, pioneered by Germany’s artillery genius, Colonel Georg Bruchmüller, were designed only to neutralize the enemy’s defenses rather than completely destroy them, as artillery fire on all sides had attempted to do throughout the war. Working in close coordination with the advancing infantry, the artillery suppressed and neutralized the enemy positions just long enough for the infantry to overwhelm them. It was a devastatingly effective revolution in combined-arms tactics that has influenced the way armies have fought ever since.
Despite German tactical virtuosity, Operation Michael was an operational and strategic failure. The British Fifth Army was severely mauled and the Allies suffered high casualties—254,740 in slightly less than two weeks of fighting. But the Germans suffered 239,000 casualties, losses they could not replace as easily as could the Allies in the cold-blooded calculus of World War I. The Germans failed to achieve the decisive breakthrough they so desperately sought. Instead, they were left holding a huge salient of territory that required more manpower and resources to secure and defend.
As soon as it became obvious that Michael was a failure, Ludendorff concluded that the Germans had to hit the British again, immediately and hard. He resurrected Operation Georg, one of the options developed earlier. But the Germans had expended so many resources in Operation Michael that they could not launch Georg without an extended build-up. Unwilling to wait, Ludendorff ordered an immediate but scaled-down attack dubbed Operation Georgette (perhaps even Ludendorff had a sense of humor). Launched on April 9, 1918, against the north-central sector of the British line just south of Ypres, Georgette was too small to achieve a breakthrough, although it did achieve impressive tactical gains. Again, both sides suffered high casualties, with the Germans losing 86,000 troops and the British and French losing 82,040 and 30,000 respectively.
The Germans were now in a worse position than before the attacks. Both Operations Michael and Georgette had failed to push the British Expeditionary Force off the Continent and produce the subsequent collapse of the French army that Ludendorff sought. The German High Command, however, remained convinced that the British had to be eliminated before too many U.S. troops arrived. The key operational problem for the high command at that point was the large contingent of French reserves that had moved north of the Somme River to reinforce the British in case of another German offensive in that sector. The Germans had to plan and prepare a secret build-up for a renewed attack against the British while launching a strong diversionary attack in the French sector. By appearing to threaten Paris or some other vital French position, the Germans hoped to draw the French reserves away from the British rear and back south of Amiens and the Somme River.
In mid-April, even before Operation Georgette ended, the planners at Army Group Crown Prince Rupprecht—commanded by the Bavarian prince, Rupprecht II, and positioned north to south as Fourth, Sixth, Seventeenth, and Second Armies—started developing options for a renewed offensive against the British. The first option was a resumption of the northern half of Operation Michael, from the Somme to Arras, toward Doullens. Called Neu-Michael (New Michael), it included a supporting attack just to the north called Hubertus. The second major option was a renewed attack in Flanders by elements of the Fourth and Sixth Armies, which had conducted Operation Georgette. Called Neu-Georg, its initial objective would be the line from Strazeele to the northern edge of Ypres; and the final objective would be the line from Godewaersvelde to Poperinghe.
Early in May the high command changed the names of the planning operations. Neu-Michael became Wilhelm; Hubertus became Fuchsjagd (Fox Hunt); and Neu-Georg was designated Hagen.
The preliminary plans for Hagen and Wilhelm were complete by May 17, with Fuchsjagd as a follow-up to Wilhelm. Three days later Ludendorff made the final decision that Hagen would be the main attack. Open preparations for the Wilhelm attack would continue as a deception operation. But the high command also informed Army Group Crown Prince Rupprecht that the offensive could not be launched before late June. In the meantime, Army Group German Crown Prince—commanded by the kaiser’s son, Crown Prince Wilhelm, and positioned north to south as Eighteenth, Seventh, First, Third Armies—would conduct Operation Blücher in the French sector. That attack would proceed from the Chemin des Dames ridgeline south to the Vesle River, which runs through Reims, with the intent of making the French think Paris was under threat, thus forcing them to redeploy their reserves from the north.
Launched on May 27, 1918, the Blücher attack achieved initial overwhelming success. In fact, it was too successful: Ludendorff was seduced by what appeared to be the opportunity for a quick and easy victory. He continued pushing the attack until lead units of the German Seventh Army reached the Marne River. In the process, however, the high command withdrew five of the attack divisions earmarked for Hagen and committed them to the Blücher fight.
Operation Blücher resulted in more territorial gains than even Operation Michael, but again tactical success created major operational problems. The Seventh Army now held a huge salient sliced by the Marne with exposed flanks, and its front line had expanded from 37 to 62 miles. Worse, the Germans had no functional rail lines into the new salient, making it difficult to supply their forces. Nor had General Ferdinand Foch, the newly appointed Allied generalissimo, been deceived by the attack. The French reserves north of the Somme remained in position. The Germans, therefore, had no other option than to continue attacking in the south to try to draw away some of the northern French reserves.
Yet another German offensive, Operation Gneisenau, followed on June 9, 1918, four days after Blücher ended. But Gneisenau, too, had been cob- bled together too quickly and lacked sufficient combat power. The Germans terminated Gneisenau after only six days, having failed to achieve any operationally significant results. There was also an ominous difference between Gneisenau and its three predecessors: For the first time a Ludendorff offensive had failed to make notable tactical gains. The Allies were beginning to understand the new German offensive tactics and to develop more effective methods of defense.
With these failures, the German High Command was forced to postpone Operation Hagen to at least July 20. But even before the end of Gneisenau, Prince Rupprecht wrote in his war diary that he did not believe Hagen would produce the operational results necessary for strategic victory. “Everything,” he wrote, “depends on how many troops the Americans will be able to transport to Europe.”
The overarching problem for the Germans was still the strong French reserves north of the Somme in the general vicinity of Ypres; it totaled almost 200,000 men in 15 divisions and 12 heavy artillery groups. In Rupprecht’s army group the immediate challenge was to reconstitute and retrain the attack divisions Ludendorff had squandered during Blücher. Crown Prince Wilhelm’s army group was in an even more desperate situation, with its forces in the newly acquired Marne salient slowly strangling logistically. The single rail line into that sector was inoperative because the French held the key terminals at either end of the line—Reims in the east and Compiègne in the west. With no alternative, the Germans had to attack again in the Marne sector and Operation Hagen was once again postponed—this time until August 1.
While Wilhelm’s army group was planning and executing Operations Blücher and Gneisenau in the south, the staffs at the high command and Rupprecht’s army group refined the Hagen attack plan, training forces and marshaling ammunition and equipment. The main objective of Hagen was to capture the dominating high ground of the Flanders hills and cut off the Ypres salient, which would be a devastating psychological loss to the British. But during this planning process, Hagen grew from its original 25 divisions on a 25-mile front to 36 divisions on a 30-mile front.
The final version of the plan called for an attack by five corps of the Fourth Army on the right, supported by two corps of the Sixth Army on the left. Twenty-six attack divisions and 13 trench divisions, some 350,000 troops, would attack on a 29-mile sector. They would be supported by 2,592 field guns and 1,037 heavy guns, plus 40 ground-attack squadrons and 45 fighter squadrons. Directly opposing them would be 21 front-line divisions and 13 reserve divisions of the Belgian army and Second British Army, which now included two U.S. divisions in training. This correlation of forces was far from optimal for the Germans, and the potential intervention of the French reserve divisions was never factored into any of the calculations.
On July 1 Rupprecht’s army group issued an operations order detailing the missions and objectives of the seven attacking corps. The main effort fell to the III Bavarian Corps on the southern flank of Fourth Army, supported by the Guards Reserve Corps on the Bavarian right. As in all the other 1918 German offensives, artillery support would be a key to the success of Operation Hagen. Ludendorff entrusted his artillery genius, Bruchmüller, with the planning of the Sixth Army artillery preparation. But the German army in 1918 did not have enough artillery, aviation, and engineer units to support simultaneous diversionary attacks in the south and the main attack in the north. After the initial diversionary attack, those assets would have to be shifted rapidly to the north to support Hagen.
On July 12 Rupprecht’s army group issued the plan for the transfer of the critical forces from Wilhelm’s army group after the start of Operation Marneschutz-Reims, the planned attack in the Marne region. All assets would move under the control of a special system designated “Y-Transport.” “Y-day” was the start of the Marneschutz-Reims attack. On order from the high command the transfer would commence on the evening of Y+1 and be completed by Y+12. The Hagen attack would start five days later.
On July 15, 1918—Y-day—the Germans launched the fifth of their great Ludendorff offensives. Operation Marneschutz-Reims had two objectives: to capture Reims, which would open up the vital rail line into the salient; and by feinting toward Paris to try once more to bluff the French into pulling their reserves out of Flanders. Despite the massive German deception plan and the attack across the Marne River with six divisions in the vicinity of Château-Thierry, all the German operations plans and attack orders show that they never intended to attack Paris. The main effort of Marneschutz-Reims was on the left flank of the Seventh Army, which was supposed to envelop Reims from the west, while the First Army attacked to envelop the city from the east. The German deception operation was so effective that to this day far too many history books proclaim that the Germans intended to capture Paris in July 1918.
When the Germans attacked on July 15, the French government panicked and began preparations to evacuate the capital. Even the commander in chief of the French army, General Philippe Pétain, believed Paris was threatened. But Allied commander Foch immediately recognized Marneschutz-Reims for what it was, a desperate last-ditch bluff. He refused to react and ordered Pétain to continue preparations for the counterattack into the German Marne salient that the Allies had long been planning to launch on July 18. Once again, Foch outgeneraled Ludendorff.
By the end of the day on July 15 the German High Command realized that Operation Marneschutz-Reims was a complete failure. The French reserve units were not budging from Flanders, and the Germans would not be able to take Reims. For the next two days the German Seventh Army continued the fight, mainly to extricate the forces by then trapped on the south bank of the Marne. Ludendorff, however, was still determined to press ahead with Operation Hagen, despite the fact that the French reserves had not moved and the defenders would outnumber the attackers; it was a disastrous decision.
The Y-Transport system of transfers started on schedule, and the heavy artillery units the Germans desperately needed in the Marne fight started to move north. On July 18 Ludendorff went to Rupprecht’s headquarters in Tournai to oversee the final preparations for Hagen. He opened the planning conference by dismissing the rapidly accumulating intelligence that indicated the French were massing for a counterattack in the south:
Before we start our discussions on Operation Hagen, I want to quell any rumors that the French have major reserves in the Villers Cotterêts Forest. [The German High Command] has a reliable intelligence system. The enemy cannot possibly have combat-ready reserves available. We know the casualty rates and decreases in strength in the French and British units. [We] can state categorically that any such rumors are unfounded.
Almost as soon as he finished those remarks, contrary reports started to come in. At 5:35 a.m. the French Tenth Army under General Charles Mangin launched a surprise attack, without artillery preparation, against the right flank of the German Seventh Army. A few hours later the French Sixth Army joined the attack near the southern extreme of the Marne bulge. The Germans were caught completely by surprise.
Ludendorff ended the Hagen meeting and immediately returned to the headquarters of the high command “in the greatest state of nervous tension.” Arriving about 2 p.m., he was met at the Avesnes station by the chief of the German General Staff, Paul von Hindenburg, who briefed him on the overall situation. At 2:30 the high command ordered Rupprecht’s army group to deploy immediately two of the Hagen attack divisions to Wilhelm’s army group. Within minutes the high command issued an order halting most of the Y-transports.
Although the high command kept the heavy artillery and the trench mortars moving for the time being, it was clear then that the Allied counterattack would have severe repercussions for Hagen. Crown Prince Rupprecht wrote in his diary: “There is no doubt that we have passed the zenith of our success. Even if we take some territory in Flanders, it will be of no significance.” But in a phone conversation that night, Ludendorff told Rupprecht’s chief of staff that the high command hoped to send the Hagen attack divisions back north as soon as the situation stabilized in the Seventh Army sector. Ludendorff was clinging desperately to the belief that the Germans could still launch Hagen.
By the morning of July 19 the Seventh Army was fighting for its life in the Marne salient, while the high command was still looking for a way to salvage Hagen—even though it had already ordered Rupprecht’s army group to transfer four of the Hagen attack divisions immediately to Wilhelm’s army group. Later that day the high command stopped the transfer of the heavy artillery and heavy trench mortars to the north. Ludendorff then asked Rupprecht’s army group to look at the possibility of reducing the size and scope of the Hagen attack.
Rupprecht’s staff responded that the attack was still possible with the army group’s remaining available forces if the operation’s objective was limited to breaking through toward Poperinghe-Cassel and then pushing back the north wing of the British line south of Dunkirk. The attack in the sector north of Ypres, however, was no longer possible. This revised plan now had 33 divisions attacking on a 25-mile front, but the Germans were grasping at straws.
On July 20 the French Fifth and Ninth Armies joined the Allied counteroffensive, attacking the eastern flank of Wilhelm’s Seventh Army’s Marne salient. That same day Rupprecht’s army group sent the high command a message recommending the postponement of Hagen by “a few days.” The staff still recommended going ahead with an even more drastically scaleddown version of Hagen. Later that afternoon Ludendorff told Rupprecht’s army group to transfer two more Hagen attack divisions to the beleaguered Seventh Army.
By the end of July 20 seven Hagen attack divisions had been withdrawn from Rupprecht’s army group to reinforce Wilhelm’s, which was slowly being pushed back up into the salient it had fought so hard to establish during Operation Blücher. That evening Ludendorff finally canceled Hagen and ordered Rupprecht’s army group to stand on the defensive. His order did, however, leave an opening to resurrect Hagen if the situation improved.
Ludendorff just could not let go of Hagen. Despite the order of July 20, various German headquarters continued to discuss some sort of Klein-Hagen (Small Hagen) option, with the objective being the Flanders hills of Scherpenberg, Mount Rouge, and Mount Noir. Meanwhile in the Marne sector, by August 6 the Allies had methodically pushed the Germans back behind the Chemin des Dames, to their original starting line for Operation Blücher. Two days later the British launched their surprise offensive at Amiens. August 8, 1918, became known as the “Black Day of the German Army.” World War I had less than 100 days left to run.
Could Hagen have succeeded? Any objective analysis of the plan, the forces and resources available, and the terrain can only lead to a resounding “No.” As Ludendorff’s principal operations officer, Lieutenant Colonel Georg Wetzell, accurately pointed out in an operational assessment he wrote on June 12, none of the conditions of the previous tactical successes were then present. Surprise was unlikely. The British, following Operations Michael and Georgette, had almost three months to reconstitute their units and strengthen their defenses. The Allied reserves were well positioned and concentrated. Hagen also would have faced two more difficulties that had contributed to the failure of Operation Marneschutz-Reims: The German army was burned out and stretched to the breaking point by July 1918, and the Allies finally understood and were developing countermeasures for the new German infantry and artillery offensive tactics.
Hagen was designed as a force-on-force battle. Its objective was the defeat of the British Second Army and the Belgian army. Beyond that, there was no clearly identified operational end-state. As early as the start of May, Rupprecht’s planners admitted, “It is very probable that Neu-Georg [Hagen] will merely constitute a new blow for the British and will create a salient of greater or lesser dimension in the direction of Poperinghe-Cassel.” But then the longer-term results of the operation were couched in vague political and pseudopsychological terms.
One of the recurring patterns of the 1918 German offensives was their tendency to expand rather than concentrate as the plans developed. Hagen was no different. The original plan called for an attack by 25 divisions under the control of one army on a 15-mile front. By July 14 the Fourth Army’s attack zone had increased from 15 to 23 miles and the entire operation had expanded to 39 divisions controlled by two armies on a 29-mile front. In early May the operations planners at the high command had expressed concern about the ability of the attacking divisions to reach their initial objectives six miles deep in a single bound. But by July 1 the plan required the III Bavarian Corps to reach Cassel also in a single bound, a depth of 10 miles. What was really not necessary in the original plan was the attack north of Ypres. As the Hagen plan was scaled back after July 18 in an attempt to save the operation, that was the first element to drop out.
What real alternatives did the Germans have at that point? Many of the German commanders and planners approached the operations following Blücher with a deep sense of foreboding. The two principal army group commanders and their respective chiefs of staff were among the most pessimistic. Crown Prince Rupprecht and his chief of staff Hermann von Kuhl and Crown Prince Wilhelm and his chief of staff Friedrich von der Schulenburg all believed that Hagen was almost impossible. In his memoirs Crown Prince Wilhelm later wrote, “In our opinion, the planned Marneschutz-Reims offensive constituted, under compulsion of the dynamic law, the last great offensive effort of which we were capable.”
Even Ludendorff eventually came to see that Hagen would not be the war-winning “silver bullet” he so desperately sought. As early as July 2 the high command ordered Wilhelm’s army group to plan a follow-on operation to be designated Operation Kurfürst. The two planning scenarios to be war-gamed were a renewed attack toward Amiens, or an attack toward Paris—a serious thrust this time and not just a feint. The projected date was mid-September and the initial force estimate was 50 divisions. Rupprecht wrote in his diary: “There won’t be that many forces for that attack. This offensive is only on paper.”
The staff officers and operations planners at the high command seemed to be living increasingly in a dream world after the failure of Operation Blücher. If the Hagen plan was fundamentally unrealistic, the Kurfürst plan was a pipe dream. Just where would the German army come up with 50 divisions after Marneschutz-Reims, let alone after Hagen? One is tempted here to draw parallels between the state of mind at the high command in July 1918 and the state of mind in Adolf Hitler’s bunker in April 1945, with the führer moving phantom divisions around on his map board.
Major General David T. Zabecki (U.S. Army, ret.) is the chief military historian for the Weider History Group. He holds a doctorate in military history from Britain’s Royal Military College of Science and has taught at the U.S. Naval Academy. He is the editor of the encyclopedia Germany at War: 400 Years of Military History, published this year by ABC-CLIO.
Originally published in the January 2015 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.