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The German 1918 Offensives: A Case Study in the Operational Level of War

David T. Zabecki, (Routledge, 2006), $135.

In the midst of North American Treaty Organization military activity during the 1990s in the war-torn Balkans, an American general was widely quoted in the press as indicating that the bloodletting between Serbs and Bosnians was tribal. The general noted the center of gravity on both sides was in their hatred for each other. In reading the rest of the article, it was clear the journalist did not have the foggiest notion of what “center of gravity” meant in military terminology.

In The German 1918 Offensives, Maj. Gen. David T. Zabecki explains that and much more. He has placed a piece of battle history in the context of military theory and doctrine, much of which stems from the writings of Carl von Clausewitz. Clausewitz defined center of gravity as “the hub of all power and movement upon which everything depends.” To a graduate of any of the war colleges in the Western world and well-read military historians, the general’s remarks about the Balkan wars meant that destroying an army or capturing a key piece of terrain would not end the conflict. He was saying that the people of those countries would have to find a way to get along with each other and that NATO’s military forces were of limited utility.

His statement contradicted some politicians of that time, political leaders who were promising peace and a return home for NATO peacekeepers within a year. The politicians were wrong; the general was right. As of this writing, there are still NATO troops in the Balkans, preventing the inhabitants from slaughtering each other.

In addition to bringing light to military theory and doctrine, Zabecki has written the definitive history of five failed German offensives staged between March and July 1918, actions that, had any of them succeeded, might have brought about a different end to the Great War. This is the first study of these actions using key German records that had been presumed lost after the Potsdam archives were bombed in 1944.

Zabecki uses the perspective of the operational level of war to describe and analyze the offensives. Clausewitz described the operational level as “the use of engagements for the purpose of war,” between strategy and tactics. During World War I, German General Staff officers were highly familiar with the ideas of strategy and tactics, as were their counterparts in Allied countries; however, German officers had a better grasp of the employment of large units and factors relevant to the operational level: center of gravity, decisive points, and sequencing of combat actions.

The author provides an excellent description of the strategic setting and Berlin’s preparation for the five 1918 offensives. By using new artillery tactics (short, violent and devastating preparatory fires rather than standard lengthy preparation bombardments), the Germans could and did achieve a considerable degree of surprise in most of their 1918 offensives. By reorganizing their assault divisions, particularly within the infantry squads, they had achieved a small-unit fire and maneuver capability that greatly facilitated penetrating Allied defense positions. These and other innovations resulted in gaining breakthroughs on the Western Front, a line of entrenchments that had been mostly static for more than three years.

Zabecki makes a persuasive case that while well prepared tactically, the German leaders failed to choose wisely at the operational level. He accepts the German choice of concentrating the first offensive against the British Expeditionary Force, but argues that the Germans chose the wrong objectives and failed to adequately plan what to do once they achieved a breakthrough. Analyzing possible objectives for the initial attack, Zabecki points to the crucial importance of the rail network in the British sector and isolates its two key rail centers at Amiens and Hazebrouck. These two spots were dangerously close to the front, and if the Germans could have seized them, it would have seriously jeopardized the British ability to support their entire front. When Zabecki describes the actual German gains in the first offensive, it becomes clear that the Germans would likely have taken both of these rail centers—if only they had been designated as objectives.

The General Staff planned and executed the other four offensives in much the same way as the first. The five offensives were not sequenced, and all were largely independent of each other. The Germans had succeeded admirably at the tactical level but failed to adhere to the fundamental tenets of the operational level of war.

In examining Germany’s 1918 offensives, General Zabecki has provided professional soldiers, civilian military affairs analysts, and journalists reporting on combat operations a first-class primer on the operational level of war. The book will be especially valuable to American officers and analysts. While German and Russian military professionals have long studied combat at the operational level, U.S. military schools and colleges have only taken this seriously since the 1980s. Outside of recent official doctrinal publications, there is no substantial body of American military history literature on the operational level. This fine book, containing excellent maps, definitions of operational level terms, superb reasoning and crystal-clear writing, serves as the best example of how this type of analysis should be presented.


Originally published in the Winter 2007 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here