Overshadowed by the tragedies at Verdun and the Somme, the Germans‘ 1918 Spring Offensive was nevertheless an apocalyptic storm that would herald Imperial Germany’s darkest hour.
IN MARCH 21, 1918, WIND AND RAIN RAKED ACROSS THE DESOLATE, CRATER-SCARRED FIELDS of northern France. Then, as day edged into night, the storm subsided and a fog began to creep in, covering the land. The early hours of the first day of spring were, as warfare goes, eerily quiet. “There was,” recalled British Minister of Munitions Winston Churchill, who was at the front at the time, “a rumble of artillery fire, mostly distant, and the thudding explosions of aeroplane raids. And then,” Churchill continued, “exactly as a pianist runs his hands across a keyboard from the treble to bass, there rose in less than one minute the most tremendous cannonade I shall ever hear. It swept around us in a wide curve of red flame….”
Churchill was present at the opening fury of the Kaiserschlacht–the Kaiser’s Battle. It was to be imperial Germany’s last, desperate bid to win the Great War and the Allies’ greatest crisis since the Battle of the Marne in 1914. Before it was over, the Allied lines had been pushed back up to 40 miles, new tactics had revolutionized warfare, command structures had changed, and tens of thousands of men had been killed, wounded, or made prisoner. Its scale was huge, its speed of advance un precedented, its destructive force immense. It was, said Ernst Jünger, a German soldier who participated, “The final battle…[in which] the destiny of the peoples was to be decided….” But as 1918 opened, Germany’s position in Europe had seemed virtually unassailable. To some it appeared that it might even win the war. Kaiser Wilhelm II’s armies occupied virtually all of Belgium and a huge part of northern France. No enemy soldier tread on German soil. The Central Powers’ armies had knocked Romania and Serbia out of the war. Food was pouring in from the captured fields of Poland and the Ukraine. And the war in the East appeared to be almost over. In addition, Germany’s enemies were still recovering from mistakes and failures made in 1917. The British army had nearly bled itself to death in the sucking mud of the disastrous Passchendaele offensive, the French were still reorganizing after mutinies had swept through their ranks in the wake of the futile Nivelle offensive, and the Italian army was reeling in disorder after the bloodletting at Caporetto. Indeed, since the conflict had begun, every Allied attempt at breaking through the German lines had ended in costly failure.
Although the Allied naval blockade was causing some short ages, particularly in raw materials, the German soldier’s morale remained high, and he put his faith in good equipment, unassailable positions, and for the most part, the intelligent leadership of his generals.
For those Germans who could look ahead, however, the future did not appear so full of promise. General Erich Ludendorff was one of those who saw trouble in the future. Arrogant, creative, energetic, and publicity-loving, the 53-year- old Ludendorff had ridden to the top of the German high command through his successful partnership with Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg. Together, this duo had repeatedly defeated Czar Nicholas II’s numerically superior forces and had removed the Russian menace from Germany’s rear. Their victories were so important that the two became Germany’s de facto rulers. Through contacts with industrial heads and influential conservatives, Ludendorff and Hindenburg had transformed Germany, turning it almost completely into a war machine-socially, politically, and economically. By 1917, they wielded more power than the kaiser himself.
But power did not bring peace of mind. Ludendorff’s chief worry was America’s entry into the war and the prospect of mil lions of fresh U.S. troops relieving embattled Allied armies. Indeed, the first American divisions had already landed. Back home in Germany, shortages caused by the Allied blockade and war weariness were beginning to affect the civilian population’s willingness to keep sacrificing their sons for a cause that seemed endless. There had even been large-scale anti-war strikes. In addition, Germany was running out of men. So desperate had the kaiser ‘s army become for replacements that now even industrial workers were being called up. Ludendorff needed a grand and dramatic act to secure victory quickly.
The defeat of Russia in late 1917 provided him with the opportunity he had been looking for. With Russia out of the war, Germany could transfer divisions from east to west. Utilizing an excellent rail system and interior lines, Ludendorff was able to increase his forces in the West to 192 divisions. A hard, massive blow with these troops, he reckoned, would shatter his enemies’ armies before the Americans arrived in sufficient numbers to alter the situation. With luck, the war would be over by summer and a victorious Germany could dictate the terms of the peace.
In November 1917 at a conference at Mons, Ludendorff put forth his plan for Kaiserschlacht. It was given the code name Operation Michael–although many Germans simply called it “The Great Battle.” Ludendorff chose the area around Saint Quentin as the most promising site for an attack. Near the joint between the French and British armies, it was a guaranteed weak point, and rupturing the line there would threaten the Allied communications and supply base at Amiens.
The attack that Ludendorff envisioned would be carried out on a 50-mile front stretching from Arras in the north to Barisis in the south. General Oskar von Hutier’s Eighteenth Army was to break through the British lines along a 24-mile front, reach the British troops at the Somme, and then prevent the French from coming north to assist. Farther north, the Seventeenth Army, under General Otto von Below, and the Second Army, under General Georg von der Marwitz, were tasked with striking near Arras, wheeling northward, and pinning the British against the English Channel. Once the British had been neutralized, the Germans could concentrate on driving the French all the way to Paris. Operation Michael, however, was just one part of a larger plan that encompassed a series of five battles. Stretching from March to July, these blows were intended to keep the Allies off balance, seize the initiative on the Western Front and punch enough deep holes in the Allied lines to create breakthroughs that would lead to the destruction of the British and French forces. For such an audacious plan to succeed, Ludendorff realized that the old way of at tempting a breakthrough–a long artillery barrage followed by a massed infantry assault–would be insufficient. A new method of attack was required if the Germans were to secure the tactical surprise so necessary to victory.
Ludendorffs plan called for a fluid, flexible offensive, like an onrush of water sweeping irresistibly forward, swirling past large obstacles to gain territory and maintain initiative. His orders emphasized striking with overwhelming force at the enemy’s weakest sectors; strong points could be dealt with later. Tactics superseded strategy. “We chop a hole,” said Ludendorff, “the rest follows.”
To chop this hole, the general brought in Colonel Georg “Durchbruch” (“Break through”) Bruchmüller, an innovative artillery tactician. Instead of ranging guns when they were at the front, and thus let ting the enemy know that something was happening, Bruchmüller had his artillery pre-registered when it was well behind the lines, calibrating each gun’s ballistics to meteorological conditions. The attack would open with a short, intense bombardment. Then the Allies gun emplacements, headquarters, and communications were to be shelled as well as specific pre located targets. Bruchmüller would also use large quantities of gas in his bombardments, immobilizing and panicking enemy troops. Ingeniously, two types of gas were used. First, lachrymators, such as tear gas, were fired. This would irritate the eyes of the enemy and force them to rip off their gas masks. Deadly phosgene and chlorine gases would then finish off the unprotected men. The artillery would lay down a precisely timed creeping barrage to screen advancing German infantry while at the same time stunning or killing Allied defenders who had escaped the effects of the gas attack. For Operation Michael, 6,473 medium and heavy guns and 3,532 mortars were concentrated behind the German lines near the point of attack.
The luftstreitskrafte, the German air service, was also to play an important role. Special squadrons, flying rugged two-seater Hannover CL.IIIs or Halberstadt CL.IIs, were organized into Schlachtstaffeln (battle squadrons) and instructed to provide infantry support. Meanwhile, bomber squadrons would hit Allied supply dumps, airfields, communication centers, and ports while fighters roamed the skies for enemy aircraft. Forty five percent of the air service’s fighters were assigned to the offensive, along with almost a third of its artillery spotters and half of its bomber force.
German troops involved in the attack were given a three-week training course in rapid-advanced infiltration tactics. The spearhead troops–called Stosstruppen (storm troopers)–young, battle hardened, and tough. Their job was to advance behind a creeping artillery barrage, armed with submachine guns, rifles, flamethrowers, light mortars and bags of hand grenades. Instead of slowly moving across open ground, storm troopers were instructed to use the contours of the terrain and rush forward in small groups. Command decisions were to be made by officers on the spot, not by some general ensconced miles from the action. Hard pockets of resistance were to be left for infantry units following behind the storm troopers. To add surprise to the shock of the attack, troops would be brought to the front lines at midnight, with the second wave a mile behind them and the reserves moving forward as well. All troops were to be on hand to join the fight quickly.
Training was hard, realistic, and thorough. Storm troopers studied aerial photographs of the areas they were to attack and even had maps sewn to their tunics. They practiced rapid, long-distance marches. To further inspire the men, officers told them that Operation Michael was the attack that could win the war, and that Allied soldiers were starved of rations and supplies because of Germany’s U-boat campaign. The troops were confident, believing that the end was near.
In order to ensure the vital element of surprise, the artillery was brought into position just a few days before the attack. Storm troop and infantry units were marched or trucked in under cover of darkness. As a final security measure, many of the troops did not know where they would begin their attack. Air force squadrons were transported by train, truck, and even horse-drawn wagons to preselected airfields, where they hurriedly set up canvas hangers and assembled their airplanes. Raids and ruses carried out against the French lines to the south drew increasing numbers of poilus away from the British positions. On the eve of the battle, the kaiser himself arrived at Ludendorffs advanced headquarters at Avesnes. The great engine of destruction was now poised to strike.
Across the lines from Ludendorffs storm troopers, the men of the British Fifth Army were huddling in their trenches. Their commander, General Sir Herbert Gough, knew that General von Hutier was opposite him, and despite German deception efforts, believed an attack was in the offing. An arrogant and dashing former cavalry officer, Gough had earned the nickname “Thruster” because of his tenacity in a fight. He had taken over the Fifth Army during the 1917 Somme offensive and built up a reputation as a hard fighter but a poor administrator.
Knowing that the defeat of Russia meant the Germans could now turn their full attention to breaking the stalemate in the West, the British resolved to strengthen their positions based on the German model of a deep, multilayered defense system. No longer a single continually held line, the new British defensive positions consisted of a forward area of fortified dugouts and machine-gun nests, a battle zone where the attacker was to be decimated by artillery fire and the main concentration of infantry, and a secondary battle zone where Germans who had broken through the first defenses could be contained and then eliminated.
Gough’s army, however, had not been provided with enough men to complete these sophisticated defenses. Instead, thousands of workmen were toiling miles behind the front, building railway lines and roads to the channel ports.
Thus, Gough’s defenses were unfinished at just the moment that the Germans were about to launch their great attack. Although the forward lines had been completed, the second and third were still insufficient. A further oversight was that no plans had been developed for the conduct of an orderly withdrawal to the channel ports should that become necessary.
To make matters worse, Gough’s forces had taken control of 25 miles of the front line from the French. This was the result of an agreement between Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, commander of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), and French Commander in Chief General Henri Pétain. By the time of the German attack, Gough’s thinly stretched divisions had to face the might of two German armies.
Gough’s unenviable position was in part due to decisions made by his commander, Haig. Although a fine military technician, Haig was a stubborn, inarticulate man, insensitive to the sufferings of others. A mediocre and uninspired student at Staff College, he rose to prominence largely through his marriage to a maid of honor to the royal family and through political connections. After disastrous losses of men and materiel in the Somme and Passchendaele battles, Haig’s relations with the government in London had deteriorated. By 1918, Prime Minister David Lloyd George had decided to hold back reserves from the army because he feared that Haig would simply throw away more lives in another senseless battle.
Lloyd George attempted to outmaneuver Haig by creating a body above him, the Supreme War Council, that would control the flow of all Allied reserves and thus limit Haig’s freedom of action. A skilled political infighter, Haig countered Lloyd George by refusing to add seven divisions to the pool of reserves. The commander was determined to keep his hands firmly on British reserves. Fearful that the Germans might attack to the north around Arras, Haig concentrated his forces there.
In order to both protect his southern lines and circumvent the council, Haig worked out a plan with Petain stipulating that the French would support the British with up to six divisions in case of a massive German attack. Petain, for his part, feared that the blow would come in the Compiegne sector, and his own strategy featured a fighting withdrawal to protect Paris.
Petain had long and bitter experience fighting the Germans. A cautious but thorough general, his motto was “firepower kills,” and he was averse to sending men to face machine guns and shellfire. As commanding general during the final stages of the Battle of Verdun, he had uttered the famous rallying cry “Ils ne passeront pas!“ (“They shall not pass!”) and brilliantly organized a 24-hour supply train along “the Sacred Way” to keep the French armies around Verdun fighting. When he resisted mounting an offensive across Verdun’s strategically useless ground, Petain was replaced as commander. But he was recalled when elements of the French army mutinied. Petain’s compassion for the plight of the poilu earned him the respect and love of his troops. His strength was in defensive operations, and he relied heavily on artillery to keep the enemy at bay. A dogged fighter, Petain was prone to pessimism, although he would have called it realism.
As spring approached, Allied intelligence obtained quite specific information as to the coming attack. On March 7, the French were aware of German troop movements, and on the 12th they noticed that the Germans had changed their telegraph codes, as was normally done prior to an assault. German soldiers captured in trench raids even gave the exact date of the attack. Unfortunately, the information came too late, and all Gough could do was to inform his men of the impending assault and order them to brace themselves for the onslaught.
At about 4:40 a.m. on March 22, the German bombardment exploded with an intensity hitherto unseen on the Western Front. In five short hours, more than a million shells were fired, smashing trenches, tearing up wire, wrecking artillery pieces, and killing men. Added to the smoke and flying debris was a thick fog that descended onto the battlefield. At 9:40 German storm troopers, looking like monstrous insects in their gas masks, rose up from their trenches and advanced behind a creeping rain of shells. In all, 76 German divisions attacked that first day, slamming into a mere 28 British divisions.
WITH THE FOG SERVING AS A NATURAL SMOKE SCREEN, the Germans captured British machine-gun emplacements and strongpoints with relative ease. Storm trooper Ernst Jünger recalled how “without difficulties we zig-zagged through the shredded wire….” The British soldiers, wrote Lieutenant Reinhold Spengler, “carried no weapons and had raised their arms in the air as a sign of surrender. Coming closer, I could see by the expressions on their faces that they had experienced a terrifying time during the last few hours of our bombardment.” Sometimes the defenders did not even see their attackers until they were upon them. To add to British difficulties, Gough had violated his own strategy by placing too many men in the front lines. These forward troops became instant victims of the terrific artillery barrage. During the German advance, so many prisoners were taken that they were simply told to march east.
Lieutenant Rudolf Stark, a pilot with Jagdstaffel (Fighter Squadron) Thirty-four, was flying over the battle during the storm troopers’ advance and described the hectic scene: “Below us a battery is firing, infantry are advancing to storm. Columns take cover in trenches and behind rising ground. Everywhere I see flashes-smoking, flaming mouths of the cannon….” In these first days of the attack, German planes outnumbered the Allies’ and they were able to provide greater support to advancing ground troops than had previously been the case, a fact quite apparent to the harassed Allied soldiers. Meanwhile, giant Gotha bombers raided French ports and the airfield at Doullens. The Fifth Army resisted as best it could, but the attack was simply too massive and furious for the British troops to hold out for long, and they were forced to fall back to their secondary defenses. The Germans soon encircled a salient at Flesquieres, in front of Bapaume, and Gough ordered a general retreat to keep his left flank from being turned. The Fifth Army pulled back seven miles behind the Crozat Canal. Nearby railway bridges now had to be blown. These were under French control and because communications had broken down, Gough could not receive permission to destroy them. They fell into German hands intact. By the end of the first day of Operation Michael, the Germans had advanced up to four and a half miles and inflicted almost 30,000 casualties on the British. Hindenburg later laconically commented that “The results of the day appeared to me to be satisfactory.”
The next day the attack continued, again assisted by a thick layer of fog. The Fifth Army was now reeling as the storm troopers pressed forward. Once they had been pushed out of their trenches, the British soldiers, unused to a flexible, dynamic war of movement after years of static trench fighting, fell into disarray. Many were cut down in the open ground. In the confusion it was falsely reported to Gough that the Crozat Canal had been crossed by the Germans. As a result, he ordered another retreat, this time to positions behind the Somme River. In the north, however, the German Seventeenth Army was meeting fierce resistance outside Arras. Still, they had penetrated the Third Army’s forward lines, and Marwitz’s Second Army was now rushing toward the vital Allied base at Amiens.
Ludendorff could smell victory. To the south, his armies were threatening to split the French from the British and take Amiens; to the north, the attacks on Arras were continuing with the possibility of breaking through and smashing the British armies against the sea. The German juggernaut was now pushing what remained of the British Third Army across the shattered battlefields of the 1916 Somme offensive. At the same time, specially designed Krupp guns had begun lobbing massive shells into Paris, 70 miles away. Now back in Berlin, Kaiser Wilhelm gloated, “the battle won, the English utterly defeated.” Meanwhile, a worried Lloyd George telegraphed the British ambassador in Washington to implore President Woodrow Wilson to speed up the transport of American troops to France.
Against the dictates of his own “strongest force against the weakest point” strategy, Ludendorff continued to attempt to take Arras. He sent General Below three more divisions, while directing Marwitz to keep driving toward the town. At the same time, Hutiers’ Eighteenth Army had achieved what no other army in four years of fighting on the Western Front had effected–a breakthrough into open country. But, dazzled perhaps or made cautious by the rapidity and scope of his own success, Ludendorff did not exploit this opening.
To the Allies, however, Ludendorff’s armies seemed unstoppable; they had now started to cross the Somme. Confronted with this latest disaster, Haig and Petain met on the evening of March 23, the French commander telling his British counter part that the promised French reserves were being sent to shore up the crumbling British line. In his diary, Haig described Petain as coolheaded and reassuring, nevertheless, the situation was grave. After this meeting Haig dashed off a wire to London requesting that the chief of the Imperial General Staff, General Sir Henry Wilson, and the war minister, Viscount Alfred Milner, come immediately to France. Unbeknown to Haig, Milner was already on his way to meet with Georges Clemenceau, France’s feisty prime minister, in order to discuss the crisis and the need for a unified Allied command.
Upon seeing the British commander in chief, Wilson wrote: “Haig is cowed. He said that unless the whole of the French Army comes up, we were beaten and it would be better to make peace on any terms we could.” Seconding this grim assessment, Clemenceau, who had visited the front, reported, “I saw Gough ‘s army spread out like the white of an egg.” On the evening of the 25th, American Expeditionary Force (AEF) commander General John Pershing went to Petain at Chantilly and offered him the use of the few U.S. divisions he had available to help stem the tide. This was an extraordinary move on Pershing’s part, because he had been stubbornly resisting Allied pressure to divide the young American army along different sectors of the front. But the gravity of the hour made such considerations trivial.
On the 26th, Gough ordered the remnants of his army to hold Amiens. His soldiers were now hunkered down in shallow trenches first dug in 1915. The Sixth U.S. Engineers, who had been building roads and bridges behind the lines at the start of the attack, dropped their shovels and picked up rifles to assist the British at Amiens, earning the dubious distinction of becoming the first American unit to engage the Germans on the Western Front.
Meanwhile, the Germans took Albert and forced Byng’s Third Army back once again. Amid this crisis, at Doullens, a few miles behind Arras, momentous decisions were being made. Clemenceau had arrived at the hotel de ville in the early morning in order to conduct a high-level meeting with Milner, Wilson, and Haig. French President Raymond Poincare was also present, as was a pensive Petain and French General Ferdinand Foch, a buoyantly optimistic man and head of the Supreme War Council.
During the conference it was determined that Amiens should be held at all costs. Then Clemenceau and Milner went into a corner and spoke together for some time. At the end of their discussion, the French prime minister announced that General Foch would be placed in command of all Allied forces in order to coordinate the war effort. Unity of command, long resisted by Haig, had now been forced upon him by the crisis. Before the meeting ended, one last piece of business had to be settled. Gough was relieved of command and two days later was back in Britain. General Sir Henry Rawlinson took over the shattered Fifth Army. Haig, his highly attuned political sense perhaps realizing the need for a scapegoat, did not fight for his general. Back on the battlefield, Ludendorff continued to violate his own principles by repeatedly throwing his armies against Arras and Amiens. The British , however, now bolstered by French divisions , were beginning to hold their own. The end was now approaching. The German army, after advancing faster and farther than any army since the early days of 1914, was becoming a spent force. With transportation stuck in mud caused by rain and hailstorms and held up on the cratered, debris-strewn earth of the old Somme battlefields, supply lines were breaking down. German soldiers had long been told that the Allies were suffering enormous shortages of food and materiel because of the U-boat campaign. Now they were surprised and disheartened to capture British supply dumps brimming with new equipment and heaps of food. Ernst Jünger’s unit overran a dugout formerly occupied by British artillery officers. In one room they came across stores of whiskey and tobacco. “An adjoining room,” Hinger wrote, “contained the kitchen where we marveled in awe at the supplies.” Jünger and his men filled their pockets with fresh eggs, marmalade, coffee substitute, and onions. In other sectors of the front, German soldiers had stopped advancing to plunder well-provisioned Allied bunkers. Perhaps the Germans believed the war had already been won and it was time to celebrate. Or more likely they had simply reached the point of exhaustion.
Ludendorff, weary from the strain of command, ordered more attacks against Amiens. In the air, the British and French air forces had recovered, fought the Germans to a standstill, and were even achieving the upper hand. On April 5, the offensive was called off. “The enemy’s resistance,” Ludendorff said, “is beyond our strength.” The killing, however, did not end. Subsequent German attacks struck the Allies from Armentieres to Chateau-Thierry, where the Germans came within 40 miles of Paris. These thrusts lasted until July. But by then the French were aggressively counterattacking, more than a million American troops had landed in France, and reinforcements had replenished the BEF’s battered armies. Ludendorffs grand gamble to win the war had failed.
The price of Kaiserschlacht was enormous. British casualties and prisoners amounted to 177,739, or a daily rate of 11,000 men. The French lost 77,000. In addition, 1,300 Allied guns plus scores of machine guns and tanks had been captured or destroyed. The Germans had hammered a bulge in the Allied lines of up to 40 miles and seized 1,200 square miles of bitterly contested territory. To achieve those territorial gains, however, they had suffered almost a quarter of a million casualties.
Ludendorff’s vision had emphasized tactics over strategy. Accordingly he won a tactical, not a strategic, victory. During the battle he seemed at times to be overwhelmed by his own armies’ speedy successes, and his radical doctrine of sweeping infiltration followed by mopping up operations became lost as he dashed his men against the enemy’s strongest points. Although it had gained impressive amounts of territory, the German army had stretched itself to the limit. The cost was unsupportable both for Luddendorf’s forces and for the German economy.
The failure of Kaiserschlacht also highlighted the weaknesses of the German government. Essentially dominated by the Hindenburg-Ludendorff “silent dictatorship,” government officials had virtually no check on the military, leaving national strategy superseded to the needs of the military. The destiny of Germany depended almost solely upon the success or failure of its generals’ war plans. Thus Ludendorff’s failure helped to bring about the ultimate defeat of his country.
It also broke his army. For the German soldier, Kaiserschlacht’s failure bred cynicism, frustration, and disillusionment. The great battle had not won the war for them, and peace and a triumphant return to the homeland were as distant as before. These men no longer believed the propaganda of their own government. They had seen with their own eyes that the Allies had the men and supplies to keep fighting. Although they would continue to fulfill their duty in the long, bloody months ahead, that vital, unquestioning belief in their country’s cause had been damaged beyond repair.
In this most ironic of battles, in which the winner was the loser and the loser the ultimate winner, the Allies emerged stronger and more unified than ever. They could now sense victory, although it was still many lives and battles away. The decision at the Doullens conference to make Foch the supreme Allied leader was an important step in achieving that final victory.
Today, Kaiserschlacht finds little room in our collective consciousness. Yet it proved to both Germany and the Allies that after four years of bitter struggle the end was near.
O’Brien Browne writes frequently on World War I. This is his first contribution to MHQ.
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2001 issue (Vol. 13, No. 3) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: The Kaiser’s Last Battle
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