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|German Spring Offensive, 1918|
|Part of the Western Front of World War I|
|Commanders and leaders|
|Erich Ludendorff|| Ferdinand Foch|
Tamagnini de Abreu
|Casualties and losses|
|688,341|| 418,374 British|
The 1918 Spring Offensive or Kaiserschlacht (Kaiser's Battle), also known as the Ludendorff Offensive, was a series of German attacks along the Western Front during World War I, beginning on March 21, 1918 which marked the deepest advances by either side since 1914. The Germans had realised that their chance of victory was at hand. They also had the advantage in numbers afforded by the nearly 50 divisions freed by the Russian surrender (the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk).
There were four separate German attacks, codenamed Michael, Georgette, Gneisenau and Blücher-Yorck, and launched in that order. Michael was the main attack, which was intended to break through the Allied lines, outflank the British forces which held the front from the Somme River to the English Channel and defeat the British Army. Once this was achieved, it was hoped that the French would seek armistice terms. The other offensives were subordinate to Michael, and were designed to divert Allied forces from the main offensive on the Somme.
However, the strategic goals of the operation were lacking. No clear single objective was established before the start of the offensives and once the operations were underway, the targets of the attacks were constantly changing according to the battlefield (tactical) situation. The Germans were at first unable to move up supplies and reinforcements fast enough to maintain their advance.
By late April 1918, the danger of a German breakthrough was at an all time high. The German Army had suffered heavy casualties and now occupied valued ground as well as with the manpower reserves now available kept the British backed into the Channel ports. In August 1918, the Allies attempted a counter-offensive, but it failed resulting in the exhaustion of the French army. The offensive resulted in the British being driven from ground they held since 1914, the French defeat in the Second Battle of the Marne and the Allied armistice that September.
On March 21, 1918, the Germans launched a major offensive against the British Fifth Army, and the right wing of the British Third Army.
The artillery bombardment began at 4.40 am on March 21. The bombardment [hit] targets over an area of 150 sq mi, the biggest barrage of the entire war. Over 1,100,000 shells were fired in five hours...
The German armies involved were—from north to south—the Seventeenth Army under Otto von Below, the Second Army under Georg von der Marwitz and the Eighteenth Army under Oskar von Hutier, with a Corps (Gruppe Gayl) from the Seventh Army supporting Hutier's attack. Although the British had learned the approximate time and location of the offensive, the weight of the attack and of the preliminary bombardment was an unpleasant surprise. The Germans were also fortunate in that the morning of the attack was foggy, allowing the stormtroopers leading the attack to penetrate deep into the British positions undetected.
By the end of the first day, the British had lost nearly 20,000 dead and 35,000 wounded, and the Germans had broken through at several points on the front of the British Fifth Army. After two days Fifth Army was in full retreat. As they fell back, many of the isolated "redoubts" were left to be surrounded and overwhelmed by the following German infantry. The right wing of Third Army became separated from the retreating Fifth Army, and also retreated to avoid being outflanked.
Ludendorff failed to follow the correct stormtrooper tactics, as described above. His lack of a coherent strategy to accompany the new tactics was expressed in a remark to one of his Army Group commanders, Rupprecht, Crown Prince of Bavaria, in which he stated, "We chop a hole. The rest follows." Ludendorff's dilemma was that the most important parts of the Allied line were also the most strongly held. Much of the German advance was achieved where it was not strategically significant. Because of this, Ludendorff continually exhausted his forces by attacking strongly entrenched British units. At Arras on March 28, he launched a hastily-prepared attack (Operation Mars) against the left wing of the British Third Army, to try to widen the breach in the Allied lines, and was repulsed.
The German breakthrough had occurred just to the north of the boundary between the French and British armies. The French commander-in-chief, General Pétain, sent reinforcements to the sector too slowly in the opinion of the British commander-in-chief, Field Marshal Haig, and the British government. The Allies reacted by appointing the French General Ferdinand Foch to coordinate all Allied activity in France, and subsequently as commander-in-chief of all Allied forces everywhere.
After a few days, the German advance began to falter, as the infantry became exhausted and it became increasingly difficult to move artillery and supplies forward to support them. Fresh British and Australian units were moved to the vital rail centre of Amiens and the defence began to stiffen. After fruitless attempts to capture Amiens, Ludendorff called off Operation Michael on April 5. By the standards of the time, there had been a substantial advance. It was, however, of little value; a Pyrrhic victory in terms of the casualties suffered by the crack troops, as the vital positions of Amiens and Arras remained in Allied hands. The newly-won territory was difficult to traverse, as much of it consisted of the shell-torn wilderness left by the 1916 Battle of the Somme, and would later be difficult to defend against Allied counterattacks.
The Allies lost nearly 255,000 men (British, British Empire, French). They also lost 1,300 artillery pieces and 200 tanks.Most of this could be replaced, either from French and British factories but the loss of manpower was noticable. German troop losses were 239,000 men, many of them specialist shocktroops (Stoßtruppen) who were irreplaceable. In terms of morale, the initial German jubilation at the successful opening of the offensive soon turned to disappointment as it became clear that the attack had not achieved decisive results.
Michael had drawn British forces to defend Amiens, leaving the rail route through Hazebrouck and the approaches to the Channel ports of Calais, Boulogne and Dunkirk vulnerable. German success here eventually choked the British into defeat.
The attack started on April 9 after a Feuerwalze. The main attack was made on the open and flat sector defended by the Portuguese Expeditionary Corps. After an entire year spent in the trenches, the Portuguese were tired and had suffered heavy losses. They were being replaced in the front line by fresh British divisions, an operation that was planned to be completed on April 9, the same day as the Germans attacked the sector. The process of relief in place was poorly organized by the British First Army's command, and the Portuguese 1st Division had been withdrawn to the rear on the April 6, leaving the Portuguese 2nd Division to defend the entire sector alone. They were left with an extensive 7 mi (11 km) front, without natural obstacles which could favor the defense.
Hit hard by the Feuerwalze bombardment and under the assault of eight German divisions, the Portuguese 2nd Division made a desperate defense, trying to hold their positions, which, however, were rapidly enveloped and overrun by the masses of German forces. The 2nd Division was virtually annihilated, losing more than 7,000 men. The British 40th Division, on the northern flank of the Portuguese, also rapidly collapsed before the attack, opening a gap that further facilitated the envelopment of the Portuguese by the Germans. However, under much less pressure from the Germans and occupying good defensive positions protected by the La Bassée Canal, the British 55th Division on the southern flank of the Portuguese were able to hold much of their position throughout the battle.
The next day, the Germans widened their attack to the north, forcing the defenders of Armentieres to withdraw before they were surrounded, and capturing most of the Messines Ridge. By the end of the day, the few British divisions in reserve were hard-pressed to hold a line along the River Lys.
Without French reinforcements, it was feared that the Germans could advance the remaining 15 mi (24 km) to the ports within a week. The commander of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, issued an "Order of the Day" on April 11 stating, "With our backs to the wall and believing in the justice of our cause, each one of us must fight on to the end."
The German offensive had begun to solve some of their logistical problems and exposed flanks. Counterattacks by British, French, and ANZAC forces slowed but failed to stop the German advance. On April 29 reports of the German army reaching the Yser river reached all commanders.
As with Michael, losses were roughly equal, approximately 110,000 men wounded or killed, each. However, the strategic results were successful for the Germans. Hazebrouck was now in German hands and the Germans occupied a vulnerable salient under fire from three sides. The British abandoned the comparatively worthless territory they had captured at vast cost the previous year around Ypres, to defend the Channel.
While Georgette achieved success, a new attack on French positions was planned to draw forces further away from the Channel and enable greater German progress in the north. The strategic objective remained to split the British and the French.
The German attack took place on May 27, between Soissons and Reims. The sector was partly held by six depleted British divisions which were "resting" after their exertions earlier in the year. In this sector, the defences had not been developed in depth, mainly due to the obstinacy of the commander of the French Sixth Army, General Denis Auguste Duchêne. As a result, the Feuerwalze was very effective and the Allied front, with a few notable exceptions, collapsed. Duchêne's massing of his troops in the forward trenches also meant there were no local reserves to delay the Germans once the front had broken. Despite French and British resistance on the flanks, German troops advanced to the Marne River and Paris seemed a realistic objective. There was a febrile atmosphere in Paris, which German long-range guns had been shelling since March 21, with many citizens fleeing and the government drawing up plans to evacuate to Bordeaux. However, Senegalese sharpshooters halted the German advance at Château-Thierry.
Yet again, losses were much the same on each side: 137,000 Allied and 130,000 German casualties up to June 6. German losses were again mainly from the difficult-to-replace assault divisions.
Although Ludendorff had intended Blücher-Yorck to be a prelude to a decisive offensive (Hagen) to defeat the British forces further north, he made the error of reinforcing merely tactical success by moving reserves from Flanders to the Aisne, whereas Foch and Haig did not overcommit reserves to the Aisne. Ludendorff sought to extend Blücher-Yorck westwards with Operation Gneisenau, intending to draw yet more Allied reserves south, widen the German salient and link with the German salient at Amiens.
The French had been warned of this attack (the Battle of Matz) by information from German prisoners, and their defence in depth reduced the impact of the artillery bombardment on June 9. Nonetheless, the German advance (consisting of 21 divisions attacking over a 23 mi (37 km) front) along the Matz River was impressive, resulting in an advance of 9 miles (14 km) despite fierce French resistance. At Compiègne, a sudden French counter-attack on June 11, by four divisions and 150 tanks (under General Charles Mangin) with no preliminary bombardment, caught the Germans by surprise and halted their advance. Gneisenau was called off the following day.
Losses were approximately 35,000 Allied and 30,000 German.
Last German attack
Ludendorff now postponed Hagen and launched the German Seventh, First and Third Armies in the Friedensturm (Peace Offensive) of July 15, a renewed attempt to draw Allied reserves south from Flanders, and to expand the salient created by Blücher-Yorck eastwards. An attack east of Rheims was thwarted by the French defence in depth. In many sectors the Germans, continued to surprise the Allies as their air force had achieved air superiority.
German troops southwest of Rheims succeeded in crossing the River Marne, the French launched a major offensive of their own on the west side of the salient on July 18, threatening to cut off the Germans in the salient. Ludendorff managed to hold the salient and by August 7 the British and French armies were completely exhausted by fighting.