World War I: Final German Spring Offensive (March-June 1918)


Figure 1.--The Russian Revolution andcensuing Brest-Litovsk Peace Treaty enabled the Germans to transfer powerful forces from the Eastern to the Western Front. Here we see German soldiers in a 1917 newsreel marching to the front lines in World War I. A boy of about 10 marches beside them, wearing the typical schoolboy clothes of the period--a dark kneepants suit and long black stockings. Notice the lack of ceremony. Earlier men moving to the front were sent off with jubilent civilianns throwing flowes and cheering. The mood was very different in 1917.

The collapse of Russia in late 1917 and peace treaty forced upon the Bolsevicks in 1918 enabled the Germans to transfer powerful forces to the Wesern Front. The draconian demands on the Bolshecicks, however, delayed the signing of the peace treaty and the transfer of troops to the Western Front. The Russian Revolution occurred during the late Fall. The ensuing Winter of course meant that the Germans could not launch a major offensive until the Spring. By the time they were able to launch their offensive, a new American Army of over 1 million men awaited them in the Allied trenches. Even so, the Germand nearly succeeded. The French Army almot broke. Without the arrival of the Americans, it is likely that the Germans would have won the war. German General Ludendorff was to say after the War that it was the arrival of the American infantry that was the decisive factor on the Western Front.

Bolshevik Revolution (October 1917)

The poorly organized and led Russian Army suffered enormous losses. The Russian tied down large German armies in the Eastern Front, making it impossible for the Germans to concentrate their strength against the French and British on the Western Front. Germany began the War as the strongest single country in Europe. The inability of the Germans to concentrate their strength in the West in the end cost them the war. The Russians finally cracked in 1917. Revolution broke out in Petrograd. The Tsar attetmpted to retuen to the capital, but was arrested and forced to abdicate. A Provisional Government formed from the Duma attempted to continue the War. The Bolsheviks promosing "Bread, pace, and land," seized control in the name of the Petrograd Soviet. The Germans forced a humiliating peace on the Bolsevicks at Brest-Litovsk (1918). With Russia out of the War they could finally concentrate their strength in the West. The Germans amassed their forces in 1918, hoping that they could break the Allies before the Americans arrived in France in force.

Treaty of Brest-Litosk (March 3, 1918)

The poorly organized and led Russian Army suffered enormous losses. The Russian tied down large German armies in the Eastern Front, making it impossible for the Germans to concentrate their strength against the French and British on the Western Front. The Russians finally cracked in 1917. Revolution broke out in Russia. The Bolsheviks seized control of the Russian government in November 1917. The Russian Army had collapsed in front of the Germans. The Russian people were starving as deperate. The Bolsheviks who had pledged bread and peace had no alternative but to seek terms. The Germans were thus able to force a humiliating peace on the Bolsheviks. The Bolsheviks had to ceede the Ukraine, its Polish territories, the Baltics (Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia), and Finland. The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was signed in 1918 between the new Soviet government and the Central Powers. Russia gave up land for peace. This thus allowed the Russians to withdraw from the war, although at enormous cost. The Brest-Litovsk Treaty was after the collapse of the German Western Front in 1918 was annulled by the terms of the Armistice betwewwn Germany and he Western Allies. The conclusion of the fighting on the Eastern Front allowed the Germans to shift substantial forces west. The draconian demands on the Bolshecicks, however, delayed the signing of the Breast Treaty and the transfer of troops to the Western Front. The Allies were unprepared for Russia's withdrawal from the war, despite the obviously deteriorating situation on hthe Eastern Front. [Edmounds]

Weather

The Provisional Government kept Russia in the War after the fll of the Tsar for much of 917. This woukd prove crotical for the outcomr of the War. The Bolshevivk Revolution occurred during the late Fall (October-November 1917). The ensuing Winter of course meant that the Germans could not launch a major offensive until the following Spring. This bought the Allies time to build the AEF, begion training, and get the men to France.

The Allies

With victory in the East, the Germans could concentrate their forces on a final massive offensive in the West. Here there was a chance for success. Much had changed on the Western front, however, after 4 years of war. The French Army at been devestated at Verdun and poor treatment by the High Command . While incapable of offensive operation, Petain and Foch had restored discipline so that they would effectively fight on the defense. The German faced a well-entrnched French Army. But in addition rather than a small BEF they also faced the largest British Army ever fielded up to that pont. Conscription had enabled the British to build a massive army. And the British had learned from the dissaster on the Somme. They had made major changes in tactics. They had also developed new weapons, especially tanks. If this was not formibable enough, because of the Kaiser's decession to institute unconditional submarine warfare, the Americans had entered the War and a substantial new army had joined the British and French in the Western Front trenches--the AEF. When America declared war (April 1917) there essentially was no American Army. By the time the Germans launched their offensive, a new American Army of over 1 million men awaited them in the Allied trenches. The AEF was not well trained, but the Americans were willing and able to fight. And for the Germans it was their final chance of success. In addition to the 1 million Americans in France, another 2 million were undergoing training in the United States. Even with the formidable Allied armies, the Germans nearly succeeded. The French Army almost broke. And the Germans came very close to driving a wedge between the British and French. Without the arrival of the Americans, it is likely that the Germans would have won the war. German General Ludendorff was to say after the War that it was the arrival of the American infantry that was the decisive factor on the Western Front.

Operation Michael

The German Army as well as all of German was by 1918 in the hands of Generals Hindenburg and Ludendorf. The generals who had failed in the West had been displaced. Ludendorff personally planed the final war-winning offensive in the West. The Allied naval blockade and the entry of America into the War meant that German strength compared to the Allies would never be grreater. Germany had to win the war in 1918 or lose the War. It was important to strike as soon as possible before the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) could be trained and deployed. The German plan was codenamed Operation Michael. The fact that the Provisional continued the War after the overthrow of the Tsar mean that the Germans would not be able to launch an offensive with forces from the Eastern Frot intil 1918 This brought time to formand trainthe AEF. In adiition, the severe conditions forced on the Blosheviks delayed the conclusion of a Treaty. And forces had to be kept in the East to occuply the huhe area seized from the Russins. The situation in the East was still unsettled, so Ludendorff left the powerful Eighth Army in place. Thus only a portion of the German forces were shifted West for Operation Michael.All of this limited ahd delayed the German shift East. Opation Michel involved a massive general offensive in the West. The brunt of the offensive would fall on the juncture between the British and French forces. The aim was to divide the two armies, break through their lines, and seize Paris. The goal was to defeat the French before the AEF could be trained and deployed.

Amiens (March 21)

Ludendorff was the Hawk among the German leadership. After pressing the Kaiser and Hindenberg to reject wilson's 'peace without victory' proposal, he got his chance to win the the war. Ludendorff launched Operation Michael, the final massive German offensive with probing attacks against the British lines around St. Quentin in Flanders. It was actually similar to Hitlers 1944 Ardennes offensive, only this time rather than trying to separate the British and americans, the Germansere tryng to divide the British and French. He was anxious to crack open the front nefore the Americans who he had played a major role in declaring war could make their presence felt. The Germans hit the extreme right of the British lines (March 21). The objective was the important rail junction at Amiens. Success here would effectively split the British and French Armies. The Germans commenced with a 6,000 gun artillery barrage. Poison gas opened up a huge gap in the allied lines. The initial attack achieved considerable success. The Germans advanced 22 kilometers (km) in a single day and quickly puched a 60 km bulge in the Allied lines. This was an unpredented achievement in the West where the trenches had meant virtually static warfare since the opening months of the War. The Germans captured 90,000 British an Canadian solduers and 1,300 artillery pices along with 2 million bottles of wiskey. The Kaiser was estatic. He told an aide, "The battle is won, the English have been utterly defeated." While impresive, these were advances that were difficult for World War I command and control methods and supply units to keep up with. The British managed to stop Ludendorff near Soissons.

Storm Troopers

The Germans adopted new tactics designed to break through the Allied lines. The Germans trained elite troops in novel new tactics to penetrate the Allied trenches. The tactics used by both the Allies and Germand in 1915-17 was an extedsive artillery barage to soften up the enemy trenches followed by frontal assaults with masssed infnty. The new German tactic was only a brief artillery barage after which the Storm Troppers would unfiltrate the Attled trenches. The lightly armed, but fast moving shock troo[ps called Storm Trooprs attacked weak points in the Allied trenches such as command and logistics areas. The Storn Troopers would go arrond strong points and surround them. These isolated Storm Troopers would then be overwelmed by infantry with heavy weapons.

German Advances

The Germans succeded in moving forward and were at one point only 120 kilometres from Paris. They moved up heavy Krupp railway guns and fired on Paris. The Parisans at first thought that it was an aerial assault. The Germans were on the verge of victory. Kaiser Wilhelm II pronounced a national holiday (March 24). The weakness in the German offensive appears to be that they had not expected the successes achieved or the losses sustained. Ludendorf did not have forces available to exploit the gaps opened in the Allied lines. The British rushed forces across the Channel and units of the AEF were deployed. The Allied lines held and German casualties mounted. German casualties in Operation Michael reached 270,000 men (March and April 1918). Losses of these magnitudes could not be replaced by the Germans. Allied losses were even higher, but with the AEF now ammounted to 0.5 million men and was growing weekly with the arrival of troop ships in French ports.

Committing the AEF (March-June 1918)

The Germans had gambled in 1917 that unrestricted submarine warfare would cut off Britain and force the British to make peace. They reasoned that it would be some time before the Americans could train, equip, and deploy an army to France. And the German Navy assured the Reichstag that the Americans would never even come because German U-boats would sink transport ships. And the U-boats could win the war by starving the British. The resumption of un-restricted submarine warfare was a mistake of enormous proprtions which cost Germany the War. Here the U-boats failed and in 1918 the German Army had to deal with the consequences of the Kaiser's failed gamble--the AEF. The Russian Army had prevented the Germans from focusing on the Western Front. Now with the Russuans out of the War, the Germans brought America into the War, a country with manpower comparable to Russia. The AEF was, however, still training and not yet deployed in force when the Germans launched their Spring Offensive. President Wilson had given General Pershing only one order when he assumed command of the AEF. That was that the AEF was to fight as a separate force under the American flag and not as replacements for deplete British and French units. In the emergency, American units still not fully trained were rushed to the front to support hard-pressed British and French units (March 28). The AEF fought the War largely with Allied (British and French) weapons. The AEF played a major role in helping the French Army during the Aisne Offensive at Château-Thierry and Belleau Wood (June 1918). The AEF that helped stopped the Germans was a force that the Germans did not have to face. They were there becuse of the deecisions of a German Government which beloeved that the americans were not areal nation that needed to be reckoned with. The War ended before American industry could be brought to bear. Given the fact that America had a much larger populatioin than Germany and was the largest industrial nation in the world, the enormity of the mistake bringing the United States into the War can be seen. And it highlights while the German spring offensive was their last chance to win the War. If it failed, so did the entire German war effort.

Unified Allied Command

The Allied High Command hastily convened a conference to address the deteriorating military situation. Commanders met in what has become known as the Doullens Conference (March 21). The basic decession taken was to unify the command structure. British Field Marshal Douglas Haig handed control of his forces over to French Field Marshall Ferdinand Foch. [Edmonds] Foch who was the Chief of Staff of the French Army was assigned resopnsibility for co-ordinating Allied operations on the Western Front.

Further German Offensives (July-August 1918)

The main German offensive was Operation Michael. The Germans followed up Operation Michael with smaller offensives to support the main offensive. Operation Georgette involved attacks to the north aimed at Ypres along the Channel to seize Channel ports. The aim was to hamper the supplies to the British front lines. Here the Germans made only minor progress. Operations Blücher and Yorck were aimed at the French lines in the south, again directed toward Paris. The Germans took Soissons. The spearhead of their advance penetrated as far as Chateau-Thierry, only 56 miles from Paris. Operation Marne was a pincer attack to encircle the French strong point of Reims (July 15). Here also they nearly succeeded. The result was the Second Battle of the Marne. This would be the final German push which the Germans called the Kaiser's Battle. The Germans mustered their forces already within France and drove toward Reims. It was arguably the most important battle since the First Battle of the Marne. Both Luddendorff and Foch saw that it would decided the War. It was a protracted fight (July 15-August 16). In the end the German attack failed when the French and Americans counter-attacked in force. These were the same Americans that Ludendorff had helped bring into the war. The French and Americans attacked the German right flank salient, causing heavy casualties. The American-French counterattack would prove to be the beginnking of the war-winning Allied 100 Day Campaign.

Allied Naval Blockade

The effectiveness of the Allied naval blockade began to sjhow during the German offensive. The blockade had denied Germany needed food imports and bital raw materiald for industry. Industrial production was declining at a time when Aliied factories buoyed by American supplies were producing at full capacity. Civilians were suffering from severe food shortages. Incidents of stasrvation were reported. and Germany Army units had been poorly supplied. German soldiers in many cases weree under nourished. There were numerous incidfents of looting as the Germans moved forward. Units also often stopped to gourge themselves when they over ran Allied supply depots.

German Retreat

The Allied counter-attacks were the most successful Allied offensive of the War. The Allies had learned from mistakes made earlier. The Germans were more vulnerable as they had moved out of their well prepared trench fortifications. In addition, units of the AEF were now available. Marshall Foch attacked the flank of the German bulge in the Allied lines (July). The AEF provided the central reserve need to sustain a major offensive. The Germans were forced to retire to the Kaiserschlacht starting lines (July 20).

German Strategy

The German Spring offensive had achieved nothing and the losses incured had significantly weakened the German Army. The Germans still held, however, most of Belgium and northern France. Victory had been achieved in the East. The High Command hoped that the powerful Hindenburg Line would provide a defensise bulwark to stop any Allied offensive and that the losses incurred would force the Allies to eventually make peace.

Allied Offensive (August-November 1918)

The Allied Offensive was prefaced by a rare French attack west of Rheims (July). The British then launched the last offensive of the War. The Canadians negan the offensive by striking at the exposed Amiens Bulge followed by a general assault on the vaunted Hindenburg Line. The British deployed tanks in numbers which proved highly effective in breeching trench fortifications. The Americans bloodied by the fighting in the Soringb attacked the St. Mihiel Salient south of Verdun and then moved aginst the Argonne Forrest west of Verdun. The Allies suffered severe losses. The Americans suffered 100,000 casualties in the Argonne fighting alone--but kept advancing. The attacks were too much for the depleted German ranks. After the Spring offensive, many divisions were no longer combat ready. The Allies succeeded in finally cracking the Hindenberg Line abd the Germans began falling back.

Sources

Edmonds. Brig. Gen Sir J. France and Belgium 1918 Vol. I "The German March Offensive And Its Preliminaries" Official History of the Great War (Naval & Military Press).





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Created: 6:48 PM 3/26/2005
Last updated: 6:22 AM 11/29/2015