Sorry for the long delay in continuing/finishing our World War I series – professional & personal duties stood in the way. But we’re back and going to continue the series to see through to the end of the Great War…
The sun had yet to rise when the first artillery shells fell at 4:40am on March 21st, 1918, along the banks of the British position near the Somme. The sector had been far from quiet since the horrific Battle of the Somme less than two years earlier, but most of the offensive action had come from the British line. With the adoption of their defense-in-depth with the Hindenburg Line, Germany had maintained a largely defensive position in the West since the ascension of Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff in the fall of 1916. But this was no defensive attack, nor even a limited counteroffensive, as the Germans had conducted from time to time.
Over 3.5 million German shells were fired within five hours – the largest bombardment from either side in the West since Verdun. And following that barrage were 110 divisions, including many experienced Stoßtruppen or “shock/storm troopers,” trained to exploit any openings in the Allied line.
Nearly four years of combat were about to come to a head in a massive, bloody final attempt by Germany to end the Great War. Despite widely believing that a traditional victory against the Allies was now impossible, the German High Command (minus Hindenburg) would now gamble their entire army on a long-shot effort to force the Allies to the negotiating table before further American reinforcements could arrive. The Germans would call their offensive the Kaiserschlacht or “Kaiser’s Battle,” underlining the gravity of the operation to Berlin. At stake would no longer just be military reputations, strategic territory or human lives, but the very outcome of the war itself.
Almost exactly one year earlier, Germany had relinquished miles of hard-won gains in France to retreat behind a nearly impenetrable series of reinforced trenches and bunkers. The concept had been the brainchild of the Chief of the German General Staff Paul von Hindenburg and his talented deputy, Erich Ludendorff. Together, the duo had reoriented Germany’s strategy, indeed even German society itself, towards a goal of defensive warfare designed to reduce German casualties and, hopefully, force the Allies to seek terms to end the bloodshed. The shift in strategy had seemingly worked – Germany was given more of a free-hand in the East, which aided in producing the Russian defeat, and the Western Allies had nearly broken themselves throughout 1917 in offensives that slaughtered their own men for nebulous gains. So why was Germany now abandoning the strategy that had seemingly produced sizable victories for the Central Powers?
For all the success Germany and her allies had experienced in 1917, the simple fact remained that the Central Powers were nearing collapse.
Victory in the East provided a badly needed shot of morale for German and Austro-Hungarian troops, but didn’t produce what both nations needed even more – food. The year before had been known in Germany as the “Turnip Winter”, as the nation attempted to replace potatoes with turnips due to a potato famine in 1916. Caloric intakes were averaging down to nearly 1,000 calorie per citizen, and even German soldiers were now eating substantially less, leading to a brief naval mutiny that same year over spoiled and otherwise inadequate rations.
Germany’s allies were in even worse shape. The Dual Monarchy’s new Emperor would soon be discovered to have tried to negotiate his empire’s way out of the war, expressly without German knowledge. Emperor Karl’s people starved just as in Germany, but with the divided political governance of the empire, Hungarian loyalists seemingly received food stuffs while Austrians or less politically connected minorities ate little more than empty promises. At least the Austro-Hungarians could show the occasional military victory, something the Ottomans increasingly could not. Losing on all fronts, Turkish soldiers were now rebelling against German officers, physically assaulting some and blaming others for the war. And Enver Pasha, one of the “Three Pashas” whose control over the country so was complete that diplomats called the empire “Enverland”, barely survived an assassination attempt orchestrated by the heir apparent to the Sultanate.
On top of all of this was the harsh reality that the Hindenburg Line hadn’t reduced German casualties. Germany lost over 1.2 million men in 1917 – almost 300,000 more than they had lost in 1916 amid the insanity of Verdun which had pushed Berlin into abandoning offensive operations in the first place. While such losses had at least stymied the Western Allies and beaten the Russians, millions of American troops were soon to arrive in France. The American Expeditionary Force (AEF) already had activated six divisions by the middle of January 1918, and with American divisions typically twice the size of their British or French counterparts, it was the equivalent of a dozen fresh European divisions entering the western trenches. Hundreds of new planes and tanks were following as well. By the summer of 1918, Germany looked to be out of food, outnumbered and out of luck.
The task of saving Germany from such a fate fell to Paul von Hindenburg – which meant it really fell to Erich Ludendorff. If Hindenburg was the stoic, grandfatherly face of the brutal new commitment to “total war”, Ludendorff was the dour, harsh administrator of such policies. The German press called Ludendorff a “dictator”, ascribing the failures of Germany’s military, economic or civic endeavors to Ludendorff while usually crediting Hindenburg with any successes.
Ludendorff had mostly shared the same opinion as the German General Staff – that an attritional war would be impossible for Germany to win against the Western Allies. But while others on the General Staff sought simply to buy time for Germany to force negotiations through measures like submarine warfare or aerial campaigns against London, Ludendorff believed that not only could a conventional military operation force an end to the war, but force an end that would produce something along the lines of a German victory (a view he had not held in the fall of 1916 according to the diaries of other German officers). As such, Ludendorff would become a leading voice in the halls of power that Germany not seek terms from the Allies until Berlin could deliver a crushing blow on the battlefield.
For Ludendorff, that victory would come in the form of his Kaiserschlacht offensive – designed in the fall of 1917 without input or guidance from Hindenburg as Ludendorff attempted to position himself as Germany’s actual military leader to the Kaiser; a powerplay that would eventually sever the working relationship between the former deputy and his superior. 50 German divisions had returned from the East and unless Germany struck fast, the crushing weight of numbers would again favor the Allies. Utilizing the tactics that had won battles at Verdun, Caporetto and in the Baltics, Ludendorff believed he could divide the British and French armies in a move not dissimilar to what a different German army would perform a generation later.
But Ludendorff the administrator was infinitely more talented than Ludendorff the tactician. Despite stressing the critical need to overwhelm the Western Allies before American reinforcements would turn the tide, Ludendorff demanded Germany keep at least one million soldiers in the East as Germany flexed their colonial muscle against the variety of small eastern European states that had arisen from the collapse of the Russian Empire. The goals of the offensive itself also kept changing. While driving to the sea or capturing key rail lines would be likely targets for such an operation, Ludendorff’s objectives seemed to change depending upon where German units believed they could penetrate the furthest into the Allied line. The focus of the offensive would shift between attacking the British and then attacking the French. British forces would be separated from their French allies, but not driven towards the French coast which might have caused them to flee the mainland as they would in 1940. The French would find their own capitol under bombardment but not threatened with invasion by German troops, making the shelling of Paris a strategically worthless accomplishment. Germany was admittedly gambling with their reverses but seemingly without any consideration towards what they were suppose to achieve. It would become an operation taking territory for the sake of taking territory – a mindset more at home in the war during 1914 or 1915 than 1918.
It would become clear days into the operation as well that Ludendorff had learned nothing from the effective use of Stoßtruppen. When used well, these troops could exploit openings in the enemy line and cause havoc in the rear of the trenches. But that meant rushing troops into the holes caused by targeted shelling and experienced troops; Ludendorff would do little of that. Instead his Stoßtruppen would open holes in the Western Front and sometimes wait until the rest of the front could collapse under the weight of the German attack. And Germany’s heavy reliance on these troops also meant burning through veteran units and commanders at an unsustainable rate.
For all the flaws that would soon be exposed within the German offensive, the greatest asset for the Germans might have been the disposition of the armies that opposed them. The French had mutinied the year before and still hadn’t recovered their morale. The British had beaten themselves senseless with the Third Battle of Ypres for little gain. And while the Americans were supremely confident in their ability to turn the tide, they were also relatively few in numbers and dangerously naive as to how to fight in the trenches, literally believing that American courage and marksmanship alone could best German fortifications and machine guns.
The cream of the German army was about to attack a clearly weakened Allied line and start the decisive battle of the war.