As I never tire of pointing out, the Anglophone heritage industry treats the First World War as if everything beyond the Western Front was a sideshow, and therefore gets away with dismissing the whole conflict as an abhorrent waste of time, lives and resources. Stalemate on the Western Front hasn’t been the only key to the thesis – because the state of technology at the time created military stalemate on any front appropriate to trench warfare – but the battle lines in Belgium and northern France had been providing grist for its centennial certainties since the first Battle of the Marne in August 1914.
That changed on 21 March 1918, the day Germany launched the opening attack of its do-or-die spring offensives on the Western Front. Known to the Allies at the time as the Second Battle of the Somme, the Ludendorff Offensive or the Michael Offensive (after its codename), often referred by modern English speakers as simply the Spring Offensive, and called Kaiserschlacht (Kaiser’s Battle) in Germany, it marked the end of the Western Front’s long and lamented static phase (though not of its horrors). Trench lines would be firmly re-established during the summer, but they would never again rule the world at war.
The beginning of Kaiserschlacht was, in other words, a crucial turning point in the making of the modern world, yet you’re unlikely to be swamped with the same heritage fanfares that accompanied ghastly confirmations of the status quo like Verdun, the Somme or Passchendaele. Sure, it was a German operation that didn’t reflect particularly well on Allied commanders, but neither of those factors has discouraged mawkish commemoration of other Western Front battles, and Allied command failures are usually guaranteed to spark a torrent of outrage and finger-pointing by our heritage industries. So what’s the difference?
As far as I can tell – and because we’re talking mass psychology, this is only guesswork – downplaying the spring offensive of 1918 is another symptom of the need to define the First World War as fundamentally atypical of our civilisation. As I mentioned last week, the syndrome encourages focus on whatever makes the whole thing look like a crazy aberration. The Somme and Verdun fit the thesis, along with smaller disappointments like Cambrai, but this was different. The product of a logic that had nothing to do with attrition, Kaiserschlacht featured dramatic territorial shifts and, though not in itself decisive, instigated fundamental and irrevocable change to the balance of power on the Western Front. Those may be reasons for playing it down, but they don’t look to me like good ones so here’s a quick run-though.
The background should be fairly familiar to anyone in touch with the War’s progress so far. The German Third Supreme Command needed a big win, and needed it soon. With Germany’s war effort already stretched to the point of socio-political breakdown, trade warfare was failing and the Americans were coming, so from Berlin’s perspective nothing less than a definitive victory on the Western Front could stave off ultimate defeat once the US Army joined the battle.
Ludendorff, always the strategic and tactical mainspring of the Third Supreme Command, recognised that the French Army was unwilling (and probably unable) to undertake major offensives, and regarded the British as the main obstacle to success in France. He planned to attack in the Somme sector, at the join of the two Allied armies’ defensive positions, in the hope of separating them.
The Allies were meanwhile in no position to launch an offensive on the Western Front. British and French commanders were still rebuilding their armies after the hugely expensive failures of 1917 (the Nivelle Offensive in the spring and Haig’s autumn offensive in Flanders), and the attempt to establish a unified command system through the Supreme War Council had so far generated nothing but bickering among the Allies. Though German troop transfers to France from the Eastern Front were noted, Germany’s simultaneous commitment to the occupation of Eastern Europe was taken as evidence that the German Army was still too weak in the west to mount a successful offensive.
This wasn’t quite true. German manpower strength on the Western Front had increased by 30% since November 1917, while Allied numbers had fallen by a quarter, leaving sections of the British line, especially those furthest from the Channel coast and closest to the French sector, with relatively sparse defences. Ludendorff ranged a total of 63 German divisions in three armies (General Below’s 17th, Marwitz’s 2nd, and the 18th under master tactician General Hutier) along a 90km front between Arras and La Fère. The northern third of the attack zone was defended by fourteen division’s of General Byng’s British Third Army, backed by the majority of British reserves, while the rest was defended by the twelve divisions of General Gough’s Fifth Army, strung out across 60km of frontline and short on reserves.
Elaborate German efforts to maintain secrecy worked to the extent of leaving the Allies unaware of the forthcoming attack’s scale, and when it was launched, with support from 6,000 artillery pieces, the ‘infiltration tactics’ pioneered by Hutier worked as well as they had done under trials in Latvia (3 September, 1917: Trial By Fire). Helped by a thick morning mist, protected by strong air support and a ‘creeping barrage’, German infantry enjoyed spectacular early success against Gough’s thin, poorly organised defences, and were held only at the far north of the sector, around Arras.
With his right wing melting away, Gough attempted a withdrawal to secondary positions on 22 March, but retreating units did a bad job of destroying bridges and causeways as they went, allowing Hutier’s troops to pursue at speed and forcing another retreat. By 25 March the whole British Fifth Army had retired some 40km to the west, dragging Byng’s Third Army along with it, and on 27 March the first of Hutier’s units reached the town of Montdidier, about 65km beyond their start point.
So far, so spectacular, and now the German Army had Paris in its sights for the first time since the summer of 1914. Ludendorff went for it. During the opening attacks, most German strength had been concentrated against Arras, and the 17th Army continued to attack there until 28 March without making significant progress. Hutier was meanwhile ordered to pause pending a turn towards Paris, and the central German force, the 2nd Army under Marwitz, was sent into the gap between the two British armies, towards Amiens.
Exhaustion, supply difficulties and the British Third Army halted the 2nd Army’s advance around Villers-Bretonneux, some 20km short of Amiens, on 26 March, and Marwitz paused to regroup for a renewed attack. The obvious Allied reaction – bringing the nearby French Army into the battle – was delayed by French c-in-c Pétain’s reluctance to commit his forces to battle (a position that persuaded Haig to back the more aggressive Foch as overall Allied commander of reserves), but General Fayolle’s French reinforcements did reach the front in time to halt a second German attack on 30 March.
A final attempt to break through to Amiens was launched by fifteen German divisions – some of them in a state of utter exhaustion – on 4 April, and its failure convinced Ludendorff that the opportunity for strategic success had passed. He called off Operation Michael next day and switched the focus of attack to Flanders, where the next phase of the offensive, known as the Lys Offensive, opened on 9 April and followed a similar, if less spectacular pattern over the course of nineteen days.
For a while there, it had looked to both sides as if Kaiserschlacht might win the War at a stroke – but although brilliant tactics, careful preparations and a degree of enemy lassitude had delivered a rapid advance and created an enormous bulge in the Allied line, the German Army had failed to break through into undefended country. This was partly because the German armies, stretched to their limits and worked beyond the point of exhaustion, simply ran out of steam, but the same old, technologically based problems were still fundamentally to blame. As long as an attacking army in 1918 faced organised defenders, it was doomed to suffer insurmountable supply and mobility problems as soon as it crossed into enemy territory.
That doesn’t mean Kaiserschlacht was just another failed offensive, as the more simplistic heritage commentaries are apt to suggest. The two weeks of mayhem that followed its launch cost the German Army some 250,000 casualties it really couldn’t afford, and it would never again be truly fit to fight a powerful, well-equipped foe. Although the Allies lost almost as many men their resources for recovery were by now infinitely deeper, while the undoubted shock provided by the sudden territorial collapse of late March prompted reform of the Allied command system, triggered a radical reassessment of material requirements for the campaign in the US, and temporarily reversed the noisy growth of war weariness in France and the UK.
In other words, although many other factors would influence the fate of both sides on the Western Front during the next few months, the stalemate was finally broken a hundred years ago today. So where’s that fanfare…?