Spring Offensive
Germany's last gamble for victory
21 March - 12 July 1918
author Paul Boșcu, April 2018
During the Spring offensive the German Army attempted to defeat the French and British armies before large scale American mobilization would alter the balance of the front. Although the offensive saw the Germans made the largest territorial advances since 1914, on both sides of the conflict, they could not force a decisive defeat on the Anglo-French forces.
The 1918 Spring Offensive, also known as the Ludendorff Offensive, was a series of attacks made by the German Army on the Western Front of the First World War. The offensive was designed by the Germans to overwhelm the Entente before the overpowering material and human resources of the United States could be fully deployed. In the end, the German offensive stalled, and the Entente began their own offensive operation, known as the Hundred Days Offensive, which would ultimately lead to a German retreat, the collapse of the Hindenburg Line and the end of the war.

During the offensive, the Germans had superiority in numbers for the first time on the Western Front, because they were able to redirect troops from the East after the defeat of the Russians. There were four offensives and no clear objective was established for them: the targets of the attacks were changed according to battlefield conditions.

Planning at the operational level in the winter of 1917-18 was as confused as that of overall strategy. If the aim was to knock out France, Verdun was still the sector that could be treated in isolation. But the battle of 1916 carried its own lesson: the French army would not easily give in. The British army was seen as a softer nut; less adroit and less committed to holding ground which was not its own.

A major retraining program was instituted during the winter in an attempt to acquaint more units with the tactics developed by the elite assault units, or storm troops, over the previous two years. Approximately one quarter of German infantry divisions were designated 'attack divisions' and received the best new equipment and weapons, including light machine-guns. The remainder, primarily responsible for holding the line, were classified as 'trench divisions'.

With their formations not only weakened by recent battles and reorganization but also containing large numbers of raw conscripts, the British were hardly in an ideal condition to resist the approaching German onslaught.

The overall situation in the war had not really changed: Germany was still likely to lose, but the Bolshevik Revolution and collapse of Russia had given her just a small window of opportunity in which she might possibly wrest victory from the clutches of defeat. Numerically the situation had never been more promising for the Germans, but the American forces were gathering and casting a long shadow across German plans. For the Germans, time was of the essence: whatever they were going to do would have to be done quickly. They had six months in which to change the course of the war.

The Russians had fought hard, but now they were finished, torn apart internally by competing visions of society and about to enter a nightmare that would envelop the country for decades.

The collapse of the Eastern Front freed the German High Command from the two-front conundrum that had racked it during the previous years. By the spring of 1918 when the German divisions had transferred from the Eastern Front to the Western Front, they were able to deploy some 192 divisions opposing only 156 Entente divisions.

The Germans were certainly nervously awaiting the American arrival: ‘I felt obliged to count on the new American formations beginning to arrive in the spring of 1918. In what numbers they would appear could not be foreseen; but it might be taken as certain that they would balance the loss of Russia; further, the relative strengths would be more in our favor in the spring than in the late summer and autumn, unless, indeed, we had by then gained a great victory.’ (Quartermaster General Erich Ludendorff, General Headquarters)

There was a distinct possibility that the German effort would dissipate itself in divergent directions. Germany had sufficient resources for one major offensive, but seemed to be committing itself to a series of indecisive engagements.

For the first time since February 1916, the German Army was planning a major offensive on the Western Front. Success on the battlefield would fulfil a domestic objective: it would give the military popular legitimacy. Many senior army officers were of the view that it was too late, that the German Army could mount only limited offensives. For the moment, as long as the ordinary soldiers could see the possibility of victory, German morale held good.

General Max Hoffmann reckoned that Germany should seek a compromise peace without annexations, others held that it should roll up like a hedgehog and fight a defensive battle on shortened lines.

‘Our superiors and the newspapers assured us that big events were approaching. As far as we were told there were only 30,000 Americans in France, most of them inexperienced soldiers. There were more Americans to come, but then we had hundreds of submarines that controlled the seas. Now that the whole Eastern Army had been transferred to the West, a million men strong, it seemed to us that the next offensive would bring victory and peace.’ (Corporal Frederick Meisel, 371st Infantry Regiment)

Morale, which had slumped in late October 1917, did rise in the lead up to the offensives in the west. ‘Everywhere men are working feverishly’, one soldier wrote home, ‘and the picture on the roads is as excited as in the first months of the war.’ But the enthusiasm was conditional: it assumed that the offensive would end the war. Going forward seemed to be the shortest and quickest way home.

Crown Prince Rupprecht was not happy. This was the first offensive in the west that Ludendorff had mounted, and he believed that the General underestimated the difficulties. When he pointed out that the attack did ‘not lead in any favorable operational direction’, Ludendorff replied: ‘In Russia we have always set ourselves a close objective and then seen how things develop.’ Rupprecht responded with two observations: first, that tactical success could not be an end in itself and second, that fighting the Russians was not the same thing as taking on the British or French. Rupprecht was marginalized.

The German principle of delegating command forward, which applied at the forward edge of the battlefield, was not applied at the level of higher command. Only Ludendorff could resolve disputes, and it was clear that his own conceptual grasp was limited. ‘Ludendorff is a man of absolute determination,’ Rupprecht noted, ‘but determination alone is not enough, if it is not combined with clear-headed intelligence.’

When the United States of America entered the war in April 1917, its situation to some extent mirrored that of Britain in 1914. The American regular army was in the process of expanding from 25,000 to around 142,000 men as part of a program triggered by the National Defence Act introduced by President Woodrow Wilson. However, there were immediate logistical problems. The American political and military establishment were determined to create their own AEF fighting with a separate identity, under American leadership. The leader they chose to command the AEF was a formidable character: General John Pershing.

The Americans would face incredible problems in securing a rapid and massive increase in their Army, their only advantage over the BEF in 1914 being that they were not immediately embroiled in severe fighting, so at least they could draw on a solid core of trained regulars to help train masses of raw recruits.

Wilson acted quickly, calling up the entire National Guard and introducing a system of conscription that would ultimately register some 24 million men for the draft, of which 2,800,000 were called up for service. In all, fifty-five divisions would be raised, of which forty-two would serve on the Western Front.

The Americans lacked everything: uniforms, weapons, artillery, tanks, aircraft, transport, munitions, housing and rations. Some of these could be dealt with by the huge American industrial base, but when it came to sophisticated weapons systems such as artillery, aircraft and tanks, the Americans were forced to rely on purchasing them off the shelf from their allies. They simply did not have the time to do otherwise.

There were nowhere near enough officers or NCOs, not enough trained staff, gunners, signallers or machine gunners, or indeed any of the myriad specialist trades that make up an army. And of course they had no experienced generals qualified to take them into action in a continental war. The British and French suggested a solution, offering to take the American recruits into their own units and train and equip them ready for service. This may have had some logic, but it was not politically acceptable in the United States and was rejected out of hand.

A far more reasonable proposal by the British was to include an American battalion in each British brigade, before creating American brigades which would serve in a British division, then an American division in a British corps and so on, until a fully fledged American Army was created. The Americans rejected this proposal.

After attending West Point Military Academy, Pershing had participated in several campaigns against Native American tribes. He had also been involved in both the Spanish-American and Philippine-American Wars. He was promoted rapidly to Brigadier General, taking on various staff appointments. His most recent campaign had been on the Mexican border from 1916 to 1917.

As a professional soldier Pershing had taken an interest in both the fighting and all the tactical ramifications thrown up on the Western Front, but had not grasped the severity of the problems imposed by trench warfare. He was critical of what he characterized as the defensive approach of the Entente generals. As such he had a naive confidence in the ability of the high morale and superior rifle skills of his men to overcome such factors as artillery barrages, machine guns and barbed wire. In harboring these beliefs he was following a path trodden by many others with little success earlier in the war.

The AEF grew slowly. The 1st Division was sent to the Western Front almost immediately, in June 1917, but after that the program stalled under the pressure of training the millions of recruits back home: only four divisions had arrived by March 1918. They were organized on radically different lines to the French and British divisions and, with some 28,000 men, they were twice their size. But in essence the AEF was still set on entering the line and making an impact as a separate entity.

Often, as their training and equipment had not yet reached acceptable levels, they required a prolonged acclimatization and training period before they could be regarded as competent to take their place in the line of battle. In particular, they were taught trench warfare skills only after their arrival in France. Despite the initial intentions of the Americans, units had to be attached to British and French units in order to gain experience in the line, while a series of training schools was established to disseminate the disparate specialist skills required in a modern army.

While the British army was fighting its desperate defensive action against the second of Ludendorff’s offensives, author Vera Brittain, serving as a nurse in Étaples, saw a contingent of American soldiers march down the road. They looked like ‘Tommies in heaven’. ‘I pressed forward ... to watch the United States physically entering the War, so god-like, so magnificent, so splendidly unimpaired in comparison with the tired, nerve racked men of the British Army.’

The confidence and self-assurance of the AEF both helped and hindered its soldiers in its adaptation to European warfare. It bred a courage not yet dimmed by age, loss and experience; a product of ignorance and naivety. But what Pershing could not accept was that in losing that vigor, which they too had possessed in 1914, the British and French armies had also learnt tactical wisdom.

The British High Command was well aware of the situation. In fact General Sir William Robertson had explicitly warned Prime Minister David Lloyd George that the Central Powers would concentrate their resources on the Western Front and that they must match that concentration or risk defeat. Yet Lloyd George was blind to such warnings, still convinced that there was another way to victory through the soft underbelly of Italy and the Balkans, or indeed anywhere except the Western Front, where the British would have to face the might of the German Army.

Lloyd George had a horror of further offensives like the Somme or Third Ypres. He had completely lost faith in his Commander-in-Chief, Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig. This would prove to be a serious matter as Lloyd George, the consummate politician, was a formidable opponent for anyone. All that held him back from dismissing Haig outright was the necessity of working hand in glove with the Conservatives, who had been members of the Coalition Government since 1915. They were broadly in support of Haig. It was clear that an open move to dismiss him would probably trigger a political crisis that could bring down the whole administration.

To bring Haig to heel and reduce his capacity to launch any great offensives, Lloyd George sought to reduce the number of men made available to the British Expeditionary Force. In the first instance he backed the French demands that Haig take over more of the front line on the Western Front. This appeared to be fair, as the British had only 100 miles of front compared to the 350 miles held by the French. But a large part of the French sector was not active and could be held with minimal troops. This was in sharp contrast to the British line, with its concentration of hot spots at Ypres, Arras and the Somme.

Through Lloyd George’s intervention, Haig was forced in January 1918 to take over another section of line south of the Somme River, with the consequence that half the German divisions on the Western Front were facing the British sector. This extra commitment had to be undertaken at a time when Lloyd George was also deliberately retaining huge numbers of troops in the British Isles, troops that Haig needed to restock his divisions eroded by the battles of 1917.

The ‘Welsh wizard’ recognized an opportunity lurking within the proposals for a Supreme War Council to provide unified direction for the war effort which had been agreed at a conference held in the aftermath of the disaster at the Battle of Caporetto. The membership was intended to include the national prime ministers and a senior military representative from each allied country. Lloyd George gained French support when he proposed that a permanent General Staff should be formed without the involvement of the national Chiefs of General Staff. In the end, Robertson resigned his position as Chief of the Imperial General Staff.

Early on, Lloyd George saw this as a chance to evade the Westerner influence of Haig and Robertson, his official professional advisers. He had already curried favor with the French government by adopting its point of view on numerous occasions against his own military. Now they had returned the favor.

Lloyd George’s selection for the British adviser was the controversial figure of Lieutenant General Sir Henry Wilson, who was not a confidant of either Haig or Robertson. From the start, Lloyd George was intent on using the Supreme War Council to evade the unwelcome advice proffered by his own military advisers. This ultimately forced the resignation of an outraged Robertson, who was then promptly replaced as CIGS by Wilson.

The initial meetings of the Supreme War Council achieved little of note, for while everyone agreed on the necessity of establishing an reserve force, no one was willing to contribute the troops that would make it a reality. But Lloyd George had removed one of Haig’s powerful allies with the departure of Robertson. He had certainly secured a more malleable source of professional advice in Wilson.

Overall, Lloyd George had ensured that Haig was forced to put his troops on a defensive stand on the Western Front in 1918. In truth, the darkening strategic situation would have forced a more defensive approach in any event, and all that Lloyd George achieved was to starve his field commander of the troops he needed to hold back the German offensive in one of the decisive battles of the war.

The Germans decided to launch their offensive against the British, whom they recognized as the driving force of the Entente on the Western Front in 1918. General Erich Ludendorff considered that a crushing victory against the British would be decisive, as the French would then collapse in tandem. The onslaught, code-named Operation Michael, would be truly terrific, with three strong German armies crashing into the thin British lines. Strategic issues were not dominant in Ludendorff’s mind. His concentration was on securing a tactical victory on the battlefield rather than worrying exactly what might be achieved in the subsequent operations.

During the planning process a variety of schemes were drawn up by the German staff: Operation George, attacking in the Lys River sector in Flanders, then lunging straight for crucial rail junctions and the Channel ports; Operation Mars, an attack in the Arras area; and finally Operation Michael, in the southern Arras and Somme areas. In the end, put off by the problems of a spring offensive in the damp Flanders lowlands and slightly apprehensive of the strong Arras defences, Ludendorff opted for Operation Michael.

In the south the Eighteenth Army, commanded by General Oskar von Hutier, would attack either side of St Quentin and then advance to guard the southern flank of the whole offensive effort. In the centre the Second Army, commanded by General Georg von der Marwitz, would pinch out the southern sector of the Flesquières Salient and thrust on to Péronne. In the north the Seventeenth Army, under General Otto von Below, would attack south of the River Scarpe, pinching out the north side of the Flesquières Salient and driving on towards Bapaume. The intention then was to advance north and roll up the British line.

The Germans would be unveiling their new offensive tactics, which had been developed over the last three years, partly on the Eastern Front, partly in the west, and which had been tested most recently in the counterattack at Cambrai. They would use their artillery to give the defending British the opportunity to experience first hand what the Germans had been enduring since 1916 – the awesome power of a mass hurricane barrage, concentrated to suppress or destroy all resistance.

The Germans collected thousands of artillery guns and heavy trench mortars and harnessed them to the principles espoused by their foremost artillery specialist, Lieutenant Colonel Georg Bruchmüller. His scrupulously-orchestrated fire plans were founded upon brief hurricane bombardments of prodigious intensity and weight, employing 'predicted' shooting techniques. Great care was taken to disrupt communications and concentration areas deep behind enemy lines.

Ludendorff planned to unleash Kaiserschlacht ('Imperial Battle') of successive, inter-related attacks that would together hasten the collapse of 'the whole structure' of the Entente armies. He judged that, if the British and Dominion forces were defeated, the others would inevitably capitulate in their wake. The initial German blow would therefore be delivered mainly against the BEF.

Storm troops were assigned a key role in Operation Michael, their task being to probe for weak spots in the opposing defences and to cause as much confusion as possible in rear areas through infiltration and envelopment. However, the artillery was arguably the most important element in the initial assault phase.

Ludendorff’s problem at the tactical level was less about theory and more in the practice. He reckoned standards had sunk so low that the army was little better than a militia. In the winter of 1917-18 a total of fifty-six divisions were brought out of the line for training in the attack. But the real emphasis was laid less on the skills of the unit and more on the morale of the individual.

The advent of new technology on the battlefield, the battle of matériel, had increased the strains to which the soldier was exposed. In seeking to motivate him the Germans returned to the principles of 1914: ‘the troops must have dash if an assault is to be successful’. The army was divided into mobile, attack and trench divisions, the first of these being given better rations and expected to lead the attack.

Haig was facing his most serious challenge yet, as he knew he did not have the troop numbers to be strong in defence everywhere, especially given the tremendous manpower implications of the switch to a defence in depth system. The Forward Zone was based on the old front line, but now with barbed wire and machine guns to cover the gaps between outposts and small redoubts. Behind this was the Battle Zone, constructed in lines but with strong redoubts to break up any German assaults. Further back was the Rear Zone, which was intended to be more of the same. But it had few trenches or strong points actually prepared on the ground.

Ignorant as he was of where Ludendorff intended to attack, Haig was brutally realistic in analyzing his predicament: his priority was the north, where the key strategic targets of the Channel ports and the major rail junction at Hazebrouck lay only a few miles behind the lines. There was very little room for maneuver here for General Sir Herbert Plumer’s Second Army – it had to hold.

Further south, General Sir Henry Horne’s First Army was responsible for the tactically significant heights of the Vimy and Lorette Ridges; next came General Sir Julian Byng’s Third Army covering Arras; and finally General Sir Hubert Gough’s Fifth Army held the Somme area.

In the most southern British sector, there were no really significant tactical or strategic objectives within forty miles of the front lines. Haig had to ignore Gough’s pleas for reinforcements even when reports coming in from the RFC observers made it clear that the Somme would be the seat of Ludendorff’s dreaded offensive. The Fifth Army would have to stand alone and, if attacked, fall back to a vaguely defined Emergency Line stretching along the Somme River.

Both Haig and Pétain had ordered the construction of systems which would allow their armies to adopt flexible defence in depth similar to that introduced by the Germans in 1916-1917. In the BEF's area it was intended that the system would embody Forward, Battle and Rear Zones, each comprising several successive lines of continuous trenches or groups of trenches besides mutually-supporting strong points and machine-gun posts sited for all-round defence. However, lack of time and labor shortages prevented the completion of the new positions.

The German attack began with a devastating artillery bombardment. The bombardment took place in carefully planned phases building up to a veritable symphony of destruction. The gas shells held the less obvious but more insidious threat. The German fire plan also played havoc with British command and control across the whole battlefield. All along the front the British Forward Zone was overrun by German stormtroopers, who pushed deep behind the lines, leaving any remaining centers of resistance to the follow-up troops. Soon the Germans pressed forward to attack the Battle Zone. The British resistance did, however, begin to stiffen.

‘With a crash our barrage begins from thousands and thousands, it must be from tens of thousands, of gun barrels and mortars, a barrage that sounds as if the world were coming to an end. For the first hour we only strafe the enemy artillery with alternative shrapnel, Green Cross and Blue Cross. The booming is getting more and more dreadful, especially as we are in a town between the walls of houses. The gunners stand in their shirtsleeves, with the sweat running down and dripping off them. Shell after shell is fired.’ (Lieutenant Herbert Sulzbach, 63rd Field Artillery)

Blue Cross shells contained a non-lethal gas compound which provoked havoc in the human respiratory system, disrupting breathing and causing vomiting. This forced its victims to remove their masks, at which point they would succumb to the lethal phosgene gas contained in the Green Cross shells. Meanwhile, the Yellow Cross shells contained the mustard gas which not only forced the soldiers to wear their gas masks for long periods but could render an area almost uninhabitable.

For the British gunners the sheer embuggerance of wearing gas masks had never been more obvious: ‘I adjusted my box respirator over my face, groped my way up the dark steps, crept under the first gas curtain, adjusted it behind me, then under the second and so found myself outside in the sunken road. It was still almost dark and there was a thick mist. Shells were falling everywhere. It was a perfect hell – no other words can describe how utterly beastly it was. I felt my way up the sunken road towards the guns. The eyepieces of the respirator got fogged immediately and you could see nothing. I eventually found myself at the guns. The layers were experiencing the utmost difficulty in laying the guns, as they could not see owing to the mist. They had got their respirators off their faces in order to see better, retaining the nose clip and mouthpiece. I went to the map room and took the magnetic bearing of the target they were firing on, then, armed with a prismatic compass, I laid the guns as accurately as I could. I should not like to vouch for the accuracy of the fire, but the great thing was to get some shells over.’ (Lieutenant Edward Alfree, 111th Heavy Battery, Royal Garrison Artillery)

Headquarters previously identified by aerial reconnaissance were lashed with shells and the telephone lines were soon cut. No one knew what was happening; there could be little or no coordinated response. The confusion was exacerbated by the Germans’ secret weapon: fog. The swirling mists that reduced visibility to just a few yards in the worst hit sectors proved a further severe handicap to the British. The survivors of the bombardment were left cut off in their battered outposts, peering into the fog, desperate to see what the Germans were doing.

Often the British did not see the Germans crossing No Man’s Land until it was too late. All their carefully planned interlocking fields of machine gun fire and artillery support fire were rendered almost useless as, in a matter of moments, the Germans were upon them: ‘The first attackers were into the trench long before the mist lifted. I was so occupied with the flanks that I barely saw them before they appeared out of the mist and leapt down into the trench. In a moment we were all mixed up in hand-to-hand fighting. I had two men coming at me with their bayonets, one of whom I think I shot with my revolver, while a sergeant standing just behind me shot the other at point-blank range with his rifle barrel over my shoulder. But almost at the same second a German stick bomb came whistling into the trench from the parapet right into the bunch of us, and killed or wounded practically the whole lot of us – English and German alike. Whether it was actually this bomb or a bayonet stab that gave me the wound in my neck I don’t know – it might have been either. For a moment we were clear but there was a nasty little shambles round us – Sergeant Adcock, who had just saved my life, having his head blown off. I felt awfully weak and discovered that a river of blood was flowing from my neck. I tried to bandage it, but the bandage wouldn’t hold. Before they attacked again they brought up some trench mortars and knocked seven bells out of us – then swarmed into the trench. By that time there were only a handful of us left on our feet and all I suppose wounded. I got another wound from a stick bomb, which put a bit of metal into my thigh. Before I collapsed I tried to give the surrender signal, and hope I succeeded thereby in saving a few lives. We had done our best.’ (Captain Charles Miller, 2nd Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers)

The Battle Zone was where the main defence works were supposed to be, but a shortage of labor meant that they were not always ready for this kind of severe test. In some places the sheer speed of the German advance caught the defenders by surprise: ‘There came an unholy ‘BANG!’ in the stairway, showering the dugout with acrid smoke and dust. I guessed it was a hand grenade – and I was right! Lucky for me the thing had exploded halfway down the stairway otherwise I would have caught the full blast. Then there was a commotion upstairs and a guttural voice screamed, “Come up Tommy! Raus! Raus!” Simultaneously a revolver cracked out, the bullet slapping into a sandbag inches from my foot. We filed upstairs, our hands held high above our heads, to be greeted by a group of youngsters looking grim and threatening, bayonets fixed, rifles shoulder slung, each with a hand grenade swinging from his right hand. Some had pistols. My tongue felt like a dried frog.’ (Private James Brady, 43rd Field Ambulance, Royal Army Medical Corps)

The British lacked the counterattack divisions to recover lost features of tactical significance as required in a well-organized defence in depth. In consequence their defence was static and position-orientated, lacking flexibility and fluency of response. This was the legacy of Lloyd George’s policy of starving the Western Front of the men needed to restock the BEF.

By the end of the day the Germans had pushed their way deep into, or even through, the Battle Zone on both flanks of the Fifth Army. On the Third Army front the Germans were intent on pinching out the prominent Flesquières Salient left after the 1917 Cambrai fighting. They did not quite succeed in this, but the prospect of the entire garrison being cut off remained a distinct possibility. Gough sensibly planned a staged withdrawal rather than risk committing everything to holding a nominal line more evident on his maps than on the ground.

British divisions from the First and Second Armies had been dispatched to the threatened front once it became absolutely clear that this was the main attack, not some cunning diversionary ploy by the Germans.

The French Commander-in-Chief, General Philippe Pétain, was concerned by powerful diversionary bombardments carried out on his front. He still feared that the Germans might be intending a major thrust there. In consequence, he was wary of sending reinforcements.

Obviously, the German tactical position offered a great deal more potential, but Ludendorff’s response to these opportunities illustrates his lack of clearly defined strategic priorities: the Eighteenth Army in the south had advanced furthest, so he decided to reinforce their success. The original intention of rolling up the British line to the north was gradually being forgotten.

British corps commanders, unable to see what was happening, overreacted. ‘As soon as telegraphic & telephone communications with Brigades ceased to exist, Divisional Headquarters in many cases became paralyzed,’ one staff officer recalled. ‘They had become so welded to a set piece type of warfare, that, when open warfare occurred, they failed to appreciate the situation, and were unable to function independent of a fixed headquarters.’

The reason for the breakthrough was, quite simply, that the British commanders had practically all their troops in the forward positions. When those were immediately smashed by the barrage and then rolled over by the infantry, there were no troops behind them to plug the gap.

Next day there was another thick fog and the Germans made further progress against the Fifth Army, breaching the line being set up along the Crozat Canal and battering away at the British troops as they fell back. The sketched out Green Line proved worse than useless. Back they went, this time retreating to the Emergency Line delineated for the most part by the Somme River. To the north the Third Army was also falling back, deeply concerned at the prospect of the Germans pinching out the V Corps which was dangerously close to being trapped in the Flesquières Salient.

All along the line the British were being forced back, unable to gain the time to dig in and consolidate their positions. Soon chaos descended: ‘The stream of traffic moved so slowly – at times coming to a standstill for minutes on end, to allow other traffic to come in from other roads. There were several streams of traffic converging on the village. First one stream was held up to let another come on, and then that one was allowed to go on while the other was held up. There were traffic controls doing their best to regulate the traffic in this way. It was a hell of a crush. There was just a block of traffic, miles in length. It seemed absolutely hopeless to expect ever to get on. And now, on the face of the ridge just behind us, appeared some of our tanks, creeping across country and occasionally firing at something. What I dreaded and every moment expected was to see the Hun cavalry swooping down on us. But this did not happen. I don’t think the enemy could have had any cavalry, or he must have used it on an occasion such as this. What a haul he could have had! But he had got aeroplanes. Three of the beastly things appeared: swooping down low over the road and with machine guns rattling they flew up and down. They were also dropping bombs. I leapt lightly down a shell hole – a fairly deep one – and crouched against that side of the crater that afforded most protection. As the aeroplane passed over me, so I passed to the other side of the shell hole. I heard the bullets going “Zipp! Zipp! Zipp!” into the ground. They were so low as to induce some officers to shoot at them with revolvers, but of course this was a futile thing to do.’ (Lieutenant Edward Alfree, 111th Heavy Battery, Royal Garrison Artillery)

The German aircraft, with their most famous ace Manfred ‘The Red Baron’ von Richthofen, dived down, ripping into any tempting targets they encountered. There was surely plenty of choice.

Even the greatest ace of all was ground-strafing: ‘Richthofen continued to dive until he was close above the Roman road. Tearing along at a height of about 30 feet above the ground, he peppered the marching troops with his two guns. We followed close behind him and copied his example. The troops below us seemed to have been lamed with horror and, apart from the few men who took cover in the ditch at the roadside, hardly anyone returned our fire. On reaching the end of the road, the Captain turned and again fired at the column. We could now observe the effect of our first assault: bolting horses and stranded guns blocked the road, bringing the column to a complete standstill. This time our fire was returned. Infantrymen stood, with rifles pressed against their cheeks, and fired as we passed over them. Machine guns posted in the roadside ditches fired viciously at us as we flew overhead. Yet, despite the fact that his wings were riddled with bullets, the Captain still continued to fly just as low as before. We followed in close formation behind him, firing burst after burst from our Spandaus. The whole flight was like a united body, obeying a single will. And that was how it should have been.’ (Lieutenant Ernst Udet, Jasta 11, Jagdgeschwader 1)

The fragile British line along the Somme was soon breached and the Germans began to flood across the river. Gough had no reserves left and not enough reinforcements had yet arrived, although the French were beginning to stiffen the right of the British line. As the Fifth Army fell back, the Third Army was forced to conform or allow a gap to open up for the Germans to exploit.

While his army commanders struggled to stem the tide, Haig was trying to secure the whole-hearted support of the French. This proved difficult as Pétain was more intent on defending Paris than providing a coordinated response in support of the BEF. He seemed to be willing to accept that the two great armies might be forced apart: Haig falling back to the Channel ports and the French to Paris. To Haig this was nothing short of madness, condemning the Entente to defeat.

Desperate, Haig convened an emergency conference at Doullens to be attended for the British by the Minister without Portfolio Lord Milner, the CIGS General Sir Henry Wilson and Haig himself, with the French represented by Premier Georges Clemençeau, President Raymond Poincaré, the Chief of General Staff Field Marshal Ferdinand Foch and Pétain. What exactly happened will always be a subject of debate. Clemençeau seems to have used his force of personality to secure the French reinforcements and total commitment that Haig sought – but at a price: Foch would now be Supreme Commander for all Entente forces.

‘It was decided that Amiens must be covered at all costs. French troops are being hurried up as rapidly as possible and Gough has been told to hold on with his left at Bray. It was proposed by Clemençeau that Foch should be appointed to coordinate the operations of an Allied force to cover Amiens and ensure that the French and British flanks remained united. This proposal seemed to me quite worthless, as Foch would be in a subordinate position to Pétain and myself. In my opinion it was essential to success that Foch should control Pétain, so I at once recommended that Foch should control the actions of all the Allied armies on the Western Front. Foch seemed sound and sensible, but Pétain had a terrible look. He had the appearance of a commander who was in a funk and had lost his nerve.’ (Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, General Headquarters, BEF)

Haig accepted the situation with good grace. In any event for the past two years he had fallen in with the requirements of first Joffre, then Nivelle and now Pétain, so this was not such a big step. After a further meeting it was formally agreed that Foch would now be the Supreme Commander responsible for the strategic direction of the French, British and American Armies on the Western Front.

Foch's appointment raised morale and eased the pressure on Pétain and Haig. In addition, although French reserves did not arrive at once, there could no longer be any real doubt that the French would help to defend Amiens.

Having crossed the Somme the Germans were pushing on vigorously to the west. Yet as they pressed forward they too were suffering reverses. Their losses were mounting. Their lines of communication were being increasingly stretched; their artillery was in a state of disorder, unable to cope with the sheer pace of the advance.

Slowly the British reserves were beginning to arrive and the Royal Artillery was beginning to recover as new batteries were moved down from the north: ‘As the sky began to lighten in the dawn of 26th March we were as ready for them as if we had been preparing for a day’s practice shooting on Salisbury Plain. What a day that was! I could watch the German columns approaching one of my registered targets, and time the salvos of my own, and other batteries too to arrive there with them. The smother of shell fire would disperse them: watching them reorganize, I could do the same to another column elsewhere, and then switch back to the first to break it up a second time. All day long they came on, and all day long we shifted our fire from one point to another across those valleys. They had plenty of other well-aimed opposition, too: in fact Bucquoy became a new bastion of the British line which was never lost.’ (Major Richard Foot, ‘D’ Battery, 310th Brigade, Royal Field Artillery)

Soon the remnants of the Fifth Army were amalgamated with the French First and Third Armies to form the Group of Armies of Reserve under the unified command of General Émile Fayolle.

Gough was relieved of his command of the Fifth Army. This was perceived – especially by Gough – as unfair as there was little more he could have done in the circumstances. He was replaced by Sir Henry Rawlinson.

Suddenly Lloyd George’s objections to reinforcing the Western Front in accordance with the requirements of his generals were forgotten. Troops were released that had been held in Britain and divisions hitherto occupied by the plethora of minor campaigns in Italy, Palestine and elsewhere were suddenly made available. Hundreds of thousands of extra troops began to pour into France.

The Germans now unveiled a second string to their bow. They launched another furious attack under Operation Mars on either side of the Scarpe River in front of Arras, with the intention of driving into the junction of the First and Third Armies. Here, however, they were not blessed by fog, and the British defences were in far better shape. The stupefying bombardment opened and the German troops went over the top. This time things did not go their way: the German batteries had failed to suppress the British artillery. The operation was a failure.

Lieutenant John Capron was at the guns when the crucial moment came: ‘But now a jabber of machine guns swept up and a thousand star shells, red–green–red, the British SOS. Rush up and hang in the upper darkness. The Germans are over the top. Now it is our turn to join in with the response barrage. Until now we have only been under a desultory counter-battery fire but we are having to face a fiercer concentration – a determined blotting out. Faster and thicker whine down the shells, some well over, some short and some fearfully among us. The hideous energy, the dust and acrid reek, the blast and fury of each down rush makes us catch our breath – this is big stuff now! The ground heaves and seems to sway. It’s a case of surviving – or not! How could the infantry have lived through a barrage such as now spouts around us? Yet, through the nearer tumult, fitfully comes and swells and fades, the sound of rifle fire. Heartened, we slip and stumble perilously to and fro between gunpits and ammunition recesses. “Come on, 109s, the Londons are still there – give the bloody old Huns their rations!”’

The British were surviving sure enough and managed to deliver a severe rebuff to the advancing German infantry. Funnelled by barbed wire into machine gun traps, the Germans suffered heavy casualties: ‘Heavy machine gun fire unexpectedly appeared at the left flank from Fampoux, causing severe casualties especially among the officers. The attack slowed down a bit, causing the accompanying barrage of fire to lose connection with the attack and its purpose, covering the attacking infantry, was lost. In front of the Scots line, the English main position, the attack would be stopped, because the enemy infantry, protected by the cover of machine gun fire from their Fampoux positions, resisted fiercely, driving our infantry into the trenches for cover, halting further development. The repeated attack in the afternoon also didn’t succeed. The strong English infantry defensive actions were backed by their regrouped artillery batteries that were firing at their own well known positions, now occupied and overfilled by us.’ (Lieutenant Gerhard Dose, Headquarters, 187th Infantry Regiment)

Although some small gains were made overall, Operation Mars was a failure and Ludendorff decided to close it down immediately: ‘In spite of employing extraordinary masses of artillery and ammunition, the attack of the Seventeenth Army on both banks of the Scarpe was a failure; it was fought under an unlucky star.’ (Quartermaster General Erich Ludendorff, General Headquarters) The truth was that it had nothing to do with luck: the Germans had been beaten by well-manned, well-prepared British defences.

Back on the Somme, the Germans were also encountering stiff resistance. The French divisions were even beginning to launch counterattacks to stabilize the front. Ludendorff called a pause to consider his options and allow his own exhausted troops to rest and reorganize. When the offensive burst back into life with a concerted drive on the town of Villers-Bretonneux, in front of Amiens, the assault was checked with the assistance of the Australian Corps brought down from the north. The great German St Michael Spring Offensive was over.

Many of the British troops were utterly exhausted, but now at last fresh troops were arriving: ’Our men are gaunt and weary, unwashed and with eight days’ growth of beard, their lips raw and deeply chapped by the salted bully beef they have gnawed, and the coldness of the March winds. Most are limping painfully, for few have a change of socks with them or have had their boots off for eight days and nights. Over and over again we have been promised a relief which never comes, until a numbness of sensation has come over us all. They obey orders mechanically but sink fast asleep when opportunity offers.’ (Second Lieutenant Frank Warren, 17th King’s Royal Rifle Corps)

The results were a disappointment for the Germans, who needed outright victory here to give them any hope of winning the war before the Americans could deploy in strength on the Western Front. Their original intention to break through and roll up the British lines had been abandoned in an attempt to separate the British and French Armies by a powerful drive on the rail junction at Amiens. But this too had failed. However, some ground had been gained. But this was surely the whole point: much of that ground had been abandoned voluntarily during the retreat of March 1917 to secure a better tactical position.

Now the Germans were the possessors of an ugly 40-mile salient deep into the Entente lines that was far less secure than their previous Hindenburg Line fortress. They had achieved tactical successes, smashing the Fifth Army and inflicting some 178,000 British and 92,000 French casualties. Yet the Germans themselves suffered 239,000 casualties. Almost as General Helmuth Moltke the Elder had predicted so many years before, the Germans could not win in this kind of exchange. They had to win outright. But they had failed and, whatever the drama, whatever the trauma they were suffering, the Entente were still on course to win the war.

Territorially the attacks of late March 1918 produced the most significant advances in the west since 1914. They reached almost forty miles, and threatened the vital railway junction of Amiens. But they followed the line of least enemy resistance. Consequently, the German advances were greatest to the south, where they had less strategic effect.

The Germans could not keep up with their own success. Deprived of horses, they lacked cavalry to exploit and transport to bring up artillery and supplies. German units in the front line were not relieved, but were expected to sustain the momentum of the advance. The best were killed, and those who survived stopped to plunder and loot: ‘we are already in the English rest areas’, author Rudolph Binding wrote as his unit approached Albert, ‘a land flowing with milk and honey’.

After Operation Michael ended, the Germans could not rest. Ludendorff decided to attack the British again, but this time in Flanders, where they had little space to maneuver. Operation Georgette, or the Battle of the Lys was to be launched. The plan was to knock the British out of the war by crashing through the lines, surging forward to take the Hazebrouck rail centre some twenty miles east of Armentières, threatening the security of the Ypres Salient, and ultimately seeking to take Dunkirk and Calais.

On the first day, the German Sixth Army would attack the Second and First Armies in the Lys Valley sector around Armentières and La Bassée Canal, while on the second day the German Fourth Army would assault all along the Messines Ridge, aiming for Mont Kemmel and threatening to encircle Ypres.

This was the attack Haig had feared, and the reason why Gough had been forced to stand alone for so long while the safety of Flanders was ensured. But even so, of the fifty-six British divisions, forty-six had already been sucked into the fighting in repelling the German assaults on the Somme and at Arras.

Ludendorff's order for the Flanders offensive to go ahead was given even before Michael was terminated. This second offensive, however, was scaled down from the original plan.

While British defences on this front were better, the BEF's reserves were now dangerously thin. The Germans too were showing distinct signs of strain from the March fighting. The majority of their assault formations for Georgette were 'trench divisions' rather than 'attack divisions'.

The German barrage followed the usual pattern before the infantry went forward. Given the low-lying nature of the ground it was no surprise that the battlefield was swathed in a thick fog which concealed the movements of the German troops. The main thrust fell onto a weak Portuguese corps which was holding the Lys Valley sector. Many of the Portuguese units disintegrated and the Germans burst through the Forward Zone. The German attack achieved considerable progress, advancing some five and a half miles and capturing around 100 guns. Yet they still had not broken through; the British reserves had managed to maintain a continuous line.

Portugal was a long-standing ally of Britain which had initially remained neutral, until tensions with Germany over U-boat warfare and a series of clashes with German forces around the Portuguese colonies in Africa dragged her into the war in March 1916. Portuguese troops had begun to arrive on the Western Front where they were incorporated into the BEF.

It would be fair to say that the majority of the Portuguese troops were unenthusiastic participants in a global war for which they held little regard. After a long, cold, hard winter, they were overdue relief but, given the situation, it had not yet been achieved.

It is worth noticing that the British 40th Division, next in line to the north, did little better than the Portuguese as it too crumbled under the onslaught. However, to the south the 55th Division not only repulsed the German attack but also managed to bend back to provide a defensive flank where the Portuguese had given way.

Haig urgently demanded that the French take over more of the British line and send reserves. But Foch played a waiting game while he established whether this was just a diversion before another assault on the Somme.

The German Fourth Army made its attack stretching from Armentières all along the Messines Ridge manned by Plumer’s Second Army. The British were forced to cede ground, falling back from the Messines Ridge, the prize gained in June 1917. Yet the Germans had still not broken through. The retreat all along the line was to a greater or lesser degree controlled in character. But the British had little room for maneuver, as the Germans were getting far too close to the Hazebrouck rail junction for comfort, behind which lay the Channel ports and the specter of total defeat. In the end the Germans were stopped just in front of Hazebrouck.

After a sustained barrage Corporal Frederick Meisel and the German 371st Infantry Regiment pushed into the town, toward the railway station: ‘From the station we were greeted with rifle and machine gun fire. Here and there some of the men were hit and fell. Cries and groans were heard, orders shouted, the war was on again, taking its toll of victims. Before we had time to form ourselves again and return the fire, the whining sound of heavy German shells passed over our heads. A second later they crashed into the station, caving it in with loud bursts of fire and steel, ripping up the platform and twisting the rails out of position. A few more shells hit around the station, uprooting telegraph poles and sending steel splinters and shrapnel flying through the air. The shell fire ceased and we attacked. But in the debris life still existed; desperate men defending a ruin. Bullets whistled from it and more familiar faces vanished. With fixed bayonets the station was stormed to be met by a handful of Scottish infantry. Our Lieutenant made gestures for them to surrender, but his good intentions were repulsed by a loud yell, “Go to hell!” to be followed by several shots. Karl threw several hand grenades into their barricades which exploded filling the ruins with smoke and dust, making the few shattered walls crack and fall, burying the defenders. Then we reached the station. Among piles of bricks and splintered planks lay bleeding and groaning men. Some lay stiff and cold, their bodies and faces covered with earth and blood. The place was littered with torn equipment, broken and twisted rifles and splintered furniture. On one of the cracked walls still hung the placard of the French railroad company, which ironically enough showed a beautiful seashore scene in the south of France.’

On 11 April Haig tried to stiffen the morale of his men with a special order of the day: ‘Many amongst us now are tired. To those I would say that victory will belong to the side which holds out the longest. The French Army is moving rapidly and in great force to our support. There is no other course open to us but to fight it out. Every position must be held to the last man: there must be no retirement. 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 safety of our homes and the freedom of mankind alike depend upon the conduct of each one of us at this critical moment.’

As British reserves began to reach the front, the German advance was gradually stemmed: Merville, Nieppe and Bailleul fell in the days that followed, but fresh British divisions and the few French formations released by Foch managed to stop the German advance just short of Hazebrouck.

The German plans to cut off the Ypres Salient garrison were also thwarted by a timely retreat right back to the Pilckem Ridge. The ground for which they had suffered so much in the 1917 offensive had to be surrendered, but the situation was thus stabilized.

The British withdrew from Armentières, which was situated between the converging German thrusts. Despite the Doullens agreement, Haig's pleas to Foch for assistance seemed initially to go unheeded, though even Foch was finding it difficult to force a gloomy and grudging Pétain to release the necessary reserves. As the Germans pushed on to within five miles of Hazebrouck, Haig knew that he once again faced a crisis.

With the Germans consolidating their hold on Messines Ridge, Plumer was obliged to make the agonising but tactically necessary decision to abandon Passchendaele Ridge – won at such high cost the previous fall. He pulled his forces back to a less vulnerable perimeter closer to Ypres.

The German attack commenced on the Somme Front. It was noteworthy for featuring the first clash between opposing tanks as three lumbering German A7Vs encountered three British Mark IVs. The Germans had not considered tanks a particular priority, concentrating their efforts on artillery. The tanks’ efforts were of little importance in the scheme of things. With the capture of Villers-Bretonneux, the way to Amiens seemed wide open. It was left to the Australian Corps to launch a last-ditch night attack to regain the town. Villers-Bretonneux was recaptured, but more importantly the gateway to Amiens had been firmly shut.

The Germans had begun experimenting and eventually developed the A7V tank, which was a large high-sided tracked vehicle containing a crew of up to eighteen, armed with one 57 mm gun and six machine guns, and a claimed speed in active service conditions of about 3 miles per hour. The Germans had started too late and this, their first design, was not entirely practical, since it was unable to cross trenches and was prone to mechanical failure. There were also very few of them.

‘There was a howling as of demons as the 57th, fighting mad, drove through the wire, through their enemy. The wild cry rose to a voluminous, vengeful roar. There was no quarter on either side. Bathed in spurting blood they killed and killed. Bayonets passed with ease through grey-clad bodies and were withdrawn with a sucking noise. Some found chances in the slaughter to light cigarettes, then continued the killing. Then, as they looked for more victims, there were cries of, ‘There they go, there they go!’ and over heaps of big, dead Germans they sprang in pursuit. One huge Australian advanced firing a Lewis gun from the shoulder, spraying the ground with lead. It is unlikely that any of the enemy escaped their swift, relentless pursuers. They were slaughtered against the lurid glare of the fire in the town. One saw running forms in the dark, and the flashes of rifles, then the evil pyre in the town flared and showed to their killers the white faces of Germans lurking in shell holes, or flinging away their arms and trying to escape, only to be stabbed or shot down as they ran. Machine gun positions were discovered burrowed under haystacks, crammed with men, who on being found were smashed and mangled by bomb after bomb after bomb. It was impossible to take prisoners. Men could not be spared to take them to the rear.’ (Sergeant William Downing, 57th Battalion, AIF) The Australian troops were beginning to carve out a formidable reputation on the Western Front.

Lieutenant Frank Mitchell recalled his first view of the German tanks: ‘Suddenly, out of the ground 10 yards away, an infantryman rose, waving his rifle furiously. We stopped. He ran forward and shouted through the flap, “Look out! Jerry tanks about!” Swiftly he disappeared into the trench again. I informed the crew and a great thrill ran through us all. Opening a loophole, I looked out. There, some 300 yards away, a round, squat looking monster was advancing. Behind it came waves of infantry, and further away to left and right crawled two more of these armed tortoises. The 6-pounder gunners crouching on the floor, their backs against the engine cover, loaded their guns expectantly. We still kept on a zig-zag course, threading the gaps between the lines of hastily dug trenches, and coming near the small protecting belt of wire, we turned left, and the right gunner, peering through his narrow slit, made a sighting shot. The shell burst some distance beyond the leading enemy tank. No reply came. A second shot boomed out, landing just to the right, but again there was no reply. More shots followed. Suddenly, a hurricane of hail pattered against our steel wall, filling the interior with myriads of sparks and flying splinters. Something rattled against the steel helmet of the driver sitting next to me and my face was stung with minute fragments of steel. The crew flung themselves flat on the floor. The driver ducked his head and drove straight on. Above the roar of our engine sounded the staccato rat tat-tat-tat of machine guns and another furious jet of bullets sprayed our steel side, the splinters clanging viciously against the engine cover. The Jerry tank had treated us to a broadside of armour-piercing bullets!’

Now that he had greater control over the handling of reserves, Foch rapidly introduced a rotation system permitting British divisions to move to quiet French sectors and release French formations to buttress threatened parts of the Entente line.

After a short pause to allow for some reorganization, the Germans relaunched their offensive all along the front, but suffered severe casualties for no gains. A further lull ended when the Germans launched a mass attack on the French forces defending the heights of Mont Kemmel. Although the French had been overrun, their artillery could still hit back hard. The Germans and the French were locked in a death grip, neither seemingly able to let go. New units arrived and were fed into the maw of battle. In the end, despite their best efforts, the Germans had gained ground, but they had not defeated their British and French opponents.

‘Suddenly our artillery fire stopped. An awful silence followed the terrific noise. A whistle shrilled, bayonets were fixed. Another whistle signalled the descent into the valley. Not a sound, not a rifle shot could be heard from the opposite side. Crossing the valley we stopped to readjust ourselves and began to climb the hill before us. Now we discovered why it had been so quiet, for over this territory lay the silence of death. The shell holes were filled with ghastly and bloody messes; freshly built trenches had caved in burying the occupants. Stumbling over mutilated bodies we reached the summit.’ (Corporal Frederick Meisel, 371st Infantry Regiment)

There was little enthusiasm, that much is plain: ’We shall only be relieved after a 60 per cent loss of troops; the men are beginning to wish for, not death, but just to be wounded so that they can get out as soon as possible. This leads to endless suppositions; one man gives up his hand, another his arm, provided it’s the left one; yet another goes as far as a leg, declaring that where he comes from men like this manage quite well. But what frightens them most, is being wounded in the stomach or some other vital organ. Then the conversation turns to the ambulance, the hospital, plans for convalescence, rest at home, and what to do so as not to return to the front. In every sort of sector like this, the conversation revolves around the same topic. There is no longer even any mention of the civilians and their cosy life. No, you are stuck there waiting, simply trying to snatch some part of yourself from death, you don’t even ask to escape unharmed, it seems too impossible, your only wish is to leave as little as possible of yourself behind on the battlefield.’ (Captain Henri Desagneux, 359th Infantry Regiment)

Into battle went the French, soon inflicting their fears on their German counterparts. Now the Germans had to adapt to the horror of being counterattacked in makeshift positions, deluged with shells while already exhausted by the accumulated traumas of trench fighting: ‘Through the damp glasses of my mask I saw dim outlines of men appear and when they approached more closely I could distinguish French uniforms and dull blinking bayonets. Gruen threw himself behind the machine gun and I instinctively pointed the barrel of the machine gun into the mist towards the advancing enemy. His hands tightened themselves round the handles while his thumbs pressed on the triggers. Flames spurted from the barrel of the guns and I saw the Frenchmen plunge headlong into the grass.’ (Corporal Frederick Meisel, 371st Infantry Regiment)

During the build-up to the attack on the Somme, one of the great German heroes of the war fought his last battle. Captain Manfred von Richthofen – the young ingénu of 1916, the merciless killer of 1917, the inspirational leader of 1918 – was killed in action on 21 April 1918. The British treated Richthofen’s body with great respect, organizing a funeral with full military honors. Entente pilots stationed nearby presented memorial wreaths at the funeral. One of them said: ‘To Our Gallant and Worthy Foe’. The Red Baron had won even the respect of his enemies.

It seemed that nothing could stop Richthofen. A combination of accurate intuitive pilot, brilliant tactician and patient teacher, he was the complete ace, an unbeatable force of nature. But this potent symbol of German manhood would be shot down. His last moments were spent chasing a young Canadian pilot, Lieutenant Wilfred May: ‘The enemy aircraft were coming at me from all sides, I seemed to be missing some of them by inches, there seemed to be so many of them the best thing I thought to do was to go into a tight vertical turn, hold my guns open and spray as many as I could. The fight was at very close quarters; there seemed to be dozens of machines around me. Through lack of experience I held my guns open too long, one jammed and then the other. I could not clear them, so I spun out of the mess and headed west into the sun for home. After I levelled off I looked around but nobody was following me. I was patting myself on the back, feeling pretty good getting out of that scrape. This wasn’t to last long, and the first thing I knew I was being fired on from the rear. I could not fight back unfortunately, so all I could do was to try to dodge my attacker. I noticed it was a red triplane, but if I had realised it was Richthofen I would have probably passed out on the spot. We came over the German lines, troops fired at us as we went over; this was also the case coming over the British lines. I got on the Somme River and started up the valley at a very low altitude. I kept on dodging and spinning, I imagine from about 12,000 feet until I ran out of sky and had to hedge-hop over the ground. Richthofen was firing at me continually, the only thing that saved me was my poor flying. I didn’t know what I was doing myself and I do not suppose that Richthofen could figure out what I was going to do. Richthofen was very close on my tail. I went around a curve in the river just near Corbie. Richthofen beat me to it and came over the hill. At that point I was a sitting duck. I was too low down between the banks to make a turn away from him. I felt that he had me cold, and I was in such a state of mind at this time that I had to restrain myself from pushing my stick forward into the river as I knew that I had had it.’

Richthofen, the master of the skies, had made a series of dreadful mistakes. Perhaps tired, stressed, fixated by his latest target, or simply carried away by over-confidence, he was flying alone, well behind British lines. Failing to watch his tail, he came under a burst of fire from a Canadian ace, Captain Roy Brown; flying far too low, he was also vulnerable to several Vickers and Lewis machine guns firing from the ground; and of course he was a target for every strolling infantryman that fancied his chances. Richthofen’s Fokker Triplane came down behind British lines with the great man dead in the cockpit.

Richthofen had been one of the men who had defined aerial warfare, building on the pioneer work of Max Immelmann and Oswald Boelcke. Now he too was gone, but by this time the lessons had been disseminated throughout the whole German Air Service. His work was done.

This time Ludendorff resolved to launch an attack on the French. The operation was codenamed Blücher, but it is also known as the Third Battle of the Aisne. The German Seventh and First Armies would attack the French Sixth Army stretched out along the Chemin des Dames Ridge. The idea was to suck in Entente reserves, thereby leaving the British vulnerable to a great new Flanders offensive, codenamed Operation Hagen. It was ironic, then, that several British divisions were innocently holding a quiet sector of the French line that was about to be attacked. They had been sent there to recuperate.

Ludendorff was becoming increasingly desperate. He had captured large swathes of despoiled ground, ruined villages, shattered copses and blasted roads, but he had failed to knock the British out of the war. Two large salients bulged into the British lines, but these were sources of weakness rather than strength. The British were still on their feet; the Americans were still on their way.

The American Expeditionary Force, of course, represented the long-term solution to the manpower difficulties currently being experienced by the Entente. Although he relented a little during the successive crises of the spring and early summer, Pershing continued to rebuff attempts to incorporate American soldiers in British and French units. He strove, as far as possible, to keep the AEF intact as a distinct component of the Entente forces, so that it could ultimately undertake offensive operations as a national army under its own commanders.

The British forces had unquestionably been badly hurt by the German earlier offensives but had survived these gigantic blows mostly without external assistance. As a result, the BEF's morale rapidly recovered from the trials of the past few months.

Ludendorff was disturbed by evidence of a sharp decline in the discipline and morale of German troops, many of whom now tended to loiter around captured enemy supply dumps. Indeed, certain divisions had shown a marked reluctance to attack during the recent operations on the Lys.

Some influential figures in the German Army, including Fritz von Lossberg, expressed doubts concerning the wisdom of launching more offensives. Ludendorff conceded that the German Army could no longer sustain two simultaneous offensives. However, he also knew that Germany's numerical superiority would not last and he must therefore order further offensives to achieve the elusive victory before American manpower finally and irrevocably gave the enemy the strategic advantage.

The German artillery plan was once more prepared by the brilliant Bruchmüller, who had been nicknamed Durchbruch Müller ('Breakthrough Müller') by German soldiers.

When the Germans attacked, the battered British divisions were totally unable to hold the line. The German infantry tore through the French and British front lines. Soon the survivors were streaming back across the Aisne. As their units disintegrated, neither the British nor the French could stem the German advance. A hole some thirty-five miles wide and twelve miles deep was ripped into their lines.

It was doubly unfortunate for the Entente that General Denis Auguste Duchêne, the commander of the French Sixth Army, was unable to grasp the concept of defence in depth, determined as he was to hold the ground along the ridge top that had been won at so much cost in previous years. As a result, far too high a proportion of his units were concentrated in the Forward Zone, which made them excessively vulnerable to the German bombardment that began with awesome force.

‘A thousand guns roared out their iron hurricane. The night was rent with sheets of flame. The earth shuddered under the avalanche of missiles, leapt skywards in dust and tumult. Even above the din screamed the fierce crescendo of approaching shells, ear-splitting crashes as they burst. All the time the dull thud, thud, thud of detonations and drum fire. Inferno raged and whirled round the Bois des Buttes. The dugouts rocked, filled with the acrid fumes of cordite, the sickly sweet tang of gas. Timbers started: earth showered from the roof. Men rushed for shelter, seizing kits, weapons, gas masks, message pads as they dived for safety. It was a descent into hell. Crowded with jostling, sweating humanity the dugouts reeked, and to make matters worse headquarters had no sooner got below than the gas began to filter down. Gas masks were hurriedly donned and anti-gas precautions taken – the entrances closed with saturated blankets, braziers lighted on the stairs. If gas could not enter, neither could the air. As a fact both did in small quantities and the long night was spent 40 foot underground, at the hottest time of the year, in stinking overcrowded holes, their entrances sealed up and charcoal burners alight drying up the atmosphere – suffocation rendered more complete by the gas masks with clip on nostrils and gag in the teeth.’ (Captain Sydney Rogerson, Headquarters, 23rd Brigade)

There was much desperate fighting and many acts of heroism in what must have seemed a lost cause: ‘We each fall back in turn, pausing to fire when the black helmets appear from the pale fields. When a section gets up and moves off, the enemy mows it down from left, right and front. We can clearly see that Sirey is surrounded, struggling in the storm of grenades. If we can get two or three platoons to regroup, we can go forward to disengage a neighbouring company in trouble. Near the Saconin road, Lieutenant Chauveau defended himself for more than an hour. When the Germans got to him, he was lying wounded among his dead; he refused to surrender, went to his death firing on his attackers with his revolver.’ (Private Georges Gaudy, 57th Infantry Regiment)

The British divisions had been in a bad state to start with, having been smashed up in both the Somme and Flanders. They were full of young recruits and veterans that had already been to the well too often. As they were pushed back from the Aisne they soon descended into deep disorder: ‘A German field gun battery galloped up to the top of the ridge, unlimbered and opened fire on us. Being fired at by guns over open sights was a new experience – and a shattering one! The shells arrived with such a vicious “whizz” and each one seemed to be aimed at you personally. I was not the only one who found it unnerving. Everyone did and the whole lot of us just broke and ran. This was the only time I saw a real rout. It is true that we had been retreating the whole day, but not, most of the time, on the run and we had had in mind the finding of a position where we could make a stand. But now it was just panic flight; with each man, including me, thinking of nothing but saving his own skin.’ (Lieutenant John Nettleton, 2nd Rifle Brigade)

By the end of the first day eight French and British divisions had been virtually destroyed and the Germans had advanced some 12 miles – an amazing distance even in the changed conditions of 1918.

Over the next few days the French tried to plug the gap using their local reserves. Ludendorff was swept away by his impressive tactical gains and began to abandon his original concept of a diversion before the last great Flanders offensive that would win the war. He even had visions of an advance across the Marne River and all the way to Paris. Yet even as his troops pushed forwards, the age-old problems dogged their steps. The French reinforcements began to arrive in force while the German communications were stretched, their troops exhausted and their artillery disorganized.

Most significantly of all, the American 2nd and 3rd Divisions helped shore up the French line at Château-Thierry on the Marne. Their attitude was summed up by Colonel Wendell C. Neville of the Marine Corps Brigade, when a local French officer suggested that tactical retreat might be in order, ‘Retreat? Hell – we only just got here!’

The Germans seized Soissons and reached the Marne close to Château-Thierry, less than 60 miles from Paris. Up to this point, the German forces had surpassed expectations, tempting the German High Command to forget that the offensive had been conceived primarily as a diversion. Paris itself came under fire from Germany artillery, and the panic in the civil population reproduced that of 1914.

Having helped stem the tide of the German advance, the US Marines launched an attack to clear the Germans out of Belleau Woods. Tactical naivety could be painful and a good deal of intense fighting ensued before the capture of the wood was completed. So the learning process had begun for another army amidst the frenzy of the Western Front. The battle has become a key component of the lore of the United States Marine Corps. After Belleau Wood the Germans occupied a deep salient which, because of its extended flanks, was tricky to defend. Damage to railways and roads also exacerbated German supply problems.

‘We started off in trench warfare formation, the only formation we knew, which consisted of four waves with the first wave and all waves holding their rifles at what is called “high port”, not even aiming or firing or hip firing or anything like that. Now we got out of these woods and we moved towards Belleau Woods, nobody firing a shot. Bayonets fixed, moving at a low steady cadence that we had been taught. On our left, approximately 200 yards, was the redoubt of Belleau Woods. It’s an eminence, a little raised place; the little hunting lodge was up there. It’s a rocky place. It was teeming with machine guns; I mean it seemed that way. And nobody, literally nobody was firing a shot at these Germans. They had us enfiladed. They were to our left front; and as we got out far enough, we were perfectly enfiladed from them. So it was absolutely like a shooting gallery and not a single Marine of ours firing a shot. We weren’t trained that way. We went on. Well, of course, as soon as we came out of this first band of woods in my platoon (there were approximately 52 men) there were only six people got across the first 75 yards. All the rest were killed, wounded and pinned down. I mean we were down into a ravine which was perfectly enfiladed and just “Bloop!” a few machine guns – and that was it.’ (Sergeant Merwin Silverthorn, 5th Marines, AEF)

The Marine counterattack at Belleau Wood was but one contribution, however, to a general response by French, British and American troops, to the threat to Paris. Unknown to the Entente, the Germans had already decided to halt the third offensive, in the face of mounting resistance, though also because once again the leading troops had overrun the supply columns which lagged far behind the advancing infantry and their supporting artillery.

By a quirk of censorship, the actions of the Marines were passed through the censors while the actions of the army troops were not. So in the ensuing battle, the Marine brigade got all the publicity, even though the army brigade did just as much fighting.

The German position consisted of three small hills named 142, 169, and 192. Although the elevation was slight, the hills — and particularly the main one — rise sharply out of the rolling landscape. Belleau Wood was an ideal defensive position. The course of the battle was simple: the Germans, realizing the American advance was coming, installed themselves on the crests. The Americans, who initially didn’t realize the Germans were there in force, mounted an infantry attack, unsupported by artillery. Somewhat to the amazement of the Germans defending, the Americans proceeded to push them off the hills and take possession of the territory.

Tactically, the engagement was a minor one, but when the French government renamed Belleau Wood, where the Marines went into action, the Bois de la Brigade de Marine, they had a point. It was the American divisions, collectively, that stopped the German advance. The cost was terrible. The Marines suffered over five thousand casualties, the bloodiest engagement in the history of the corps until Tarawa, during World War 2.

As might be expected from units that had only recently been assembled, the whole operation was a mess of misdirection, error, and failure from beginning to end. Nor was there much of any real importance about Belleau Wood. It was simply one of the thousands of small forests that the war turned into an abattoir. That being said, Belleau Wood was a crucial engagement: the Germans lost more than a few hectares of forest. For the first time, they lost territory they had been fighting desperately to hold, and lost it so decisively they were unable to regain it.

For four years, the Germans had dominated the battlefield. The spring of 1918, when Allied troops simply surrendered by the battalion, marked the logical result of that ascendancy. Belleau Wood was an insignificant engagement, but it marked the turning point of the war. The Germans had beaten the British and the French. Now they found themselves up against a troubling new adversary.

Ludendorff triggered Operation Gneisenau to widen the salient from Noyon to Montdidier. At first the Germans were successful, overrunning the Forward Zone and pushing forward some four miles. Then it was the same old story as the French managed to stabilize the front. But something new emerged when the French launched a counterattack under General Charles Mangin, driving into the western flank of the burgeoning salient. Stymied again, Ludendorff was forced to suspend the attacks.

Here General Louis Humbert, the commander of the French Third Aimy, had crowded too many troops into the forward zone. At the start of these operations the Germans once more achieved dramatic first-day gains, advancing around six miles. Afterward, five divisions of French troops, with support from ground-attack aircraft and tanks, delivered a furious counter-stroke which brought Gneisenau to a shuddering halt.

The French were using their own shock tactics as they attacked without a preliminary barrage to preserve surprise and utilized a deadly creeping barrage, with close support for the assaulting troops from large numbers of Renault FT tanks and ground-strafing aircraft.

If the Germans ever had a real chance of winning the war on the Western Front in 1918, it had now passed. The arrival of summer brought with it an accelerating stream of fresh American divisions onto the Western Front. Although unused to modern warfare, they represented the end of hope for the German Army.

In mid-July 1918 the German Empire stood at its greatest ever extent. It had pushed on Paris in the west; in the east it held the Ukraine; the Baltic states were under its control; in the Caucasus, the Russian collapse had reopened the route to Baku. For some civilians at home the army seemed poised to deliver the victory that would resolve all their domestic problems. But this time the soldiers knew that they had shot their bolt.

The effort to mount the offensives had withdrawn too many troops from other fronts, threatening them with destabilization. The attacks themselves had created great salients on the western front without achieving a breakthrough.

The German historian Gerhard Ritter, who was then a young officer serving at the front, called the offensives ‘a crushing disappointment. Once again war’s end had receded into the distant future, once again hecatombs had done no more than haplessly lengthen the front; and how could what had not been achieved in the first great blow, struck with every resource, full surprise, and tremendous artillery barrages, now be won with far weaker forces, consisting largely of decimated and exhausted divisions?’

The alliance of the Central Powers was coming apart. Austria-Hungary was truly shackled to Germany, but by the same token Germany was itself now too weak to survive without its ally. In the eyes of the Entente, the alliance between Austria-Hungary and Germany would be broken only by its complete defeat. At one level the Entente was right.

The Germans had created a supreme military command in September 1916. The Kaiser had been nominated as Commander-in-Chief, and the German General Staff was installed as the supreme command’s advisory body. ‘In other words’, as August von Cramon shrewdly observed, ‘there would be a supreme council of war, but not a supreme command.’

Some Austrians, observing the impending disintegration of the empire, looked to Germany to hold it together — or, more realistically, to incorporate the German element within a greater Germany. The reality, however, was that Austria-Hungary was caught in a situation where nothing added up any more.

At Hamel, near Amiens, the Australian Corps, with support from the Americans, carried out a model minor attack which offered the Entente equal, if not greater, encouragement for the future. In attacking at Hamel the Entente forces hoped to remove a troublesome dent in the British line near Villers Bretonneux, thereby securing a straighter barrage line for future operations and depriving the Germans of a key vantage point on the spur above Hamel village. Sixty new Mark V fighting tanks were made available for the Hamel operation. The Australians and Americans captured all their objectives.

The battle plan embodied General John Monash's belief that infantry should no longer be expected to sacrifice themselves in bloody frontal assaults. Instead, they should be given the maximum possible help in the form of mechanized resources, including tanks, machine-guns, artillery, mortars and aircraft.

With the attack scheduled for America's Independence Day, it was intended to use 10 companies of the US 33rd Division, then attached to the British Fourth Army for training. Almost at the last minute, Pershing refused to sanction their participation. The six rearmost companies were duly withdrawn. But, to avoid further delays or disruption to the plan, Haig, Rawlinson and Monash stood firm with regard to the remaining four. Pershing, however, became more determined than ever to restrict or oppose French or British operational control of American formations.

The supply of ammunition to forward troops by parachute was one of several elements of the Hamel plan which made it an invaluable blueprint for future set-piece assaults.

Ludendorff remained wedded to military decision and committed all the force he had left, fifty-two divisions, to an attack against the French. The temptation of Paris had proved irresistible. At first the offensive made excellent progress. The French, however, had received warning, from intelligence and observation experts, and launched a heavy counter-stroke. The French had five of the enormous American divisions in their order of battle. The German vanguards which had crossed the Marne fell back across the river, and the retreat continued in the days that followed. The fifth German offensive, and the battle called by the French the Second Marne, was over and could not be revived.

Ludendorff refused to confront realities, defying the advice of his senior commanders that they pull back or even negotiate, and ignoring the evidence of the collapsing morale of his troops. ‘Poor provisions, heavy losses and the deepening influenza have deeply depressed the spirits of the men in the III Infantry Division’, Rupprecht wrote.

On the day of the French counter-stroke, Ludendorff travelled to Mons to discuss the transfer of troops to Flanders for his much-postponed offensive against the British. The French attack brought him hurrying back but there was little he could do to stem the flood.

The German high command calculated that they required 200,000 replacements each month, merely to make good the losses suffered in the attacks so far. However, even by drawing on the next annual class of eighteen-year-olds, only 300,000 recruits stood available. The only other source was the hospitals, which returned 70,000 convalescents to the ranks each month, men whose fitness and will to fight was undependable.

The army's discontent with its leadership was beginning to find a voice. Ludendorff's strategy of frontal attacks now attracted criticism from within the General Staff. Fritz von Lossberg responded to the failure of the Second Battle of the Marne by arguing that the army should withdraw to the Hindenburg Line of 1917. Ludendorff theatrically offered to resign but then recovered his nerve when the Entente did not move to exploit their success on the Marne. There was, he said, nothing to justify: there was no sign that the Entente could break the German line.

Had the material circumstances of the war been like those of any of the previous years, Ludendorff's analysis might have been proved correct; but they were not. A German army unable to make good its losses was now confronted by a new enemy, the U.S. Army, with four million fresh troops in action or training. More pertinently, its old enemies, the British and French, now had a new technical arm, their tank forces, with which to alter the terms of engagement.

Germany's failure to match the Entente in tank development must be judged one of their worst military miscalculations of the war. Their own program, undertaken too late and with little imagination, had resulted in the production of a monstrosity, the A7V. Moreover, industrial delays limited output to a few dozen, so that the German tank force chiefly depended on 170 tanks captured from the French and British.

Ludendorff's belief during July that he retained the option of striking alternatively against the British or French was even more of a misconception than he might have imagined. While his increasingly battle-worn infantry and horse-drawn artillery plodded forward over the worn battleground of the Marne, Foch and Haig were concentrating an enormous force of armor, 530 British tanks and 70 French, in front of Amiens. The intention was to break back into the old Somme battlefield through the extemporised defences constructed by the Germans after their advance in March, and to drive deep into their rear area.

Rare are the times in a great war when the fortunes of one side or the other are transformed by the sudden gain of a weighty reinforcement. By 1918, President Wilson's decision to declare war on Germany and its allies had brought such a gain to the Entente side. Once committed to hostilities, America's extraordinary capacity for industrial production and human organization took possession of the nation's energies. During the later half of 1918, America’s might would come crashing down on a exhausted Germany.

Napoleon's enemies were transformed in this way in 1813, when the failure of his Moscow campaign brought the Russian army to the side of Britain and Austria. Those of the United States against the Confederacy were transformed in 1863 when the adoption of conscription brought the North's millions into play against the South's hundreds of thousands.

Those of an isolated Britain and an almost defeated Soviet Union would be transformed in 1941, when Hitler's intemperate declaration of war against America brought the power of the world's leading state to stand against that of Nazi Germany as well as Imperial Japan.

A blind spot in America's mobilization lay over its response to its black population's willingness to serve. W. E. B. DuBois, one of the most important champions of black America in the early twentieth century, argued that, ‘if this is our country, then this is our war.’ The white military establishment continued to believe that blacks lacked military spirit and were suitable for use only as labor or service troops. This despite the fact that the ‘buffalo soldiers’, the four regular regiments of black infantry and cavalry, had always performed well in the wars on the Indian frontier and that black regiments had fought with tenacity in the Civil War.

Even before the US entered the war, some Americans were already fighting. Some, as individuals, had joined the British or Canadian armies. Others had enlisted in the French Foreign Legion. A large group of American pilots was already serving in the French air force, where they formed the Lafayette Escadrille, one of the leading air-fighting units on the Western Front. Its veterans would bring invaluable experience to the American Expeditionary Force's Air Corps once it crossed the Atlantic.

The awful truth for Ludendorff was that, when tested, the German Army was unable to sustain prolonged mobile operations in 1918. The German forces in France possessed a relatively small cavalry arm, no armored cars and few tanks, while, after years of blockade, the horse-drawn and motorized transport they did have was not always up to the required standards. For all its skill, intellect and professionalism, the German General Staff had too often become distracted by short-term organizational and operational matters and had ultimately created an unbalanced army that could not fulfil its principal strategic purpose.

The heavy losses being suffered by the German storm troops highlighted the widening gulf in quality between the elite assault formations and the 'trench divisions'.

The pace of the German advance was dictated by the capacity of their foot soldiers and, by the end of March 1918, the German infantryman was nearing exhaustion, though cases of drunkenness and looting were not confined to the German Army alone.

Despite halting the Blücher and Gneisenau offensives, the French had little cause for self-congratulation. The loss of the Chemin des Dames so soon after Foch's appointment as General-in-Chief had been a chastening experience. Some members of Foch's own staff could scarcely conceal their mounting impatience with Pétain's pessimism and sluggish reactions. After coming near to collapse on the Aisne, the French were in no position to deride the BEF's recent performance.

Ludendorff's problems worsened. In at least three of the four offensives to date he had permitted dazzling initial gains to distract him from his original strategic aim or to tempt him into continuing operations longer than was sensible. He was not the first to ignore the lesson that modern railway systems almost always enabled defenders to bring reserves to a crucial sector before the attackers could push sufficient men and equipment across the battlefield to exploit any breach.

German combat troops remained capable of heroic endeavors, but their morale had been progressively and irreparably damaged by the failure of four successive offensives. Their sufferings were magnified in June when the Spanish influenza pandemic of 1918-1919 started to exact its relentless and terrible toll on units already enfeebled by food shortages, further reducing the strength of German infantry formations.

In its operations at Cantigny, Belleau Wood and Château-Thierry, the AEF had fought with much the same mixture of patriotism, bravery and tactical inexperience that had characterised the BEF of July 1916. Symbolically, however, the Americans had faced hardened German units and had beaten them.

Nobody on the Entente side had yet realized that victory was possible this side of Christmas. In London the war cabinet was making preparations for 1919. In France, Foch convened a conference of the national army commanders. He appreciated that the opportunity to take the initiative had now arrived; morally, materially and numerically the allies were in the ascendant on the Western Front. But even he, ebullient spokesman of the offensive that he was, rejected a single decisive blow. Instead he envisaged a series of limited attacks.