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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.