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German Spring Offensive, 1918
Part of the Western Front of the World War
Western front 1918, Spring Offensive.png
Date 21 March – 7 August 1918
(4 months, 2 weeks and 3 days)
Location Northern France; West Flanders, Belgium
Result Tactical German success
Operational/Strategic German success
Belligerents
Flag of the German Empire.svg Germany Flag of France.svg France

Flag of the United Kingdom.svg British Empire

  • Flag of Australia.svg Australia
  • Canadian Red Ensign 1868-1921.svg Canada
  • British Raj Red Ensign.svg India
  • Dominion of Newfoundland Red Ensign.svg Newfoundland
  • Flag of New Zealand.svg New Zealand
  • Red Ensign of South Africa 1912-1928.svg South Africa
  • Flag of the United Kingdom.svg United Kingdom

Flag of Italy (1861-1946) crowned.svg Italy
Flag of Portugal.svg Portugal

Commanders and leaders
Flag of the German Empire.svg Erich Ludendorff Flag of France.svg Ferdinand Foch
Flag of the United Kingdom.svg Douglas Haig
Flag of France.svg Philippe Pétain
Flag of Italy (1861-1946) crowned.svg Alberico Albricci
Flag of Portugal.svg Tamagnini de Abreu
Casualties and losses
688,341 Flag of the United Kingdom.svg 418,374
Flag of France.svg 433,000
Flag of Italy (1861-1946) crowned.svg 5,000
Flag of Portugal.svg 7,000+

The 1918 Spring Offensive, or Kaiserschlacht ("Kaiser's Battle"), also known as the Ludendorff Offensive, was a series of German attacks along the Western Front during the World War, beginning on 21 March 1918. The German Army had gained an advantage in numbers as nearly 50 divisions had been freed by the Russian withdrawal from the war with the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk.

There were four German offensives, code named Michael, Georgette, Gneisenau, and Blücher-Yorck. Michael was the main attack, which was intended to break through the Entente lines, outflank the British forces (which held the front from the Somme River to the English Channel) and defeat the British Army. Once that was achieved, it was hoped that the French would seek armistice terms. The other offensives were subsidiary to Michael and were designed to divert Entente forces from the main offensive effort on the Somme. No clear objective was established before the start of the offensives and once the operations were underway, the targets of the attacks were constantly changed according to the battlefield (tactical) situation.

Once they began advancing, the Germans struggled to maintain the momentum, partly due to logistical issues. The fast-moving storm trooper units could not carry enough food and ammunition to sustain themselves for long, and the army could not move in supplies and reinforcements fast enough to assist them. The Entente concentrated their main forces in the essential areas (the approaches to the Channel Ports and the rail junction of Amiens). Strategically worthless ground, which had been devastated by years of conflict, was left lightly defended. Within a few weeks, there was a clear danger of a German breakthrough, though related fighting continued until July.

The German Army made the deepest advances either side had made on the Western Front since 1914. They re-took much ground that they had lost in 1916-17 and took additional ground that they had not yet controlled. Despite these apparent successes, they suffered heavy casualties in return for land that was of little strategic value and hard to defend. In July 1918, the French attempted to launch a counteroffensive but failed to break through the line and exhausted France's reserves in the Second Battle of the Marne on 6 August. Fearing a capture of Paris the French government fled to Bordeaux. The offensive, together with a risk of British isolation in the north, led to the Armistice of 6 September 1918 which ended the war with a victory for the Central powers.

Operation Michael

On 21 March 1918, the Germans launched a big offensive against the British Fifth Army and the right wing of the British Third Army.

The artillery bombardment began at 4.40am on March 21. The bombardment [hit] targets over an area of 150 square miles, the biggest barrage of the entire war. Over 1,100,000 shells were fired in five hours...

A7V tank at Roye on 21 March 1918

The German armies involved were—from north to south—the Seventeenth Army under Otto von Below, the Second Army under Georg von der Marwitz and the Eighteenth Army under Oskar von Hutier, with a Corps (Gruppe Gayl) from the Seventh Army supporting Hutier's attack. Although the British had learned the approximate time and location of the offensive, the weight of the attack and of the preliminary bombardment was an unpleasant surprise. The Germans were also fortunate in that the morning of the attack was foggy, allowing the storm troopers leading the attack to penetrate deep into the British positions undetected.

By the end of the first day, the British had lost 7,512 dead and 10,000 wounded and the Germans had broken through at several points on the front of the British Fifth Army. After two days the Fifth Army was in full retreat. As they fell back, many of the isolated "redoubts" were left to be surrounded and overwhelmed by the following German infantry. The right wing of Third Army became separated from the retreating Fifth Army, and also retreated to avoid being outflanked.

Ludendorff failed to follow the correct storm troop tactics, as described above. His lack of a coherent strategy to accompany the new tactics was expressed in a remark to one of his Army Group commanders, Rupprecht, Crown Prince of Bavaria, in which he stated, "We chop a hole. The rest follows." Ludendorff's dilemma was that the most important parts of the Entente line were also the most strongly held. Much of the German advance was achieved where it was not strategically significant. Because of this, Ludendorff continually exhausted his forces by attacking strongly entrenched British units. At Arras on 28 March, he launched a hastily prepared attack (Operation Mars) against the left wing of the British Third Army, to try to widen the breach in the Entente lines, and was repulsed.

The German breakthrough had occurred just to the north of the boundary between the French and British armies. The French commander-in-chief, General Pétain, sent reinforcements to the sector too slowly in the opinion of the British commander-in-chief, Field Marshal Haig, and the British government. The Entente reacted by appointing the French General Ferdinand Foch to coordinate all Entente activity in France, and subsequently as commander-in-chief of all Entente forces everywhere.

The success of Operation Michael led German infantry to advance too far from its supply bases and rail heads. The storm trooper units leading the advance carried supplies for only a few days, to avoid being overburdened, and relied on supplies delivered quickly from the rear. The advance was slowed by supply shortages, which gave Entente commanders more time to reinforce the threatened areas and to slow the advance still more. German supply difficulties were made worse by the direction of advance, which crossed the wasteland created during the Battle of the Somme in 1916 and by Operation Alberich, the German retirement to the Hindenburg Line from February to March 1917.

Germans passing a captured British trench

After a few days, the German efforts to advance were renewed, however the infantry became exhausted and it became increasingly difficult to move artillery and supplies forward to support them. Fresh British and Australian units were moved to the vital rail center of Amiens and the defence began to stiffen. On 5 April, the Germans managed to capture Villers-Bretonneux, a town on the high ground to the south of the Somme River. The terrain allowed artillery observers to see bombardments on Amiens, which was only 16 kilometers (9.9 mi) away, which was of great tactical value. With the railway junction of Amiens now vulnerable attempts to take Arras resumed. After the capture of Arras on 25 April and finally Amiens, Ludendorff called off Operation Michael on 14 May.

By the standards of the time, there had been a substantial advance. It was, however, of little value; a Pyrrhic victory in terms of the casualties suffered by the crack troops, while the vital positions of Amiens and Arras were now in German hands. The newly-won territory was difficult to traverse, as much of it consisted of the shell-torn wilderness left by the 1916 Battle of the Somme, and Hindenburg worried it would be difficult to defend against Entente counter-attacks.

The Entente lost nearly 255,000 men (British, British Empire and French). They also lost 1,300 artillery pieces and 200 tanks. All of this could be replaced, either from French or British factories but manpower was becoming an issue. German troop losses were 239,000 men, many of them specialist shock troops (Stoßtruppen) who were irreplaceable. In terms of morale, the German jubilation at the successful opening of the offensive gave soldiers hope for future results. The Entente initial shock began to spread, as it became clear that the defenses were not ready enough against German attacks.

Georgette

File:British Lewis gun team Battle of Hazebrouck 1918 IWM Q 10902.jpg

British Lewis gun team on the bank of the Lys canal during Battle of Hazebrouck, 15 April 1918

File:The German Spring Offensive, March-july 1918 Q6569.jpg

German prisoners being guarded by Australian troops, 23 April 1918.

Michael had drawn British forces to defend Amiens, leaving the rail route through Hazebrouck and the approaches to the Channel ports of Calais, Boulogne and Dunkirk vulnerable. German success here could choke the British into defeat.

The attack started on 9 April after a Feuerwalze. The main attack was made on the open and flat sector defended by the Portuguese Expeditionary Corps. After an entire year spent in the trenches, the Portuguese were tired and had suffered heavy losses. They were being replaced in the front line by fresh British divisions, an operation that was planned to be completed on 9 April, the same day as the Germans attacked the sector. The process of relief in place was poorly organized by the British First Army's command, and the Portuguese 1st Division had been withdrawn to the rear on 6 April, leaving the Portuguese 2nd Division to defend the entire sector alone. They were left with an extensive 7 mi (11 km) front, without natural obstacles which might benefit the defense.

Hit hard by the Feuerwalze bombardment and under the assault of eight German divisions, the Portuguese 2nd Division made a desperate defense, trying to hold their positions, which, however, were rapidly enveloped and overrun by the masses of German forces. The 2nd Division was virtually annihilated, losing more than 7,000 men. The British 40th Division, on the northern flank of the Portuguese, also rapidly collapsed before the attack, opening a gap that further facilitated the envelopment of the Portuguese by the Germans. However, under much less pressure from the Germans and occupying good defensive positions protected by the La Bassée Canal, the British 55th Division on the southern flank of the Portuguese were able to hold much of their position throughout the battle.

The next day, the Germans widened their attack to the north, forcing the defenders of Armentières to withdraw before they were surrounded, and capturing most of the Messines Ridge. By the end of the day, the few British divisions in reserve were hard-pressed to hold a line along the River Lys.

Without French reinforcements, it was feared that the Germans could advance the remaining 15 mi (24 km) to the ports within a week. The commander of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, issued an "Order of the Day" on 11 April stating, "With our backs to the wall and believing in the justice of our cause, each one of us must fight on to the end."

However, the German offensive had stalled because of logistical problems and exposed flanks. Counterattacks by British, French and Anzac forces slowed and stopped the German advance. Ludendorff ended Georgette on 29 April.

As with Michael, losses were roughly equal, approximately 110,000 men wounded or killed, each. However, the strategic results were disappointing for the Germans. Hazebrouck remained in Entente hands and the Germans occupied a vulnerable salient under fire from three sides. The British abandoned the comparatively worthless territory they had captured at vast cost the previous year around Ypres, freeing several divisions to face the German attackers.

Blücher–Yorck

File:The German Spring Offensive, March-july 1918 Q6677.jpg

French and British troops marching back through Passy-sur-Marne, 29 May 1918.


While Georgette ground to a halt, a new attack on French positions was planned to draw forces further away from the Channel and allow renewed German progress in the north. The strategic objective remained to split the British and the French.

The German attack took place on 27 May, between Soissons and Reims. The sector was partly held by four depleted British divisions which were "resting" after their exertions earlier in the year. In this sector, the defenses had not been developed in depth, mainly due to the obstinacy of the commander of the French Sixth Army, General Denis Auguste Duchêne. As a result, the Feuerwalze was very effective and the Entente front, with a few notable exceptions, collapsed. Duchêne's massing of his troops in the forward trenches also meant there were no local reserves to delay the Germans once the front had broken. Despite French and British resistance on the flanks, German troops advanced to the Marne River and Paris seemed a realistic objective. There was a frenzied atmosphere in Paris, which German long-range guns had been shelling since 21 March, with many citizens fleeing and the government drawing up plans to evacuate to Bordeaux.

Yet again, losses were much the same on each side: 137,000 Entente and 130,000 German casualties up to 6 June. German losses were again mainly from the difficult-to-replace assault divisions.

Gneisenau

Although Ludendorff had intended Blücher-Yorck to be a prelude to a decisive offensive (Hagen) to defeat the British forces further north, he made the error of reinforcing merely tactical success by moving reserves from Flanders to the Aisne, whereas Foch and Haig did not over commit reserves to the Aisne. Ludendorff sought to extend Blücher-Yorck westward with Operation Gneisenau, intending to draw yet more Entente reserves south, widen the German salient and link with the German salient at Amiens.

The French had been warned of this attack (the Battle of Matz (French: Bataille du Matz)) by information from German prisoners, and their defense in depth reduced the impact of the artillery bombardment on 9 June. Nonetheless, the German advance (consisting of 21 divisions attacking over a 23 mi (37 km) front) front) along the Matz River was impressive, resulting in an advance of 9 miles (14 km) despite fierce French and American resistance. At Barcy, a sudden French counter-attack on 25 June, by four divisions and 150 tanks (under General Charles Mangin) with no preliminary bombardment, caught the Germans by surprise and halted their advance just . Gneisenau was called off the following day.

Losses were approximately 35,000 Entente and 30,000 German.

Last German attack (Marneschutz-Reims/Friedensturm)


Ludendorff now postponed Hagen and launched the German Seventh, First and Third Armies in the Friedensturm (Peace Offensive) of 15 July, a renewed attempt to draw Entente reserves south from Flanders and to expand the salient created by Blücher–Yorck eastwards. An attack east of Rheims was thwarted by the French defense in depth. In many sectors, the Germans, deprived of any surprise as their fuel-starved air force had lost air superiority to the Entente, advanced no further than the French Forward Zone, and nowhere did they break the French Battle (Second) Zone.

Although German troops southwest of Rheims succeeded in crossing the River Marne, the French launched a major offensive of their own on the west side of the salient on 18 July, threatening to cut off the Germans in the salient. Mangin's Tenth Army had faltered by 7 August and the Germans advanced the front 28 mi (45 km) west of Verdun. As the Germans reached the Petit Morin, the French were forced to abandon increasingly large amounts of heavy equipment and supplies, further reducing their morale and capacity to resist. On 22 July the French government began an evacuation of the capital.

See also

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