How the Allies Turned Retreat into Victory on the Western Front in 1918

Cassie Pope

4 mins

31 Jul 2018

In early 1918, the Western Front of World War One had been in a state of deadlock for more than three years. But then the German High Command perceived a window of opportunity to end this deadlock and win the war.

Just a few months later, however, the Allies were back on the offensive. So what went wrong?

The Spring Offensive

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In the spring of 1918, mobile warfare returned to the Western Front. The German Army, desperate for victory before the arrival of American troops, launched a series of attacks known collectively as the “Spring Offensive”, or Kaiserschlacht (Kaiser’s Battle). Troops on the front were bolstered by reinforcements transferred from the east, where Russia had collapsed into revolution.

In their first target sector, the Somme, the Germans had numerical superiority in both manpower and guns.

The opening attack of the offensive came on 21 March amid thick fog. Elite stormtroopers led the way, infiltrating the Allied line and spreading disorder. By the end of the day, the Germans had broken into the British defensive system and captured 500 guns. Successive attacks made further gains. The Allied situation looked grim.

German troops oversee a captured British trench during the Spring Offensive.

But the Allies held out…

Despite significant gains, the opening phase of the Spring Offensive failed to secure all the objectives set by the German General Erich Ludendorff. The stormtroopers may have managed to break into British defences, but the Germans struggled to exploit their successes.

Meanwhile, the British, though unaccustomed to being on the defensive, put up a stiff resistance, clinging on until battered units could be refreshed with reserves. And when things started to go wrong for Germany, Ludendorff chopped and changed his objectives, rather than focusing his forces.

… just

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In April, the Germans launched a fresh attack in Flanders and the defenders found themselves outnumbered once again. Territory hard won in 1917 was surrendered. In a reflection of the gravity of the situation, on 11 April Britain’s commander on the front, Douglas Haig, issued a rallying call to his troops:

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.

And fight they did. Once again, defective tactics and stiff Allied resistance left the Germans unable to translate an impressive opening punch into a decisive breakthrough. Had they succeeded, they might have won the war.

The Germans suffered heavily for their failure

The Spring Offensive rattled on into July but the outcomes remained the same. Their efforts cost the German Army dearly, both in terms of manpower and morale. Heavy losses among the stormtrooper units stripped the army of its brightest and best, while those who remained were war weary and weak from their limited diet.

American troops march to the front. The Allies’ eventual manpower advantage was important but not the only factor that led to victory in 1918. Credit: Mary Evans Picture Library

By contrast, things were looking up for the Allies. American soldiers were now flooding into Europe, fresh, determined and ready for the fight. The numerical superiority that Germany had enjoyed in March was now gone.

The Germans launched what would be their last major attack in mid-July at the Marne. Three days later, the Allies successfully counterattacked. The pendulum of strategic advantage had swung decisively in the Allies’ favour.

The Allies learned hard-won lessons

An Australian soldier collects a captured German machine gun in the village of Hamel. Credit: Australian War Memorial

The Allied forces of World War One are too often depicted as inflexible and incapable of innovation. But by 1918 the British Army had learned from its past mistakes and adapted, harnessing new technologies to develop a modern, combined arms approach to battle.

This new sophistication was showcased on a small scale in the recapture of Hamel in early July. The Australian-led attack, commanded by General Sir John Monash, was carefully planned in strict secrecy and employed deception to maintain an element of surprise.

The operation was completed in under two hours with fewer than 1,000 men lost. Key to its success was the skillful coordination of infantry, tanks, machine guns, artillery and air power.

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Amiens crushed any hope of a German victory

After the Battle of the Marne, the overall commander of Allied forces, France’s Marshal Ferdinand Foch, planned a series of limited offensives along the Western Front. Among the objectives was an attack around Amiens 

The plan for Amiens was based on the successful attack at Hamel. Secrecy was key and complex deceptions were carried out to conceal the movement of certain units and confuse the Germans over where the blow would fall. When it came, they were utterly unprepared.  

German prisoners of war are depicted being led towards Amiens in August 1918.

On the first day, the Allies advanced up to eight miles. This gain caused them the loss of 9,000 men but the German death toll of 27,000 was even higher. Significantly, almost half the German losses were prisoners.

Amiens exemplified the Allied use of combined arms warfare. But it also highlighted Germany’s lack of any effective response to it.

The Allied victory at Amiens was not just confined to the battlefield; shaken by events, Ludendorff offered his resignation to the Kaiser. Though it was rejected, it was now clear to the German High Command that the possibility of victory had slipped away. Not only had the Allies defeated the German Army on the field at Amiens, but they had also won the psychological battle.  

The Battle of Amiens marked the beginning of what is known as the Hundred Days Offensive, the final period of the war. What followed was a series of decisive clashes; the legacy of the costly attritional battles of 1916 and 1917, the psychological toll of poor food and defeat, and the Allies’ tactical adaptability all served to grind down the German Army to the point of collapse.  

Referenced

Sheffield, Gary 2001 Forgotten Victory The First World War: Myths and Realities London: Headline