World War One is well known for its drawn out struggles, often ending in a bloody stalemate. As the war progressed and intensified in 1916, huge battles occurred at the Somme and Verdun. In the east that year, there was also the brutal Brusilov offensive, which led to over 1 million Russian and Austro-Hungarian casualties.
By early 1918 the war was becoming unsustainable for Germany. The British naval blockade was causing economic chaos, particularly to food prices, and the nation’s manpower was being severely stretched. America had also joined the war on the side of the Allies in 1917, and was by now sending large numbers of soldiers across the Atlantic.
Having knocked Russia out of the war in 1917, Germany agreed the favourable Treaty of Brest-Litovsk which gave them territory in eastern Europe. Importantly, it also enabled them to move a massive amount of troops from the Eastern Front to the frontlines in France. German high command determined that they needed to use this additional manpower to win a decisive victory on the Western Front before the Americans could arrive en-masse.
The huge amount of manpower and artillery available meant the plan to defeat the Allies in spring 1918 would become one of the biggest and bloodiest battles in history. Here are 10 facts about the final German offensive.
1. It is referred to by many names
The battle is often referred to as the ‘Spring Offensive’. However, the name given to it by Erich Ludendorff, one of the highest ranking German Generals, was ‘Kaiserschlacht’ (Emperor’s Battle). This was in honour of Kaiser Wilhelm II, who was Emperor of Germany during World War One.
Another often used name is ‘Operation Michael’ – which is actually the name for the first phase out of four during the offensive. Meanwhile, on the British side it is referred to as either the ‘First Battles of the Somme 1918’ (which is confusing due to the earlier 1916 Battle of the Somme) or the ‘Battle of Saint Quentin’ – the town in which much of the fighting took part around.
2. The German commanders were Hindenburg and Ludendorff
The famous partnership between Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff had grown so powerful that they were referred to as a ‘silent dictatorship’ over Imperial Germany and the other central powers. Both of them masterminded the offensive.
3. Germany had 74 divisions available for Operation Michael
Up to this point, Germany had been outnumbered on the Western Front and on the defensive. To bolster manpower, 42 divisions were moved to France to concentrate a total of 74 divisions for the attack – over 1 million men.
4. The main attack was against the British Expeditionary Force
The combat strength of the British infantry was 514,637 men – a much smaller force than the Germans. However, French forces also contributed a further 20 divisions on the Allied side at the south end of the offensive.
5. The German army had very little armoured or logistical support
By spring of 1918, Germany was suffering from a shortage of horses and motorised transport was often on iron tyres due to a rubber shortage. There were only 9 tanks available (and 5 of these had been captured from the British).
6. The battle began on 21 March 1918 and opened with the 2nd largest artillery bombardment in history
At 4.40am on 21 March 1918 10,000 German gun and mortar crews began to open fire on the Allied lines. The infantry assault began at 9.40am.
In five hours, German artillery expended over 1 million shells. At the beginning of Battle of the Somme in 1916, Haig’s artillery had fired 1.7 million in a week. Only the Soviet Union’s bombardment of Berlin in 1945 would be bigger in terms of the amount of ordnance fired.
7. The combined casualty toll of the first day was higher than at the 1916 Battle of the Somme
While more men died on the first day of the Somme, the casualty rate for Kaiserschlacht was higher, with close to 100,000 from both sides.
8. Both sides were hit by the 1918 influenza pandemic
The pandemic had arrived from the US at the end of 1917, and by spring 1918 the first wave was well underway. While not as deadly as later waves, it incapacitated thousands of troops.
9. Within four days, the German army advanced more than 10 miles
The combined arms attack of intensive artillery bombardment and forward attack units of storm troopers armed with mobile machine guns and flamethrowers pushed the Allies back further than any other battle during the war. However, by 4 April the German attack could no longer be sustained and the attack petered out. Hindenburg wrote ‘the enemy’s resistance was beyond our powers.’
10. Despite territorial gains, it was a strategic defeat for Germany
By its end, Kaiserschlacht gouged 40 miles into Allied territory, capturing 1,200 square miles. However, this land contained no major strategic gains.
11. Casualties were amongst the highest of the war
The BEF lost nearly 180,000 men, including 72,000 taken prisoner (as many as 20,000 on the first day). France lost a further 80,000. German forces lost 240,000 men. The Allies lost more men, but Germany lost many experienced and highly trained front line units that they could not replace.
12. Germany would not go on the offensive after the spring
Having seen gains from Kaiserschlacht, Ludendorff oversaw four more attacks in spring 1918 and reached within 40 miles of Paris but none of these would be the decisive blow Germany needed. In mid July, the Allies began the Hundred Days offensive, which was the final push to the Armistice of November 1918.