The situation Germany found herself in at the end of 1917 was somewhat mixed. Yes, the defeat of Russia in the East had released a huge number of troops and supplies that could be switched to the Western Front, but the window of opportunity for effective action in the West was rapidly diminishing as the Americans slowly but surely increased their presence in this area. It would only be a matter of time before they were ready to get in on the action in a meaningful way. The pressure was definitely on Germany to go on the offensive and try and win the war before the Allies got any stronger.
With this in mind, Ludendorff got working on his master offensive plan. His idea was simple: to smash the British Army to pieces.
The general consensus among the German High Command was that Britain was on its knees. The bloody offensives of 1917 at Arras, Messines, Passchendaele and Cambrai had, in their opinion, exhausted the British Army and made them ready for the taking. In their view, If Britain was out of the picture, the French would be forced to negotiate peace terms.
The rather grandiose code name for this offensive was Kaiserschlacht (Kaiser’s Battle) which put even more pressure on them to succeed. It really was ‘do or die’.
There were to be four separate German attacks; codenamed Michael, Georgette, Gneisenau and Blücher-Yorck. Michael was to be the main attack, led by elite Stormtroopers who were to advance in small pockets to exploit gaps and filter in behind the enemy front line, disrupting communications and supplies as well as sabotaging artillery. The massed infantry would then advance behind them and destroy the enemy front line that would be effectively cut off. The main thrust of the attack would run across the old Somme battlefields, towards the British lines and beyond, pushing them towards the coast. The other offensives were designed to be smaller affairs that would strike further north to take control of the remaining Allied ports on the French and Belgian coasts.
Operation Michael was pencilled in for 21st March 1918. 74 German Divisions (roughly 910,000 men) lined up against the British lines. The preliminary bombardment was a hurricane of just five hours where 6,600 guns fired 1,100,000 shells of all descriptions onto the British lines. The bombardment was incredibly accurate, both on the forward lines of the British, but also the reverse areas; smashing communication and transportation infrastructure as well as supplies and reserve camps. Not only did the British lose 7,500 in the barrage, but there was absolute chaos behind the lines.
When the guns fell silent a dense mist had enveloped the entire battlefield allowing the stormtroopers to penetrate deep into enemy territory undetected. The massed infantry followed quickly behind, also covered by the mist, and, despite some heroic defending by the British, over-ran almost all of the British front line areas.
By the end of the first day, the British had no choice but to execute a fighting retreat, they may have inflicted 40,000 odd casualties on the Germans, but they had suffered a similar number themselves and were quite literally, running for their lives.
The retreat continued through the night and over the next few days. The German advance was so spectacular and so ominous that The Kaiser decorated Hindenburg with the Iron Cross with Golden Rays, last awarded to Prince Blücher after the Battle of Waterloo. Surely it would just be a matter of time before they would be enjoying a victory cigar whilst strutting their stuff down the Champs d’Lyse?
The rapid advance began to falter however, after three days of chasing the British the German troops were exhausted and their supplies were struggling to keep up with the pace. German troops were hungry and tired, they needed a break. For a moment the advance faltered, furthermore fresh British, French and Australian troops were being rushed into the breach. The defence began to solidify.
The Germans continued the offensive towards the vital railway town of Amiens but the defenders fought doggedly in a string of isolated battles.
The Germans had advanced 40miles, an amazing result in WW1 terms, but the land was of little strategic value, and they had lost a lot of men; around 250,000 all in all. And despite the vast tracts of land that were gained, the British line ultimately held out. Just.
This text is taken from the manuscript ‘A Layman’s Guide to the First World War by Scott Addington. Not yet published.