April 3, 1918. The Western Front is splitting open. The German Army has launched its final offensive to win World War I and is tearing the British and French to pieces in a Hail-Mary attack to end the war before America can turn the tide. The Allies, for the first time in the war, appoint a Supreme Commander to put their forces under one mind – before it’s too late.
In 1918, Germany was staring down the barrel of its great crisis of the war. In 1917, the Russian government collapsed under its Revolution, and the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918 ended World War I on the Eastern Front. Germany needed this break badly, because they were losing the war. The steady, grinding attrition of the Western Front, despite the terrible losses it inflicted on the British and French, had not worked in their favor. Indeed, Germany was on its last legs.
The truth of the matter was that, despite the widespread perceptions of the British and French battles at the Somme, Verdun and Passchendale as being costly failures, they had inflicted grievous losses on the German Army that it could not sustain. Germany’s poor economic position under British blockade had left its people nearly starving from the lack of food, and its political situation was growing increasingly weak in a climate of widespread opposition to the war. The Kaiser, never a strong man, was sidelined by more powerful military figures, and the Second German Reich was witnessing its society crumble under the pressure of total war. Even if Germany won, it would have serious issues to work through in the future.
Imperial Germany in World War I was in the position of having gambled so much on its hand that it could not afford to lose. Huge sums of money were printed and borrowed on the assumption that once they had won the war, they could repay the loans with the money taken in reparations or from annexed territory. Germany had put its whole effort into propping up allies like Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire – ancient monarchies that were rotting from the inside and, even if they somehow won the war, were not long for the earth thanks to the kaleidoscope of nationalities contained in their borders. Finally, Germany had thoroughly blown up the old political balance of Europe by over-promising huge dividends from victory to its allies and own people, as well as the little matter of smuggling Lenin into Russia to exacerbate the Revolution.
The point here is that Germany had no choice. They HAD to win. There would be no simple peace treaty to set things back to status quo. The Germans had to win big, and fast. There was the little factor of the Americans, who had just entered the war in 1917 but whose presence had yet to be fully felt. When the Americans arrived, the numbers and resources would tilt so badly against Germany that victory would become impossible. The victory that Germany’s entire future depended on had to be won, somehow, before the Americans arrived in force. It would be, in essence, a Hail Mary.
With the Kaiser sidelined, a duo of German Army figures had risen to near-complete power in the German Empire. Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, a popular war hero after his victories against Russia, was given the post of Chief of the General Staff in late 1916, but the real brains of the operation was General Erich Ludendorff, the Quartermaster-General. By 1917, Ludendorff was virtually the military dictator of Germany, controlling diplomacy, industry and military matters.
Ludendorff is a strange figure, puzzling and complex. He was fierce, mercurial, hardworking and brilliant. He was also harsh, high-strung, humorless, astonishingly racist and a terrible micromanager. Ludendorff would spend his later years receding into conspiracy theory and allying with Hitler, but at this stage he was a towering, arrogant personality with a desperate need to be in charge of everything. To some degree, he had a lot in common with his pupil Hitler.
Ludendorff had pulled back the lines on the Western Front in 1917, allowing the Allies to throw themselves at his fortifications, but had been dismayed when they made steady progress regardless. His operations in Russia had been more successful, but he knew that Russia’s collapse in late 1917 bought him precious months to win the war in the West before they could amass overwhelming men and materiel there.
1918 opened with Ludendorff preparing for his knockout blow. Already the country was showing signs of breaking down under Ludendorff’s harsh management. Almost a million workers from the munitions industries launched a labor strike in early 1918, demanding peace without annexations. Ludendorff ordered the strikes broken by troops and all strikers fit to bear arms sent to the front. This produced very few recruits but hamstrung German war production.
Many divisions were withdrawn from the east and hurried west to participate in the great offensive, which Ludendorff termed the “Kaiserschlacht” – the Emperor’s Battle. (It is also called the Spring Offensive or the Ludendorff Offensive.)
These divisions were the last remaining intact reserve of the German Army; once they were expended, there would be no others. Ludendorff “creamed off” the best and fittest soldiers from every division of the Army into “storm units,” making several divisions of “stormtroopers” that would be the elite cutting edge of the attack. The obvious drawbacks were clear: all the other formations declined as their best and most able soldiers were pulled away for the new units, while these same soldiers would take the brunt of Germany’s casualties. Ludendorff’s attitude was simple: if the offensive succeeded, the drawbacks wouldn’t matter. If it didn’t succeed, nothing would matter.
Ludendorff planned to launch his first strike on the Western Front in the district of Saint-Quentin, the place in northern France where the British and French lines met. Ludendorff knew that the British and French had trouble cooperating and often withheld troops from each other; he figured that if he could split their armies from each other, the lack of coordination would enable him to crush the British and drive them into the English Channel. Other than this, he had no real plan for the long-term strategy of the offensive. “Punch a hole, and see what happens,” was his answer when someone asked what the Kaiserschlacht was meant to accomplish.
Ludendorff’s tactic was only possible because the British and French had no unified command structure. Neither one was willing to have its units take orders from a foreign general, and both wanted to manage their forces themselves. The arrival of the Americans complicated matters further, and US General John Pershing found himself fighting uphill to compete with the egos of British Field Marshal Douglas Haig, commander of the British forces on the Western Front, and France’s Commander-in-Chief Henri Philippe Petain. The chances of any of these men agreeing to work for the other was minimal.
On March 21, 1918, Operation Michael – the first punch of the Kaiserschlacht – careened into the British Fifth Army at Saint-Quentin. The biggest artillery barrage of the entire war plastered 150 square miles of soil, with over a million shells expended in five hours. With their gas masks, light machine guns, helmets and combat uniforms, the German stormtrooper divisions ventured forth through the fog into the wreckage of the British lines. The British suffered 17,000 casualties on the first day, and after two days the Germans had broken through in multiple places. The Fifth Army was in full retreat.
The Trench War of 1914-1918 had ended. The war of movement had returned, and it became clear why everyone had used their trenches: the war of movement was drenched in blood by every mile. The Germans had advanced farther in a few days than the entire front had shifted in three years, but at enormous loss. To Britain and France, it was the greatest emergency of the war. After four years of hammering at the German lines, the lines had broken – but in the wrong direction. It was a legitimate breakthrough, and everything was now on the table.
Haig, commander of the British Expeditionary Force, had been screaming to French Commander-in-Chief Petain for help ever since the attack began. Petain had sent some divisions, but these were not fast enough for Haig’s liking. Petain rightfully suspected that the next German blow would fall on the French lines – the second part of Ludendorff’s knockout offensive – and wanted to hold onto his troops. The bickering over reinforcements and supplies wasted valuable time with no one to mediate.
Seven days after the attack began, on March 28, Ludendorff’s armies ran into hardened British positions at Arras and suffered frightful losses. They were running out of supplies; they were way past their railheads and were slowing their advance, which ground to a halt as it crossed the old ruined battleground of the Somme. The advance finally began to falter, but to the British and French it looked like the end. The line was broken, and without central direction they had no way of responding to Ludendorff’s new attacks.
On April 3, Douglas Haig and the British government swallowed their pride. There had to be an Allied Supreme Commander. It could not be Petain, because he and Haig had bad blood. It could not be Haig, because it would look like he was angling for his own advancement. It could not be an American because they barely even had troops on the front lines yet. It had to be a Frenchman, and it had to be Ferdinand Foch.
Foch was a celebrated soldier, a hero of 1914’s Battle of the Marne. He was an oddball in France, an outspoken radical thinker disliked by both Petain and Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau – though that may have been why the British favored him. He was nobody’s favorite, but he was oddly compelling and had a talent for bringing people together. Foch would be the new Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces.
Ludendorff’s knockout punch had failed, and worse; he had meant to split the Allies apart, but instead brought them together. The Kaiserschlacht would continue, as the Germans struck blow after blow throughout April, May, and June, but together the British, French, and very shortly the Americans would first stop the Germans and drive them back. Together, and finally united under the military leadership of Marshal Foch, 1918 had begun in fire and would end in peace for the first time in four years.
For the next chapter of 1918 on the Western Front, tune in on June 3, when the US Marines meet their baptism of fire for the first time in World War I - at a place called Belleau Wood.
Book Recommendation: For the Western Front and the Great War in general, John Keegan’s The First World War (New York: Knopf, 1999) is old-fashioned and out of date in some places, but pretty reliable. For a military history of the German offensives of 1918 in particular, see David T. Zabecki, The German 1918 Offensives: A Case Study in the Operational Level of War (London: Routledge, 2006). It is a bit dense for the lay reader, though.