The German Spring Offensives of 1918
In the Spring and early Summer of 1918, the German Army carried out four major offensives on the Western Front in an attempt to achieve victory before large numbers of American troops arrived in France and tipped the balance decisively against them. They were made possible by the collapse of the Russian Army in late 1917 which allowed the German High Command to transfer large numbers of men to the Western Front where they were used to form 50 new infantry divisions.
The first offensive, code-named Michael, began on 21 March and was directed against the British 3rd and 5th Armies on a 40-mile front either side of Saint Quentin in the Picardy region of northern France. The aim was to break through into open country, roll up the British line from the south and throw them back in disorder to the Channel coast, separating them from the French Army and causing their respective Governments to sue for peace. To improve their chances of success, the Germans developed radically new tactics. Firstly, to achieve maximum surprise, the traditional weeks-long shelling prior to an attack was to be replaced by a short hurricane bombardment of a few hours duration only. Secondly, rather than wasting time attempting to overcome pockets of resistance, specially selected storm troops equipped with light machine guns, mortars and flame-throwers were to infiltrate the enemy’s positions and, by advancing with great rapidity, capture numerous battalion headquarters to prevent the enemy from organising a co-ordinated defence.
To begin with, the Michael offensive was enormously successful. At 9.40 a.m., after a devastating five-hour-long bombardment of the British forward and main battle zones with high explosive and gas shells, waves of storm troops advanced at the run towards the enemy front line. Dazed by the shelling, drenched with gas and half-blinded by the dense early morning fog which at some points reduced visibility to as little as three yards, the pitifully few survivors were soon overwhelmed, allowing the Germans to penetrate the main battle zone. British losses in the forward zone were enormous. For example, from the eight battalions in VIII Corps, only 50 men made it back to the main battle zone. Several units disappeared altogether including two battalions of the Kings Royal Rifle Corps of whom nothing was heard until several months later when a few men were discovered to be in German hospitals. Likewise, the new war diary of the 15th Royal Irish Rifles (the previous one having been lost when battalion headquarters was captured) began with the laconic statement that ‘the battalion itself was gone; killed, wounded and prisoner.’
Even though the Germans no longer had surprise on their side, they were able to maintain their impetus and by the end of the second day had captured all the 5th Army’s main battle zone. From now on, however, they were advancing over the devastated area of the old Somme battlefield which made movement difficult and which prevented them from reinforcing their front line as quickly as the British. As a result, their advance gradually stalled and a fortnight after the battle had begun the German High Command gave the order to halt. Although they had not broken through as expected, they had seized over 1,200 square miles of territory (including the area which had taken the British three months to capture during the Battle of the Somme) and had captured over 90,000 British soldiers and more than a hundred guns.
Initially, General Ludendorff (the de-facto Commander-in-Chief of the German Army) had gambled everything on this one offensive alone. However, when it failed to achieve victory he carried out three more offensives, one to the south of Ypres in April, one on the Chemins des Dames ridge to the west of Rheims at the end of May (against a mixed British and French force) and finally, one against the French either side of Rheims, in the second half of July, which is usually referred to as the Second Battle of the Marne.
As with the Michael offensive, these attacks began with rapid gains in territory (a remarkable 12 miles on the first day of the Chemin des Dames Offensive) followed by a gradual slowing down as the enemy’s reserves arrived faster than their own. Although the British Commander-in-Chief, Sir Douglas Haig, panicked at one point, issuing his famous ‘backs to the wall’ Order of the Day in which he made an emotional appeal for every position to be held to the last man, a German victory was never realistically possible. The tide finally turned on 18 July, during the Second Battle of the Marne, when, after an initial German success, the French counterattacked, forcing them to retreat and to give up all the territory that they had captured. From now on, until the end of the war, the German Army remained on the defensive.
Ludendorff’s attempt to win the war before the Americans arrived in force had not only failed but had crippled the army. In the six months between March and August 1918, German strength had declined by almost a fifth, from approximately five million men to slightly more than four million. Worse still, a large proportion of the killed and seriously wounded were elite storm troops who could not be replaced. Last of all, German propaganda had trumpeted that the offensives would lead to peace (Ludendorff had insisted on calling the Second Battle of the Marne, Friedensturm, or Peace-Offensive) and therefore their unexpected failure led to a precipitous decline in morale, not only among the war-weary civilian population but also in the front line.
More than twenty Old Alleynians lost their lives during the period described above, many of them in these offensives. Second Lieutenant Sydney Killick was attached to the 7th battalion of the East Surrey Regiment during the Michael offensive. According to the Old Alleynian War Record, ‘his battalion was so cut up that the remnants were split up between the 8th and 9th battalions and he was the only officer left alive out of his company’. Lt. Colonel Cecil Farquharson of the Royal Marine Light Infantry, killed at Albert on March 24th, was one of nine brothers, four of whom besides himself had been at the College and one of whom had been killed at Ypres in 1914; his decorations included not only the M.C. but also, very unusually, the Prussian Order of the Red Eagle (4th Class) which he received in 1909, possibly as an observer at Prussian military manoeuvres. Lt. Colonel Arthur Dunbar Walker, who was also killed during the Michael Offensive (he received a posthumous DSO), had seen active service before the war, most notably in 1904-05 when he was a member of Younghusband’s mission to Tibet during which he was wounded on the march to Lhasa.
Member of Staff, Dulwich College