Great war on a knife edge

Issue section: 
Issue: 
(436)

60pdrMkIRetreat1918.jpg

British troops retreating in the face of Operation Michael

In spring of 1918 the German military began an offensive against the allies called Operation Michael. Steve Guy details its impact on the strategy of allied forces and the tensions it led to between them.

When the Russian Revolution propelled the Bolsheviks into power in 1917, they made good on their commitment to take Russia out of the war and concluded an armistice with Imperial Germany. But the Germans insisted on imposing onerous conditions on the Bolsheviks who, faced with the overwhelming might of their military machine, were compelled to sign the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk.

Once it was signed, the German High Command no longer had to fight on two fronts and were able to release troops for combat against the remaining allies. Soon tens of thousands of troops were being transported from Russia to the Western Front, as the German commanders, Otto von Bismarck and Eric Ludendorff, prepared to launch what they conceived as a war-winning offensive in the spring of 1918.

The stakes were high. Ludendorff, the leading military strategist, knew that the numerical advantage that the Germans now enjoyed would soon be negated by the arrival of hundreds of thousands of US troops in Europe, swelling the considerable numbers of those already serving on the front. He was also made aware that, although still highly motivated, the morale of the German troops was described by front line officers as “brittle”, strong but liable to fracture; four years of war were taking their toll.

Morale was similarly low among the allied troops and Ludendorff elected to direct the main thrust of the attack, dubbed Operation Michael, at the British forces, still recovering from the disastrous Passchendaele campaign the previous year and starved of reinforcements by a war cabinet that was mistrustful of the British commander in chief, Douglas Haig, and his costly offensives.

On 21 March the German artillery commenced the greatest bombardment of the war. High explosive, gas and smoke shells rained down on the British positions, and within hours they were reeling back on all fronts as thousands of stormtroopers drove deep into their reserve areas. The point of attack that developed into the greatest threat to the allied armies occurred at the juncture of the British Fifth Army and the French S Army.

When Haig met with his French opposite number, General Phillipe Petain, two days later, the British lines had been shredded and they were being forced to retreat to the north west. Petain believed that Haig might cut and run to the Channel ports, while Haig suspected that Petain, fearful of another German attack in the south, would move to protect Paris, leaving the British to fend for themselves.

At this point a number of changes took place that eventually shifted the balance in favour of the allies. At an emergency summit on 26 March, it was agreed to appoint French General Ferdinand Foch to the post of supreme commander of the allied forces; disaster and crisis had forced the issue, overcoming the mainly British objections. For the first time the allies had a unified command on the Western Front. This resolved the problem of arguments about the deployment of reserves and reinforcements, which were now settled swiftly and decisively, with the US commander, General Pershing, offering his troops unreservedly to Foch; resistance to the German advance stiffened, and their progress was slowed.

For the German military the major concern was the cost sustained in the course of the spring offensives. While inflicting nearly 300,000 casualties on the British and nearly 100,000 on the French, their own losses were enormous. By May they had lost over half a million men, killed, wounded or prisoners. These losses were on a par with those of the Somme campaign, but without the resources to replace the fallen. Germany was running out of men. Worse still for Ludendorff and his generals, discipline was starting to break down.

After years of grim austerity and deprived of all but the most basic rations, to find that their opponents were so well supplied had a profound effect on the German troops. Contrary to the information they had been receiving about the U-boat campaign preventing ships from supplying the British home front, in reality it was the allied blockade that was successfully inflicting economic hardship on their homeland.

While there was no immediate collapse of the resolve of the German soldiery, the number of desertions steadily increased and incidents of indiscipline multiplied. Troops marching to the front would bleat like lambs going to the slaughter, while mutinous elements would berate their more disciplined comrades as “blacklegs” and “tools of the Junkers”. Troops soon refered to the war as the “Great Swindle”.

The German high command blamed dissident elements at home for voicing opposition to the war, and for the decline in fighting spirit, but it is arguable that the deep disillusionment that beset the army, especially the infantry, probably contributed to the disaffection on the home front, as soldiers on leave expressed the belief that the war could no longer be won.

Questions began to be posed about who was responsible, and recriminations started to focus on the ruling echelons of German society, and specifically, on the role of the Kaiser. By late July, the German army had lost the initiative, and was being increasingly thrown onto the defensive, and forced to retreat. It was the beginning of the end of the war on the Western Front.