“With superhuman inhumanities, Long-famous glories, immemorial shames— And crawling slowly back, have by degrees Regained cool peaceful air in wonder— Why speak they not of comrades that went under?”
(Wilfred Owen – Spring Offensive)
The offensive launched by the German army in the spring of 1918, which went down in history as the Kaiserschlacht, the Kaiser’s or Emperor’s Battle, represented General Ludendoff’s last opportunity to reverse the fate of the conflict.
From October 1917 onwards, Erich Ludendorff, the de facto leader of the German armed forces, began to evaluate the idea of a massive offensive that would rapidly bring the war to an end and possibly save German territorial gains. Underlying the decision was the awareness that Germany could not sustain a war of attrition over the long term and that soon the United States would deploy their expeditionary force, which was being trained in the United Kingdom, and their matériel resources.
Moreover, the closure of the Eastern Front would have enabled the Germans to move 48 divisions westwards, causing the balance of forces to weigh in German favour, with a total of 191 divisions as opposed to the enemy’s 178.
Despite the name with which it was remembered, the offensive was in fact the result of Ludendorff’s individual initiative, and it is precisely its strategic and organisational limitations that decided his fate. The heart of the operation was an offensive codenamed Michael, the objective of which was to break through the enemy lines at the hinge between the French and British forces then strike northwards, which would have either destroyed the British army or pushed it back over the English Channel. The idea behind this was to force the French to an armistice.
Action got underway on 21 March 1918 with five hours of artillery bombardment during which almost ten thousand pieces of artillery were deployed. The Sturmtruppen (storm troopers), assault infantry units, were then sent forward. These took advantage of the morning fog to penetrate between the enemy lines to effect breakthrough points to which follow-up troops could then be sent.
The initial success was overwhelming: 255 square kilometres were occupied during the first day and the British expeditionary force suffered 55,000 casualties counting dead and wounded. Ludendorff however was swept away by enthusiasm, and as the operation continued it became increasingly clear that there were no clearly defined tactical or territorial objectives. Convinced that the British had been defeated, the General reinforced the southern units to prevent a possible influx of French reinforcements, but by doing so scattered his forces along several fronts of attack. When the operation ended on 5th April, British casualties were enormous and 90,000 soldiers had been taken prisoner. At the same time however, these losses did not inflict a decisive defeat, the Germans did not entirely succeed in their intent to separate the two enemy armies and the territories they gained proved to be of little strategic importance and were difficult to defend. The “Pyrrhic victory” of the first attack was repeated during successive offensives. The objective of Operation Georgette, launched on ninth April was to capture the Hazebrouk railway junction held by the British. Also in this instance, the rapid advance was thwarted by the failure to conquer the objective and left British logistics potential intact.
At this point, the German command opted for a diversionary attack with the objective of drawing French troops into Flanders. The operation, codenamed Blücher-Yorck began on 27 May and its initial success, once again, convinced Ludendorff to change his objectives in progress. The diversionary attack turned into a large-scale offensive and, with the injection of further troops, advanced as far as 90 km from Paris. This, however, led the Germans to make the same mistake that had halted their offensive four years earlier; the advance produced a wedge (the so-called Blücher-Yorck salient) that exposed the Imperial armies to the Allies’ counter-offensive.
In an attempt to widen this wedge and link it with the one at Amiens, Ludendorff extended the Blücher-Yorck offensive with Operation Gneisenau, which commenced on 9 June with an attack along the River Matz. The initial impetus succeeded in overcoming strong French and American resistance, but a counter-attack at Compiègne just two days later brought the offensive to an untimely end.
As a last resort, on 15 July, the Friedensturm Offensive (Peace Offensive) was launched, which enabled part of the German troops to cross the River Marne, but exposed the Blücher-Yorck salient to the risk of being cut off by the French counter-attacks. In the end the salient was evacuated and exhaustion of the German army, both in terms of manpower and matériel, led to the Imperial forces’ offensives losing their momentum once and for all.
What should have been the decisive battle to end the war petered out to nothing. Numerous factors contributed to the failure of the Kaiserschlacht. Ludendorff’s responsibilities for not having carefully planned the tactical and territorial objectives and his failure to coherently follow his own plans sparked criticism in the post-war years. The continual changes in objective produced huge losses and needlessly scattered attacks without bringing any tangible advantages.
In this context, compared with its enemies, the human and materiel limitations of the German army counted a great deal. The almost nine hundred thousand soldiers lost by the Allied forces were soon replaced, thanks also to help from the Americans. German casualties were lower, albeit marginally, however many of the soldiers lost were from the assault troops, a well-trained élite unit and were practically impossible to replace.