At the start of 1918 the Germans were faced with a simple problem. They had a temporary numerical advantage on the Western Front, given to them by the Russian collapse. Fifty first class divisions were free to move west, transforming the balance of numbers in the west. 192 German divisions faced 189 Allied divisions. However, both sides knew that millions of fresh American troops would soon reach France. By March 1918 General Pershing had 318,000 men in France, although they had not yet entered the line. Pershing was determined to keep his men together and form an American Army that would fight as a unit, rather than see his men dissipated amongst British and French units. The British and French would have the face the first of Ludendorff’s offensives without American support, but by the start of June American divisions were playing a major role in the fighting. By August Pershing had 1,300,000 men in France, and would be able to play a major role in the final Allied offensives of the war.
After examining a number of different options for attacks from Flanders to Verdun, Ludendorff decided to make his war winning attack on the Somme front. The attack would be launched around St. Quentin. It would advance to the line of the Somme, which would then be held against any French counterattack, while the main attack continued to the north west, cutting off the BEF and allowing the Germans to defeat the British before their allies could come to their aid. If things went really well, the Germans hoped to reach the sea, perhaps at Abbeville where the Somme enters the English Channel. The battle would be known as the “Kaiserschlacht”, or Kaiser’s Battle.
One weakness with the German plans for the spring of 1918 was an understandable obsession with the tactical problems posed by trench warfare and a comparative lack of an overall strategic plan. As a result the intended course of each battle, and indeed of the entire campaign, could be disrupted by local successes. Ludendorff’s planning concentrated on the creation of a hole in the Allied lines rather than what to do once one had been made. This became increasingly obvious with the third offensive, on the Aisne. Despite an overall plan aimed at isolated the BEF in Flanders, the final three German attacks would be made to the south against the French, and increasingly against the Americans.
When Operation “Michael” began, the Germans won a series of dramatic victories that pushed the British line back up to twenty miles and came dangerously close to achieving its main objectives. The battle began with a five hour artillery bombardment that was the most intense yet seen. The Germans had gathered together 6,473 artillery guns and 3,532 mortars. During the bombardment they fired over one million shells, filled with a mix of munitions that included a variety of different types of poisoned gas.
The British had only 28 divisions in the area that was attacked. Ludendorff had assembled 76 divisions to make the attack, 32 of which took part in the initial infantry assault, at 9.40am on 21 March. The British were forced out of their front line along most of the front, and the Germans even broke through the second line of defence, the battle zone, along a quarter of the fifty mile front attacked.
The German attack hit the Fifth Army (General Hubert Gough) hardest. To the north the attack on the Third Army (General Julian Byng) made less progress, but did threaten to cut off the British troops in the salient left over after the battle of Cambrai. The Germans continued to make progress throughout March, but the crisis of the battle came early. On 24 March, as the British were being forced ever further west, a gap threatened to appear between the British and French armies. Pétain, commander of the French armies of the north, visited Haig to warn his that he expected to be attacked at Verdun, and could therefore spare no more reinforcements to help the British.
If this policy had been carried through, then it is hard to see how a German breakthrough could have been prevented. Early on the morning of 25 March, Haig communicated his fears to the War Office, and requested a high level delegation visit France. He also suggested placing General Foch in overall command of Allied operations.
The required conference took place at Doullens, near Amiens, on 26 March. The French delegation could not have been any more high powered – the President, Prime Minister Clemenceau and the Minister of Munitions were joined by Foch and Pétain. The British were represented by Lord Milner, the War Minister, Gerenarl Wilson, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff and General Haig. The most important outcome of the meeting was the appointment of General Foch to coordinate all Allied troops on the Western Front.
Foch’s appointment ended any danger of a rift between the allies. The German advance soon began to run out of steam, as the units involved became increasingly exhausted. Captured British supply dumps, far better provisioned than the blockaded Germans, slowed down the advance when troops settled in to forage for much needed supplies.
The German attack continued to the end of March, but progress began to slow down. The first three days of April were quiet, and when the fighting was renewed on 4 April both sides launched attacks. Finally, on 5 April Ludendorff recognised that the great offensive had failed, and cancelled any further attacks. The German army had lost between 200 and 300 thousand men without achieving their objectives.
The main German effort now moved north, to Flanders. The British First and Second Armies were attacked by the German Forth and Sixth, on a narrower front than during the first offensive. This time Ludendorff hoped to break through to the channel ports. Another massive artillery bombardment was followed by an advance of up to five miles on parts of the line, but the threat to the channel ports never developed. On 12 April Haig issued his famous “backs to the wall” order, forbidding further retreat, and the line held, with Belgian and French help. The Germans lost another 120,000 men, and once again failed to achieve their objectives.
For his third offensive Ludendorff turned against the French. Forty one divisions supported by 6,000 guns attacked sixteen Allied divisions on a line than ran from the southern edge of the salient won during the first offensive down to Reims. The attack was seen a something of a diversion, designed to draw Allied reserves away from Flanders, where Ludendorff still wanted to launch his main attack.
The initial attack smashed through the Allied lines on the Chemin des Dames. In some areas the Germans advanced thirteen miles on the first day, the biggest single day advance since the start of trench warfare. The advance was so rapid that the bridges over the Aisne were captured intact, and German armies reached the Marne. The Germans reached Château-Thierry on 30 May, and were only thirty seven miles from Paris.
The offensive then bogged down. German losses of 100,000 reduced the size of the attacking force, while twenty seven Allied divisions were fed into the line, amongst them, for the first time, large numbers of American troops. On 1 June the American 3rd Division took over the defence of Château-Thierry (1-4 June 1918), and even launched a series of counterattacks (amongst them Belleau Wood, 6-26 June 1918). Ludendorff’s great war-winning gamble was beginning to come apart.
Ludendorff’s next offensive was a much smaller affair, designed to link the two salients created on the Somme and the Marne. This time numbers were rather more equal – two German armies attacked two French armies with American support. The attack from the Somme salient made some progress, but the attack from the Marne salient failed to make progress. The attack was quickly called off.
Even after the failure of the Noyon-Montdidier offensive, Ludendorff was still determined to launch his great attack in Flanders. The third offensive, on the Aisne, had left an awkward salient in the line around the fortified city of Reims, and so Ludendorff decided to launch a two pincers attack, with attacks east and west of the city. Once Reims had been taken and the line straightened out, the Flanders offensive could begin. This was the final significant German offensive of the war. East of Reims it failed on the first day. West of Reims some progress was made and the Germans established a four mile deep beachhead across the Marne.
This battle is sometimes known as the second battle of the Marne, although that name is also often used for the entire campaign, including the upcoming Allied counterattack.
The five expensive offensives had cost the German army at least 800,000 casualties, many in the elite units used to spearhead the attacks. In many areas the new German front line was only weakly held, with newly constructed defences that lacked the strength and depth familiar in 1915-17. Even before the Champagne-Marne Offensive began, Foch had been planning his own counterattack. Four French Armies, along with eight American divisions, would attack the German salient created by the second battle of the Aisne.
On 18 July that counterattack slammed into the salient (Aisne-Marne Offensive, 18 July-6 August 1918). Allied troops advanced up to five miles, forcing the Germans back across the Marne. It soon became clear that the salient could not be defended. By the end of July the Germans had been forced out of the area conquered at such cost only two months earlier, and had formed up a new defensive line on the Aisne and Velse rivers.
This was the first of the series of Allied counterattacks that forced the exhausted German armies back towards the French border (the Hundred Days). The Aisne-Marne offensive would be followed by the battle of Amiens, 8 August-3 September 1918, which forced the Germans out of the salient on the Somme and back to the Hindenburg Line, which would itself be breached in early October.