157: Kaiserschlacht Pt. 1


1918 would see the Germans launch the greatest series of offensives yet seen in the war, that story starts here.



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War Episode 157. This episode begins a two month series of episodes on the German spring offensives of 1918. Between March and July 1918 the German army would launch five major operations on the Western Front. They would be launched the following order, one note throughout the series I will refer to them by their codenames. Operation Michael would begin on March 21st and run to April 5th. Georgette from April 9th to 29th, Blucher-Yorck from May 27th to June 4th, Gneisenau from June 9th to June 14th, and finally Fiedensstrum from uly 15th to 17th. These efforts, when combined, would be the largest of the attacks by any army up to 1918. The Germans would put everything into these offensives, and this episode will be all about the German situation and preparations for them during the first months of 1918. Next episode we will go on to focus on the Allied situation and preparations before Operation Michael will be launched during Episode 3. On the Western Front these operations represent the climax of the war, and the actions that would start in late March would continue, with only brief periods of respite, until the armistice in November. Every battle, every campaign, every technological advancements, every change in tactics, increase in manufacturing capacity, all of the entrances of more countries into the war, the vast expansions of all of the armies of Europe, they all led to one moment, March 21st, 1918, it would truly be the beginning of the end.

The Germans would enter 1918 in an amazing position. As the year began the German military could look forward to a huge superiority of men and material on the Western Front for the first several months of the year, a situation only made possible by the Russian exit from the war. Sure, Germany’s major ally Austria-Hungary wasn’t doing too well, and the Ottomans had been driven out of Jerusalem, but those were of little concern if the German army could win a great victory in Western Europe. The story of the German offensives is a story of failure, no other way to put it really, but to those present in early 1918 that did not seem like the only possible outcome, or even necessarily the most likely one. The German army was bringing with it into 1918 a string of victories from all over Europe. The Russian offensives of the previous 3 years, the breaking of the Brusilov offensives in 1916, the conquest of Serbia, Caporetto, all of these and more had been accomplished while the German army on the Western front had stood on the defensive. Sure there was that one mistake at Verudn, but that was almost two years in the past, and a lot had changed since February 1916.

While the Germans seemed strong at the front, there were problems on the home front that would eventually have to be dealt with. The 1917 potato harvest had been disappointing, and it appeared that there would not be enough food to make it through until the 1918 harvest. There was some hope that the conqeust of vast swaths of territory in eastern Europe was ease this problem, and to that end more than half a million German and Austro-Hungarian troops were moved into Ukraine in late 1917 and early 1918. The hope was that this fertile region could become the breadbasket of the war effort. However, the exports from the area were always disappointing. The troops sent there consumed a good amount of the available food and the exported never amounted to more than 10% of what German leadership had hoped for. This small amount did little to help the crippling food shortages that were caused by the British blockade and production problems in Germany and Austria-Hungary. Raw material shortages would also begin to affect military production, with production of even simple items like infantry rifles plummeting in the last 18 months of the war. All of this created a situation where the support for the war was waning on the homefornt, but all of these were of little concern if the German army could win a great victory in Western Europe.

While there would be more German soldiers on the Western Front than ever before, or at least since 1914, it did not mean that the German army did not have some problems of its own. They had to send men to parts of Russia to maintain order, and to garrison to new territory under their control. Front line troops were short of food, rubber tires could not be replaced on vehicles, even clothing was in short supply, and the shortage of horses was almost crippling. The German had, in essence, passed its point of greatest strength which had probably been at some point in 1916. Older, younger, and less fit soldiers now made up a greater percentage of its ranks than ever before and there were growning cases of indiscipline and greater instances of war weariness in the ranks. But, it was still a dangerous weapon, a dangerous weapon with maybe one more heavy swing left in it. But it had to be swung quick, because more Americans were arriving every day. Thousands of soldiers from across the Atlantic were arriving in Europe every month, but it was believed that they would not be a serious problem until the middle of 1918, so as long as Germany made its move before that time they could not play a decisive role. Hindenburg, Ludendorff, and the rest of the German leadership knew the time constraints, and they knew that the time for limited objectives were long past. They also recognized the weakness of their army, and they knew that it would continue, but they also knew that any mental weakness, or even physical weakness, were of little concern if the German army could win a great victory in Western Europe.

The path of the German war effort in 1918, at least until late October, was shaped by General Ludendorff, in many ways what would happen would be solely his plan and his responsibility. However, at least at the beginning, his views mirrored others in the German military hierarchy. A key point in these views was that even if the Germans could not completely win the war, which was always a possibility, it was important to setup the country for the best possible entry into negotiations. In many ways outright victory was not even the goal of the German attacks in early 1918, althought it would have been greatly welcomed. Instead, they just needed to push the Allies to the point where they would come to the negotiating table, a table set by the Germans and their great victory in Western Europe. With this view in mind Ludendorff began planning an attack on the Western Front in 1917, and planning accelerated as the situation in Russian came to a close.

It is impossible to discuss the actions of 1918 withou first doing just a bit of review of what happened in Russia. Negotiations with the Russians began in late 1917, after it was proven that the Russians were simply incapable of further resistance. This put the Bolsheviks in a very poor negotiating position and it allowed the hopes and dreams of the Germans and Austrians to run wild. The Bolsheviks were forced to give over huge swaths of territory, Courland, Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Livonia, Poland, Ukraine, and Belarus all were no longer part of the Russian Empire. This was a massive percentage of the land area of Russia in Europe and it encompassed 50 million people, or a third of its population. It was even worse than just the people and the land though because this area incorporated a third of Russia’s rail system, a third of its agriculture, half of its manufacturing, three quarters of its iron produciton, 90% of its coal mines. This was a complete disaster for the Russians, but they did not really have a choice. While on paper this was a horrible blow to Russia, and in the long run it would be, in reality, most of these areas were not under Bolshevik control anyway, with many under the control of Tsarist armies or local groups in early 1918. This put the Germans in control of many of these problems, and in the short turn it would sap some of the German strength that could have moved west. This was not even the largest problem for the Germans though. They had just completely wrecked Russia in a peace settlement, and they had proved that when it came time to negotiate they would show no restraint. This was important because one of the goals of the primary goals of the Spring offensives was to push the Allies to negotiate, but the Germans had just proven that those negotiations would go very poorly for the Allies. The peace with Russia, while critical to the continuation of the German war efforts was also a disaster when it came to trying to actually end that same war.

With the signing of Brest-Litovsk the movement of German troops from East to West began. 48 divisions in total would move from the Eastern to Western fronts. From an infantry perspective many of these soldiers would not actually take part in the early attacks, but would instead be used to hold the line on other parts of the front while troops that were already in the west, and had been preparing for months, were freed up to take part There was actually some tension introduced by this movement of troops with those in who had served on the Western Front for most of the war believing that the troops from the east were in some way tained by Bolshevism, calling them ‘ein bisschen rot’ or ‘a little red.’ They also believed that those from the Eastern Front were more likely to desert, and were somewhat less capable. The troops from the east, of course, thought these views were absurd. And in reality these types of opinions are just how things go in the military. Of greater value for Operation Michael was the artillery. Countless artillery pieces from the east would transitioned to the west, first making a stop behind the front on firing ranges where data was gathered as to their precise firing characteristics. This would allow the guns to effectively fire as soon as they arrived at the front, and the Germans would soon need every one of them.

Up to this point I have discussed alot about German advantages, and about troops coming from the East, but we should probably talk some concrete numbers before we continue much futher. The Germans ended 1917 with roughly 150 divisions on the Western Front. With the infusion of troops from the east they would increase that number to 192 divisions by mid-March just before Michael was launched. These 192 divisions would be matched up against 175 British and French divisions giving the Germans their first Western Front numbers advantage since 1914. Of course the attack was not launched on the entire front, and for their first big effort the Germans arranged 80 divisions, with 56 being classified as elite assault divisions. These divisions would have the highest percentage of the stormtroopers and they would be the best trained, equipped, and provisioned units in the army. They would be followed up by even more divisions in the attack, but these would be of genereally less quality and were instead just present to hold the line as it moved forward and to mop up any resistance bypassed by those in front. Many of these troops, and most of the German troops in general, had not seen hard fighting for almsot a year. The ony major action that hd taken place in late 1917 was at Passchendaele, and while that had consumed several German divisions in Flanders, most of the German soldiers in the West in early 1918 had not been involved. Also, many of the attacking divisions had been off the line for months as they trained for their new role and the new tactics that they would employ.

While men were moving from the East they would also be reorganized and fit into the new German offensive tactics. Older men would be separated from their units and left in the east for garrision duty to replace any young and fit men who could be moved out of those garrison units. A similar practice took place in the west as the best soldiers were taken out of their units and sent back to Germany for rest, refitting, and instruction. Officers who would lead them were brought out of the line for a for week training program. The gaol was to turn these officers and men into new elite divisions equipped with the best weapons and men that German had. Grenades, light machine guns, flamethrowers, trench mortars, they would be well supplied with all of them. In addition to these larger formations the division that would be involved in the attacks were told to form their own storm battalions along similar lines. The best of the stormbattalions would then be sent against critical or touch objectives. While the stormtroops would be the longest laster memory of these attacks they did not lead every effort. In fact, the majority of the German infantry did not receive any special training or equipment. Especially after Operation Michael many of the troops that lead the attacks were not from Sturmbattalions but instead just normal German infantry units, maybe slightly fitter than the average, as older and less fit men weremoved to defensive units on other parts of the front, but just normal infantry units.

While they were not in the majority, the stormtroopers were still considered essential for the success of the attacks, so lets dig into what they would actually be doing. These troops would be utilizing infiltration tactics to launch the offensive, and these were concepts that had been refined by a Bavarian Captain by the name of Hermann Geyer. He would say that “The tactical breakthrough is not an objective in itself. Its purpose is to give the opportunity to apply the strongest form of attack, envelopment … infantry which looks to the right or the left soon comes to a stop … the fastest, not the slowest, must set the pace … the infantry must be warned against too great dependency on the creeping barrage.” Geyer’s approach also put a huge emphasis on flexibility and fluidity. This clashed with the more traditional rigidness of plans and instead gave divisions and units a set of boundaries to their left and right, and a direction for the attack, then gave the divisions and its units the freedom to pursue the attack in whatever way worked best for that specific area o fthe front. The general framework given to them was the first wave of the attack would be the assault force, these units would mvoe quickly and as fast as possible, and critically they would bypass the stongest areas of enemy resistance. Instead of beating their head against strong points they would push through the weak points in the line and keep moving. Their goal was to push forward as far as possible to prevent the enemy from forming a cohereent resistance or being able to consolidate in a new position. They would communicate with the artillery with rockets to keep the creeping barrage moving forward when required. Behind these assault troops owuld come the larger battle divisions. These units would biring with them heavier weapons, heavy machine guns, flamethrowers, field artillery, and engineering units. They would be responsible for surrounding and destroying any positions that the storm units had bypassed. They would aldo so any work necessary from an engineering perspective to make sure that the units that followed them, which were the reserve to keep the attack going, could continue to move forward. The entire structure and the overriding objective of all of this was to keep the attack moving forward, nothing else mattered. Flanks, supply lines, cohesion, all of the traditional concerns, none of it mattered, all of them were to be ignored and forgotten in favor of maintaining momentum, maintaining forward progress because the Germans knew that as soon as that forward momentum ended the attack would bog down and the Allies would be able to recover, just like they had every time the British or French had attacked since 1915.

All of this was good in theory but the Germans would have to overcome some problems when trying to implement these tactics on the scale that was required. First of all the Germans di dnot have a great number of vehicles, and they had almost no tanks. The Germans were far behind the British and French in tank design and did not really have the resources to catch up. Second, the Germans did not have any cavalry or mechanized way of quickly moving troops forward, and this meant that they would be constrained by how far and fast their men could walk. This is one of the instances on the Western Front where a force of cavalry could have actually made a decisive difference, especially in the opening days of Operation Michael, but the Germans simply did not have the horses to make it happen. Finally, the third and more important problem was that the Germans assault divsiions that would be used, and were destined to take serious losses, were the last reserve of top notch German manpower, they would not, and could not be replaced.

The real planning for the attack would begin in November 1917 when Ludendorff met with Generals von der Schulenburg and General von Kuhl the Chiefs of Staff of Crown Prince Wilhelm’s and Crown Prince Rupprecht’s army groups. The German army had spend 4 years generating plans for attacks in the West, but now that it was time to launch one it was difficult to determine which held the greatest possibility of success. All the German leaders had different opinions about the best area for an attack, based mostly on where their units were located. Schulenburg thought an attack should be launched on both sides of the Verdun salient because the French had drastically reduced their defenses on that part of the front in reinforce their lines further north. Kuhl pushed for an attack in Flander, because he believed that if they were successful the British would be pushed back into the sea. Ludendorff was not sure what he wanted. The first decision that had to be made was whether to attack the British or the French and both had their benefits and downsides. The British were stronger in 1918, and their defeat would represent the removal of the strongest Allied army present in early 1918. Hoewver, their defeat might not lead to France throwing in the towel, and gain, they were the strongest Allied army. The French were the weaker opponent, but their defeat would leave the British Army still upon the field.

While Ludendorff did not know exactly what he wanted to do, he did know that there were some pre-requisites to the attacks. The first was that the Russian and Italian fronts had to be taken care of, both of which would happen before the end of 1917. He also believed that the attack must happen as soon as possible, February if possible but March at the latest. Trying to launch an attack this early early in the year did put some geographical constraints on the operations. Ludendorff leaned towards focusing on the British in Flanders, but in early spring the Germans would run the risk of experiencing the same problems that the British had at Passchendaele. Instead of making a decision in November Ludendorff tasked all of his armies with developing plans for an attack on their area of the front. This meant that by the end of the year Ludendorff had plans given to him for attacks from Flanders all the way to the Alps and it was from these that all of the attacks in 1918 would stem. One constant would run through all of these discussions and decisions, Ludendorff’s fixation with defeating the British.

In Ludendorff’s evaluation, and there were many others in the Germany army that agreed with him, the British army appeared very vulnerable on the continent. They were completely dependent on supplies moving from just a few ports, and these ports were connected to the front through just a few rail junctions. The two most important of these were Amiens, 60 kilometers behind the front on the southern end of the British sector, and Hazebrouck, 30 kilometers behind their front in Flanders. Even the British recognized how important these areas were, and how problematic it would be if they were captured by the Germans General Rawlinson, who would command the British Fourth Army in the summer of 1918 would say that Amiens was ‘the only [place] in which the enemy can hope to gain such a success as to force the Allies to discuss terms of peace’.While the Germans knew this information, that was not their primary reason for attacking the British. Instead, they genuinely did not believe that the British were a capable fighting force. They believed that their officers and men were poorly trained, especially for mobile warfare which the Germans hoped to reintroduce. They also believed that the failures of 1916 and 197 had left the British army a thin shell of its former self. This resulted in the target of the attacks being the British army itself, and not necessarily critical areas behind the front. The primary objective became the somewhat ambiguous objective of breaking the British army, and with this purpose in mind there were three plans that Ludendorff could choose from, one around Ypres codenamed George, one in Arras codenamed Mars, and one near the junction of the British and French armies near St. Quentin codenamed Michael.

Before outlining his final plans Ludendorff would write a letter to Hindenburg in early January to outline the purpose of the future attacks saying “the proposed new offensive, should … lead to the decisive success for which we hope … We shall [then] be in a position to lay down such conditions for peace with the Western Powers as are required by the security of our frontiers, our economic interests and our international position after the war.” In late January Ludendorff would make his decisions and announce the plans. The German attacks would follow the Michael plan for an attack in Picardy near St. Quentin, to the east of the old Somme battlefield. However, and this was key, Michael was not th eonly offensive that would be planned. It would be launched first, in the hopes that it would force Haig to move reserves south while also giving Flanders time to dry out. But once these objectives were met the Germans would shift all of their strength north and launch two even greater efforts in George One and Two, which would hopefully end it all. With this goal in mind Ludendorff’s chief of staff General Wetzell would advise Ludendorff to put strict limits on the advances of Operation Michael. He was concerned that if the Germans succeeded at breaking through the lines they would be unable to shift to the north fast enough. Instead he suggested that Michael be pursued just long enough to pull reserves in from Flanders and that it should most importantly stop before it got stuck in the mangled mess of the old Somme battlefield. The general directive for the attack was to cut off the British Flesquieres salient, which had been created by the Battle of Cambrai, then just keep driving towards the Arras-Albert rail line, then things would jsut continue. Ludendorff did not believe that specific objectives beyond this should be solidified or that there should be limits made on the effort. When discussing why he believed this, and his overall purposes for Michael he would say “We make a hole and the rest will take care of itself. That’s how we did it in Russia.”

While there may have been some problems with the plans being created, the area of the front that they had chosen was not the worst place to launch an attack. The British were weak in the area, and it was where the British and French lines came together, and the two allies had a history of bad cooperation. This worked well with the goal of separating the two armies before they could help each other. This part o the front would also be ready for the attack very early in the year just due to how the ground dried out and type of geography in the area, unlike Flanders which would be a muddy swamp for most of the spring. However, it was a pretty bad area for an attack in other ways. The British were weak in this area precisely because there was nothing beween the line and Amiens that was actually worth defending. The only thing behind the front was the desolation left by the Germans when they retreated to the Hindenburg line, and beyond that the wasteland of the old Somme battlefield. In may mine, and most of the modern analysis agrees with this, the choice of this location shows that Ludendorff was making a huge mitake and was prioritizing the ever nebulouos, and often unattainable victory that would crush an enemies morale instead of focusing on concrete strategic objectives. It is possible that in this he was affected by his time in Russia where there had been a lot of territory to take and such massive advances had eventually led to vitory, but by ignoring precise strategic objectives, areas like Amiens and Hazebrouck, even when his subordinates strongly argued for them, Ludendorff was setting himself and the German army up for failure.

So that was the area and general plan for Operation Michael, it was a giant effort, but only a setup for the George attacks, then the Mars attacks in Arras if required. There would also be attacks to keep the French busy along the way. In total the scale of these efforts would be like nothing seen before, and they would ideally hit the Allies fast and hard enough to keep them off balance. It was partially the size of the offensives, partially the desire to secure absolutely support from the Kaiser and to boost morale that the attacks got their name. They would be called the Imperial battle, Die Kaiserschlacht. I hope you will join me next episode as we look at the Allied situation as they unknowingly prepared to face the greatest German attack of the war.