In the spring of 1918, Luderndorff ordered a massive German attack on the Western Front. The Spring Offensive was Germany’s attempt to end World War One. With 500,000 troops added to Germany’s strength from the Russian Front, Luderndorff was confident of success:
|“ We must strike at the earliest moment before the Americans can throw strong forces into the scale. We must beat the British."|
Hindenburg and Luderndorff
By the spring of 1918, the Allies knew that there would be a major German attack – they just did not know where it would come. The British reinforced their positions near the coast while the French strengthened their positions to the south of the British. However, this left a weakness in the British line to the west of Cambrai. Here the British trench system had not been completed and those that had been dug were inadequate. Sir Hubert Gough, who commanded the Fifth Army in this area, was well aware of his predicament and more conscious of the fact that he had few reserves to call on if the Germans did attack the sector where the Fifth Army was stationed. German reconnaissance had made them aware that the area was less well defended.
On March 21st, 1918, Luderndorff launched the offensive. In just five hours, the Germans fired one million artillery shells at the British lines held by the Fifth Army – over 3000 shells fired every minute. The artillery bombardment was followed by an attack by elite storm troopers. These soldiers travelled lightly and were skilled in fast, hard-hitting attacks before moving on to their next target. Unlike soldiers burdened with weighty kit etc, the storm troopers carried little except weaponry (such as flame throwers) that could cause much panic, as proved to be the case in this attack.
By the end of the first day of the attack, 21,000 British soldiers had been taken prisoner and the Germans had made great advances through the lines of the Fifth Army. Senior British military commanders lost control of the situation. They had spent three years used to static warfare and suddenly they had to cope with a German onslaught. Gough ordered the Fifth Army to withdraw. The German attack was the biggest breakthrough in three years of warfare on the Western Front. Ironically, the British gave up to the Germans the Somme region – where so many British and German soldiers had been killed in the battle of 1916.
The German advance also put Paris in the firing line. The Germans had built the world’s largest artillery gun. Three Krupps cannons were moved to the front line and used to shell Paris. Paris was 120 kilometres from the front line but a shell from the huge guns only took just over 200 seconds to reach the city and 183 huge shells landed on the capital of France causing many Parisians to leave the city.
The first few days of the attack were such an overwhelming success, that William II declared March 24th to be a national holiday. Many in Germany assumed that the war was all but over.
However, the Germans experienced one major problem. Their advance had been a major success. But their troops deliberately carried few things except weapons to assist their mobility. The speed of their advance put their supply lines under huge strain. The supply units of the storm troopers simply could not keep up with them and those leading the attack became short of vital supplies that were stuck well back from their positions.
|“We are going like Hell – on and on, day and night. Our baggage is somewhere in the rear and we don’t expect to see it again." Captain Rudolf Binding.|
In particular, the German 18th Army had been spectacularly successful. It had advanced to Amiens and threatened the city. However, rather than use the 18th Army to assist other units moving forward so that the Germans could consolidate their advance, Luderndorff ordered the 18th Army to advance on Amiens as he believed the fall of the city would be a devastating blow to the Allies. In this Luderndorff was correct. Amiens was the major rail centre for the Allies in the region and its loss would have been a disaster. However, many believed that the 18th Army could have been more positively used if it had supported other units of the German army as they advanced and then moved on to Amiens. The 18th Army found that it ran out of supplies as it advanced. Horses, that should have been used in the advance on Amiens, were killed for their meat. Therefore, the mobility of the 18th Army was reduced and the loss of such transport was to be vital.
As the Germans advanced to Amiens, they went via Albert. Here the German troops found shops filled with all types of food. Such was their hunger and desperation for food that looting took place and the discipline that had started with the attack on March 21st soon disappeared. The advance all but stopped in Albert and the attack on Amiens imploded. Luderndorff could not have planned for this and he did not know what to do. Senior German officers based with Luderndorff feared that he was at a point of exhaustion and they feared for his mental health.
Though the German attack had been spectacular in terms of land conquered, it had also been expensive in terms of men lost. Between March and April, the Germans suffered 230,000 casualties. The German Army simply could not sustain such casualties.
At this time, American troops poured into the Western Front. By the end of March, 250,000 American troops had joined the conflict – Luderndorff’s worst planned for scenario. However, the impact of the Americans was hindered by the fact that the American General Pershing would not allow his troops to be commanded by either French or British officers.
|“Pershing – obstinate and stupid. Ridiculous." Douglas Haig|
However, despite such difficulties (overcome when Foch was made generalissimo of the Western Front) the end was in sight for the Germans even if Hindenburg did not agree.
|“While it may be the case that things have not gone so well for you, you are talking of a front of twelve miles. I have reports from all along the front and morale is high while other reports say that the enemy’s morale is poor." Hindenburg|
Neither Hindenburg or Luderndorff could face the inevitable. By June 1918, the German Army had been severely weakened by the large number of casualties it had suffered. Then on July 15th 1918, Luderndorff ordered the last offensive by the German Army in World War One. It was a disaster. The Germans advanced two miles into land held by the Allies but their losses were huge. The French Army let the Germans advance knowing that their supply lines were stretched to the limit. Then the French hit back on the Marne and a massive French counter-attack took place. Between March and July 1918, the Germans lost one million men.