** World War I -- final German offensive

World War I: Final German Spring Offensive (March-June 1918)

Figure 1.--The Russian Revolution andcensuing Brest-Litovsk Peace Treaty enabled the Germans to transfer powerful forces from the Eastern to the Western Front. Here we see German soldiers in a 1917 newsreel marching to the front lines in World War I. A boy of about 10 marches beside them, wearing the typical schoolboy clothes of the period--a dark kneepants suit and long black stockings. Notice the lack of ceremony. Earlier men moving to the front were sent off with jubilent civilianns throwing flowes and cheering. The mood was very different in 1917.

The collapse of Russia in late 1917 and peace treaty forced upon the Bolsevicks in 1918 enabled the Germans to transfer powerful forces to the Wesern Front. The draconian demands on the Bolshecicks, however, delayed the signing of the peace treaty and the transfer of troops to the Western Front. The Russian Revolution occurred during the late Fall. The ensuing Winter of course meant that the Germans could not launch a major offensive until the Spring. By the time they were able to launch their offensive, a new American Army of over 1 million men awaited them in the Allied trenches. Even so, the Germand nearly succeeded. The French Army almot broke. Without the arrival of the Americans, it is likely that the Germans would have won the war. German General Ludendorff was to say after the War that it was the arrival of the American infantry that was the decisive factor on the Western Front.

Bolshevik Revolution (October 1917)

The poorly organized and led Russian Army suffered enormous losses. The Russian tied down large German armies in the Eastern Front, making it impossible for the Germans to concentrate their strength against the French and British on the Western Front. Germany began the War as the strongest single country in Europe. The inability of the Germans to concentrate their strength in the West in the end cost them the war. The Russians finally cracked in 1917. Revolution broke out in Petrograd. The Tsar attetmpted to retuen to the capital, but was arrested and forced to abdicate. A Provisional Government formed from the Duma attempted to continue the War. The Bolsheviks promosing "Bread, pace, and land," seized control in the name of the Petrograd Soviet. The Germans forced a humiliating peace on the Bolsevicks at Brest-Litovsk (1918). With Russia out of the War they could finally concentrate their strength in the West. The Germans amassed their forces in 1918, hoping that they could break the Allies before the Americans arrived in France in force.

Treaty of Brest-Litosk (March 3, 1918)

The poorly organized and led Russian Army suffered enormous losses. The Russian tied down large German armies in the Eastern Front, making it impossible for the Germans to concentrate their strength against the French and British on the Western Front. The Russians finally cracked in 1917. Revolution broke out in Russia. The Bolsheviks seized control of the Russian government in November 1917. The Russian Army had collapsed in front of the Germans. The Russian people were starving as deperate. The Bolsheviks who had pledged bread and peace had no alternative but to seek terms. The Germans were thus able to force a humiliating peace on the Bolsheviks. The Bolsheviks had to ceede the Ukraine, its Polish territories, the Baltics (Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia), and Finland. The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was signed in 1918 between the new Soviet government and the Central Powers. Russia gave up land for peace. This thus allowed the Russians to withdraw from the war, although at enormous cost. The Brest-Litovsk Treaty was after the collapse of the German Western Front in 1918 was annulled by the terms of the Armistice betwewwn Germany and he Western Allies. The conclusion of the fighting on the Eastern Front allowed the Germans to shift substantial forces west. The draconian demands on the Bolshecicks, however, delayed the signing of the Breast Treaty and the transfer of troops to the Western Front. The Allies were unprepared for Russia's withdrawal from the war, despite the obviously deteriorating situation on hthe Eastern Front. [Edmounds]

The 1917-18 Winter

The Provisional Government kept Russia in the War after the fall of the Tsar for most uch of 1917. This would prove critical for the outcomr of the War. The Bolshevivk Revolution occurred during the late Fall (October-November 1917). The ensuing Winter of course meant that the Germans could not launch a major offensive until the following Spring. And the humiliaing Brest-Litovsk Treary was not signed until well ino 1918 (March 1918). With the Russians fibnlly out of the War, many if not most Germans thiught that the long nightmare of war was finally coming to an end. Few were aware of the tens of thousands of American pouring into French ports monthly. This bought the Allies time for the AEF to arrive in force and begin training. They were aware tht America had declared war, but for a year there was no American ction on the Western Front, msny just assumed that the Americans were a non-factor. .

The Allies

With victory in the East, the Germans could concentrate their forces on a final massive offensive in the West. Here there was a chance for success. Much had changed on the Western front, however, after 4 years of war. The French Army at been devestated at Verdun and poor treatment by the High Command . While incapable of offensive operation, Petain and Foch had restored discipline so that they would effectively fight on the defense. The German faced a well-entrnched French Army. But in addition rather than a small BEF they also faced the largest British Army ever fielded up to that pont. Conscription had enabled the British to build a massive army. And the British had learned from the dissaster on the Somme. They had made major changes in tactics. They had also developed new weapons, especially tanks. If this was not formibable enough, because of the Kaiser's decession to institute unconditional submarine warfare, the Americans had entered the War and a substantial new army had joined the British and French in the Western Front trenches--the AEF. When America declared war (April 1917) there essentially was no American Army. By the time the Germans launched their offensive, a new American Army of over 1 million men awaited them in the Allied trenches. The AEF was not well trained, but the Americans were willing and able to fight. And for the Germans it was their final chance of success. In addition to the 1 million Americans in France, another 2 million were undergoing training in the United States. Even with the formidable Allied armies, the Germans nearly succeeded. The French Army almost broke. And the Germans came very close to driving a wedge between the British and French. Without the arrival of the Americans, it is likely that the Germans would have won the war. German General Ludendorff was to say after the War that it was the arrival of the American infantry that was the decisive factor on the Western Front.

Storm Troopers

The Germans adopted new tactics designed to break through the Allied lines. The Germans trained elite troops in novel new tactics to penetrate the Allied trenches. The tactics used by both the Allies and Germand in 1915-17 was an extedsive artillery barage to soften up the enemy trenches followed by frontal assaults with masssed infnty. The new German tactic was only a brief artillery barage after which the Storm Troppers would unfiltrate the Attled trenches. The lightly armed, but fast moving shock troo[ps called Storm Trooprs attacked weak points in the Allied trenches such as command and logistics areas. The Storn Troopers would go arrond strong points and surround them. These isolated Storm Troopers would then be overwelmed by infantry with heavy weapons.

German Kaiserschlacht / Spring Offensive (March-June 1918)

The German war-winning plan was a massive spring offensive which was named the Kaiserschlacht (the Kaiser's Battle. It was the Ludendorff offensive. The Grermans were being adversely affected by the detriorating home front, primarily caused by the food shoratages resulting from the Allied naval blockade. And even worse, having brought America into the War thaey nowev faced a massive American Expeditionary Force (AEF) about to finish their training and enter the fight. Ludendorff and the other german genrrals realised it was win the war in the Spring before the Americans were committed or the whole war effort brought about largely by yhe German genrerals themselves was lost. The German Army as well as all of German was by 1918 in the hands of Generals Hindenburg and Ludendorf. The generals who had failed in the West had been displaced. Ludendorff personally planed the final war-winning offensive in the West. The Russian Revolution had created an enormous opportunity for Germany (February 1917). The new Russian Provisional Government, however, had kept Russia in the War. It wa not until the Bolshevik Revolution (October 1917) that the Germans could force the humiliating https://histclo.com/essay/war/ww1/misc/ww1-bl.html">Brest-Litovsl Treaty (March 1918). Finally the Germans could begin moving divisions from the Eastern Front west (March 1918). This amounted to some 50 giving thev Germans a temporary siperiority in numbrers. Ludendorff and Hindenberg knew that it ws a fleeting advanatage that would didappear once the AEF was commiotted. It was thus now or necer. The Allied naval blockade and the entry of America into the War meant that German strength compared to the Allies would never be grreater. Germany had to win the war in 1918 or lose the War. It was important to strike as soon as possible before the AEF completed their training and could be trained and deployed. And each month that passed, more Americans were arriving in France to bolster the AEF. The Kaiserschlacht would be a series of attacks and was launched (March 21). As it oplayed out, there would be four German offensives, codenamed 1) Michael, 2) Georgette, 3) Gneisenau, and 4) Blücher-Yorck. A fifth attack occurred after the Gerans has suystained huge casualties and would be largely blunted by the AEF rushed nto battle. Michael was the main attack launched in the Somme. It was designed to break through the Allied lines, outflank the British forces (which held the front from the Somme River to the English Channel) and defeat the British Army. This would have forced the French would seek an armistice. The other offensives were largely subsidiary to Michael and were untended to divert Allied forces from the oprincipal effort on the Somme. Actual objectives changed as the battle unfolded. The Gerrmans sucessfuly imployed their storm trroper units, buy the logistical problems assiciated with World War I offensivces soon caught up with them. It was difficult to mainatin momentum and keep advancing front-line units supplied. (These ecperiences in the post-War era as the Germans studied the problem would be part of the inspiration giving rise to the new Blitkrieg doctrine.) The Allies reacted by concentrated their main forces in the critical areas (especially the approaches to the all imprtant Channel Ports and the vital rail junction of Amiens). The Germans made impressive advances, in fact the greatest advnced ever chieved on the Western Front up to tghat time. But the advances were iny=to basically areas of little strategic value. Within only a few weeks, the Allies had halted the main offendive in the Somme and any real danger of a German breakthrough was prevented. The fighting continued until July when the AEF began to be committed. Both the German and Allies took large casualties, interesing in that usually the attacker on the Western front took the largest casualties. But this wa actuakly a dusaster for the Germans. The Geam losses could not be repaced while the Allies has the million-string AEF to commit and tens of thousand more Doughboys arriving in France every month.

First drive: Operation Michael--The Somme (March 21-April 4)

The first anf most imprtant German drive of the Kaiserschlacht was codenamed Operation Michael. The fact that the Provisional continued the War after the overthrow of the Tsar mean that the Germans would not be able to launch an offensive with forces from the Eastern Frot intil 1918 This brought time to formand trainthe AEF. In adiition, the severe conditions forced on the Blosheviks delayed the conclusion of a Treaty. And forces had to be kept in the East to occuply the huhe area seized from the Russins. The situation in the East was still unsettled, so Ludendorff left the powerful Eighth Army in place. Thus only a portion of the German forces were shifted West for Operation Michael.All of this limited ahd delayed the German shift East. Opation Michel involved a massive general offensive in the West. The brunt of the offensive would fall on the juncture between the British and French forces. The aim was to divide the two armies, break through their lines, and seize Paris. The goal was to defeat the French before the AEF could be trained and deployed. Ludendorff was the Hawk among the German leadership. After pressing the Kaiser and Hindenberg to reject wilson's 'peace without victory' proposal, he got his chance to win the the war. Ludendorff launched Operation Michael, the final massive German offensive with probing attacks against the British lines around St. Quentin in Flanders. It was actually similar to Hitlers 1944 Ardennes offensive, only this time rather than trying to separate the British and americans, the Germansere tryng to divide the British and French. He was anxious to crack open the front nefore the Americans who he had played a major role in declaring war could make their presence felt. The Germans hit the extreme right of the British lines (March 21). The objective was the important rail junction at Amiens. Success here would effectively split the British and French Armies. The Germans commenced with a 6,000 gun artillery barrage. Poison gas opened up a huge gap in the allied lines. The initial attack achieved considerable success. The Germans advanced 22 kilometers (km) in a single day and quickly puched a 60 km bulge in the Allied lines. This was an unpredented achievement in the West where the trenches had meant virtually static warfare since the opening months of the War. The Germans captured 90,000 British an Canadian solduers and 1,300 artillery pices along with 2 million bottles of wiskey. The Kaiser was estatic. He told an aide, "The battle is won, the English have been utterly defeated." While impresive, these were advances that were difficult for World War I command and control methods and supply units to keep up with. The British managed to stop Ludendorff near Soissons.

Second drive: Georgette -- Lys (April 9-29)

Georgette was a scalled down Operation George that had been previously planned. The Lys drive was another engaement in Flanders. The British during the German Michael drive moved forces to the Somme to defend the vital rail junction at Amiens. This left the Lys River valley with its rail line through Hazebrouck to the Channel ports of Calais, Boulogne, and Dunkirk lightly dfended. The navigable river Lys (sometines called the Lys Canal) extends from the junction with the Dunkerque-Escaut waterway near Aire-sur-la-Lys to the confluence with the Scheldt/Escaut at Ghent in Belgium. The Germans saw an opportunity to cut off the British army from its major supply ports. The battle was fought near Ypresrge scene of a fierce eratlier battle and for several days the British were in serious danger. [Baker] The Germans launched the attack with a massive Feuerwalze--eolling artillery barage (April 9). The Gernmas chose an open, flat area where the Portuguese Expeditionary Corps had been deployed. The Germans had declared war on Portugal (March 1916). The Portuguese had arrived in the trenches (1917). After the artillery barage, one Portuguese battlion refused to enter the trenches. Eight German divisions attcked in strength. The Germans selected the sector probably because they thought the Portuguese would be a soft target. Catching then in the midst of a redeployment was probably just luck. One account reorts that the Portuguese 'were tired and had suffered heavy losses'. They were sceduled to be replaced by fresh British divisions, but that operation was only beginning when the Germans struck. The 1st Portuguese Division had been withdrawn and only the 2nd Portuguese Division manned the front of 7 miles of flat country with know natural defensive barriers. The Portuguese attempted to hold, but were oveerwhalmed by the eight German divisions. The 2nd Division was largely annihilated. The British 40th Division occupying the northern flank of the Portuguese also collapsed, opening a gap in the front line. To the south, the British 55th Division hich had a stronger defensise position because of the La Bassée Canal held the line. The followng day, the Germans struck north toward the Channel. The British dfenders at Armentières had to withdraw as the Germans were about to surround them. The Germans recaptured Messines Ridge the cene of fierce battle (1917). Even with moving reserves forward, the British were having trouble holding a line set up along the River Lys. The British feared that the Germans might expand their breakthrough and continue the drive the remaining 15 miles to Channel ports. The Gordon Higlanders had been committed too the Michael/Somme battle, but Territorial and Service Battalions were among those rushed into the sector to hold the line (April 10) (figure 1). British commander, Field Marshal Douglas Haig, issued a not very optimistic Order of the Day telling his men, "Three weeks ago to-day the enemy began his terrific attacks against us on a 50 mile front. His objects are to separate us from the French, to take the Channel ports and destroy the British Army. There is no other course open to us but to fight it out! Every position must be held to the last man: there must be no retirement. With our backs to the wall, and believing in the justice of our cause each one of us must fight to the end." (April 11) Fortunately for the British, the German offensive slowed because of the logistical problems created by the rapid advance as well as their exposed flanks. The British rail center at Hazebrouck proved to be the key to the Battle. It was a small town, but critical to the Allies, The town's rail ine carried half the British daily food and munitions supplies. Haig ordered the 1st Australian Division defend the town. Much of the Btitish reseves had been committed to stop the German Muchael/Somme drive. Counterattacks by British, French and Anzac forces slowed and then stopped the German advance. The French 133rd Division was the first of the reinforcing units (April 14). The British abandoned the relatively unimportant territory around Ypres which gave them several divisions to confront the Germans. Ludendorff called off Georgette (April 29). Like Michael, the Akkies and Germabs suffered azbout equal losses, some 110,000 casualties, but with the Americans in the offing, such irreplace able losses can only be seen as a defeat. And worse still the poition they had taken was a vilnerabke salient which the Allioes began shelling remoreslessly. As with Michael, losses were roughly equal, approximately 110,000 men wounded or killed, each. [Marix-Evans, p. 81.] And most importantly Hazebrouck remained in Allied hands.

Third drive: Gneisenau -- Aiusne (May 27-June 4)

With Michael stopped and Georgette halted, it took Ludendorf more than a month fir Ludendorff to muster resources fir a third drive--a sure induvction that the Germans eere weakening, He decided to moce south along the front and attack the French positions closer to Paris. The idea, hoever, was not to take Paris, cut draw forces away from the Channel Port defenses so that he coild renews his offensive there. His The strategic objective continued to be split the British and French o he could destroy the smaller Btitish Army and achieve victory before the Americans became a factor. As it was this was alreaf=fy happening. The German offiensive cause moving up the scheduled deployment. As a kind of test, the first American combat forces wre first deployed in the quiet Saint-Mihiel sector of Lorraine. Their furse action of any importabce was the defence of Seicheprey (April 20). [Stewart, p. 30.] After the British had stoped the Michael drive on the Somme, the American 1st Division (which cane to be known as the 'Big Red One' because of their shoulder patch, was inserted in the line to bolster defenses in that sector (mid-April). They launched their first actual attack of the war on Cantigny (May 28).

Fourth drive: Blücher-York -- Noyon-Montdidier (June 8-12)

Fifth drive: Champagne-Marne (Juiy 15-17)

German Advances

The Germans succeded in moving forward and were at one point only 120 kilometres from Paris. They moved up heavy Krupp railway guns and fired on Paris. The Parisans at first thought that it was an aerial assault. The Germans were on the verge of victory. Kaiser Wilhelm II pronounced a national holiday (March 24). The weakness in the German offensive appears to be that they had not expected the successes achieved or the losses sustained. Ludendorf did not have forces available to exploit the gaps opened in the Allied lines. The British rushed forces across the Channel and units of the AEF were deployed. The Allied lines held and German casualties mounted. German casualties in Operation Michael reached 270,000 men (March and April 1918). Losses of these magnitudes could not be replaced by the Germans. Allied losses were even higher, but with the AEF now ammounted to 0.5 million men and was growing weekly with the arrival of troop ships in French ports.

Committing the AEF (March-June 1918)

The Germans had gambled in 1917 that unrestricted submarine warfare would cut off Britain and force the British to make peace. They reasoned that it would be some time before the Americans could train, equip, and deploy an army to France. And the German Navy assured the Reichstag that the Americans would never even come because German U-boats would sink transport ships. And the U-boats could win the war by starving the British. The resumption of un-restricted submarine warfare was a mistake of enormous proprtions which cost Germany the War. Here the U-boats failed and in 1918 the German Army had to deal with the consequences of the Kaiser's failed gamble--the AEF. The Russian Army had prevented the Germans from focusing on the Western Front. Now with the Russuans out of the War, the Germans brought America into the War, a country with manpower comparable to Russia. The AEF was, however, still training and not yet deployed in force when the Germans launched their Spring Offensive. President Wilson had given General Pershing only one order when he assumed command of the AEF. That was that the AEF was to fight as a separate force under the American flag and not as replacements for deplete British and French units. In the emergency, American units still not fully trained were rushed to the front to support hard-pressed British and French units (March 28). The AEF fought the War largely with Allied (British and French) weapons. The AEF played a major role in helping the French Army during the Aisne Offensive at Ch�teau-Thierry and Belleau Wood (June 1918). The AEF that helped stopped the Germans was a force that the Germans did not have to face. They were there becuse of the deecisions of a German Government which beloeved that the americans were not areal nation that needed to be reckoned with. The War ended before American industry could be brought to bear. Given the fact that America had a much larger populatioin than Germany and was the largest industrial nation in the world, the enormity of the mistake bringing the United States into the War can be seen. And it highlights while the German spring offensive was their last chance to win the War. If it failed, so did the entire German war effort.

Unified Allied Command

The Allied High Command hastily convened a conference to address the deteriorating military situation. Commanders met in what has become known as the Doullens Conference (March 21). The basic decession taken was to unify the command structure. British Field Marshal Douglas Haig handed control of his forces over to French Field Marshall Ferdinand Foch. [Edmonds] Foch who was the Chief of Staff of the French Army was assigned resopnsibility for co-ordinating Allied operations on the Western Front.

Further German Offensives (July-August 1918)

The main German offensive was Operation Michael. The Germans followed up Operation Michael with smaller offensives to support the main offensive. Operation Georgette involved attacks to the north aimed at Ypres along the Channel to seize Channel ports. The aim was to hamper the supplies to the British front lines. Here the Germans made only minor progress. Operations Bl�cher and Yorck were aimed at the French lines in the south, again directed toward Paris. The Germans took Soissons. The spearhead of their advance penetrated as far as Chateau-Thierry, only 56 miles from Paris. Operation Marne was a pincer attack to encircle the French strong point of Reims (July 15). Here also they nearly succeeded. The result was the Second Battle of the Marne. This would be the final German push which the Germans called the Kaiser's Battle. The Germans mustered their forces already within France and drove toward Reims. It was arguably the most important battle since the First Battle of the Marne. Both Luddendorff and Foch saw that it would decided the War. It was a protracted fight (July 15-August 16). In the end the German attack failed when the French and Americans counter-attacked in force. These were the same Americans that Ludendorff had helped bring into the war. The French and Americans attacked the German right flank salient, causing heavy casualties. The American-French counterattack would prove to be the beginnking of the war-winning Allied 100 Day Campaign.

Allied Naval Blockade

The effectiveness of the Allied naval blockade began to sjhow during the German offensive. The blockade had denied Germany needed food imports and bital raw materiald for industry. Industrial production was declining at a time when Aliied factories buoyed by American supplies were producing at full capacity. Civilians were suffering from severe food shortages. Incidents of stasrvation were reported. and Germany Army units had been poorly supplied. German soldiers in many cases weree under nourished. There were numerous incidfents of looting as the Germans moved forward. Units also often stopped to gourge themselves when they over ran Allied supply depots.

German Retreat

The Allied counter-attacks were the most successful Allied offensive of the War. The Allies had learned from mistakes made earlier. The Germans were more vulnerable as they had moved out of their well prepared trench fortifications. In addition, units of the AEF were now available. Marshall Foch attacked the flank of the German bulge in the Allied lines (July). The AEF provided the central reserve need to sustain a major offensive. The Germans were forced to retire to the Kaiserschlacht starting lines (July 20).

German Strategy

The German Spring offensive had achieved nothing and the losses incured had significantly weakened the German Army. The Germans still held, however, most of Belgium and northern France. Victory had been achieved in the East. The High Command hoped that the powerful Hindenburg Line would provide a defensise bulwark to stop any Allied offensive and that the losses incurred would force the Allies to eventually make peace.

Allied Offensive (August-November 1918)

The Allied Offensive was prefaced by a rare French attack west of Rheims (July). The British then launched the last offensive of the War. The Canadians negan the offensive by striking at the exposed Amiens Bulge followed by a general assault on the vaunted Hindenburg Line. The British deployed tanks in numbers which proved highly effective in breeching trench fortifications. The Americans bloodied by the fighting in the Soringb attacked the St. Mihiel Salient south of Verdun and then moved aginst the Argonne Forrest west of Verdun. The Allies suffered severe losses. The Americans suffered 100,000 casualties in the Argonne fighting alone--but kept advancing. The attacks were too much for the depleted German ranks. After the Spring offensive, many divisions were no longer combat ready. The Allies succeeded in finally cracking the Hindenberg Line abd the Germans began falling back.


The Kaiserschlacht wasLudrndorff's great masterpiece. He had so 50 divisions from ghe easter Front to bolster his great offensive. Its utter failure ruined his war record. And the casualties weakebed the Germnn firces, leaving it vuklnerable when the Americbns were committed. He was eventually dismissed when the Germany Army could no longer hild basck the Allies. He was adamebntly opposed to the resulting Armis=tice. And after the War was the primary instigator of the Stab-in-the back myth. He would be wih Hutler in the Beer Hall Putch (1923).


Baker, Chris. The Battle of the Lys, 1918: South: Objective Hazebrouck Battleground Books.

Edmonds. Brig. Gen Sir J. France and Belgium 1918 Vol. I "The German March Offensive And Its Preliminaries" Official History of the Great War (Naval & Military Press).

Stewart, Richard W. ed. (2005). American Military History (PDF). II. (Center of Military History, US Army: 2005).

Marix-Evans, Martin. 1918: The Year of Victories Arcturus Military History Series (London: Arcturus, 2002).


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Created: 6:48 PM 3/26/2005
Last updated: 12:17 PM 9/7/2021