If we start with the aftermath of the Battle of Jutland, 31 May 1916, the German High Seas fleet had failed to break the blockade of Germany so the military high command introduced unrestricted submarine warfare. The result was the entry of the USA into the war in April, 1917. Ludendorff’s plans for 1918 included a major offensive on the Western Front using troops from the East before the USA trained its army to join the offensive. Ludendorff’s options included:
- An attack on the BEF in Flanders;
- An attack on the French at Verdun;
- An attack on the St Quentin area between the Allies and an attempt to push the BEF back to the coast.
Ludendorff opted for the third choice. It would involve retraining the better soldiers for storm trooper tactics and secrecy was paramount.
But Ludendorff failed to set the strategic target, deciding that tactical success would decide the strategic objective.
The Eighteenth Army broke through the BEF lines and pushed Gough’s Fifth Army back, the Seventeenth and Second Armies achieved some but less dramatic success. The Germany army was held back by lack of mobility, there were few horses and Ludendorff had never endorsed tanks.
The Allied response was to appoint Foch was Generalissimo over the armies in the Western Front and, in a stroke, the chances of separating the BEF and the French army became very slim. The scale of the German casualties was very high – 250,000 during the March and April offensives, and 850,000 in total between Spring and Autumn.
The May and June attacks on the French army brought less success as the French defensive tactics under Petain were much improved. On 18 July the French counter-attacked with considerable success.
Looting of the BEF stores after the front lines were taken can be seen as an indicator of the low morale in the German Army, especially after the turnip winter and a higher than normal desertion rate.
The BEF attack at Amiens in August 1918 saw sensational Allied gains and signs of breakdown in the German Army. The German military high command was faced with few options: they wanted to hold out for a compromise peace; they looked more seriously at Wilson’s points; but the position of Chancellor and the lack of democracy in Germany held back any decision.
In September, the BEF broke through the Hindenburg Line (Foch’s initial plan was fairly limited but Haig urged a more far-reaching attack and won him over). 185,000 prisoners were taken by the BEF and 196,000 were taken by the French and US armies in the Meuse-Argonne area. Foch’s motto became ‘Tout le monde a la bataille!’ (everybody into battle). By October Germany’s allies were in trouble: both Austro-Hungary and Bulgaria were prepared to sue for peace. Cambrai fell to the BEF on 9 October, in Flanders King Albert’s Army Group recommenced operation on 14 October. The battle of the Selle on 17 October saw the Fourth Army win another victory. The Salonika army put down their garden implements and went to war. Ludendorff resigned and the German fleet mutinied.
November brought the final battles and the Armistice – there would be no compromise peace and the decision about how to handle Germany passed from the military to the political wing of government.
Reference: this article is based on a talk comparing Ludendorff and Haig given by Professor John Derry to the Yorkshire branch of the WFA.
Contributed by: Peter J Palmer.
Amiens: the Key of the West.
Painted by Arthur Streeton while he was an Australian official war artist. The French city of Amiens was a critical British base and an original objective of the German Spring Offensive. The painting depicts the view to the east, overlooking the city, with gunfire on the horizon. Australian and British troops halted the German advance east of Amiens at Villers-Bretonneux. (source Wikimedia)
(Photograph of a soldier of a German stormtrooper assault group with his Bergmann MP18.1 and a Parabellum P08, Northern France, Spring 1918 also from Wikimedia)