At the end of 1917 the German high command found itself in a particularly favourable situation. The October Revolution and the subsequent disintegration of the Russian Army would allow the Germans to concentrate their fighting forces on the Western Front. It was in this context that Ludendorff began to prepare a massive and, what he hoped would be, decisive attack to be launched the following spring before the American Army fulfilled its fighting potential on European soil. The offensive would bear on the British Army which the German strategists considered to be exhausted after fighting four bloody and fruitless offensives in the course of 1917 at Arras, Messines, Passchendaele and Cambrai.
By mid-April 1918 most of the German divisions on the Eastern Front had been transferred to the French border. Of the 110 divisions stationed along the front line, fifty were allocated to the British front despite the French front being much longer. The Germans had great hopes for their offensive, giving it the grand name of Kaiserschlacht, the "Emperor's Battle". The offensive would comprise two phases, the first striking Somme and the second confirming the breach in French Flanders.
The first part of the offensive, Operation Michael, was expected to breach the British front at Arras and then head north to cut off their railway supply lines. This would, it was hoped, allow the Germans to envelop the British forces and secure their surrender. The section of the front chosen for the offensive had recently been taken over by the British at the request of the French, David Lloyd George having given his consent at the Boulogne Conference despite misgivings from his general staff.
The line left by the French was discovered to be poorly defended and the British were required to substantially improve its fortifications. These works had barely commenced when the Germans struck. To make matters worse, the British Army was going through a difficult period marked by a discernible reduction in reinforcements and a serious fall in morale after the heavy losses at the Third Battle of Ypres and the Battle of Cambrai.
Despite the apparent simplicity of the German strategy, it relied upon the execution of some innovative tactics which had been used to great effect on the Italian and Russian fronts, notably during the Battle of Riga. For example, instead of pounding the infantry positions on the front line, the preliminary bombardment would focus on machine gun posts and gun batteries close to the front and communication centres at the rear (headquarters and train stations). This far-reaching barrage would be brief, a few hours at most, but massive. As for the infantry, it would be separated into small groups which had been specially trained in infiltration techniques. They were expected to exploit the breach quickly with mobile gun batteries, leaving the job of wiping out any pockets of resistance to the second wave of infantry.
Launched in 21 March 1918, Operation Michael came as a complete surprise to the British troops who bore the brunt of its violence. Using to great effect their numerical superiority (fifty-eight divisions against sixteen), the Germans created a wide breach in the British front in the space of a few hours. Several divisions were literally annihilated, such as the Irish 16th, the 36th and the 66th. Those units which were not dislocated made a fighting retreat through the increasing chaos, the congested roads and German artillery adding to the general panic. Amiens soon came under threat and this forced the British to field large numbers of reserves to fill the breach.
Panic began to take hold among the Allied political and military leaders; fear of a complete collapse encouraged the leaders to set up a single command to coordinate the Allied forces in the field, an expedient which had been repeatedly put off since the beginning of the war. The German advance began to slow after a few days because of logistical problems (supplies of munitions and food for the troops were insufficient) and the increasing resistance of the Allies, notably the Australians at Hébuterne. Slowly but surely Ludendorff's initial and spectacular success was beginning to flounder...
The second phase of the German offensive, Operation Georgette (also known as the Battle of the Lys), was launched in French Flanders on 9 April and for Ludendorff it was a question of double or quits. The battle started with success similar to its immediate predecessor. A spectacular breakthrough on the Lys was quickly followed by the capture of Estaires (9-10 April), which was subsequently burned to the ground, and Messines Ridge (10-11 April). An advance fizzled out near Hazebrouck, an important railway junction (12-15 April) and was followed by the destruction and capture of Bailleul (12-15 April). The First Battle of Kemmel Hill (17-19 April) put a stop to another advance, this time towards Béthune, and the Germans vented the full force of their frustration on the town's centre. Several British divisions did their best to check the German advance with the sparse means at their disposal (barricading the streets of Armentières with whatever they could find and, at Bailleul, stationing delaying units under cover of railway embankments) while others collapsed under the weight of the attack, a fate which befell the Portuguese Expeditionary Force at Neuve-Chapelle. Aware of his ally's perilous situation, General Foch sent in French reinforcements to face the Germans at Kemmel Hill where they were exposed to a massive bombardment on 25-26 April. Despite the huge losses the Allies succeeded in stabilizing the front and by 29 April the Kaiserschlacht had run its course, ending in failure.
Human losses were considerable for both sides because of the huge number of troops taking part and the extended duration of the offensive. The British lost 236,000 men between 21 March and 29 April 1918 however the nature of the losses was unusual in that relatively few soldiers were killed (but still 20,000) while many were lost in action (120,000), for the most part taken prisoner. The French suffered fewer losses (92,000), although the proportion of deaths was very high for the units fighting on Kemmel Hill. As for the Germans they lost, in the same period, 348,000 men.
Yves Le Maner
Director of La Coupole
History and Remembrance Centre of Northern France
[Bild 146-2008-0314] Deutsches Bundesarchiv / Wikimedia Commons (jpg - 0.07 MB)
[Bild 146-2008-0314] Deutsches Bundesarchiv / Wikimedia Commons (jpg - 0.1 MB)
Guide Michelin des champs de bataille : Ypres (jpg - 0.05 MB)
Guide Michelin des champs de bataille : Ypres (jpg - 0.05 MB)