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Many thought that Germany was capable of winning World War One until the very end. Unlike World War 2, in which the Allies believed that victory was inevitable as early as 1943, this was not the case with the Great War. It is also easy to assume that German defeat was inevitable at the hands of an Allied coalition richer in manpower, weapons and money. Yet Germany nearly captured Paris in 1914, crushed Serbia and Romania, bled the French Army until it mutinied, drove Russia out of the war, and then came oh-so-close to victory on the Western Front in 1918. One should not underestimate the power of Imperial Germany. Until the armistice was signed in a French railway carriage on November 11, 1918, Germany’s enemies didn’t.

  1. Background
    1. Having been mostly on the defensive in 1917, the German high command decided to try one more attack in the spring of 1918.
    2. On January 7, Ludendorff wrote to Hindenburg “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.” (Keegan)
    3. Time was of the essence. The Germans had about six months to use their soldiers that had come from the eastern front to hit the Allies before the AEF arrived in force. Germany would have numerical superiority on the Western front for the first time since 1914. Three German armies would participate.
    4. Meanwhile, the British took over more of the allied line south of the Somme. They had to repair the heavily damaged French trenches. Now half of German divisions were facing British ones.
    5. On January 21, Ludendorff decided that the German offensive would start with Operation Michael, near St. Quentin (toward the Somme). The attack would begin in late March.
    6. In January, both sides conducted bombing raids on positions behind enemy lines.
    7. In February, Ludendorff said “We must not believe that this offensive will be like those in Galicia or Italy. It will be an immense struggle that will begin at one point, continue at another, and take a long time.”
    8. On February 26, during a French raid on German positions, an American colonel got involved and helped take German prisoners. He received the Croix de Guerre (the first American to do so). His name was Douglas MacArthur.
    9. On March 9, the Germans began a series of artillery barrages.
  1. Preliminary Actions
    1. The Germans’ objective was to drive the British from the Somme and the Germans from the Aisne, threatening Paris.
    2. The Germans had 90 divisions (3 million men), with more on the way. They fooled the British into thinking the attack was coming in Flanders.
    3. The British 1st army on the left (north) defended Arras, Julian Byng and the 3rd Army were just south of them. Further south, Hugh Gough and the 5th army defended St. Quentin. They were opposed by the German 17th Army under Otto von Below, the 2nd Army under Georg van der Marwitz, and the 18th Army under Oscar von Hutier.
    4. The Germans fired an artillery barrage of 6000 guns. They used lachrymatory, mustard, and phosgene gas.
    5. 361 German fighters attacked 261 British. 30 total planes were shot down on the first day.
  2. Operation Michael
    1. At 0700 on March 21, 44 German storm troop divisions went over the top and sprinted toward the British lines. Many did not even use their rifles. They smashed through the British lines, advancing over 4 miles, taking 20,000 British prisoners, and inflicting 30,000 other casualties. Other divisions soon attacked.
    2. Once again, the war was a war of motion. But the breakthrough was mainly on the German left. Even though the attack was a success, it was not what Ludendorff had planned.
    3. The Germans were advancing quickly. The Kaiser declared “the battle [is] won, the British are defeated.” In some places, the Germans advanced up to 35 miles.
    4. Philippe Petain sent forces to help the 5th Army, but they too had to retreat.
    5. On the 25th, the Germans broke through between the French and British lines. The Allies, to promote unity of command, put Ferdinand Foch in overall command of Allied forces. Foch decided to concentrate forces in front of Amiens.
    6. General Gough was removed from command of the 5th Army.
    7. As the Germans advanced, they looted the former Allied positions, taking a great deal of food and alcohol.
    8. German attacks resumed on the 30th, but they soon stalled. They came within 5 miles of Amiens but could not take it. They had been slowed down by the obstacles of the old Somme battlefield.
    9. On March 30, British and Canadian forces counterattacked and made gains. British and Canadian reinforcements began arriving.
    10. German forces attacked again on April 4 and 5 at the Somme. These attacks failed. He wrote “The enemy resistance is beyond our powers.” The Germans again began to dig in.
    11. Summary: Germany gained 20 miles on a front of 50 miles, took 1200 square miles of territory, 90,000 prisoners, and tons of supplies. They inflicted 160,000 British and 70,000 French casualties. But they lost 160,000 casualties, took no strategic locations, and had to build new defensive lines. And now they had a salient, an awkward position.
    12. Keegan: “…the BEF had suffered its first true defeat since trench warfare had begun three and a half years earlier.” (400).
  1. Operation Georgette (Battle of the Lys)
    1. Objective was to cross the Lys River (in Flanders), overrun the southern Ypres salient, and drive to the coast between Calais and Dunkirk. (This would be called the Battle of La Lys)
    2. The British thought the main thrust would be at Vimy Ridge.
    3. The initial German attack on April 9 opened a 4 mile gap in the British line.
    4. The Germans 2000 tons of mustard gas against the British.
    5. German forces continued to advance on April 10 and 11.
    6. Haig issued the following statement: “There is no 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.”
    7. On the 14th, Foch was given the title General-in-Chief of the Allied Armies.
    8. The initial attack ended on the 14th. Another attack on the 17th failed.
    9. On the 24th, the Germans were advancing toward Amiens. On the way, they took Villers-Bretonneux in a battle that featured the first ever tank-on-tank battle. But their advance stalled
    10. In the St. Mihail salient, a German force drove back an American unit.
    11. Another German attack on the 29th failed.
    12. Total casualties in Operations Michael and Georgette were 325,000 for the Germans and 260,000 for the British.
    13. Gilbert: “The Battle of La Lys was a turning point not only in German military fortunes, but in German battlefield morale. Many soldiers were depressed and exhausted, seeing no further prospect of breaching the Allied line.”
  1. Other Operations
    1. In April and May, the British launched attacks on German-held ports in Belgium, including Ostend. Their purpose was to trap German subs in the ports, but this did not work.
    2. On May 18 and 19, German and British bombers conducted bombing raids, including on London and Cologne.
  1. The Third Battle of the Aisne, Operations Blucher, Goerz, and Yorck
    1. The preparations for these attacks were very well-concealed. The Allies had no idea where the attack would occur.
    2. On May 27, the Germans launched an artillery barrage (using pre-calibrated cannons). 3 million shells were fired, with 50% of them being gas shells.
    3. By 9 AM advance troops had reached the Aisne and had captured 650 big guns. By 11 AM, they had crossed the Aisne. By midnight, they had crossed the Vesle at Courlandon. In just the first day of the attack, the German infantry had advanced nearly 14 miles, which was the biggest single day advance of any army in the entire war.
    4. By the end of the second day, the Germans had advanced 40 miles. But they were not successful everywhere.
    5. In their first real offensive the AEF took the village of Cantigny and held it for three days in the face of fierce German counterattacks.
    6. Lack of cavalry and armored cars and tanks slowed the Germans down.
    7. By the 30th, the Germans had taken Soissons and had reached the Marne. They were 50 miles from Paris. The French government made plans to evacuate.
    8. On June 3rd, the Germans crossed the Marne, using giant ladders wide enough for two men to cross side-by-side. They established a bridgehead temporarily, but the Americans drove them back.
    9. In a subsequent attack, Gunnery Sgt. Dan Daly led a charge, famously shouting “Come on ya sons of bitches! Ya wanna live forever?!”
    10. The battle ended on June 6. Both sides had lost about 130,000 casualties.
  1. Operation Gneisenau (Battle of Matz)
    1. Immediately after Third Aisne, Ludendorff began planning yet another new offensive. The French had cracked the German code and thus knew about it.
    2. On June 9, the French launched an artillery barrage, but the German counter-barrage was even more effective. The German infantry attack enjoyed initial success.
    3. On the 11th, the French counterattacked at Soissons. They caught the Germans on open ground, and their machine guns and tanks forced the Germans back. Ludendorff called off the offensive after only 4 days.
    4. This operation resulted in no gains for the Germans. Plus the Germans now had a salient with a 60 mile perimeter.
    5. Meanwhile, the Americans fought the Germans in the Battle of Belleau Wood from June 1-26. U. S. Marines played a key role in this battle, which was an Allied victory. It was the first battle to see heavy American casualties.
    6. On July 4, the British attacked in the Battle of Hamel. The attack was planned and commanded by Lieutenant General John Monash, commander of the Australian Corps and Australian Imperial Force.
    7. The attack at Hamel employed the use of combined air power, tanks, infantry and machine guns for the first time in the war. All of the Allies’ objectives were achieved within 93 minutes, just three minutes longer than Monash’s calculated battle time.
  1. The Second Battle of the Marne
    1. The Germans planned to attack with 49 divisions to open a second railway line to the Marne. But the Allies knew when the attack was set to begin, and they launched an artillery barrage 30 minutes before the German one began.
    2. The German barrage was still effective, delivering 17,500 rounds of gas.
    3. On July 15, the Germans went over the top east of Rheims. They found nearly empty trenches and overran them. But they met stiff resistance
    4. On the 16th, the Germans bombarded Champagne. The infantry attack \met stiff resistance. French bombers also hurt the German attack.
    5. Near Chateau-Thierry, the Americans blew up all the German pontoon bridges in front of them. “There were no Germans in the foreground of the Third Division except the dead,” one American general wrote.
    6. The French launched a counterattack with 500 tanks. Americans also attacked. The Germans were pushed back about 4 miles and lost many prisoners. (Battle of Soissons).
    7. British forces also made advances. Also, about 250,000 American soldiers were arriving each month.
    8. On the 25th, the Germans tried, but failed to take Rheims.
    9. Later that week, the Germans withdrew.
    10. Ludendorff called off his planned attack on Flanders, ending the German Spring Offensives. Both sides had suffered 1 million casualties.

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"Germany’s 1918 Spring Offensive" History on the Net
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November 28, 2020 <https://www.historyonthenet.com/germanys-1918-spring-offensive>
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