1918, Germany’s Final Gamble
How Germany’s attempt to play her final cards set the conditions for the end of the war.
The Russian ceasefire halted the war on the Eastern Front, but it was just a ceasefire. Delegations from the two sides began to negotiate a formal peace treaty, but, in February, talks broke down and on the 17th the Germans resumed hostilities. As is often the case, the facts on the ground prevailed. The Germans effectively annexed the Ukraine, and the Russians were forced to withdraw, placing a large part of their country under a German protectorate. Needing peace, but with no real options, the Russians signed a peace treaty on the 3rd of March. Now Germany had a real opportunity to end the war on her terms.
With control over Ukraine and Georgia, Germany now had access to more resources, such as oil, reducing the impact of the Entente’s punishing blockade. They also took the opportunity to move men from east to west, transferring forty divisions across Germany to the Western Front. Now, with war production at a peak and more men available, Germany believed that they had the superiority they needed to bring the war to an end in the west; crucially reaching numerical superiority before American reinforcements arrived and tilted the balance of power in the Entente’s favour.
The German Army was flushed with success, having achieved stunning results in the east and at Caporetto, and now they turned their attention to the west. The disasters of 1917 meant that the French were still recovering from their setbacks whilst the British were weakened, having suffered 800,000 casualties. Now, with 191 divisions, comprising over 3.5 million men, facing 178 British and French divisions, the Germans planned their next offensive. The Germans planned to push with overwhelming force, using their proven tactics, in a series of battles along the line in a concerted effort called the “Kaiserschlacht”, or the Kaiser’s battle.
Operation Michael was the main German attack, punching into the Allied line at the junction between the British and French armies and planning on a flanking movement against the British Army to push them back onto the channel ports and the sea. Once Operation Michael was unfolding, additional attacks were planned to prevent the Allies from reinforcing with troops from less hard-pressed parts of the front.
The Kaiserschlact offensive began on March the 21st with a concentrated artillery barrage of well over a million shells in a five-hour period. Then, advancing in fog, the Germans broke through the lines around Saint-Quentin and forced the British 5th army back on their communication hub at Amiens. The British had not absorbed the “defence in depth” principles that the Germans had employed so well at the end of 1917, and British forces tended to be concentrated too near the front. As such, once the breakthrough was achieved, the defenders were placed in a perilous position. Falling back in good order, the British were forced to trade the war-devastated lands of the Somme for time in which to regroup and consolidate their defence.
The Germans advanced 40 miles in places but were eventually stopped before they met their objectives as both sides suffered enormous but roughly equal casualties. Importantly, the German success resulted, for the first time, in a unified command structure on the Entente side, as Haig subordinated his forces and reserves to Foch so that the response to the German offensive could be coordinated properly.
The pattern for Operation Michael and the subsequent German attacks in 1918 was an initial success, followed by the German command pushing their luck further than tired troops could manage. This resulted in German forces, who by necessity were carrying light weapons, ending each offensive fighting against reserves with heavier weaponry which tended to neutralise the offensive.
Operation Georgette launched on the 9th of April, struck at the weakened Portuguese Expeditionary Force who were manning the allied lines in the north of the Western Front. The offensive went onto recapture much of the Messiness Ridge, coming within 15 miles of the channel ports and creating a new German salient. General Douglas Haig was forced to issue a stark order of the day, stating that “each one of us must fight onto the end” as he brought up reserves to counter German troops who were attempting to advance over the shattered lands. The Allies lost roughly 150,000 casualties to the German 110,000, but the Germans were unable to exploit further, and the operation was halted.
Operation Blücher-Yorck was launched on the 27th of May and achieved a stunning success on the River Aisne over difficult terrain after a bombardment of over two million shells in four hours. The advance brought the heaviest German artillery in range of Paris, but ultimately ground to a halt against French, and now American, reserves.
On the 9th of June, Operation Gneisenau advanced 9 miles on the Aisne in the Champagne region, expanding the Blücher–Yorck salient to the west before being neutralised by a French counterattack on the 11th. On the 15th of July Operation Friedensturm, pushed to the east from the same salient, and was countered by defence in depth and counter-battery fire. On the 18th the Friedensturm offensive was broken by a counterattack employing 350 French tanks advancing from Villers-Cotterêts, and further south using 150 tanks. These attacks forced Ludendorff to abandon much of the Blücher–Yorck salient, and now, instead of pushing forward, Foch halted his counterattacks.
The German Kaiserschlact had thrown the Allies into a desperate defence as Germany achieved a massive tactical success, but it also sowed the seeds of Germany’s eventual defeat. In their new positions, the Germans were strung out in new, less-developed positions. The offensives had, for little strategic gain, frittered away German manpower at a time when 200,000 fresh American troops were arriving in the theatre every month. The American build up was fast, rising from 284,000 men at the end of March to well over a million men in July and, crucially, German morale was beginning to ebb away.
By August the allies were in a position to counterattack themselves and began a series of offensives using advanced artillery techniques, tanks, reinforcements drawn from other theatres and the rapidly growing US Army. A series of sequential blows, made without warning, that struck and then halted once limited objectives had been achieved, kept the Germans wrong-footed. The shifting offensives kept the Germans moving reserves around and meant that about a third of their army was constantly in transit for the final three months of conflict. Meanwhile from June, Spanish Flu swept through the continent, affecting the underfed Germans to a greater extent that the better supplied Allied armies.
The Battle of Amiens began on the 8th August and marked the beginning of the Hundred Dsays Offensive as the Allies advanced 7 miles on the first day in an event Ludendorff christened the “black day of the German Army”. Following the initial success, the British made further progress over the next few days before Haig called a halt, in marked contrast to his determination to always assume a complete breakthrough was possible in earlier campaigns and in the face of Foch’s entreaties to continue.
Now a series of limited operations along the Western Front between mid-August and mid-September, started with the Somme at Albert, advanced up to the Hindeburg Line and reduced the remaining German salients along the line. At this time, the Americans launched their first major attack, and crushed the Germans in the St Mihiel salient. Now the scene was set for the Allies final offensive.
By September, the Allies has 217 divisions in the west, against the German’s 197. Discussions between Foch, Pershing (in charge of the American Expeditionary Force) and Haig resulted in an agreed plan for converging attacks towards Mézières, with a Belgian/British advance in Flanders, American attacks in the Meuese-Argonne area, the British at Cambrai and a combined operation between British, Australian, French and American forces over the St. Quentin Canal.
The Americans attacked first on the 26th of September and ran into difficulties, mainly caused by lack of preparation time, lack of tanks, poor terrain, and inexperience; their attack was halted on the 30th. The attack in Flanders made some progress before getting bogged in mud, like so many operations in the area before. Elsewhere, the Allies were more successful. At Cambrai, the British 1st Army crossed and held the Canal du Nord on the 27th before making slower progress, eventually taking Cambrai on the 9th of October. Finally, on the 29th of September, the Allies breached the Hindenburg Line over the formidable St. Quentin Canal, using a targeted bombardment, mustard gas and an advance under the cover of fog, completing their operations on the 5th of October as they overcame the last of the defences. In the face of such concerted pressure, Ludendorff had lost hope of victory, appeared to have suffered a mental breakdown and began to push for an immediate armistice.
Overnight on the 4th and 5th of October, Prince Max von Baden sent a note to the Americans via Switzerland and requested that armistice discussions take place. The news that the request had been made rippled through German military and civil society, rapidly weakening their position further. On the 8th of October, President Wilson rejected the armistice note from the Germans, stating that agreeing to withdrawal from occupied territories was a precondition for talks. The Germans agreed this and other conditions, mainly because they needed an armistice whatever the cost, but also because, on the face of it, a return to pre-war borders would mean that she might, in theory, retain Alsace-Lorraine. With confirmation from the Germans that they were prepared to adhere to his political programme, Wilson wrote to the French and British governments on the 23rd suggesting that they prepare their armistice terms.
By this time, social unrest was breaking out across Germany as an accelerated conscription call up was issued for those born in 1900. Army postal censorship shows that morale had taken a hit when it was announced that the government was seeking an armistice. However, the news was presented, the people of Germany could see that the decision to seek an armistice was a likely admission of defeat. An attempt to put the German High Seas fleet to sea on the 29th, hoping to provoke a decisive battle with the British, resulted in a mutiny and the abandonment of the operation.
As well as unrest on the home front, Germany’s allies were beginning to collapse around her. The Bulgarians had gone first, signing an armistice on the 29th of September when Allied broke through on the Macedonian Front. The Turks, one of Germany’s most reliable allies, stopped fighting on the 31st of October when the Treaty of Mudros came onto effect. Also on the 31st of October, the Ottoman Empire ceased to fight when its armistice with the allies came into effect. The Austrians signed their armistice on the 3rd of November, with hostilities ending 24 hours later.
On the 2nd of November, German soldiers who were being transferred from the Eastern Front to the west, mutinied rather than going into battle. Throughout early November, sailors at ports across the country were continuing to revolt, leading Admiral von Hintze to travel to Spa on the 8th to inform Kaiser Wilhelm that the German Navy was no longer following orders. On the 4th, 20,000 soldiers in Kiel threw their lot in with the revolutionary sailors.
The allied commanders met in Paris between the 29th of October and the 4th of November and discussed the terms that they would bring to the table in any armistice and peace discussions. Each power had differing aims, but in general terms, the British and French wanted a quick armistice that would entrench their supremacy before American ascendency reduced their negotiating power. Broadly, the British and French armistice aims were designed to prevent a resurgence in violence whilst placing them in a strong position to achieve their longer-term goals.
The German armistice delegation crossed the front lines on the 7th of November and were escorted across French territory via a convoluted route through the devastated landscape. On arrival, the German delegation were dismayed by the punitive terms with which they were presented. They had hoped that they would be able to negotiate an armistice that would leave their armed forces intact, allowing them to withdraw and deal with the social unrest and threat of a Bolshevik revolution at home. However, only limited negotiations about minor points were allowed and, with internal pressures to prevent the resumption of hostilities paramount, the German delegation had no choice but to agree the armistice treaty’s sweeping terms.
At ten past five in the morning on the 11th of November, the armistice was signed. The German delegation read a prepared statement protesting the terms and concluding that “a nation of seventy millions can suffer, but it cannot die.” Foch’s response was a terse “tres bien”. Following the signatures, a photograph was taken, and the delegates dispersed.
Over four years of war had left large areas of Europe devastated, had destroyed the Russian and Austro-Hungarian Empires, and had killed millions of soldiers and countless non-combatants. The war had nearly bankrupted Britain but had turned America into an economic and military great power. Germany had been defeated in the field of battle, but her army was able to withdraw in good order, albeit without much of its weaponry. This sowed the seeds of the “stab in the back” myth that would be used by opportunistic German politicians in the post-war years.
“Never again,” was a common refrain in the post-war period, but two decades later, the world would once again find itself on the brink of an even more global war that would last longer, would cost more, and destroy even more lives.
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