World War One: The Emperors Battle March-July 1918

Operation MICHEAL: was the last grasp of the German army in the west in an effort to produce a peace before the American armies arrived in force and began to be active in the war. This operation set the stage for the final allied offensives in June–August to reduce the ST. Mihiel Salient; and the September offensive continuing till the armistice in November.

On 16 March the 47 attack division of the MICHAEL offensive began marching the last stages to their launch positions. Elated by the vast scale of the preparations, the troops sang their way along in eagerness and optimism. In truth the last of the Germany’s strength had gone into contracting a muscle that could strike one great blow and no more. Even the Michael divisions lacked horses and shortages of petrol, oil and rubber crippled motor transport. Manpower reserves were down to 18 year’s old and younger. Nor could the German home front survive more tribulations, as demonstrated by a mass strike in January in Berlin and other cities, demanding peace….

On 18 March, three days before the launch date of the Michael offensive, Allied intelligence calculated that the German army in the west was 37 divisions stronger than in November 1917. Yet to counter-balance this vast increase in strength there was at present only a single American division in the line, plus three in training; and this more than a year after the United States had entered the war. …It would be therefore be the battle stained, under-strength British and French who would bear the brunt of the coming supreme crisis of the war.

By 19 March Hindenburg, Lundendorff and the Kaiser had all arrived at the advanced headquarters in Aversnes, ready for the launching on 21 March of what had now been flatteringly dubbed the Kaiserschlacht; The Emperors battle.

The British on the Third and Fifth Army fronts knew the offensive was imminent from cumulative intelligence reports. The evening of 20 March was quite. By 9 P.M. a mist had begun to thicken into fog, damping sound, isolating each post. Apprehension prickled along the silent line. In the small hours the fog thickened further.

At the stroke of 4:40 A.M. (German time) on 21 March 1918 6,000 German guns crashed out together. For five stunning hours the subtly orchestrated bombardment beat on the whole depth of the British defense system: high explosive against buried telephone lines and guns, headquarters and telephone exchanges; phosgene and mustard gas against troops. The bombardment reduced the Fifth Army, and to some extent the Third, to isolated and uncoordinated elements of gassed and blasted troops. The sun rose at 6 A.M. but the fog still lay thick along low ground, blinding the defense. At 9 A.M. the German guns switched to a creeping barrage, and the storm groups swiftly followed. This was the moment when the spell of paralysis which had laid on the Western Front in 1914 began to be lifted.

On the front of attack, from the Cambria to the south of Saint-Quentin, the three Michael armies enjoyed an overwhelming superiority of men and fire power- especially on the over-extended Fifth Army front. The forward zone of defense was swamped in an hour or so. By Midday the Fifth Army had lost a third of its strength; by mi-afternoon the German storm groups were driving deep into the British battle-zone. By night fall, on the Fifth Army front south of the Somme, the Attackers had penetrated beyond the British gun line into open country; a true breakthrough at last.

A disaster in itself for the British, 21 March presaged even greater dangers as the Fifth Army and a part of the Third began to fall back in confusion with the German attack divisions at their heels. The long-fixed organizations of a static front began to pack up in haste and take to crowded roads- army, corps headquarters, and heavy artillery. Already Haig was switching reserves from Flanders to his disintegrating right flank; Pétain dispatched 7 French divisions instead of the 3 requested that day by the British Commander-in-Chief. By 23 March the Fifth Army’s defense had foundered into headlong retreat; the bridgehead of Péronne was lost; a gap opened between the Fifth and Third Armies. Only the remnants of the Fifth Army stretched along 40 miles of front stood between the Germans and the key rail centre of Amiens. If the Germans could take Amiens and the British and French armies would be driven a part, so leading to total catastrophe. Haig therefore appealed to Pétain to concentrate 20 French divisions in the Amiens area. Pétain, fearing a second German blow against his own front in Champagne, refused, but did offer to take over the Fifth Army front as north as Péronne. The ‘March Retreat’ was now in full swing.

On 23 March, therefore Ludendorff was presented with the opportunity of transforming his brilliant initial success into the decisive victory he craved. He muffed it by giving his three Michael armies divergent axes of advance instead of concentrating everything on reaching Amiens. Thus dispersed, the German effort was to weaken day by day. In any case boots and hooves and scarce iron-tyred lorries cloud not maintain the momentum of the offensive as the German tanks and motor transport were to do in 1940.

Yet to the Allied Command the danger still seemed to be growing. On 24 March Haig learned to his horror that Pétain, in his concern for covering Paris, was prepared to allow the French army to become separated from the British. Two days later, at Haig’s urgent instigation, a conference of Allied statesmen and soldiers under President Poincaré was held in the little town of Doullens. This conference resulted in the appointment of Foch as Allied Supreme Commander on the Western Front. Never the less, whatever the moral effect of appointing the fiery-spirited Foch above the defeatist Pétain, it made little difference to the actual course of the battle. The crisis had already begun to pass. While allied reserves flowed to the defense of Amiens the German effort steadily faded and the German advance slowed and slowed. For the attacking troops were sagging with fatigue and exhaustion, harassed by massed allied air attacks, and distracted by plunder of British stores and canteens.

On 28 March Ludendorff launched a fresh attack against the Arras sector, only to see it repulsed with heavy losses. Too late he now gave the Michael forces the single objective of Amiens. By the beginning of April his troops had marched and fought to a standstill, while the allies had consolidated in new front covering the town. On 4-5 April the Germans had advanced 28 miles and taken 70,000 prisoners; a brilliant battlefield performance that nevertheless had ended in a gigantic strategic failure.

Now Ludendorff had to try again elsewhere, even though Michael had consumed 250,000 men out of his precious manpower reserves. On 9 April he struck in Flanders across the Lys-the original Operation George, now emasculated into Georgette. A Portuguese division gave way and the German thrust on towards Hazebrouck. By the 11th they were within 5 miles of this key rail centre, and Haig issued an Order of the Day: ‘There must be no retirement. With our backs to the wall and believing in the justice of our cause each one must fight on to the end.’ They fought on; a resolute, well conducted defesne that by 18 April wore the Germans to a standstill.

The failure to smash the British forced Ludendorff to rethink his entire strategy. Since 21 March he had lost nearly 350,000 men and inflicted similar losses. During that period nearly 180,000 more American troops had arrived in France; 3 U.S. Divisions (equal in strength to 6 European divisions) were already in the allied line. Although Germany’s margin of strength and timing was fast running out, Ludendorff decided to take further gambles; attacks on the French front to draw the French reserves that had gone to Haig’s support; and then a final victorious offensive against the weakened British in Flanders.

On 27 May he struck on the Chemins des Dames with 30 attack divisions (only 15 of them fresh), engulfing a defense foolishly deployed too far forward. The German spearheads swept over the Aisne and on to the south. By the 30th they were on the Marne, only 37 miles from Paris. In the Second battle of the Marne the German advance faltered and died against new French defense strong in artillery. There was an ominous novelty in the fresh setback: on July the 2nd United States Division recaptured Belleau Wood, near Château-Thierry, its buoyant dash making up for want of skill and experience. Already on 28 May the 1st U.S. Division had seen action on the Somme, capturing the village Cantigny.

On 9 June Ludendorff attacked again between Noyons and Montdidier, but with only local success. While German reserves were melting away, Ludendorff estimated that 15 U.S. Divisions reached France between April and the end of June. Still he clung to the hope of smashing the British before the balance of strength swung fatally against him. On 15 July he launched a final preliminary onslaught against the French, this time on either side of Reims. To the west of the city the Germans established a bridgehead across the Marne; but to the east their attack broke down completely in the face of French in the face of a French defense in depth.

Nonetheless Ludendorff believed that the time was now ripe to prepare the final blow against the British in Flanders, code named HAGEN. On 18 July, the stunning news that the French had launched a massive surprise counterstroke against the west flank of the German salient on the Marne. HAGEN Was dead; the whole supreme German effort for 1918 had failed.


SOURCE: The Great War
BY: Correlli Barnett
CONTRIBUTOR: Cade Pommeraan


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