On March 21, 99 years ago, the German Army achieved the 'impossible'.
March 21, 1918 was a hell of a day to be a British soldier - particularly one in General Sir Hubert Gough's Fifth Army.
That morning, a tidal wave of German forces burst out of the mist, spearheaded by elite stormtrooper infiltration troops and supported in one spot by the new A7V German tanks.
The enemy had already been softened up by a deluge of artillery shells lobbed over by 4,000 field guns, 3,500 mortars and 2,600 heavy guns.
As the BBC's 1964 series 'The Great War' put it, the barrage "swept away guns, headquarters, telephone exchanges".
In 'Kaiserschlacht 1918', Randal Gray describes the attack as "the most awful non-nuclear (but chemical) fighting ordeal undergone by twentieth-century soldiers", (possibly aside from some Second World War Eastern Front battles and the Iran-Iraq War).
It would be the first major German offensive on the Western Front since the Battle of Verdun in 1916, and was largely the brainchild of Quartermaster General (or Generalquartiermeister) Erich Ludendorff. 'Quartermaster' is misleading, as in Imperial Germany the rank signified command of operations only one rank below that of the Army Chief of Staff, who in this case was the grandfatherly Paul von Hindenburg.
Together, Ludendorff and Hindenburg had beaten the Russians in a spectacular victory at Tannenberg in 1914, and had since replaced General Erich von Falkenhayn on the Western Front after his disappointing failure to either break through or successfully 'bleed the French white' at Verdun in 1916.
Now, in the face of the first major German offensive since 1916, the British and French were being quickly overwhelmed.
Cut off and disoriented, British soldiers underneath the bombardment were smacking right into a German wedge meant to divide them from their French allies to the south. The hope of the Germans was that panic-stricken Tommies and Poilu would be driven in opposite directions, the former rallying around the Channel ports in the north, and the latter clustering around Paris to the south.
This would permit the Germans to pick up where they'd left off in their 1914 Schlieffen Plan, when they'd largely outmanoeuvred the enemy and almost encircled and taken Paris. If only it hadn't been for 'Papa' Joffre and his spirited defence at the Battle of the Marne.
Three-and-a-half years of trench warfare had been the terrible sequel to this failure, with both sides struggling to break out of the deadlock and resume a war of movement ever since.
'Kaiserschlacht', the 'Kaiser’s Battle', or 'Operation Michael' as it was otherwise known, was a kind of military twin to a diplomatic gamble taken the previous year.
Ever since the Western Front had been locked down and the war of attrition had started in late 1914, the clock had been ticking for Germany.
Flanked by Entente powers Russia and France, and 'tethered to the corpse' that was the ageing empire of Austria-Hungary, Germany would have trouble getting supplies for a long war. The Royal Navy exploited this weakness by blockading her northern ports, and after Italy entered the war on the side of Britain, France, and Russia, and the Battle of Jutland had ended hopes of a naval breakout, Germany was largely trapped.
Re-supply through cargo submarines had been tried, but language, culture, and above all geography favoured Anglo-American trade. U-boats were employed to sink munitions ships travelling to England, but things escalated when the British hid guns on the decks to surprise U-boats that tried to surface and let the crews board lifeboats before their ships were sunk.
Passenger liners such as the Lusitania were also packed with munitions, and, as National Geographic's 'Last Voyage of the Lusitania' has shown, First Sea Lord Winston Churchill had calculated that German sinking of such passenger ships would probably bring America into the war on Britain’s side. He wrote in a letter before the sinking in 1915:
"It is most important to attract neutral shipping to our shores, in the hope especially of embroiling the US with Germany… For our part, we want the traffic—the more the better; & if some of it gets into trouble, better still."
The Lusitania did get into trouble when the U-20 fired a torpedo at it. It was argued afterwards that the resulting explosion was too large for only a torpedo strike, and that it must have struck hidden munitions below deck.
As it happens, there were such stores nearby, although National Geographic concluded that combustible coal dust ignited by the torpedo was the real source of the enormous explosion.
In any case, the sinking did anger the Wilson Administration in the US, although it remained committed to staying out of the war.
The eventual trigger for US involvement would be the Zimmerman Telegram, which proposed to Mexico that she attack America and reclaim territory lost in the Mexican-American War. The German government had assumed that continued U-boat activity would eventually bring the US into the war anyway. Instead, the telegram did in 1917. When Mexico didn't bite either, Germany was left to bear the full brunt of the enormous American mobilisation.
There was, however, one opportunity to avoid it.
In late 1917, thanks to revolution on its home front, Russia was knocked out of the war. Concluding a speedy armistice with their former foes, the Germans promptly moved soldiers from the Eastern to the Western Front.
By early 1918, Germany had a 200,000-troop advantage over Britain and France, and a chance to use them to win the war before significant numbers of American soldiers could arrive.
The forces involved
Although this offensive was meant to restore movement to the Western Front and largely take over from where the 1914 Schlieffen Plan had left off, the armies involved in 1918 bore little resemblance to their predecessors.
In fact, as Randal Gray points out, they were far closer to the armies that would march to war in 1939.
Artillery, mortars, machine guns, and rifle grenades were pervasive, and, in the German case, flamethrowers were also quite widespread. By now, they also had a small number of tanks and would introduce more over the course of the offensive.
A total of 74 divisions would be unleashed on the British and French on March 21, and while it would take the Germans some time to fully deploy their tanks (a few were in operation on the first day), innovations in troop training would come into their own right at the start of the battle.
Specifically, stormtroopers would be used to penetrate quickly, deep into enemy lines, disorienting them and leaving them open to mop up troops coming from behind. Randal Gray describes the integration of the stormtroopers within the Germany Army:
"By 1918 each Western Front Army on paper had a training Sturmbataillone with four companies, a machine-gun company plus flamethrower, mortar and 37mm infantry gun detachments."
Of the 74-division force, 56 of these, or 800,000 men, were given three weeks of intensive training.
Gray estimates that 10,000 stormtroopers made up part of this force, and many of them conducted the drills, which included live ammunition:
"Training emphasized company/platoon commander leadership, a return to rifle marksmanship, mastery of the (bi-pod mounted) Bergmann light machine-gun and trench grenading."
Ian Drury's 'German Stormtrooper' is even more specific, illustrating the fact that grenadiers in these specialist units carried three types of grenades – two of the standard German 'potato masher' stick grenades with three and seven-second fuses, and a kind of percussion grenade that blew up on impact. They later also got a kind of 'egg grenade' with a five-second fuse.
Stick grenades had been used to great effect to knock out British tanks during the Battle of Cambrai.
By this point, the MG 08/15 machine-gun had also become more mobile, allowing greater offensive deployment.
The eight-shot Lugar pistols also gave German officers the edge over their British and French counterparts, who carried six-shot revolvers.
Meanwhile, one of the first sub-machine-guns, the MP 18, began to be utilised by the Germans during this battle. This weapon fired 500 rounds a minute and carried a 32-round drum, giving the firer four seconds worth of bursts as they raided and swept over enemy trenches.
Finally, the fact that stormtrooper units were organised into small groups, making full use of their MP 18s and MG 08/15s and grenadiers, gave them an edge in autonomy on the battlefield.
While the stormtroopers may have been cutting edge, Dr Stephen Bull reminds us in 'World War I Trench Warfare' that the ultimate aim was for them to act as laboratory battalions from which improved tactics could be generated and eventually spread throughout the German Army.
For their part, the British had been particularly innovative with regard to tanks, but after their offensive had ground to halt at Cambrai in November the previous year, and the summer offensive of 'Passchendaele' or Third Ypres had turned into a bloodbath, they were severely depleted.
514,637 men in the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) held the line, with roughly 180,000 men in the attack zone of the Fifth and part of the neighbouring Third Army. The French, who'd had to contend with widespread mutinies the year before, would have about 77,000 troops adjacent to the British that would be eligible to be involved in the battle.
'Storm of Steel'
'Storm of Steel' was the name of stormtrooper Ernst Junger's autobiography, and the term aptly describes the opening of Kaiserschlacht.
Randal Gray quickly puts the scale of Ludendorff's attack in perspective:
"At around 4.40 am on 21 March 1918 a large white rocket soared above St. Quentin. It was the signal for 10,000 German gun and mortar crews to open fire simultaneously in a 43-mile wide bombardment covering 150 square miles… In five hours, Ludendorff's 'Battering Train' expended 1,160,000 shells – Haig's guns had fired 1,732,873 shells in a week for the 1916 Somme attack."
With the creeping barrage still covering them, wire cutters crept forward at 9am and began snipping away at the British wire.
Behind a cloud of gas, Germans emerged in their gas masks - and as the artillery and mortar support lifted ahead of them, they swept forward.
They overran front lines and had soon captured over 500 artillery guns in the rear.
At a cost of 40,000 casualties, with 10,851 dead, the Germans had taken 99 square miles and 46 villages, and caused the British 38,500 losses in turn (including 21,000 POWs).
Gray gives a rather unflattering summation of the attack with regards to the British:
"By a remarkable coincidence Ludendorff had made the exact territorial gains in area and villages that Haig and (French Sixth Army commander at the Somme) Fayolle had needed 140 days to wrest from the German Army in 1916."
For the Germans, the progress was elating. One veteran interviewed by the BBC recalled:
"The great moment arrived as we rushed out of our trenches – wild exaltation seized us, anger, drunkenness and bloodlust all rolled into one. We crossed the enemy's barbed wire without difficulty, and were in his first line. The wave of men seemed to dance like a row of ghosts in the white, whirling mist."
Very soon the Germans had done what everyone on both sides had been trying to do for the entire war: They broke into open country beyond the British and French lines. So what happened next?
A change of fortunes
As impressive as the German advance was, it eventually ground to a halt.
This is largely attributed to supply lines being overstretched, as they were at Verdun. A rapid advance that outpaced supporting units that had to get over difficult terrain was no advance worth having.
Of course, men on the ground wouldn't have known this. For them, the locomotive kept coming, eventually capturing 1,200 square miles and driving up to 40 miles deep into French and British-held territory, causing 178,000 British and 77,000 French casualties (including prisoners) in the process. It kept going until Ludendorff called it off in early April. (He would launch lesser offensives up until July).
Meanwhile, the Germans had suffered 239,000 casualties. Given that fresh troops were being shipped over from Britain by the 10s of 1000s, and that munitions factories, by this point, were cranking out new artillery and machine guns night and day, the Allies could soon replace what they had lost; the Germans could not.
Gray's conclusion is that had Kaiserschlacht been aimed further north, a breakthrough to the Channel ports might have been possible, and the British Expeditionary Force's most vulnerable base area possibly destroyed. Instead, trying to break through further south between the British and French armies "ensued massive intervention by French reserves, speeded up the 'Doughboy' (American) influx across the Atlantic and frightened the Allies into a unity of command that brought them victory".
One British veteran needn't have been so downbeat:
"No one ever believes we're winning. The Germans have gained more in a month than we've gained in one-and-a-half years. There are a good many out here like myself – fed up, and don't care a damn which side wins."
Another chastised his wife's patriotic spirit:
"I’m surprised to hear you've joined the Women's Land Army. Do you realise Maggie, you're helping to prolong the war? What does it matter whether we win or not? We shall never get it over so long as the women and girls keep relieving men for the Army. Only when there are no men left will the war finish. That's the way the lads out here look at it."
What these men didn’t realise was that things weren't as bad as they looked. It was a lot easier for a defending army on the Western Front to reform and create new trench lines than it was for an attacking force to keep the momentum going.
To have really won, Ludendorff would have had to master the breakout as well as the break-in to the enemy's lines. But how could that have been done?
Planning to attack a known position is one thing, but trying to predict or work out how to deploy troops in completely open country beyond established trench lines is infinitely harder. Should they keep going? How would they be resupplied? Should they form new trench lines? Wouldn't it be easier for the enemy to form their own, and then counter-attack a poorly supplied German salient? If so, what was the point of breaking through in the first place?
Without radios, real-time communication with forward units was impossible. That necessitated planning every eventuality for what troops who had actually broken through would then need to do well in advance – an impossible undertaking, even for the brilliant Ludendorff. Only the 'fog of war' can sum up the innate difficulty of the questions confronting a First World War commander trying to plan for a complete breakthrough and resumption of movement.
Soon, with hundreds of thousands of German troops used up over the course of the battle, and Britain and France replacing many men they'd lost, the US would be the only power able to send vast numbers of soldiers to swell the Allied ranks and help tackle the deadlock.
In the end, this is what tipped the balance, as the allies were then able to go back on the offensive, this time with enough men and material to roll up much of the German line.
The Germans had put up a good fight during Operation Michael, but when their momentum was sapped, they soon became disheartened. Even the stormtroopers, who received double rations, were shocked at how relatively well-supplied the French and British were. Discipline began to break down as German troops tore into food and alcohol dumps.
In roughly seven months, they'd finally collapse under the weight of allied attack and crippling shortages at home.