Monday, April 16, 2018

This Month in WWI: the German Offensive of 1918

Since 1914 the German army fought a series of sidestepping operations intended to outflank entrenched Allied forces to the northwest in what has become known as "the race to the sea".  This strategy culminated in the last major German offensive of the war, the Kaiserschlact.  The first battle occurred on the Somme sector in Operation Michael.  Seventy-two divisions were prepared to attack in waves after a five hour bombardment by over 6600 artillery pieces on March 21st.  Battles along the Picardy front continued into April.  Germany was successful in breaking through the southern portion of the Somme entrenchments at the Battle of St. Quentin.  By the end of the operation the Germans had captured about 1200 square miles of allied held territory including the towns of Péronne, Ham, Noyon, Roye, Montdidier, Albert and Bapaume. The loss of Bapaume was particularly bitter for the British as they had expended many thousands of soldiers to reach the town in 1916. However, the territorial gains were of no consequence; the Germans failed to achieve their strategic objectives of diving the French and British armies, and driving the British into the sea.

The advance appeared to be going well, but German troops were tiring as the land was wrecked with shell holes and deliberate destruction of infrastructure, including poisoning of wells, by German forces retreating to the Hindenburg Line in 1917.  German losses during the operation were recorded at 31,000 killed and 190,000 wounded.  Allied casualties in the offensive were 160,000, and 90,000 were captured.  Both sides used chemical weapons (phosgene, chlorine and mustard gas) during 1918. Although counter-measures had been created, gas attacks were particularly demoralizing for exposed troops.  German long-range artillery [photo right] was able to sporadically bombard Paris, and the first nighttime aerial bombing raid by German Gotha bombers against London took place.  The first tank versus tank battle in history occurred outside the town of Villiers-Bretonneux on April 24, 1918. [photo top]  All of these developments indicated the increasingly technological nature of modern total warfare against which human flesh and bone was nearly defenseless.

Ludendorff decided to rest his troops on the Somme and turn efforts towards Flanders in Operation George, but American reinforcements had finally arrived on the battlefield and several successful Allied counterattacks discouraged the German command.  Germany was rapidly running out of resources, manpower, and resolve for another full scale offensive. Ludendorff and his staff reduced George to Georgette with the limited aim of recapturing Yprès (the fourth battle of the war for the town). On April 5th, after the British halted the German advance at Villiers-Bretonneux [photo right] Ludendorff called a halt to Operation Michael. Georgette failed to reach its objectives due to heavy losses among German stosstruppen and French reinforcements.  German high command called off Georgette on April 29th. The end of the deadliest war in history was now in sight for the Allies.