During the German Spring Offensive of March 1918, the maximum distance the German Army advanced was 40 miles compared to 7 miles for the BEF advance during the Third Battle of Ypres, 1917. This was a success in terms of a territorial objective but was this offensive a strategic success? Was the German Army in a better position to win the war or to arbitrate a ceasefire as a result of the action? In his talk, Rob set out to show the plan was flawed from its very conception and was bound to fail before the first shell was fired and the first boot advanced. This was going to be an example of tactical success without strategic success.

The objective was to advance from the Hindenburg Line in the vicinity of St Quentin (a line approx. 40 mile wide south of Arras extending to La Fère), break through the British Line and separate the British and French Armies. With the ceasefire on the Eastern Front, the German Army (with approx. 4.5 million men) was larger than the combined sum of the BEF and French Armies before the AEF arrived in force. This was a window of opportunity which Ludendorff wanted to exploit. The battle plan was to follow an intense artillery bombardment with an attack spearheaded with stormtroopers followed up by regular troops. The artillery bombardment was a sophisticated development of what Col Bruckmuller had used at Riga in 1917. The stormtroopers were the elite troops of the German Army trained to advance without hindrance, to outflank strong points leaving mopping up to the regular troops which followed. This was a typical bold stroke from General Ludendorff in search of a quick victory inspired by the Carthaginian victory over the Romans at Cannae in 216BC. At no point had the logistics to support such an attack been thought through and planned. Operation Michael at Amiens was to be the first of a series of attacks which aimed to take Ypres and even Paris before the Allies ‘sued for peace’.  In his sights, Ludendorff had the key transport hubs of Abancourt (outside Amiens) and Hazebrouk (outside Ypres) without which the BEF could not transfer reserves or supplies to keep its five Armies in the field and without which it would have to fall back to the channel ports.

Without a strategic objective, Operation Michael was to blow a hole in the Western Front at a weak point and then seek how to exploit its initial success. At the time of attack (March 21), the British Fifth Army was in the weakest position, having taken over the front line from the French, and had incomplete defences. The idea of defence in depth had not been thought through sufficiently, the redoubts in the battle zone were not mutually supporting and the rear zone had only been marked out and not yet constructed. The area the German Army was the cross (and to use to support the breakthrough) had been fought over in 1916, abandoned in 1917 during the German re-alignment as they retreated to the Hindenburg Line, and where all roads, buildings and railways had been destroyed (it was known as the devasted zone).

Three German Armies (with a total of 72 divisions) would attack the boundary between the British Third and Fifth Armies (with a combined force of 26 divisions). The attack began with artillery at 0430 (6,500 guns firing approx. 3.2 million shells) on the morning of March 21, followed by an infantry advance (in fog) at 0930. In the northern part of the battlefield, the German Second and Seventeenth Armies struggled to pass through into the Battle Zone but the Eighteenth Army further south, attacking the British Fifth Amy, advanced further and reached its first day objectives. The fog impeded the aircraft of the RFC from supporting the defence. Gough (GOC Fifth Army) ordered a fighting retreat so that reserves could reach his army but during this retreat XVIII Corps (GOC Maxse) misinterpreted its orders and fell back too far. As a result, troops on either side had to fall back quickly to avoid being outflanked.

Each day the resistance of the BEF hardened, reserve troops were allocated, railheads were not taken and eventually, after five days the German advance stopped, the front line troops were exhausted and the supply chain of men, food and ammunition virtually dried up.

Operation Mars (objective Arras) opened on March 28 as the German Army attacked the British Third Army (GOC Byng) but the attack failed.

The German Army had taken over a thousand square miles but had not achieved any strategic success. All that had happened was an extra salient in the Western Front had been made. Casualties lost by the BEF were soon replaced as were the guns which had been lost. For the German Army, its casualties (mainly stormtroopers) could not be replaced as easily and further attacks on the Western Front had to be scaled down. For the Allies, the Spring Offensive resulted in the appointment of a Generalissimo (Marshal Foch) with one staff to co-ordinate Allied plans of defence and attack. When the Allied advance started in August at Amiens, its preparations were carried out methodically in secrecy and with thoroughly prepared logistics.

Report by Peter Palmer