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The German Spring Offensive 1918

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On March 21st, 1919, the German Army launched Operation Michael, beginning the Spring Offensive that would mark Germany's last major strategic offensive and the last chance Germany had to secure some kind of victory in the First World War. The Germans had prepared for this offensive in a number of ways. For the first time in years, the Germans had numerical superiority on the Western Front thanks to the Russian exit from the war. This was to be short lived, however, due to the arrival of hundreds of thousands of fresh American troops, but as we will see the battle was decided by that point.

Chief among these developments was the creation of Stoßtruppen, or storm troopers, specially trained German soldiers who were to act as shock troops, breaching and subsequently exploiting a weakness in the enemy lines before pouring through. The storm troopers were the cream of the crop, the best troops from the rest of the German Army. They were to carry out of the brunt of the assaults on the Entente lines during the Spring Offensive.

Coupled with storm troopers were two elements, Huiter tactics and Bruchmuller barrages. Huiter tactics fit in well with the concept of storm troopers, in which enemy defenses were bombarded with a mixture of conventional shells, gas, and smoke. These were used to suppress the enemy defenses and allow forward troops to bypass said defenses, leaving them for second echelon troops to take care of. Bruchmuller barrages recognized a reality of artillery in WWI; extended periods of artillery bombardments on enemy positions only alerted the enemy where the attack was expected to take place and tore up the ground, making advancement over it difficult. Bruchmuller barrages thus focused on a series of light barrages, just enough to shake up the enemy defenses, while a larger creeping barrage advanced ahead of the infantry.

These initiatives are surprisingly similar to modern combat doctrine that would be familiar to any junior student of military tactics, but German preparations lacked a key component: a mobile exploitation force that would follow the storm troopers through their breakouts and enter into the enemy’s rear echelon. Germany had pitifully few tanks, and prior to the start of the Spring Offensive, there had been no revitalization of German cavalry in preparation for the expected breakthrough. This inability of the Germans to provide a proper breakthrough force, and instead relying on their follow-up infantry forces to exploit any breaches, would later prove crippling to German efforts.

Such tactical innovations have long contributed to the popular perception of the German Army as a cutting edge, extremely proficient fighting force that continuously redefined warfare throughout its existence. And while German developments were certainly impressive and often adopted by their enemies, it bears recognizing the reality of the situation Germany found itself in. By 1918, Germany’s fortunes were rapidly diminishing. Peace with Russia had gained Germany territory in the east, but the vast expanse meant that a million German troops were now spread out from the Baltics to the Caucuses. The chaos unfolding in the east, combined with the massive occupation force, meant that the vast agricultural production of Ukraine never reached Germany, due to the British blockade steadily starving the German populace. Germany's allies were faltering; the Bulgarians were actively looking for a way out, and the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires were falling apart at the seams. On top of all this, the entry of the United States into the war meant that hundreds of thousands of American troops would soon be joining the Ententes forces, eliminating what little advantages the Germans had. Thus, while the tactical innovations of the German Army may have been impressive, it's important to realize that the Spring Offensive was ultimately an act of desperation by an Empire that realized it had a very narrow window to act in, or it faced annihilation.

The Germans began their offensive on 21 March and made several rapid progressions in different sectors. These progressions were impressive considering success in World War One was often measured by a few hundred yards. The British 5th Army, already overextended and lacking in the defense-in-depth practices that had become commonplace among the Entente, rapidly lost ground and was in retreat within two days. A gap opened rapidly between the French and British armies, threatening disaster for the Entente. This proved effective in carrying out German goals to isolate the British Army and force it to retreat into the channel ports, where its only options were to evacuate or face destruction.

But from the get go, things were not going well for the Germans. The 3rd Army was supposed to be the primary target of Michael, not the 5th Army. Against British positions near Arras, the Germans launched Operation Mars, but were repulsed. Not surprisingly, the 3rd Army was holding easily defendable positions and were well dug in, whereas the 5th Army wasn't. The Germans could have made breakthroughs, just not where they were needed and not when the enemy was well prepared. As the Spring Offensive dragged on, this pattern began repeating itself to the detriment of the Germans. The storm troopers would make a breakthrough, but not where it was needed. Since there existed no mobile reserve, it therefore fell to the storm troopers to continue the offensive. The result was that Germany’s best troops were suffering the heaviest casualties and were rapidly being exhausted, while the left over follow up forces were composed of second rate troops who were in no position to exploit any breaches.

After Michael, the Germans would launch Georgette, Blucher-York, Gneisenau, and Marneshutz-Riems in an attempt to keep things going. Each one of these offensives followed the same pattern with the Germans making minor tactical gains, being unable to exploit any breakthroughs and requiring the shifting of their reserves elsewhere. The last one, known commonly to Westerners as the Second Battle of the Marne, marked the end of the Spring Offensive. Many Americans fondly remember the 3rd Infantry Division as the "Rock of the Marne", and recall the stand of American forces at the Marne as the perfect example of American troops making the saving grace and preventing the Germans from achieving a breakthrough that could potentially win them the war. In reality, the outcome of the battle had been decided before the first American and German troops clashed at the Marne. In fact, the German offensive was doomed before the first shells were fired on March 21st because the man who planned it, Erich Ludendorff, did not actually have a plan.

Erich Ludendorff spent most of the war fighting the Russians on the Eastern Front. He was a superb tactician and a good organizer, but he lacked a solid grasp of operations. This wasn't a problem in the East, where German tactical superiority over the Russians was so great he simply needed to bash the Russians over and over again until the weight of their defeats led to their withdrawal from the war. However, the Germans didn't enjoy this same advantage against the British or French, so to achieve victory the Germans needed a plan to systematically defeat the Entente in detail. What they got instead was a generic set of operational objectives that was frustratingly sparse in details. As Ludendorff said, "We make a hole. The rest follows." Thus the German commanders who went into battle on March 21st had only a vague understanding of what they were supposed to do. Their combat power was front loaded in a way that ensured their best troops would suffer the heaviest losses, and they had little in the way of appreciable reserves to actually make good on the breakthroughs they achieved.

To make matters worse, once the actual fighting started, Ludendorff’s lack of attention to operational goals meant that the German plans were quickly discarded in favor of trying to secure relatively minor tactical victories. The Germans were able to gain significant tracts of territory, virtually none of which they actually needed, and indeed so indefensible that it would later prove impossible to hold back the Entente forces in the 100 Days Offensive. Nowhere was this more egregious than the complete failure to seize Amiens. Despite being in position to seize Amiens, thanks to the shattered state of British forces in the area, Ludendorff dispersed his armies to seize three much more minor objectives, only turning around to try a crack at Amiens days later by which point British forces had reinforced the area. Once again, impressive gains were only achieved by seizing largely meaningless territory, while also failing to act on the real opportunities as they presented themselves.

By the time the Germans reached the Marne, they were showing signs of their impending failure. Constant redirection from Ludendorff had wrecked Germany's supply lines, which were still ostensibly geared towards an offensive against the British further north. Germany's elite storm troopers had taken the brunt of the casualties and the constant fighting had exhausted the survivors. When the Germans finally attacked French positions on the Marne, they breached the most forward line of defenses and went no further. The French Second Zone lay beyond the range of German artillery, and with Entente airpower unrivaled, the Germans no longer had the element of surprise. On 18 July, 44 French Divisions thoroughly thrashed the Germans and sent them packing. A miraculous German breakthrough notwithstanding, at this point Germany had neither the reserves to exploit one nor the logistics to support it.
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  1. Tangmo's Avatar
    Once the Russians were out of the war it was the American imperative to enter it. The American elites, that is. The myopic Ludendorff did much to impel the USA into the war. The impending arrival of multiple dozens of American divisions forced Ludendorff into his incoherent offensive that was inherently flawed.

    The elites of Europe fumbled their way through a war they stumbled into and that left the continent destined for another war that would be all the more devastating. Ludendorff may well embody the grand incompetence and the short sighted conceptualizations of the European elites of the time. Their only approach to policy, strategy, geopolitics was fragmented; incomplete, shallow, contradictory. Ludendorff's politics were worse than his miserable military planning to include tactics, strategy, operations.

    U.S. General Pershing on the other hand always had clarity of methods, means, purpose, goals, objectives.


    The First Nazi: Erich Ludendorff, The Man Who Made Hitler Possible

    By Alex Rovt, William Brownell and Denise Drace-Brownell

    One of the most important military individuals of the last century, yet one of the least known, Ludendorff not only dictated all aspects of World War I, he refused all opportunities to make peace; he antagonized the Americans until they declared war; he sent Lenin into Russia to forge a revolution in order to shut down the Russian front; and in 1918 he pushed for total military victory, in a slaughter known as The Ludendorff Offensive.”

    Ludendorff created the legend that Germany had lost the war only because Jews had conspired on the home front. He forged an alliance with Hitler, endorsed the Nazis, and wrote maniacally about how Germans needed a new world war, to redeem the Fatherland. He aimed to build a gigantic state to dwarf even the British Empire. Simply stated, he wanted the world.


    The First Nazi by Alex Rovt, William Brownell, and Denise Drace-Brownell - Read Online


    Post WW II the grand Gen. MacArthur brought the Korean Conflict into a high profile focus when he wanted to engage China. MacArthur's objective and purpose was to win, to fight China and to both defeat 'em and to crush 'em. The civilian leadership settled the matter against him, with prejudice: Potus fired him.

    In Vietnam there was no general of any such stature to give a high profile focus to winning or quitting. The generals wanted to invade and bomb the North for the win while the civilian leadership from each major political party said no, never. Vietnam as with North Korea shares its northern border with China, which was Mao's motivation for entering the Korean Conflict as MacArthur approached the Yalu River border with China. So the US war in VN was a wash at best. One reason is that many generals who should have resigned in protest did not.

    While the Vietnam War US generals didn't do any better than Ludendorff and the German generals of WW I, MacArthur was a successful commander. MacArthur was a brigadier in WW I (Truman who as Potus fired him was a captain of artillery), a master strategies in WW II and continued to prove his genius at Inchon in Korea. Pershing's clarity was highly successful in WW I; Truman served well under Pershing. The American generals of VN are forever among the worst generals of any war in history. All the same however, none of the American generals turned out politically to be the fascist racist barbarian Ludendorff was.

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