A hundred years ago today, German forces began their last major ‘all or nothing’ push of the First World War, often called the “Second Battle of the Somme”.
It was actually a series of bold offensives all along the Western Front, but the main one – codenamed “Operation Michael” – was directed against British and Allied forces on the Somme.
By now the Germans realised their only chance of victory was to defeat the British here and force France to surrender before the vast resources of the USA could be deployed against them. Its Congress had voted to join the war against Germany just over a year earlier, in April 1917, and its forces and equipment were now reinforcing the Allies on the Western Front.
The German Spring Offensive began on March 21st, 1918, and, after months of stalemate trench warfare, largely caught the Allies off-guard. Operation Michael was aimed at the British Fifth Army and the right wing of the British Third Army on the Somme, with other smaller operations launched simultaneously in other areas to confuse and divert Allied forces.
A massive German artillery bombardment began at 4-40am, hitting targets over 150 square miles. With more than 1.1 million shells fired in the first five hours, it was the biggest barrage of the entire war. As Allied troops sought shelter from the intense bombardment, German stormtroopers moved forward, helped by the cover of a thick fog.
By the end of the first day, the British had lost 7,512 dead and 10,000 wounded. German forces had broken through at several points on the front of the British Fifth Army, and after two days the Fifth Army was in full retreat. As it fell back, many of its isolated outposts were surrounded and overwhelmed by advancing German infantry. The right wing of the British Third Army became separated from the Fifth and also retreated to avoid being outflanked.
Although elated by their initial success, the Germans failed to follow through effectively and capitalise on the chaos and confusion they had caused. The advancing German troops were poorly supplied and began to run low on ammunition, food and other supplies. They soon became exhausted, with insufficient reserves to relieve them and supply fresh troops.
Instead, too much emphasis was put on Germany’s ‘superweapons’ – its huge railway-mounted ‘Big Bertha’ artillery guns. They were pounding Paris from a distance of up to 75 miles, the German generals confident that the sustained barrage of the French capital would force a surrender. But after four years of war, the French proved more resilient than the Germans gave them credit for.
After a few days the poorly-supplied German advance began to falter. Although the breaches in the Allied lines were significant, they were not at the most strategically important points, which were more strongly defended and managed to hold out. Much of the captured territory was nothing but the shell-torn wilderness of mud and trenches created by the first Battle of the Somme in 1916.
Initial jubilation among the increasingly exhausted German troops turned to disappointment as it became clear their attack had not achieved decisive results. The allies lost nearly 255,000 men and abandoned 1,300 artillery pieces and 200 tanks in their retreat. But the Germans lost even more men, around 239,000. The crucial difference was that the lost Allied equipment could be replaced and its ranks reinforced with fresh, well-fed, well-equipped American troops. By contrast, the German losses, many of them highly-trained ‘shocktroops’, were irreplaceable.
The Allies had undoubtedly been badly hurt by the German Spring Offensive, but they were not broken. Over the following days and weeks, they were able to regroup and plan their own counterattack, which would include the first full-scale deployment of United States troops of the First World War.
German forces still outnumbered the Allies on the Western Front, but their numbers were falling, their men exhausted and unable to be replenished. Meanwhile, Allied numbers were growing daily with the arrival of fresh troops from the USA not wearied by four years of fighting and keen for a quick victory. The tide was turning and by the summer and early autumn of 1918 the Germans were facing an inevitable and humiliating defeat, culminating in the armistice of November 11th.