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March 21, 1918: Operation Michael Begins

And then, exactly as a pianist runs his hands across the keyboard from treble to bass, there rose in less than one minute the most tremendous cannonade I shall ever hear…It swept round us in a wide curve of red leaping flame stretching to the north far along the front of the Third Army, as well as of the Fifth Army on the south, and quite unending in either direction…the enormous explosions of the shells upon our trenches seemed almost to touch each other, with hardly an interval in space or time…The weight and intensity of the bombardment surpassed anything which anyone had ever known before.

Winston Churchill, who was present at the front when Operation Michael began.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The 1918 German Spring Offensive, known to history as the Kaiserschlacht (Kaiser’s Battle), got underway on March 21, 1918.  Three German Armies struck the British Fifth Army and the right wing of the British Third Army.  The British Fifth Army held the juncture with the French forces in the south.  If the British could be driven away from the French, hopefully being driven into the North Sea, the Germans thought that they could then defeat the French.  This large scale test of the German stosstruppen tactics seemed initially to be a great success.  Rolling artillery barrages protected the German stormtroops as they avoided Allied strongpoints and punched holes in the British trench lines, restoring a mobility to the Western Front warfare that had been absent after 1914.

 

By the time the offensive came to an end on April 5, 1918 the Germans had put a scare into the Allied High Command and made huge, up to 65 miles, almost unbelievable, in the context of the Western Front, gains against the British.  However, there were worrisome factors for the Germans to contemplate.  Each side during the offensive lost a quarter of a million men, but the German losses were mostly among their highly trained, and irreplaceable, stormtroops.  The Germans enjoyed huge tactical successes, but General Ludendorff, perhaps the most overrated commander of the Great War, was unable to use these successes to gain the strategic goal of separating the British from the French.  The Germans had great difficulty in keeping their assault troops supplied over the torn up terrain they were advancing over.  The Germans captured 75,000 British troops, and 1300 pieces of artillery, but they were no closer to ultimate victory than they had been when Operation Michael was launched.