Could the Germans have won the First World War in 1918? Almost certainly. A quarter of a century later, the tide of war would turn irretrievably against Hitler’s Third Reich in 1942/1943. The massive industrial power of the Soviet Union and the United States combined – still rising towards a wartime peak –guaranteed eventual defeat. The outcome was far more open in 1917/1918.
Militarily, the Western allies were weak, drained by largely fruitless offensives of their own and, in the case of France, by widespread mutinies. Fearful of another costly offensive like Passchendaele, the British Government had gone so far as to hold reinforcements at home rather than ship them to Field Marshal Haig in France. The result was that his British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was even weaker than it might have been.
Although the United States had joined the war on the side of the Entente in April, precious few formations had thus far arrived. Austria-Hungary, meanwhile, had put out tentative feelers for peace. Germany herself was struggling with the effects of naval blockade. Yet she had two important factors on her side.
One was transient: the question of numbers. The impending defeat of Russia would mean that Germany could shift troops west. This would give her an advantage until the Doughboys arrived. By the spring of 1918, she had reinforced the Western Front by nearly 50 divisions. With time running out, now was the moment to break the deadlock. The attempt to do that depended on Germany’s other trump card: a new tactical doctrine.
A new tactical doctrine
The Germans had developed a suite of new tactics that they hoped would give them the edge at the point of decision. The system had been trialled successfully at Riga in Russia, at Caporetto in Italy, and during the German counter-attack at Cambrai. Its key elements were speed, surprise, infiltration, and radically improved artillery barrages.
The notion of operational surprise was baked into all of Germany’s preparatory measures. So, for example, when attacking formations were concentrated, they would be held in rear areas for as long as possible; and movement took place mostly at night.
Opening barrages were, by the standards of the day, brief – five hours on the morning of the first assault, as compared to Britain ‘s five-day barrage at the Somme.
Also crucial to Germany’s new approach were specialist ‘storm troops’, trained to advance rapidly and leave strongpoints for subsequent waves of infantry to deal with. As they did so, the newly developed ‘rolling barrage’ would keep just ahead of them. The troops were further accompanied by swarms of close-support aircraft in what would now be called an ‘air surge’.
Taken in the round, with sound generalship and in the context of Allied weakness, this was a potentially war-winning combination. Why, then, did it fail?
This is an extract from a 17-page special feature on Kaiserschlacht – otherwise known as the Ludendorff Offensive, spring 1918. Get the full story in issue 90 of Military History Monthly.
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