‘…the infantry attack on both British armies had gone through the outposts and into the main battle zone. The overextended Fifth Army – the southernmost of the British armies with the French on its right – collapsed, with the Germans pushing through…’
In March 1918, the new Bolshevik government of Soviet Russia ended its role in the First World War by signing the Brest-Litovsk Treaty with the Central Powers.
This had a significant impact on the war in Western Europe, giving rise to the German Spring Offensive, also known as the ‘Kaiserschlact’ (Kaiser’s war).
The Russians had been beaten by the Germans in a number of battles early in the war, but they had also inflicted substantial defeats on the Ottomans, Germans troops and Austrian-Hungarian forces.
With the signing of the treaty, however, the Germans ‘freed up’ their forces on the Eastern Front, reinforced their army on the Western Front, and raised it to 206 Divisions.
In response, the Allies raised 172 Divisions on the Western Front, including a growing number of Americans, which provided sufficient impetus for the Germans to mount their Spring Offensive.
Erich Ludendorff, the commander of the German Army on the Western Front, believed if Germany did not act, the Allies would achieve ascendancy.
The Germans were aware the balance of power was shifting and, while they held a superiority in numbers, this would soon change if they did not strike a decisive blow.
Charles Bean wrote in his Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918:
It was certain the Germans would use their available reserve for launching another vast offensive in the effort to force their opponents to make a harshly negotiated peace before American troops could arrive in sufficient numbers to turn the scale… Ludendorff’s … chances of success were diminishing with every shipload of Americans that reached France. The two supreme questions of the moment were: where will the blow fall? And how quickly will the Americans arrive?
The German offensive was spearheaded by Operation Michael and supported by operations Georgette, Gneisenau and Blücher-Yorck, supported by smaller operations to deal with battlefield contingencies.
Operation Michael began with a devastating barrage of nearly 10,000 artillery pieces and mortars. The attacks were spearheaded by path-finding ‘Stormtroopers’, followed by immense numbers of infantry.
The German attack worried Australia’s diggers as much as those in high command, with soldiers bitter about the German successes.
Private Archie Barwick summed up what was felt by many, in his diary entry of 26 March.
Bad news still continues to trickle through. The latest is that the Germans are within two miles of Albert. Just think of that, after all the blood and agony spent in winning that hellish piece of country, and now it has all gone for nothing and the Hun is still going strong.
Barwick though was aware this was the German’s ‘last throw of the dice’ and he was supremely confident the Australians would check the German advance.
Operation Michael seemed a success in terms of captured territory, prisoners and equipment, but it did not deliver an over-arching strategic blow to the Allies.
It did not destroy the British Army nor drive a wedge between the British and French forces.
Michael, along with the other German Spring Offensive operations, failed to achieve the desired aim of bringing the Allies to their knees.
After the Spring Offensive finished in July 1918, the initiative crossed to the Allies who — with the addition of American troops — brought Germany to its knees in a number of subsequent battles.
Germany surrendered less than six months after the last operation in its Spring Offensive.