Spring Offensive: how Germany nearly won the First World War in 1918

It struck me the other day that amid all the ‘what if’ stories about Hitler winning the Second World War, there has been little speculation about the Kaiser winning the first one – which he very nearly did. Twice.

French soldiers - poilou - on exercise in 1914. Public domain, via Wikipedia.
French soldiers – poilou – on exercise in 1914. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

The Kaiser’s Germany came very close to winning during the first months of their war, as they advanced on Paris in late 1914 – they were foiled only by the ‘miracle of the Marne’, when the French repulsed their advance with the help of a fresh army brought across from Paris in taxis. What’s not usually remembered is that they also came close a second time in early-mid 1918.

Although we imagine the First World War as an endless round of trench warfare, not all fronts were constricted – and even in the west there were two periods when the war was one of movement. The first was from August to December 1914, before the deadlock began. And the second was broadly from March to November 1918.

Stormtrooper! When? Try 1918 - when they were first deployed. A picture I took of a life-size model in Sir Peter Jackson's amazing First World War exhibition in Wellington, New Zealand.
Stormtrooper! When? Try 1918 – when they were first deployed. A picture I took of a life-size model in Sir Peter Jackson’s amazing First World War exhibition in Wellington, New Zealand.

In 1915, as the Western Front settled down to deadlock, the General Staff decided to pursue the war in the east – which was still mobile – and defeat Russia, while fighting only a relatively subdued holding war in the west. The main exception was their attack on Verdun in early 1916. Yet that, for all its power, was merely secondary to the eastern effort.

The strategic decision paid off – helped by certain jiggery-pokery such as facilitating the transfer of Vladimir Lenin to Finland, and thence Russia. We sometimes forget that the Russian Revolution occurred to a nation at war – and the main problem the new revolutionary government faced was that they faced both an internal civil war, and were fighting Germany.

Negotiations to settle with Germany began in January 1918, less than three months after the October Revolution; and the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk brought the eastern war to an end on 12 March 1918. Germany had, in short, knocked out one of the four big powers it was fighting. The fact that Russia had long ceased to fight meaningfully was well evident to the General Staff – by this time effectively led by Erich Ludendorff – before then, and the Germans had already transferred huge forces to the west ready for a massive offensive that began just two weeks later.

Ludendorff’s grand ‘Spring Offensive’, also dubbed the Kaiser’s Battle (Kaiserschlacht) was Germany’s final effort to win the war. It had to work from their perspective; the clock was ticking, both in terms of unrest at home and because US support on the Continent was expected to build through 1918. The attack was long expected by the Allies, who made every effort to prepare for it. But the Germans had learned from their experiences and deployed new weapons – including close-support aircraft and special soldiers equipped with new-style helmets, gas masks, flame-throwers and sub-machine guns – Sturmabtielung (‘Assault Division’/’Stormtroopers’). And yes, they were dead ringers for the type usually associated with the Nazis, largely because the Nazis merely continued using them. It was here – in the Ludendorff offensive of March 1918 – that the conceptual inspiration for Terry Nation’s Daleks first appeared.

The first push ruptured the lines in the Somme, sending Germans spilling into open country for the first time since 1914. The Allies rushed forces  – the New Zealand Division – to plug the gap. Ludendorff tried a second time, bursting through the British defences of the Ypres salient. For a few dangerous days there was nothing between the Germans and the coast. But then the British, re-formed their positions. A third German effort expended the last of their reserves and the war settled – for a few weeks – back to static fighting, until the Allies unleashed their own counter-offensive.

Why Ludendorff’s offensive failed has exercised military historians. There were multiple reasons, ranging from failure of long-range logistic supply to the fact that there were limits to the speed and range of a foot-borne advance. But more crucial than either of these, it seems, was a lack of strategic focus. Ludendorff had clear tactical objectives, including reaching the Channel coast and splitting French and British armies; but beyond that had not identified a major objective. The result was that he expended the force he had in three punches – none properly exploiting the last. Had a single strategic objective been properly pushed, there is every chance that he might have broken the deadlock and won the war on the ground in Europe. As Russia had already collapsed, in all probability this would have forced the Allies – who were largely as exhausted as the Germans – to the negotiating table.

What then? Well, that’s for another post. Soon.

Meanwhile, if you like the idea of history and are interested in a satirical take on alternative history in the South Pacific – including the way Japan might have invaded New Zealand ‘through the back passage’, check out my book Fantastic Pasts. On Amazon. Now.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2016


11 thoughts on “Spring Offensive: how Germany nearly won the First World War in 1918

  1. Interesting analysis. It seems like the Germans are masters of the tactical situation without a comparable strategic vision. I never understood the strategic objective behind the Wehrmacht’s Ardennes offensive in December 1944, for example. So what if they split the Allied lines and made it to Antwerp? That in itself would only have delayed the inevitable. It seems unlikely that, like the 1918 spring offensive, the Wehrmacht didn’t have the reserves of manpower and supplies needed for victory.

    I’ll look forward to your next post. What-if scenarios are always interesting!

    1. Thanks. Yes, the 1944 Ardennes offensive was flawed on every level. It was also far smaller than Ludendorff’s 1918 effort – in which, for all that Germany lacked by then, manpower was not an issue. Arguably the German army was never fully beaten in 1918 – surrender came before they had been sufficiently battered in the field.

  2. I knew Peter had a fascination with the War, but I didn’t know about this. Is it free to the public? Maybe I will check it out, if I ever get to New Zealand, along with all the LOTR stuff I’d like to see.

    1. Yes, it’s free to the public and open until 2018. I have a suspicion, though, that it may form the core of a national military museum – one has been mooted for that site for some time. We’ll see.

  3. “The main exception was their attack on Verdun in early 1916. Yet that, for all its power, was merely secondary to the eastern effort.”

    I don’t know that I agree that Verdun was secondary to the Eastern Front, but what is interesting to note in connection with that is that the Siege of Verdun was broken by an enormous, and successful, but highly costly Russian offensive, that being the Brusilov Offensive. That 1916 summer offensive by the Russians required the Germans to call off further efforts at Verdun, but it was massively costly to the Russians. The Russians were never able to launch such an offensive again during the Great War.

    1. The German decision to fight the eastern war to a conclusion while holding in the west effectively made the Operation Judgement (the attack on Verdun) secondary by comparison with eastern events – underscored by the fact that, as you say, the battle ended in the face of a Russian offensive. The Verdun strategy reflected the point too: von Falkenhayn hoped to be able to draw the French into a battle of attrition without draining too much of his own resources. As an aside, there’s a wonderful model in Sir Peter Jackson’s exhibition – via mirrors, a ‘before’ and ‘after’ magic transition before your eyes of fortifications at Verdun.

  4. You raise a very interesting point. We do indeed see a lot of counterfactuals regarding World War Two and the Germans, with a suggestion that if the Germans had done this or that, they’d have won the war. All such counterfactuals are nearly doomed by the historical realities, those being that 1) except for a brief period of a few days or so when the British government truly did loose its nerve and was bolstered only by Winston Churchill’s resolve, defeating the UK was impossible for the Germans and; 2) no nation dedicated to the enslaving the Slavs, like the Germans were, could defeat the Soviet Union as defeating it required the assistance of the Soviet population. Therefore, its only possible to imagine a German victory under a very specific set of circumstances and even then its doubtful, and at the end of the day nearly any such scenario requires a Germany that wasn’t Nazi, when such a Germany wouldn’t have started the war in the first place.

    World War One, however, is different in that the results of the 1918 offensive do not seem nearly so foreordained. And it isn’t impossible to imagine some intelligent German y decisions in 1918, in particularly in regards to the East, which they continued to attempt to occupy even after Russia was beaten, which might have resulted in a 1918 success.

    1. I’ve got a post coming up exploring the issues associated with a German 1918 victory. And another post after that, a bit later, on the possibility of a 1914 German victory – this latter being considerably more frightening.

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