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.
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.
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