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World War I: A Battle to the Death

1918

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World War I: A Battle to the Death

US Army Renault FT-17 Tanks

Photograph Courtesy of the US Army

Previous: 1917 - America Joins the Fight | World War I: 101 | Next: Seeds of Future Conflict Sown

Outlook in 1918

Though the United States had entered the conflict in April 1917, it took time for the nation to mobilize manpower on a large scale and retool its industries for war. By March 1918, only 318,000 Americans had arrived in France. This number began to climb rapidly through the summer and by August 1.3 million men were deployed overseas. Upon their arrival, many senior British and French commanders wished to use the largely untrained American units as replacements within their own formations. Such a plan was adamantly opposed by the commander of the American Expeditionary Force, General John J. Pershing, who insisted that American troops fight together. Despite conflicts like this, the arrival of the Americans bolstered the hopes of the battered British and French armies which had been fighting and dying for four years.

While the massive numbers of American troops that were forming in the United States would ultimately play a decisive role, the defeat of Russia provided Germany with an immediate advantage on the Western Front. Freed from fighting a two-front war, the Germans were able to transfer over thirty veteran divisions west while only leaving a skeleton force to ensure Russian compliance with the Treat of Brest-Litovsk. These troops provided the Germans with numerical superiority over its adversaries. Aware that growing numbers of American troops would soon negate the advantage Germany had gained, General Erich Ludendorff began planning a series of offensives to bring the war on the Western Front to a swift conclusion. Dubbed the Kaiserschlacht (Kaiser's Battle), the 1918 Spring Offensives were to consist of four major assaults code-named Michael, Georgette, Blücher-Yorck, and Gneisenau. As German manpower was running short, it was imperative that the Kaiserschlacht succeed as losses could not be effectively replaced.

The Spring Offensives

The first and largest of these offensives, Operation Michael, was intended to strike the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) along the Somme with the goal of cutting it off from the French to the south. The assault plan called for four German armies to break through the British Expeditionary Force's lines then wheel northwest to drive toward the English Channel. Leading the attack would be special stormtrooper units whose orders called for them to drive deep into British positions, bypassing strong points, with the goal disrupting communications and reinforcements. Commencing on March 21, 1918, Michael saw German forces attack along a forty-mile front. Slamming into the British Third and Fifth Armies, the assault shattered the British lines. While Third Army largely held, the Fifith Army began fighting retreat (Map). As the crisis developed, the commander of the BEF, Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, requested reinforcements from his French counterpart, General Philippe Pétain. This request was refused as Pétain was concerned about protecting Paris. Angered, Haig was able to force an Allied conference on March 26 at Doullens. This meeting resulted in the appointment of General Ferdinand Foch as the overall Allied commander.

As the fighting continued, British and French resistance began to coalesce and Ludendorff's thrust began to slow. Desperate to renew the offensive, he ordered a series of new attacks on March 28, though they favored exploiting local successes rather than advancing the operation's strategic goals. These attacks failed to make substancial gains and Operation Michael ground to a halt at Villers-Bretonneux on the outskirts of Amiens. Despite the strategic failure of Michael, Ludendorff immediately launched Operation Georgette (Lys Offensive) in Flanders on April 9. Assaulting the British around Ypres, the Germans sought to capture the town and force the British back to the coast. In nearly three weeks of fighting, the Germans succeeded in reclaiming the territorial losses of Passchendaele and advanced south of Ypres. By April 29, the Germans had still failed to take Ypres and Ludendorff halted the offensive (Map.

Shifting his attention south the French, Ludendorff began Operation Blücher-Yorck (Third Battle of the Aisne) on May 27. Concentrating their artillery, the Germans attacked down the valley of the Oise River towards Paris. Overrunning the Chemin de Dames ridge, Ludendorff's men swiftly advanced as the Allies began committing reserves to halt the offensive. American forces played a role in stopping the Germans during intense fighting at Chateau-Thierry and Belleau Wood. One June 3, as fighting still raged, Ludendorff decided to suspend Blücher-Yorck due to supply problems and mounting losses. While both sides lost similar numbers of men, the Allies possessed an ability to replace them that Germany lacked (Map). Seeking to widen the gains of Blücher-Yorck, Ludendorff began Operation Gneisenau on June 9. Attacking on the northern edge of the Aisne salient along the Matz River, his troops made initial gains, but were halted within two days.

Ludendorff's Last Gasp

With the failure of the Spring Offensives, Ludendorff had lost much of the numerical superiority which he had counted on for achieving victory. With limited resources remaining he hoped to launch an attack against the French with the goal of drawing British troops south from Flanders. This would then allow another attack on that front. With the support of Kaiser Wilhelm II, Ludendorff opened the Second Battle of the Marne on July 15. Attacking on both sides of Rheims, the Germans made excellent progress. French intelligence had provided warning of the attack and Foch and Pétain had prepared a counterstroke. Launched on July 18, the French counterattack, supported by American troops, was led by General Charles Mangin's Tenth Army. Supported by other French troops, the effort soon threatened to encircle those German troops in the salient. Beaten, Ludendorff ordered a withdraw from the endangered area. The defeat on the Marne ended his plans for mounting another assault in Flanders.

Previous: 1917 - America Joins the Fight | World War I: 101 | Next: Seeds of Future Conflict Sown

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