Two historians, Jay Winter of Yale University and Trevor Wilson of The University of Adelaide, give details on the March Offensive by the Germans at the PBS site on the Great War. Winter gives a picture of the mood in Germany while Wilson discusses the military side.
Germany was nearing the breaking point.
There is an extraordinary moment in Germany when a society that has suffered very severe shortages collectively holds its breath.
This is March 1918. A month before, two months before, massive strikes in Berlin, major unrest, political movements calling for compromise peace, something to justify all the sufferings that had gone on. And right then and there is the moment when virtually the entire nation stopped, suspended judgment, suspended disbelief, and waited for the army to deliver the victory that they promised. That’s the twenty-first of March 1918.
Over four months in 1918 the German army launched five major assaults at different parts of the allied line. Initially the plan worked. The British Fifth Army collapsed. The allies gave ground. But for every allied trench captured, there was always another for the Germans to take. Soon the elite German storm troopers were a spent force. In desperation Ludendorff resorted to the old and murderous tactic of mass assault.
Ludendorff thought that by an act of will he could break the resistance of the British and the French. Not by an act of power, but by an act of will. And that’s what a gambler does. It’s not rational. It’s supernatural.”
Ludendorff and the German High Command appeared to feel the pressure from the German people, trying to blitzkrieg their way to victory.
Germany’s March Offensive was an attempt to win the war in a hurry . . .
The German High Command said that they had to do it because the Americans were coming. But if you look at the Germans in WW1, they’re always trying to win by a blitzkrieg offensive.”
It’s what he calls ‘Schlieffen Mark Two,’ another try at the Schlieffen Plan.
It’s just the Germans doing again what they tried to in 1914, only this time, they’re going to do it against the British – they’re going to drive the British out of France. If they do that, the French will collapse, and the Americans will never come in.”
Ludendorff’s grand objective is to drive the Brits to the sea.
Now, in order to do it, he employs enormous skill because, like the British army, the German army has been going through a learning curve.”
The Germans had been making strides in the use of artillery.
In addition, they have been developing new infantry tactics, marrying movements of infantry with the artillery.
As long as the German offensive is in its opening phase, it does well. The attack of 21 March, and the next few days, drives the British back a considerable distance. But Ludendorff wants his forces to advance so far and so fast, that there is an inevitable result. His infantry have to outrun his artillery.
Once his foot soldiers leave their big guns behind and keep on attacking without massive support from the artillery, they are doomed.
Within a week, the German offensive on the Somme has been stopped in its tracks.
So Ludendorff turns north and attacks in Flanders. Then he turns south, against the French. Always it is the same story: early success, mounting losses of men, and an attack that runs out of steam.
For all his use of gunnery, basically, Ludendorff in 1918, is trying to win an infantry victory. The Germans are now running desperately short of manpower, and here is the German commander trying to win by means of his infantry. It is lunacy – a prescription for disaster. His advance in the March Offensive gets him deeper and deeper into the old Somme battlefield, extending his line, costing him dear in manpower, and securing no worthwhile objectives . . .”