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A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914 to 1918


The First World War
 

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Bullets Quickly Write New Tactics
Bullets Quickly Write New Tactics
by Roger Daene

Wilhelm Balck said about tactics, “Bullets quickly write new tactics.” He was a divisional commander in the First World War and had written many articles and manuals on tactics before the Great War.[1] After the Battle of the Marne in 1914 and the subsequent German retreat, the war on the western front became more of a positional war rather than a war of maneuver. The Allied and German nearly unattainable goal was to penetrate the enemy’s main defense lines and exploit any breakthrough. New tactics would be developed after the bullets started flying.

The German Army made some fundamental changes to both its offensive and defensive tactics during the winter of 1916/1917 and again in the winter of 1917/1918. In spite of all the adjustments, the spring offensive of 1918 failed. The Germans began questioning and studying why they failed in their last gamble to win the war.

To answer the question of why the tactical changes made by the German Army did not bring them victory in the Spring Offensive, it is necessary look at the evolution of tactics that began in 1915. The slaughter at the First Battle of Ypres showed that continued adherence to the established tactics could only result in unsustainable casualties. New offensive and defensive tactics began to take shape.

The Germans began by studying their offensive tactics first. They studied their past offensive successes and failures. Their study revealed several problems that needed to be addressed. They learned that after preliminary bombardment, the attacking troops could reach the enemy’s trench and could attempt to clear the trench. The problem was that the attacking troops were then beyond the support of their own artillery and other supporting weapons. This prevented the attacking German infantry from effectively clearing the enemy’s trench of defenders, or in the event of capturing the first line of trenches; they were unable too numerically weakened to the next line of trenches. It was determined that the ability of supporting weapons to accompany the advancing troops would allow them to maintain the advance and also to reduce casualties.[2]

The German High Command selected frontline officers and enlisted men to submit reports and suggestions based on their experiences in the early battles of 1914/1915. The reports were gathered, evaluated, and the proposed changes were developed into new offensive tactical theories. A small specially trained unit would serve as a demonstration unit so that the High Command could study their effectiveness with the new weapons and tactics.[3]

Like other armies, the German army had a tradition of building and using specialized forces to accomplish certain tasks. Captain Wilhelm Rohr, formerly of the Garde Schuzten, took command of the special type of assault unit. In addition to his command duties, he was given permission to experiment with the personal equipment, the type of supporting weapons and the formations he wanted. “Rohr’s Assault Detachment” was formed.[4]

The personal equipment of the detachment changed with their new purpose. The first trademark item of the assault detachment was the use of the helmet. Rohr’s Assault Detachment was the first German unit to receive the M1916 Stahlhelm (known as a Coal Scuttle helmet by the Allies). The detachment was also trained in the use of hand grenades. The extensive use of hand grenades allowed assault units to eliminate enemy positions without becoming involved in a prolonged firefight.[5]

The lack of supporting artillery stalled many attacks. The supporting artillery lacked the mobility to keep up with the assaulting troops sufficiently to be provide continuing support. The lack of efficient communication limited the ability to redirect fire. Assaulting units needed supporting weapons that could be carried or manhandled across the battlefield. Small artillery pieces were either converted or manufactured to provide direct artillery fire support. The guns were designed with a lighter weight so that they could be manhandled over the battlefield. Portable flamethrowers and mortars were to be attached at company level. These weapons and small artillery guns provided powerful support for the unit. Infantry did not have to depend on the rifle and bayonet to destroy or capture an enemy strongpoint or trench.[6]

After successfully proving his tactics on a small scale, Rohr was asked to prove his tactics on a larger scale. Parceled out to the various units, the Assault Detachment would prove their worth as the Germans began their assault at Verdun. When the battle finally ended ten months later with hundreds of thousands of casualties on both sides, the German High Command had to sift through the reports to determine the next evolution of the assault troops.

One lesson discovered was that machineguns could and should accompany the assaulting troops. At Verdun, the machineguns accompanied the third wave of troops in most units. Previously, the machineguns could not the attack and were mostly being used in a defensive role only. The Bavarian Life Guards Regiment learned the value of machineguns accompanying the first wave when they used the machineguns to suppress the French defenders. As a result the assaulting troops were able to advance more effectively. The battle reports also made it clear that the stormtroopers had to be used in platoon size or larger in order to be the most effective. At times, some detachments were only three or four men in strength and their results were negligible.[7]

The French first used the term “infiltration tactics” to describe the assault troop tactics at Verdun. The Germans had no one term to describe their tactics. The Germans used the term “coordination” to describe their synchronized use of artillery, machineguns, mortars, and movement by assault squads. Once the artillery had suppressed the enemy, the assaulting infantry were able to exploit any weak points.[8]

On May 27th, 1916, Captain Rohr published “Instructions for the Employment of an Assault Battalion.” Even though many of the tactics exposed in Rohr’s manual were already in use in many units, the manual formalized the tactics as the standard tactic to be taught to units and recruits. Training of new recruits in the use of assault tactics was the most significant aspect of the manual. New recruits could be employed quicker once they reached the front since they had been trained in the latest tactics.[9]

The tremendous casualties suffered by the German army in the predominately defensive battle at the Somme caused the German Army to consider significant changes to their defensive tactics. During the Battle of the Somme, General Falkenhayn insisted on holding the forward trenches. He continued to reinforce the forward trench lines, which was under constant Allied artillery bombardment. The desire to strengthen the front trench line while it was under bombardment caused excessive casualties. German defensive tactical doctrine stressed launching immediate counterattack to recover lost ground. Counterattacks were immediately launched to recover any lost ground. This resulted in excessive casualties with little gain that did not merit the loss in manpower. German commanders who did not recover lost ground were often relieved of command.[10] German losses at the Somme have been estimated at 650,000. The losses suffered at both the Somme and Verdun contributed greatly to the German Army being bled to death. The German Army could not afford the losses in the coming year of 1917 to equal the losses of 1916 if they hoped to recover its strength and win the war. One consequences of the severe losses at the battles of the Somme and of Verdun was a change of command. In August 1916, General Hindenberg and his able assistant Lieutenant General Ludendorf replaced General Falkenhayn. Reducing casualties became their goal.[11]

One of Ludendorf’s first duties was to visit the frontline units. He took reports from divisional, regimental, and battalion commanders. He wanted their honest opinion on how best to win. He understood that Eastern front tactics would not work on the Western Front. The information he gathered from Western Front commanders was developed into a set of principles to be used.[12]

Principles of Command in the Defensive Battle in Position Warfare was published on December 1st, 1916. This manual became the German defensive policy for the rest of the war. The basic concept was to force the attacker into expanding his strength, while the defender needed to preserve his own strength. There were four fundamental principles to achieve this. The first principal was that the defender must retain the initiative and not surrender it to the attackers. The second principal was that the defenders must rely on firepower and not the number of troops involved. The third principal was that it was not necessary to hold the ground at all cost. This was a controversial point. The last principal was the defense in-depth was to be the guiding standard when constructing all defensive positions.[13]

Defense in-depth was the term used to explain how the defense could maintain their strength while the attackers expended their strength. The lesson learned from the Battle of the Somme was that the defender could not meet the attackers strength with a corresponding number of defenders in the frontline trenches. The heavy preliminary bombardment caused severe casualties to the defenders before the attackers even left their trenches. German studies of casualties revealed artillery fire accounted for 60% of casualties. To reduce the number of artillery casualties, the front line would be lightly held.[14]

If the attacking troops captured the German frontline positions, the attacking troops would be out of the efficient range of their own supporting artillery when they moved to attack the second line of German trenches. The second and third lines held the main German strength. The second line of defenses would consist of strong points and more trench systems. Any isolated strong points were not to surrender unless there was no other option. Their orders were to hold out as long as possible as their continued defense resulted in the attackers becoming fragmented if they tried to move around the position or destroy the position.[15]

The disorganized attackers and weakened attacked were ripe for a counterattack. Each defensive section of the front was to maintain local counterattacking forces, who would either try to recapture ground or to exploit any confusion in the attacking force. To facilitate the proper timing for counterattacking forces, local commanders were given the discretion to direct the battle in their area. Divisional commanders could direct supporting artillery fire. Prior to 1917, all artillery remained under the control of the corps commander. The goal was to streamline the command structure to give more control to the local commander.[16]

During the winter of 1916/1917, the German army trained in the new tactics. Units were withdrawn to rear areas for this process. During this reorganization process, the role of the battalion and regimental commanders and even the function of the squad and platoon changed. Previously commanders managed their units at the smallest levels. Under the reorganization, battalion and regimental commanders determined the objectives, however, but it was the responsibilities of the company, platoon, or the squad commander to best determine how to carry out the assigned mission. Previously the each battalion and regiment moved as a complete unit and attempted to gain a fire superiority over their enemy. Under the new tactics, squads, and platoons were to provide suppression fire for the other as they moved forward and attempted to exploit any advantage they found.[17]

The Germans introduced the British to their new defensive tactics during the March 1917 Allied offensive. The preliminary bombardment began on March 21st, and covered an eleven-mile front with about 2,687,000 shells. The infantry assault began on April 9th. The thinly held frontline prevented the slaughter of German infantry from the intense Allied shelling. However, the initial Allied attack was successful because Colonel General Falkenhausen of the German 6th Army failed to coordinate his artillery and position his counterattacking forces correctly. Colonel Fritz von Lossberg, the acknowledged tactician was assigned as his chief of staff. Immediately upon assuming his duties as Chief of Staff, he repositioned the units. On April 14th, the British launched another attack with limited objectives. The German defense worked to near perfection. The British lost 2/3 of their attacking units’ strength in the front units and fell back to their original lines. Throughout the Battle of the Scarpe, as it was known, the British could not achieve their objectives. The battle showed the Germans that their new defensive doctrine worked. They suffered fewer casualties and their cohesion remained intact even though they did not always recapture all the lost ground.[18]

The Germans continued to evaluate their defensive doctrine and make necessary adjustments. Although the offensive tactics continued to evolve during German counterattacks, the focus was on their defensive tactics during 1917 on the Western front. The key to the successful defensive battles of 1917 was rooted in the reliance of junior officers to make decisions and to seize opportunities when the situation arose.[19]

As 1917 ended, the Germans had implemented all of their defensive tactical changes on the Western Front. The German High Command determined that the war needed to be won before the full weight of the American army could be felt. The German High Command made their plans for a Spring offensive based on information gleaned from British and American newspapers. The newspapers revealed that the British and French had run out of confidence and men, and there were no plans for any major Allied offense until late 1918 at the earliest, when the American divisions would be ready. The German High Command planned to launch a major offense in the spring, knocking either the French or British out of the war. This would cause the other Allied nation to sue for peace without the American presence being decisive.[20]

Two factors were key to any chance at success of any German offense in the 1918. Major Brüchmuller was the first key addition to the German High Command on the Western Front. Brüchmuller had been a successful artillery commander on the Eastern Front who had developed a new artillery doctrine. He acknowledged that artillery could not win a battle by sheer destruction force. Enemy reinforcements were pinned by the artillery and thus could not reinforce a sector of the front under attack. Artillery could also pin the target in their strong points and trenches while the attacking troops could cross no man’s land. Long bombardments did not significantly increase the chances of success and only alerted the defenders that a major attack was imminent. He believed in a strong concentration of fire for a short period. Short bombardments accomplished the goal of pinning the defenders and still maintained the element of surprise.[21]

The second key to a successful 1918 campaign was the transfer of 42 divisions from the Eastern Front when the Russian Army collapsed. The divisions, which transferred from the Eastern Front, needed their training updated for combat on the Western Front.

These recently transferred divisions still used outdated tactics as late as the Battle of Riga on September 1917 when German troops advanced in 1914 style skirmish lines.[22]

The German Army underwent massive training exercises during the winter of 1917/1918. During the training, the German High Command realized that not all German soldiers were capable of performing storm troop tactics. Young unmarried men were the original members of Rohr’s Assault Battalion. By 1918, married men in their 30’s and 40’s composed the majority of the assault battalions. Physically, the older soldiers lacked the physical endurance needed for the style of warfare employed by the storm troopers. The solution was to designate 25% of their divisions as assault divisions. These designated assault divisions would receive the first and best of all replacements. They would also receive the newest equipment as it became available and would have the highest proportion of light machineguns, trench mortars, flamethrowers, and other support equipment. Division with limited offensive capabilities would be designated as trench or defensive divisions.[23]

Short artillery bombardments would precede any offensive. Long range guns would fire gas shells to disrupt the Allied artillery batteries while the German infantry moved across no-man’s land. Shorter range guns would shell the forward trenches to suppress the defenders.[24]

During the winter training of the German Army in 1917/1918, the German Air Force also underwent many changes. Because of Allied aircraft had begun to play a growing role in the battles near 3rd Ypres and Passchendaele the publication of The Attack in Positional Warfare included a whole section on aircraft close support of the infantry attack. The use of aircraft for close support missions would be a major addition to the tactical arsenal of a division commander in 1918. The battles in 1918 would see aircraft becoming a dominating factor on the battlefield.[25]

While the forces were being trained and equipped, the German High Command in consultation with the Kaiser determined the overall goals and objectives of this spring offensive. The German High Command had several reasons for launching these massive offensive operations. Ultimately, they hoped to penetrate the frontline, exploit the breakthrough and thereby defeat the Allied armies and bring about victory. The plan was to secure key positions that would aid the Germans to secure a more favorable peace settlement. In the peace settlement, they hoped to secure control over Belgium’s industrial economy and incorporate the coal and iron rich French area of Longwy-Briery. Germany hoped a successful outcome of the 1918 Spring Offensive would put them in a position to gain a favorable peace treaty with the Allies and the territorial gains they sought.[26]

The spring offensive was named the Kaiserschlacht. Five separate plans with different objectives were discussed. Of the five plans, the one known as Operation Michael was chosen as the main offensive effort. The French and British would be separated when St. Quentin fell on the Somme line. The southern attack, led by General Hutiers 18th Army would hold the French in check and reinforce the northern attack toward Arras. The center of the attack was to General Marwitz’s 2nd Army and would be attacking the British 5th Army under General Gough. The 2nd Army was to advance toward Bapaume. General Below’s 17th Army would attack near Arras and in combination with the 2nd Army surround the British 3rd Army under General Byng in the Cambrai salient. This plan was altered under pressure from the German Crown Prince. Hutier’s 18th Army would advance 18 miles past the Somme with the goal of engaging the French reserves. Altering of this plan would help to spell doom to the Spring Offensive because the planned reserves from the 18th Army were unavailable to exploit the breakthrough when the British 3rd and 5th armies nearly collapsed.[27]

Operation Michael targeted the British because they were seen as weaker than the French. The British government might be enticed to sue for peace if the British army was separated from the French armies and forced to the sea. The British 5th Army under General Gough would be the focus of the attack of Marwitz’s 2nd Army. The 5th Army had not recovered from the fighting at Passchendaele. The 5th Army also occupied incomplete defensive positions they recently had taken control of from the French. The entire British Army was in the process of a major reorganization as many units were disbanded or Amalgamated or because of severe losses. The integration of various staffs had not yet been worked out and therefore, there was some confusion in the British command structure.[28]

The Kaiserschlacht of 1918 began on March 21st, 1918 with Operation Michael. Careful planning and concealment of forces and artillery maintained surprise. Nearly 6,000 guns participated in the five hour bombardment before the infantry assaulted. Major Brüchmuller, the German artillery commander, had planned an elaborate combination of gases and high explosives. The short but heavy bombardment stunned and pinned the British. The German stormtroops caught many defenders in their dugouts as they entered their first line of defenses. A heavy fog covered much of no man’s land which aided to conceal the advancing German infantry.[29]

Compared to the British assault at the Somme, the German assault was so spectacular that the following data emphasizes their amazing feat. The British lost 60,000 men during the first day of the Somme and did not capture any appreciable amount of ground. During the entire Somme offensive the British frontline only advanced four miles. In comparison, in 24 hours of Operation Michael, the German lost 40,000 men, but the British lost about 38,000 men and an additional 21,000 British soldiers were captured. The advancing Germans captured nearly 98 ½ square miles on the first day of Operation Michael.[30] Many isolated British units simply surrendered with hardly a fight. The drastic decline in British morale after the battle of Passchendaele and the British surprise at the new German artillery and storm troop tactics resulted in several mass surrenders.[31]

The third, fourth, and fifth days of Operation Michael posed the greatest threats to the Allies. The German offensive pushed the British 5th Army back an additional 12 miles on the third day.. As the British forces were being forced in a northwest direction, there was a growing danger of a separation between the British and French armies. The French under Pétain feared they would be attacked north of Verdun and believed they could not aid the hard-pressed British. The overall Allied commander, General Ferdinand Foch, prevented Pétain from retreating and increasing the growing gap between the French and British armies. Foch ordered reinforcements to help stem the German tide. By this time, the Germans had pushed to within five miles of the major city of Amiens. Amiens was only being held by some engineering and railway troops. The German attack near Amiens stalled due to German exhaustion as the last of the British reserves held Amiens while the French reserves were at last moving toward Amiens.[32]

During Operation Michael and during the other operations of the Spring Offensive another factor continued to show its decisive force on the Western front. The tank was becoming a more effective force on the Western front. The British 51st Infantry division, supported by tanks, stopped the German assault on Amiens. As the Germans advanced across open fields, the British tanks could fire into the massed German infantry formations, causing a great number of casualties. Small groups of tanks with infantry support also stalled the German advance long enough for more British reinforcements to arrive to defend Amiens.[33]

The crisis for the Allies was at the juncture of the British and French armies. It was here that the Germans chose to make their decisive effort. The German 2nd and 18th armies were to lead the assault with the 17th in reserve. The 6th army was to follow on the flank of the 2nd and 18th armies and to prepare for an advance northwest toward the sea. The German initial plan was to have a massive thrust but three separate thrusts would be made instead. “As in 1914, during the advance on Paris, the German army was reacting to events, following the line of least resistance, rather than dominating and determining the outcome.”[34] A tenants of the new German offensive and defensive tactics was to maintain the initiative and not to give it over the enemy. If any of these three offenses failed, the initiative would pass to the British and each drive could not support or reinforce each other. The German army would make their three-prong assault and capture some terrain, but it lacked the strength or reinforcements to exploit any advance. The result was that the Germans could not capture the railheads near Amiens or to rupture the connection between the British and French armies.

Operation Michael ended for three main reasons. The first reason was German troops often stopped to loot captured British supply dumps. Captured rum led to widespread drunkenness. The delays caused by the looting allowed the British time to regroup. The second reason was the exhaustion of the German troops by the 9th day of the offense. Ludendorf’s attempt to make three separated drives deprived the main drive by Hutier’s 18th Army of any fresh reserves. Each drive became exhausted and fresh reserves could not support the attack. The third major reason was the British ability to move reinforcements by rail and motor transport. Each of the five offensives of the Spring Offensive followed the same pattern. Initially, the German assault inflicted a great number of casualties on the Allied forces and caused them to retreat. In the process, the advancing German infantry became exhausted both physically and numerically from their own losses. Each offense ended when the advance ceased because the attacking forces had lost the ability to conduct further offensive actions. [35]

As Operation Michael ground to a halt, Ludendorf switched his attention to north to Arras. He named this part of the Spring Offensive as Operation Georgette. Operation Georgette began on April 9th. The plan was for the German Sixth Army, under General von Quast, to drive between Givenchy and Armentiéres and capture the important rail center at Hazebrouck. The Fourth Army under General von Arnim supported the Sixth Army. The objective of the Fourth Army was the capture Messines. Many British reserves had already been committed to stop Operation Michael and few reserves were ready for Operation Georgette. The German offensive was initially successful as they captured both Messines and Passchendaele. Instead of committing further reserves to exploit these gains, Ludendorf switched his attention back to a second belated drive toward Amiens in the hope that the British had shifted some reserves from Amiens to stop Operation Georgette. Operation Georgette ended because of the excessive casualties suffered by the advancing German units and the stiffening British resistance.[36]

Operation Georgette introduced a problem on the tactical level that the Germans could not counter because of the disparity in the number of German aircraft compared to the Allies. Allied aircraft were flying close support missions and thereby causing high casualties as the Germans advanced across open ground. German official history reports that their troops were suffering greatly from the continuing Allied attacks from the air. The Allied planes strafed and bombed them and there were not sufficient German planes to counter the growing danger of an attack from above. The continued Allied air attacks disrupted the advancing troops and transports. General von Kuhl, the chief of staff to Prince Rupprecht, reported the constant Allied air attacks disrupted their advance. For example, air attacks inflicted one half of the casualties suffered by the advancing Germans. Certainly, the Allied air superiority led to the failure of the Spring Offensive.[37] The German infantry made excellent targets for the strafing aircraft because after the German infantry broke through the Allied positions, they abandoned the storm troop tactics and resorted to the mass assault tactics that were more reminiscent of the tactics used in 1914-1916.[38]

Both Operation Michael and Operation Georgette failed. The British suffered heavy casualties during Operation Michael and Georgette. The British Army was now depleted to the point where offensive operations were limited. The British gained some necessary breathing space and regained their strength and morale as the Germans shifted their offense south against the French. The growing presence of the American forces boasted Allied morale. In contrast to the growing strength of the Allies, Ludendorf saw a serious decline in the quality of German troops. German troops looted Allied supply dumps and there was a growing reluctant to attack. This growing reluctance to attack was seen during the attack at Lys during Operation Georgette when the German Sixth Army was sluggish to begin the attack. Ludendorf concluded that the German Army did not possess the strength to carry out two major offensive drives at once and it took too long to relocate the artillery under Bruckmüller. It became imperative to break the Allied lines in one location before the full force of the American Expeditionary Force could be felt.[39]

Ludendorf switched his focus to the south against the French. Operation Blücher was only a diversion. He hoped to draw enough reserves from the north to strengthen the troops near Paris, so that perhaps the northern offensive, near Amiens could begin anew. Initial German assaults against the French at Chemin-des-Dames were successful. The commander of the French Sixth Army, General Duchesne refused to use the defense in-depth method and refused to yield any ground in the elastic defense. He preferred to keep his men in the forward trenches.[40] Major Bruckmüller commanded the German artillery. His 4,000 guns bombarded the French for 160 minutes and was the densest yet in terms of batteries per mile, in 1918. Brüchmuller’s bombardment and the subsequent opening assault destroyed eight French and British divisions. The result was a German advance of 12 miles in one day.[41] Operation Blücher was proving to be far more successful than originally expected. The sudden loss of eight divisions was causing the Allied lines to crack dangerously.

The attacking German troops ran into the first major concentration of United States troops near the Bellau Woods , northwest of Château-Thierry. These two divisions rushed to the front to plug the gap in the French lines. After a fiercely fought battle, the German offense stopped with heavy losses to both sides. Because Operation Blücher was only meant to be a diversion, major reinforcements were not available to dislodge the two severely depleted American divisions. This battle was significant for two reasons. First the United States Marines captured and held the woods. The loss and inability to recapture Bellau Woods seriously shook German morale. The Germans firmly believed they were superior to the British and French and had beaten them in the past few weeks. This new adversary challenged that idea. Operation Blücher ended with the failure to capture Bellau Woods. Second, the Battle of Bellau Woods prevented the Germans from advancing and possibly capturing Paris. The French government admitted the war would be over if the Germans captured Paris. The two American divisions under Pershing marched forward to the attack in an attempt to stem the German offense. They succeeded in doing that at Bellau Woods. The American army saved France during those critical days.[42]

The fourth German offense was code-named Operation Gneisenau. The target was the Matz. The goal was to force the French to shift reserves from near Amiens and to restart the German northern offensive near Amiens again. The target of Operation Gneisenau was the French 3rd Army. The French 3rd Army under General Humbert placed his strength in the front trench line instead of using the defense in-depth tactic. Like the German assault at the Chemmin des Dames, the Germans broke the French frontline using a combination of heavy artillery bombardment and stormtroop tactics that again caught the French infantry in their dugouts in many places. The German 18th Army under von Hutier advanced six miles. Operation Gneisenau stopped on June 11th when the French 10th Army under General Mangin counterattacked Hutier’s army with large number of close support aircrafts and tanks. The German forces had no method of response for the close cooperation of Allied artillery, infantry, and tanks.[43]

The “Spanish Flu” severely weakened the German Army in Jun when 500,000 soldiers became sick. Their susceptibility was due to their poor diet, whereas the Allied troops were comparatively well-fed. Although these troops would be able in many cases to return to the ranks, they would be unavailable for the final offensive drive.[44]

With reserves nearly exhausted, Ludendorf made one final offense named ‘Marnesschutz-Reims’. The French would name the last German offensive the 2nd Battle of the Marne. Unlike the beginnings of the other offensives, surprise was not maintained. French barrages inflicted heavy losses on the German troops who were caught in the open. Although the Germans made some gains including crossing the Marne River, their gains did not justify the huge loss of life. To the west of Reims, the Germans advanced large distances and were even able to force a crossing of the river line, under fire, from Château-Thierry as far east as Dormans. destroying many Allied units in the process. The French launched a major counterattack that included several American units with tank support and threw the Germans back across the Marne River. The last offensive failed. Any German hope of a victory faded and the initiative passed to the Allies. The German Army, which began the Spring with such high expectations, would only remain in the field for about 3 months.[45]

The German army made some fundamental changes to both its offensive and defensive tactics during the winter of 1916/1917 and again in the winter of 1917/1918. The adjustments and changes were profound. Why did the tactical adjustments conducted by the German Army not bring them victory in the Spring Offensive of 1918?

The answer to this question has two parts. The first is whether or not the Germans possessed superior tactics on the battlefield defensively and offensively. The second part of the answer is whether or not the overall strategic objectives were reasonable and did the strategic objectives prevent a German victory in 1918?

The Germans first employed the elastic defense in depth. They used it effectively throughout 1917. Their casualties were still high but generally lower than the Allies. The German defense and the casualties they inflicted upon the French during Neville’s offense at the Chemin des Dames brought about the French Mutinies of 1917. France’s offensive spirit was broken until July 1918. The German defense during the British offense at 3rd Ypres and Passchendaele effectively broke the British offensive spirit. After these terrible losses the British knew they could not resume the offense until late summer 1918 and then only with American aid. The German changes in their defensive doctrine were successful because the changes allowed them to conserve some of their remaining strength. The changes also bought them enough time to permit the transfer of German divisions from Russia to arrive.

The new German offensive tactics were a stark contrast to the skirmish lines and columns used in 1914. The new tactics of these storm troopers brought victory within sight on at least two occasions in 1918. The offensive tactics worked best when surprise was maintained, reinforcements were available, and morale remained high.

In four of the five offenses, the initial assault succeeded in pushing back the Allied lines because surprise was achieved. If surprise was maintained, the initial German gains were substantial by World War I standards. The only offense that failed initially was at the 2nd Battle of the Marne when the element of surprise was lost. Breakthroughs were made possible by Major Bruckmüller, the organizer of the German artillery, because the German artillery was able to support and, at times, accompany storm troopers. The lack of reinforcements prevented the breakthroughs from being fully exploited.

Morale was another factor that led to victory and defeat for the German Army in 1918. German morale was high after the victories in Russian, Romania, and Italy and gave a certain impetus for their Spring Offense. However, after each failed offense, German morale continued to disintegrate. Allied morale and their determination to continue fighting increased with the growing presence of the American Expeditionary Force.

There were several problems with the new German offensive tactics. The problem was not the German storm troopers or regular infantrymen, but in the lack of the tanks, planes, and transportation. The German High Command did not provide these three things in sufficient qualities. Perhaps more tanks, planes, and motorized transportation of supplies could have made a difference. The lack of these things, in a large way, prevented the German Army from winning the war.

A tactical deficiency in the German Army was the lack of tanks. Massed use of tanks brought victory to the British at Cambrai in late November 1917 and more important at Amiens in August 1918. Poor tactics and mechanical problems with these early tanks prevented the Allies from effectively utilizing their tanks for any prolonged time. Nevertheless, on several occasions during the Spring Offensive, Allied tanks, when properly supported by infantry and artillery proved decisive in stopping a German offensive drive.[46]

Another tactical deficiency was German airpower. The Allies possessed better ground support tactics than the German air force, and combined with superior numbers; the German air force could not prevent the strafing and bombing of their troops. Allied air units disrupted the movement of supplies, which also greatly contributed to the failure of the Spring Offensives.

Whereas the Germans had to bring their supplies across the battlefield and over land churned up by artillery fire and over trenches, the Allies were able to utilize railroads to move troops forward to threatened sectors. The Allies also utilized motor transports to bring up troops and supplies.

Tactically speaking, in spite of the Germans lack of tanks, transportation of supplies and reinforcements, and inefficient air protection, they nearly broke the Allied lines. However, two things prevented the Germans from winning the war in 1918 strategically. One was the American Army and the other was the strategic blunders of Ludendorf who launched five offenses instead of one thrust with sufficient reinforcements.

German strength continued to decline as 1918 wore on because they could not replace lost material due to the blockade, or men because of the severe losses of nearly four years of warfare. Allied strength continued to grow throughout 1918 as American divisions arrived weekly. The war simply became a matter of attrition that the Allies could afford because of the growing American presence, while Germany bled to death on the battlefield.

Ludendorf misused his precious reserves and used them up in costly diversionary attacks. The diversionary attacks on other sectors of the front only allowed the Allies critical time to regroup and the diversionary attacks against the French brought the attacking German armies into contact with the newly arrived American divisions. These divisions were not shifted north to aid the British but were thrust into the line at the last moment when the French 6th Army collapsed and the road to Paris was open.

Kaiserschlacht was Germany’s last chance to win the war. The new German offensive tactics effectively ruptured the Allied lines on several occasions and the deadlock on the Western Front nearly broke. The lack of an overall effective strategic plan brought about the crumbling of the German Army in the late summer of 1918, and the collapse of the German Army in the fall of 1918.

Ludendorf committed several strategic errors that cost the German Army any chance of victory they had before the American Army could be brought into action. Operation Michael nearly severed the French and British armies from each other. The British 5th Army was in full retreat and on the verge of collapse. A single German thrust with the reserves available, aimed at the crumbling 5th Army, might have broken the British lines wide open and severed the British and French armies. Instead, Ludendorf ordered a three-prong attack by the three armies assigned to Operation Michael. The big breakthrough did not happen and the Allied line was bent but not broken.

The Germans greatly improved their offensive and defensive operations during the war, but it was the Allies who developed the winning combination of coordinating infantry, tanks, planes, and artillery. Ironically, the Germans adopted the Allied tactics in the early part of the Second World War and the Allies adopted some of the German deficiencies of World War One.

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Show Footnotes and Bibliography

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Copyright © 2012 Roger Daene

Written by Roger Daene. If you have questions or comments on this article, please contact Roger Daene at:
tobruk1942@yahoo.com.

About the author:
Roger Daene received his Master of Arts degree in History from Cleveland State University. He presently teaches for the University of Phoenix online and at their new campus in Jackson, Mississippi.

Published online: 03/25/2012.
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