In this latest Blog Post, Dr. Spencer Jones, Senior Lecturer in Armed Forces & War Studies, at the University of Wolverhampton and Co-Investigator for the Arts & Humanities Research Council funded Voices of War & Peace Engagement Centre, talks about Germany’s Spring Offensive, and why they undertook it in 1918.
Germany seemed to have several options by which it could end the war. Why did it choose to risk everything in a military gamble?
Imperial Germany stood at a strategic crossroads in 1918. The home front was suffering. Its hungry population was dangerously close to revolution. Its beleaguered allies were crumbling. Yet its armies remained powerful and the defeat of Russia meant that reinforcements were at hand. Britain and France were bloodied by years of war on the Western Front and appeared to be vulnerable.
The early weeks of 1918 appeared to be a season of opportunity for Germany. In December 1917 the new Bolshevik government of Russia had asked for peace. This was granted in return for huge territorial acquisitions which promised to end Germany’s chronic food shortages. It also provided much needed reinforcements for the Western Front. Divisions which had fought in Russia could be transferred to France and Flanders. This meant that for the first time since 1914, Germany had numerical superiority over the British and French armies.
The defeat of Russia gave Germany several strategic options. Firstly, she could offer a negotiated peace to Britain and France. Such an offer would be made from a position of strength. Both Allied nations were war weary. Their armies had been unable to breach the Western Front. Their major allies could offer no help: Russia was gone and Italy’s continued involvement in the war was hanging by a thread after its defeat at the Battle of Caporetto in November 1917. The United States was still mustering its army and it was unclear when it would reach France. On paper, Germany held a strong hand in any negotiations. It had the bargaining chip of occupying large portions of Belgium and France. Some of this territory could be returned in exchange for peace. Germany would still be victorious because of its huge acquisition of Russian territory.
But this diplomatic strength was an illusion. Germany’s punitive treaty against Russia gave Britain and France a glimpse of what awaited them if they were beaten. Attitudes towards Germany hardened. There was no prospect of compromise. The war had to be won. Ironically, similar attitudes prevailed in parts of the German government. Buoyed by victories over Russia and Italy, German policymakers were in no mood to negotiate. The view was embodied by General Erich Ludendorff, who commanded the German army on the Western Front. He refused to countenance the idea of withdrawing from occupied Belgium. For him, anything other than total victory was a defeat.
The second option was related to the first. Germany could reinforce its formidable defences on the Western Front and hold off the anticipated Allied offensives. This policy was tempting. The German Army had resisted numerous Allied offensives from 1915 onwards. With its numbers boosted by reinforcements from the Eastern Front it was stronger than ever. In this plan, Britain and France would batter themselves to death against the earth and steel wall of the Western Front. Whilst defending in the west, Germany could seek victories on other fronts. She might be able to knock Italy out of the war or reinforce the crumbling Ottoman Empire. This policy would not result in a rapid victory, but it might erode the will of the Allies. Eventually, their will would break, and then a negotiated peace might be made.
But this plan was based on wishful thinking. It was true that the German line had held up to this point, but it had been buckled on several occasions. Even defensive victories were costing the German Army dearly. Furthermore, each offensive saw the Allies improve their methods and their equipment. The latter point was especially important. Britain and France’s war industries were outproducing Germany. Aircraft, artillery and tanks poured off the production lines. This tide of machines threatened to sweep away the German defences. There was also the unknown factor of the Americans. The United States was mustering a vast army. German generals were dismissive of this force, citing its inexperience and lack of training. But they could not discount its sheer numbers. By the middle of 1918 it was possible that the Allies would have an overwhelming superiority in men and machines. The Western Front might finally crack under the weight of Allied attacks.
General Erich Ludendorff commanded the German Army on the Western Front between 1916-1918. He was determined to launch a final offensive and win the war. The plan also had to acknowledge the fact that the German home front was already cracking. Major peace protests had broken out in January. Bread riots were a weekly occurrence in most large towns. Rations were so tight that most adults were eating fewer than 1000 calories per day. Asking starving citizens to endure another year of war without any promise of victory was a recipe for disaster.
There was only one other option. Using Germany’s fleeting numerical superiority, Ludendorff planned an all-out attack that would defeat Britain and France. Victory would be swift and crushing. There would be no time for the Americans to arrive in strength. Even more importantly, the war would end before the German home front finally collapsed.
On the surface Ludendorff and other policy makers were resolute in their belief they could win the war. But there was an undercurrent of nihilism in the plan. It was possible to risk everything precisely because Germany was all but doomed. Her people were starving and mutinous. Her army was outgunned and would very soon be outnumbered. The war had to end soon, or else Germany would collapse. Why not risk everything? The chances of victory were small, but without this last roll of the dice, the odds of defeat were certain.
Faced with a range of unattractive options, Germany staked all on a final, last ditch offensive. Victory would win the war. Defeat would destroy the empire.