The Kaiserschlacht (‘Kaiser’s Battle’): the German spring offensive on the Western Front, 1918
The Kaiserschlacht (‘Kaiser’s Battle’) is the name given to the German spring offensive on the Western Front which began in the early hours of 21 March 1918. Although ultimately a failure, it was the nearest the German Army came to a decisive breakthrough on the Western Front during the entire war.
The withdrawal of Russia from the war after the revolution in October 1917 enabled the German Army to transfer huge reserves of troops and guns to the Western Front. Planning for a spring offensive in 1918 began as early as November 1917. Acutely aware of the potential deployment of vast number of troops and equipment by the United States, the German High Command, led by Eric Ludendorff, decided to gamble everything on one final push to win the war.
The area chosen to launch the offensive was at the point where the British Fifth and Third Armies met near St Quentin. Perceived as a weak link in the defensive chain, it was Ludendorff’s intention to destroy the British forces and advance towards Arras. Doing so, he hoped, would also isolate and demoralize the French Army to such an extent that it would collapse.
By the spring of 1918, the German Army had 191 Divisions in place, assembled along a 90 kilometre front between Arras and La Fère, Opposing them were 178 British and French Divisions. The Allies had employed an essentially defensive strategy since the costly Passchendaele offensive of 1917, but the section of the line held by the British Fifth Army had yet to be fully completed and was to prove particularly vulnerable to attack.
At 4.20am on the morning of 21 March the German offensive, officially codenamed ‘Michael’, began with a massive five hour artillery and mortar bombardment across the entire length of the front. Over a million shells were fired and the Allies were taken almost completely by surprise.
The subsequent German infantry assault, benefiting from a thick blanket of fog, was spearheaded by companies of ‘shock troops’ (Stosstruppen). These men, the fittest and best equipped, were specially trained to attack and disable enemy headquarters and communications. They also infiltrated and captured trenches, preparing the way for the main body of infantry to consolidate the ground taken. Although suffering heavy casualties, these shock troops proved highly effective, their rapid movement and small numbers allowing them to penetrate deep into enemy positions, often undetected.
At the end of the first day of the offensive, over 7,000 British troops had been killed, and many thousands more wounded or captured. The sector held by the British Fifth Army had been broken in several places, forcing a retreat and the loss of further ground.
By the time Operation Michael ended on 5 April, the Germans had made significant advances and taken over 90,000 prisoners. But much of the ground captured had been devastated in the 1916 Somme battles and was of little strategic value. The failure to capture either Arras or Amiens, was also a crucial failure. Perhaps most damaging of all, the German Army suffered almost as many casualties as the combined Allied Armies, but, lacking their resources, was unable to replace them quickly enough.
Between April and August 1918, the Germans launched four more offensives, with varying degrees of success. But the lack of any coherent overall strategy meant that the initiative was now back with the Allies, further strengthened by the arrival of large numbers of fresh American troops and new equipment. Demoralized and weakened, the German Army was gradually pushed back, and on 8 August, the ‘black day of the German Army’ as Ludendorff called it, the Allies began their own offensive. One hundred days later, on 11 November 1918, Germany formally surrendered and the war was over.