Great War Wednesday: Kaiserschlacht


German Stormtrooper carrying the MP18, an early submachinegun.

Since the Race to the Sea ended in 1914, the Great War on the Western Front had stagnated into grinding, muddy trench warfare. Attack and counterattack over small pieces of no mans land had added no appreciable territory for either side. In March-April 1918, both sides were roughly in the same positions they had been in when movement became too deadly four years before.

The main reason for the lack of movement was the lack of sufficient numbers of troops available to storm across the bullet swept no man’s land and land an attack on the enemy that would endure the immediate counterattack. If one side could get a local, massive superiority in troop numbers, theoretically it could steamroll the other side and get movement going again.

The Entente Powers were about to get their massive local superiority vis a vis the numbers of doughboys streaming across the Atlantic Ocean bound for the trenches. Once the human potential and industrial might of the New World landed full scale on the shores of France, a German defeat was only a matter of time. It looked as if Germany was done until a miracle happened — the Russian Revolution and formation of the Soviet Union took Russia out of the war entirely. For the first time in four long years, Germany had what it had hitherto only dreamed of, a single front war.

The end of the war on the Eastern Front made the 50+ divisions formerly used to fight the Russians available for action on the Western Front. Germany wasted no time packing all those men and their supplies onto trains and started steaming west as fast as the locomotives could go. It was a puncher’s chance, but maybe it would be enough. Germany was launching the Kaiserschlacht or “Kaiser’s War” but it has become known as The Spring Offensive.

The Spring Offensive was a series of attacks by the newly reinforced German lines up and down the Western Front, but mainly concentrating in Belgium, close to the original path of attack from 1914. The first and strongest attack was codenamed “Michael” for the archangel who legend says leads the Heavenly Host. On 21 March, a massive bombardment, the largest of the war, unleashed more than 1.1 million shells over a 150 mile front. Then a new type of German unit began streaming out of the German trenches to slam into the reeling Entente lines.

Germany had learned a great many lessons in the four years of the war and one was the value of movement. They, and the Allies, learned that the real problem was movement was one could only go so far before overrunning supply lines at which point the attack would fizzle out and break against a farther line of trenches like a weak ocean wave. The German Stormtrooper units were supposed to solve that problem.

The Stormtroopers were the handpicked best of all the German troops available on the Western Front. They were not going to be dependent on supply lines because they were going to carry their supplies on their backs. The general, greatly simplified, idea called for Stormtroopers to press the attack directly behind the artillery barrage. Rather than rank upon rank of troops trying to storm an entire line, these troops would run through relatively small openings in the opposite lines and fan out in the rear. They were looking for high value command and control centers to attack and leaving the bypassed front units to be mopped up by regular troops coming later.

In a show of force that ominously foreshadowed the Wermacht Blitzkrieg twenty-two years later, the Stormtroopers hit the lines around the Somme River and broke through with precision attacks aided in some places by German armor. The attacks worked. All up and down the attacked front, the Entente forces gave way and were relentlessly pushed back. Once again the German army was on the move and had as its destination Paris. The Germans knew they couldn’t win a war of attrition anymore, but they thought if they could break through to Paris or at least close enough to the French capital for the French to feel the pressure they could possibly force the French to sue for an armistice and Germany could hold on to its territorial gains in the East and the West.

For a time, the plan worked. The holes did get punched and the infantry did follow up. Unfortunately, it couldn’t last for the same reason all the other offensives throughout the war had ultimately failed — the Stormtroopers could only carry so much on their backs and sooner rather than later, they ran out of supplies to continue the surge forward. Once that happened, the lines once again began to solidify. To make matters worse for the Germans, the Allies, once they realized what was happening, would simply evacuate low importance areas along the line and pull back. For example, the British mostly abandoned the Somme territory, giving back what had been won at such high cost in 1916, but which was now deemed expendable. As a result of Allied withdrawals and German surges, the Germans gained relatively great amounts of territory, but most of it consisted of “bulges” in the lines and a bulge required more troops to defend than a straight trench line and Germany’s initial troop superiority was fast beginning to wane.

In the end, the German tide broke against Allied defenses once again, albeit at a much higher tide that the previous four years, but still not as high as Paris. For all Germany’s gains, her army was a spent force. Six months of the Spring Offensive cost the Germans a million men killed, wounded, or captured — men they had no way of replacing. On the other side of the trenches, the doughboys were arriving in force and what they lacked in skill, and they certainly lacked skill, they made up for in enthusiasm and, most importantly, sheer numbers. Germany had lost the momentum and she would never recover it. Now, the next move was the Allies.

Not many more episodes of Great War Wednesday to go. It’s hard to believe it’s been four years since Belgium stood strong, but the last few months of the war would be far from easy. Germany wasn’t about to give up what she had won without a hard fight.

Love y’all and keep those feet clean!

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