On this day one hundred years ago the Germans launched Operation Michael, part of the Kaiserschlacht (Kaiser’s Battle).
Also known as the Spring Offensive it was actually a series of attacks along the Western Front between March and June 1918 during the First World War and marked the deepest advances made by German forces since 1914.
The surrender of the Russians as a result of the signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk at the beginning of March 1918 allowed Germany to move nearly 50 Divisions from the Eastern Front to the Western Front as they realised that their only remaining chance of victory was to defeat the Allies before the arrival of large numbers of American soldiers in France. The Spring Offensive actually consisted of four different operations codenamed Michael, Georgette, Gneisenau, and Blücher-Yorck.
Operation Michael was the main attack intended to break through the Allied lines then outflank and defeat British forces holding the front from the Somme River to the English Channel. Once this was achieved, it was hoped that the French would seek terms for an armistice. The other offensives were subsidiary to Operation Michael and were designed to divert Allied forces away from the main offensive on the Somme.
No clear German objective was established before the start of the Spring Offensive and they changed constantly as the tactical situation developed. In contrast, the Allies concentrated their forces to defend critical areas like the vital rail junction at Amiens and the approaches to the Channel Ports leaving other areas lightly defended.
The Germans were unable to move supplies and reinforcements fast enough to maintain their advance and each offensive subsequently petered out. By late April 1918, the danger of a breakthrough had passed with the German army suffering heavy casualties and now occupying ground that would prove impossible to hold.
At the height of the fighting in early April where the outcome was in the balance, Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig (shown above), Commander in Chief (CINC) of the British Army in France issued his famous ‘Backs to the Wall’ special Order of the Day (shown below):
‘There is no other course open to us but to fight it out. Every position must be held to the last man: there must be no retirement. With our backs to the wall and believing in the justice of our cause each one of us must fight on to the end. The safety of our homes and the freedom of mankind alike depend upon the conduct of each one of us at this critical moment.’
In August 1918, the Allied counter-offensive began with the support of almost two million American soldiers. The ‘Hundred Days’ Offensive resulted in the Germans retreating or being driven from all of the ground taken in the Spring Offensive, the collapse of the Hindenburg Line and the capitulation of the German Empire, resulting in the Armistice on 11 November 1918.
You can find out more about the German Spring Offensive here: https://www.nam.ac.uk/explore/1918-victory