In the March 2018 issue of BBC History magazine, my esteemed colleague and friend Professor Alexander Watson has contributed an excellent article on the German spring offensives on the Western Front in 1918: ‘Germany’s Final WW1 Gamble’. He argues that the offensives, which began on 21 March with Ludendorff’s onslaught on the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) around St Quentin, marked Germany’s last chance to win the war and that they blew their opportunity by failing to pay sufficient attention to the operational level of war. Specifically, he argues, Ludendorff diffused effort when he should have concentrated it, and never identified the importance of logistics, and especially the rail hubs at Amiens and Hazebrouck, to the BEF and so to the Allied war effort. Fine tactical performance, in other words, was undermined by poor operational art.
This line of argument has a long history, dating back at least to the German Official History (Der Weltkrieg), written in 14 volumes between the 1920s and early 1940s, the last volume of which, dealing with 1918, was finally published only in 1956. Professor Watson is an exceptional scholar, to whom I will gladly defer on most things to do with the Central Powers, and on anything concerning the Eastern Front, during the First World War. His article is very much of a piece with the consensus, and reflects in particular reflects David Zabecki’s outstanding The German 1918 Offensives: A Case Study in the Operational Level of War (Routledge, 2006). On this, however, the consensus, Zabecki and Watson are wrong, and the reason they are wrong throws up interesting issues around the way the German high command conceived the war they were fighting, as well as how its history was constructed.
There is no doubt that Ludendorff made a number of mistakes during the spring of 1918. He should have delegated command to a single Army Group rather than try to keep control himself. He under-estimated both how quickly his assault troops would tire and the logistics required to maintain the offensive’s momentum. He certainly failed to set a single operational objective, preferring instead to follow an opportunist approach which led to eccentric, rather than concentric, attacks. And he probably did not attach sufficient importance to either Amiens or Hazebrouck.
To argue, however, as the consensus does, that operational errors undermined brilliant German tactics, is to subscribe to a hidden assumption that the Germans would have succeeded had they not made certain mistakes. This, I would argue, is false, for two reasons, the second of which tells us something very interesting about how the history of the war has been constructed.
First, it underestimates the seriousness of the situation in which Germany found herself. On paper, at the end of 1917, Germany had three options:
1) settle for a negotiated peace
2) sit on the defensive in the West while eliminating Russia and Italy
3) attack in the West to defeat Britain, France (or both).
In reality, her choices were much more limited. There was no possible peace deal on the table, and even if public opinion in all the combatant countries had not hardened beyond compromise as the war went on, no one was more intransigent than Ludendorff. He could not give up Belgium but, unless he did so, no peace deal was likely to be acceptable to the Entente. For him, any outcome less than total victory would count as defeat and threaten revolution at home. Further, Britain, France and the USA were clearly determined to fight on, with or without Russia, so sitting on the defensive would achieve little, except give the Americans time to build up their strength in Europe and shift the balance further against Germany. In other words, if Germany did not attack, she’d be admitting defeat. The Spring Offensives were a desperate gamble by a man and a country who felt they had nothing to lose because they were doomed. The parallels with the Ardennes Offensive of 1944 are striking: Ludendorff shared some of Hitler’s nihilism, even if he did not take it to quite such murderous extremes (as Michael Geyer has argued).
Secondly, it would be a mistake to see German stormtroop assault tactics as brilliantly successful but undercut by poor operational art. Often lauded as foreshadowing Blitzkrieg and establishing a template for modern warfare, they were in fact were far from invincible. Even on the first day of the offensive, 21 March, for all the stunning gains made in some sectors, the Germans were stopped five miles short of their objectives in others. The attack on 28 March (Operation Mars) proved a disastrous failure at least in part due to poor German artillery and infantry tactics. German success and failure, even at the tactical level, depended, as always, on terrain, weather and the strength or weakness of the Entente defence. The Allies also did some important things which contributed to the outcome, right, such as appointing Foch to supreme command to reduce potential Anglo-French friction, and accelerating the pace of American reinforcement.
Why do we see the Spring Offensives so completely through German eyes? Why do we automatically assume that this was Ludendorff’s battle to lose? The answer, I think, lies largely in the role of the Reichsarchiv in writing the German official history. Those who composed the Official History had the same benefit of hindsight we do. They could have seen that the Central Powers were in a hopeless position by spring 1918, and had been since at least the First Battle of the Marne (September 1914) if not before, had they chosen to focus on the political and strategic levels of war. Instead, they obsessed about the operational and tactical, and they did so for a very specific reason. The Reichsarchiv authors were mainly retired officers of the wartime German General Staff, trained before 1914 by Graf von Schlieffen and his acolytes. They had been chosen specifically to construct an Official History which would serve to educate the officers of the shrunken post-Versailles Reichswehr, to maintain the technical excellence and self-perceived political aloofness of the army, and to keep the manoeuvrist Schlieffenite flame alight against the day when it might be required once more. The two campaigns which attracted most of their attention were the two where the German army most obviously failed: those of August-September 1914 and of March-June 1918; and their emphasis throughout was on the German mistakes made, so that these could be put right next time. To admit that the enemy had been better would not only generate no useful tactical or operational lessons, but also undermine the German soldiers’ image of themselves as the best in the world and threaten morale. Nor did they have any interest in narratives of strategic hopelessness, because the idea that Germany should never again fight such a war was irrelevant to those who saw themselves as preparing her in case she must. Hence we’re left with the German Official History, the ultimate source for almost all the accounts of the Spring Offensive written since, as a very influential narrative of what might have been, if only… Whereas, in fact, the German attacks of March 1918 were the last forlorn hope of a bankrupt regime and their defeat was as inevitable as any event in History ever is.*
* And in Haig’s Enemy (OUP, 2018, available at all good bookshops…), I discuss in detail how and why the German military could not, or would not, face this fact until it was too late.