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Military Reversal for Germany

The bulges the Germans had made in their front line made that line much longer, requiring more troops – the opposite of what Ludendorff had done in 1917. Ludendorff was laying plans for another major push, while wishing to strike harassing blows against the Allies. With reduced strength he struck against the British on April 9, and the attack was so successful that he decided to turn it into a major drive. His forces sent the British reeling back, creating another bulge, with an alarmed Douglas Haig describing his forces as fighting with their backs to the wall.

By mid-month, Crown Prince Wilhelm – the Kaiser's son – wrote from the front that the German troops he viewed were "utterly exhausted and burned out." Ludendorff feared a counterattack on his flanks, and on April 19 he ended his new push against British.

Two days later, the British shot down the great German combat pilot, von Richthofen (the Red Baron), who had been engaging in combat adventure. The British press eulogized the glamor of military daring still alive, and they buried Richthofen with full military honors. The Germans mourned his death, and Richthofen was replaced as commander of his flying unit by a pilot named Hermann Goering (Göring).

The Red Baron: von Richtofen

Manfred von Richthofen, the Red Baron

British conscripts returning to the front had been showing signs of unrest. Twenty-five of Britain's fifty-nine divisions in France had been engaged in battles several times, and the British command judged ten of their divisions as exhausted and disbanded five of them.

By May, United States forces in France had reached nearly 670,000, but Ludendorff and his inactive superior, Hindenburg, showed no sign of concern regarding the Americans. Of concern to Ludendorff was the attitude of his fellow Germans. By now some Germans believed that Ludendorff's goal of total victory was impossible. Among them was Germany's chancellor, Hertling, Prince Max of Baden (Wilhelm's cousin), Crown Prince Rupprecht, and Germany's foreign minister, Richard von Kühlmann – a force that Ludendorff could not ignore. He put them off by agreeing with them that Germany should negotiate an end to the war. But he was for negotiating from strength while remaining in France. Frustrated, Ludendorff lashed out at his frontline commanders for allowing discipline to decline, and in private he labeled all who doubted Germany's victory as weaklings – unmanly weakness always the concern of some people regarding strategies.

Still doubting the strength of American involvement, Ludendorff began his next offensive, Plan Hagen, on May 27. Each of his divisions was down more than 300 men from the 1,000 men per division in March. Ludendorff's first move was a diversionary assault on the more southern portion of his front line, across an area called Chemin des Dames, against both British and French troops. Ludendorff hoped to draw British troops southward from the channel coast, where he planned to launch his main assault.

Map: Ludendorff's farthest advace

Ludendorff's farthest advance Map enlarged of Ludendorff's farthest advance Click to enlarge

U.S. Marines at Belleau Wood

U.S. Marines at Belleau Wood Enlarged image of U.S. Marines at Belleau Wood

The Hindenburg Line at Bellecourt

The Hindenburg Line at Bullecourt
(between Arras and Cambrai)  Arial photo of the Hindenburg Line at Bullecourt

The assault at Chemin des Dames caught the British and French by surprise, and, after the first day, Ludendorff and Hindenburg were cheered by its success. Ludendorff thought maybe he could turn the diversionary assault into the major drive to victory, and he began transferring some divisions south. By May 30, the Germans had advanced thirty miles to the Marne River. They were now within 56 miles from Paris. Germans crossed the Marne and established a bridgehead, and vanguard German divisions advanced to within 39 miles of Paris. But Ludendorff's drive needed a rest. Ludendorff called for a pause in the offensive, and the British and French had a few days to recuperate and to bring up reinforcements.

In their extended positions, the Germans were more vulnerable than they had been at the beginning of the year in their well-established defensive positions. Their supply lines were stretched, as were their communications: carrier pigeons, messenger dogs and motorcycle riders. Food supplies for the troops were low. German troops were underfed and hungry. And German soldiers were being attacked by the flu.

On June 9, the Americans entered the war in force – well nourished, lively and eager to show the world what they could do. They attacked the Germans at the tip of the German advance, in the Marne Valley at Belleau Wood, near Chateau-Thierry. According to the Germans, the Americans at Belleau Wood fought "with bravery and dash." France's General Foch had been planning a counteroffensive since May, waiting for a pause in the German offensives, and following the American assault the French counterattacked at one point in the line, sending Germans into retreat. The frontline stabilized temporarily. The German line still bulged toward Paris, but the morale of the German soldiers had dropped further. And the new reversal sent King Wilhelm into a fit of depression.

Ludendorff was not a good gambler. Good gambler's do not hold on to unrealistic hopes. Ludendorff instead kept on trying. He rested and reorganized his forces and on July 12 renewed his offensive, defying those he was still calling pessimists. He employed a two-pronged attack, with 49 divisions and 60 air groups with new Fokker airplanes. On July 18, French and American infantry with tanks counterattacked against a German flank, and this stalled the German drive. Germany's High Command was perplexed, and Hindenburg came forward to discuss tactics. Hindenburg suggested transferring all reserve units to the area of attack, which Ludendorff said was nonsense. One army commander, Friedrich von Lossberg, suggested to a nervous and agitated Ludendorff that they give up all the advances made since March and withdraw to defensive positions. Ludendorff said this would encourage the enemy and have a negative effect on German troops and people on the home front. General Lossberg responded to Ludendorff and supported withdrawal by saying he was opposed to letting the enemy govern what Germany did, and he spoke of withdrawal helping army morale. And Ludendorff, dispirited, spoke of resigning.

At the front for a couple of weeks the opposing armies battled on, the Germans holding onto their positions and the Allied forces gaining in places, with Ludendorff continuing to insist that he could decisively defeat the enemy. On August 8 the British with French support began a minor offensive along ten miles of frontline, against a thinner line than the Germans had maintained in previous years. The assault caught the Germans off guard. On the first day, with 430 tanks, the British advanced nine miles by evening, and they captured 16,000 German prisoners, including division staffs, and 161 big guns. By August 10, the British and French had suffered 20,000 casualties, and only 67 of the 430 tanks remained in service, but by then they had inflicted 70,000 casualties on the Germans and had taken 50,000 prisoners.

Ludendorff was upset at a report of German troops surrendering to a single soldier or isolated squadron. He called August 8 a "black day" for the German army. Suddenly he saw the war as hopeless. In the presence of Kaiser Wilhelm he blamed the defeat on lack of discipline. Wilhelm, inclined to see himself as king for the common people, defended the common soldier and countered with the complaint that too much had been asked of the troops. A telegram from Emperor Charles – Habsburg emperor since the death of Franz Joseph in November 1916 – was handed to Wilhelm. The telegram said that the war must be ended in 1918 otherwise he, Karl, would "conclude a separate peace." Wilhelm then told Hindenburg and Ludendorff that "the war must be ended."


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