Anything but Victory is Unthinkable | Military Reversal for Germany | Allies Advance and Germany Willing to Negotiate | A New Government in Germany and an Armistice | Joy in the Streets and Casualty Summaries
By insisting on victory he created failure. And rather than recognize that his gamble had failed, he stayed the course and blamed others.
By the end of 1917, the Germans still had their submarine bases in Belgium, but the British and Americans, using the convoy system, depth charges and underwater listening devices, had brought a dramatic drop in the rate of ships being lost to German submarines. And with the failure of their submarine offensive and the United States in the war, the Germans now faced overwhelming odds. The Allies had an overwhelming superiority in numbers of people, and the U.S. could produce enough to sustain the Allied cause indefinitely. Germany's economy was strained and blockaded. But Germans in command were not calculating comparable economic strengths, and they found some hope in Russia's collapse as a military power.
The year 1918 began with Pope Benedict XV's call for peace, which was ignored by the belligerent powers. So too were calls for a peace without reparations by socialists in Britain and France. In France, defeatism and pacifism was on the rise, but the new prime minister, Clemenceau, and his government were in fighting spirit and determined to hold on defensively against the Germans while waiting for the arrival of the Americans. Britain's David Lloyd-George also favored a defensive strategy on the Western Front. He was looking forward to a major effort against the Turks, who had just been driven northward from Jerusalem.
After President Wilson had taken the United States into war in Europe he had switched from favoring a compromise settlement to favoring victory. In response to Lenin's call for peace without annexations or indemnities, Wilson was calling for a victory based on the warring nations accepting what became known as his Fourteen Points. These points included troops withdrawing from other people's territory, European boundaries drawn "along recognizable lines of nationality," the abolition of secret diplomacy, freedom of the seas during peace and war, equality of trade and a reduction of armaments.
In Germany the year 1918 began with General Erich Ludendorff having plans for a great offensive, a gamble he hoped would turn the tide and win the war. He recognized Germany's desperation. The winter of 17-18 was as miserable for the Germans as the previous "turnip" winter. People were without coal. They worked in cold factories. Prices were still rising, and inflation was reducing the wealth of the middle class. Recently blue collar workers had demonstrated against the war. In December, strikes had erupted in a number of big factories, and in January over 400,000 workers stopped work in Berlin's metal industry. Some traditionally moderate leaders of the Social Democrat party, who had been supporting the war and opposed to strikes, changed course and gave their support to the strikers. A split developed among the Social Democrats, and a minority who opposed the war established a new party, the Independent Social Democratic Party. In response to the unrest on the home front, Germany's High Command, led by Hindenburg as figurehead and Ludendorff as the working commander-in chief, demanded that the home front maintain its discipline and allow the military to bring the victory that most Germans wanted.
For Ludendorff and some other Germans anything other than a military victory was unthinkable. They did not want to consider letting their armies remain in defensive positions while offering to negotiate an end to the war. This for Ludendorff was a program for defeatists and traitors. Ludendorff was encouraged by Lenin's declaration that as far as the Soviet regime was concerned the war was over, and he planned to knock France out of the war before the Americans arrived. He believed in himself and in his prayers, and Kaiser Wilhelm was allowing him to run the war, while he too was drawing from his faith that God was on Germany's side and would not let Germany down.
At this stage in the war, the strength of the offensive was gaining over the strength of defensive warfare – the offensive benefiting from airplanes and tanks. But Germany was not yet producing tanks in significant numbers. Ludendorff had failed to see the importance of tanks and tanks had not been put into production in Germany early enough for significant use in 1918.
Ludendorff had what is common among those in high command: some tricks, a supply of strategic reasoning and what was to prove to be wishful thinking. He was counting on Germany's temporary superior numbers and on what he believed was the superior fighting ability of his forces. His trucks and transport trains hauled a huge force of German men and material to the Western Front, bringing the number of German divisions there to 182 – sixty-three of them opposite the British, outnumbering the British three to one. Ludendorff planned to drive the British back against the channel coast, forcing them to withdraw from France. He planned a diversionary attack against the French and hoped to be able to drive a wedge between the French and British armies, a gap through which his armies could advance unimpeded. He planned to use an element of surprise and to use smoke and poison gas.
On March 21, at 4:30 a.m., some 6,000 German artillery pieces bombarded the British along a forty-mile front. German foot soldiers began their assault at 9:40 a.m. under the cover of forward creeping artillery fire and low flying aircraft. Ludendorff was aiming at a British strong point near Arras, but his assault had little success. Ludendorff was surprised to learn that his offensive's greatest success was where he employed fewer men and where the British line was weakest: on the southern portion of the British line. There his troops broke through British defenses and at one point, after six days, the Germans advanced forty miles.
Ludendorff held back those of his forces that had advanced the farthest so that they would not run too far ahead of the rest of his offensive. The rest of his offensive foundered as a result of Ludendorff having failed to deploy reserves with sufficient effectiveness. Nevertheless, the offensive caused great fright among the leaders of Britain and France. Ludendorff's military lobbed shells into Paris from a gun with a barrel that was 34 meters long, and many Parisians were evacuating their city.
A gap developed between the French and British armies, and the French and British were anxious about having it filled. The British agreed to France's General Foch becoming supreme commander of all forces. The United States troops were already arriving in significant numbers, and their commander, General Pershing, volunteered Americans to fill the gap. The French were pleased, especially France's premier, Clemenceau and General Foch. Britain's press was ecstatic, while the British commander-in-chief in France, Douglas Haig, dismissed the Americans, claiming they were a lot of untrained rabble and would be of little help.
The German nation was cheered by newspaper portrayals of their nation's offensive as a success. Flags were put out and church bells rang. King Wilhelm was among the celebrants, believing again that he was seeing evidence that God was with the Germans. The newspaper Deutsche Zeitung wrote that a "cry of victory rages through Germany with a renewed passion." An editorial in the paper called for an end to all the "petty whining" and "the miserable whimpering" of those opposed to "righteous German hatred of England and sound German vengeance."
Ludendorff's Plan Michael ended on April 5, Ludendorff calling it "a brilliant feat." The Germans had taken almost 90,000 British prisoners and had inflicted 164,000 casualties on the British and 70,000 casualties on the French. The Germans had captured an enormous amount of men and material. But Ludendorff's offensive had spent much in men and material. Ludendorff had lost 70,000 as prisoners and had suffered 160,000 casualties of his own. Seventy German divisions were exhausted and their morale was low. At points they had advanced forty miles but they had not broken the British and French line as they had hoped, and they were disappointed.
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