Historian GORDON LUCY looks back at the German ‘Michael’ offensive of March 21, 100 years ago, which saw the 16th (Irish), the 36th (Ulster) and the 66th (2nd East Lancashire) come under intense pressure in the single worst day of bloodletting in the entire First World War
Russia’s withdrawal from the First World War, following the revolution and the triumph of the Bolsheviks, at the end of 1917 handed the strategic initiative to the Germans and freed up 44 divisions on the Eastern Front which could be transferred to the Western Front.
Although the United States had entered the war in April 1917, Major-General Ludendorff calculated that it would be several months before American troops could make any appreciable difference to the course of the war. In the event American troops would not arrive in Europe in significant numbers until June 1918.
Ludendorff concluded that there was a narrow window of opportunity which would give the Germans numerical superiority on the Western Front for the first time since 1914 and the chance of winning a conclusive victory in the West.
The Allies knew a major German offensive was imminent but not exactly where and when.
The British reinforced their positions near the coast because they wished to safeguard their lines of communication with the Channel ports.
The French strengthened their positions to the south of the British because their paramount concern was protecting Paris.
In between there was a long, thinly and poorly defended stretch of British front west of Cambrai, the responsibility of Sir Hubert Gough’s Fifth Army.
This situation was further exacerbated by the fact that the British had just taken over responsibility for this stretch from the French and had inherited a wholly inadequate and incomplete trench system, something for which the French were notorious.
Gough was aware of the problem (as he regularly visited forward trenches) and had tried to rectify the situation but had comparatively little time to do so.
Furthermore he was conscious that he had few reserves to call on if the Germans did attack the part of the front for which he was responsible.
Winston Churchill, in his role as minister of munitions, was in France very close to the front line when ‘Michael’, the great German offensive of March 21 1918, began.
The most sophisticated and heaviest German artillery bombardment of the Great War began at 04.35. Churchill described it in the following terms:
“And then, exactly as a pianist runs his hands across the keyboard from treble to bass, there rose in less than one minute the most tremendous cannonade I shall ever hear...
“It swept round us in a wide curve of red leaping flame stretching to the north far along the front of the [British] Third Army, as well as of the [British] Fifth Army on the south, and quite unending in either direction ... the enormous explosions of the shells upon our trenches seemed almost to touch each other, with hardly an interval in space or time ...
“The weight and intensity of the bombardment surpassed anything which anyone had ever known before.”
Churchill was persuaded to leave just in time before the road to the rear was cut. On his return to London, he was able to impress upon his cabinet colleagues the gravity of the situation.
Reinforcements were hurriedly despatched to France and Churchill promised that his ministry would supply 2,000 guns by April 6 to make good the serious loss of artillery.
Lloyd George, the prime minister, was seriously worried.
Was he about to become the man who lost the war? There is a scholarly article by David R Woodward entitled ‘Did Lloyd George Starve the British Army of Men prior to the German Offensive of 21 March 1918?’
On one hand, many believed Lloyd George was responsible for deliberately denying Douglas Haig, the commander of the BEF, the manpower he needed. On the other, Haig was certainly expected to defend a longer front with fewer men.
British and French troops were heavily outnumbered. Gough’s Fifth Army bore the brunt of ‘Michael’, was overwhelmed and was pushed back nearly 40 miles.
Some divisions in the Fifth Army – notably the 16th (Irish), the 36th (Ulster) and the 66th (2nd East Lancashire) – took a serious hammering. Some would even contend they were virtually annihilated.
Although the Germans opened up a gap in the Allied lines, there was no Allied collapse.
Casualties were very heavy on both sides. On the first day of the German lost 40,000 men, 25% of whom were killed.
British casualties were only marginally lower.
If German and Allied casualties are combined, March 21 1918 witnessed the worst bloodletting in a single day, worse even than July 1 1916.
On March 23 Lloyd George anxiously asked Churchill if it would be possible to hold any positions on the battlefield.
“I answered that every offensive lost its force as it proceeded.
“It was like throwing a bucket of water over the floor. It first rushed forward, then soaked forward, and finally stopped altogether …
“After 30 or 40 miles there would be a breathing space and the front could be reconstituted, if every effort was made …”
By April 5, when the German advance was halted, the Germans had lost 239,000 men.
The British and French lost 338,000 men, almost a quarter of whom were taken prisoner.
The Germans had made sweeping gains and appeared to be on the brink of a decisive breakthrough but, as Churchill had accurately predicted, their advance petered out as their troops succumbed to exhaustion and their supply lines became overstretched.
Starving German soldiers could not resist gorging themselves on the contents of well-stocked Allied supply depots.
Although ‘Michael’ was tactically brilliant, ultimately it proved a strategic failure for the Germans because it forced the Allies into creating an Allied unified command with the appointment of Foch as commander-in-chief of Allied forces in France.
Even more importantly, the strategic failure of ‘Michael’ (and four other related offensives) exhausted the German army.
The Germans had lost men on a scale they simply could not replace qualitatively or quantitatively.
The real significance of ‘Michael’ is that it made possible an Allied victory before the end of 1918 that would otherwise have been delayed for at least another year.