Kingdom of Italy
Commanders and leaders
Casualties and losses
Race to the Sea
Order of Battle
Spring Offensive or Kaiserschlacht (Kaiser's Battle), also
known as the Ludendorff Offensive, was a series of German attacks
along the Western Front during the First World War, beginning on 21
March 1918, which marked the deepest advances by either side since
1914. The Germans had realised that their only remaining chance of
victory was to defeat the Allies before the overwhelming human and
matériel resources of the
United States could be fully deployed. They
also had the temporary advantage in numbers afforded by the nearly 50
divisions freed by the Russian surrender (the Treaty of
There were four German offensives, codenamed Michael, Georgette,
Gneisenau, and Blücher-Yorck. Michael was the main attack, which was
intended to break through the Allied lines, outflank the British
forces which held the front from the
Somme River to the English
Channel and defeat the British Army. Once this was achieved, it was
hoped that the French would seek armistice terms. The other offensives
were subsidiary to Michael and were designed to divert Allied forces
from the main offensive effort on the Somme.
No clear objective was established before the start of the offensives
and once the operations were underway, the targets of the attacks were
constantly changed according to the battlefield (tactical) situation.
The Allies concentrated their main forces in the essential areas (the
approaches to the Channel Ports and the rail junction of Amiens),
while leaving strategically worthless ground, devastated by years of
combat, lightly defended.
The Germans were unable to move supplies and reinforcements fast
enough to maintain their advance. The fast-moving stormtroopers
leading the attack could not carry enough food and ammunition to
sustain themselves for long and all the German offensives petered out,
in part through lack of supplies.
By late April 1918, the danger of a German breakthrough had passed.
The German Army had suffered heavy casualties and now occupied ground
of dubious value which would prove impossible to hold with such
depleted units. In August 1918, the Allies began a counter-offensive
with the support of 1–2 million fresh American troops and using new
artillery techniques and operational methods. This 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 that
1 German preparations
1.2 Supply constraints
1.3 Tactical change
2 Allied preparations
2.1 Defensive tactics
3 Operation Michael
7 Last German attack (Marneschutz-Reims/Friedensturm)
9 See also
12 Further reading
13 External links
Comparative numbers of German and Allied front-line infantry from
April to November 1918.
The German High Command—in particular General Erich Ludendorff, the
Chief Quartermaster General at Oberste Heeresleitung, the supreme army
headquarters—has been criticised by military historians[who?] for
the failure to formulate sound and clear strategy. Ludendorff
privately conceded that Germany could no longer win a war of
attrition, yet he was not ready to give up the German gains in the
West and East and was one of the main obstacles to the German
government's attempts to reach a settlement with the Western Allies.
Although Ludendorff was unsure whether the Americans would enter the
war in strength, at a meeting of the Chiefs of Staff of the German
armies on the Western Front on 11 November 1917, he decided to launch
an offensive. The German government and Field Marshal Paul von
Hindenburg, nominally the Chief of the General Staff, were not party
to the planning process. Eventually it was decided to launch Operation
Michael near Saint-Quentin, at the hinge between the French and
British armies, and strike north to Arras. The main reason for the
choice was tactical expediency. The ground on this sector of the front
would dry out much sooner after the winter and spring rains and would
therefore be easier to advance across. It was also a line of least
resistance as the British and French armies were weak in the sector.
The intention was not to reach the
English Channel coast, but to break
through the Allied lines and roll up the flank of the British army
from the south, pushing it back against the Channel Ports or
destroying it if the British chose to stand and fight. Further
operations such as
Operation Georgette and Operation Mars were
designed to strike further north to seize the remaining Allied ports
France while diverting Allied forces from Michael.
However, these remained only secondary and weaker operations,
subordinate to Michael.
The constant changing of operational targets once the offensive was
underway gave the impression the German command had no coherent
strategic goal. Any capture of an important strategic objective, such
as the Channel ports, or the vital railway junction of
have occurred more by chance than by design.
The success of
Operation Michael led German infantry to advance too
far from its supply bases and railheads. The stormtrooper units
leading the advance carried supplies for only a few days, to avoid
being overburdened, and relied on supplies delivered quickly from the
rear. The advance was slowed by supply shortages, which gave Allied
commanders more time to reinforce the threatened areas and to slow the
advance still more. German supply difficulties were made worse by
the direction of advance, which crossed the wasteland created during
Battle of the Somme
Battle of the Somme in 1916 and by Operation Alberich, the German
retirement to the
Hindenburg Line from February to March 1917.
The German army had concentrated many of its best troops into
stormtrooper units, trained in infiltration tactics to infiltrate and
bypass enemy front line units, leaving these strong points to be
"mopped-up" by follow-up troops. The stormtrooper tactic was to attack
and disrupt enemy headquarters, artillery units and supply depots in
the rear areas, as well as to occupy territory rapidly. Each major
formation "creamed off" its best and fittest soldiers into storm
units; several complete divisions were formed from these elite units.
This process gave the German army an initial advantage in the attack,
but meant that the best formations would suffer disproportionately
heavy casualties, while the quality of the remaining formations
declined as they were stripped of their best personnel to provide the
storm troops. The Germans also failed to arm their forces with a
mobile exploitation force, such as cavalry, to exploit gains quickly.
This tactical error meant the infantry had to keep up an exhausting
tempo of advance. Notwithstanding the effectiveness of the
stormtroopers, the following German infantry often made attacks in
large traditional waves and suffered heavy casualties.
To enable the initial breakthrough, Lieutenant Colonel Georg
Bruchmüller, a German artillery officer, developed the
Feuerwalze (de), (literally: rolling fire, rolling barrage)
an effective and economical creeping barrage scheme. There were
three phases: first, a brief bombardment on the enemy's command and
communications (headquarters, telephone exchanges, etc.); then,
destruction of their artillery; lastly an attack upon the enemy
front-line infantry defences. Bombardment would always be brief so as
to retain surprise. Bruchmüller's tactics were made possible by the
vast numbers of heavy guns—with correspondingly plentiful amounts of
ammunition for them—which Germany possessed by 1918.
In their turn, the Allies had developed defences in depth, reducing
the proportion of troops in their front line and pulling reserves and
supply dumps back beyond German artillery range. This change had been
made after experience of the successful German use of defence in depth
In theory, the front line was an "outpost zone" (later renamed the
"forward zone"), lightly held by snipers, patrols and machine-gun
posts only. Behind, out of range of German field artillery, was the
"battle zone" where the offensive was to be firmly resisted, and
behind that again, out of range of all but the heaviest German guns,
was a "rear zone" where reserves were held ready to counter-attack or
seal off penetrations. In theory, a British infantry division (with
nine infantry battalions) deployed three battalions in the outpost
zone, four battalions in the battle zone and two battalions in the
This change had not been completely implemented by the Allies. In
particular, in the sector held by the British Fifth Army, which they
had recently taken over from French units, the defences were
incomplete and there were too few troops to hold the complete position
in depth. The rear zone existed as outline markings only, and the
battle zone consisted of battalion "redoubts" which were not mutually
supporting (allowing stormtroopers to penetrate between them).
Main article: Operation Michael
On 21 March 1918, the Germans launched a big offensive against the
British Fifth Army and the right wing of the British Third Army.
The artillery bombardment began at 4.40am on March 21. The bombardment
[hit] targets over an area of 150 square miles, the biggest
barrage of the entire war. Over 1,100,000 shells were fired in five
A7V tank at Roye on March 21, 1918
The German armies involved were—from north to south—the
Seventeenth Army under Otto von Below, the Second Army under Georg von
der Marwitz and the Eighteenth Army under Oskar von Hutier, with a
Corps (Gruppe Gayl) from the Seventh Army supporting Hutier's attack.
Although the British had learned the approximate time and location of
the offensive, the weight of the attack and of the preliminary
bombardment was an unpleasant surprise. The Germans were also
fortunate in that the morning of the attack was foggy, allowing the
stormtroopers leading the attack to penetrate deep into the British
By the end of the first day, the British had lost 7,512 dead and
10,000 wounded and the Germans had broken through at several points on
the front of the British Fifth Army. After two days the Fifth Army was
in full retreat. As they fell back, many of the isolated "redoubts"
were left to be surrounded and overwhelmed by the following German
infantry. The right wing of Third Army became separated from the
retreating Fifth Army, and also retreated to avoid being outflanked.
Ludendorff failed to follow the correct stormtroop tactics, as
described above. His lack of a coherent strategy to accompany the new
tactics was expressed in a remark to one of his Army Group commanders,
Rupprecht, Crown Prince of Bavaria, in which he stated, "We chop a
hole. The rest follows." Ludendorff's dilemma was that the most
important parts of the Allied line were also the most strongly held.
Much of the German advance was achieved where it was not strategically
significant. Because of this, Ludendorff continually exhausted his
forces by attacking strongly entrenched British units. At
Arras on 28
March, he launched a hastily prepared attack (Operation Mars) against
the left wing of the British Third Army, to try to widen the breach in
the Allied lines, and was repulsed.
The German breakthrough had occurred just to the north of the boundary
between the French and British armies. The French commander-in-chief,
General Pétain, sent reinforcements to the sector too slowly in the
opinion of the British commander-in-chief, Field Marshal Haig, and the
British government, though Elizabeth Greenhalgh disputes this,
convincingly arguing that Petain sent the six additional divisions
quicker than had been arranged with Haig – in 2 days instead of 4
– and arranging for extra divisions several times – 12 divisions
on 23 March and 13 on the 25/26 March – before requests came in from
Haig. The Allies reacted by appointing the French General
Ferdinand Foch to coordinate all Allied activity in France, and
subsequently as commander-in-chief of all Allied forces everywhere.
Germans passing a captured British trench
After a few days, the German advance began to falter, as the infantry
became exhausted and it became increasingly difficult to move
artillery and supplies forward to support them. Fresh British and
Australian units were moved to the vital rail centre of
Amiens and the
defence began to stiffen. After fruitless attempts to capture Amiens,
Ludendorff called off
Operation Michael on 5 April. By the standards
of the time, there had been a substantial advance. It was, however, of
little value; a
Pyrrhic Victory in terms of the casualties suffered by
the crack troops, as the vital positions of
in Allied hands. The newly-won territory was difficult to traverse, as
much of it consisted of the shell-torn wilderness left by the 1916
Battle of the Somme, and would later be difficult to defend against
The Allies lost nearly 255,000 men (British,
British Empire and
French). They also lost 1,300 artillery pieces and 200 tanks. All
of this could be replaced, either from French and British factories or
from American manpower. German troop losses were 239,000 men, many of
them specialist shocktroops (Stoßtruppen) who were irreplaceable.
In terms of morale, the initial German jubilation at the successful
opening of the offensive soon turned to disappointment, as it became
clear that the attack had not achieved decisive results.
Main article: Battle of the Lys (1918)
Lewis gun team on the bank of the Lys canal during Battle of
Hazebrouck, 15 April 1918
German prisoners being guarded by Australian troops, 23 April 1918.
Michael had drawn British forces to defend Amiens, leaving the rail
Hazebrouck and the approaches to the Channel ports of
Calais, Boulogne and
Dunkirk vulnerable. German success here could
choke the British into defeat.
The attack started on 9 April after a Feuerwalze. The main attack was
made on the open and flat sector defended by the Portuguese
Expeditionary Corps. After an entire year spent in the trenches, the
Portuguese were tired and had suffered heavy losses. They were being
replaced in the front line by fresh British divisions, an operation
that was planned to be completed on 9 April, the same day as the
Germans attacked the sector. The process of relief in place was poorly
organized by the British First Army's command, and the Portuguese 1st
Division had been withdrawn to the rear on 6 April, leaving the
Portuguese 2nd Division to defend the entire sector alone. They were
left with an extensive 7 mi (11 km) front, without natural
obstacles which might benefit the defence.
Hit hard by the Feuerwalze bombardment and under the assault of eight
German divisions, the Portuguese 2nd Division made a desperate
defense, trying to hold their positions, which, however, were rapidly
enveloped and overrun by the masses of German forces. The 2nd Division
was virtually annihilated, losing more than 7,000 men. The British
40th Division, on the northern flank of the Portuguese, also rapidly
collapsed before the attack, opening a gap that further facilitated
the envelopment of the Portuguese by the Germans. However, under much
less pressure from the Germans and occupying good defensive positions
protected by the La Bassée Canal, the British 55th Division on the
southern flank of the Portuguese were able to hold much of their
position throughout the battle.
The next day, the Germans widened their attack to the north, forcing
the defenders of
Armentières to withdraw before they were surrounded,
and capturing most of the Messines Ridge. By the end of the day, the
few British divisions in reserve were hard-pressed to hold a line
along the River Lys.
Without French reinforcements, it was feared that the Germans could
advance the remaining 15 mi (24 km) to the ports within a
week. The commander of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), Field
Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, issued an "Order of the Day" on 11 April
stating, "With our backs to the wall and believing in the justice of
our cause, each one of us must fight on to the end."
However, the German offensive had stalled because of logistical
problems and exposed flanks. Counterattacks by British, French and
Anzac forces slowed and stopped the German advance. Ludendorff ended
Georgette on 29 April.
As with Michael, losses were roughly equal, approximately 110,000 men
wounded or killed, each. Again, the strategic results were
disappointing for the Germans.
Hazebrouck remained in Allied hands and
the Germans occupied a vulnerable salient under fire from three sides.
The British abandoned the comparatively worthless territory they had
captured at vast cost the previous year around Ypres, freeing several
divisions to face the German attackers.
French and British troops marching back through Passy-sur-Marne, 29
Main article: Third Battle of the Aisne
While Georgette ground to a halt, a new attack on French positions was
planned to draw forces further away from the Channel and allow renewed
German progress in the north. The strategic objective remained to
split the British and the French and gain victory before American
forces could make their presence felt on the battlefield. The
Americans were originally deployed in the quiet
Saint-Mihiel sector in
Lorraine where they had their first significant engagement in the
Seicheprey on 20 April. After the British had held off
the Michael advance on the Somme, the US 1st Division was moved to
reinforce the line in that sector in mid-April and launched their
first attack of the war on Cantigny on 28 May 1918.
The German attack took place on 27 May, between
Soissons and Reims.
The sector was partly held by six depleted British divisions which
were "resting" after their exertions earlier in the year. In this
sector, the defences had not been developed in depth, mainly due to
the obstinacy of the commander of the French Sixth Army, General Denis
Auguste Duchêne. As a result, the Feuerwalze was very effective
and the Allied front, with a few notable exceptions, collapsed.
Duchêne's massing of his troops in the forward trenches also meant
there were no local reserves to delay the Germans once the front had
broken. Despite French and British resistance on the flanks, German
troops advanced to the
Marne River and Paris seemed a realistic
objective. There was a frenzied atmosphere in Paris, which German
long-range guns had been shelling since 21 March, with many citizens
fleeing and the government drawing up plans to evacuate to
Yet again, losses were much the same on each side: 137,000 Allied and
130,000 German casualties up to 6 June. German losses were again
mainly from the difficult-to-replace assault divisions.
Although Ludendorff had intended Blücher-Yorck to be a prelude to a
decisive offensive (Hagen) to defeat the British forces further north,
he made the error of reinforcing merely tactical success by moving
reserves from Flanders to the Aisne, whereas Foch and Haig did not
overcommit reserves to the Aisne. Ludendorff sought to extend
Blücher-Yorck westward with Operation Gneisenau, intending to draw
yet more Allied reserves south, widen the German salient and link with
the German salient at Amiens.
The French had been warned of this attack (the Battle of Matz (French:
Bataille du Matz)) by information from German prisoners, and their
defence in depth reduced the impact of the artillery bombardment on 9
June. Nonetheless, the German advance (consisting of 21 divisions
attacking over a 23 mi (37 km) front) along the Matz River
was impressive, resulting in an advance of 9 miles (14 km)
despite fierce French and American resistance. At Compiègne, a sudden
French counter-attack on 11 June, by four divisions and 150 tanks
(under General Charles Mangin) with no preliminary bombardment, caught
the Germans by surprise and halted their advance. Gneisenau was called
off the following day.
Losses were approximately 35,000 Allied and 30,000 German.
Last German attack (Marneschutz-Reims/Friedensturm)
Main article: Second Battle of the Marne
Ludendorff now postponed Hagen and launched the German Seventh, First
and Third Armies in the Friedensturm (Peace Offensive) of 15 July, a
renewed attempt to draw Allied reserves south from Flanders and to
expand the salient created by Blücher–Yorck eastwards. An
attack east of Rheims was thwarted by the French defence in depth. In
many sectors, the Germans, deprived of any surprise as their
fuel-starved air force had lost air superiority to the Allies,
advanced no further than the French Forward Zone, and nowhere did they
break the French Battle (Second) Zone.
Although German troops southwest of Rheims succeeded in crossing the
River Marne, the French launched a major offensive of their own on the
west side of the salient on 18 July, threatening to cut off the
Germans in the salient. Ludendorff had to evacuate most of the
Blücher–Yorck salient by 7 August and Hagen was finally
cancelled. The initiative had clearly passed to the Allies, who
were shortly to begin the
Hundred Days Offensive
Hundred Days Offensive which ended the war.
The Kaiserschlacht offensives had yielded large territorial gains for
the Germans, in First World War terms. However, victory was not
achieved and the German armies were severely depleted, exhausted and
in exposed positions. The territorial gains were in the form of
salients which greatly increased the length of the line that would
have to be defended when Allied reinforcements gave the Allies the
initiative. In six months, the strength of the German army had fallen
from 5.1 million fighting men to 4.2 million. By July, the German
superiority of numbers on the Western Front had sunk to 207 divisions
to 203 Allied, a negligible lead which would be reversed as more
American troops arrived. German manpower was exhausted. The German
High Command predicted they would need 200,000 men per month to make
good the losses suffered. Returning convalescents could supply
70,000–80,000/month but there were only 300,000 recruits available
from the next annual class of eighteen-year-olds. Even worse, they
lost most of their best-trained men: stormtrooper tactics had them
leading the attacks. Even so, about a million German soldiers remained
tied up in the east until the end of the war.
The Allies had been badly hurt but not broken. The lack of a unified
high command was partly rectified by the appointment of Marshal Foch
to the supreme command, and coordination would improve in later Allied
operations. American troops were for the first time also used as
World War I
World War I portal
Journey's End, a play set during the early stages of the offensive
Spring Offensive, a poem by Wilfred Owen
^ Churchill, "The World Crisis, Vol. 2", p.963. German casualties from
^ Churchill, "The World Crisis, Vol. 2", p.963. French casualties from
"Official Returns to the Chamber, March 29, 1922"
^ Churchill, "The World Crisis, Vol. 2", p.963. British casualties
from "Military Effort of the British Empire"
^ Edmonds, Davies & Maxwell-Hyslop 1995, pp. 147–148, 168.
^ Bligny, Marne – Italian Great War Cemetery
^ Leonard P. Ayers, The war with Germany: a statistical summary (1919)
p 104 online
^ Blaxland, p.25
^ Middlebrook 1983, pp. 30–34.
^ Brown 1998, p. 184.
^ Robson 2007, p. 93.
^ Brown 1998, p. 184
^ Middlebrook 1983, pp. 347–348.
^ Simpson 1995, pp. 117–118.
^ Simpson 1995, p. 124.
^ Simpson 1995, p. 123.
^ Bruchmüller biography.
^ (Anon.) (1918) "Organization of a rolling barrage in the German
Army," The Field
Artillery Journal (U.S. Army), 8 : 417–421.
^ Zabecki, 2006, p 56
^ Blaxland, p.28
^ Greenhalgh 2004, pp. 771–820.
^ a b Marix Evans, p.63
^ Marix Evans, p.81
^ a b Richard W. Stewart, ed. (2005). American Military History (PDF).
II. Center of Military History, US Army. p. 30.
^ Edmonds 1939, pp. 39–40.
^ Hart 2008, p.296
^ Marix Evans, p.105
^ Hart 2008, p. 294
^ a b c Hart 2008, p. 298
^ Hart 2008, p.299
^ Hart 2008, p.300
^ Edmonds 1939, p. 306.
^ Herwig 2014, p. 407.
^ Baldwin 1962, pp. 141–143
^ Marshall 1976, p. 57
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Blaxland, Gregory (1981) .
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Last surviving veterans
1918 flu pandemic
Destruction of Kalisz
Rape of Belgium
German occupation of Belgium
German occupation of Luxembourg
German occupation of northeastern France
Pontic Greek genocide
Blockade of Germany
German prisoners of war in the United States
Partition of the Ottoman Empire
Agreement of Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne
Paris Peace Conference
Treaty of Brest-Litovsk
Treaty of Lausanne
Treaty of London
Treaty of Neuilly
Treaty of St. Germain
Treaty of Sèvres
Treaty of Trianon
Treaty of Versailles
League of Nations
World War I
World War I memorials