It would be the second worst day in British military history (the worst July 1, 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme). On March 21, 38,000 British soldiers would become casualties, 8,000 of them dead, and the 5th Army dispersed. Over the next five days the stalemate on the Western Front, existing since the fall of 1914, would be shattered.
On March 26 panicked Allies agreed to a unified command under French General Ferdinand Foch, a step resisted as a matter of national pride for the prior three years. By then Germans had captured nearly 1,000 square miles in five days. By comparison, in the 141 days of the Somme the British seized only 125 square miles.
If, on that day, you told the British and French governments and military leaders that less than eight months later Germany would sue for peace, they would have thought you a lunatic.
The origins of what the Germans called The Kaiserschlacht (Emperor's Battle) are in the events of 1917. The Russian Revolution erupted in March and the Czar was quickly overthrown. That same month, Germany made the catastrophic decision to start unrestricted submarine warfare which directly led to America entering the war on April 6. Germany made another decision that same month, one with short term benefits and long term disastrous results, when it transported Vladimir Lenin from his exile in Switzerland back to Russia with the hope it would lead Russia to withdraw from the war. For how the events of March and April played out a quarter century later read April 1945: Germany's End.
By the fall of 1917, the Lenin's Bolsheviks had seized power in Russia and were suing for peace with Germany, while the United States was raising a huge army to send to the Western Front.
The mastermind of the German Army was Chief of Staff, Erich Ludendorff, and he saw the necessity of taking a gamble. Germany could not win a war of attrition, and once American troops entered France in large numbers a some point in 1918, the balance of power would swing towards the Allies. However, if peace could be secured with Russia, many German divisions could be moved West and the British and French defeated before the Americans made their presence felt.
In November 1917, Ludendorff proposed a Spring Offensive on the Western Front, a series of blows designed to drive back the British and French and, more importantly, undermine their morale and create an opening for a negotiated peace favorable to Germany.
In preparation more than 500,000 German troops were moved from the Eastern to Western Front, and they would employ a new tactic in their attack; the days of "over the top" in a massed broad-front attack against enemy lines was ended. The German generals had seen the futility of that approach over the past three years of Allied assaults against their lines. Instead an approach, pioneered on the Eastern front in the German attack on Riga would be used.
Stormtrooper assault teams, consisting of experienced soldiers carrying only their weapons, and unencumbered with heavy packs, would penetrate enemy lines on a narrow front and focus on machine gun nests and gun batteries in the front lines. Once these were taken they would penetrate deeper seeking to disrupt communication lines. Other infantry would follow later to mop up isolated enemy infantry units. In a further change of tactics, the opening artillery bombardment would be intense but short, unlike the British bombardment at the start of the Battle of the Somme which lasted for six days.
Though the Allies anticipated a German attack in the spring of 1918 they did not know the specific timing or the location. The Germans selected a 50 mile segment of the British lines, primarily because they thought French troops were of higher quality. Ludendorff's intent was to drive a wedge between the British and French armies and drive the Brits back on the Channel ports. However, he established no specific territorial objectives.
(German troops advancing, Wikipedia)
(British soldiers injured in gas attack)
The initial German attack achieved enormous success with the Kaiser's troops advancing in blitzkrieg style, at least compared to the glacial progress of Allied offensives since 1914. But problems quickly mounted. The stormtrooper advance was so fast it outpaced the German supply effort and since the soldiers carried very little food themselves they often stopped to loot supplies in town they overran. Casualties were also heavy and could not be easily replaced in the chaos of the rapid advance. Ludendorff's failure to name specific geographical objectives led to confusion and hesitation on the front lines and the British were able to defend the key towns of Amiens and Arras.
German progress was also impeded by the terrain selected for the attack by Ludendorff. The initial German advance was into an area they had abandoned the prior year, in an effort to shorten their front lines and free up troops for use elsewhere. During the withdrawal, Ludendorff ordered a scorched earth policy, with everything of potential use to the enemy destroyed, so that on March 21 the attackers were entering a wasteland. After passing through this devastated area, the Germans would then have to cross the area where the Battle of the Somme took place from July to November of 1916, another scene of desolation.
Ludendorff's grandiose report on the first week of the attack gave false hope to those reading it back in Germany. Excerpts:
The first English position has disappeared, and in its place there extends a wide and desolate crater-field. Everywhere there are the remains of wire entanglements, broken-down shaft entrances, and destroyed block-houses.Despite his report, Ludendorff faced reality and recognized his advance had stalled as British and French reinforcements stabilized the line, calling off the attack on April 6. Nearly 500,000 soldiers were dead, wounded, missing, or captured in those sixteen days, slightly more Allies than Germans.
At most places the battered-in trenches were over-run, and the survivors came rushing towards the Germans minus their weapons and with their hands in the air.
The English trenches were transformed into graves, which were full of dead. Whilst the first lines in places were only thinly occupied, the English offered a brave resistance in their second position, which was broken down in a desperate struggle. The dugouts had to be taken in hard hand-to-hand fighting.
Here the superiority of the German infantry showed itself in the best light. Unexpectedly commenced and extremely effective, German artillery preparation only allowed the counter-effect of the English to be brought into action gradually. The German losses were thus surprisingly light.
The successes achieved in the great victory are such as have not been nearly approached by the Entente since the beginning of the battle of positions in the western theatre.
The English offensive near Arras in April, 1916, was made on a front 12 miles wide; the Anglo-French attack on the Somme in July, 1916, was made on double that width; the French attacked on the Aisne in 1917 on a width of 24 miles. The English big attack, prepared for months in Flanders, never exceeded a space of 18 miles, and the whole of the territorial gains of almost half a year's fighting only amounted to 36 square miles.
In the three days' battle in the west, the Germans made a territorial gain of 700 square miles.
The enemy casualties are unusually heavy. The tremendous booty which fell into our hands from the 21st cannot yet be estimated. More than 45,000 prisoners have been ascertained, many more than 600 guns, thousands of machine guns, tremendous quantities of munitions and implements, great stores of supplies and pieces of clothing.
Ludendorff renewed his offensive on three more occasions at different points on the Western Front on April 9, May 27 and July 15. Though the Germans had initial gains each time, their advances were ultimately contained by the Allies. American forces saw their first large scale action in the last of these attacks, the Second Battle of the Marne in July. By early August, the Germany Army had suffered nearly 700,000 casualties in the four offensives, while the Americans were flooding to the front. Time had run out for the Kaiser.
The next decisive day was to be August 8.