Story of the Great War - Roland Usher

The German Plans for the Campaign of 1918

The Germans saw in 1917 that it would be essential for them to win the war in 1918. If they delayed, they would never win it at all, and a failure to win a military decision would be complete disaster. The Americans could not arrive in force in 1918, but in 1919 they would place in the field millions of well-trained men who would decidedly outnumber the Germans and win the war without a doubt. We must never forget the character of the war: it was for the Germans an aggressive war intended to win control of Europe, an object to be attained only by substantial victory.

But in 1918 they considered their object all but assured. Russia had been defeated partly by the German army but principally by the revolution. She was now ready to become a German political and economic colony in which the German secret service could mold things at pleasure. What mattered the loss of colonies in Africa and in the Pacific! The lost German territory had at most a few millions of people, crude and undeveloped, buying little and producing less. Even Mesopotamia was undeveloped and without inhabitants and only time could render it the sort of market adequate to meet the German needs for expansion.

Aerial picture of attack


But now at their very door was a colony of one hundred and eighty millions of people, already producing exactly what Germany wished to buy, already buying exactly what Germany was anxious to sell. It was in their hands already, its resistance overthrown for good. They had only to assure their future possession of it to have in their hands the solution of all serious problems. Nothing stood in the way except the obstinate British and the stubborn French in the west, who were beaten, but declined to admit it. The war itself had created the great Pan-German Confederation. Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Turkey had been so tightly bound to Germany by circumstances that they could never again escape. The miserable peoples, who had hitherto stood out and refused to cooperate, had been trampled on and destroyed during the war while the trampling had been good. Rumania and Serbia had been crushed too flat to offer further opposition. Poland, which stood in Germany's path to her new colony in Russia, had also been weakened and destroyed in a thousand ways. Her people had been slaughtered, her factories demolished, her fields laid waste. There was nothing there the Germans thought to give them future anxiety. So too of Belgium, the natural outlet for German commerce, the new German seacoast on the Channel. The Belgians had been treated as people should be who refused to cooperate with Germany. The mailed fist had smitten them and ground them in the dust. Italy had been defeated and could be punished at any moment for her treachery.

The new empire which was to dominate the world was a fact; it was necessary merely to extort recognition of it from the British and the French. Negotiations and peace offers had been rejected with disdain and with insults. The submarine had tried valiantly to achieve a decision but had not brought England to her knees. A victory in France was essential. Everything must be staked on winning it in 1918. To fail then was to lose the war, for victory thereafter would be impossible; the Americans would see to that.

French trenches, 1917


The means for victory the Germans thought were at hand. The great armies in France could be strengthened and made irresistible by bringing the armies from the east, from the south, from Italy. The entire equipment of great guns could now be concentrated upon any part of the French front. There remained only the question of whom to strike and where. The High Command determined to attack the British and destroy them. Their army was newer and less well trained than the French; the Germans thought it less well officered and its general staff less competent. The British had possible reserves of man power, the French had none; if the British were beaten, the French would be compelled to surrender. The latter had borne the brunt of at least two of the three and a half years of war and had carried no inconsiderable share of the remainder. They could not continue the war alone. To beat the British would be to win the war.

Ludendorff decided to throw an overwhelming force against the right wing of the British army at the junction of the British and French armies. He would force his way through the British line, crush the right wing, and separate the British from the French. He would thus reach the Channel, and coop the British up in a section of France where, with the Germans on two sides of them, they could be beaten and destroyed at leisure. The same movement would flank the whole French line, imperil Paris, if not capture it, and place the French as well between the fire of the German armies in the new position and of those advancing from Metz and Verdun.

Liquid fire attack


Much time was spent upon the method of attack. The Germans had not studied three years of warfare for nothing. They had not failed to advance so many times without speculating on the reasons why. They came to the conclusion that nothing but an overwhelming superiority of artillery and of men could break the trench line and permit "a war of movement." They would plant their cannon as close together as it was possible for them to operate; a great gun every few yards would not be too many. The infantry evolutions necessary for the movement were practiced for weeks behind the lines by the very men who were to carry them out. The offensive was rehearsed like a theatrical performance. As many divisions as could stand without stepping on each other should attack the British lines. As soon as each had struck its blow and succeeded, it should be replaced by fresh divisions, each coming up successively to relieve the others. The same British troops should therefore be compelled to meet wave after wave of attack from fresh German divisions without any opportunity to rest, and the waves should come fast enough to overwhelm the British before aid could come.

These assaults should be delivered at various parts of the British line, bulging it out in several places. This would compel the British to retreat from the sectors in between to avoid being captured, and thus the attacks would throw back the whole line over a front many miles wide. This method was followed throughout the entire battle: a thrust forward here and a thrust forward some distance away; the line between the points then had to be withdrawn, and a general German advance followed.