Operation Michael

16 days that nearly won Germany the First World War

The German offensive in Spring 1918. (Pic from Commonwealth War Graves)

In the spring of 1918, the German Army launched their first assault on the Western Front in two years.

Not since the Battle of Verdun in early 1916 had the Germans carried out a full scale attack on allied lines. For two years, they had played the role of defenders.

Battles such as the Somme and Passchendaele had come and gone with hundreds of thousands of casualties on both sides, but on 21 March 1918 the Germans set about changing the tide of the war for good.

Over 10,000 guns, in varying sizes, obliterated the allied lines in the days leading up to the attack.

On the morning of the attack, a thick mist covered no man’s land and provided cover for the advancing German soldiers.

The allies were quickly overwhelmed by the clinical progression of their enemy, and the German attack proved to be a wedge between the British and French forces.

The hope for the Germans was to punch a whole through the allied lines and capture Paris, which was the primary objective of the Schlieffen Plan in 1914.

On that occasion it was the stubbornness of the British Army at the Battle of the Marne that prevented this (and also the resilience of Belgian forces to stop the German army marching through their county uninterrupted).

The British Fifth Army, which was severely under prepared to defend a major attack, was forced back and for a week the Germans stormed towards Paris.

The rampage towards the French capital slowed in the first week of April due to thinning supply lines and a rejuvenated allied defensive line.

On April 5 General Erich Ludendorff brought an end to the advancement. Despite the relatively short timescale of the attack, the German forces had advanced 40 miles and inflicted over 200,000 casualties on the allies.

It was the biggest advance of the war since the early exchanges, before the conflict ground into trench warfare.

The Germans could have only carried on with the advance towards Paris if they had both the men and resources.

However, after over three and a half years of war, the appetite for fighting had waned on both sides.

Unlike the allies with their swell of fresh American soldiers, Germany’s stock of soldiers was running dry.

Economic hardship back home and a growing concern that the chance of victory was slipping through their fingers had made the war unpopular for Germans in civilian life and those on the frontline.

Despite the appetite for war plummeting to an all time low, the German generals would launch other similar attacks later in 1918 in a desperate attempt to win the war before the fresh faced allied reinforcements could make a real difference.

This attempt, however, proved to be just that; a desperate attempt.

The spring offensive was a lightning quick effort from the German army to put an end to four years of bloody stalemate and bring an end to the war; and they came relatively close to doing so.

The offensive did also show that even the most optimistic of efforts to break the stalemate in the war would come at the cost of thousands of lives, even with the swift success.

The allies would counter attack later in 1918 and, with rejuvenated reinforcements, push the Germans into a surrender, bringing to an end four years of bloodshed.

I am a journalist with an honours degree from Coventry University. Passionate writing about politics, culture, sport, society and more