For the Germans, 1917 was to have been the year the war ended in victory: the escalated U-boat campaign would force Britain to make peace, after which France and Russia could be picked off at the Germans’ leisure. But the projections as to how much damage could be inflicted by the U-boats were over-optimistic, as were calculations regarding British resilience to attacks on their trade. The U-boats failed to end the war and they have instead brought the USA into the war on the side of the Allies. Now the Americans are raising an army whose size will tip the balance in Europe if it arrives before the war’s end.
The Germans had one unexpected stroke of luck in 1917. Revolution broke out in Russia, with unrest spreading from the urban centres to the countryside and the Russian army. The Russians became increasingly unable to continue the war against Germany and Austria-Hungary; following their seizure of power the Bolsheviks agreed an armistice with the Germans and are engaged in negotiations towards a peace treaty at Brest-Litovsk.
Russia’s collapse means that the Germans are now free to redeploy men from the East. Ludendorff, Germany’s Quartermaster-General, plans to use these to launch a final offensive on the Western Front, one that will defeat the British and French before the Americans arrive in strength. This will be Germany’s last throw of the dice: if the offensive fails to bring an end to the war then Germany’s defeat will be unavoidable.
For the Allies, 1917 was mostly a terrible year. The Italians are still reeling from their defeat at Caporetto and are barely able to continue the war. On the Western Front the French offensive on the Chemin des Dames failed so badly that the French army came close to collapse. The British have made gains against the Turks, but the Middle East is a side show; their main effort on the Western Front at Ypres saw large numbers of men die horribly for no good purpose. Now the British and French know that the Germans are preparing something big for the spring. With their own armies exhausted, the Allies have no option but to hope that they can contain the German attacks until the American armies arrive.
It looks therefore like 1918 will decide the war’s outcome. Either Ludendorff’s offensive will win victory for the Germans, or it will fail, dooming Germany to defeat (though perhaps not until 1919).
Erich Ludendorff (Wikipedia)