At 04:40 in the morning German artillery starts to fire at British positions along a 43 mile front bisected by the Somme river; the German spring offensive has finally begun. The artillery fire mixes high explosive shells with ones carrying a variety of poison gases. The scale of the bombardment is like nothing previously seen on the Western Front, leaving the survivors on the British side stunned and bewildered.
AT 08:40, after some 1,160,000 shells have been fired, the artillery lifts from frontline targets and the German infantry assault begins. The attack is spearheaded by the elite stormtroopers, trained in the infiltration tactics used at Riga by Hutier, at Caporetto against the Italians, and during the counter-attack at Cambrai. Advancing out of the morning mist the stormtroopers bypass strong points and press forward as quickly as possible, leaving pockets of enemy resistance to be mopped up by follow-up troops.
In the battle sector the Germans outnumber the British by a factor of three to one. The weight of numbers, their devastating artillery and the infiltration tactics allow them to smash through the British defences. In one day the Germans capture territory equivalent to the British gains at the entire Battle of the Somme, but the human cost of the fighting is devastating. Both sides suffer nearly 40,000 casualties. Of the British losses, more than 21,000 are prisoners, who can at least reasonably expect to return home again once the war is over. This is not the case with the Germans, who losses include around 10,000 men killed and nearly 29,000 wounded.
And while the gains are impressive, Ludendorff is still disappointed by much of the day’s. However Hutier, atacking in the south of the German attack line, has made unexpected progress. Hutier’s assault was not meant to be the main thrust but now Ludendorff decides to reinforce him, hoping to exploit the gains he has achieved.