21/3/1918 The blow falls: German stormtroopers smash the British #1918Live

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.

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German stormtroopers

20/3/1918 Eve of Armageddon #1918Live

Peace with Russia has freed the Germans to transfer some 44 divisions to the Western Front. The Allies know that Ludendorff is planning an offensive to try to win the war before the Americans arrive in strength. But they do not know when or where the attack will come.

In fact, tomorrow is the day. German assault troops are now moving up to their attack positions, but doing so in conditions of utmost secrecy to mask their presence from the enemy. Troops have been marching by night, under strict orders to show no lights, and then hidden by day in forests or inside villages. Artillery pieces too are being moved to their firing positions, again camouflaged from the prying eyes of the British and French. German aircraft are patrolling above to chase away enemy observers and check that their men on the ground are keeping themselves properly hidden.

Ludendorff had hoped to attack in Flanders, in order to seize the Channel ports and cut off the British army, but it is too early in the year and the ground there is still waterlogged after the rains of winter. Instead the German blow will fall on British troops sitting astride the Somme, defending the gains of the 1916 battle and the territory abandoned by the Germans last year. Tomorrow’s offensive has no fixed objectives, which has disconcerted some of the field commanders who will have to command it. But Ludendorff hopes that a breakthrough will present opportunities that will allow him to destroy the Allied armies.

Officially the offensive is Operation Michael, but it has become known as the Kaiserschlacht, the Kaiser’s Battle. The morale of the assault troops is high: this is the attack that will end the war.

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Erich Ludendorff (Wikipedia)

7/3/1918 Germany prepares to intervene in Finland’s civil war #1918Live

Finland is now gripped by civil war, with Reds and Whites fighting to determine the future direction of the country. The Reds look to Soviet Russia for support while some of the Whites seek aid from Germany. With the signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, German attention should be shifting away from the East, but Ludendorff is keen to ensure the emergence of a pro-German regime in Finland, as this will allow him to threaten Petrograd in the event that the Russians renege on their commitments.

A German naval expedition has already landed on Finnish Åland Islands, joining a Swedish force ostensibly there to protect the Swedish-speaking islanders. Now the Germans sign an agreement with the White Finns, recognising their independence and promising military aid against the Reds. But the agreement binds Finland tightly to the Germans: has Finland achieved independence from one imperial master only for the Whites to squander that freedom by turning the country into a German satellite?

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Swedish, German and Russian troops in the Åland Islands (Wikipedia: Invasion of Åland)

5/3/1918 Germany’s food crisis #1918Live

Germany remains in the grip of a food crisis. The British blockade has closed off international sources of food and the diversion of resources to the war effort has led to a decline in Germany’s own agricultural production. Some three million agricultural workers have been drafted into the army, as have large numbers of horses, with the loss of the latter depriving farmland of their fertilising manure. Since 1913 the area of cultivated land has fallen by some 15% while grain yields have collapsed, falling at least 30%.

The result of this fall in food production has been spiralling prices and shortages. The authorities have responded by introducing price controls and rationing, but these have not been entirely effective and have fuelled a burgeoning black market. Those who have the money to do so are able to source what they need on the black market or by under the counter sales from food suppliers. Everyone else is going hungry, fuelling the country’s internal divisions.

For all that many Germans are not getting as much food as they would like, the authorities’ counter-measures are at least keeping actual starvation at bay. However the shortages of food are weakening the German population, which is seeing a considerable increase in mortality over the normal peacetime rate. This affects particularly the old, the infirm and those who are not receiving extra rations thanks to their involvement in war work.

Germany’s leaders fear that the food situation will eventually cause a social explosion. The peace treaty with Russia should mean that more food will be accessible from Ukraine, which should improve things, but the war cannot be allowed to go on indefinitely. Last year the Germans gambled on the U-boats as a means of bringing the war to a swift end. That failed and, worse, brought the USA into the Allied camp. Now Ludendorff is hoping that his imminent spring offensive will win the war for Germany before American troops arrive in strength and the food situation at home leads to revolution.

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French postcard showing hungry Germans turning on the Kaiser (Metropostcard – Themes of World War One:
Food and the Great War  pt4)

18/2/1918 Germany pushes into Russia #1918Live

At Brest-Litovsk Trotsky shocked the Germans by rejecting their harsh peace terms but then informing them that Russia will fight them no more. The Bolsheviks hope that this ‘No War, No Peace‘ strategy will expose the Germans as naked aggressors if their army resumes its advance in the east, triggering revolution from Germany’s war weary working class.

Ludendorff is Germany’s Quartermaster General and the effective dictator of his country. He does not care about being seen as a naked aggressor; he wants the war in the East brought to an end as soon as possible so that he can concentrate his efforts on the Western Front offensive he is planning. Today German and Austro-Hungarian troops launch Operation Faustschlag, an offensive intended to force the Russians to sign the peace treaty. They encounter no meaningful resistance; by now the old Tsarist army has been disbanded and the recently established Red Army is in no position to take the field against the Kaiser‘s juggernaut. The Germans and their allies advance at a speed that would be unimaginable on the Western Front.

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Austro-Hungarian troops advance into Kamianets-Podilskyi (Wikipedia: Operation Faustschlag)

10/2/1918 “No War, No Peace”: Trotsky’s bizarre coup de theatre #1918Live

The peace negotiations at Brest-Litovsk are finally beginning to pay dividends for the Germans. Yesterday representatives of the Ukrainian Rada agree a separate peace with Germany and its allies, agreeing to supply Germany with large quantities of grain in return for an end to hostilities and recognition of its independence from Russia. However the Soviet delegation of Leon Trotsky continue to play for time, hoping that revolution will spread to central and western Europe before painful concessions have to be agreed.

But now Ludendorff has had enough of Trotsky’s delaying tactics. He instructs the German delegation to present the Russians with a harsh set of peace terms on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. If the Russians do not agree then the German army will resume its advance.

In Petrograd the Soviet government is divided by the German ultimatum. Lenin favours acceptance, on the grounds that if the German terms are not accepted now, worse will have to be accepted in the future. But others favour rejection, hoping that a militia war against the Germans will inspire the Russian people and spread the revolution westwards. Lenin thinks such ideas are hopelessly over-optimistic but is unable to railroad his comrades.

From this internal division emerges a strange compromise. Trotsky informs the Germans that Russia is unilaterally leaving the war, without accepting the German peace terms. If the Germans want to keep the war going they can do so on their own.

Trotsky’s rhetorical flourish stuns the Germans. “Unerhört!“, exclaims Hoffmann, one of the generals present. Unconscionable. But as Trotsky and his delegation depart Brest-Litovsk, the German army on the Eastern Front prepares for action.

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Trotsky at Brest-Litovsk (Wikipedia)

1/1/1918 1918, year of decision? #1918Live

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).

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Erich Ludendorff (Wikipedia)