6/5/1918 Ludendorff ponders his next move #1918Live

Ludendorff‘s first two phases of his spring offensive have battered the Allies, particularly the British, but they have not broken them. And the offensives have been costly for the Germans, who have lost many of their elite stormtroopers. The numerical advantage nevertheless remains with the Germans, whose numbers have been buttressed by men brought from the Eastern Front since the peace with Russia. But this advantage will not last forever: there are now some 430,000 American troops in France and more arriving every day.

Ludendorff knows that he has to defeat the Allies soon before the balance of forces shifts decisively against him. But where should he attack? He still sees the British as the more vulnerable of his enemies. In Flanders they lack strategic depth: a breakthrough here could throw them into the sea. But thanks to Ludendorff’s recently concluded Georgette offensive Flanders is awash with Allied troops, with French soldiers reinforcing the British. Another attack in Flanders now would just turn into an attritional bloodbath, something Ludendorff needs to avoid at all costs.

Nevertheless, Ludendorff is fixated on Flanders: an offensive here offers his best chance to destroy the British. But first his men will stage diversionary attacks further south against the French in the Chemin des Dames sector, site of the disastrous French offensive last year. These limited attacks will draw the French down there, after which the main blow will hit the British in Flanders.

This means that for now there will be a lull, as it will take a few weeks for the Germans to get their men and guns in place to attack in the Chemin des Dames. In that lull the Allies will just have to wait nervously as they wonder where the blow will fall.

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map (Mental Floss WWI Centennial: “With Our Backs To The Wall”)

29/4/1918 Germany’s last attack in Flanders #1918Live

Ludendorff has been trying to win victory on the Western Front, attacking first in the Somme sector and now in Flanders. Exhaustion and mounting casualties are leading to a slackening of German efforts while reinforcements, particularly French reinforcements, have strengthened the Allied defence. Today the Germans make another push near Ypres, attacking French troops who have relieved their battered British allies. However, unlike at Kemmelberg, just a few days ago, the French hold firm. German gains are minimal.

Realising that no further gains are to be had, Ludendorff halts this phase of the offensive. The Allies have survived again but the Kaiser’s Battle continues. Ludendorff now ponders where to land the next blow. Time is however beginning to run against him. The fighting in the Somme cost the British some 178,000 casualties, the French 77,000 and the Germans 239,000. The Flanders offensive has cost the Allies another 118,000 casualties and the Germans some 95,000. But the Allies have greater reserves of manpower to draw on, particularly now that American troops are starting to arrive in France. Worse, the German casualties are concentrated among the elite stormtroopers and assault troops, the men Ludendorff can least afford to lose. The Germans need to win the war soon, before Ludendorff’s offensives destroy their army.

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map (Wikipedia: Battle of the Lys)

Erich Ludendorff (Revolvy)

25/4/1918 German losses on the Somme, gains in Flanders #1918Live

Yesterday in the Somme sector German troops captured the village of Villers-Bretonneux but their attempts to advance further where blocked in the war’s first tank versus tank battle. Overnight British and Australian troops counter-attack, first surrounding the village and then storming it. In brutal fighting most of the German defenders are killed, with a small number managing to surrender. Villers-Bretonneux is back in Allied hands, meaning that for now the railway hub of Amiens is safe from the enemy’s attentions.

The Germans have more success in Flanders, where Ludendorff‘s Georgette offensive continues to press against the British. Foch, now officially the Allies’ supreme commander, has sent French troops to strengthen the British line. Newly arrived French troops take over British positions at Mount Kemmel, near Ypres, but they find they have arrived in hell when they are subjected to a devastating artillery bombardment and gas attacks before elite German units move forward against them, supported by German aircraft. German troops take the hill and thousands of French troops lose their lives. The Kaiser is so pleased with the victory that he calls for champagne to toast his Kemmelberg heroes.

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Australian night attack on Villers-Bretonneux (RSL Virtual War Memorial: Villers-Bretonneux)

Kemmelberg heroes (Wikipedia: Kemmelberg)

19/4/1918 As influenza arrives on the Western Front German efforts slacken #1918Live

While German efforts in Flanders are continuing, there is a sense that the offensive here is running out of steam. The fighting has depleted the ranks of the German assault troops and the survivors are increasingly exhausted. Ludendorff has not helped matters by dispersing efforts against a number of targets: the transportation hub of Hazebrouck, the prestige target of Ypres (to whose outskirts the British have withdrawn) and the not particularly significant town of Bailleul. Meanwhile fresh troops are arriving to reinforce the British, including a large contingent of French troops.

German officers are noticing a fall in the morale of their men. With the spring offensive began with Ludendorff’s attack on the Somme, morale was high. The Germans believed that they were launching the offensive that would end the war. Now, a month on, the British still have not thrown in the towel and it is starting to look like the war will go on indefinitely.

There is another factor at play. Since Albert Gitchell took ill in early March the strain of flu that struck him down has spread across the world. It remains no more lethal than any other strain of influenza, but it is remarkably virulent. Somehow it has managed to cross the front lines and is afflicting men on both sides of the conflict, making them too ill for combat or anything else for up to a week. And it seems to be affecting German soldiers more, perhaps because of their poorer diets, robbing the German assaults of manpower at this crucial stage of the battle.

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map (Remembrance Trails – Kaiserschlacht: the German Spring Offensive of 1918)

12/4/1918 Britain retreats to the gates of Ypres

Ludendorff’s Georgette offensive in Flanders has brought German troops to within six kilometres of Hazebrouck, the transportation hub on which the supply of British troops in this sector depends. Perhaps a determined assault might take it, forcing the collapse of the Allies in Flanders, but as with his first offensive at the Somme, Ludendorff chooses to disperse his forces, ordering his men to also attack the less crucial target of Bailleul. And Ludendorff turns his gaze towards Ypres, further to the north, thinking that if this prestige target were to fall then the morale of the British would be shattered.

In this regard the British are ahead of him. They fear the consequences of Ypres’ capture now after all the blood that has been spent in its vicinity during the first, second and third battles there. To maximise their chances of holding it they withdraw now in secrecy to strongly fortified positions just outside the town. This means that they are giving up the shattered village of Passchendaele, whose capture last year was secured at an enormous cost in lives.

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British Lewis gunners defending the Lys canal (The Battle of Hazebrouck)

Ypres frontlines (Our Family Stories)

11/4/1918 Crisis in Flanders: Haig’s “Backs to the Wall” order #1918Live

German attacks in Flanders, codenamed Operation Georgette, have shaken the British. With his men closing in on the transportation hub of Hazebrouck, Ludendorff hopes that a further push will lead to a British collapse. Recognising the gravity of the situation, Haig now issues a special order of the day to his men. He salutes their fortitude and boldly claims that the German drive is being contained, but nevertheless he recognises that the hour of crisis has arrived.

“Many amongst us now are tired. To those I would say that Victory will belong to the side which holds out the longest. The French Army is moving rapidly and in great force to our support.

“There is no other course open to us but to fight it out. Every position must be held to the last man: there must be no retirement. With our backs to the wall and believing in the justice of our cause each one of us must fight on to the end. The safety of our homes and the Freedom of mankind alike depend upon the conduct of each one of us at this critical moment.”

In truth the tide is beginning to move in favour of the British. More British and Australian units are arriving to bolster their defences while Foch has indeed agreed to release French troops to support them. The German troops meanwhile are increasingly exhausted and worn down by the fighting. But Ludendorff orders his men to press on. Like Haig he believes that victory will come to the side that can endure the most, and he believes that side is his own.

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Panoramic view of attack by infiltration (German, July 1918), by Richard Talbot Kelly (National Army Museum)

Haig’s “Special Order of the Day” (First World War, Primary Documents – Sir Douglas Haig’s “Backs to the Wall” Order, 11 April 1918)

10/4/1918 Britain reels from Germany’s Flanders offensive #1918Live

Heavy fighting continues in Flanders, where German assault troops are attacking the British and Portuguese south of Ypres. Haig is throwing reserves into the fighting in an attempt to halt the enemy advance but for now the Germans appear unstoppable. Today they capture Estaires, bringing them to the Lys river, and overrun Messines, scene of an impressive victory last year. Hazebrouck is now under threat; if this transportation hub falls then the Allies in Flanders will most likely collapse.

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British troops at an advanced dressing station after being blinded by gas (Wikipedia: Battle of the Lys)

map (The Long, Long Trail: The Battles of the Lys, 1918)