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)

15/4/1918 Transjordan: with ineffectual French help, Arab rebels attack Ma’an #1918Live

In Palestine Allenby is considering one last push on Amman before he has to send off his best troops to the Western Front. Meanwhile his Arab allies are staging their own operations in the Transjordan region. They have already cut the railway line to the north and south of the Turkish garrison town of Ma’an. Now they attack the town itself, supported by French artillery.

The Arabs manage to storm the railway station but find it hard to make any further progress. As well as the strength of Turkish resistance, the Arabs are hamstrung by the surprising ineffectuality of their artillery support: almost as soon as the battle begins the French reveal that they have run out of shells. This angers the Arabs, who suspect that the French are deliberately being half-hearted in their support in order to prevent the Arabs from pressing their claims to Syria. Nevertheless Jafar al-Askari, the Arabs’ commander, resolves to continue the assaults on Ma’an hoping to win an impressive victory over the Turks.

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Jafar al-Askari (Wikipedia)

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)

5/4/1918 Ludendorff’s first offensive grinds to a halt #1918Live

German troops make another attempt to seize Villers-Bretonneux today, as a prelude to the capture or destruction of the Amiens railway hub, but Australian and British troops are able to hold the line. The Germans even lose some ground to enemy counter-attacks.

Rather than turn the Somme battle into another meat-grinder like Verdun, Ludendorff now calls a halt to Operation Michael, the first phase of his spring offensive. In the first days of the battle the Germans made astonishing progress and brought the British army to the brink of destruction, capturing some 75,000 British prisoners and another 15,000 French. However French reinforcements, the exhaustion of the attacking troops, the difficulty of keeping the advance supplied and Ludendorff’s lack of focus have prevented the Allies’ collapse.
Both sides have suffered terrible casualties in the fighting. British casualties are nearly 180,000, which includes the enormous number of men taken prisoner. Some units have been so decimated that they effectively no longer exist. French casualties meanwhile are nearly 80,000. German losses are also high, with the heavy fighting inflicting some 240,000 on them. Most problematically for the Germans, their losses have been concentrated among the elite stormtrooper and assault troops.

Although the spring offensive is meant to be a campaign of movement, these losses give the fighting an attritional quality. This favours the Allies, as they have deeper wells of manpower to draw on. As well as the increasing numbers of US troops arriving in France, the British and French have also been able to draw on their own resources, with the British alone having brought 100,000 new recruits to the Western Front since the start of the battle.

So the Allies have weathered the first storm. But the spring offensive is not over. Ludendorff’s second blow is about to fall.

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map (Wikipedia: Operation Michael)

British prisoners under guard (Paul Reed, @sommecourt, Twitter)

30/3/1918 Moreuil Wood: Canadian cavalry stops the German advance #1918Live

Ludendorff has belatedly fixated on Amiens as a target for his spring offensive. If this railway hub falls then the Allies will not be able to sustain themselves in the Somme sector, which could lead to a general collapse. However German stormtrooper numbers have been depleted by the heavy fighting since the start of the battle, while the survivors are increasingly exhausted. Desperate resistance by the British and their French and Commonwealth allies is slowing the German advance to a crawl.

The village of Villers-Bretonneux commands the approaches to Amiens. If the Germans take here they will be able to shell Amiens. But for now they are unable to dislodge the Allies. Meanwhile at the Moreuil Woods a bizarre episode takes place. German troops have occupied the woods, overlooking the Amiens-Paris railway, but now Canadian cavalry units are ordered forward against them. Machine guns and barbed wire have rendered cavalry obsolete on the Western Front, but somehow in confused fighting the Canadians push back the the Germans, breaking the momentum of their attack in this sector. At the end of the charge the scene in woods is horrific, a landscape of dead and broken men and horses.

Ludendorff licks his wounds. His offensive on the Somme appears to have failed to break the Allies, though he will renew his efforts to take Amiens after a short pause. But for Ludendorff the Somme battle is only a phase of his spring offensive. His attentions now turn to Flanders, where he hopes that another round of assaults will drive the British into the sea.

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Charge of Flowerdew’s Squadron, by Alfred Munnings (Wikipedia)