The last German offensive that almost won the war in the west
By the fourth year of the Great War on the Western Front the protagonists knew that established assault tactics could not be depended upon to deliver battlefield victories or, indeed, long endure. Time and attrition was on the side of the Allies, for the German homeland was hard pressed and suffering. The Allied cause was not challenged geographically, in materiel or logistically since the U-Boat menace was being defeated in the Atlantic and decisive military support from the United States America was at hand. The introduction of battle tanks meant an imminent end to the dominance of trenches. To prevail Germany needed to deliver an innovative, swift and encompassing attack solution which would decisively breach the enemy’s lines and surge onwards to Paris, thus forcing a cessation of hostilities from a position of strength. In March of 1918 this German assault began and was initially so successful that Allied lines buckled and armies reeled back in disarray, falling back towards positions they had last held in 1914. The Ludendorff Offensive—named for its innovator—in the Spring of 1918, also called the Kaiser’s Battle (Kaiserschlacht) was the final initiative for imperial Germany—and one that very nearly succeeded. How it was conceived, implemented, opposed and halted is detailed here, supported by many maps, illustrations and photographs, by John Buchan. A companion volume, ‘1918—Catastrophe to Victory—the Allied Hundred Days Offensive’ by the same author, which describes the battles which concluded the First World War in the West, is also available from Leonaur.
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All night there was intermittent fighting at the crossings of the Lawe and the Lys. Early on the morning of Wednesday, 10th April, after a heavy bombardment, the enemy attacked at Lestrem and Estaires. He won the farther bank at both places, but was driven back by counter-attacks. All day the 50th Division was in action, and the streets of Estaires saw bitter machinegun fighting. In the evening the town was lost, and the 50th Division retired to a position which had been hastily prepared to the north and west. East of Estaires the enemy enlarged the bridgehead he had won the night before, and forced the left of the 40th Division beyond Steenwerck—an advance of nearly four miles. He was broadening his salient by striking northward.
Meantime a new German Army had entered the battle. At 5.30 a.m. von Armin’s infantry attacked north of the Lys from Frelinghien as far as Hill 60. The outposts of the 25th and 19th Divisions were driven in, and during the morning, under cover of the fog, the enemy filtered into our battle positions from Ploegsteert Wood to Messines, along the valleys of the Warnave and Douve streams. By noon he had taken Ploegsteert village and the southeast part of the wood, and had captured Messines, while farther north he had driven in our line as fax as Hollebeke, and was close on the crest of the Wytschaete ridge.
In the afternoon, however, the 9th (Scottish) Division brought him to a standstill. Its South African Brigade retook Messines, and during the evening cleared the Wytschaete ridge. This stand saved our northern flank, and gave us time to adjust our front to meet the grave situation at Ploegsteert. Armentières was outflanked and clearly untenable, and during the afternoon the 34th Division, which held the place, retired to the left bank of the Lys, after destroying the bridges.
The situation on the Wednesday evening was, therefore, as follows. The German line ran from Hollebeke, east of Wytschaete, just east of Messines, through the south-east corner of Ploegsteert Wood, west of Ploegsteert village, south of Nieppe, north of Steenwerck, north and west of Estaires, east of Lestrem, east of the Lawe River, Le Touret, and Givenchy. It was a narrow front for a great advance, for the British pillars at Givenchy and the Messines ridge were still standing.
On Thursday, the 11th, von Quast and von Armin, with fresh reserves, attacked on the whole front. The 55th Division was unshaken, but in the centre the line of the Lawe stream was lost. The night before the enemy had won a footing on the western bank halfway between Locon and Lestrem, and during the day he was able to enlarge his holding and push out westward. This made impossible the position of the 50th Division north and west of Estaires, and during the afternoon they were driven back towards Merville.
The German masses, pressing on in close formation, had bulged out our front, and so lengthened the line to be held by the 50th. Gaps opened up through which the enemy pushed, and by 6 p.m. he was at Neuf Berquin, on the Estaires-Hazebrouck road, and, moving along the Lys, had entered Merville. Our front there was drawn back to the little stream of the Bourre just west of the town.
Farther east the 40th Division was forced well north of Steenwerck; but the 31st Division had arrived from the Somme, and, counter-attacking towards evening, recovered the villages of Le Verrier and La Becque. On their left the 34th Division was in serious danger. It was strongly attacked, and though it succeeded in holding Nieppe during the day, the pressure on the 25th Division from Ploegsteert left it in an untenable salient. That afternoon Messines was lost, but the 9th Division was still standing south of Hollebeke and on the Wytschaete ridge.
Plumer decided to rearrange his front, and early in the night he relinquished Nieppe, retiring to the neighbourhood of Pont d’Achelles. This involved the retirement of the 25th and 19th Divisions to a front about 1,000 yards east of Neuve Eglise and Wulverghem, and the abandonment of Hill 63. That night our front ran from Givenchy to Locon, west of Merville, west of Neuf Berquin, north of Steenwerck and Nieppe, east of Neuve Eglise and Wulverghem, west of Messines, and along the ridge just covering Wytschaete. The pillars still held.
Up to now the enemy had not used more than sixteen divisions. But on the morning of Friday, the 12th, he began to throw in his reserves at a furious pace. Elated by his unexpected success, he turned what was meant as a diversion into a major operation, and dreamed of Boulogne and Calais. It was Ludendorff’s first blunder, and it was fatal. He used his mass of manoeuvre in an area where he had to begin de novo, and where he could not directly aid the great central thrust at Amiens. He lost the advantage of the cumulative blow, and abandoned the assets which he had won. If it succeeded, it would be a new plan, irrelevant to the first; if it failed, the first could only be resumed with impaired resources. Blindness seemed to have fallen for the moment on the German High Command—a blindness born of a too confident pride. It all but destroyed the British Army; but it saved the Allied front, and in the long run gave them the victory.
On Friday morning British reinforcements were arriving—the 3rd, 4th, 5th, 31st, 61st, and 1st Australian Divisions; but they could only gradually come into line, and we had still to face most critical days. Just before dawn the enemy broke through the left centre of the 51st Division near Pacaut, due south of Merville, and less than two miles from the La Bassée Canal. But for the brilliant work of our batteries, the Germans might have crossed the canal; and, as it was, they won a position on its eastern bank. The 3rd Division had now come up on the right of the 51st and the 61st Division on its left, and though both had been fighting for weeks south of Arras, they were able to steady the front between Locon and the Clarence River. At Merville itself, too, we held our ground; but the weight of the fresh German troops was felt in the pressure north of the Lys.
At 8 a.m. von Quast attacked on the front between the Estaires-Hazebrouck road and Steenwerck, and, in spite of gallant work by the 29th Division, under Major-General Cayley, which had come up in support, drove in our line at Doulieu and La Becque, and created an ugly gap south-west of Bailleul. This let through bodies of the enemy, who seized Merris and Outtersteene, north of the railway. The Germans were pushing direct for Hazebrouck, and were now close on Bailleul station. It was a grave moment; but in the evening any further advance was checked by a brigade of Major-General Pinney’s 33rd Division, which, with a miscellaneous assortment of other troops, filled the breach. On the left of the British front there was no change during the day.