World War I: A Battle to the Death

US Army

By 1918, World War I had been underway for over three years. Despite the bloody stalemate that continued to ensue on the Western Front following the failures of British and French offensives at Ypres and Aisne, both sides had reason for hope due to two key events in 1917. For the Allies (Britain, France, and Italy), the United States had entered the war on April 6 and was bringing its industrial might and vast manpower to bear. To the east, Russia, torn by the Bolshevik Revolution and resulting civil war, had asked for an armistice with the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and the Ottoman Empire) on December 15, freeing large numbers of soldiers for service on other fronts. As a result, both alliances entered the new year with optimism that victory might finally be achieved.

America Mobilizes

Though the United States had joined the conflict in April 1917, it took time for the nation to mobilize manpower on a large scale and retool its industries for war. By March 1918, only 318,000 Americans had arrived in France. This number began to climb rapidly through the summer and by August 1.3 million men were deployed overseas. Upon their arrival, many senior British and French commanders wished to use the largely untrained American units as replacements within their own formations. Such a plan was adamantly opposed by the commander of the American Expeditionary Force, General John J. Pershing, who insisted that American troops fight together. Despite conflicts like this, the arrival of the Americans bolstered the hopes of the battered British and French armies which had been fighting and dying for since August 1914.

An Opportunity for Germany

While the massive numbers of American troops that were forming in the United States would ultimately play a decisive role, the defeat of Russia provided Germany with an immediate advantage on the Western Front. Freed from fighting a two-front war, the Germans were able to transfer over thirty veteran divisions west while only leaving a skeleton force to ensure Russian compliance with the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk.

These troops provided the Germans with numerical superiority over their adversaries. Aware that growing numbers of American troops would soon negate the advantage Germany had gained, General Erich Ludendorff began planning a series of offensives to bring the war on the Western Front to a swift conclusion. Dubbed the Kaiserschlacht (Kaiser's Battle), the 1918 Spring Offensives were to consist of four major assaults code-named Michael, Georgette, Blücher-Yorck, and Gneisenau. As German manpower was running short, it was imperative that the Kaiserschlacht succeed as losses could not be effectively replaced.

Operation Michael

The first and largest of these offensives, Operation Michael, was intended to strike the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) along the Somme with the goal of cutting it off from the French to the south. The assault plan called for four German armies to break through the BEF's lines then wheel northwest to drive toward the English Channel. Leading the attack would be special stormtrooper units whose orders called for them to drive deep into British positions, bypassing strong points, with the goal disrupting communications and reinforcements.

Commencing on March 21, 1918, Michael saw German forces attack along a forty-mile front. Slamming into the British Third and Fifth Armies, the assault shattered the British lines. While the Third Army largely held, the Fifth Army began a fighting retreat. As the crisis developed, the commander of the BEF, Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, requested reinforcements from his French counterpart, General Philippe Pétain. This request was refused as Pétain was concerned about protecting Paris. Angered, Haig was able to force an Allied conference on March 26 at Doullens.

This meeting resulted in the appointment of General Ferdinand Foch as the overall Allied commander. As the fighting continued, British and French resistance began to coalesce and Ludendorff's thrust began to slow. Desperate to renew the offensive, he ordered a series of new attacks on March 28, though they favored exploiting local successes rather than advancing the operation's strategic goals. These attacks failed to make substantial gains and Operation Michael ground to a halt at Villers-Bretonneux on the outskirts of Amiens.

Operation Georgette

Despite the strategic failure of Michael, Ludendorff immediately launched Operation Georgette (Lys Offensive) in Flanders on April 9. Assaulting the British around Ypres, the Germans sought to capture the town and force the British back to the coast. In nearly three weeks of fighting, the Germans succeeded in reclaiming the territorial losses of Passchendaele and advanced south of Ypres. By April 29, the Germans had still failed to take Ypres and Ludendorff halted the offensive.

Operation Blücher-Yorck

Shifting his attention south the French, Ludendorff commenced Operation Blücher-Yorck (Third Battle of the Aisne) on May 27. Concentrating their artillery, the Germans attacked down the valley of the Oise River towards Paris. Overrunning the Chemin des Dames ridge, Ludendorff's men swiftly advanced as the Allies began committing reserves to halt the offensive. American forces played a role in stopping the Germans during intense fighting at Chateau-Thierry and Belleau Wood.

On June 3, as fighting still raged, Ludendorff decided to suspend Blücher-Yorck due to supply problems and mounting losses. While both sides lost similar numbers of men, the Allies possessed an ability to replace them that Germany lacked. Seeking to widen the gains of Blücher-Yorck, Ludendorff began Operation Gneisenau on June 9. Attacking on the northern edge of the Aisne salient along the Matz River, his troops made initial gains but were halted within two days.

Ludendorff's Last Gasp

With the failure of the Spring Offensives, Ludendorff had lost much of the numerical superiority which he had counted on for achieving victory. With limited resources remaining he hoped to launch an attack against the French with the goal of drawing British troops south from Flanders. This would then allow another attack on that front. With the support of Kaiser Wilhelm II, Ludendorff opened the Second Battle of the Marne on July 15.

Attacking on both sides of Rheims, the Germans made some progress. French intelligence had provided warning of the attack and Foch and Pétain had prepared a counterstroke. Launched on July 18, the French counterattack, supported by American troops, was led by General Charles Mangin's Tenth Army. Supported by other French troops, the effort soon threatened to encircle those German troops in the salient. Beaten, Ludendorff ordered a withdraw from the endangered area. The defeat on the Marne ended his plans for mounting another assault in Flanders.

Austrian Failure

In the wake of the disastrous Battle of Caporetto in fall 1917, the hated Italian Chief of Staff General Luigi Cadorna was sacked and replaced with General Armando Diaz. The Italian position behind the Piave River was further bolstered by the arrival of sizable formations of British and French troops. Across the lines, German forces had largely been recalled for use in the Spring Offensives, however, they had been replaced by Austro-Hungarian troops that had been freed from the Eastern Front.

Debate ensued among the Austrian high command regarding the best way to finish off the Italians. Finally, the new Austrian Chief of Staff, Arthur Arz von Straussenburg, approved a plan to launch a two-pronged attack, with one moving south from the mountains and the other across the Piave River. Moving forward on June 15, the Austrian advance was quickly checked by the Italians and their allies with heavy losses.

Victory in Italy

The defeat led Emperor Karl I of Austria-Hungary to begin seeking a political solution to the conflict. On October 2, he contacted US President Woodrow Wilson and expressed his willingness to enter into an armistice. Twelve days later he issued a manifesto to his peoples which effectively transformed the state into a federation of nationalities. These efforts proved too late as the multitude of ethnicities and nationalities that formed the empire had begun proclaiming their own states. With the empire collapsing, Austrian armies at the front began to weaken.

In this environment, Diaz launched a major offensive across the Piave on October 24. Dubbed the Battle of Vittorio Veneto, the fighting saw many of the Austrians mount a stiff defense, but their line collapsed after Italian troops broke through a gap near Sacile. Driving back the Austrians, Diaz's campaign concluded a week later on Austrian territory. Seeking an end to the war, the Austrians asked for an armistice on November 3. Terms were arranged and the armistice with Austria-Hungary was signed near Padua that day, taking effect on November 4 at 3:00 PM.

German Position After the Spring Offensives

The failure of the Spring Offensives cost Germany nearly a million casualties. Though ground had been taken, the strategic breakthrough had failed to occur. As a result, Ludendorff found himself short on troops with a longer line to defend. To make good the losses sustained earlier in the year, the German high command estimated that 200,000 recruits per month would be needed. Unfortunately, even by drawing on the next conscription class, only 300,000 total were available.

Though German Chief of Staff General Paul von Hindenburg remained beyond reproach, members of the General Staff began to criticize Ludendorff for his failures in the field and lack of originality in determining strategy. While some officers argued for a withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line, others believed the time had come to open peace negotiations with the Allies. Ignoring these suggestions, Ludendorff remained wedded to the notion of deciding the war through military means despite the fact that the United States had already mobilized four million men. In addition, the British and French, though badly bled, had developed and expanded their tank forces to compensate for numbers. Germany, in a key military miscalculation, had failed to match the Allies in the development of this type of technology.

Battle of Amiens

Having halted the Germans, Foch and Haig began preparations for striking back. The beginning of the Allies' Hundred Days Offensive, the initial blow was to fall east of Amiens to open the rail lines through the city and recover the old Somme battlefield. Overseen by Haig, the offensive was centered on the British Fourth Army. After discussions with Foch, it was decided to include the First French Army to the south. Beginning on August 8, the offensive relied on surprise and the use of armor rather than the typical preliminary bombardment. Catching the enemy off guard, Australian and Canadian forces in the center broke through the German lines and advanced 7-8 miles.

By the end of the first day, five German divisions had been shattered. Total German losses numbered over 30,000, leading Ludendorff to refer to August 8 as "the Black Day of the German Army." Over the next three days, Allied forces continued their advance, but met increased resistance as the Germans rallied. Halting the offensive on August 11, Haig was chastised by Foch who wished it to continue. Rather than battle increasing German resistance, Haig opened the Second Battle of the Somme on August 21, with the Third Army attacking at Albert. Albert fell the following day and Haig widened the offensive with the Second Battle of Arras on August 26. The fighting saw the British advance as the Germans fell back to the fortifications of the Hindenburg Line, surrendering the gains of Operation Michael.

Pushing on to Victory

With the Germans reeling, Foch planned a massive offensive which would see several lines of advance converging on Liege. Prior to launching his attack, Foch ordered the reduction of the salients at Havrincourt and Saint-Mihiel. Attacking on September 12, the British quickly reduced the former, while the latter was taken by Pershing's US First Army in the first all-American offensive of the war.

Shifting the Americans north, Foch used Pershing's men to open his final campaign on September 26 when they began the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, where Sergeant Alvin C. York distinguished himself. As the Americans attacked north, King Albert I of Belgium led a combined Anglo-Belgian force forward near Ypres two days later. On September 29, the main British offensive commenced against the Hindenburg Line with the Battle of St. Quentin Canal. After several days of fighting, the British broke through the line on October 8 at the Battle of the Canal du Nord.

The German Collapse

As events on the battlefield unfolded, Ludendorff suffered a breakdown on September 28. Recovering his nerve, he went to Hindenburg that evening and stated that there was no alternative but to seek an armistice. The next day, the Kaiser and senior members of the government were advised of this at the headquarters in Spa, Belgium.

In January 1918, President Wilson had produced Fourteen Points on which an honorable peace guaranteeing future world harmony could be made. It was on the basis of these points that the German government elected to approach the Allies. The German position was further complicated by a deteriorating situation in Germany as shortages and political unrest swept the country. Appointing the moderate Prince Max of Baden as his chancellor, the Kaiser understood that Germany would need to democratize as part of any peace process.

Final Weeks

At the front, Ludendorff began to recover his nerve and the army, though retreating, was contesting each bit of ground. Advancing, the Allies continued to drive towards the German frontier. Unwilling to give up the fight, Ludendorff composed a proclamation that defied the Chancellor and renounced Wilson's peace proposals. Though retracted, a copy reached Berlin inciting the Reichstag against the army. Summoned to the capital, Ludendorff was compelled to resign on October 26.

As the army conducted a fighting retreat, the German High Seas Fleet was ordered to sea for one final sortie on October 30. Rather than sail, the crews broke into mutiny and took to the streets of Wilhelmshaven. By November 3, the mutiny had reached Kiel as well. As revolution swept across Germany, Prince Max appointed moderate General Wilhelm Groener to replace Ludendorff and ensured that any armistice delegation would include civilian as well as military members. On November 7, Prince Max was advised by Friedrich Ebert, leader of the Majority Socialists, that the Kaiser would need to abdicate to prevent an all-out revolution. He passed this on to the Kaiser and on November 9, with Berlin in turmoil, turned the government over Ebert.

Peace at Last

At Spa, the Kaiser fantasized about turning the army against his own people but was ultimately convinced to step down on November 9. Exiled to Holland, he formally abdicated on November 28. As events unfolded in Germany, the peace delegation, led by Matthias Erzberger crossed the lines. Meeting aboard a railroad car in the Forest of Compiègne, the Germans were presented with Foch's terms for an armistice. These included the evacuation of occupied territory (including Alsace-Lorraine), military evacuation of the west bank of the Rhine, surrender of the High Seas Fleet, surrender of large quantities of military equipment, reparations for war damage, repudiation of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, as well as acceptance of continuation of the Allied blockade.

Informed of the Kaiser's departure and the fall of his government, Erzberger was unable to obtain instructions from Berlin. Finally reaching Hindenburg in Spa, he was told to sign at any cost as an armistice was absolutely necessary. Complying, the delegation agreed to Foch's terms after three days of talks and signed between 5:12 and 5:20 AM on November 11. At 11:00 AM the armistice went into effect ending over four years of bloody conflict.

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Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "World War I: A Battle to the Death." ThoughtCo, Jul. 31, 2021, Hickman, Kennedy. (2021, July 31). World War I: A Battle to the Death. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "World War I: A Battle to the Death." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 2, 2023).