World War I: Operation Michael

General Erich Ludendorff
Erich Ludendorff. Library of Congress

Operation Michael - Conflict & Dates:

Operation Michael commenced on March 21, 1918, and was the beginning of the German Spring Offensives during World War I (1914-1918).

Commanders:

Allies

Germans

  • Generalquartiermeister Erich Ludendorff

Operation Michael - Planning:

Following the collapse of Russia, General Erich Ludendorff was able to transfer west a large number German divisions from the Eastern Front.

Aware that growing numbers of American troops would soon negate the numerical advantage Germany had gained, 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, Gneisenau, and Blücher-Yorck.

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 the 17th, 2nd, 18th, and 7th 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.

Facing the German onslaught were General Julian Byng’s 3rd Army in the north and General Hubert Gough’s 5th Army in the south. In both cases, the British suffered from possessing incomplete trench lines as a result of an advance after the German withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line the previous year. In the days prior to the assault, numerous German prisoners alerted the British about an impending attack.

While some preparations were made, the BEF was unready for an offensive of the size and scope unleashed by Ludendorff. At 4:35 AM on March 21, German guns opened fire along a 40-mile front.

Operation Michael - The Germans Strike:

Pummeling the British lines, the barrage caused 7,500 casualties. Advancing, the German assault centered on St. Quentin and the stormtroopers began penetrating the broken British trenches between 6:00 AM and 9:40 AM. Attacking from just north of Arras south to the Oise River, German troops achieved success across the front with the largest advances coming at St. Quentin and in the south. At the northern edge of the battle, Byng's men fought tenaciously to defend the Flesquieres salient which had been won in the bloody Battle of Cambrai.

Conducting a fighting retreat, Gough's men were driven from their defensive zones along the front during the opening days of the battle. As the 5th Army fell back, the commander of the BEF, Field Marshal Douglas Haig, became concerned that a gap could open between Byng and Gough's armies. To prevent this, Haig ordered Byng to keep his men in contact with 5th Army even if it meant falling back farther than ordinarily necessary.

On March 23rd, believing that a major breakthrough was in the offing, Ludendorff directed 17th Army to turn northwest and attack towards Arras with the goal of rolling up the British line.

The 2nd Army was instructed to push west towards Amiens, while the 18th Army on its right was to push southwest. Though they had been falling back, Gough's men inflicted heavy casualties and both sides began to tire after three days of fighting. The German assault had come just to the north of the junction between the British and French lines. As his lines were pushed west, Haig became concerned that a gap could open between the Allies. Requesting French reinforcements to prevent this, Haig was denied by General Philippe Pétain who was concerned about protecting Paris.

Operation Michael - The Allies Respond:

Telegraphing the War Office after Pétain's refusal, Haig was able to force an Allied conference on March 26 at Doullens.

Attended by high-level leaders on both sides, the conference led to General Ferdinand Foch being appointed overall Allied commander and the dispatch of French troops to aid in holding the line south of Amiens. As the Allies were meeting, Ludendorff issued highly ambitious new objectives to his commanders including the capture of Amiens and Compiègne. On the night of March 26/27, the town of Albert was lost to the Germans though 5th Army continued to contest each bit of ground.

Realizing that his offensive had departed from its original goals in favor of exploiting local successes, Ludendorff attempted to put it back on track on March 28 and ordered a 29-division assault against Byng's 3rd Army. This attack, dubbed Operation Mars, met with little success and was beaten back. That same day, Gough was sacked in favor of General Sir Henry Rawlinson, despite his able handling of 5th Army's retreat.

On March 30, Ludendorff ordered the last major assaults of the offensive with General Oskar von Hutier's 18th Army attacking the French along the south edge of the newly created salient and General Georg von der Marwitz's 2nd Army pushing toward Amiens. By April 4, the fighting was centered in Villers-Bretonneux on the outskirts of Amiens. Lost to the Germans during the day, it was retaken by Rawlinson's men in a daring night attack. Ludendorff attempted to renew the attack the following day, but failed as Allied troops had effectively sealed the breaches caused by the offensive.

Operation Michael - Aftermath:

In defending against Operation Michael, Allied forces suffered 177,739 casualties, while the attacking Germans endured around 239,000.

While the loss of manpower and equipment for the Allies was replaceable as American military and industrial power was brought to bear, the Germans were unable to replace the number lost. Though Michael succeeded in pushing the British back forty miles in some places, it failed in its strategic objectives. This was largely due to the German troops being unable to significantly dislodge Byng's 3rd Army in the north where the British enjoyed stronger defenses and the advantage of terrain. As a result, the German penetration, while deep, was directed away from their ultimate objectives. Not to be deterred, Ludendorff renewed his Spring Offensive on April 9 with the launching of Operation Georgette in Flanders.

Selected Sources