With Russia out of the War, the Germans redeployed over a million men, moving them from the Eastern to the Western Front, giving them a clear advantage over the Allies.
Both sides were well aware that this advantage was temporary, though. America had joined the war a few months before, and as soon as more US soldiers arrived, it would tip the balance back in favour of the Allies. So the Germans planned to launch a decisive offensive, fast. Their main attack was codenamed ‘operation Michael’.
They launched their first assault where the Allies seemed weakest – on the southernmost part of the British front. The French had previously been holding this part of the front, but they had been debilitated by mutinies in their armies. In October 1917, the British had extended their own line southwards to provide some relief to the French. However, the British had suffered huge losses at Ypres, and couldn’t send nearly as many reinforcements to the south as needed. As a result, they were stretched desperately thin there, with inadequate defences and few reserves.
On 21 March 1918, the Germans launched the first part of what became known as their Spring Offensive.
Sixty German divisions attacked 80 kilometres of British front between St Quentin and Arras. They broke through the British defences, almost destroying the Fifth Army, and advancing as much as 60 kilometres in some places.
Read this audio story
Thomas Eltringham's story
"We were out for reorganisation, you know: new clothes, hot baths and all that sort of stuff and train of course, when you come out, ready to go whenever we were needed and of course us being out, immediately the call came through from headquarters that the Germans had broke through. New Zealanders already being out of the line and not being utilised, they were the first picked so then there was the New Zealand Division, a Scotch Division and an Australian Division, we were all hot footed up to what they call the forced march."
On 24 March, the New Zealand Division rushed south to the Somme region to help. They were, at the time, one of the strongest divisions of the British forces.
Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington. Ref: 1/2-013080-G. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22370113
The Germans continued to push forward. Specialist Sturmtruppen (stormtroops) or Strosstruppen (assault troops) spearheaded their attacks. These were small units of elite troops wielding flamethrowers, light machine guns and the world’s first sub-machine guns – Bergmann MP18s. Their job was to break through enemy trench lines, overrun command and communication, and create confusion. Ordinary German infantry followed behind them, mopping up.
However, the German plan had been over-ambitious. As their losses grew, the Spring Offensive faltered. British naval blockades were seriously affecting their supplies, and they couldn’t replenish weapons and other essentials as fast as they needed to.
Between March and July, the Germans lost a million men, including many experienced soldiers. They began conscripting 17-year-olds to try to replace their losses, but ultimately it would all be in vain.
Thomas Eltringham, interview by Jane Tolerton and Nicholas Boyack 02 October 1988, OHInt-0006/29, World War 1 Oral History Archive, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, NZ.