Another History Lesson

German artillery on the Western Front, March 1918 (National Archives)
German artillery on the Western Front, March 1918 (National Archives)

One hundred years ago this month, all hell broke loose in France. On March 21, 1918, the German army on the Western Front unleashed a series of massive attacks on the exhausted British and French armies.

German general Erich Ludendorff thought he could win World War I with one final blow. He planned to punch holes between the French and British armies. Then he would drive through their trenches to the English Channel, isolating and destroying the British army.

The Germans thought they had no choice but to gamble.

The British naval blockade of Germany after three years had reduced Germany to near famine. More than 200,000 American reinforcement troops were arriving each month in France. (Nearly 2 million would land altogether.) American farms and factories were sending over huge shipments of food and munitions to the Allies.

Yet for a brief moment, the war had suddenly swung in Germany’s favor by March 1918. The German army had just knocked Russia and its new Bolshevik government out of the war. The victory on the Eastern Front freed up nearly 1 million German and Austrian soldiers, who were transferred west.

Germany had refined new rolling artillery barrages. Its dreaded “Stormtroopers” had mastered dispersed advances. The result was a brief window of advantage before the American juggernaut changed the war’s arithmetic.

The Spring Offensive almost worked. Within days, the British army had suffered some 50,000 casualties. Altogether, about a half million French, British, and American troops were killed or wounded during the entire offensive.

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