The preparation: Events leading up to the 21st of March 1918
war in the East was winding down, the Russian armies were beaten in the field
and the Germans were negotiating the peace with Lenin and Trotsky at Brest
Litowsk. A number of divisions would have to stay in place but the majority
were now free for service in the West. It was in the West that the outcome of
the war would be decided. Over the years the Germans had successfully stopped a
number of allied offensives, now it was time for the Germans to finally take
the offensive. It was their biggest gamble of the war. If it failed the Germans
would no longer be able to deliver a decisive blow, in fact, they would be hard
pressed to hold their own in the face of allied counter-offensives. Once the
decision had been made it would have to be carried through. Time was not on the
side of the Germans. From across the oceans a new army was on the march, the
Americans were beginning to arrive and would be ready to fight at some stage in
Left: General Ludendorff, the driving force behind the operation.
big questions were how to carry out the offensive, where should it happen and
should it be one large thrust or a series of smaller thrusts? The possibilities
had been analysed since late 1917 and now the plan began to take shape. The
area of St. Quentin was chosen as it was the boundary between the French Armies
and those of the British Empire. A wedge driven
over Abbeville to the coast, would separate the British from their allies and
crush them against sea. At the same time
the Germans would hit the French to pre-empt their likely attempt to bring
relief to the British by trying to draw away German troops.
German High Command decided, after the experiences gained on the Duna, in Italy and at
Cambrai, that surprise was the best way of achieving their goal. There would be
no steady build up of a bombardment over days. Instead they would use a sudden
thunderclap of artillery firing a meticulously planned bombardment and barrage courtesy of
Three Armies took up positions in specially prepared
staging areas that stretched from Croisilles by Arras to the fortress La Fere
on the Oise.
General Otto von Below´s 17th army in the West, the
2nd Army under General der Kavallerie v.d. Marwitz and in the East General von
Hutier´s 18th Army. Von
Hutier was under the command of the Heeresgruppe Deutsche Kronprinz. V.d.
Marwitz and von Below under the Heeresgruppe Kronprinz Ruprecht.
Armies took up positions in specially prepared staging areas that stretched
from Croisilles by Arras to the fortress La Fere
on the Oise. General Otto von Below´s 17th
army in the West, General der Kavallerie v.d. Marwitz’s 2nd Army in
the centre and General von Hutier´s 18th Army in the East. Von Hutier was
under the command of the Heeresgruppe Deutsche Kronprinz with V.d. Marwitz and von Below under Heeresgruppe
armies marched at night, a slowly moving grey mass, no lights were shown and
little noise was made, at dawn they disappeared into forests and villages. So
it continued, night after night, until the chess master had all his pieces in
position. The Allies remained ignorant of the preparations going on behind the
German lines. As they approached the front, the infantry gazed in awe at the
massed artillery. From the smallest to the heaviest calibres, the artillery
stood by awaiting orders to start their work.
the night of the 21st March a heavy fog lay across the front. The
infantry shivered in the trenches and reserve positions, they knew what the
morning would bring. At 4:40 am the guns thundered, unleashing a volcano
of fire unlike anything they had witnessed before. There was an uninterrupted
roar as explosive and gas shells carried death and destruction to the Allied
lines. Minenwerfer rounds fell from the sky destroying trenches and bunkers. For
5 hours the artillery worked feverishly to maintain this firestorm until the German
infantry left the trenches.
To follow the path of the Northern Wing (17. Armee), click HERE