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Tuesday 18 December 2018

The German advance that caused panic in London, Washington and Paris

Surprise: German troops advancing during the Spring Offensive of 1918. Photo: Imperial War Museum
Surprise: German troops advancing during the Spring Offensive of 1918. Photo: Imperial War Museum

In early spring 1918, the German army dropped leaflets on British trenches in France warning allied soldiers that they were closer to Tipperary than Berlin. After the leaflets they sent shells, mortars and assault soldiers.

The German March offensive of 1918 was one of the great breakthrough battles of World War I. It began at 4.20am on March 21, 1918, along an 80km stretch of the Western Front. By the end of the first day, German divisions had gained 255 square kilometres. Two weeks later, when the offensive stalled, they had captured 90,000 prisoners and an area of enemy territory roughly equivalent to the size of Meath and Louth.

The fear that German divisions might make an even greater breakthrough caused panic in Washington, London and Paris.

Senior figures in the US administration even began secret plans for a separate German-US peace, while in London, the crisis led to moves towards introducing conscription in Ireland (the most important political event in Ireland in 1918). In Berlin, the normally downbeat Kaiser Wilhelm II was so excited that he jubilantly exclaimed the "battle is won, the English have been utterly defeated".

Hundreds of ranks below the Kaiser, some ordinary soldiers thought that they had finally thrashed "Tommy's hide".

It is often forgotten that during the winter of 1917-18, it looked like Germany might win the war. By the spring of 1918, German victory in the east was secure. That victory allowed Erich Ludendorff, the de-facto commander of Germany's armies, to transfer hundreds of thousands of soldiers from the eastern to the Western Front. His plan was to use them to win the war before American soldiers could arrive in Europe in sufficient numbers to make a difference to the war's outcome.

After the March offensive, he launched another three follow-up offensives in April, May and July.

In June, some of his soldiers even got as far as within 90km of Paris. But by mid-July, it was clear that the German advances had been in vain. In July and August 1918, when the allies launched their counter-offensives, they were fighting against an enemy that was nowhere near as resilient as it had been only months earlier: Ludenforff's offensives had sapped the German armies of the strength they needed to stay in the war.

Between the start of the March offensive (March 21, 1918) and the Armistice (November 11, 1918) Germany lost 1.8 million casualties. Between July and November, a further 385,000 German prisoners were captured by the Allies - more than half the number of prisoners captured on the Western Front during the entire war. As historian Alexander Watson has shown, by late summer, entire units of German soldiers were surrendering. Panicking, Ludendorff now demanded that Germany's civilian government, hitherto excluded from the real decision making, organise peace. Before they were able to do so, a popular anti-war revolution swept away the old elites and Germany was declared a Republic on November 9, 1918. In 1923, Ludendorff joined forces with Hitler in an attempt to overthrow the Republic.

Mark Jones is a historian of modern Europe and a research fellow at UCD and author of Founding Weimar: Violence and the German Revolution of 1918-1919

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