Why did the German Spring Offensive of 1918 fail

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The German Spring Offensive of 1918 was one of the last great offensives of the First World War. The offensive ultimately failed and the allies are able to beat back the German attacks. The German Spring Offensive of 1918 was the last effort by Germany to win the war and its failure meant that the Central Powers had lost the war. If the Spring Offensive had succeeded the outcome of the war would have been very different and the course of history in the Twentieth Century would have been very different. The German Spring Offensive failed for a variety of reasons and these include poor supplies, stubborn Allied defensive tactics and the German overestimating their capabilities.


The German army was under the direction of General Erich Ludendorff, by this stage in the war, his old collaborator Field Marshall von Hindenburg was only nominally German Chief of Staff. He was the mastermind of the Spring offensive in 1918, which is often referred to as the ‘Ludendorff Offensive’[1]. On the face of it Germany and the Central Powers are in a strong position in early 1918. After the Treaty of Brest-Livotosk, the Russians had withdrawn from the war and the Germans had secured new territory in the east. Romania had been defeated and Italy and Greece are no longer a threat. By 1918, it was clear that WW I would be decided on the western front [2]. The Germans knew that after America had joined the war, that they would tip the balance in favour of the allies, in the long term. By early 1918, the Americans had already begun to make a difference on the western front and if they were allowed to build up their strength, further, then the allies, eventually could inflict a decisive defeat on Imperial Germany. Furthermore, as a result of the allied naval blockade, Germany was on the brink of starvation and there was great unrest in the cities and strikes had become very common [3].

Ludendorff was in a race against time. Germany had to defeat Britain and France or they faced almost certain defeat, Ludendorff believed that they had only one last chance to strike a decisive blow against the allies before it was too late. Ludendorff was a realist and knew that the situation was grave for Germany [4]. After the Treaty of Brest-Livtosk the German Army could transfer some 50 divisions from the Eastern Front to the western front, in early 1918. Ludendorff would use these divisions in his last offensive and Germany’s last effort to win WW I [5]. 
German troops taking an allied trench in 1918


The Germans first transported the fifty divisions by rail from the east to the western front. Ludendorff decided that the goal of the offensive would be to divided the British and the French armies. The British are mainly based in north of France, while the French army is located in the centre and east of France. The Germans wanted to drive a wedge between the British and the French. They intended after this to drive the British back to the Channel Ports, at the same time the Germans planned to seize the remaining ports in Belgium. It was hoped that by defeating the British that they would seek peace terms with Germany and that once their main ally had capitulated, the French would also seek to negotiate with Berlin. This would, in turn, persuade the Americans to also seek a negotiated settlement with the Germans. The Germans at this stage are well aware that it was almost impossible for them to achieve outright victory and that the best that they could hope for was some form of negotiated settlement [6]. Key to the German strategy was the widespread use of Stormtrooper units and formations. These were highly mobile soldiers who would storm the allies’ trenches and then attack the read, disrupting supply lines and communications and especially destroying artillery. The Stormtroopers were the elite of the German army. The best men from German units are used to form these units and they receive special training and advanced weaponry[7]. They were used to spearhead the German advance and they were expected to occupy key strategic positions very quickly. The speed of the Stormtroopers was expected to deliver victory on the western front. The Germans also used short, massive bombardments before the assaults, a tactic that had been previously used with great success on the eastern front.

German troops taking an allied trench in 1918

The Offensive

The Offensive took place over a period of one hundred days and four or five major battles are identifiable during this phase of the war. The first major operation of the Spring Offensive was Operation Michael. On 21 March 1918, the German Stormtroopers launched an attack against the British Fifth Army and against the right wing of the British Third Army. By the end of the first day, the British had suffered some 50,000 casualties and the Germans had broken through at several points. The British Fifth Army after two days was in full retreat and the Third Army was also forced to withdraw from its positions as its commanders feared being surrounded by the Germans. The French dispatched several divisions to halt the German advance and they helped to slow and eventually to halt the German advance. The German attack had achieved real and substantive gains but it was not a decisive defeat for the British in particular, who regroup and established a new line of defences [8]. The British had been forced to send their reserves to support the British Third and Fifth Army and this left them very weak on their flanks, especially in the sectors around the Channel Ports. The Portuguese Second Division was targeted by the Germans. The Portuguese were spread very thin and expected to hold a very long line. The Germans launched a brutal artillery assault on their positions and the Portuguese Division fled[9]. The Stormtroopers soon entered the breach in the line and pushed several miles towards the Channel Port of Dunkirk. Fearing being outflanked the British Divisions withdrew and they formed a new defensive line on the River Lys. It was feared that if this line did not hold then the Germans could press on and take the Channel Ports and this could have dealt a decisive blow to the Allied war effort. The French again sent reinforcements, but before they even arrived the Germans had come to a halt, as their supply lines were overextended <Middlebrook, p. 114</ref>.

British Machine gunners 1918

Then the Germans turned their attention to the area where the British and the French lines met. Ludendorff wanted the Stormtroopers to drive a wedge between the two armies. The Germans after a brief, but heavy bombardment, attacked several weakened British Divisions in and around Reims. They drove them back many miles and the Stormtroopers almost advanced to the Marne, causing people to flee from Paris [10]. Once again the German advance falters and there was no attempt made to drive towards Paris. The Germans then turned their attention to the French army and launched a surprise attack on French positions near Amiens. This was once again successful at least initial but a French counterattack, supported by the Americans, halted the Germans in May 1918[11]. The Germans had so far had some real success. Ludendorff was aware that he needed to inflict a decisive defeat on the allies. They had already received more support from the Americans than expected and this was a worry to the German High Command. They decided on one last all-out assault in order to break the allies will to fight and bring them to the negotiating table. This attack was called by Ludendorff the Peace Offensive because it was believed that if it succeeded it would lead to a peaceful resolution of the war, and one in Germany’s favor. The Germans attacked the French and the British in and around the River Marne in mid-July 1918, this battle is sometimes known as the Second Battle of the Marne [12]. The French had strongly fortified this sector in order to protect Paris. The Germans had lost many of their best men and they were running low on supplies. Moreover, they had lost the element of surprise and a German prisoner had informed them of where and when, the attack would take place. This German assault, unlike the earlier attacks did not yield any significant results and the French lines held. In fact, Ludendorff had to evacuate some divisions fearing they would be outflanked and this is regarded as the end of the German Spring Offensive.

British and Commonwealth troops in 1918

Outcome of the Offensive

The series of offensives had yielded large territorial gains for the Germans, at lease when compared to previous offensives. The Germans, however did not inflict a decisive defeat on the allies and they failed to drive a wedge between the British and the French and utterly failed to force them to the negotiating table [13]. The territory that the Germans had gained meant that they had an extended line to defend and this meant that their army was quite thinly spread in many areas. Moreover, some were in the form of salients that were vulnerable to allied attacks. It has been argued that despite the territorial gains that the Germans were left in a weaker positions’ after the Spring Offensive than before the attacks. The Germans lost many men during the battles in the Spring of 1918. It has been estimated that the strength of the German army had fallen from just over five million in March 1918 to just over four million by the Autumn of 1918. The allies had also suffered many losses but these were made good by reinforcements from America. The Germans after the offensives found themselves in a very weak position and during the allied offensives in the Autumn, their army all but collapsed, leading to the Armistice of 1918 and the defeat of the German Empire [14].

Reasons for the Failure of the German Offensive

The Germans failed for a variety of reasons. One was that Ludendorff did not set out clear objectives. He constantly changed his mind and he deviated from his original plans and goals. This caused some confusion in the German chain of command. Then there was the overreliance on the Stormtroopers, they were among the finest soldiers of the First World War [15]. However, after the first assaults the suffered heavy casualties and the Germans could not replace them with the same quality of troops. This meant that the Stormtroopers became relatively ineffective. This is best seen at the Second Battle of the Marne, when they failed to achieve any sort of breakthrough. Ludendorff also failed to support the Stormtroopers when they did advance, there were no mobile units, such as cavalry mad available, to reinforce the newly captured territories <Gray, 214</ref>. This made the Stormtroopers very vulnerable to any counterattacks as in May 1918. Furthermore, after the first battles the allies reinforced their defensive positions and this made any German breakthrough even harder to achieve. Then there were the critical issues of German supplies. The German economy was on the verge of collapse and it could barely feed its people. This was perhaps the main reason why the German Offensive in Spring 1918 ultimately failed. The German army was often hungry and its advance was often slowed as hungry troops pillaged captured allied supply depots. There was also a shortage of fuel for tanks and the German planes, so much so that the allies are able to retain air superiority during the course of the offensives. Then as the German made rapid advances their supply lines are unable to keep pace and this results in shortages of everything that slowed the advance. On several occasions the Germans simply stopped their advance, not because of ally’s resistance but because they had run out of supplies[16].


The great German Spring Offensive was a failure. It failed to inflict a decisive defeat on the allies and force them to negotiate a peace settlement. The Germans offensive was well planned but its goals had been poorly defined and they often changed. The German army by 1918 was poorly supplied and this greatly constrained its ability to fight and to press home its early gains in the Spring of 1918. The offensive was a partial success in terms of territorial gain, but it proved very costly. The allies had been badly hit but they had not been broken. At no time did the French or the British consider negotiating with Berlin, partly because they knew that the Americans would soon flood the western front with men and material. The German army after the demands and losses of the offensive was very weak and when the allies launched a massive Autumn offensive they simply collapsed and this led to the end of the war and an allied victory.


  1. Zabecki, D.T, The German 1918 Offensives: A Case Study of the Operational Level of War, (Taylor & Francis, London, 2005), p 56
  2. Zabeck, p. 57
  3. Pitt, Barrie, 1918 The Last Act. Pen & Sword Military Classics. Barnsley: Pen and Sword, 1962, p. 45
  4. Pitt, p. 47
  5. Pitt, p. 13
  6. Keegan, John The First World War (London, Pimlico, 1999), p. 345
  7. Keegan, p. 346
  8. Middlebrook, Martin. The Kaiser's Battle: 21 March 1918: The First Day of the German Spring Offensive. (Hammondsworth, Penguin. 1983), p. 111
  9. Keegan, p. 347
  10. Gray, Randal, Kaiserschlacht, 1918: The Final German Offensive, Osprey Campaign Series 11 (London: Osprey, 1991), p. 176
  11. Gray, p. 179
  12. Keegan, p. 337
  13. Gray. p 213
  14. Keegan, p. 401
  15. Gray, 212
  16. Zabecki, p 345