While Erster Generalquartiermeister Erich Ludendorff had busied himself during the Brest-Litovsk negotiations sketching future borders on European maps with reckless abandon, his field commanders and staff had assessed Germany’s prospects for 1918. They were not cheery. More than one million draft-eligible men remained in war-related industries at home, and the OHL estimated late in 1917 that it could at best pry loose 300,000 for front-line duty. Reserves were being called up at the rate of 58,000 trained and 21,000 untrained men per month and would cover needs only until January 1918. Thereafter, the cohort of 1900, not due to be called to the colours until the autumn, was all that remained. `Seen from this point of view all operations that are not necessary should be avoided.’ Ludendorff hoped that leaders in Germany would `keep our nerves 10 minutes longer than the enemy’. General Hermann von Kuhl sadly noted that the U-boat war had turned into `a wild-goose chase’.
Kuhl’s superior, Crown Prince Rupprecht, sent Ludendorff his appraisal of the military situation on 25 October 1917. The Bavarian ruled out major offensives in the west, claiming that his forces were capable only of `limited counterattacks’. Time was running out. The anticipated arrival of the Americans in the autumn of 1918 would turn the numerical advantage against the Reich, which was in no position to `do the enemy the favour of allowing ourselves to be destroyed bit by bit in battles of material’. Crown Prince Wilhelm seconded Rupprecht’s analysis. Both agreed that men had to be spared; territory could more easily be lost. On 28 October Ludendorff `generally’ concurred with Rupprecht’s views and merely raised the possibility of a limited offensive by the Fourth Army against the British in the area of Armentieres-Bailleul `to deflect the impact of the Americans’. Like Kuhl, Ludendorff had lost faith in the U-boats. The only cheerful news was that deep divisions between the English and French peoples in Canada prevented that country from sending more troops to France.
On 23 October Major Georg Wetzell, the OHL’s head of operations, penned what became the critical position paper on its military alternatives for 1918. `If we do not wish to succumb to false illusions,’ Wetzell stated, `then we must count on the fact that the Entente will survive the winter . . . and that the Americans will have added significant forces to the western war theatre in the spring of 1918 (10-15 divisions)’. The Western Front remained decisive. The only viable strategy was `to deliver an annihilating blow to the British before American aid can become effective’. The Army could be strengthened in two ways: shortening Army Group Crown Prince Wilhelm’s front by withdrawing to the Gudrun Line would free up 20 divisions; and 15 more could be removed from the east. Within 24 hours, Ludendorff approved Wetzell’s concept. The collapse of Russia allowed the OHL to raise its estimates of reinforcements from the Eastern Front first to 31 infantry and cavalry divisions and then to 45. But Ludendorff’s insatiable appetite for Russian lands reduced this figure to 33, with the result that there were still 40 infantry and three cavalry divisions in the east when the Army launched its great offensive in France. Indeed, Ludendorff was caught on the horns of a dilemma of his own making: on the one hand, he wanted to get every soldier and every gun to the Western Front for the great Armageddon, but on the other hand he knew the low fighting value of these occupation troops and feared withdrawing too many lest the Russians – Red or White – seize the chance to retake the lands lost at Brest-Litovsk.
The need to force a decision in the west early in 1918 occupied military commanders throughout the winter of 1917-18. Army Group Crown Prince Rupprecht worked on a modest campaign in Ypres designed to break out of Armentieres in the direction of Bullécourt-La Fere. Army Group Crown Prince Wilhelm proposed a double-sided pincer movement against Verdun (!) designed to annihilate French forces in the region. Army Group Archduke Albrecht of Württemberg planned to shift the war’s focus to Alsace. And Hindenburg favoured a direct assault against the British to throw Douglas Haig’s forces back to the Channel. Yet a number of high-ranking commanders – Hoffmann, Seeckt, Schulenburg, Lossberg, Gallwitz and Crown Prince Rupprecht – seriously questioned whether the Army could sustain a major offensive in the coming year.
On 11 November Ludendorff decided on the gambler’s last throw of the dice. Wilhelm II was apprised of Operation Michael on 23 January 1918; on 10 March Hindenburg issued formal orders for infantry to charge enemy lines at 9:40 a. m. on 21 March. Colonel Albrecht von Thaer fully appreciated the immensity of the decision. `Here in the west we stand before the future as before a dark curtain. The coming events will bring tremendous and for many horrible [things].’ Using language similar to that which Erich von Falkenhayn had used at Christmas 1915 to describe his Verdun offensive, Thaer predicted that both sides would be subjected to a severe `bloodletting’ throughout the coming summer. Thaer as well as countless colleagues used the term `last card’ to describe Operation Michael. Yet all agreed on the need for decisive action. General Fritz von Loßberg, staff chief of the Fourth Army, put it bluntly to Wilhelm II on the eve of Michael: if the war continued at its present pace, `it can well last into 1920′.
Ludendorff divided the forces for Michael into three categories: 44 `mobile’ divisions with full-strength battalions of 850 each armed with machine guns, flamethrowers and trench mortars and assigned the best supply horses available; about 30 `attack’ divisions similarly equipped and designed as first-line replacement units; and finally more than 100 `trench’ (Stellungs) divisions stripped of their best equipment and intended merely to hold the front. Ludendorff stepped up training courses for his infantry throughout the winter of 1917-18. The captains and majors of the roughly 70 `mobile’ and `attack’ divisions chosen to spearhead the initial assault underwent training in 80-men cohorts in special 8-day courses run by a staff of 18 instructors at Sedan (and then Valenciennes) as early as September 1917. Subjects taught ranged from tanks to anti-tank warfare, machine guns to gas and artillery to air warfare. The courses, which were quickly expanded to 4 weeks each, stressed rigid discipline, daily physical exercise, special instruction in the use of machine guns, and joint operations with artillery and air power. Artillery was trained to deploy high-angle howitzers against tanks.
The German front remained committed to an in-depth and elastic defence, with the third line holding `the mass of troops in bunkers’. Enemy assaults were to be halted where possible at the first line `with the last bullet and handgrenade’, but in the case of strong hostile artillery the troops were to withdraw to the second line of defence. German soldiers were drilled to accept that timely counterattacks were their best and only hope; the speed of the echeloned counterattack, the place chosen for it and the coordination between machinegun and artillery fire were critical. Units were instructed to reorganize the minute an attack had been repelled as enemy artillery was to be expected.
Ludendorff calculated that the Army had sufficient seasoned officers available to command its battalions, but that it lacked veterans to staff its companies. All too often young and inexperienced officers, mainly from reserve formations, were rapidly advanced to command companies. Thus, training was critical to Michael’s success. The OHL also made sure that the assault divisions received sufficient food: 600 g of bread, 200 g of meat (served 5 days of the week), 50 g of fat and 100 g of honey or marmalade per day. Still, the soldiers’ caloric intake overall had fallen from 3100 in August 1914 to 2500 by early 1918. Dried cod and canned meats often substituted for fresh meat. The OHL lavished special attention on machine guns. It decreed that each infantry regiment was to have 30 heavy MG 08 guns and 72 light MG 08/15, but production bottlenecks cut the number of light machine guns in half.
The MG 08/15 could be used in the first defensive line to repel an assault, but its true value lay as a counterattack weapon in forward positions beyond the range of friendly artillery; it was also deemed fit to use against tanks at close range. Machine guns were to be deployed in clusters of two or three and each crew carried 5000 rounds in belts, sufficient for four bursts of about 3 minutes each. The guns could fire at the rate of 400-500 shots per minute, but barrels tended to overheat quickly. The fine dust of the Champagne and Flanders (when dry) caused frequent jamming, and the troops were instructed to oil their weapons well and to use wet cloths to protect them from both dust and gas. The heavy MG 08 gun was described as `the weapon of intermediary terrain’, that is, as the main killing tool between the first and second lines. While it could be used against enemy flyers, it was most effective against hostile troops that had overrun the first trench line. Teams consisted of one gunner and four assistants, which were most advantageously placed in reinforced concrete pill-boxes 7-10 yards deep with a firing platform 2 yards below the surface. Gunners were to move only by night and then to use rakes to erase their footsteps in the dirt to foil enemy reconnaissance by air. A school at Rozoy trained 20 machine-gun crews at a time. Austro- Hungarian and Turkish officers were invited to the courses.
Reconnaissance and communications received detailed attention. In good weather the pilots of tethered balloons could take pictures up to a range of 18 or 19 miles. Reconnaissance planes were outfitted with special radios and telephoto-lens cameras, allowing a pilot both to report his sightings and to photograph them. About 4000 cartographers on the ground developed and analysed the pictures. The Army found that dogs – 12 per regiment – remained the most reliable means of getting messages to and from the front. Each animal underwent 4-6 weeks of training with two trainers: one at the front and one in the rear to assure accurate runs. Each division had 120 pigeons housed in hermetically sealed cages to protect them against gas. The birds were tattooed under the wing for identification and had aluminium tubes attached to their legs to hold messages. They could go 48 hours without food. Howitzers were designed to fire special metallic message containers; smoke released on impact with the ground marked their whereabouts. Message runners remained the final recourse.
The Supreme Command also beefed up its air forces for the great push in France. The number of aircraft on hand – not counting 1000 machines with reserve formations – had more than doubled from 1200 in 1917 to 2600 in 1918 under the auspices of the so-called `America Programme’. On the eve of Michael, the German Air Force in the west consisted of 2000 active and about 1700 reserve aircraft organized into 80 attack squadrons of 12 planes each, 38 support squadrons of 12 craft each, and eight bomber squadrons of 18 machines each. An all-metal, single-wing Junkers craft constituted a significant advance over the usual wooden-framed aircraft that easily succumbed to fire. Reconnaissance craft could reach an altitude of up to 7000 yards in 45 minutes; fighters could do so in half the time at a speed of 100 miles per hour. Two-thirds of the Reich’s 2000 anti-aircraft guns were also positioned on the Western Front.
Alarmed by the increased activity of Allied spies early in 1918, the OHL in January instructed Army Group Crown Prince Rupprecht to alert all units that spies most frequently landed or parachuted behind its lines between midnight and dawn in captured planes. They dressed in German uniforms, used forged documents to fool patrols, carried about 2000 francs to bribe French civilians, and brought hot pepper to throw police dogs off the trail. Once on the ground, they switched to civilian garb. Railroads were the spies’ primary objectives, and they sent their findings out by pigeons with messages scribbled in invisible ink.
Ludendorff’s staff developed a detailed `decoy plan’ to confuse the Allies concerning the actual deployments for Michael. On 24 February General von Loßberg instructed army-group commanders to increase their artillery bombardments, to send up additional observation balloons, to step up aerial reconnaissance and bombing and to withdraw their front units a few yards to occupy the enemy’s attention. Commanders were also instructed to send out numerous and meaningless radio messages, and to release hundreds of pigeons, including especially captured enemy birds, with false orders. Civilian populations were to be assembled in mass formations in non-assault areas behind the front to lead the Allies to believe that they were German reserves; elsewhere they were to be driven out of their homes for the same purpose. All front areas were closed to travel. Loßberg instructed his commanders to march their men in all conceivable directions by day to deceive enemy flyers, noting that this tactic was especially effective against `the cunning English’.
Tanks bedevilled the German Army throughout the war in two ways: it had neither developed an effective antidote nor built its own in numbers. Daimler in Berlin in the winter of 1914-15 had experimented only with light armoured personnel carriers with wheels designed for street use and ignored the American-designed caterpillar track. The OHL eventually realized the tank’s potential, and on 30 October 1916 had ordered the first prototype built. The tank was to be manned by a crew of six and powered by an 80- 100 horsepower motor capable of speeds of 7 or 8 miles per hour on roads and about 4 in open terrain. The unit was to weigh 4 tons and mount one machine gun each front and back as well as two on the side.
Thereafter, designers divided their attention among a heavier (150-ton) tank armed with four 7.7 cm and two machine guns, a medium (30-ton) tank mounting one 6 cm and six machine guns and flamethrowers, and a light (8.5- ton) model with only two machine guns. However, industry was fully taxed with producing ammunition, guns and U-boats and never gave tank development full attention. Nor was there any research-and-development synergy between industry and the Army. The net result was that the Germans used mainly about 20 captured British and French tanks; as well, they deployed nine of their only model, the A7V, on the first day of the Michael offensive. This medium tank had a best speed of 5 miles per hour on level surfaces, with a range of only 15 miles. The A7V tank lacked manoeuvrability and its crew of 12 proved too large for smooth operation of the vehicle. Daimler reported in February 1918 that it was still 8-9 months away from developing a new large tank, and that production could not start before 1919. Moreover, Daimler’s exorbitant prices – it demanded a 50 per cent increase in its car and tank costs in 1918 alone – in March forced the government after a bitter debate in the Reichstag to `militarize’ the firm, thereby further slowing tank production.
The Army published its first manual for tank warfare in January 1918. It depicted the tank as an `auxiliary weapon’ incapable of deciding battle on its own; its major function was to assist infantry in reaching enemy positions. On 18 January Ludendorff decreed that the few tanks on hand were to be used to reduce wires, to run over machine-gun positions, but thereafter to avoid enemy artillery fire by returning to their own lines. The tanks were not to spearhead infantry’s advance, but rather to support the first assault wave as mobile field artillery. Iron-cross markings on the tops or sides were to identify friendly tanks. Some units, such as General Bernhard Finck von Finckenstein’s 4th Guards Infantry Division, painted white death’s heads on the front of their tanks as signs of elite formations.
This rather simplistic approach to tank warfare should not obscure the fact that lower commands were intensively experimenting with the new weapon. Around the start of Michael, the Commander of Armoured Vehicles, Division III (Bornschlegel), summed up experiences to date for front commanders. It required at least 10 days to prepare a tank assault. The vehicles were best deployed in pairs, were to move up slightly behind the infantry as mobile artillery, and were not to advance more than 4-5 miles per day. Tank leaders were to train daily with infantry and to develop close communications with infantry leaders. Because signal lamps could not be read in fog and smoke, each tank was to be painted with numbers and flags for ready identification and be given a radio for communication. Canister-shot was most effective, but insufficient storage room for shells limited the tank’s assault capability. Revolving periscopes were dismissed out of hand as the tanks pitched and rolled too violently for steady observation and firing; notched sights remained the norm. Unfortunately, the tanks were front-heavy due to the placement of the large gun; there were no gun weights to offset this; and the constant pounding that the tank took off-road loosened the bolts on gun placements. Obviously, the tank required more development before it could play a decisive role in battle.
Anti-tank warfare also troubled the Germans. The first manual on how to deal with tanks was published in December 1916, and recommended machine-gun and howitzer fire against the mechanical monsters. In April 1917 Army Group Crown Prince Wilhelm encapsulated its experiences with British tanks during the Battle of Arras. The report, penned by Captain Bernhard Bronsart von Schellendorf, recommended close-support batteries as the best deterrent. Three to four shells sufficed to put a tank out of service; the best shots were through the side where they hit the lethal petrol tanks. Bronsart von Schellendorf bravely suggested that the German infantryman `generally has nothing to fear from the tanks’.
The Battle of Cambrai in November 1917, of course, proved otherwise and the search for an effective anti-tank weapon continued. In March 1918, two weeks before the start of the Michael offensive, the General Staff reminded soldiers that single hand-grenades were ineffective against tanks, and instructed them to tie several grenades together with wire and to hurl them at the tank’s turret. Roughly 200 former 2-cm anti-aircraft guns proved inadequate as tank defence, and hence the front received a new 13-mm anti-tank gun. It also remained of questionable value as single shots failed to puncture enemy armour. The gun was effective only if grouped with others and fired at close range (200-300 yards) as well as high angle (60-90 degrees) in order to penetrate the soft tops of tanks.
Having trained the assault troops for Michael, Ludendorff next turned his attention to doctrine. Unsurprisingly, he called on Captain Hermann Geyer, the Bavarian officer in the operations section of the General Staff, who in December 1916 had crafted the `Principles of Command for the Defensive Battle in Position Warfare’. In January 1918 Geyer completed `The Attack in Position Warfare’; it became the manual for Michael. The Bavarian had studied the last 3 years of `attacks with limited objectives’ to devise a method to `break through’ the enemy trench networks and thereby to regain operational manoeuvre. The Army had spent the winter of 1917-18 systematically honing its tactical skills; the question now was how to rupture enemy lines and, more importantly, how to exploit that rupture. Geyer acknowledged that the military instrument, in classic Clausewitzean terms, had been worn down by years of constant combat. Veterans in their thirties and forties, and especially Landsturm men in their fifties, would not do as `attack’ specialists or `storm-battalion’ troops.
Geyer, following Ludendorff’s suggestion, thus selected about 25 per cent of all soldiers – those between the ages of 25 and 35 – for special `attack’ divisions, and relegated the rest to `trench’ divisions comprised of older men with inferior equipment. Der Angriff im Stellungskrieg stipulated that small units were to infiltrate (durchfressen) Allied lines, bypass centres of resistance and `penetrate quickly and deeply’ into the enemy’s rear. Reserves were to be kept in forward positions and detailed by the Supreme Command to exploit ruptures in enemy lines. Individual units were not to halt and await reinforcements, but to drive forward until exhausted. Fresh formations would then leapfrog ahead of them. Storm troopers would spearhead the attack. Artillery would lay down fast and accurate barrages designed to neutralize rather than to destroy hostile positions. Training, surprise and uninterrupted forward movement were critical to success. `The surprised adversary should not be allowed to regain consciousness.’ Troops, in the words of General Max Hoffmann, were `to test various positions’ in the lines `one after another in order to ascertain where one encountered the enemy’s weakness’, against which `one would have to press the attack with all possible force’. Tactical virtuosity had replaced strategy at the OHL.