Primary Documents - Paul von Hindenburg on the Opening of the 1918 Spring Offensive, 21 March 1918
Reproduced below is German Chief of Staff Paul von Hindenburg's account of the opening of the great German Spring Offensive of 1918.
Opening on 21 March it was designed to knock the British and French out of the war (possibly by the expedient of separating their forces and communication) before sufficient U.S. forces could arrive in France to decisively tip the scales in favour of the Allies.
The German Army made enormous breakthrough gains against the British Fifth Army at the Somme and indeed looked set to triumph over the Allies; with the aid of French reserves however the German advance was finally halted in early April.
Paul von Hindenburg on the Opening of the German Spring Offensive, 21 March 1918
Shortly before we left Spa His Majesty issued the Order for the first great battle.
I will quote the material portion of this order in full to save a detailed description of our plans. By way of explanation I may remark that the preparations for the great battle are indicated by the rubric "Michael," and that the day and hour of the attack were only inserted when we knew for certain that our preparations were complete.
By His Majesty's Orders:
1. The Michael attack will take place on the 21.3. The first attack on the enemy's lines is fixed for 9.40 a.m.
2. The first great tactical objective of the Crown Prince Rupprecht's Army Group is to cut off the English in the Cambrai salient and reach the line Croisilles (southeast of Arras)-Bapaume-Peronne. If the attack of the right wing (Seventeenth Army) proceeds favourably, this army is to press on beyond Croisilles.
The further task of this Army Group is to push forward in the general direction of Arras-Albert, keep its left wing on the Somme at Peronne, and intensifying its pressure on the right wing compel the retirement of the English front facing the Sixth Army also, and release further German troops from trench warfare for the general advance.
3. The German Crown Prince's Army Group will first gain the line of the Somme south of the Omignon stream (this flows into the Somme south of Peronne) and the Crozat Canal (west of La Pere). By pushing on rapidly the Eighteenth Army (right wing of the Crown Prince's Army Group) is to secure the crossing of the Somme and the Canal.
The tension in which we had left Spa in the evening of March 18th had increased as we arrived at our new headquarters at Avesnes.
The beautiful bright weather of early spring which we had been enjoying had changed. Violent rainstorms swept over the country. They did full justice to the nickname which the French had given to Avesnes and its neighbourhood.
In themselves clouds and rain were by no means unwelcome to us in these days. They would probably shroud our final preparations. But had we really any grounds for hoping that the enemy had not got wind of what we were about?
Here and there the hostile artillery had been particularly wide-awake and lively. But the firing had then died down. From time to time enemy airmen at night had tried to observe the most important of our roads with the help of light-balls and turned their machine-guns on all suspected movements.
But all this supplied no definite data on which to answer the question: "Can our surprise succeed?"
The reinforcements earmarked for the attack entered the assembly trenches in the final few nights; the last trench-mortars and batteries were brought up. The enemy did not interfere to any appreciable extent!
At different points parties volunteered to drag heavy guns right up to our wire and there conceal them in shell-holes. We believed that we ought to be venturesome if we could thereby guarantee that the attacking infantry should have artillery support in their passage through the whole enemy defensive system. No hostile counter-measures hindered this preparatory work.
The weather was stormy and rainy almost the whole day on March 20th. The prospects for the 21st were uncertain. Local mist was probable. But at midday we decided definitely that the battle should begin in the morning of the following day.
The early morning hours of March 21st found the whole of Northern France, from the coast to the Aisne, shrouded in mist. The higher the sun mounted into the sky the thicker the fog became. At times it limited the range of vision to a few yards.
Even the sound waves seemed to be absorbed in the grey veil. In Avesnes we could only hear a distant indefinite roll of thunder coming from the battlefield, on which thousands of guns of every calibre had been belching forth fury since the early morning.
Unseeing and itself unseen, our artillery had proceeded with its work. It was only our conscientious preparation which offered any guarantee that our batteries were being really effective. The enemy's reply was local, fitful and of varying violence. It looked as if he were groping about for an unseen enemy rather than systematically fighting a troublesome foe.
It was therefore still uncertain whether the English were not fully prepared with their defence and expecting our attack. The veil which hid everything did not lift.
About 10 a.m. our brave infantry advanced into the very heart of it. At first we received only vague reports, recitals of objectives reached, contradictions of previous reports, recalls.
It was only gradually that the atmosphere of uncertainty cleared and we were in a position to realise that we had broken through the enemy's first line at all points. About midday the mist began to dissolve and the sun to triumph.
By the evening hours we were able to piece together a definite picture of what had been accomplished. The armies on the right wing and the centre of our battle front were to all intents and purposes held up in front of the enemy's second position.
The army on the left had made immense progress beyond St. Quentin. There was no doubt that the right wing was faced with the stoutest opposition.
The English had suspected the danger which was threatening them from the north and brought up all their available reserves to meet it. On the other hand the left wing had led relatively the easiest task, apparently as the result of a wholesale surprise.
In the north our losses had been larger than we expected; otherwise they were in accordance with anticipation.
The results of the day seemed to me satisfactory. Such was also the opinion of the General Staff officers who had followed the troops and were now returning from the battlefield.
Yet only the second day could show whether our attack would now share the fate of all those which the enemy had made upon us for years, the fate of finding itself held up after the first victorious breakthrough.
The evening of the second day saw our right wing in possession of the second enemy position. Our centre had even captured the third enemy line, while the army on the left wing was in full career and now miles away to the west.
Hundreds of enemy guns, enormous masses of ammunition and other booty of all kinds were lying behind our lines. Long columns of prisoners were marching eastwards.
The destruction of the English troops in the Cambrai salient could not be achieved, however, as, contrary to our expectations, our right wing had not pushed on far and quickly enough.
The third day of the battle made no change in the previous impressions of the course of events; the heaviest fighting was on our right wing, where the English defended themselves with the greatest obstinacy and were still maintaining themselves in their third line.
On the other hand we had gained more ground in our centre and also on the left wing. This day the Somme had been reached south of Peronne, and indeed crossed at one point.
In view of the brilliant sweep of our attack to the west, a sweep which put into the shade everything that had been seen on the Western Front for years, it seemed to me that an advance on Amiens was feasible.
Amiens was the nodal point of the most important railway connections between the two war zones of Central and Northern France (the latter being mainly the English sphere of operations) which had the line of the Somme as a definite boundary.
The town was thus of very great strategic importance. If it fell into our hands, or even if we succeeded in getting the town and its neighbourhood under effective artillery fire, the enemy's field of operations would be cleft in twain and the tactical breakthrough would be converted into a strategical wedge, with England on one side and France on the other.
It was possible that the strategic and political interests of the two countries might drift apart as the result of such a success. We will call these interests by the names of Calais and Paris. So forward against Amiens!
We did indeed go forward, and with giant strides. And yet it was not quick enough for active imaginations and glowing wishes. For we had to fear that the enemy also would realise the peril in which he now stood, and would do everything in his power to avert it. English reserves from the northern wing, French troops drawn from the whole of Central France were hastening to Amiens.
The evening of the fourth day saw Bapaume in our hands. Peronne and the line of the Somme south of it was already well behind our leading divisions.
We were once more treading the old Somme battlefield. For many of our men it was rich in proud, if serious memories, and for all who saw it for the first time it spoke straight to the heart with its millions of shell-holes, its confused medley of crumbling and overgrown trenches, the majestic silence of its desolate wastes and its thousands of graves.
Whole sections of the English front had been utterly routed and were retiring, apparently out of hand, in the direction of Amiens. It was the progress of the army on our right wing which was first held up.
To get the battle going again at this point we attacked the hills east of Arras. The attempt only partially succeeded, and the action was broken off.
Meanwhile our centre had captured Albert. On the seventh day our left wing, guarding against French attacks from the south, pressed forward through Roye to Montdidier.
The decision was therefore to he sought more and more in the direction of Amiens. But here also we found the resistance stiffening, and our advance became slower and slower.
The hopes and wishes which had soared beyond Amiens had to be recalled. Facts must be treated as facts. Human achievements are never more than patchwork. Favourable opportunities had been neglected or had not always been exploited with the same energy, even where a splendid goal was beckoning.
We ought to have shouted into the ear of every single man: "Press on to Amiens. Put in your last ounce. Perhaps Amiens means decisive victory. Capture Villers-Bretonneux whatever happens, so that from its heights we can command Amiens with masses of our heavy artillery!"
It was in vain; our strength was exhausted.
The enemy fully realised what the loss of Villers-Bretonneux would mean to him. He threw against our advancing columns all the troops he could lay hands on. The French appeared, and with their massed attacks and skilful artillery saved the situation for their Allies and themselves.
With us human nature was urgently voicing its claims. We had to take breath. The infantry needed rest and the artillery ammunition.
It was lucky for us that we were able to live to a certain extent on the supplies of the beaten foe; otherwise we should not even have been able to cross the Somme, for the shattered roads in the wide shell-hole area of the first enemy position could only have been made available after days of work.
Even now we did not give up all hope of capturing Villers-Bretonneux. On April 4, we made another attempt to drive the enemy from the village. The first reports of the progress of our attack on that day were very promising, but the next day brought a reverse and disillusionment at this point.
Amiens remained in the hands of the enemy, and was subjected to a long-range bombardment which certainly disturbed this traffic artery of our foe but could not cut it.
The "Great Battle" in France was over!
Source: Source Records of the Great War, Vol. VI, ed. Charles F. Horne, National Alumni 1923
"Suicide Ditch" was a term used by British soldiers to refer to the front-line trench.
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