Primary Documents - Erich Ludendorff on the Opening of the 1918 Spring Offensive, 21 March 1918
Reproduced below is Erich Ludendorff's official 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.
Click here to read German Chief of Staff Paul von Hindenburg's account of the opening of the offensive. Click here to read Austro-Hungarian Army Commander-in-Chief Arz von Straussenberg's official praise of the German Army.
Erich Ludendorff's Official Report on the Opening of the Spring Offensive, 21-28 March 1918
When the drum-fire on the morning of March 21st had poured forth its thick sheaves of shot, the barrels of the cannon were red hot. In the battery positions the powder smoke of the shots had thickened the fog to such an extent that one could not see from one gun to another.
The attacking artillery fired the number of shots planned in the thick fog, but the objectives and the time of the firing were so exactly calculated that the attack remained independent of the weather.
The first English position has disappeared, and in its place there extends a wide and desolate crater-field. Everywhere there are the remains of wire entanglements, broken-down shaft entrances, and destroyed block-houses.
At most places the battered-in trenches were over-run, and the survivors carne rushing towards the Germans minus their weapons and with their hands in the air.
At other places the English are defending themselves with great stubbornness. Near Epehy, for example, they defended the edge of the village until the evening. Farther south, however, Lempire, Ronssoy, Hargicourt, Villeret, and Pontru have been taken.
The storming troops, with indescribable energy, overran the crater-field and are now storming beyond the chains of hills west of the captured villages, of which the fields and meadows have long since been transformed into desolate steppes.
The English sought to make a stand in the artillery position. The ground favoured them; but their artillery was too much overcome to support their infantry effectively. The German batteries, on the other hand, pressed forward.
The fire continued to be directed on the crater-land, whilst the pioneers were building a road through the wilderness of mire, and on the first day of attack the artillery followed up the storming troops.
At many points the artillery protecting position was broken through. Even in the declining evening the loftily situated ruins of Templeux, with the whole of the strongly constructed quarries, were taken.
The second day also began with a thick fog. Its impenetrable veil favoured the English retirement. The German attacking artillery, which was brought forward over the crater zone, had at first small objectives.
The fire of the English guns of heavy calibre barred the few crossings through the miry field. But German field batteries galloped between the towers of smoke. They were thus able closely to support the infantry attack.
At 7 o'clock the firing began against the second British position. Hardly an hour later the triple wire entanglements protecting it were broken through. The fog continued beyond midday. The infantry stormed farther into the field of mist.
Afterwards, in unceasing pursuit, it followed the artillery. At midday companies which had pushed forward had already reached Roisel. Fighting continued desperately around the station. Numerous guns were captured here.
At the same time English detachments continued to hold out on the heights south of Templeux. Their machine-gun fire struck the German advancing troops in the flanks, but not for long. Before our storming waves, advancing over the chains of hills, rises the English Arms. Close bands of prisoners are streaming of backwards.
In the roads field greys are followed by chains reserves and columns. The enemy retreats to his third position. North of the Cologne Brook their wire entanglements were reached even before nightfall.
Bright sunshine favoured
the progress of the German offensive between the Scarpe and the Oise on the
second day's fighting.
On the whole front of attack the German infantry, determined upon victory, unceasingly pressed forward. The German artillery fire had produced its effect. The strong obstacles which had been prepared during many months were destroyed.
The English trenches were transformed into graves, which were full of dead. Whilst the first lines in places were only thinly occupied, the English offered a brave resistance in their second position, which was broken down in a desperate struggle. The dugouts had to be taken in hard hand-to-hand fighting.
Here the superiority of the German infantry showed itself in the best light. Unexpectedly commenced and extremely effective, German artillery preparation only allowed the counter-effect of the English to be brought into action gradually. The German losses were thus surprisingly light.
In the captured second English position many closely-massed counter-attacks had to be warded off, two of which, supported by tanks, took place in the evening of March 21st in the region of Doignies, after the capture of the village of Vaulx-Vraucourt.
Sixteen tanks were destroyed by artillery and infantry fire and trench mortar fire. The English suffered unusually heavy losses during their fruitless counter-attacks.
The booty and number of prisoners are continually increasing. A single German regiment captured 30 guns near Monchy. In the advance beyond the heights south of Maissemy, German storming troops encountered enemy batteries. After three of them had been blown up, an additional one was destroyed before our troops passed farther on.
On the whole front our battle aviators participated successfully in the fighting, bombs being freely dropped on the railway stations of Chaulnes, Roye, and Noyon. Good hits on arriving trains, as well as great explosions at the station of Compiegne, were observed.
Further strong explosions in the direction of Behagnies confirmed the excellent effect of our long-distance fire, which was well supported by our artillery aviators.
The decision in the Monchy-Cambrai-St. Quentin-La Fere battle was brought about by a surprise overrunning of the third position. South of Bernes, the English, on March 22nd, had sent forward fresh forces from Amiens into these positions. The troops had scarcely reached these positions, and their machine guns had not been fetched forward, when they were surprised by the German attack.
On the 23rd the mist lifted earlier than on the preceding days, and the English gave way over the whole front. It is true that their rearguards defended every hilly ridge, but in a short time they were driven out of every new position they took up. The superiority of the German leaders and troops made itself felt to the full.
The English artillery sacrificed itself in order to cover the retreat. Their batteries moved back only a few hundred yards before the German storming waves. In raging, rapid fire they shot away their munitions, and then attempted to limber up and to drive away.
Under our shrapnel and machine-gun fire numerous batteries could not be got away, whilst others were captured with their teams. The counter-attacks made by the tanks helped just as little. Gun and mine-thrower fire put most of them out of action before they had got properly working.
One tank, which broke out into the German infantry line, was rendered harmless by the clever deed of a non-commissioned officer, who sprang upon the tank and killed the crew by means of revolver shots fired through the air-hole in the covering of the tank.
South of Peronne, on the Somme, we advanced. At the same time other detachments pressed forward towards Peronne and to the north of it. Here the English undertook counter-attacks from the town. Their companies, however, fled when the Germans stormed towards them.
Peronne is in flames. What the French, after careful work, had built up after the evacuation of the town by the Germans, the English destroyed before their retreat. But the retreat was over-hasty, and rich booty remained behind on every hand.
Automobiles with English staffs left the town shortly before the Germans arrived. Between the retreating columns the tanks travelled, which no longer dared to make fresh attacks. German battle-plane squadrons accompanied the retreat. Their machine-guns and bombs brought death and confusion.
British airmen did not accept battle, and flew away as soon as they saw the German chaser airmen.
On the battlefield between the Scarpe and the Oise, within a period of three days from the 21st to the 23rd instant, the English Army suffered the greatest defeat in British history.
The successes achieved in the great victory are such as have not been nearly approached by the Entente since the beginning of the battle of positions in the western theatre.
The English offensive near Arras in April, 1916, was made on a front 12 miles wide; the Anglo-French attack on the Somme in July, 1916, was made on double that width; the French attacked on the Aisne in 1917 on a width of 24 miles. The English big attack, prepared for months in Flanders, never exceeded a space of 18 miles, and the whole of the territorial gains of almost half a year's fighting only amounted to 36 square miles.
In the three days' battle in the west, the Germans made a territorial gain of 700 square miles.
On March 24th, the Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria, with the armies of Generals Otto von Below and von der Marwitz, again defeated the enemy in the tremendous struggle near Bapaume.
General Kane broke through the strong positions of the enemy to the northeast of Bapaume in bitter fighting; the troops of General Grunert and General Staabs, coming from the east and southeast, drove the enemy back via Ypres and Sailly.
The stubborn enemy resistance, which had been reinforced with French forces, was broken in violent battles. Freshly brought-up troops and numerous tanks threw themselves against our advancing troops along the roads leading from Bapaume to Cambrai and Peronne.
They could not bring about a decision in favour of the enemy. In the evening, defeated, they streamed back again in a westerly direction.
During the course of a night battle, Bapaume fell into the hands of the victors. Hot fighting developed for the possession of Combles and the heights situated to the west. The enemy was defeated. English cavalry attacks broke down.
We are now standing to the north of the Somme, in the middle of the former Somme battlefield.
The German Crown Prince, with the army of General von Hutier, forced a passage across the Somme below Ham. His victorious troops, in bitter fighting, mounted to the west of the Somme. Violent counter-attacks by English infantry and cavalry broke down with sanguinary losses. The town of Nesle was taken by storm this evening.
Between the Somme and the Oise the troops which penetrated across the Crozat Canal have, late in the evening of the 23rd, taken by storm the strongly-fortified and stubbornly-defended positions on the western bank of the canal.
In hot fighting the English, French and Americans were thrown back through the pathless wooded country via La Neuville and Villequier-Aumont. The attack continued yesterday.
French infantry and cavalry divisions, which were brought forward for counter-thrust, were thrown back with sanguinary losses. In restless pursuit, General von Conta and General von Gayl pressed after the retreating enemy.
Guiscard and Chauny were captured in the evening. We bombarded the fortress of Paris with long-range guns.
The enemy casualties are unusually heavy. The tremendous booty which fell into our hands from the 21st cannot yet be estimated. More than 45,000 prisoners have been ascertained, many more than 600 guns, thousands of machine guns, tremendous quantities of munitions and implements, great stores of supplies and pieces of clothing.
In continuation of the great battle in France our troops on March 25th achieved fresh successes. English divisions brought up from Flanders and Italy with the French threw themselves against our troops in desperate attacks. They were defeated.
The armies of General Otto von Below and General von der Marwitz have finally maintained themselves in Ervillers after a hot and fluctuating battle, and in their advance against Achiet-le-Grand, captured the villages of Bihucourt, Biefvillers and Grevillers.
They captured Irles and Miraumont and have crossed the Ancre. English troops freshly brought forward attacked violently on a wide front from the direction of Albert. The enemy was driven back after a bitter struggle.
We crossed the Bapaume-Albert road, near Courcelette and Pozieres. To the south of Peronne, General von Hofacker has forced a passage across the Somme, and has taken by storm the height of Maisonnette, which was so hotly contested in the Somme battle of 1916, as well as the villages of Biaches and Barleux.
Strong enemy counter-attacks wore themselves out before our lines.
The army of General von Hutier, after hard fighting, drove the enemy back near Marchelepot and Hattencourt across the Peronne-Roye railway. The tenaciously de fended Etalon was wrested from the French and English.
Our signal service has taken a prominent share in the successes which we have achieved. Labouring untiringly, they rendered possible the cooperation between the units fighting next to one another, and gave the leaders the assurance of being able to guide the battle into the desired channels.
Railway troops, which first carried out the tremendous advance from the beginning of the fighting without any friction, and who are now coping with the traffic behind the front, are working ceaselessly on the reconstruction of the destroyed railways.
Since the beginning of the battle 93 enemy aeroplanes and six captive balloons have been brought down.
The booty in guns has increased to 963. Over 100 tanks are lying in the captured positions.
On the rest of the Western front the artillery battles continued, increasing on the Lorraine front to great strength. We continued the bombardment of the fortress of Paris.
From the other theatres of war there is nothing new to report.
Source: Source Records of the Great War, Vol. VI, ed. Charles F. Horne, National Alumni 1923
A "Dixie" (from the Hindi degci) was an army cooking pot.
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