At the beginning of 1918, Germany’s position on the battlefields of Europe looked extremely strong. German armies occupied virtually all of Belgium and much of northern France. With Romania, Russia and Serbia out of the war by the end of 1917, conflict in the east was drawing to a close, leaving the Central Powers free to focus on combating the British and French in the west. Indeed, by March 21, 1918, Russia’s exit had allowed Germany to shift no fewer than 44 divisions of men to the Western Front.
German commander Erich Ludendorff saw this as a crucial opportunity to launch a new offensive–he hoped to strike a decisive blow to the Allies and convince them to negotiate for peace before fresh troops from the United States could arrive. In November, he submitted his plan for the offensive that what would become known as Kaiserschlacht, or the kaiser’s battle; Ludendorff code-named the opening operation Michael. Morale in the German army rose in reaction to the planned offensive. Many of the soldiers believed, along with their commanders, that the only way to go home was to push ahead.
Michael began in the early morning hours of March 21, 1918. The attack came as a relative surprise to the Allies, as the Germans had moved quietly into position just days before the bombardment began. From the beginning, it was more intense than anything yet seen on the Western Front. Ludendorff had worked with experts in artillery to create an innovative, lethal ground attack, featuring a quick, intense artillery bombardment followed by the use of various gases, first tear gas, then lethal phosgene and chlorine gases. He also coordinated with the German Air Service or Luftstreitkrafte, to maximize the force of the offensive.
Winston Churchill, at the front at the time as the British minister of munitions, wrote of his experience on March 21: There was a rumble of artillery fire, mostly distant, and the thudding explosions of aeroplane raids. And then, exactly as a pianist runs his hands across a keyboard from treble to bass, there rose in less than one minute the most tremendous cannonade I shall ever hear. It swept around us in a wide curve of red flame
By the end of the first day, German troops had advanced more than four miles and inflicted almost 30,000 British casualties. As panic swept up and down the British lines of command over the next few days, the Germans gained even more territory. By the time the Allies hardened their defense at the end of the month, Ludendorff’s army had crossed the Somme River and broken through enemy lines near the juncture between the British and French trenches. By the time Ludendorff called off the first stage of the offensive in early April, German guns were trained on Paris, and their final, desperate attempt to win World War I was in full swing.