By early March 1918 German Generals von Hindenburg and von Ludendorf realised the tables were turning against them. The USA had entered the war and its troops were beginning to arrive in numbers. The Allied blockade of Germany had bit deep and there was dissent in the streets as shortages and other privations hit home.
German Generals Paul von Hindenburg and Eric von Ludendorf at their Headquarters (AWM H12354)
On the other side of the ledger, an unanticipated bonus had presented itself. The Bolshevik Revolution in Russia had led to the withdrawal of Russia from the War after their Peace Decree in November 1917 was formalised via the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk on 3rd March 1918. Nearly 50 German Divisions were freed up for deployment on the Western Front.
German Troops massed in St Quentin for Operation Michael (AWM AO3118)
And so was born the “Kaiserschlact” or Kaiser’s Strike; known to the Allies as the German Spring Offensive of 1918. The motivation and purpose was not a surprise, as the pressures on the Germans were apparent to the Allies. What was a surprise was the method they employed.
They had selected and trained elite Battalions of “Sturmtruppen” (literally Storm Trooper) Battalions, equipped with flamethrowers , the new Bergman sub-machine guns, and large quantities of the ubiquitous German stick grenades. Attacking with great concentration of force on a narrow front, they were supported by massive artillery bombardment and gas attacks to punch a hole through the enemy defences to outflank and dis-locate the Allied defences. The attack was to be aimed squarely at defeating the British in the field and isolating the French.
A collage of images of "Sturmtruppen" including the macabre artwork of celebrated German war artist Otto Dix (left) (attr - various)
This ‘hammer’ was to be struck squarely at the British section of the line, on the Somme section of the front, cutting off Paris from the Channel Ports through which re-supply and US troops were directed, and potentially bringing the French to seek a truce on terms set by the Germans. The rail hub of Amiens was the focal point of the German main effort, codenamed ‘Operation Michael’. The arrow straight Roman Roads from Bapaume and St Quentin were to be key axes of advance. Other smaller operations were directed at Hazebrouk (Operation ‘Georgette’) in the north and Gneisenau and Blucher-Yorcke in the south. The other operations were designed to divert Allied forces from the main offensive on the Somme.
When the attack began on 21 March 1918, its impact was immediate and profound.
The Somme sector 21 March - 5 April 1918
The British 5th Army bore the brunt of the assault. Some units fought doggedly until overwehlmed or by-passed but others, often manned by very young and poorly trained conscripts and inexperienced junior officers, began to fade and crumble in the face of the onslaught. All of the ground so bitterly won in 1916 and 1917 at such enormous cost, was given up in just a few days.
The AIF and the New Zealand Division among others, at the end of winter still based in Belgium, were rushed south by rail and force-marched, then deployed piece-meal as a "fire brigade". Their job was to plug gaps and hold the line with those elements of British 5th Army that had held on while others around them were crumbling across the Front.
The 1st Division, which had landed at ANZAC three years before, had been ordered south with the rest of the AIF but was rushed back to Flanders when Operation Georgette was launched in the north. As they received their orders after detraining at Hazebrouk railway station, the British commanders' remarks underscored the gravity of the situation.
“You are the only formed body of troops between here and the Channel Ports”
LTGEN Harrington CoS 2nd Army to 1st Australian Division officers at Hazebrouk railway station 14 April 1918
The Australians marched to the sound of the guns while French civilian refugees streamed to the rear. According to C.E.W. Bean, an anonymous Digger made the remark below to a French woman. The scene was later encapsulated in this image by Australian War Artist Will Dyson, which depicts French civilians passing a bottle of wine in thanks to the Australians marching to the front, while another beckons her colleagues to stop fleeing in the face of the German onslaught, confident that it would be checked by the Australian troops.
"Fini retreat Madame. Beaucoup Australiens ici' The retreat is ended Madam. There are many Australians here
And so it proved to be. The 4th Division defence of Heberturne (4th Brigade) Dernancourt (12th and 13th Brigades) and the line of the River Ancre prevented the German advance from outflanking the defences behind Albert and proceeding down the Roman Road to Amiens. The defence of Hazebrouk by the 1st Division was key to stemming the tide of the Operation Georgette strike towards the Channel ports.
However the the most decisive battle was the counter-attack by the 13th Brigade of the 4th Division and the 15th Brigade of the 5th, at Villers-Bretonneux, "Our Other ANZAC Day" on 24/25 April 1918. The re-capture of Villers-Bretonneux effectively stopped the last major threat to Amiens and robbed the thrust of the momentum it needed to achieve their objective.
Across the front, the German offensive persisted into May but it had run out of momentum as they over-reached their supply chain and Allied resistance stiffened. The German initiative had been lost.
Key AIF engagements included:
Ancre (4th Division) at Heburterne (4th Brigade) and Dernancourt (12th and 13th Bridades) 28th March - 5th April SEE LINK (/explore/campaigns/35)
Morlancourt (10th and 11th Brigades of the 3rd Division)
Villers Bretonneux (various Brigade elements of the 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th Divisions) mid April culminating with the recapture of the town on 24/5th April by the 13th Brigade of the 4th Division (which had already defended Dernancourt) and the 15th Brigade from the 5th Division. SEE LINK (/explore/campaigns/23)
Lys (1st Division) in Flanders specifically the Defence of Hazebrouk (Operation Georgette) - mid April 1918
Steve Larkins Jan 2015
Updated March 2018