There is a consensus that the First World War was largely a stalemate for most of its duration. There were no turning-point battles like Gettysburg or Stalingrad. Yet when the end came, it was swift and complete. Although the German High Command claimed it was undefeated on the battlefield and had been stabbed in the back by treacherous politicians, they were fully aware that total collapse was just weeks if not days away when an armistice was agreed.
Despite the absence of a definitive battle, many historians see the 1918 German Spring Offensive as a major precipitant of defeat. Launched in late March it made impressive gains before running out of steam in June. Designed to overwhelm the British and French forces before American troops and supplies began arriving, it was made possible by the capitulation of Russia allowing the Germans to move 40 divisions to the Western Front and giving them a numerical advantage for the first time since 1914. They could have switched more, but chose to leave a million men to occupy the huge tracts of land in Ukraine, the Caucasus and the Baltic which the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk ceded to them.
By July those million men would have been useful since that was the number of casualties which the German Army suffered in gaining 40 miles of ground. By now they were short of supplies, outnumbered, exhausted, and demoralisation was setting in. Furthermore, the first of large numbers of American troops were arriving, in time to join the Allied counter-attack against the highly vulnerable salients which the German advances had created. Norman Stone declares that, “There is a mysterious process in the defeat of an army – the point at which men give up hope (World War One: A Short History, 172).” He pinpoints the start of this process as July 18th 1918, the day the counter-offensives began.
Strategic, tactical and technological factors played major roles in this decisive reversal of fortunes. Instead of sledgehammer blows raining down repeatedly on one location, the Allies spread their assaults, seizing what they could in initial attacks but not pressing on. Instead they moved to completely different objectives and then repeated this procedure. Sometimes there were even no artillery barrages. All this kept the Germans guessing and a third of their troops permanently on the move, travelling in trains to reinforce threatened points in their lines. Tanks and aircraft were employed in these attacks showing much better results than previously because they were far more suitable to this kind of warfare.
Equally important was the role of morale among German soldiers. From July there were outbreaks of mutinies, disobeying of orders and desertions of a magnitude not seen previously in the war. These were not the result of radicalised young recruits spreading disaffection as argued by Ludendorff and post-war German right-wing apologists. It arose among older reservists, POWs returning from Russian captivity and whisked off to the Western Front, recuperated wounded men thrown back into battle, transferees from the Eastern Front, and former munitions workers conscripted for going on strike. Troops now began surrendering in huge numbers and this was the most damaging factor in the loss of the will to fight on. Whereas 327,000 Germans had surrendered in the whole war up to that point, in August and September alone 233,000 went into captivity.
The Spring Offensive was an unnecessary gamble, one of several German acts of self-destructiveness. With the huge gains made by the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, the Germans had achieved most of what they wanted, even under the notorious 1914 September War Aims program of annexations. They could have accepted, and then interpreted to their own satisfaction, the peace feelers put out in Woodrow Wilson’s 14-Point proposal. Instead they trusted in defeating the French and British before the effects of US troops, weaponry, supplies and finance could be brought to bear.
Many historians have suggested that the Central Powers were close to victory in 1917 with the defeat of Russia. However, unrestricted submarine warfare and the disastrous attempt to persuade Mexico to pick a fight with the USA brought America into the war. The Spring Offensive thus developed into an all-or-nothing gamble. When it failed, the blockading of the seas, aided by the US navy, completely turned the tables from Britain being starved out to Germany suffering severe shortages.
While Germany had an opportunity to prevail in 1917, she overplayed her hand and was subjected to the unavoidable consequences of a war of attrition where her resources were now dwarfed by those which the USA was increasingly bringing to bear. The Great War was a contest of resources, and although this is always a factor in warfare, it was particularly so during that historical juncture. At that stage of Western industrialisation and military technology, no masterstroke of strategy could be decisive or capable of breaking the stalemate. It became a question of who could grind the other down, and in the end the alliance with the greater resources was always going to be favourite.
Germany, and particularly her military High Command, was seeking imperial annexation in continental Europe as a war goal. It is this which explains why there was no real intention to seek peace in late 1917 when she had already gained such a glittering prize in the east. Hubris led to nemesis in an unnecessary gamble on defeating the Western allies before the USA came in. Ludendorff not only misjudged the power of the Allies to resist, he also failed to recognise the fragility of his own nation’s morale and unity, both domestically and on the battlefield. When this cracked in July 1918, defeat for Germany was just a matter of time. However, the belated but successful change of battlefield tactics by the Allies ensured the end was swifter than might otherwise have been the case.
Offer, Avner. The First World War: An Agrarian Interpretation. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991.
Stone, Norman. World War One: A Short History. London: Penguin, 2008.
Watson, Alexander. “Stabbed at the Front.” History Today 58, no. 11 (2008): 21-27.
Wilson, Trevor. The Myriad Faces of War. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1986.