100 years ago, in March 1918, the last decisive offensive of the German army began on the Western Front.
The plan for the upcoming offensive envisaged the rout of the Allied forces on the Western Front. It was planned to dismember the Allied grouping of troops, the British troops "to throw into the sea," and the French to press against Paris. The Germans planned to defeat the Allies before the main forces of the American army arrived in Europe. German divisions were able to break through the enemy front and press the enemy, but the Allies, taking emergency measures, withstood a powerful blow.
The general setting
The protracted war exhausted Germany. The Second Reich, almost completely isolated from the outside world, experienced an acute raw material and food crisis. In the winter of 1917 — 1918. food consumption rates compared to peacetime were: meat - 20%, lard - 11%, butter - 21%, sugar - 61%, flour and cereals - 47%, etc. The cost of food increased compared to the onset of 1914 in 2 - 2,5 times, and prices of consumer goods - in 6 - 8 times. The people were exhausted from the war and starved.
The industrial production index fell in 1917 compared to 1913 to 62%. The military industry experienced an acute shortage of strategic raw materials, especially non-ferrous metals. There was a shortage of skilled labor. The enterprises had to massively use women's labor - more than a third of those working in industry at the end of 1917 were women. Also widely used labor prisoners. Only in the mines of the Ruhr in the middle of 1918, more than 73 thousand prisoners of war worked. In the extraction of brown coal, they accounted for more than 50% of all workers. In agricultural production in 1918, about 900 thousand prisoners of war were employed. Rail and road transport were very worn out, and there was no opportunity to upgrade it. So, by the beginning of 1918, the transportation of one military train from the Eastern front to the Western one lasted 10-12 days instead of 2-3 days in 1914.
The allies of Germany were in an even worse position. It quickly became clear that in a protracted war on the complete exhaustion of all resources, the economic and demographic potential is perhaps more important than military might. And here the Central Powers obviously lost to the Entente countries. The weak points of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy came to light at the very beginning of the war. Thus, the insufficiently dense network of railways and relatively small rolling stock, on the one hand, hampered the rapid mobilization and maneuver of troops from one front to another, and on the other, paralyzed military and civilian transportation, including the supply of ammunition and supplies. The economy of the Danube Empire was crushed by a protracted war. The colossal outflow of able-bodied men as a result of mobilization and appeals caused irreparable harm to the economic life of the country. About 8 million people were drafted into the army, of whom 1,2 million died during the four years of the war, and another 3 million were injured. In the total number of workers, the proportion of women and adolescents increased markedly, but they could not replace men. This led to a very sharp drop in production, especially in industries that required male power, such as the extraction of coal and iron ore. All extractive industries sank heavily, which could not but affect the overall military and economic power of the empire. A drop in production was also noted in agriculture. In addition, the longer the war lasted, the sharper the contradictions between the two components of the empire became. Hungary, better supplied with food, did not want to make additional deliveries to the Austrian part of the empire.
Inflation rates were far ahead of the income growth of most segments of the population. As a result, in Vienna, in 1916, the average family had to spend (at constant prices) 3,8 times more than 1914, 1917, 6,1 times, and 1918 more than 15 times! The Austrian krone was continuously depreciated during the war. By the end of the war for 1 the dollar was given over 12 CZK. Having entered the war with the rich Western powers. Vienna lost the ability to obtain loans abroad to maintain finance and economy. The country's central bank, the Austro-Hungarian Bank, tried to meet military needs by selling off the gold reserves of the empire. By the end of the war, the foreign exchange reserves of the Habsburg Empire compared with the pre-war 1913 year decreased by 79%.
The war led to the financial-economic and military dependence of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy on the powerful German Empire. The second Reich carried out powerful economic expansion in Central Europe. An economic attachment to Germany was taking place not only in Austria-Hungary, but also in occupied Poland, Romania, the Balkan countries and Turkey. Germany financially supported the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. During the four years of war, the amount of loans provided by Germany to Austria exceeded 2 billion marks; Hungary received more than 1,3 billion. The front was held only with the help of German bayonets and guns. All this happened against the background of a sharp increase in discontent of the "underprivileged" peoples, who were irritated by the growing influence of Austro-Germans and Hungarians. The war added fuel to the long smoldering fire of interethnic contradictions.
By the beginning of 1918, the Patchwork Hapsburg Empire was on the verge of collapse. There was real hunger in the country. Foreign Minister O. Chernin reported in January 1918 to Emperor Charles: “We are standing directly in front of a food disaster. The situation is ... terrible, and I am afraid that now it is too late to delay the onset of a catastrophe, which should happen in a few weeks. ” The military and human resources of the empire were completely exhausted. The army was demoralized already in 1914 — 1916. and held the front only with the support of the German divisions. Decomposition swept the Austrian troops and on the Italian front.
The socioeconomic crisis in the Central Powers turned into a political one. In Germany at the end of January 1918, there was a powerful general political strike, which was held under the slogans of an immediate conclusion of a just, democratic peace with Soviet Russia. Only in Berlin about half a million people stopped working. In total, more than a million people in fifty cities in Germany demanded a change in government policy. The protesters even called for the overthrow of the Kaiser government, for actions “in Russian”. A powerful political strike shook the Austro-Hungarian Empire in mid-January. Rallies and demonstrations against the war, for the immediate conclusion of peace, were held throughout the country. In Vienna and other industrial centers Councils of workers' deputies were formed. The national liberation movement of the peoples that were part of the Habsburg Empire, especially the Slavs, also increased. The mood of the working people inside the country was transferred to the army and navy. 1 February in the naval harbor of Kotor (Kattaro) rebellion of sailors broke out. It swept the ship's 42. It was attended by 6 thousand people.
The situation was similar in Bulgaria. The industry subsided, many enterprises closed down or did not work at full capacity due to the chronic shortage of raw materials, fuel and labor. The population was starving. A variety of epidemic diseases raged in the country. The mortality rate among the population of Bulgaria far exceeded the combat losses of its army.
But Turkey was the weakest link in the German bloc. The Ottoman Sultanate was dying. The Ottoman government changed its financial and economic dependence on Western countries to a full economic and military-political dependence on the Second Reich. Mobilization of the working-age population, requisitioning of horse-drawn transport and working livestock, food withdrawals, endless extortion, as well as the genocide of national and religious minorities that occupied serious positions in the country's trade and economy, led to a sharp decline in agricultural production. Tens of thousands of peasant families went bankrupt. The area under crop was reduced by more than half, and the number of livestock decreased by almost the same amount. Hunger began. Food prices grew at a catastrophic rate. Bread went up 37 times, coffee - 70, rice - 30, potatoes - 27 times. The inhabitants of Anatolia and the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire especially suffered from food shortages. Only in Lebanon and Syria from hunger and disease in 1914 - 1916. killed to 40% of the population. Against this background, officials and fists made a fortune on food speculation. Corruption and insolent outrage were a feature of Turkey. When requisitioning most of the food and livestock fell into the hands of officials. On the black market in the cities, the rich could buy everything, while thousands of poor people were starving to death.
Sharply reduced industrial production and so extremely weak. In particular, coal production fell by more than three times, salt production dropped by almost half, wool yarn production decreased by 4-5 times, raw silk - almost threefold, and so on. Almost all construction work decreased brick factories. During the war, foreign trade was almost completely closed. The budget deficit increased during the war years almost 15 times - from 2 million to 29 million lire.
The Turkish army was defeated. Turks suffered especially heavy defeats on the Caucasian front in 1915 - 1916. Only a revolution in Russia saved Turkey from total collapse on the Caucasian front. The Turkish army was literally falling apart. In particular, desertion took a fantastic scope. Divisions sent to the front in the spring of 1917, lost on the way to the front to 40% of personnel. Soldiers self-mutilation and suicide took the form of an epidemic. Deserters often created gangster or partisan detachments that fought against the Turkish authorities. In response, the punishers devastated entire areas. In the spring of 1917, the British army took Baghdad and launched an offensive in Palestine. In November - December 1917, the British took Gaza, Jaffa and Jerusalem. At the beginning of 1918, the Turkish Empire lost a significant part of its territory - Hejaz (western part of the Arabian Peninsula, with Muslim-sacred cities - Mecca and Medina), southern Palestine, most of Iraq.
In a situation of complete collapse and degradation, the leaders of the Turkish government still raved about the ideas of uniting all Turkic peoples under the rule of the Ottoman Turks. Instead of how to stabilize the position of the empire and stop the allies in Iraq and Palestine, in February 1918, the Turkish rulers threw the last combat-ready forces to seize the Caucasus.
At the start of the 1918 campaign of the year, Germany faced a choice between defense and offensive. In 1917, Berlin made a bid for strategic defense. In the 1918 year, limit yourself to a systematic defense and organization of distracting blows, for example, in Italy. However, the blockade of the German bloc and growing internal problems could lead to revolution and collapse. Especially deplorable was the position of the allies of Germany - Austria-Hungary and Turkey. "The Fourth Alliance," emphasized Ludendorff, "held the only hope for the victory of the German weapons". In turn, in the event of their fall, the Second Reich inevitably suffered defeat. It was necessary to act. The defensive strategy could, in the opinion of the German command, decisively change the military-political and strategic situation in favor of the Entente. In the summer of 1918, the arrival of the main forces of the American army to France was expected, which would inevitably give the opponents of Germany a considerable numerical advantage.
“At the turn of 1917 - 1918,” wrote Ludendorff later, “the situation on land, as a result of Russia's withdrawal, was more profitable for us than a year before. Once again, as in 1914 and 1916, we could set ourselves the task of resolving war by an offensive on land. The balance of forces was more favorable for us than ever. ” Ludendorff emphasized the same idea on 2 of 1918 in January: “The situation on the fronts,” he said, “is better than ever, and there is hope to end the war in the West successfully. In Macedonia, the Bulgarians are bound by the enemy. In the Middle East, because of the dismal state of the railways, nothing can be done. ” Thanks to the "transfer of troops to the West, the situation there has finally been consolidated."
7 January 1918 Mr. P. Hindenburg wrote to Emperor Wilhelm II: "In order to secure the political and economic position we need in the world, we must break the Western powers." 13 February 1918 in Homburg at a meeting of the Kaiser with the representatives of the imperial government and high command Ludendorff reported on his strategic plans for the upcoming campaign. “Striking a decisive blow in the West,” he said, “seems to be the greatest military task that any army has ever set and which France and England tried in vain to solve during the past two years ... There will be a terrible struggle, which will begin on one site, continue on others, will take a lot of time and will be very difficult, but will end victoriously. ” Ludendorff assured the emperor and the chancellor that "this task will be resolved successfully only if the military leadership is freed from all the unbearably shackles that bind him, if by the decisive moment every single fighter we can dispose of ...".
Thus, given the extremely difficult socio-economic situation in Germany and Austria-Hungary, the German military-political leadership decided to take the last decisive offensive on the Western Front in order to achieve victory and create conditions for peace in the interests of Berlin and Vienna. The German leadership believed that the overall situation was in favor of the Central Powers bloc. The offensive operations undertaken in 1917 by the armies of the Entente on the Western Front did not lead to success. Allied forces literally washed with blood, storming the powerful fortifications of the German army. The Germans took a break for the year in the defense, they called on the grown up youth. The army was replenished by prisoners returning from Russia. The German Army increased to 7,6 million, Austria-Hungary to 5,3 million.
The Italian army after the defeat suffered in the fall of 1917 near Caporetto, took a long time to regain its combat capability. The troops of the Central Powers continued to occupy vast territories in France and Russia, all of Belgium, began large-scale intervention in Russia, controlled most of the Balkan Peninsula. Russia emerged from the war, and Germany has only one main front left - the Western (French). True, Germany still had to keep considerable forces in the East, holding and plundering the occupied territories. The position of Austria-Hungary and Turkey, who were liberated from their main adversary, the Russian army, was also greatly facilitated. The Austrians could strengthen their Italian front, and the Turks - the Palestinian and Iraqi directions.
According to the idea of the German command, Austria-Hungary, Turkey and Bulgaria were to "stand" until the victory of Germany. Hindenburg and Ludendorff believed that after the withdrawal of Russia and Romania from the war and the plight of Italy after the defeat at Caporetto, Austria-Hungary itself would be able to resist at the front. That the Bulgarian army will be able to withstand the forces of the Entente in Macedonia, and Turkey will transfer its troops liberated in the Caucasus, in Mesopotamia and Syria, and withstand the further attacks of the allies.
Compared to the German bloc, the position of the Entente countries was more stable, and their military-economic potential far exceeded the capabilities of the Central Powers. Entente countries at the beginning of 1918 had approximately equal forces with Germany and its allies; 274 divisions in the Entente and 275 infantry divisions (not counting the 86 divisions on the Eastern Front and 9 in the Caucasus) in Germany. But Britain and France, using the colonial troops, had much more human resources than the Central Powers bloc to replenish their armed forces. Also, the economies of England and France relied on the colonial empires, had the opportunity of free trade with other countries (Latin America) and colonial territories. In addition, the Anglo-French propped up by the powerful US economy. From June 1917, American troops began to arrive in France, the number of which by the end of December amounted to more than 180 thousand people, and in March 1918 exceeded 320 thousand people. The fall of the German bloc, completely exhausted by the war, more than the Entente, in such conditions was a matter of time. The only hope was a decisive military success.
The main problem of Germany was the fact that the German military and political leadership could not concentrate all the forces of the funds on the French front. Germany did not abandon expansion in the East. The German leaders planned to strangle the "hotbed of the revolutionary plague", destroy Bolshevism, deprive Russia of access to the Baltic and Black Seas, and take away from it the Caucasus and Turkestan. For Ukraine, the planned statute of the "independent" (in fact, completely dependent on Germany) state. In Berlin, far-reaching plans were made to use the captured and not yet captured regions of Russia, their natural wealth and economic potential.
In February, 1918, the Austro-German troops launched a large-scale offensive in Russia. In fact, the second front was preserved: the huge spaces of Russia, even without serious Russian resistance, were absorbed by the divisions of Germany and Austria-Hungary, so necessary in the West. Planning a decisive offensive in France and Belgium and not simultaneously refusing to continue seizures in the East, the military leadership of the Second Reich led by Hindenburg and Ludendorf led the country and the army not to victory, but to defeat and national catastrophe. A similar adventurist policy was pursued by the leaders of Turkey, who, instead of defending Syria and Iraq, were delirious with the ideas of seizing the Russian Caucasus and further progress in the Volga region and Turkestan.
To be continued ...