During the 1917 campaign of the year, the supreme German command on the French (Western) front relied on defense. Developing a plan for the 1918 campaign of the year, the German Headquarters decided to organize a strategic offensive on the Western Front, taking advantage of Russia’s exit from the war, which made it possible to concentrate the main forces on the Western European theater without fear of an impact by the Russian army in the East, and until the main forces of the American army entered the battle . In addition, the internal situation of the German bloc (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and Turkey) was disastrous. It was necessary to achieve a decisive victory and force France, England and Italy to peace on favorable terms, or the depletion of the Central Powers led to defeat to war. Germany could no longer wage a war of attrition, despite the victory in the East and the plundering of Western Russian lands.
According to the plan of Ludendorff, the Germans were to break through the Allied front with a powerful blow, to divide the Allies. Press the British to the sea, destroy or force to flee, and by strong pressure on the French force them to accept the world on favorable terms for Germany. The first German offensive began on March 21 1918 of the year (Operation Michael). The superiority of forces (62 divisions, 6824 guns and around 1000 aircraft against 32 divisions, around 3000 guns and around 500 aircraft from the British) allowed the German troops to pull the British hard, advance 60 km in the first 8 days. However, the French soon came to the aid of the British, threw reserves into battle, and during a stubborn battle the Allies jointly stopped the enemy. For the first time during the war, the general threat of defeat forced the Allies to appoint the commander-in-chief of the whole coalition, Ferdinand Foch.
The German command did not have large mobile units (cavalry was left on the Eastern Front in Russia) in order to develop the first success and broaden the gap, go to the operational space and defeat the enemy rears. In general, the Germans were greedy, they left a lot of troops in Russia for the development of intervention, control of vast spaces and communications, looting of captured lands, and the army did not have large strategic reserves that could turn the tide of battle in a powerful blow. The Allies had better rear communications than the Germans in the area, and quickly deployed reinforcements and ammunition. The Germans suffered serious losses, overcoming the strong defense of the enemy, stopped, pulling up artillery and rear. In addition, the fighting efficiency of the German divisions fell. The hungry, exhausted German soldiers, having seized upon the warehouses of the allies, the territories where the war rink had not yet passed, began to engage in looting, eat off and drank.
As a result, the Allies brought reserve troops into battle and by April 4 stopped the German troops, causing them serious losses (230 thousand people). 5 April Ludendorff stopped the offensive. The allies themselves lost about the same amount, but they still had the opportunity to siphon human resources from the allied countries, colonial empires, on the approach was a fresh American army. That is, the Germans won, defeating the Allies and seizing significant territory, but this victory was Pyrrhic. The seizure of territories only worsened the position of the German army, it had to defend a large front line, stretch, deplete its military order. But it was not possible to inflict a decisive defeat on the Allies, with the destruction of his manpower and the collapse of the front.
Plan of operation Forces of the parties
After a short respite, the German command decided to continue the offensive. The operation of the 4 and 6 of the German armies against the 2 and 1 of the British armies in Flanders in April 1918 was to be a continuation of the March offensive in Picardy. Here the German army planned to deliver a second decisive blow to the enemy, seeking a general defeat for the British army. The offensive was going to begin immediately after the termination of the operation in Picardy. However, the lack of forces in Flanders, difficulties in the transfer of troops and their provision of ammunition did not allow to appoint the start of a new offensive earlier than on April 9.
Russian military historian, General Andrei Zayonchkovsky described the plan of the German General Staff as follows: “The failure of the Germans near Arras 28 in March, the concentration of large French reserves in the Beauvais region, the difficulty of organizing the rear in the destroyed area seized by the Germans did not give hope for improving their strategic position on the Arras-Alber front - Mondidier - Noyon. On the other hand, the weakening of the British in general, and in the valley of the Lys and before Ypres, in particular, as well as clear weather, prompted the German commanders to resume the offensive, but in a different area - between Armantère and the La Bassay canal. ”
6-I German army was to strike between Armantier and the channel of La Bassé in the north-west direction. The Germans planned to seize the enemy’s important communications center - Hazebrouck and heights at Godwarswelde and Kassel, as well as to force the La Basse channel and the r. Clarence The next day, the 4 Army was to support the 6 Army north of Armantier by attacking Kemmel and Ypres. After a crushing blow was struck to the British troops north of the La Bassé canal, Ludendorff planned to spread the offensive also in a southwesterly direction. In order to support the new operation, the German command called for private attacks in the direction of Amiens and battles to hold the Amiens protrusion.
By April 9, 36 German divisions, 29 guns and 2208 aircraft were concentrated on the front of the offensive from the La Basset canal to Hollebaek, about 492 km long. The opposing 2nd and 1st British armies had 17 divisions, 749 guns. In addition, in the 1st English Army there were about 80 tanks. Thus, the German command managed to create almost two-fold superiority in divisions and three-fold superiority in artillery on the front of the offensive. Already during the battle, the forces of the parties increased: 43 German and 35 English and French divisions.
Prerequisites for the success of the Germans were. The state of the British army in the region of r. Fox caused fears of the Allied Command. “Haig ... was very much afraid for the shortest direction to the coast,” noted the historian Zayonchkovsky. - And, meanwhile, the position of the British was serious. Reserves dried out. The troops survived severe tests. The 10 of the fresh British divisions from the banks of the river Lys were transported to the Somme, and instead they were sent to weary divisions that took part in repelling the Germans' offensive in March. ”
Maps Source: A. Strokov. Armed forces and military art in the First World War
9 April 1918 began early morning artillery preparation on the front of the 6 of the German army from the La Bassay channel to Armantier. In 8 hours 45 minutes, the infantry went on the attack under the cover of the firing shaft. The Germans have chosen a good front to attack. The main attack of the 6 Army was inflicted on the two Portuguese divisions that were part of the 1 British Army and had not yet taken part in the hostilities. The Portuguese were unable to provide serious resistance, and under the blow of the enemy, after a few hours, they began to withdraw, exposing the flanks of the neighboring divisions. Portuguese troops suffered heavy losses. Portuguese troops lost 7000 soldiers and 300 officers killed, wounded and captured. In the defense of the British army formed a big gap. By evening, the 6-I German army advanced 8 km, reaching the river. Lys in the district of Estar. The Germans captured about 6 thousand people and captured more 100 guns.
The next day, in 2 hours of 45 minutes, artillery preparation began, and in 5 hours of 15 minutes - an attack on the front of the 4 of the German army from Armanttier to Messina. By noon, her divisions penetrated 2-3 km into the depths of the defense of the 2 of the English army and captured the height of Messina. Then the offensive spread even further north to Hollebek, and by the end of the day it was fought by two armies on the front with a total length of 30 km. Within two days of the offensive, the German forces advanced 12 km, threatening Hazebrouck, Kassel and the ledge east of Ypres. On the night of April 11, the British left Armantier due to the threat of encirclement.
Portuguese troops. April 1918
The German attack in Flanders caused serious concern to the British. On April 10, Chief of the British General Staff G. Wilson announced the need to flood the area from Dunkirk to St. Omer and withdraw British and Belgian troops to the Abbeville, St. Omer line. April 12 British commander Haig ordered the withdrawal of troops from the ledge at Ypres, hoping to shorten the front to impede the Germans to further expand the offensive to the north. Haig was forced to give the following order: “We have no choice but to fight. Each position to hold to the last. We are pressed back to the wall and, relying on the correctness of our case, each of us must fight heroically to the last drop of blood. "
Because of the threat of defeat of the 1 and 2 of the British armies, the French again came to the aid of the allies. By order of Foch, the transfer of French reserves to the front of the English armies began on cars and by rail. Four divisions of the 10 of the French army are deployed to the area of Hazebrouck, Kassel, the main forces of which are concentrated in the area of Dullins, Saint-Paul. To Saint-Omer and further east, the 2 French Cavalry Corps is being advanced by forced marches. However, it was only 1-2 of April that was able to fully concentrate the reserves needed to strengthen the 13 and 14 of the British armies and stabilize the front.
At the same time, the German offensive continued to develop. Using the breakthroughs of the British front, the 6-I and 4-I armies to the end of 12 April forced the Lave Canal, captured Locke, Ester, Merville. The depth of their progress was 18 km. Until Hazebruk remained only 9 - 10 km. However, on April 12, the counterattacks of the British and the French troops that came to their aid strengthened. The German offensive weakens, and on April 14-15 is suspended.
17 April, the German divisions renew their attacks, directing them against an important strong point of the enemy of Mount Kemmel. 25 April, after several days of fierce fighting, they manage to capture Kemmel. But this success could no longer bring any results, since all attempts to strike at strategically important Kassel heights broke on the strongest resistance of the enemy. The Anglo-French troops have already tightened their defenses and the crisis has passed. In the following days, the offensive acquires the character of local battles for the improvement of the tactical position. By April 29 battle on p. The fox is over.
It is worth noting that at the same time a fierce battle was also seething in the air. 21 in April in the north of France killed one of the best aces of the First World War, Manfred Albrecht von Richthofen, nicknamed the "Red Baron". He got the nickname for having painted his plane in bright red color and had a baronial title. At that time, Rihtgofen only had to turn 25 years old, and he had less than 3 years of flying experience, but his combat score was no less than 80 downed enemy planes, which remained the absolute record of the First World War. At that time, Richthofen was considered a “living legend” and was respected by absolutely all pilots on both sides of the front.
In the last battle, Richthofen met with the pilots of the Canadian squadron. At the time of his death, he was pursued by Lieutenant Wilfred May fighter, while Rihthofen himself was attacked from behind by Captain Arthur Roy Brown. After being fatally wounded, Richthofen managed to land his plane in the location of the troops of the Entente. But when the Australian soldiers ran to him, he was already dead. At first it was believed that the “Red Baron” was killed by Brown. The officers of the 3 Squadron of the Air Force of Australia, not far from the airfield of which Richtofen sat, buried the German ace with military honors. However, later specially conducted ballistic studies showed that, based on the nature of the wound received by Richthofen, the fatal shot was made from the ground, either by an anti-aircraft machine gun or by infantrymen who also fired at the time of the German ace aircraft.
Thus, turn the offensive in the valley of the river. Fox in the main operation to destroy the British army and seize the coast, the German troops could not. As a result of the April offensive in the Anglo-French front, a new projection 18 km deep was formed. The fate of the operation was decided almost tactical successes of the first two days. That is, the Germans took up in the battle, but their victory was again Pyrrhic. There was no decisive success, and the exhaustion of the army intensified. The losses of the German troops amounted to 86 thousand people, the Allies lost about 112 thousand people.
The main reasons for the failure of the offensive, as well as in March, were the lack of forces (powerful reserves) and the lack of mobile forces necessary for the development of the success of the early days. As the offensive continued and the resistance increased, the forces of the German divisions were exhausted, and the battle again assumed a positional character, grinding the troops. But in this bloody contest, the Allies had more resources. A very dangerous symptom for the German command in the last days of the offensive was, according to Hindenburg and Ludendorff, cases of refusal of some units to go into battle. The disintegration of the German army, drained of blood and tired of this massacre, became a dangerous factor for Germany.
However, the impression made on the Allies by the two German attacks against the most sensitive sectors of the Anglo-French front was great. The 1914 nightmare seemed to repeat. The front also cracked the allies, also exhausted by the war, with difficulty holding the blow of the German divisions. The initiative in the conduct of hostilities still remained in the hands of the German command.
Zayonchkovsky wrote: “The unexpected success of the Germans made such an impression on the Entente that the British and French governments appealed to US President Wilson with a request for a monthly redeployment of American infantry and machine gunners to 120 000 and to France and for this reason insufficient vehicles. The British merchant fleet began transporting infantry, and the US ships - artillery, special arms and rear. ” In April, 30 thousand American soldiers arrived in France.
British infantry in the battle on the river. Fox April 1918