They Shall Not Pass!

On 21 March 1918, the German's launched their first offensive against the Allied armies in France and Flanders since 1915.

For the past three years the conflict had been a static war of attrition. It's most characteristic aspect - trench warfare - had been the norm since the so-called 'race to the sea' in 1914. Now, in a single day, all that was to change.

In many ways it was a last ditch effort by the Germans. Germany knew it had to strike decisively both while it had superior manpower (the defeat of Russia having freed up thousands of troops from the the Eastern Front) and before the Allies received vital US support.

The battles that followed (there were four separate advances, codenamed Michael, Georgette, Gneisenau, and Bl├╝cher-Yorck) won more ground than either side had achieved since 1914. But at a high price.

British casualties on the first day totalled almost 40,000 - including almost 21,000 men taken prisoner, making it the second worst day (after The Somme) for the British Army ever. By the end of the offensive German casualties numbered 240,000 killed, wounded and captured while combined British and French casualties were 250,000 killed, wounded and captured.

Ultimately, the Germans were a victim both of their own success, and Allied failures. The army was unable to move men and supplies forwards fast enough to maintain the swift advance. And the obstacle zone left by the Battle of the Somme two years earlier finally ground the German army to a halt. As John Keegan says in his magisterial survey The First World War, 'The Somme may not have won the war for the British in 1916 but the obstacle zone it left helped to ensure that in 1918 they did not lose it' (p. 433).

By late April the danger passed. Heavy casualties and overstretched lines combined with the nature of the terrain now occupied to prove decisive. By August 1918 the Allies - their numbers increased by American troops - had launched a counter-offensive which, within 100 days, would force the Germans from all the territory gained, overrun the Hindenburg Line and lead to the collapse of the German Empire.


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