Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Stabbed in the Front: Operation Michael, the Ultimate Pyrrhic Victory

99 years ago today the most important event of the 20th century took place, the launch of the last great German offensive in World War One. WWII was merely a post-script to what happened on that day. 

By early 1918, the Germans were in a tight spot. Although Russia had been knocked out of the War by the Bolshevik Revolution and the agreement of Brest-Litovsk, which had ceded enormous territories, the Germans and their Allies were suffering the effects of the prolonged British naval blockade and deep discontent on the home front, with war weariness and strikes breaking out. Also, they were facing the prospect of millions of fresh American troops arriving in the months ahead.

The German commander Erich Ludendorff decided that the best chance for the Reich was to use the temporary superiority in numbers that Germany enjoyed as a result of the Russian surrender, to launch a decisive offensive in the West. Accordingly the German army in the West was reinforced by troops from the East and readied for the first big German offensive on that front since Verdun in 1916.

The Germans believed that they had the key to unlock the door in the stormtrooper tactics that they had developed on the Eastern front against the Russians, and had then successfully used in Italy in 1917, when they had assisted their Austrian allies against the Italians at the battle of Caporetto, an enormous defeat that had almost knocked the Italians out of the war. 

Previously military units were a mixture of individuals of various talents and abilities that fought in masses. But due to the changing conditions of war in WWI, this approach had proved not only ineffective but costly, so the Germans evolved the idea of the stormtrooper.

Basically this involved selecting the best soldiers and organizing them in small, highly trained groups and giving them the best equipment - flamethrowers, trench mortars, grenades, sub-machine guns, etc.

After a sudden artillery barrage and under cover of gas attacks and smoke bombs, these groups would then make a deep penetration of the enemy front, seeking to outflank and get behind enemy units and disrupt communications. Then the non-elite remainder of the infantry would follow up the Stormtroopers and seek to consolidate their advances and deal with pockets of resistance.

These tactics had been made possible by changes in defensive warfare during the course of the war. In order to reduce casualties to artillery bombardment, both sides had switched to a defence-in-depth system with the forward areas being lightly defended with snipers and machine gun nests, rather than continuous lines of troops, and with reserves held further back, often in artillery resistant dug-outs. 

The shock tactics of the Stormtroopers could prove extremely effective, but the problem for Ludendorff was that he decided to launch them not against Italians or demoralized Russians, nor even against the French, but rather against the best troops on the Western front, namely the British and Commonwealth troops. While German tactics on the ground were to infiltrate the front line and seek out its weakest points, their general strategy contradicted this by seeking out the strongest element of the opposing armies, the British. 

The other problem with Ludendorff's Stormtrooper tactics was that they exacted the heaviest toll on the best troops, in fact it was a reverse of basic Darwinism. Instead of the survival of the fittest, they led to culling of the fittest and the survival of the unfittest. This was even more true in a situation where resistance was greater than expected. The spearhead took almost all the shock, the shaft hardly any at all. 

A German A7V tank used in the battle
With over 80 German divisions directly pitted against 26 British divisions under General Haig, the Germans were guaranteed some kind of advance.

The battle opened with an intensive German artillery bombardment at 04:40 along a 40-mile front, hitting rear areas, while the Germans also launched mortar attacks, gas, and smoke canisters from their forward positions. Over 3,500,000 shells were fired in five hours in the biggest barrage of the war. 

Next the stormtroopers moved forward around 09:40, taking advantage of a heavy mist that greatly limited visibility, and isolating the battle area from communications with HQ. 

But although so many factors favoured the Germans, they ran up against British phlegm and steel. Unlike the demoralised Russians on the Eastern front or the panicking Italians on the Southern front, the British put up dogged resistance and started making a fighting retreat to gain time for reinforcements to come up. It is significant that on the first day the Germans had heavier casualties. 

The offensive continued for the next two weeks, but finally ground to a halt. Key to the British success was the coolness of General Gough of the British 5th Army that bore the brunt of the German attack, although Gough ended up being sacked as a scapegoat for the German advance, conservative historian Andrew Roberts pays tribute to him in his 2006 book, A History of the English Speaking Peoples since 1900:
"The offensive saw a great wrong perpetrated on a distinguished British commander that was not righted for many years. Gough's Fifth Army had been spread thin on a 42-mile front lately taken over from the exhausted and demoralised French. The reason why the Germans did not break through to Paris, as by all the laws of strategy they ought to have done, was the heroism of the Fifth Army and its utter refusal to break. They fought a 38-mile rearguard action, contesting every village, field and, on occasion, yard...With no reserves and no strongly defended line to its rear, and with eighty German divisions against fifteen British, the Fifth Army fought the Somme offensive to a standstill on the Ancre, not retreating beyond Villers-Bretonneux."
The final result of the battle was that Germans had advanced 40 miles at the deepest point and had gained 1,200 square miles of territory. Technically this would be described as an "advance" or a "victory," but once you weigh the gains against the costs it becomes clear that it was a Pyrrhic victory of the worst kind.

Much of the land gained was already ravaged by former battles, most notably the Somme, and thus difficult to defend. It would soon be recaptured by the Allies.

In terms of numbers of casualties both sides appear to have suffered equally. The British lost 178,000 men killed, wounded, and captured, and the French 77,000 (total 255,000). The Germans lost around 240,000. The difference, however, was that the German losses were overwhelmingly their elite troops, while the Allied losses were standard troops.

In short, Operation Michael effectively represented the culling of the cream of the German army for a large patch of churned up mud. It was this, along with other negative trends that set the scene for Germany's defeat and surrender later that year. 

In later years Ludendorff perpetuated the "meme" that the Germans lost the war because the "invincible" German army had been "stabbed in the back" by Jews and Leftists on the home front. The truth however is that, broadly speaking, the opposite is true. With his great gamble of March 1918 Ludendorff had effectively stabbed it in the front by sending its best elements to their deaths.

This heroic effort also created an additional legend, that of the Stormtrooper. Together these two myths of the "invincible" Stormtrooper and the all-powerful Jewish "backstabber" on the homefront fed the frenzy for the mismatched rematch that became WWII.

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