Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

100 Years Ago: The Commencement of Operation MICHAEL Marks the End of Trench Warfare

German Soldiers Infiltrating a British Position, Spring 1918 (AWM)

31 October 1914 was the day the war of movement on the Western Front stopped. Afterward, there would be no big breakthroughs until 1918, and 41 months of stagnant, but bloody, trench warfare would ensue. By mid-day on 31 October 1914 there were no more flanks, just one last gap in the entire line from the Swiss border to the English Channel where a breakthrough seemed possible. It was at a place five miles east of Ypres on the grounds of Gheluvelt Chateau, just north of the Menin Road. 

Shortly before noon, the line of the British 1st Division was broken at Gheluvelt. If at that moment German reinforcements available close at hand could thrust through the gap and spread out fanwise, they could have rolled up the defenders on either flank in their rear and simply broken the cohesion of the British in Flanders to pieces. The impulse of retreat began to seize the British troops. Already men and guns were streaming back toward Ypres. The Germans quickly assembled 13 battalions for a final follow-through attack. 

General Charles FitzClarence, commanding the British Army 1st Brigade, was nearby and saw the declining situation. At Polygon Wood north of Gheluvelt, he got hold of the 2nd Worcestershires, part of the reserve of the 2nd Division on the north, and ordered them to counterattack immediately. This movement had scarcely begun when a shell burst in Hooge Chateau, where the staff of both divisions had assembled for a conference, practically destroying them. 

Plugging the Last Gap at Gheluvelt
31 October 1918

But the Worcestershires—a tiny force of eight officers and 360 men—swept all before them nonetheless. They fell upon their adversaries, who were mostly Bavarians, and drove them back in confusion from the chateau grounds. The line was reestablished. The Western Front of the Great War was effectively completed. General FitzClarence, sadly, did not have much longer to live. He died on 11 November 1914 in fighting along the Menin Road, where many more would fall in the remaining four years of war. 

The years of trench warfare gave the general staffs time to study the problem of breaking the trench lines and conduct experiments—almost all of which failed—to accomplish this. By 1918, however, the combatants all had solutions they thought would do the trick, some combination of infiltration tactics, better artillery registration, shorter and more intense barrages of high explosive and gas, tanks, better coordination of infantry, engineers, artillery, and logistical support, etc. 

The first general to apply his new "package" of trench-busting techniques was German Quartermaster General Erich von Ludendorff. He planned to defeat the British Army north of Paris and then force the French to seek terms. His staff was instructed to develop a series of offensives targeting either the British directly or the French to fix them in place, reluctant to send reinforcement to their Allies. There were five major attacks that came to be called the "Ludendorff Offensives"—one each month from March to July–—and one for August that was canceled when the French and Americans launched the first Allied counteroffensive of the year. 

The Man of the Hour
Col. Bruchmüller
The first, and most memorable, German operation of 1918, Operation MICHAEL, was launched in the Somme sector on 21 March. We will be covering the Ludendorff Offensives in all the publications of in the ensuing months, but the initial success of MICHAEL stunned the world, not to say the British Army. 

In Ludendorff's package of solutions, the key was artillery. Col. Georg Bruchmüller, an obscure officer retired for nervous problems in 1913 but recalled to duty for the war, developed German artillery techniques to a fine art by the time of the Ludendorff Spring Offensives of 1918. The essence of the Bruchmüller artillery preparation was a carefully orchestrated, short but intense bombardment designed to isolate, demoralize, and disorganize enemy defenders. 

The effect was increased by surprise. At the start of the German offensive on 21 March 1918, Bruchmüller began his bombardment with ten minutes of gas shells to force the British to mask, followed by four hours and 25 minutes of mixed gas and high explosives. The preparatory fires shifted back and forth so that the British did not know when the artillery was actually lifting for the infantry advance. Meanwhile, automatic rifle teams moved as close as possible to the British positions during the bombardment. When the Germans did advance, they moved behind a rolling barrage, further enhanced by intense fog. The combination of surprise, brevity, intensity, and carefully selected targets was unique. The power of this initial assault and exploitation allowed a 40-mile penetration and the capture of 1,200 sq. miles of territory. However, the Allies weren't beaten—the British Army didn't break and the French provided sufficient reinforcements—and the German push lost its moment. Ludendorff's solution was to apply his solution to other areas of the Western Front and hope for better results 


  1. What was the German automatic rifle referred to?

    1. Bill, See this article on Germany's MP-18:

  2. Junger's Storm of Steel is an excellent source for the start of the attack