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

Monday, July 23, 2018

Losing the War: The Beginning of the End for Germany

German Infantry Marching to War in 1914
Their Ranks Would Be Depleted by 1918

By Jeffrey P. Ricker, CFA

Germany’s last desperate push to win the Great War stalled at the Marne 100 years ago, 17 July 1918.  Five giant offensives, attacking with more guns and men than had ever been used before failed to break the Allied defense and force a peace.  What went wrong?

Quite simply:  Germany ran out of men.  

In the spring of 1918, German commanders Erich Ludendorff and Paul von Hindenburg plotted a decisive breakthrough.  Their many years of experience went into designing a new “package” of trench-busting techniques.  With few tanks and dwindling air support, attacks had to be done with overwhelming numbers of guns and men.  This was Germany’s last chance to win the war.  Fifty German divisions, a million men, were transferred to the Western Front after Russia quit.  For the first time since 1914 the German army outnumbered its opponents on the Western Front.  It was now or never because the U.S. Army would begin arriving in large numbers in the summer of 1918 and the opportunity would be lost.

The spring offensives initially stunned the British and French armies, and the world, as three-and-a-half years of deadlocked trench warfare suddenly changed into a war of movement over open ground.  Desperate fighting stopped each offensive short of their objective.  Instead, Germany gained thousands of square miles of hard to defend, strategically worthless ground, which had been devastated by years of conflict.  German progress came at a heavy price. Though forced to retreat again and again, the British and French Armies fought fierce rearguard actions as they withdrew; the Germans encountered major difficulties bringing up artillery and ammunition over wrecked battlefields to keep the offensives going.

Casualties on both sides were enormous, about 700,000 German and 900,000 Allied.  German offensives sometimes cost tens of thousands of men per day. The Allies, especially with the American influx, could replace lost men.  Germany could not. With the strategic initiative shifting to the Allies, the beginning of the end of the Great War began. 

The chart below quantifies the carnage.

Chart Source: U.S. War Department General Staff report “The War with Germany” 1919


  1. Very effective chart!

  2. That's a very useful and powerful graph. Reminds me of Charles Joseph Minard's 1812 map/graph in terms of clear explanatory power.

    So why *didn't* the Germans produce more tanks? They certainly had the engineering know-how.

    1. A mix of reasons. They weren't necessarily convinced by the usefulness of tanks at first (1916 had shown them to be unreliable at best), and then by the time they were (1917) it was too late to ramp the program up.

    2. I see the point about 1916. But I'm surprised German industry couldn't turn around more quickly. Unlike WWII, they weren't being physically destroyed.

  3. Readers should look at David T. Zabecki's "The German 1918 Offensives: A Case Study in the Operational Level of War" and Alexander Watson's "Enduring the Great War: Combat, Morale and Collapse in the German and British Armies, 1914-18" for a better analysis on the Spring Offensives and the German collapse.

  4. Ricker's chart is using data in a most effective manner. I doubt not that, additionally, there are thousands, if not millions of words of significance on the topic of riflemen at the front, but this one graph, I find completely compelling.