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

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

The Kaiser's Battle

Martin Middlebrook
Pen & Sword Military, 2007; First Pub. 1978
David F. Beer, Reviewer

German Troops Assembling at St. Quentin for the Kaiser's Battle

Although originally published in 1978, Pen & Sword Books obviously felt The Kaiser's Battle well merited a 2007 paperback edition. This was a laudable decision, as anyone who has read Middlebrook's other books would agree. His 1971 The First Day on the Somme continues to be a popular and worthy addition to the literary history of the Great War and in a sense is a companion book to the one I'm now reviewing. Both take a lengthy, costly, and fateful battle and look specifically at its opening day through a detailed and humanist lens. Both were first written in the 1970s when it was still possible to talk with many of the German and British survivors of these battles and to collect numerous oral and written accounts from them.

Many of us think of the German attack that began at 9:30 a.m. on 21 March 1918 as the opening of the Ludendorff Offensives, with subsequent phases: Michael, Georgette, Blücher-Yorck, and so on. But this last great effort of the German army to overcome the French and British before American forces could make a difference was known to the Germans as Die Kaiserschlacht—"The Imperial Battle." This name was given to the overall spring offensive by Ludendorff in honor of the Kaiser (p. 34). Thus the book's title, The Kaiser's Battle. Middlebrook looks deep into the first day the of battle after giving us a full understanding of the conditions, status, and attitudes of both the German and British Armies just prior to the opening day.

This book is easily readable on account of the author's skill at cleverly blending his text with written and oral accounts of some 650 surviving German and British soldiers. By this time the war was solely a war of attrition—victory could only be achieved by grinding down the enemy until he buckled. In this respect, things were not too promising for the British. The Americans were arriving at a painfully slow pace. The Portuguese troops were thoroughly unreliable. The French were uncertain. British spirits were not at their highest for several reasons. Moreover, they were not accustomed to thinking defensively and had never been encouraged to do so (p. 74). But now on the eve of the Kaiserschlacht,

All down the Western Front men were digging and digging-Labour Companies of medically low-grade British, of Indians, Chinese, Italians, of German prisoners-but only well to the rear-Royal Engineers, Pioneers, and always the poor British infantry turned out of their billets to the ever-lasting 'working parties (the word 'fatigue' had been officially abolished in 1915 owing to its 'unsavoury tone') (p. 77).

Although no defensive position could ever be made completely impregnable, the British had planned their defenses carefully. A Forward Zone was designated, and to the rear were Battle Zones, reserve lines, and a Corps Line, all with specific strategic purposes. Scattered along the front lines were a series of "redoubts" which are described in detail and illustrated by diagrams in the book. The British felt they were as ready as they could be.

Meanwhile the German army possessed fresh divisions from the Russian Front, newly trained storm troopers, some novel approaches to bombardment and gas, and even a few tanks. Some million German troops were assembling for the attack. Food supplies and morale were not the best however, and there was a general suspicion among the men that their officers suffered from Brustschmerzen ("chest pains"): they wanted to get as many medals as possible before the war was over (p. 59).

When the Germans attacked at 9:30 that morning a widespread fog had settled in, denying the British the eyes of the Royal Flying Corps. After suffering a destructive barrage, the British defense was unable to hold. A corporal from the 9th Norfolks was there:

Our front-line trench was so badly damaged that, when the bombardment lifted, we were ordered to fall back to the support line about a hundred yards further back. We had to leave the platoon commander at the top of the dug-out steps; he was dead with both legs blown off. The company commander sat at the bottom of the steps still issuing orders but he was too badly wounded to move. The dug-out itself was full of men wounded by the shelling-they were all left behind (p. 171).

Retreating British Soldiers in an Improvised Trench

It didn't take long for the German army to "sweep away the British front-line defenses so completely and over such a long stretch of front" that they attained "a unique achievement by First World War standards" (p. 203). The book's Chapter 6 is appropriately titled "All Hell Let Loose." Within two hours of their opening attack the Germans had captured most of the Forward Zone (Ch.9). The defense and fall of the redoubts took longer. They were gradually overcome during the day although some were simply skirted by the invaders at first. (See Ch. 10, 'The Fall of the Redoubts").

And so erupts this costly great battle of the Great War. Subsequent chapters carry us through the day in intimate detail, enlivened and verified by numerous accounts of those who were there. By the end of the afternoon of this first day there was no doubt who the victors were. One of the 16 black-and-white photos in the book shows a very long line of British prisoners (some smiling happily) being marched to captivity, while another photo shows a crowd of British Tommies penned in an open field. They had been

. . . herded into barbed-wire enclosures in open fields and had to spend the night there. Few received any food or drink that first night; the German supply organization was at full stretch and there were no rations to spare yet for prisoners. It was the first night of a long, hard time for the British prisoners. There was a sharp frost, and in the morning several men were found to have died from exposure during the night (p. 291).

Interestingly, the author designates two chapters, 8 and 11, to "Reviews" of the situation. Their purpose is to pause the narrative and "give a summary of the position at the end of a distinct phase of the battle and…also to describe the activities of some of the less obvious of the participants in the battle" (pp. 203-222; 272-291). These pauses in the battle narrative also helped me catch my breath!

Chapter 12, 'The Evening," relates how most action was over by 5:00 p.m., apart from a few skirmishes. The Germans had no wish to push any farther that day, particularly since the terrain was unfamiliar to them. So, in the words of a German infantryman writing in a heroic couplet, "Hot was the day and bloody the battle/Cool was the evening and calm the night" (p. 292). One British officer was less poetic:

Most of the brigade was killed or captured and, by nightfall, there were only several small groups gathered together and under the command of colonels and majors. We had a meeting of the remaining officers and all that the colonels and majors had to say about the day was that it been 'a bugger' (p. 306).

The final two chapters, 13 and 14, are "An Analysis" and 'The Aftermath," both doing exactly what they promise. Numerous details are given, including the number of troops on both sides who were killed, wounded, or taken prisoner. The remarkable achievement of the German Army on that day cannot be overestimated—even though, ironically, it set in motion a chain of events that would finally end the war (p. 308). The day produced tales of heroism and of too-willing surrender and also gave birth to its share of myths. Nevertheless, a private from the Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry summed it all up thus: "And, when we were in a German prison camp, the verdict we passed on the 21 March fighting was that it was 'all a proper balls-up'"(p. 358).

A wealth of information is still available in the book after Chapter 14. Twenty pages of "Soldiers' Tales" provide particularly well-written accounts from individuals present at the fighting on 21 March 1918. Nine appendices then list details such as the order of battle of both German and British divisions, artillery strengths, Victoria Cross awards, and senior officer casualties. A bibliography and index follow, and it should be mentioned that seven helpful maps (very clear) and some diagrams are found within the narrative together with the photographs mentioned earlier.

The Kaiser's Battle is superbly researched and written. I feel it should be part of every World War One professional or amateur historian's library.

David F. Beer


  1. Brustschmerzen: what a word!

    Thank you for this review, David. One question: is it Anglocentric?

  2. Yes, Bryan, I think you could say the book is quite Anglocentric.

  3. Thanks for this. It is time to reread this work as I've been doing with so many other works. Cheers

  4. Hard to improve on Barrie Pitt's work of half a century ago, but I will take a look !