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

Friday, September 25, 2020

The Fatal Flaw of Ludendorff's 1918 Offensives

Initial Assault

Robin Prior and Trevor Wilson in their essay "What Manner of Victory? Reflections on the Termination of the First World War," Revue Internationale d'Histoire Militaire 72 (1990) provide this interesting insight on why Germany's offensives in the spring of 1918 began as smashing successes and then seemed to run out of gas.

Ludendorff's March offensive was launched on 21 March against the British on a 50-mile front between Arras and St Quentin. It was followed by a farther attack on the British in Flanders on 9 April and their offensives against the French in the Champagne and Chemin des Dames between May and June. 

Prodigious amounts of territory were gained—unprecedented in Western Front experience. Consequently, Ludendorff's efforts have received a good press. But the crucial question seems to be: why, after achieving such startling initial gains, did all his offensives fail to achieve decisive success? To answer this question we must look in more detail at the methods employed by Ludendorff that have so impressed generations of military historians. 

In short, Ludendorff's tactics can be reduced to two elements—force concentration and innovative infantry tactics. In all his offensives he used some troops brought back from the east to supplement his western forces in order to achieve a superiority over the defenders of about two to one. More important, by concentrating as much as three-quarters of all German heavy guns on the Western Front against an area of attack, he achieved an artillery superiority of three, four, or five to one. Then to maximize the impact of his infantry, Ludendorff developed new small-group tactics. 

To implement these tactics he divided his divisions into shock troops, attack troops, and follow-up formations. The most skilled were concentrated into spearhead units called storm troops. They were not to advance in coherent linear formations as of old, but were to penetrate deep into the British defenses wherever opportunity beckoned, bypassing centers of resistance without waiting for the protection of forces on their flanks. The areas thus bypassed would then be taken out by the follow-up units. 

German Mobile Artillery

The huge number of guns available to Ludendorff allowed for a short bombardment of incredible ferocity, which it was hoped would also provide a degree of surprise to the battle. Rear areas, headquarters, and the enemy artillery would first be deluged with shells in an attempt to disrupt the command and communication system and to eliminate the main weapon of response. Then the guns would be turned on the zone defenses of the defenders in an attempt to stun them just in advance of the main infantry assault.  

Historians ever since have been mightily impressed with these tactics. In some respects they were certainly novel. If the main defenses could be rapidly breached by this combination of overwhelming firepower and storm troopers, then the German infantry could reach open country and advance rapidly. There seems little doubt that a closer scrutiny reveals that Ludendorff's methods were reckless and desperately old-fashioned. To achieve the distant objective Ludendorff was specifying that there could be no question of full artillery participation beyond the opening stage. After the big guns had facilitated the initial rupture, they would soon be left well in the rear. Certainly Ludendorff enjoined his battery commanders to move their guns forward as swiftly as was practicable, but all experience had confirmed that this would not be very swift. Anyway, once the guns did get forward they would need time to establish the whereabouts of their own forces and of the targets they were required to engage. 

All this meant that in the aftermath of initial success, the storm troopers would have to exploit success with their own resources. It might be thought that the day had long since departed when a commander on the Western Front would seek to achieve his purposes largely by the actions of his infantry. Yet that, after the opening penetration, was what Ludendorff was contemplating. Unless his opponents were so unhinged by initial reverses as to prove incapable of a coherent response, Ludendorff would soon be offering up his last great reserve of manpower to heavy slaughter. 

This scenario is more or less what came to pass. On successive occasions Ludendorff's artillery blasted a hole in the British or French line, and employing the storm trooper tactics, his forces broke out into open country, occasionally securing advances of 40 or 50 miles. All this confirmed the value of the storm troop method in the opening phase of battle. Soon, though, the crucial shortcomings in the method revealed themselves. The German attackers would quickly approach exhaustion. Casualties, especially in the elite storm troop formations, had been heavy. The great mass of the artillery was still struggling to get forward. Increasingly, therefore, the infantry had only their light weapons to rely upon for fire support. On the other side of the line, the defenders would rush reserves and guns forward by rail. These came from the un-attacked portion of the front—be it British or French or even in one instance from Britain itself. 

Fresh British Defenders

The inevitable consequence was that successive German onrushes were successfully brought to a halt. There should be no surprise at this. Exhausted infantry supported only by the weapons they could carry had no chance of prevailing against fresh troops supported by an array of artillery and other weapons. The only surprise is that historians—determined, as they seem to be, to give the main role in modern mechanized conventional war to the infantry—have failed to notice the fatal flaw at the heart of Ludendorff's method.  


  1. Very good point about artillery mobility.

  2. You did not mention that at the time of the offensive the FLU decimated the Germans even more than the Allies and the offensive ground oto a halt as much because of the decimated units caused not by combat but by flu caused the offensive to peter out.

  3. Hmm... we don't read much about the part the flu played in the failure of the final offensives. I'd like to know more.

  4. Germans exhausted their supply lines severely. Heavy weapons could not be brought forward for lack of draft animals and their requirements. Another factor in play was that Ludendorf did not have clearly defined objectives.
    Brits and Fr. were able to attack forward units from the flanks