Lessons from Germany’s ‘Spring Offensive’ 100 Years Later

One hundred years ago this month, all hell broke loose in France. On March 21, 1918, the German army on the Western Front unleashed a series of massive attacks on the exhausted British and French armies.

German General Erich Ludendorff thought he could win World War I with one final blow. He planned to punch holes between the French and British armies. Then he would drive through their trenches to the English Channel, isolating and destroying the British army.

The Germans thought they had no choice but to gamble.

The British naval blockade of Germany after three years had reduced Germany to near famine. More than 200,000 American reinforcement troops were arriving each month in France. (Nearly 2 million would land altogether.) American farms and factories were sending over huge shipments of food and munitions to the Allies.

Yet for a brief moment, the war had suddenly swung in Germany’s favor by March 1918. The German army had just knocked Russia and its new Bolshevik government out of the war. The victory on the Eastern Front freed up nearly 1 million German and Austrian soldiers, who were transferred west.

Germany had refined new rolling artillery barrages. Its dreaded “Stormtroopers” had mastered dispersed advances. The result was a brief window of advantage before the American juggernaut changed the war’s arithmetic.

The Spring Offensive almost worked. Within days, the British army had suffered some 50,000 casualties. Altogether, about a half-million French, British and American troops were killed or wounded during the entire offensive.

But within a month, the Germans were sputtering. They could get neither supplies nor reinforcements to the English Channel. Germany had greedily left 1 million soldiers behind in the east to occupy and annex huge sections of conquered Eastern Europe and western Russia.

The British and French had learned new ways of strategic retreat. By summer of 1918, the Germans were exhausted. In August, the Allies began their own (even bigger) offensive and finally crushed the retreating Germans, ending the war in November 1918.

What were the lessons of the failed German offensive?

The fortunes of war can change in days. In late March 1918, the Germans thought the war was won. Three months later, they knew it was lost. Often, the worst moments of war come right before the end, as the last-gasp battles of Waterloo, the Bulge, and Okinawa remind us.

In 2016, an ascendant Islamic State bragged that it had formed a vast new Islamic caliphate. By the end of 2017, ISIS had been bombed to smithereens and routed.

Long-term strategy matters. Without a strategic vision, short-term tactical success means nothing. The advancing Germans had no real idea of what to do next—even if they reached the English Channel. There was never any chance that the British would quit. The British had survived worse at the earlier battles of the Somme and Passchendaele.

In our time, America has never quite determined its strategic aims in the nearly 17-year-old Afghan war. Is it to crush the Taliban? To build a democracy in Afghanistan? To rid the country of terrorist havens? To stop the opium trade? To make Afghanistan economically and militarily self-sufficient? To simply not lose? All that and more have been mentioned as American goals.

Alliances are critical. What did it matter that Germany had finally defeated Russia if at nearly the same time it had provoked an even stronger new enemy in America? The key to denuclearizing North Korea is creating a frontline partnership of Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and the United States—and to flip either China or Russia to our side to ensure that sanctions strangle Pyongyang.

War is decided as much by economics as by soldiers. Germany unleashed a lethal army against the Allies, but its soldiers did not even have enough food or munitions to sustain the offensive after a few weeks. Germany had neither the food nor the factory capacity to conduct war against the combined might of Britain, France, and the United States. In many ways, 1918 Germany was like today’s Russia—formidable on the battlefield, but only for a short duration and without the economic ability to finish what it starts.

Leaders usually ignore history. A little more than 20 years after the Spring Offensive, Hitler’s Third Reich fought America, Britain, France and Russia; unleashed its armies in a two-front war in Europe; was blockaded; and lost another world war.

The final battles of World War I will have their 100 anniversaries this year. But the lessons of how Germany almost won and then suddenly lost are ageless.


Photo credit: Interim Archives/Getty Images

About Victor Davis Hanson

Victor Davis Hanson is a distinguished fellow of the Center for American Greatness and the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. He is an American military historian, columnist, a former classics professor, and scholar of ancient warfare. He has been a visiting professor at Hillsdale College since 2004. Hanson was awarded the National Humanities Medal in 2007 by President George W. Bush. Hanson is also a farmer (growing raisin grapes on a family farm in Selma, California) and a critic of social trends related to farming and agrarianism. He is the author most recently of The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won, The Case for Trump and the newly released The Dying Citizen.

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7 responses to “Lessons from Germany’s ‘Spring Offensive’ 100 Years Later”

  1. it is sad that ww1 is largely forgotten in the u.s. for it shaped the world to come. if you ever find yourself in kansas city do yourself a favor and visit the national ww1 museum.

    • George Santayana’s dictum is forgotten or wrongly remembered.

  2. The image accompanying the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel story is of Der Furher saluting, intended to stir the passions of the murkee market.

  3. As historian Richard Hofstadter once remarked, “In war, God is on the side of the big battalions.”
    So it was with Germany, going to war with countries that (combined) far outnumbered her.
    There existed NO strategy that could overcome the numbers.

  4. The real lesson? Violate the “Laws of War” ruthlessly. Great Britain blockaded food and medicine from Germany, thus ensuring that it was too weak to win.

  5. “Germany had greedily left 1 million soldiers behind in the east to
    occupy and annex huge sections of conquered Eastern Europe and western

    This was the key! The Germans needed more men and material for the offensive in the west but were too busy unwrapping their gift from Lenin.

  6. Wars without clear strategic purpose tend to be lost. This was the ultimate failure of the NeoCon wars. The general concept was that the US as world policeman would force the backwards Islamic world into the modern era to become liberal democracies. The first problem was that most of the Islamic masses were led by men who did not want liberal democracies, did not want the liberation of women that would follow establishment of a liberal democracy and actually still believed in their own religions admonitions to Islamicize the world. The second problem was that the forces of schism and feuding warfare were so great that it was impossible for anything but a completely ruthless repressive dictator like Saddam Hussein to contain. The third problem was that the rather arbitrary borders that defined Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon etc forced into a single government groups that intensely hated each other – Shia and Sunni, Kurd and other Islamics, Christians and Muslims – guarranteeing that no internal piece could be imposed save the peace of the grave coming from a completely repressive dictator. The fourth problem was that the US operated by every increasingly politically correct rules of engagement that precluded victory.

    Moving forward our strategy should be to use our forces selectively to serve specific purposes benefitting the US politically and economically. Our forces should not be employed unless they are allowed to use all the means needed to win, including the ability to execute brigands on the spot (as George Washington did), to use whatever means of interrogation were required to get the information needed to win, and including the use of overwhelming force. Our strategic aims are clear cut: (1) to prevent any hegemon or combination of hegemons to control Eurasia (since only a force of that size could destroy us. (2) to control the underseas, seas, skies, space and cyberspace both to protect the homeland and to have the ability to shut down the economy of any foe by preventing them from trading globally, and (3) to control our borders and ensure that all residents in the US, citizen or non-citizen speak English and are loyal to the USA.