On this week in history, the German Army launched its last-ditch 1918 offensive, aimed at breaking the Entente lines in northwestern France and marching to Paris. The offensive was something of a throw of the dice, an attempt by the German High Command to try and win the war before the full flood of American soldiers crashed across the Atlantic. It nearly worked.

Otto Dix, Stormtroopers Advancing Under Gas (1924)

The Western Front in WWI had been a largely static war since the freewheeling days of 1914. In this, it resembled less battles and battlefields than sieges and fortifications. The trench system that stretched from Switzerland to the English Channel meant that the traditional methods of open warfare–flanking maneuvers, for example–had become essentially impossible. What was left were frontal assaults, with all the expected sanguinary implications. The central tactical question, from 1914 onward, had been how to get an attack across No Man’s Land, from one trench system to another, and then hold it, all without losing too many casualties in the process. The years 1916-1917 were experimental, as all the armies tried a variety of ways to mount assaults. Some were unsuccessful: the German gas attack at Ypres in 1915 momentarily opened a gap in the British line, but the German troops were mostly held by a combination of dogged Canadian defenders and the difficulties of moving up into their own gas. Some were successful: in 1917, the British mounted successful assaults at Messines Ridge and Cambrai, broke through German lines using, for the former, carefully organized artillery bombardments and “bite and hold” tactics and, for the latter, using mass ranks of armored vehicles, “tanks.” Some were disasters: at the Somme and Verdun in 1916, and Passchendaele in 1917, British and German assaults had turned in cauldrons that boiled hundreds of thousands alive. This mixture of successes, failures, and catastrophes had killed millions and stretched the war out without result.

By 1918, the Germans thought that they had figured out a way to do it. A wide-ranging debate over tactics within the German Army had led to the creation–largely by General Oskar von Hutier–of a set of “infiltration tactics.” von Hutier’s formulation would wed short artillery bombardments, designed to keep the heads of the frontline defenders down, with specially trained units of elite soldiers–Sturmbattalione or stormtroopers–who would creep out in the middle of the bombardment get to the edge of the enemy trench system and, when it lifted, be among the defenders before they could react. Once the frontline was cracked, larger units would move to consolidate the gains, while the stormtroopers moved deeper into the defensive system. Hutier’s tactics worked well on the Russian front, and at the 1917 Battle of Caporetto in Italy where, among others, Erwin Rommel, made his name.

von Hindenburg and Ludendorff

The German Oberste Heeresleitung (or Supreme Command)–consisting at that point of Generals Paul von Hindenberg and Erich Ludendorff–aimed to bring those tactics to the Western Front early in 1918. His forces were swollen (though less than they might have been) by troops returning victoriously from the Eastern Front.

Hindenburg aimed his first assault–Operation Michael–mainly at the British Fifth Army, which had only recently moved into its section of the trenches. Some of the defensive fortifications in that area consisted only of paint markings on the ground. The offensive was timed to start at the end of March, plenty of time to move troops from the Eastern and Italian fronts, train them, and build up the necessary supplies. All of this took place in the strictest security, of course, though there were substantial leaks, especially closer to the day of the attack. The leaks were enough that the British knew the day and time of the assault, though not its extent.

The initial attack started on March 21st. The artillery bombardment started in the early morning hours, followed by stormtrooper assaults all along the line. There was extensive fog that morning, which made the defenders’ task more difficult, and the Sturmbattalione slipped easily through the gaps in the British lines, leaving the strong points for the following infantry to mop up. By the end of the day, the Germans had ripped a substantial hole in the British line and there was no sign that they were slowing down. The only problems up to that point had been that the stormtrooper casualties had been substantial, and that the bypassed British strongpoints were proving more of an issue for the followup waves than had been expected.

The advance continued. This was enough to create serious rifts between the Allied commanders. Douglas Haig, the British Commander, accused General Petain, the French Commander, of not reinforcing the British quickly enough. The imbroglio sucked in both the British Cabinet and the French Government and the result was the creation of a Supreme Commander of all the Entente forces on March 26th. This–somewhat to Haig’s discomfort–was given to a French General, Ferdinand Foch. Foch quickly threw reinforcements into the line to hold the German assault, and the British continued pushing fresh troops into strongholds such as Amiens and Arras.

But the attack was beginning to peter out already. The stormtrooper units had suffered heavy casualties, were low on supplies, and had moved beyond the range of artillery and other support. Hutier’s tactics worked well to break a defensive line, but the Germans found it much harder to consolidate that breakthrough and expand it past a few days. Once the British artillery learned to hammer No Man’s Land upon the news of an attack–thus catching the main German body of troops moving up–the stormtroopers found themselves isolated deep behind the lines, running out of food and ammunition. And British troops, strengthened by those hasty reinforcements, were holding their strongpoints and consolidating a new defensive line. On April 5th, Ludendorff called off the assault and turned to mount another attack at a different area of the line. Operation Michael had resulted in about 250,000 Entente casualties and about 240,000 German. It had been successful, and more success was to come, but the Germans were never able to figure out how to correc the weaknesses in the stormtrooper tactics, and it would end up dooming them.