Friday, 9 February 2018

"Kaisershlacht" - The Kaiser's Battle. 1: Background

Erich Ludendorrf in 1918
Kept tight command over his masterplan
Following the exertions and traumas of the Western Front in 1917, the Allied and German Armies were all close to exhaustion. The Germans were, however, in better shape for two main reasons. Firstly, through fighting defensively their casualties were a little more than half of the French and British combined figure of an estimated 1.5 million. Secondly, they were able to bring fresh (but war hardened) reinforcements from the Eastern Front (see Posts 10/12/2017 and 22/1/2018).
Ludendorff’s grand plan was for an all or nothing offensive and breakthrough, using his new predominance of numbers, to knock the British and French Armies out of the war in four months, before a significant force of Americans could arrive in France.
For calculated political reasons, Ludendorff chose to name the campaign Kaiserschlacht – the Kaiser’s Battle. Although he had also convinced the Reichstag with his plans, he preferred to use the monarchy to be nominal head of the military rule that he and Hindenburg  were now exercising. He kept Royals as head of the two army groups given responsibility for the breakthrough – Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria to the north and Crown Prince Wilhelm (See post 5/2/2016) to the south.

At the end of October 1917 the Allied armies on the Western Front outnumbered the German defenders by 186 Divisions to 150, and 95% of those Division were British or French. By March 1918 the position was reversed – 169 Allied Divisions faced 192 German*. Not only had the Germans brought reinforcements from the Eastern Front, but the British and French had lost Divisions transferred to Italy and the Middle East. Some Divisions had too many losses to continue and their survivors were transferred to bolster other weakened Divisions. Qualitatively the British were facing fresher and more experienced opponents. Of those involved in the Kaisershlacht only 9 British Divisions had not been involved in the exhausting Third Ypres battle, whereas 68 German Divisions had not **. Ludendorff’s plan details were kept secret until as late as possible, but involved attacking in strength along a broad front of more than sixty miles, seeking for weak points that could be exploited with rapid advances by storm-troopers – as had happened at Caporetto (see Post 13/11/2017). No problem for him that the Allies suspected a major onslaught, provided they did not guess its location - anywhere between Belgium in the north or Belfort at the southern limits of the Western Front. In fact he had already made his decision that the main strike would be in the Somme area, where he saw the junction between French and British commands. His plan was to drive a wedge between British and French, such that he could push the British towards the Channel ports, where they would have to surrender or withdraw.  The French armies would be blocked from supporting the British and, in turn, would fall back on Paris and be overwhelmed. His plan had something of the Schlieffen about it (see Post 13/11/2014) – the British, hemmed into the Pas de Calais would be the equivalent to Russia in Schlieffen’s original.
By the end of the German counter-attacks in December 1917, Haig had come to expect that the Western Front tables would be turned in 1918, and that he would have to wage defensive war for the first time since 1914. Petain also realised this, and their joint planning took on an urgency to improve defences along the front. Petain was still pre-occupied with the fragility of his positions at the Aisne, in Champagne and around Verdun. He persuaded a reluctant Haig that the British should take over more of the line. It was a fateful decision. In early January 1918, the right hand (southern) limit of the British sector had been held by Byng’s 3rd Army just south of Arras, including its residual gains in the Flesquières salient from the Cambrai action. By the end of the month the British line had extended south by a further forty miles – south of St. Quentin and down to Barisis on the River Oise. Charged with holding this new sector was Gough’s 5th Army, transferred from Ypres, and it was a big ask. While Byng’s army would be holding the sector immediately to the north, roughly from Arras to Cambrai, Gough was being asked to hold the new sector south from Cambrai to Barisis. Byng had 14 Divisions to hold 28 miles of front; Gough had 12 Divisions and 3 Cavalry Divisions to hold 42 miles. This total of 29 Divisions was ranged against 76 German Divisions.
Prince Rupprecht.
Commanded two of
the 3 Kaiserschlacht
Gough’s army was weakened by the campaign for Passchendaele, and morale had not fully recovered. Haig recognised this, and he did give Gough permission for a withdrawal position under duress (Byng had no such latitude). For one thing, Haig expected the main German blow to come to the north; and for another the country behind Gough was less vital than the coastal areas of France and Belgium. Petain was also less anxious about Gough’s section than the Aisne or Champagne, but he did agree in February to position his reserves to provide rapid support to Gough if necessary, while Haig kept his reserves further north.

The upshot of all this was that Ludendorff’s first great hammer blow was now destined to fall entirely on the British 3rd and 5th Armies rather than at the junction of French and British commands. But the junction between Gough and Byng was to prove as unstable as any British French line. 

Crown Prince Wilhelm
Nominally in command
of one Kaiserschlacht army
Above all the 3rd and 5th armies (supported by other small armies of pioneers, Chinese labourers and forced labour PoWs) had rapidly to construct  more complex defences to withstand new German tactics. The 3rd Army had been in position for more than a year, and knew their conditions well. Poor Gough’s army had just arrived from the horrors of Passchendaele, and they inherited French trenches that were barely adequate for attacking, let alone defending. At least they found the ground dry, but various ingredients were adding up to a perfect storm.

*And British Divisions had shrunk to an establishment of 10 Battalions rather than 13 because of the continuing heavy losses.
** Martin Middlebrook The Kaiser’s Battle  p43

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