Germans in Stronger Position; Allies in Terrible Shape;
The Kaiser Declares Victory.
Special to The Great War Project.
(19 March) In the early morning of March 21st a century ago, the Germans launch the spring offensive that is intended to bring rapid victory to their forces on the Western Front.
The goals, according to historian Martin Gilbert, are first to drive the British army from the River Somme in northern France. And at the same time drive the French forces from the River Aisne.
Both areas were fought to a stalemate earlier in the war.
Now “the omens for Germany were good,” writes Gilbert. “Russia was out of the war. The German pre-war nightmare of a conflict on two fronts was over.”
The German railway, hitherto tied to the Eastern Front, now is moving men and guns rapidly westward.
The initial German thrust surprises the British. They figure the initial action would come much further south. But they are wrong.
And, their manpower is weak in the face of the German onslaught.
“After three and a half years of fighting,” observes Gilbert, “the manpower shortage was still a factor in the British army’s ability to make war.”
In this offensive, a century ago, more than 6,000 heavy German guns unleash their fury, augmented by another 3000 mortars.
Reports Gilbert, “Gas shells were employed to weaken the ability of the British artillery to counter the German barrage.”
The Germans drop as many as two million gas shells on the British lines.
British aircraft are also vastly outnumbered.
Then, the first wave of German infantry attacks.
Reports historian Gilbert, Winston Churchill is visiting one of the frontline headquarters when the assault begins. He is only just able to escape the initial artillery barrage, before the Germans advance four-and-a-half miles and take 21,000 British prisoners.
“Two days later, the Germans bombard Paris, using three long distance artillery guns especially manufactured for just such an operation,” Gilbert writes. The British are forced to retreat to the Somme.
The German Kaiser declares “the battle won, the English utterly defeated.”