German Air Attacks Increasingly Deadly.
For Allies, It’s Victory or Collapse.
Special to The Great War Project.
(6 March) This week a century ago, the Germans let loose with one of their most effective air attacks of the war.
Historian Martin Gilbert writes: “In the first week of March 1918, Germany and Austria launch four bombing runs. Austrian aircraft bomb Venice, Padua” and two other Italian towns.
But they lose a third of their planes.
“Three days later, German Giant bombers attacked London,” Gilbert reports.
“A single bomb kills twelve people in a residential neighborhood.”
Four hundred homes are damaged.
Then German planes drop more than ninety bombs on Paris.
Writes Gilbert, “Without panic but with much fear, 200,000 Parisians left the capital by rail for the countryside.”
Three days later, a German airship drops its bombs on the Italian naval base and steel plant at Naples. German forces occupy Odessa.
During these days, everyone is waiting anxiously for offensives on both sides.
On March 9th “the Germans begin, with a series of artillery bombardments, the preliminary phase of what was to be their largest and most essential gamble of the war: a massive offensive against the British and French forces on the Western Front.”
“Hitherto the main military initiatives on the Western Front,” observes Gilbert, “had been taken by the Allied powers: on the Somme, at Ypres, and at Cambrai. Each of these offensives had broken themselves against superior German fortifications and defense lines.”
“Now it was the Germans trying to break through the line of the trenches,”
Gilbert writes. “They had one overriding concern, that their victory should be secured before the mass of Americans reached the warzone.”
The German preliminary bombardment of March 9th, starts with a gas attack. “Half a million mustard gas and phosgene shells were fired, a thousand tons of gas in all.”
Reports historian Gilbert, “The use of gas on the battlefronts led to many individual cases of panic, fear, malingering, and desertion.”
In the German army this resulted in the establishment of a rule, in operation throughout the German medical services from the end of 1917, that “alleged” cases of gas poisoning and malingerers who show no definite symptoms are retained for 24 to 48 hours for observation in medication inspection rooms with a view to returning them to their units if possible.
“They were not to be admitted to local field hospitals or gas clearing stations,” Gilbert reports.
Then the British counter. They unleash a pre-emptive strike, firing off eighty-five tons of phosgene gas, killing some two-hundred-fifty Germans.
And finally, on March 21st the Germans launch their great offensive.
Forty German divisions were now transferred from the Eastern to the Western Front, writes historian Norman Stone. This gave Germany superiority at least until the Americans arrive.
Observes historian Gilbert, “Were it to succeed, Germany could win the war in the west on the battlefield.”
Writes Stone: “The war-economic position of Germany was now such that her alternatives were outright victory or outright collapse.”
And he writes, “at this moment the Allies’ morale was lower than at any other point of the war.”