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The preparation: Events leading up to the 21st of March 1918



The war in the East was winding down, the Russian armies were beaten in the field and the Germans were negotiating the peace with Lenin and Trotsky at Brest Litowsk. A number of divisions would have to stay in place but the majority were now free for service in the West. It was in the West that the outcome of the war would be decided. Over the years the Germans had successfully stopped a number of allied offensives, now it was time for the Germans to finally take the offensive. It was their biggest gamble of the war. If it failed the Germans would no longer be able to deliver a decisive blow, in fact, they would be hard pressed to hold their own in the face of allied counter-offensives. Once the decision had been made it would have to be carried through. Time was not on the side of the Germans. From across the oceans a new army was on the march, the Americans were beginning to arrive and would be ready to fight at some stage in the summer.


Left: General Ludendorff, the driving force behind the operation.


The big questions were how to carry out the offensive, where should it happen and should it be one large thrust or a series of smaller thrusts? The possibilities had been analysed since late 1917 and now the plan began to take shape. The area of St. Quentin was chosen as it was the boundary between the French Armies and those of the British Empire. A wedge driven through Amiens, over Abbeville to the coast, would separate the British from their allies and crush them against sea.  At the same time the Germans would hit the French to pre-empt their likely attempt to bring relief to the British by trying to draw away German troops.  

The German High Command decided, after the experiences gained on the Duna, in Italy and at Cambrai, that surprise was the best way of achieving their goal. There would be no steady build up of a bombardment over days. Instead they would use a sudden thunderclap of artillery firing a meticulously planned bombardment and barrage courtesy of Oberst Bruchmueller. (see here)


Three Armies took up positions in specially prepared staging areas that stretched from Croisilles by Arras to the fortress La Fere on the Oise.

General Otto von Below´s 17th army in the West, the 2nd Army under General der Kavallerie v.d. Marwitz and in the East General von Hutier´s 18th Army. Von Hutier was under the command of the Heeresgruppe Deutsche Kronprinz. V.d. Marwitz and von Below under the Heeresgruppe Kronprinz Ruprecht.

Three Armies took up positions in specially prepared staging areas that stretched from Croisilles by Arras to the fortress La Fere on the Oise. General Otto von Below´s 17th army in the West, General der Kavallerie v.d. Marwitz’s 2nd Army in the centre and General von Hutier´s 18th Army in the East. Von Hutier was under the command of the Heeresgruppe Deutsche Kronprinz with  V.d. Marwitz and von Below under Heeresgruppe Kronprinz Ruprecht.  

The armies marched at night, a slowly moving grey mass, no lights were shown and little noise was made, at dawn they disappeared into forests and villages. So it continued, night after night, until the chess master had all his pieces in position. The Allies remained ignorant of the preparations going on behind the German lines. As they approached the front, the infantry gazed in awe at the massed artillery. From the smallest to the heaviest calibres, the artillery stood by awaiting orders to start their work.  

On the night of the 21st March a heavy fog lay across the front. The infantry shivered in the trenches and reserve positions, they knew what the morning would bring. At 4:40 am the guns thundered, unleashing a volcano of fire unlike anything they had witnessed before. There was an uninterrupted roar as explosive and gas shells carried death and destruction to the Allied lines. Minenwerfer rounds fell from the sky destroying trenches and bunkers. For 5 hours the artillery worked feverishly to maintain this firestorm until the German infantry left the trenches.

To follow the path of the Northern Wing (17. Armee), click HERE

 
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