11 May 2005
The mystery of 1918

I caught the end of an episode of the Great War on BBC2 this afternoon. They’ve got up to 1918 and the Lundendorff Offensive which got me wondering: how come the Allies went from a situation in early 1918 where they were on the defensive to a situation in late 1918 where they were carrying all before them?

Was it the entry of the Americans?  Frankly, I doubt it.  I don’t see how it could have been.  The Americans simply didn’t mount anything big enough.  Nothing on the scale of the Somme, Passchendaele or the Hundred Days.  This is hardly surprising.  When Britain entered the war it had a tiny army.  It took the best part of two years before it was able to make any sort of serious contribution.  When America joined the war it, too, had a tiny army and there’s no particular reason to think that it could have ramped up its size any faster than the British.

Was it that the Ludendorff Offensive was more costly to the Germans than the Allies?  Possibly, but all the figures I’ve heard quoted suggest the opposite: that the Allies lost more men.  In other words, the Ludendorff Offensive strengthened the position of the Germans.  But, if that is the case, why did it stop?  The only conclusion that makes any sense is that the Ludendorff Offensive was much more expensive than the Germans let on.  The only way their figures could be correct would be if their losses included a disproportionately high proportion of their best troops.

There is one other possibility (and one you won’t hear that often) - and that is that the Allies had better tactics.  What us, better tactics?  We of the “get out our trenches and walk slowly towards the enemy” brigade of popular imagination?  Surely, not.  Well, Blackadder myth-making aside there is plenty of reason to think the Allies would have been better on the offensive than the Germans.  The principal one is that they had been doing more of it.  From September 1914 the Germans had been content to sit tight while the Allies had been seeking to eject them.  Up until 1918 the Allies had had little tangible success but they had learnt a lot.

There is a widespread myth that the Germans were better than the Allies.  But it seems to me that a simple examination of the observable facts indicates the precise opposite: the Germans lost because they weren’t as good.

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  1. From what I understand of it, and I make no claim to be an expert, the offensive was absorbed to the point where it ran out of momentum. The combination of heavy losses and the American entry into the war had a demoralising effect on the Germans. Combine this with the possibility that the Allies had learned a thing or two from their earlier disasters (the Americans certainly didn’t want their troops under European command) and I think you have your answer. It wasn’t any one thing, rather a combination.

    Posted by Mark Ellott on 11 May 2005 at 11:19am

  2. The British & French had to learn as they went along, expending a high proportion of their fit young men as they did so. The Americans (despite an irritating tendency to overestimate their own contribution to this particular one) had their Allies to learn from and did so quickly.

    The Germans knew they had to try something quickly with the manpower they had freed up from the Eastern Front, before the Americans getting up to speed made the Allied manpower advantage overwhelming. They gave it their best shot.

    One reason their best shot ran out of steam was logistics - their unmechanised Blitzkrieg could only get so far before it couldn’t effectively be reinforced and supplied over terrain that had been utterly trashed and churned up by years of being the front line.

    Posted by Alan Little on 11 May 2005 at 04:15pm

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