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March 1918 – German Offensive

March 1918 – German Offensive

March 1918 German offensive Russia withdraws from war with 15.8 million casualties on the Eastern Front.

Spurred on by the end of the war on the Russian front, the German Spring Offensive began in March, 1918,
In a massive onslaught known collectively as the ‘Kaiserschlacht’ (Kaiser’s Battle) offensive, Germany drove three major attacks into Allied territory in late March, April and May.

The Communist revolution in Russia in late 1917 led to the collapse of the nation’s armies. Russia’s new leaders decided to pull out of the war and signed a treaty with Germany, freeing German troops to bolster the Western Front attacks.

Left behind them on the Eastern Front were casualties some historians estimate at 15.8 million. Battlefields were only part of the toll: most casualties came from disease, starvation, cold and exhaustion as civilians tried to survive or escape.

Deploying troops returning to the other side of Europe early the next year, the Germans flung their forces at the Allies in a desperate attempt to win the war before the Americans arrived to tip the scales firmly towards the Allies. The first German attack in March was launched against the British Fifth Army in Arras (Somme area); the second attack in April centred on Lys in Flanders, and the third offensive in May focused on the Aisne, where British Divisions recuperating from the March attacks were again subjected to severe losses.

Despite sweeping early gains in all three attacks, German forces counted crushing casualties, outdistanced their supply lines and exhausted their troops as they closed in on Amiens.

Australians forces were rushed to the Somme area as the Germans advanced. After exhausting journeys in trains, old London buses, and long marches, they arrived in front of the advancing enemy. Some local French called ‘Vivent Australiens! Vous les tiendrez!’ (‘You will stop them!’)

Charles Bean: With the refugees were a certain number of British foot-soldiers withdrawing from the great battle. Some were labour troops, without arms, and it was not always easy in these days to distinguish which were stragglers who had lost their units, and which small parties of tired infantry under control; but they constantly impressed upon the Australians that ‘Jerry’numbers were so overwhelming that it was hopeless to think of withstanding them.

Many Australian officers were anxious as to how this depressing outlook would affect their men. But – as constantly happened during this year of surprise – they found that they need have no fear whatever; even those Australian officers who knew their men best, and had themselves served in the ranks, were astonished at the reaction of the ‘diggers’ to new situations.

One such officer of the 56th Battalion (5th Division), which marched through precisely similar scenes two days later, has left a description closely resembling many others, written of the same days, by Australian regimental officers. ‘As I tramped at the head of my platoon, the rain driving into our faces and dripping from our steel helmets and greatcoats, saw the crowds of fugitives hurrying past, and from the little band of my command heard whistling, laughter, and jokes, I was vastly proud of being an Australian soldier …

‘At one of our halts, when a group of middle-aged Tommies from a labour battalion asked for cigarettes and said in awe-inspired voices that it was impossible to stop the Boches as “they are coming over in swarms,” I overheard one of my platoon remark to his pal: “Struth, Bill, we’ll get some souvenirs now!”

‘Here, at last, was a straight-out job. They knew that probably within a few days they would be thrown into a battle … against a mighty army flushed with success. Their manner would almost have led one to believe that they were about to participate in a sports meeting. Charles Bean’s Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918, Volume 5, Page 175

The final German advances were repulsed at the Marne in mid-June 1918, and the scene was set for the Allied counter-offensives of the summer.