The Kaiserschlacht of 1918

“The situation in Russia and Italy will make it possible to deliver a blow on the Western Front in the New Year . . . about thirty-five divisions and one thousand heavy guns can be made available for one offensive. . . . Our general situation requires that we should strike at the earliest moment . . . before the Americans can throw strong forces into the scale. We must beat the British."
Erich von Ludendorff, German Chief of Staff
Meeting with fellow Chiefs of Staff, Nov. 11, 1917 in Mons, Belgium

Even though the withdrawal of Russia from the fight gave German forces a huge boost, Ludendorff felt that their fighting forces were running on their last legs. He perception was partially evident in the “Defense in Depth” doctrine that he had ordered in 1917. But Ludendorff also felt that the Entente, especially the French, were ready to collapse as well. Consequently, he came up with the “Kaiserschlacht”, the Kaiser’s Battle, otherwise known as Ludendorff’s Offensive, or even more commonly as the Spring Offensive. This strategy, calling for four different thrusts against the western Entente defenses, was designed to pierce enemy lines using elite units of “Sturmtruppen”. The plan, if successful, would likely cause the French to surrender. Then the British would surely have to submit.

The German Spring Offensive (Kaiserschlacht) of 1918.

The key for the Germans was to end the war before too many American soldiers could be slotted into the Western Front. Of the 5 German thrusts, “Operation Michael” was the largest and was aimed towards Amiens in the Somme sector (see #1 on the map above). On March 21, 1918, using Stormtrooper and artillery support tactics, the attack started and within four days, the German forces were halfway to Amiens. Both sides suffered large losses and within another week the momentum of Ludendorff’s “Michael” was slowed to a fighting crawl. The same was observed of the four other operations over the next three months; the German offensives were exhibiting diminishing returns for Ludendorff. He could not break the Entente. His “Kaiserschlacht” had failed and the thrust had not only cost the German battalions a large amount of their most experienced and fiercest soldiers but their morale was severely diminished as well.

Overall, the German Imperial Army suffered 800 000 casualties from the Kaiserschlacht offensives and as the ideals of bolshevism and communism spread throughout the world in an environment of deteriorating morale, an increasing number of participating soldiers on both sides began to question the purpose of the war.

Improvements in Artillery Fire and Barrage Techniques

Artillery is often situated at the rear of the infantry lines and is often hidden or camouflaged so that the enemy finds it more difficult to target. There are the following 2 positions of fire: 

Direct fire- where a gun is lined up with a clearly visible target. This has the benefit of making the gun easy to aim but the detriment of allowing the enemy to more easily target the gun. Generally speaking, heavy guns are most often used for direct fire, and on occasion, howitzers.

Indirect fire- where a gun is in a ‘covered’ position, that is, the enemy’s view of the gun is blocked by a barrier, most frequently a topographical feature such as a hill or a rock outcrop. Generally speaking, mortars and howitzers are most often used for indirect fire.

Indirect fire has the benefit of being much more difficult for the enemy to target the offending gun, but it also makes it much more difficult for the gunners to hit their targets because they must lob the shell over the barrier and onto the target. Consequently, in the latter case there is much higher innacurracy.

Indirect versus direct firing (Courtesy of www.gutenberg-e.org).
Howitzers versus mortars (Courtesy of www.gutenberg-e.org).

When one thinks about these different arrangements and gun types, the development and continual improvement of different barrage strategies during the Great War begins to become clear.

Early in the war Germany wanted to hold the land that they had taken, thus they took a defensive posture. In addition, neither side, but especially the British and French, wanted to lose many artillery guns. On top of that, the weapons being used were quite new, so there were quality and consistency issues with those guns and their shells. In consequence, the conditions were set for a battle where the artillery, at best, attempted to hit an area with their shell. Given that strategy and when picturing rows upon rows of attacking soldiers moving across No man’s land, the resulting attritional warfare is more understandable.

Over time, the infantry, the gunners, and those further up the chain of command, began to recognize the numerous limitations of the artillery and the challenges they must overcome. Gradually, the technology improved and the lessons learned were taken to heart and passed on to the fighting soldiers of the artillery and infantry.

Artillery Observation Class, School of Aeronautics, University of Toronto, 1917. Note the sand targets (LAC M#3404216).

Once 1917 rolled around, creeping and rolling barrages were employed to provide a curtain of protection for attacking infantry. These were offensive barrages. 

Creeping barrage- where numerous guns fire shells into a targetted area, most often a linear slice of land parallel to the front, for a certain amount of time, before the whole group then lifts to the next slice where the shelling continues again for a set amount of time, and so on. The timing of fire and the depth of the slice varied depending on multiple factors, including the strength of enemy defences, the topography of the landscape, the type of shells and guns being used, et cetera.

Rolling barrage- where numerous guns fire shells beginning in a prescribed location, most often a linear slice of land parallel to the front, and move forward into the enemy defences without stopping.

Note: both of these are designed to provide a protective screen for attacking infantry by suppressing enemy troops (keeping them underground, away from shrapnel and concussion).

Blocking barrage- where numerous guns fire into a prescribed area, most often a linear slice of land parallel to the attacking troops. The targeting and shelling does not move and acts to provide a protective curtain for assembling troops (offensive blocking) or defending troops (defensive blocking).

Canadian artillery hits stored German ammunition (LAC M#3397827).

In 1918, barrage techniques became quite advanced and reliable. Some of this was due to increasing accuracy of artillery targeting (a solution for pinpointing the location of opposing guns that was based on the mathematical relations between sound ranging, flash spotting, and time elapsed), a huge step forward that was engineered by Canadian Andrew McNaughton. As a result, standing barrages, those aimed at strong points for extended periods, and box barrages, those encircling a feature on 3 sides to either defend it or to prevent access to reinforcing enemy soldiers, were increasingly included in planning.

As the final 100 days of the Great War approached and Canadian forces advanced towards Mons, Belgium, barrages became tailored to fit the various attacks. Raking barrages moved back and forth over enemy positions for set periods of time, much as raking a garden. Barrages could also be ordered to move in a wide variety of angles over and in respect to enemy installments; German defenders frequently became very confused by these barrages because they were unable to anticipate from which direction the Canadian infantry attack would come. In addition to these highly advanced techniques, Canadian soldiers, who were pinned down or being counterattacked by the enemy, could call in artillery strikes by using newly developed communications technologies (e.g. wireless radios).

"Good infantry is without doubt the sinews of an army; but if it has to fight a long time against very superior artillery, it will become demoralized and will be destroyed."
Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821)
French General and later Emperor

Unit Home

Russian Revolution. Gaining the U.S. Overstrength Corps. Canadian Op.'s 1915-18.

Final 100 Days

R+R. Train. Shock Troops. Amiens. Drocourt-Queant. Canal du Nord. Cambrai. Valenciennes. Mons.

The Road to Vimy Ridge

Introduction Homepage