WWI Centennial: Operation Mars Fails
Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 305th installment in the series. Read an overview of the war to date here.
After a cataclysmic week beginning with the biggest bombardment in history on March 21, 1918, Germany’s spring offensive Operation Michael—chief strategist Erich Ludendorff’s final gamble to destroy the Allies before American troops arrived in Europe in large numbers—had conquered a large part of northern France but was now in danger of stalling. To the south the massive Eighteenth Army had captured Montdidier but outrun its rail supply lines, and by the end of March faced new threats as French commanders Henri Philippe Petain and Ferdinand Foch moved up the First, Third, and Tenth Armies to plug the gap with the British Expeditionary Force to the north.
In the middle of the expanding German salient the Second Army captured Albert but faced supply problems over the wrecked Somme battlefields of 1916, with shell shortages again slowing the offensive. Meanwhile British resistance stiffened as the Third Army under General Byng dug in before Amiens and Arras. Australian troops arrived in emergency troop convoys, once again enabled by the BEF’s fleet of requisitioned London buses. Private Edward Lynch, an Australian soldier, remembered day and night travel along tiny roads leading the battlefield:
"We’re in a long stream of buses; miles of transport, all leading south. Away on the horizon, clouds of dust. We know that the roads are jammed with traffic as all available modes of transport are rushing men, guns, shells, and food south. Village after village flits by as our cloud of dust rolls over them and we are gone. Night is upon us and still the buses move on."
The arrival of Allied reinforcements on all three sides of the German salient made a breakthrough increasingly improbable, as French and British troops fought savagely to reestablish contact and contain the German thrust (below, British troops with barbed wire).
Desperate to restore Operation Michael’s momentum, on March 28, 1918 Ludendorff ordered Operation Mars, a second planned offensive by the German Second and Seventeenth Armies against the British Third Army around Arras. Mars, an attack by 11 German divisions against British defenses along the Scarpe River, was intended to initiate a German pivot northeast, beginning just south of Arras, threatening to envelop the British Expeditionary Force from the rear and cut it off from its sources of supply, the English Channel ports (below, the ruins of the Arras cathedral).
However, the British Third Army had taken elaborate precautions, beginning with the effective adoption of “defense in depth,” a strategy pioneered by the Germans, in which most troops remained in a reserve zone behind a lightly held “battle zone,” consisting of multiple trenches and strongpoints to break up attacking enemy formations and sap their momentum. Elsewhere Operation Mars called for renewed attacks by the German Eighteenth Army against the French forces guarding Amiens to the south, but here the Germans found the French holding the well-prepared Amiens Line of heavy fortifications, first constructed in 1915.
The result was a complete failure, as the German attack collapsed in less than a day. Fighting continued along the front for another week, until Ludendorff finally called off the offensive on April 5. In his diary entry on March 30, Herbert Sulzbach, a German officer, described intense combat as German attacks were brought up short by determined French defenders:
"It’s evening, I’m writing down my impressions of this day, which must have been the nastiest of any blessed day in the whole war, full of many dreadful situations, each one following closely on the one before: At 7:30 our infantry attacked, and by way of reply to that a hail of machine-gun fire comes out of Le Mesnil, worse than I’ve ever known … I bring the battery up behind, and now we’ve got so much shrapnel raining down on us that you can hardly see or hear anything. The machine-gun fire, chattering away at us from only a few hundred meters' distance, keeps on as heavy as ever. All hell has been let loose. The French seem to be transformed; they must have thrown completely fresh, properly rested troops into this sector, and a large number of them too."
Sulzbach and the Germans soon found that the French Army, relatively rested and now recovered from the 1917 mutinies, was beginning to show its teeth again, thanks in part to stockpiled artillery:
"We pull up a steep track on to a plateau … And up there it’s a witch's cauldron, compared with which the business we had before was child’s play: machine-gun fire and small-arms fire so strong that it might have been thousands and thousands of enemy gun-barrels being trained on our one battery. The concentration of fire is so heavy that all we can do is lie on the ground beside the guns, with the infantry hardly 300 meters in front of us … Meanwhile, in spite of the bad weather, enemy planes have been appearing over our lines, flying at a low altitude in heavy swarms of 20 or 30 in a bunch."
On the other side, Ivor Hanson, a British gunner, described seeing French field guns lined up in huge numbers:
“Alongside and behind us are several batteries of French 75mm guns and farther behind are many French batteries of heavier guns and howitzers. I have never seen so many guns massed together. In one place they were lined up, wheel to wheel, resembling a wall of guns.”
And John Hughes, a Canadian officer, described one young soldier’s reaction to the mindboggling bloodshed:
"One lad in the car going to the CCS was very sick. He seemed to be trying to throw his insides out. We asked him where he was wounded. He said he was not wounded, only sick. 'I have killed so many men this day I am sick with the blood I have spilled. They came on in waves,' he said. 'We mowed them down. There was great pile of them in front of our machine guns. We had to fall back and get a new position. Again and again they came on. They died, oh how they died by the hundreds. Oh my God, I will never forget those dead,' and he was sick again."
Fighting raged on for several more days, however, and Lynch, the Australian private, described fighting near Dernancourt, about 10 miles east of Amiens, in his diary on April 2, 1918:
"My head is lying on the parapet now. I feel my body shake to each crushing shell. Dust and clods rain down everywhere. In front, a sea of mad, flaring shell bursts. I watch the railway embankment. A perfect rain of shells is on to it. A black length of railway line leaves the embankment and comes turning and screwing towards us, tossed by the shells. I can hear it humming through the air before it crashes 50 yards ahead. I’m watching the village. Our shells are crashing into it. It’s a mass of dust and collapsing walls. I catch the fleeting glance of forms running from a burning, tottering house … Now I am watching the railway embankment again. Two shells land together. Two black funnels of earth and smoke viciously kick upwards. Something spinning and turning in the dust cloud. A man—with neither head nor arms, flying high above the embankment. Still the barrage keeps on. Still the air is vibrant with the paralyzing roar of the crashing detonations of exploding shells."
To the south the Allies halted the German advance at Villers-Bretonneux, although the Germans came within seven miles of Amiens. Dominik Richert, a German soldier from Alsace, described crossing the former Somme battlefield on their way to join the German offensive in the south:
"Within a 60-kilometer radius there was hardly a house standing—nothing but rubble and ruins. The fields were covered with overgrown shell-holes. Between them were the crosses of the fallen. If you had not seen it yourself, you would not be able to form a picture of the damage … A bridge led across the river. It had been repaired by German engineers. To the west of the bridge, I could see the first dead English soldiers. From up ahead came the continuous thunder and boom of the artillery. On all our faces you could read a dread of the future. People call us ‘heroes,’ a wonderful name which seldom—and in a manner of speaking, never—reflects reality."
Conditions for ordinary soldiers were awful on both sides, with freezing rain and flooding trenches once again the norm. Hanson recorded their circumstances in his diary on April 4:
"We arrived back to find that our tarpaulin had been commandeered by the officers and that we poor Signallers were again shelterless during a night of torrential rain. Behind the ridge we made a roof of straw which kept off some of the rain, but did not prevent us becoming soaked to the skin … My mother would go insane if I told her about things like this. Hell cannot be much worse than this, for everything contrives to break our spirits. Personally I feel tonight that I don’t care which side wins the war."
By the time Operation Michael ended on April 5, the Eighteenth Army and Second Army had penetrated over 40 miles and captured over 1000 square miles of territory. The offensive caused 240,000 Allied casualties, including 90,000 taken prisoner—but Germany, which couldn’t afford to lose any more manpower, suffered just as much, with 250,000 casualties for the offensive.
Meanwhile the Allies agreed to the appointment of the French general Ferdinand Foch as supreme commander of the Allied forces, to better coordinate the Allied response to this and future offensives, and the top American commander, General Pershing, offered as many American troops as he could muster wherever the British and French needed them—an offer that was immediately accepted.
But Germany’s strength was far from spent. With Michael canceled, Ludendorff turned his attention to the next offensive, Operation Georgette—an attempt to smash the rest of the British Expeditionary Force in front of Ypres, already the scene of three horrific battles. The next blow would fall on April 9, 1918.