For 3 years from the end of 1914 to early 1918, the Western Front never moved more than a mile or so. In 1918 considerable movement occurred as first the Germans and then the Allies advanced. Why did these changes happen so quickly?
At the end of 1914, both armies discovered that with the type of war they were fighting, it was much easier to defend than attack. And so began three long years of trench life, with neither army being able to make any breakthrough into open ground. Many major offensives were made throughout this part of the war, such as Verdun by the Germans and the Somme by the British. These are both well known for being very unsuccessful and for huge loss of life. Although neither side made the same catastrophic mistake again, there were many other battles that made little progress such as 3rd Ypres. Then suddenly, in 1918 the Germans made a breakthrough, and suddenly the war was back to one of movement. But what factors established this in 1918 and what was different from the early years of the war.
Before 1914, this type of hard, attritional warfare had never been experienced. In 1914, war culture changed forever. Instead of two sides lining up on adjacent hills, with their brightly coloured flags waving high, waiting for someone to charge into battle. The War was one of no heroic deeds, no great pride shown in red uniforms, it was lengthy, disgusting and simply boring to be a part of. These massive changes, due to the new technology available (machine guns that could kill 10 men in 5 seconds, shells that could blow 20 men away) meant that sending men charging into battle was simply unacceptable.
Unfortunately for so many men in the First World War, the Generals didn’t for-see this so therefore they didn’t make any changes in battlefield tactics. If these Generals could practice fighting this way using new training methods then maybe they would have seen the sheer power of these dangerous weapons then they could plan offensives accordingly. The problem was that there was only one place for the Generals to try out tactics and offensives, and that was on the battlefield. So at first the impact of what the war would be like didn’t really kick in because it began as a war of movement which developed into trench warfare. And it was here where the Generals sat and planned how to break the lines, something that they had never done before, so it was just a matter of time before some kind of breakthrough was made. Whether it came from attrition, new technology, new tactics or political changes, 3 years later in 1918, a breakthrough was made. So we know how this deadlock situation occurred, but how was it broken out of, and why in 1918?
To understand the breakthroughs in 1918, we need to know what the nature of this earlier deadlock was, and why all the previous offensives had failed. There are two major views held of why nothing changed in those middle 3 years of the war. There is the traditional view that generalship had been unimaginative at best and criminally incompetent at worse, which is the view held by the historians that believe Haig was an incompetent field marshal. And there is the more modernised view that in 1918 the generals put into practice what they had learnt and experienced from the attritional war they had been fighting.
This view is held by the same modern historians, which believe Haig was just very unlucky. There are limitations to both ideas such as with the first the fact that the generals that fought in 1918 were the same ones that commanded in the earlier years. So unless they gained some experience before hand they would not be able to make the breakthrough in 1918. Although many reasons try to explain this, such as the fact that attrition simple worn down the Germans faster than the allies, it is still not a sufficient answer to the big question of why breakthroughs were made in 1918. The other view seems to have less weaknesses, although it still stick to one single idea, that it was solely new tactics gained by the generals while fighting the other battles that provided to initiative needed to make the breakthroughs. One thing that is clear about both these views is that they only focus on the war itself and not the changes in political status or other wider issues not to do with the style of fighting or the consequences of the fighting. The main point is that does either of these views answer the question sufficiently, and it is obvious that neither completely answer it, it is mixture of the both and the changes of wider issues in 1918.
Now that we have established the arguments of why the generals couldn’t breakthrough in 1917, we can to move to how it happened in 1918, and finally on to why it happened so quickly. There are many reasonable explanations for the breakthroughs of which most historians put together into one big conclusion. The first is the issue of attrition, the fact that both armies had been worn down enormously by 1918, and simple couldn’t hold the lines. For this argument it seems to be generally accepted that 1918 was just randomly the time when forces ran out, it could have been in 1917 or 1919 it was just the year when it became apparent that they had diminished. Of course this is probably not true, it is most likely to be this idea, along with other factors and issues of 1918 that determined this year.
Another main point into why 1918 was the year of the breakthrough seems also to be by coincidence. The fact that the generals had been gathering up all the experience they had gained on the battlefields of 1916 and 1917 to create new, decisive attacks and obtain a breakthrough. It is a view that is in favour of the generals because it is evidence of the generals being able to plan a successful offensive even if it took 3 years. The idea of the generals being on this “learning curve” isn’t the only part of the view that new battlefield strategy and tactics changed the war. Another part of this equation is the fact that in 1918 allied command changed and a new position was brought which had overall control over both the French and the British armies, this position was filled by a man named Foch. One idea is that with Foch having control the allies were able to mobilise a counter attack so quickly in 1918 that could have led to the allied victory. On the other hand Seaman believes that new tactics by the Germans enabled them to make the first breakthrough in March.
They did this by using stormtroopers of various arms who would seek out weak points in the lines exploiting these and avoiding strongholds. The kind of tactics used in the Second World War and wars ever since. Seaman’s dislike of Haig results in him expressing his view that because these new tactics were so successful, German morale wasn’t really broken down in 1917, so in fact Ypres had no gains at all. This point seems a bit extreme and is simple due to Seaman’s biases towards Haig being an incompetent general. Resulting in this point not being very useful. Another point still suggests that the tank was the decisive weapon in the offensives of the Allies. This point I find very untrue because of the unreliability of the tanks and their sluggishness around the battlefield. They almost seem to do more harm than good, sometimes killing men inside the tanks from heat exhaustion and head injuries.
Even though Ludendorff said in his memoirs that the tanks on 8th August were very decisive, he is always making excuses in his memoirs for losing the war. He never admits it could be due to him being a bad general, he just builds up evidence for the case of it being an impossible situation for any general. So whenever looking at his points it must be taken into account that he has a habit of doing this, before taking any of his points seriously. Another far out point that seems hard to reason with is the fact that Germany never really lost the war, and that General Ludendorff simply threw it away by misjudging circumstances and calling for an armistice to early.
The historians that believe this point argue that Ludendorff was getting very paranoid and believed he had been defeated. So decided to sign an armistice to avoid complete defeat, they believe that if the armistice had not been made then German morale would have stayed high and their would have been no mutinies in the navy and the German political system would have remained intact. These ideas seem implausible and tend to over criticise Ludendorff. Many of the ideas put forward here are bias but they all seem to have some good points on to why the breakthrough was made in 1918, and altogether the new tactics developed in 1916 and 1917 were definitely used in 1918 a great deal in successful breakthrough offensives.
The second main point to why 1918 was the year of the breakthroughs was changes in political status, resulting in exits and entries to the war. The revolution in Russia in 1917 resulted in Lenin coming to power later that year and immediately ending the war by giving Germany a lot of her land. This also resulted in the Americans deciding to join the war. They had been against it previously because they were against Russia’s Tsarist regime, but now that it had fallen they were willing to enter the war on the side of the allies. This happening is good evidence of why the breakthroughs were made in 1918 because it was a huge change in the war. The Germans had the advantage by transporting all of their troops from the Eastern Front to the Western Front, but only for a short period of time. The Americans were on their way and by the time they were fully prepared for battle they would be unstoppable.
So Ludendorff had to think and act quickly if he was to stay in the war. In these times of trouble Generals seem think up more original plans which may be more risky but normally more successful. General Ludendorff managed to do this and managed to breakthrough the lines, so this is a reason why the breakthroughs happened so fast in 1918. Ludendorff knew he didn’t have much time and once his plan failed, the Allies were quick to respond with this new man Foch in charge, and with the help of the Americans. The problem with Ludendorff’s plan was that the men from the Eastern Front were not fresh men, they had been fighting hard in Russia and been malnourished for many years. So they were hardly the decisive weapon he had hoped for. America on the other hand were a decisive weapon and everybody knew this, so Ludendorff had to use his weapon quickly and efficiently in 1918, to which it appeared he did until he made mistakes and wasn’t powerful enough to make the break for Paris or the channel ports. There is no question to whether these events affected the war in 1918, but was it this that determined the breakthrough? Most likely yes, in combinations with many other factors.
Another point to consider is one of the conditions on the home front of Germany. The rations for the soldiers and civilians in Germany were substantially lower than the Allies’ food supplies. This was due to the Allied blockade. Although Germany could still receive food from neutral countries such as Holland and Denmark, an average citizen was only getting 1000 calories a day. This does seem harsh but it didn’t really appear to affect Germany’s fighting that much. They made the first breakthrough and managed to hold out for quite along time. Even so, it is known that when the Germans first broke the Allied trenches they were astonished by the amount of food the British had and simply just gorged themselves when they should have been advancing. This information may give evidence for the German food supply to be a major issue but it is really not enough. The fact is, is that compared with other major influences in 1918 this is rather insignificant.
All these points give reasonable explanations for why the breakthroughs were made in 1918, and why they happened so quickly. But which points are the real deciders, where if they hadn’t happened the war would have gone on longer? These seem to be a mixture of continuous changes throughout the war, building up to 1918, and sudden events that made it possible. The continuous changes are the experience that the generals had been gaining throughout the years, from battles such as the Somme, Verdun and Ypres. This experience enabled them to come up with the ideas in 1918 when they needed to be quick on their feet. The main point of why 1918 was the year was because of the 1917 revolution in Russia. This is what made everything happen so quickly in 1918, it was the final straw of the war.
The Russians left and the Americans entered so basically it was a new war, and they were back in 1914 again, But with one major difference, that the Generals had the knowledge and experience of trench warfare to breakout of the trenches into a war of movement. So to answer the question of why everything happened so quickly is because nothing had happened before 1918. Everything had been building up and getting ready for the deadlock to break, and with the trigger being the revolution in Russia, everything was set to go and it went with light speed. The revolution happened, Russia left the war, America entered, Ludendorff moved his men to the west and made a breakthrough, Allies retaliated and went on to win the war. All in the space of 1 year, and it was all because everything was stuck, the technology was there, the new tactics were there all it needed was a push. Which is what in got from Russia in 1917, a final straw to break the deadlock, and no wonder why it moved so quickly after that.