The last days of this battle signified the end of mobile warfare in the west.
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The French offensive into Germany launched on 7 August with the Battle of Mulhouse had limited success. In the east, only one Field Army defended East Prussia and when Russia attacked in this region it diverted German forces intended for the Western Front. The Central Powers were thereby denied a quick victory and forced to fight a war on two fronts. The German army had fought its way into a good defensive position inside France and had permanently incapacitated , more French and British troops than it had lost itself. Despite this, communications problems and questionable command decisions cost Germany the chance of obtaining an early victory.
They each lasted most of the year, achieved minimal gains, and drained away the best soldiers of both sides. Verdun became the iconic symbol of the murderous power of modern defensive weapons, with , German casualties, and , French. At the Somme, there were over , German casualties, against over , Allied casualties. At Verdun, the Germans attacked what they considered to be a weak French salient which nevertheless the French would defend for reasons of national pride.
The Somme was part of a multinational plan of the Allies to attack on different fronts simultaneously. German experts are divided in their interpretation of the Somme. Some say it was a standoff, but most see it as a British victory and argue it marked the point at which German morale began a permanent decline and the strategic initiative was lost, along with irreplaceable veterans and confidence.
This happened as the enthusiasm for war faded with the enormous numbers of casualties, the dwindling supply of manpower, the mounting difficulties on the homefront, and the never-ending flow of casualty reports. A grimmer and grimmer attitude began to prevail amongst the general population. The highlight only was the first use of mustard gas in warfare, in the Battle of Ypres. After, morale was helped by victories against Serbia, Greece, Italy, and Russia which made great gains for the Central Powers.
Morale was at its greatest since at the end of and beginning of with the defeat of Russia following her rise into revolution, and the German people braced for what Ludendorff said would be the "Peace Offensive" in the west. In spring , Germany realized that time was running out.
It prepared for the decisive strike with new armies and new tactics, hoping to win the war on the Western front before millions of American soldiers appeared in battle. General Erich Ludendorff and Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg had full control of the army, they had a large supply of reinforcements moved from the Eastern front, and they trained storm troopers with new tactics to race through the trenches and attack the enemy's command and communications centers.
The new tactics would indeed restore mobility to the Western front, but the German army was too optimistic.
During the winter of it was "quiet" on the Western Front—British casualties averaged "only" 3, a week. Serious attacks were impossible in the winter because of the deep caramel-thick mud. Quietly the Germans brought in their best soldiers from the eastern front, selected elite storm troops, and trained them all winter in the new tactics.
With stopwatch timing, the German artillery would lay down a sudden, fearsome barrage just ahead of its advancing infantry. Moving in small units, firing light machine guns, the storm troopers would bypass enemy strongpoints, and head directly for critical bridges, command posts, supply dumps and, above all, artillery batteries.
By cutting enemy communications they would paralyze response in the critical first half hour. By silencing the artillery they would break the enemy's firepower. Rigid schedules sent in two more waves of infantry to mop up the strong points that had been bypassed. The shock troops frightened and disoriented the first line of defenders, who would flee in panic.
In one instance an easy-going Allied regiment broke and fled; reinforcements rushed in on bicycles. The panicky men seized the bikes and beat an even faster retreat. The stormtrooper tactics provided mobility, but not increased firepower. Eventually—in and —the formula would be perfected with the aid of dive bombers and tanks, but in the Germans lacked both.
Ludendorff erred by attacking the British first in , instead of the French. He mistakenly thought the British to be too uninspired to respond rapidly to the new tactics.
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The exhausted, dispirited French perhaps might have folded. The German assaults on the British were ferocious—the largest of the entire war. At the Somme River in March, 63 divisions attacked in a blinding fog. No matter, the German lieutenants had memorized their maps and their orders. The British lost , men, fell back 40 miles, and then held. They quickly learned how to handle the new German tactics: fall back, abandon the trenches, let the attackers overextend themselves, and then counterattack.
They gained an advantage in firepower from their artillery and from tanks used as mobile pillboxes that could retreat and counterattack at will. In April Ludendorff hit the British again, inflicting , casualties—but he lacked the reserves to follow up. Ludendorff launched five great attacks between March and July, inflicting a million British and French casualties. The Western Front now had opened up—the trenches were still there but the importance of mobility now reasserted itself. The Allies held. The Germans suffered as many casualties as they inflicted, including most of their precious stormtroopers.
The new German replacements were under-aged youth or embittered middle-aged family men in poor condition. They were not inspired by the elan of , nor thrilled with battle—they hated it, and some began talking of revolution. Ludendorff could not replace his losses, nor could he devise a new brainstorm that might somehow snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
The British likewise were bringing in boys and men aged 50, but since their home front was in good condition, and since they could see the Americans arriving steadily, their morale was higher. The great German spring offensive was a race against time, for everyone could see the Americans were training millions of fresh young men who would eventually arrive on the Western Front.
The attrition warfare now caught up to both sides. Germany had used up all the best soldiers they had, and still had not conquered much territory. The British were out of fresh manpower, the French nearly so. Berlin had calculated it would take months for the Americans to ship all their men and supplies—but the U. Berlin also assumed that Americans were fat, undisciplined and unaccustomed to hardship and severe fighting. They soon realized their mistake.
The Germans reported that "The qualities of the [Americans] individually may be described as remarkable. They are physically well set up, their attitude is good They lack at present only training and experience to make formidable adversaries. The men are in fine spirits and are filled with naive assurance. By September , the Central Powers were exhausted from fighting, and the American forces were pouring into France at a rate of 10, a day.
Although German armies were still on enemy soil as the war ended, the generals, the civilian leadership—and indeed the soldiers and the people—knew all was hopeless. They started looking for scapegoats. The hunger and popular dissatisfaction with the war precipitated revolution throughout Germany. By 11 November Germany had virtually surrendered, the Kaiser and all the royal families had abdicated, and the Empire had been replaced by the Weimar Republic.
The "spirit of " was the overwhelming, enthusiastic support of all elements of the population for war in In the Reichstag, the vote for credits was unanimous, with all the Socialists joining in. One professor testified to a "great single feeling of moral elevation of soaring of religious sentiment, in short, the ascent of a whole people to the heights.
The Western Front became a killing machine, as neither army moved more than a few hundred yards at a time. Industry in late was in chaos, unemployment soared while it took months to reconvert to munitions productions. In , the Hindenburg Program called for the mobilization of all economic resources to produce artillery, shells, and machine guns. Church bells and copper roofs were ripped out and melted down.
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Germany had no plans for mobilizing its civilian economy for the war effort, and no stockpiles of food or critical supplies had been made. Germany had to improvise rapidly. All major political sectors initially supported the war, including the Socialists. Rathenau played the key role in convincing the War Ministry to set up the War Raw Materials Department Kriegsrohstoffabteilung - 'KRA' ; he was in charge of it from August to March and established the basic policies and procedures.
His senior staff were on loan from industry. KRA focused on raw materials threatened by the British blockade , as well as supplies from occupied Belgium and France. It set prices and regulated the distribution to vital war industries. It began the development of ersatz raw materials.
KRA suffered many inefficiencies caused by the complexity and selfishness KRA encountered from commerce, industry, and the government.