When General Ludendorff summoned generals von Kuhl and von der Schulenberg to Mons in November 1917 German forces on the Western Front totalled approximately 150 infantry divisions. As the war on the Russian front slowly came to a close troops were transferred across to the west in preparation for the ultimate offensive against the Allies.
By March 1918 Ludendorff could count on 192 divisions for his grand offensive.
The transfers had not however, been a simple one way affair. All men over the age of 35 had been left behind and those over that age on the Western Front were transferred to the east. Ludendorff realised that this was going to be a battle of younger men, trained and hardened for a new type of warfare.
Nowadays we would call them Stormtroopers.
Ludendorff's consultations had considered numerous ideas and fortunately for the British in particular, some had been rejected as being too difficult to undertake. On 21st January 1918 as Field Marshal Haig was in the process of diluting his divisions to make up for losses in manpower, General Ludendorff made his decision.
Operation Michael would be implemented using the forces of three armies: von Hutier's 18th, von der Marwitz's 2nd and Otto von Below's 17th. All of these armies were nominally in Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria's Group but Ludendorff decided to transfer von Hutier's 18th Army to that of the German Crown Prince on the southern flank.
This could have been a cynical move on Ludendorff's part. The transfer ensured that the offensive would not be carried out solely by the Bavarian Crown Prince's forces and the presence of the German Crown Prince's Group offered the chance of naming the offensive: the Kaiserschlacht - the Kaiser's battle.
The offensive was to be launched against the British southern flank (Gough's 5th and Byng's 3rd Armies).
In the south between the Oise River and St Quentin General von Hutier would strike west as far as the Crozat Canal and the town of Ham. Here they would form a solid left flank and deal with any possible intervention by the French should they come to the aid of their ally.
With the left secured, General von der Marwitz would attack from and to the south of the 1917 Cambrai battlefield towards Peronne.
General Otto von Below's 17th Army would initially drive south from Arras towards Bapaume. Once, however, the initial breakthrough had been achieved it and the 2nd Army would swing northwards towards Arras and roll up the British line.
At the commencement of this manoeuvre von Below would implement a secondary offensive called Operation Mars against Arras itself.
Altogether Ludendorff deployed 43 divisions against Gough (who had 12) and 19 against Byng (14).
The German plans though did not stop there for Ludendorff had all his armies demonstrate changes in routine and signs of preparation with a view to convincing The British and French that Flanders and Verdun were to be the real objectives.
These were the men who would lead the fight and had been specially trained to operate on their own. Lightly equipped, their task was to press on regardless of what was happening on their flanks.
The idea had to an extent been tested at Cambrai but problems had been encountered with poor leadership at the lower levels, the junior NCOs constantly looking for guidance from on high. This had been dealt with by training.
If they came up against centres of resistance they were to flow around them and let the supporting infantry deal with them.
As regards touch, infantry which looks to the right or the left soon comes to a stop. Touch with the enemy is the desideratum; a uniform advance in line must in no case be demanded. The fastest, not the slowest, must set the pace, and no time must be given to the enemy to surround any troops who have forced their way into the position ahead of their fellows.
The sixty fresh divisions moved up into the rear areas on the 16th March 1918, rested over the next couple of days and then moved into their attack positions on the night of the 20th.
Born in 1863 Bruchmüller had joined the German Artillery in 1885. He served with distinction and and showed a great command of his profession. A riding accident forced him to leave active service but the commencement of the war in 1914 saw him recalled to the colours.
Working on the Eastern Front Bruchmüller began to hone his tactics with considerable success. Whilst the British and French were ploughing the ground for a week before the Somme, he was already devising a system of concentrated fire in depth.
Bruchmüller had his gunners work to a strict timetable relying on overwhelming the enemy's guns, forward and rear positions and their lines of communication.
The first stage was a sudden and extremely violent bombardment of artillery positions, HQs units, front line positions and telephone lines. This would be followed by a second stage when further guns would be brought into play before finally finishing on a systematic destruction of particular targets.
Even the mix of shells was carefully considered with various types of gas (tear gas as well as deadly) blended in amongst the high explosive.
As the infantry advanced they would be given an accurate creeping barrage with which they were told to keep in contact. The infantry were warned that the bombardment would only force the enemy to take cover not necessarily kill them all.
When von Hutier was transferred to the Western Front, he brought his artillery commander with him.
Bruchmüller had at his disposition a stupendous amount of firepower for his opening barrage:
As a rough guide each field howitzer or 5.9 field gun was allotted about 200 rounds apiece for the five hour bombardment. The first two hours would be directed principally against the British artillery positions with a heavy mix of gas (Nearly five in every six rounds were gas). The next three hours were to be directed against the infantry with a constant increase in the bombardment right up until Zero Hour.