By a strange irony of fate General Erich Ludendorff summoned the Chiefs of Staff of both the German Crown Prince and that of Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria to Mons in Belgium on the 11th November 1917. Their task was to discuss the military options before them for the coming campaign season.
On the 7th (By the western calendar) Lenin’s Communist Party had seized power in Russia and his new government had more on their hands than, continuing an unpopular war, could contend with. The Eastern front was not quite dead but the last rites were being given.
The possibility, cherished by German commanders since 1914, of having sufficient forces to deal a crushing blow against the Western Allies was looking more and more promising.
The Germans were agreed : a defensive posture often cost more lives than an aggressive one. Then there were the Americans to consider. Not just the arrival of perhaps millions of youthful soldiers, green may be, but not yet war weary, but also America’s industry. Germany was blockaded, life back in Berlin was hard, how could her economy already stretched to breaking point possibly withstand an assault by an army sustained by seemingly unlimited wealth ?
An offensive had to be launched on the Western Front, as early as possible in 1918 to pre-empt any Allied plans. But where should they attack and against which of the two main belligerents ?
For his part, Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig was insistent that the war would be won in the west by defeating the Germans (Ludendorff agreed — by beating the British).
This philosophy had brought him into continual conflict with the British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, who believed that more could be achieved by eradicating Germany’s eastern allies : Turkey, Austria and Bulgaria. Lloyd George was also disturbed by the loss of life incurred by all of Haig’s recent offensives (Strange that the Germans felt that they were suffering higher casualties in defending !)
Lloyd George came up with a simple solution ; he stopped further drafts leaving Britain for the front line.
That the Germans would attack was highly likely, but what should the British and French do ? The lack of new troops was affecting both armies. Haig was being rationed and the French were already running ahead of their conscription classes. The freshest troops were the Americans but they were only currently present in small numbers and needed settling in to the ways of modern European warfare.
One option open to the Allies was to dig in and wait on their American partners to reach full strength in 1919. It should be pointed out that at no stage were the Americans : Allied. President Wilson in declaring war had been quite emphatic, the Americans were doing their duty in the name of freedom and not some complicated system of treaties.
Since 1915 the British and French had been attacking the German line. If they were indeed going to try to wait the storm out in 1918 they now needed to learn how to defend as well. Some lessons it was felt could be drawn from recently encountered German strategies ; in particular the idea of having the defence divided into flexible zones : Forward, Battle and Rear.
However, in the race to the sea in 1914 and their withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line in 1917 the Germans had played with trumps : they had chosen where their defensive lines were going to be. The Allied front line, on the other hand, tended to be where the last offensive had petered out — regardless of whether it was truly satisfactory or not.
On the 15th December 1917 the treaty of Brest-Litovsk was finally signed by the Communist government and Russia was definitively out of the war.
The following month Lloyd George agreed to the British Army taking over even more of the front line from the French, it’s area of responsibility would henceforth stretch from Ypres in Flanders down to the Oise River south of St Quentin.
Haig informed the British Government that he previewed the need for about 600,000 men in 1918 to cover his losses, both already accrued and those to come. Even in moments of comparative tranquillity the British Army suffered some 2,000 casualties every week through routine bombardments, trench raids and their own operations to make sure that the Germans had little rest.
Lloyd George said he could have a 100,000, working on the principle that what Haig didn’t have he couldn’t waste in futile attacks.
The result was the decision to reorganise the British Army, reducing each division by one brigade to leave three. The men from the disbanded units would be transferred to other battalions. The order went out on the 10th January 1918 with instructions to the effect that Regular Army battalions and those in the 1st Line Territorial Army (those with a designation such as 1/5th Bn) should not be broken up.
With the make up of the Army as it was with some divisions being New Army (Kitchener men) others Territorial, some a mixture, the disbandments were far from evenly spread. Some of these disbandments were greeted with bitter resentment as men who had served together were drafted out into the unknown.
This reorganisation was completed by the 4th March according to the paper work but undoubtedly it would take some units time to acclimatise into their new surroundings.
Lloyd George’s policy was understandable in many respects but what Haig now wanted to know was — how was he supposed to form a general reserve if he only had just enough men to man his front line ?
There was only one choice available : the line would have to be weaker in some places than others.
Haig’s doctrine became simple and was passed down the line to his subordinates. On the left flank, in Flanders, there was no room to fall back at all. The Army was protecting the ports of Calais and Boulogne as well as important depots and training areas. These had to be defended at all costs.
The further south the line went the greater the possibilities became for an orderly withdrawal into the empty space of France.
The left flank would be held the strongest and the right flank alongside the French would be the weakest. This weak right flank was General Sir Hubert Gough’s Fifth Army and he allocated his meagre resources in a similar fashion.
On the 1st February Gough spoke to Général Philippe Pétain, the French Commander in Chief. It was now common knowledge that opposite this sector was General von Hutier who had a formidable track record on the other fronts. Both generals were agreed that this was a significant indicator that the Germans were preparing for an offensive in the sector — though Pétain was ever wary of a German ruse.
Gough was holding his front line with just 12 Divisions stretched over 70 kilometres, to his left General Byng’s Third Army had 14 Divisions allocated to 45 kilometres.
Gough employed eight of his Divisions in the front line and was aware that it would take 48 hours to move up the two in reserve — would they be given 48 hours or even be able to hold out that long ? British observers had located twice as many German guns as were defending the British line and it was pointed out that this did not take into account those that they hadn’t spotted.
Ludendorff needed to decide : British or French ? If he attacked the French the British would continue fighting and the French might simply withdraw. If he attacked the British he believed, the French would not go running to their Ally’s help and once the British were defeated and the ports captured that would put paid to the American’s involvement.
By the middle of March 1918 British Military Intelligence was slowly putting together reports coming in from captured prisoners, deserters and aerial photography. The attack would come on the 21st March and would fall on the British Third and Fifth Armies.