Remembering the ‘Spring Offensive’

Spring of 1918 a pivotal time in the horrific First World War

The spring of 1918 was a pivotal time in the horrific First World War.

The conflict had dragged on since the summer of 1914.

During that time, despite the losses of millions of lives, very little had changed along the Western Front. The huge opposing armies were in a stalemate, with each side well-defended in an intricate network of trenches and neither side able to secure any sort of prolonged advantage over the other.

The Canadian Expeditionary Force (C.E.F.) had won three notable victories during 1917 – at Vimy Ridge, Hill 70 and Passchendaele.

While each of these victories had earned the Canadians the reputation as some of the very best assault troops on the Western Front – soldiers of exceptional skill and bravery – very little else was achieved.

The front lines did not move very much. Moreover, the Canadians had suffered more than 35,000 casualties in these three epic battles.

Passchendaele, in particular, epitomized the general futility of the War.

The Canadians basically moved the lines from one side of a large swamp/marsh to the other side where the village of Passchendaele was located.

The front shifted forward by only 9.5km (six miles). Nothing of true strategic importance was captured, even though the Canadians had suffered 15,564 casualties.

Sir Winston Churchill later summed up Passchendaele as a, “Forlorn expenditure of valour and life without equal in futility.”

Meanwhile, things were looking better for the German military.

Russia collapsed into revolution in late 1917 and the new Bolshevik (communist) government pulled out of the War. That allowed the German army to shift millions of men westwards to bolster the fatigued divisions in the trenches of the Western Front.

The United States had entered the War in April 1917, but had not been able to send many men overseas yet.

The German High Command reasonably concluded that the time was ripe for one more massive offensive in France and Flanders that might bring the long-sought victory in the War.

On March 21st, 1918, the Germans launched their great assault, initially dubbed Operation Michael.

They initially had great success. The German attacks were made more effective through the use of open warfare tactics honed on the Eastern Front.

In particular, the Germans used stormtrooper units which were highly mobile and could quickly advance when exploiting gaps and weak points in the Allied defences.

The Germans also effectively used creeping artillery barrages immediately ahead of their advancing troops. It was a tactic that had been used with excellent results by the Canadians in their capture of Vimy Ridge in April 1917.

Within a relatively short period of time, the Germans had been able to push the front lines southward and westward with the largest advances by any side since 1914.

On March 30th, 1918, the British attempted to halt the German advance at the Arve River. The Canadian Cavalry Brigade was deployed to push the 23 Saxon Division out of Moreuil Wood.

The fighting was fierce and the casualties on both sides were heavy.

During the battle, C Squadron of the Lord Strathcona Horse, commanded by Lieutenant Gordon Flowerdew, launched a cavalry charge against the Germans.

This heroic action is often referred to as, ‘The Last Great Cavalry Charge’.

The losses of Canadians were horrific.

The unit of the L.S.H. suffered a casualty rate of 75%. Lieut. Flowerdew himself was fatally wounded. Nevertheless, the German advance was stemmed at this point in the Front.

Flowerdew was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for his incredible valour.

As the spring continued, the great German offensive faltered and then stopped.

One of the greatest problems was that the German army had been unable to forward supplies fast enough to keep up with the rapidly advancing troops.

In the end, both sides had suffered heavy losses and were exhausted.

However, the Allies, bolstered by fresh American troops, soon launched a successful counter-attack. The depleted German forces were unable to stem the assault. It finally seemed that the Great War might be coming to an end.

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