To generations familiar with the total defeat of Hitler's Reich in 1945, the Allied victory over the Germans in the First World War appears curiously incomplete. When the armistice came into force on November 11th, 1918, the German Field Army in the west numbered 2,500,000 and was still in position mainly on foreign soil. Between the wars, right-wing advocates of the 'stab in the back' legend seized on these facts to argue that Germany had remained undefeated in the field, putting the blame instead on the outbreak of revolution at home in early November for the humiliating capitulation.
Yet the fact is that on September 29th, a full month before the beginning of the unrest at home, Germany's military leaders, General Erich Ludendorff and Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, had urgently demanded that an immediate armistice be organized. Their desperate desire for peace derived not from any domestic considerations nor even the weakness of Germany's allies; it was due principally to the parlous state of their army. The war had been above all a contest of endurance and, during the course of 1918, the accumulated strain and the hopelessness of its situation had broken the army's will to continue fighting. A psychological crisis, experienced first by the fighting soldiers and their officers but then spreading up through the ranks to the top levels of the High Command, caused a disastrous deterioration in combat motivation and fighting efficiency, ultimately forcing Germany's ignominious exit from the war.
The year 1918 had begun promisingly for the Germans. The army had suffered 1,500,000 killed by the end of 1917 and was displaying ominous signs of war weariness, most visible in the rising incidence of desertion and a spate of small-scale mutinies in the second half of the year; but its prospects had been considerably improved by the outbreak of the October Revolution in Russia. The Bolsheviks' rapid withdrawal from the war allowed Ludendorff to plan a major 'last card' offensive in the west, designed to administer a knockout blow before the US army mustered in overwhelming strength in Europe. By transferring troops from eastern theatres over the winter of 1917-18, the Germans were able to concentrate 191 divisions in the west against the 178 of the Allies. The youngest and fittest men were assembled in the 56 divisions earmarked to lead the offensive and they were given special assault training and the best equipment. These thorough preparations, combined with the fact that Russia was now out of the war, raised German morale considerably. Yet the soldiers' newfound optimism was fragile and based on the assumption that the coming offensive would swiftly achieve a decisive victory, enabling them finally to return home. One infantry officer, Lieutenant Friedrich Muller, expressed the dominant mood when he pleaded in his diary just before the offensive: 'God, give us Germans victory, don't place the people under still greater tests.'
When the great assault began on the morning of March 21st, 1918, against British lines guarding the Somme, it was initially devastating. A five-hour preparatory bombardment, in which 1,160,000 shells were fired into the positions of the British Fifth and Third Armies, was followed by infantry attacks in thick fog. German troops rapidly overran British forward defences and moved through into the fortified areas behind. Although the ambitious objectives set for the first day were not reached, the Germans did capture almost 100 square miles of ground and 500 guns and inflicted over 38,000 casualties. The following days saw more German gains, but as resistance stiffened and the infantry units outran their artillery support and supply lines, the advance slowed. When it finally came to a halt on April 5th, the army had penetrated 40 miles behind Allied lines, causing 212,000 casualties, but it had failed to create a decisive breakthrough. …