March to Victory
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!--An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound' ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
- Wilfred Owen
For more than three years the combatants on the western front struggled to find the means to overcome the superiority of the defense and the stalemate of trench warfare. Then quite suddenly in spring 1918 positional warfare came to an end and mobility returned to the conflict. The characterizing trait of the Ludendorff offensives beginning in March and the Allied attacks commencing in July was rapid movement and the partial return of the open warfare that had not been possible since the war's opening months. Mobility did not mean the cessation of casualties, as the cost of war remained as high, if not higher than during the period of trench warfare. Yet the ability to advance and drive the opponent from the field of battle did create a greater sense of purpose and hope.
With Russia prostrated and having dealt Italy a devastating blow at Caporetto in October 1917, the Germans turned their attention to the critical theater of the western front. Ludendorff knew that the consequence of the German resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare was the entry of the United States into the war. If Germany was to emerge victorious from the conflict it had to defeat France and Britain before the United States mobilized. The Germans struck on 21 March with specially trained storm troopers, who, advancing behind a hurricane barrage of shells, tore a huge hole in the thinly defended line of the British Fifth Army astride the Somme in Picardy. Gough's army nearly dissolved under the onslaught and subsequent retreat. In desperation the western Allies established a unified command under Foch to share reserves and coordinate their movements, which brought the threat to an end. Ludendorff had engineered an impressive advance, the largest