Western Front 1918: The German Offensives

Eve of the offensive

The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in August 1918

Despite having suffered terribly during the epic German offensives of March and April, British and Imperial forces had ultimately held these onslaughts; this fact helped restore a confidence that would British gunners fire at a German aircraft with a Lewis gun, near Essarts, 16 July 1918daily grow as troop replacements and the arrival of huge quantities of new equipment helped make good the incalculable losses of the spring. For the BEF the three months from the beginning of May to the start of August 1918 were a period of recuperation and re-organisation as the French temporarily bore the brunt of the fighting associated with Ludendorff’s ‘diversion offensives’.

The BEF in August 1918 bore little resemblance to the tiny professional Army that had crossed the Channel at the outset of the war: it was now an immense and complex multi-national organisation, comprising some five Armies with over sixty fighting divisions – of which five were Australian, four Canadian, one New Zealand and two American. Though of unprecedented size the BEF’s reserves remained strictly limited and manpower constraints encouraged the adoption of a new type of fighting, reflecting the cruel lessons learned on the Somme, at Passchendaele and during the ‘Retirements’ of early 1918. Crucially command styles changed; as Haig, became subordinate to Foch (the Allied ‘Generalissimo’), so decisions were increasingly delegated down the British military hierarchy – to Corps and Divisions and even Brigades – allowing for more initiative and innovation; staffs at all levels became more technical and mobile. Increasingly the exploitation of the technical arms (artillery, tanks and aircraft) was sought in order to conserve the infantry, who were now exposed to relentless training in improved small-unit battle tactics.

As the vastly improved firepower of British formations was married to the re-discovered principles of surprise, mobility, flexibility and all-arms co-operation, the BEF was transformed into a weapon of formidable offensive potential.

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