On 21 March 1918, the German army launched its spring offensive with Operation Michael. The Germans massed some 65 divisions and more than 6,600 artillery guns along the 46 mile front from Arras to Le Fère. At first just 26 British divisions were holding the line.


After achieving victory on the Eastern Front against Russia, the German Army was able to redeploy some of its forces to the Western Front, giving them a numerical advantage against the British and French. The German submarine campaign of 1917 had been unsuccessful and had led to the United States of America joining the war on the side of the Allies. German commanders Paul Von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff planned a series of overwhelming attacks which would split the British and French armies.

The Battle

In the early hours of 21 March a fog hung over much of the British line. At 4.40am the German bombardment began. It lasted only five hours, but it was still one of the greatest artillery bombardments in history to that time and more than 3.5 million shells were fired. The sound could be heard quite clearly in London.

At 9.40am the German infantry advanced. The first troops were specially-trained soldiers known as ‘stormtroopers’. They bypassed British strongpoints and caused chaos in the rear areas. They were followed by an overwhelming mass of infantry. By the end of the day the British were fighting a desperate battle of survival in their rearmost defensive positions. British casualties numbered 38,500, including almost 21,000 British soldiers taken prisoner. The first day of Operation Michael remains the second worst day in terms of casualties in British military history, surpassed only by 1 July 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

The Germans had achieved stunning success. South of Peronne they had advanced more than 10 miles and the British Fifth Army was beginning to disintegrate. By 24 March the situation was so bad that the British considered falling back to defend the channel ports. However, the German soldiers were now exhausted by days of constant fighting and their offensive was losing momentum. On 26 March the Supreme Allied War Council appointed the French General, Ferdinand Foch as overall commander of Allied forces for the duration of the battle. Fresh French units began to arrive and the German advance on Amiens was halted. On 5 April General Ludendorff finally closed down Operation Michael.

French 22nd Division and British 20th Division covering a road near Nesle, 25th March 1918. IWM Q10810

French 22nd Division and British 20th Division covering a road near Nesle, 25th March 1918. © IWM Q10810


During Michael the German army had taken more ground on the Western Front than the Allies had managed since 1914. In 16 days they had captured some 1,200 square miles, compared to 125 square miles taken by the British in 141 days during the Battle of the Somme in 1916. Tens of thousands of British soldiers had been taken captive and in total the British and French suffered nearly 250,000 casualties. However, success had come at a terrible cost with almost 240,000 German soldiers wounded, captured or dead: soldiers that the Germans could not replace.

German commanders now turned their attention to Flanders. On the quiet sector south of Ypres near Armentières they prepared to launch another assault. Operation Georgette would begin at 4.15am on 9 April 1918.

Related Cemeteries and Memorials

The Commission commemorates almost 37,000 service personnel who died in France during Operation Michael. More than 23,000 have no known grave and are commemorated on CWGC memorials to the missing. The cemeteries on the battlefields of Operation Michael were often begun by medical units or created after the war by the concentration of isolated graves and small cemeteries, many containing a very high number of unidentified servicemen. The cemeteries and memorials where the dead of Operation Michael are commemorated each have a story to tell. Here are eight sites with a significant connection to the 16 days of Michael.