1918: Total War Comes to Europe

wikimedia.org/The Rock of the Marne

On the Western Front a hundred years ago, a furious and decisive campaign was in progress. The great German Spring Offensive, often and rightly called the Ludendorff Offensive, was well into the process of launching about three million combat troops against the Allied lines. The Offensive would last from March 21 to July 18, 1918. The combined butcher’s bill for both sides in the three-month struggle would amount altogether to over a million and half men killed, wounded, captured, or missing. The twin objects of the German assault were to break the stalemate and end the war. The attack achieved the former, briefly, but its ultimate failure led to the Allied victory, writes T. Hunt Tooley.

Significantly, the battle was a product of the total war idea and the omnipotent state that had matured during the war. In 1916, the civilian leadership of Germany invited the successful Eastern Front team of Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg and his “Quartermaster,” General Erich Ludendorff, to take control of the High Command. The two had accepted on the condition that they would be given wide-ranging powers in civilian affairs as well as military. In August 1916, the High Command announced a total war plan dubbed the Hindenburg Program — largely shaped by Ludendorff — which introduced “total war” in myriad forms. Economic and industrial intervention became absolute. The state both operated and controlled industrial output, manipulated the economy to focus predominantly on war production. The accelerated the closing of “inessential” firms. Industries—though technically still privately owned—were centralized and conglomerated around favored companies. Inflationary finance was maximized, as were confiscation and other forms wealth transfers to the government.


German Unit during Operation St. Michael

Workers lost most of the vestiges of autonomy, being ordered to work where needed. Labor forces were “recruited” in the occupied territories and used as forced labor. Civilian leaders with reservations about the powerful military industrial complex—to borrow a term coined much later—looked on helplessly as a new clique of favored industrialists, high-ranking military staff officers, and enthusiastic bureaucrats intervened at every level of the economy and society. Inflationary policies, government intervention, and the British Blockade caused the price of food and other essentials to soar. The regime sponsored books and pamphlets which extolled the virtues of an extremely low-calorie diet. Accidents and injuries in munitions plants and other factories climbed, as machinery wore out, and as various groups of Germans unaccustomed to factory work found themselves working on production lines. Labor strikes multiplied in factories across Germany, but the regime suppressed them in short order.

Certainly, even at this late period of the war, German production of shells and other military essentials likewise climbed. But many wondered how long the whole system could last, and they were right to wonder. As Ludwig von Mises demonstrated in his postwar analysis of the war in Nation, State, and Economy, the remarkable productive capacity of Germany did not result from the command economy, but from the previous structures of capitalism on which the command economy fed (see the “War and Economy” https://mises.org/library/nation-state-and-economy/html/p/406 section of this great book, in particular).

As the executive leader of the High Command, General Ludendorff had originally thought of building up impregnable fronts in the West and elsewhere, to wait for the right moment to negotiate with the weakening Allies. But the whole total war program seemed to energize him. Other factors likewise contributed to his plans for an all out roll of the dice. The Hindenburg Program and the “silent dictatorship” that ran it would have a huge impact on the world to come. Although historians tend to associate the term “total war” with Hitler and Goebbels (“Wollt Ihr den totalen Krieg?!”), the Third Reich planners would base many of their policies—and to a surprising extent, their military tactics—on the Hindenburg/Ludendorff model. More immediately, in 1917 Lenin looked at the Hindenburg Program admiringly from Switzerland and once in power praised the program as the appropriate model for the Bolshevik state.


General Erich Ludendorff

Nineteen Seventeen saw numerous Allied attempts at breakthrough on the Western Front: the Nivelle Offensive centered on the Chemin des Dames area, the British fierce but isolated battles of Vimy Ridge and Messine Ridge, and the slogging and costly campaign at Ypres called Passchendaele. Yet after relentless assaults, a substantial portion of the French army had mutinied during the Nivelle Offensive in the spring, and the Passchendaele battles were, if a technical success, an exhausting drain on the British army. Significantly, British troops also mutinied at the British training base at Etaples in September 1917. A month later, the Bolshevik Revolution touched off the final collapse of the Russian army, with enormous results detrimental to the Allies. Attempting to declare a policy of “no war, no peace,” the Bolshevik regime found itself forced to the negotiating table at Brest-Litovsk, signing a peace in early March 1918 which took Russia definitively out of the Entente and resulted in the loss of one third of the European parts of the former Russian Empire. Most ominously for the Allies, over half a million German troops from the Eastern Front were now freed up to fight on the Western Front.

In the midst of the slaughters of 1916 and 1917, peace feelers and peace initiatives were floated on many sides, including a plan by the Pope. These trial balloons sometimes accelerated indirect communications among two or three belligerents at a time and numerous neutral powers. Yet by late 1917, the High Command strongly opposed making any concessions to the Allies in exchange for peace. German diplomats still took part in talks, but all discussions stalled on the intransigence of the total war planners, who had already opted to re-start unrestricted submarine warfare in February 1917.

The entry of the Americans in April 1917 also contributed to Ludendorff’s decision to risk all on one throw of the dice. For one thing, the entry of the United States did much to limit the possibility that the British and French would consider negotiating. Before April 1917, British leadership was increasingly doubtful about the possibility of winning the war outright and was therefore open to some peace feelers. But after American intervention, victory seemed secure enough to ignore most diplomatic initiatives. Contemplating the situation, one British field marshal commented, “with the vast potential supply of men in America there should be no doubt of our winning.” On the American side, Woodrow Wilson had converted from would-be arbitrator of the war to the leader of a belligerent power, and his view was that Prussian-German militarism would only disappear in a total victory. Entente war diplomacy thus no longer needed to consider the possibility of a negotiated peace.

At the same time on the other side of the Western Front, the corollary to Ludendorff’s total war plans was the need for outright, total victory. Hence, once the Americans intervened, Ludendorff and his High Command planners came to see only one path: an all-out assault that would break up the stalemate and win the war if successful. Could German troops be transferred rapidly from the East and organized on the Western Front before the Americans could get troops into the front lines? Ludendorff’s staff looked at the coming race and prepared for an overwhelming breakthrough before substantial American forces could get into the trenches. The Ludendorff Offensive was the result.

By utilizing most of available manpower and most of available supplies, Ludendorff determined to create five huge assaults, one after the other. The first one alone (Operation Michael) would involve three German armies comprising something over 800,000 troops. The other four assaults would follow in stages. Each assault represented a “total” effort. In the first five hours of the first wave alone–in the early morning of March 21, 1918 — the German artillery fired 1.1 million shells on a forty mile front. “We make a hole,” Ludendorff insisted, “and the rest will take care of itself.”

The obvious flaw in this all-out plan was that if the gamble failed, depleted Germany would face defeat. At one with many of his generation of leaders as a kind of Social-Darwinian Romantic — one might even say Wagnerian — fatalist, Ludendorff staked all on the coming battles. But his reliance on the totality of the state was likewise a piece of his “all or nothing” plan. In February 1918 Prince Max of Baden asked Ludendorff what would happen if the operation should fail. Ludendorff replied: “In that case Germany will go under.”


Tired British Troops Guard Exhausted Captured Germans, 1918

The American presence in the Allied camp altered the dynamic of the war in many ways. Even before American entry, of course, the United States was serving as the banker and auxiliary armory of the Entente. Once in the war, the United States was an enormous financial resource: in its nineteen months at war, the United States would spend 17.1 billion in 1913 dollars on the conflict. This was somewhat below Britain (23 billion) and Germany (almost 20 billion), and more than France and Russia combined. And all of them had been at war since 1914. By means of war production, continued loans, and mobilization of its own version of a “military industrial complex,” the most powerful economy in the world represented an enormous material factor.

But financial and industrial might notwithstanding, the most immediate issue attached to American entry for both sides was, as seen above, American troops. In fact, from the moment John G. Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) reached France, he faced enormous pressure from the British and French to send Americans into battle quickly and piecemeal, even as replacements in their own armies. Pershing refused the piecemeal plan of using Americans as British and French replacement troops, though he allowed a limited injection of American companies and regiments with the other Entente armies for the purposes of mastering the routines of Western Front warfare. Some American units fought on the Western front as early as December 1917, but for the most part, the hard-nosed Pershing stood up to British and French demands. Meanwhile, he carried out the task of building the American First Army, but it would not be combat-ready as a unit until late summer 1918.

So did the AEF make a difference in the total war struggle in the spring of 1918? The answer is yes. The first Spring Offensive German attacks did not reach all their objectives, but they broke through at many points, and indeed came as close as thirty-five miles from Paris. On April 11, the normally phlegmatic British commander on the Western Front, Sir Douglas Haig wrote a “Special Order of the Day” which sounded dire. The order concluded with these famous lines: “There is no other course open to us but to fight it out. Every position must be held to the last man: there must be no retirement. With our backs to the wall and believing in the justice of our cause each one of us must fight on to the end. The safety of our homes and the Freedom of mankind alike depend upon the conduct of each one of us at this critical moment.”


American Attack, Cantigny, Early Morning, 28th of May, 1918

With catastrophe looming, Pershing relented. He did not send individual American troops to the British and French, but he sent divisions to plug gaps where needed and provide fresh troops for counterattacking German advances. On May 28, the American First Division counterattacked German salient at Cantigny. The American Third Division linked up with French colonial (Senegalese) troops on their right and regular French troops on their left on May 31, making its stand on the banks of the Marne at the extreme point of the bulge made by the Germans, at Château Thierry, earning its permanent nickname, “The Rock of the Marne.” Meanwhile in June, a few miles away from Chateau Thierry, the U.S. Second Division carried out a successful counterattack at Belleau Wood. In these and other sectors of the front, 250,000 American troops arrived at the front during the waves of the Spring Offensive.


British Lewis Gun Team at Hazbrouk, April 1918

By July the German army showed clear signs of exhaustion. Lack of fuel, supplies and troop replacements hamstrung the tired German divisions. And nearly a half a million troops had been lost by June 6. The Allies, it is true, lost as many–even more–but the mobilization of new troops by the Entente changed the ratios entirely: as Germans troop totals sank, Allied troop totals rose. I am not suggesting that the experienced British and French were not doing the majority of fighting on the Allied side, or that, simplistically, American troops won the war on their own. Yet the presence of capable American forces allowed both British and French to concentrate forces at points of greatest need. The Americans were, most importantly, fresh to the battle. In the Marne stand of early June, one observer witnessed a French officer delivering the order to retreat to an American unit just digging in against the German onslaught. The U.S. Marine captain replied: “Retreat, Hell. We just got here!”

Hence, in the course of July 1918, the momentum on the Western Front shifted to the Allied side. Ludendorff had used up his resources and worn out his divisions. Moreover, the total war state that he had created began to fracture. Successful Allied counterattacks in July led to the “black day of the German army” on August 8 when the British went on the offensive at Amiens and gained eight miles back from the Germans. What followed was a continuous Hundred Days of Allied offensives on much of the front during the last three months of the war. The German army did not break, but by the time rational civilian leaders were able to begin discussing negotiations with the Allies, their negotiating position was nearly non-existent. Ludendorff had been correct about one thing: when the plan failed, Germany “went under.” But along the way, the total war thinking of Ludendorff and his planning elite had not only created a model for much worse to come in the twentieth century. In this way and others, the Ludendorff Offensive shaped the modern world.

Hunt Tooley teaches History at Austin College. He is the author of The Great War: Western Front and Home Front.