The Seventh Bloodies: The Second Battle of the Somme
The Germans, under the command of Erich Ludendorff, launched five significant offenses in the spring and summer of 1918. The Second Battle of the Somme was the first of these offenses. In 1918, Russia had pulled out of World War I, and the United States had not yet entered the war. This was a window in which there was a clear opportunity for a German victory; however, history would not see Germany win the war.
The Germans planned to attack on a fifty-mile long front, bordered by the Somme River in the south, and the town of Arras, held by the British, in the north. Eventually, German forces would cross the river. The river would provide a defensible border against French forces early in the Battle. Germany committed significant forces to the offensive. As noted, Arras was held by the British, and British forces were engaged in the Second Battle of the Somme, including the Third Army and Fifth Army. The Fifth Army was significantly stronger than the Third.
Germany devoted a huge number of resources to this battle, including some 6,500 large artillery guns and 3,000 mortars. The battle began at 4:40 in the morning on March 21, 1918, with a massive artillery attack, including explosives, poison gas, and smoke. The British lines sustained substantial casualties and disruptions both in the front and rear of the lines. An infantry assault followed; however, the overall costs were high. The Germans gained land, but sustained some 40,000 casualties in the first day. The British retreat continued the following day, but the French entered the Second Battle of the Somme on March 22.
The German offensive continued through March 26. The French were pessimistic, and were planning a retreat to protect Paris. This would have separated British and French forces. An Allied conference on the 26th placed French General Ferdinand Foch in command of the Western Front, with a goal of protecting the city of Amiens.
French and British efforts were eventually successful, and the German offensive was stopped. Losses on both sides were significant, with the Germans counting nearly 250,000 casualties and the British approximately 180,000. The Germans had gained a significant amount of land, but had not met any strategic goals.