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This Day In History: The First Battle Of The Somme Of 1918 Began

March 21, 2017

This day in history, March 21, 1918, Germany launched its first major offensive on the western front in two years.

German Commander Erich Ludendorff recognized that, with the imminent arrival of scores of thousands of US troops in France, Germany was likely to lose the war. Ludendorff planned to strike first. He transferred some 70 divisions of troops from the Eastern Front, where the turmoil following the Russian Revolution had effectively ended Russian involvement in the war.

In the short term, Germany had a clear numerical advantage over the British and French. Ludendorff’s plan was to exploit the differences between Britain’s and France’s strategies for facing any major German offensive. He believed the French would give priority to the defense of Paris, and the British would be more concerned with defending the ports along the north French coast through which their supplies and troops flowed. Ludendorff aimed to attack the juncture between the French and British forces in northeast France.

Ludendorff had dozens of divisions, many led by elite storm trooper units, earmarked for the attack, while the British were able to muster just 26. The offensive was code-named Operation Michael but it was also known as the Kaiserschlacht (Kaiser’s Battle). Operation Michael began with a sudden five-hour bombardment on the British by thousands of artillery pieces.

Ludendorff had worked with experts in artillery to create an innovative, lethal ground attack, featuring a quick, intense artillery bombardment followed by the use of tear gas, lethal phosgene and chlorine gases.

However, the poorly supplied German troops soon became exhausted, and the Allies halted their advance as French artillery knocked out the German guns besieging Paris. On April 2, U.S. General John J. Pershing sent American troops down into the trenches to help repulse the German offensive. It was the first major deployment of U.S. troops in World War I.

By the time the Somme offensive ended, on April 4, the Germans had advanced almost 40 miles but had suffered nearly as many casualties as their enemies.