On this day in 1918, German troops launch “Operation Georgette” the second phase of their final, last-ditch spring offensive, against Allied positions in Armentieres, France, on the River Lys.
On March 21, 1918, the Germans under Erich Ludendorff, chief of the general staff, launched their first major offensive on the Western Front in more than a year, attacking the Allies in the Somme River region of France and training their huge guns on Paris. The Allies managed to halt Ludendorff’s exhausted armies by the end of March, however, thanks in part to a fresh influx of several thousand American soldiers. By the time Ludendorff shut down attacks on April 5, the Germans had gained nearly 40 miles of territory.
Ludendorff’s focus now switched to the Flanders region of northern France, aiming to push the British troops back against their ports along the English Channel, forcing them into a corner. Thus on April 9, after a four-and-a-half hour long bombardment of British forces in Armentieres, 14 German divisions attacked along a 10-mile front to begin the Battle of the Lys. As at the Somme, the ferocious German advance quickly drove the British back, punching a hole 3.5 miles wide through the British line. They also made quick and bloody work of a Portuguese division taking part in the battle, sending four divisions against the single Portuguese unit and taking some 6,000 prisoners. To make matters worse, the Germans unleashed 2,000 tons of poisonous gas–including mustard and phosgene gas–against the British at the Lys, incapacitating 8,000 (of whom many were blinded) and killing 30.
Despite the initial success of Operation Georgette, the British defensive positions in Armentieres were better prepared and more tenacious than those at the Somme, and the Germans managed to advance only 12 kilometers by the time Ludendorff closed down the operation on April 29. By this time, morale on both sides of the line was at a low point, due to heavy losses, but neither was ready to give in. The Germans looked to the next stage of their offensive, against the French at the Aisne River, as the Allies readied their defenses, each side believing that the outcome of the First World War hung in the balance.