March 24

This Day in History

World War I

Mar 24, 1918:

German forces cross the Somme River

On March 24, 1918, German forces cross the Somme River, achieving their first goal of the major spring offensive begun three days earlier on the Western Front.

Operation Michael, engineered by the German chief of the general staff, Erich von Ludendorff, aimed to decisively break through the Allied lines on the Western Front and destroy the British and French forces. The offensive began on the morning of March 21, 1918, with an aggressive bombardment.

The brunt of the attack that followed was directed at the British 5th Army, commanded by General Sir Hubert Gough, stationed along the Somme River in northwestern France. This section was the most poorly defended of any spot on the British lines, due to the fact that it had been held by the French until only a few weeks before and its defensive positions were not yet fully fortified. Panic spread up and down the British lines of command, intensified by communications failures between Gough and his subordinates in the field, and German gains increased over the subsequent days of battle. On March 23, Crown Prince Rupprecht, on the German side of the line, remarked that The progress of our offensive is so quick, that one cannot follow it with a pen.

The next day, German troops stormed across the Somme, having previously captured its bridges before French troops could destroy them. Despite having resolved to concentrate on weaker points of the enemy lines, Ludendorff continued to throw his armies against the crucial villages of Amiens (a railway junction) and Arras—which the British and French were instructed to hold at all costs—hoping to break through and push on towards Paris. By that time, German troops were exhausted, and transportation and supply lines had begun to break down in the cold and bad weather. Meanwhile, Allied forces had recovered from the initial disadvantage and had begun to gain the upper hand, halting the Germans at Moreuil Wood on March 30.

On April 5, Ludendorff called off Operation Michael. It had yielded nearly 40 miles of territory, the greatest gains for either side on the Western Front since 1914. He would launch four more offensive pushes over the course of the spring and summer, throwing all of the German army's resources into this last, desperate attempt to win the war.

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