Australian soldiers were to feel the impact of Russia’s withdrawal and America’s entry as the First World War entered its fifth year in 1918.
After two years of grinding trench warfare, 1918 was the year when, first the Germans, then the Allies, went on the offensive.
The Bolsheviks’ seizure of power in Russia and an armistice on Germany’s Eastern Front in December 1917 freed up troops to reinforce German armies in France and Belgium. The Americans were arriving, fresh and untested, on the Western Front to join the weary and under-strength Allied armies.
General Erich Ludendorff launched a series of offensive battles to split the British and French armies and end the war – or get to the bargaining table in a good position.
The 1918 Spring Offensive began on March 21 with Operation Michael when 3000 shells a minute bombarded Allied positions for five hours on a front south of Arras on the Somme.
Ludendorff’s advances, led by elite storm troopers, went well initially but eventually ran short of supplies.
At Dernancourt on April 5, Australia’s 4th Division repelled a powerful attack that Charles Bean said was the heaviest any Australian division had to endure in the whole war.
On April 25, Australia’s 13th and 15th Brigades recaptured the town of Villers-Bretonneux after the Germans had overrun the 8th British Division.
This famous action by Australians reversed Germany’s advance towards the transport hub of Amiens and marked the end of its offensive on the Somme.
Ludendorff continued to attack the French Armies to the south-east into mid-July. While they gained ground, the German armies failed to achieve a decisive advantage and losses on both sides together amounted to about one million.
Australian historian Peter Burness has written: “Germany had gambled on being able to inflict a crippling blow on the Allies before the build-up of the American forces on the Western Front, but its army became over-extended and had failed.”
Before the end of summer, the Allies mounted a counter offensive.