Following the conclusion of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with the Russian Bolsheviks, Germany concentrated its forces on the Western Front. But the military offensives in the spring and early summer of 1918 were thwarted by both Allied soldiers and an unexpected enemy- the Spanish flu.
The German offensives on the Western Front in the spring and early summer of 1918 did not go as planned. On the contrary, communication and supply lines were overextended and bringing supplies to the front was becoming even more difficult. Moreover, by June 1918, 915.000 soldiers had been killed or seriously wounded. While German losses became increasingly difficult to replace, the Allies were able to strengthen their armies with more than 250.000 American soldiers arriving in Europe each month.
The discovery of Allied rations in captured trenches- white bread, canned beef, biscuits and wine- contributed to the deterioration of German soldiers’ morale. It was clear that even in terms of food the Allies were better supplied.
The Spanish flu hits German lines
And as if the military losses generated by the confrontations on the Western Front were not enough, another factor intervened that no one had thought of until then. The first wave of the Spanish flu, an aggressive form of the flu virus that had already killed more than 50 million people worldwide, also hit German lines in the summer of 1918. Even though it was normally a virus that mainly affected children and the elderly, this strain of the Spanish flu virus also affected soldiers, regardless of age or physical condition. The 6th German Army in Alsace alone reported 10.000 new cases of illness every day during the first half of July. In all, more than one million German soldiers fell prey to the disease between May and July 1918. At the opposite pole, the British army had only 50.000 cases of Spanish flu in June and July. Other diseases such as pneumonia, dysentery and even malaria further undermined the strength of the German army.
Weakened by the disease and without too many reserves, starting in the middle of the summer, the German troops faced the sustained counterattacks of the Allies.
The Allied counterattack
The French counter-offensive that started with the Second Battle of the Marne, in July 1918, and the attack launched by the British on August 8th near the city of Amiens, crushed 16 German divisions. In the end, total collapse was narrowly averted, but German troops were almost completely demoralized and exhausted, increasingly blaming the military leadership for the dire situation they were in. In the absence of reinforcements following the massive losses it had suffered, the German army was now in no shape to hold off Allied attacks for long. One week after the Allies struck the German lines on August 8th, Ludendorff told the emperor that Germany must seek a conditional peace, a situation they had disapproved of throughout the war.
The situation of the Central Powers did not look good. On September 14, the Allies attacked the Bulgarian army on the Thessaloniki front, which quickly collapsed in the face of Allied superiority. On September 25, the Sofia government demanded that the Allies cease hostilities. It was the beginning of the end for the Central Powers.
Robert Gerwarth, Cei învinși. De ce nu s-a putut încheia Primul Război Mondial, 1917-1923 [The Vanquished: Why the First World War Failed to End, 1917–1923], Litera Publishing House, Bucharest, 2017.
Margaret MacMillan, Făuritorii păcii. Șase luni care au schimbat lumea [Peace makers. Six months that changed the world], Trei Publishing House, Bucharest, 2018.
Translated by Laurențiu Dumitru Dologa