With its newly arrived forces from the eastern front, Germany enjoyed superiority in numbers on the western front for the first time since the earliest days of the war. Nonetheless, all sides, including Germany, were exhausted. Their strength was limited, and fresh troops from the United States would soon be ready to join the fight on the Allied side. If Germany was going to somehow win the war, now was the time.
Germany therefore poured all of its remaining resources into a massive offensive that began in the early morning hours of March 21, 1918. The goal was to push across the river Somme and then on to Paris. Like most land battles in World War I, the offensive began with a prolonged artillery barrage. In this case it lasted for five hours and included a heavy concentration of poison gas shells along with the usual explosive ordinance. When the German troops moved forward through a combination of heavy fog and poison gas clouds, visibility was near zero, and soldiers on both sides were largely unable to distinguish friendly from enemy forces. By midday, the fog had lifted, and a furious air battle took place over the soldiers’ heads while the Germans relentlessly pounded the Allies.
As the Germans surged forward, they brought with them the newest long-range artillery cannons developed by Krupp, which enabled them to fire accurately upon Paris from the astounding range of seventy-four miles. On March 23, these shells killed more than 250 unsuspecting Parisians, who were baffled because they initially thought the blasts were coming from the ground. The long-distance German shells killed hundreds more in the following days. On March 24, the Germans raced across the Somme, having captured the bridges before the French could destroy them. On March 25, the Allied front broke at precisely the point where the French and British troop lines met.
German momentum continued for another five days until a British advance halted the Germans at Moreuil Wood on March 30. The Allies pushed the Germans back for several days more, until the initiative was turned around once more at the Battle of Lys, which began on April 9, 1918. At Lys, the British and French began to lose ground once more, and the Germans recaptured places (such as Passchendaele and Messines) that the Allies had won in hard-fought battles the previous year.
By the end of the Battle of Lys on April 29, the German army, despite its run of recent success, saw morale at an all-time low. The French and British were in almost as bad a state. During this period of the war, whenever either side launched an offensive, it would only last a few days before the troops ran out of energy and began to fall back. Nonetheless, neither British, nor French, nor German leaders would give up, so the war continued in this way for much of the summer.
Only the United States, it seemed, held the power to shift the balance, but more than a year had passed since the U.S. declaration of war, with little tangible result. Although hundreds of thousands of American troops had been transported to Europe, very few of them had actually participated in combat.