Operation Michael | World War I

Operation Michael | World War I

Overview

During the First World War, Operation Michael was a massive German military operation that kicked off the German Spring Offensive on March 21, 1918. It was launched from near Saint-Quentin, France, on the Hindenburg Line. Its purpose was to break through the Allied (Entente) lines and push north-westerly, seizing the Channel Ports that fed the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and driving the BEF into the sea. Two days later, German General Staff Chief Erich Ludendorff changed his mind and pressed for an onslaught to the west, along the entire British front north of the Somme River. This was intended to first divide the French and British armies before pursuing the original plan of forcing the BEF into the sea. However, the onslaught came to a standstill at Villers-Bretonneux, East of the Allied communications center at Amiens, where the Allies could stop the German advance; the German Army had sustained many casualties and was unable to keep supplies flowing to the advancing forces. In addition, much of the battleground was wilderness leftover from the Battle of the Somme in 1916. As a result, the British Battles Nomenclature Committee dubbed the battle The First Battles of the Somme, 1918, whereas the French dubbed it The Second Battle of Picardy. The offensive's defeat signaled the start of Germany's exit from the First World War. Large reinforcements from the United States arrived in France to replace Entente fatalities, but the German Army could not recover from its losses before the reinforcements arrived. As a result, operation Michael failed to achieve its goals, and the German advance was reversed during the Allied Hundred Days Offensive's Second Battle of the Somme, 1918 (21 August – 3 September).

Background

Strategic Developments

The German High Command (Oberste Heeresleitung, OHL) debated a decisive offensive on the Western Front the following spring on November 11, 1917. Their aim was Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig's British Expeditionary Force (BEF), which they believed had been exhausted by the battles of Arras, Messines, Passchendaele, and Cambrai in 1917. On January 21, 1918, General Erich Ludendorff decided to assault. The German people were on the verge of hunger and growing tired of the war in 1918. Ludendorff had withdrawn roughly 50 divisions from the East by mid-February 1918 when Germany was conveying the Russian renunciation and the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. Germany's troops outnumbered the Allied armies on the Western Front. By the 21st of March, Germany had 192 divisions and three brigades on the Western Front, out of 241. There were 110 divisions on the front line, with 50 facing the shorter British front. There were a total of 67 divisions in reserve, with 31 confronting the BEF. By May 1918, 318,000 American troops were expected in France, with another million expected by August. The Germans realized that the only way to win was to defeat the Allies before the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) was fully assembled. The German Spring Offensive, also known as the Kaiserschlacht, consisted of four offensives: Michael, Georgette, Gneisenau, and Blücher–Yorck. Michael took place on the Somme, followed by Georgette on the Lys and at Ypres, all to confuse the enemy. In the Champagne region, Blücher was fought against the French. Despite British intelligence knowing that a German onslaught was in the works, the plan was far more ambitious than Allied commanders had anticipated. Ludendorff planned to cross the Somme and then turn northwest, cutting British communication lines behind the Artois front and trapping the BEF in Flanders. The Germans would be able to assault these ports and other routes of communication if Allied forces were pulled away from the Channel ports, which were vital for British supply. The British would be encircled and forced to surrender. At the Boulogne Conference, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George agreed, against military advice, that the BEF would take over further of the front line, following which the British line was extended. The "line," which had been taken over from the French, hardly existed and required extensive construction to make it easily defendable to the positions farther north, slowing advance in the Fifth Army's sector (General Hubert Gough). The new British line was created in an arc around St. Quentin throughout the winter of 1917–1918 by many small unit actions among the damaged villages in the vicinity. There were numerous isolated outposts, holes in the line, and vast swaths of contested land and waste ground. The new three-zone defence strategy in depth gradually strengthened these locations, but much of the work was done by infantry working parties. By March 1918, most of the redoubts in the battle zone had been completed while the rear location was still being built.

Due to a scarcity of infantry replacements, the BEF was reorganized, with divisions reduced from twelve to nine battalions, following the model set by the German and French armies early in the war. The senior consistent and first-line territorial battalions were to be preserved rather than the higher-numbered second-line territorial and New Army battalions. As a result, second-line territorial and New Army divisions were severely disrupted, with half of their regiments being disbanded in some cases to make place for forces transferred from regular or first-line territorial divisions. Battalions were supposed to have 1,000 troops, but due to casualties and disease during the winter, several only had 500 men.

Tactical Developments

The German army practised open-warfare tactics that had proven successful on the Eastern Front, most notably at the Battle of Riga in 1917. The Germans established stormtroope forces, elite soldiers that used infiltration tactics and pushed fast by exploiting holes and weak defences. Stoßtruppen avoided severely defended regions, which could be dealt with once separated by follow-up infantry units, and captured terrain quickly to disrupt communication by striking enemy headquarters, artillery units, and supply depots in the rear. The best and fittest men from each division were moved to storm units, from which numerous new divisions were constructed. The German army had an early edge in the onslaught, but the best forces suffered disproportionate casualties while the calibre of the reserve troops deteriorated.

Changes in artillery techniques had an impact as well. Ludendorff avoided slow damaging and wire-cutting bombardments by employing massive artillery pieces and mortars to fire "hurricane" bombardment aimed at artillery and machine-gun positions, headquarters, phone exchanges, railways and communication centres. The bombardment was divided into three phases: a quick attack on command and communications, a fierce counter-battery bombardment, and, lastly, a bombardment of front-line positions. The deep bombardment lasted only a few hours before the soldiers advanced behind a creeping barrage to maintain the surprise. By 1918, Germany had deployed a considerable number of precise heavy guns and large stores of ammunition on the Western Front, allowing for such artillery tactics.

Before the Cambrai Gegenschlag (counter-stroke) in December 1917, the last German onslaught on the Western Front had been counter to the French at Verdun, giving British commanders scant experience in defence. However, following the Germans' invention of a deep defence system of zones and trench lines in 1917, the British adopted a similar defence strategy in depth. This reduced the number of troops on the front line, snipers, lightly guarded patrols, machine-gun posts, and total reserves and supply dump to the rear, away from German artillery. According to local conditions and commanders' opinions, British divisions deployed their nine infantry battalions in the forward and fighting zones; the advanced zone was occupied by around 13 of the Fifth Army's infantry battalions and a similar number of the Third Army's infantry battalions.

The Forward Zone was divided into three lines, each with a different depth depending on the topography. Particularly in the Fifth Army region, where they were in isolated outpost units in front of an irregular line of supporting posts, the first two lines were not held continually. Instead, a succession of tiny redoubts for two or four platoons formed the third line. Bases and redoubts were placed so that machine-gun and rifle fire, as well as machine-guns adjacent to the redoubts, could sweep the intervening ground. The Forward Zone relied on firepower rather than vast numbers of troops for defence, but a paucity of soldiers in the Fifth Army area meant that the zone was too weak to repel a big attack. As a result, the Battle Zone was frequently divided into three defensive systems: front, intermediate, and rear, with communication tunnels and switch lines connecting them, with defenders concentrated in resistance centres rather than in continuous lines. The Forward Zone was held by 36 of the Fifth Army's 110 infantry and pioneer battalions. Artillery, trench mortars, and machine guns were also positioned in-depth to enable counter-battery fire, harassing fire on transport routes, firing on assembly trenches, and fire barrages down the front of the British lines at the first hint of attack. Artillery placements were chosen to provide cover and concealment, with alternate stations on the sides and behind bars. Before the German onslaught began, around a third of the artillery was in the Battle Zone, with a few pieces further forward and some batteries hidden and forbidden to fire.

Prelude

The German Plan of Attack

Following the German withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line, the Germans chose to attack the British-controlled sector surrounding St. Quentin from February to April 1917. Among Arras, St. Quentin, and La Fère, the attacking soldiers were stretched out over a 69-kilometre front. Ludendorff had gathered a force of 74 divisions, 6,600 guns, 3,500 mortars, and 326 fighter aircraft, which he separated among the 17th Army Otto von Below, 2nd Army Georg von der Marwitz of Heeresgruppe Kronprinz Rupprecht, and the 18th Army General Oskar von Hutier, both of Heeresgruppe Deutscher Kronprinz Army Group The 18th Army, which had 27 divisions, concentrated its offensive among Drapery and a few kilometres south of St. Quentin. Operation Michael was given 44 divisions, dubbed mobile divisions that were brought up to full strength in troops and equipment. A machine-gun unit, air support, and communications units were added to each division, and the supply and medical branches were re-equipped. Still, a persistent scarcity of horses and fodder could not be alleviated. The mobile divisions were removed in the New Year for training in the current German attack doctrine.

The training focused on quick advance, machine gun silence, and maintaining communication with the artillery to ensure that infantry and the creeping barrage worked together. The infantry was given light machine guns, mortars, rifle grenades, and extensive training. Thirty divisions were educated in the new tactics. Still, they had less equipment than the elite divisions, and the rest were stripped of material to supply them, giving up the majority of their remaining draught animals in the process. Two German troops would attack each side of the Flesquières salient, which was created in the north at the Battle of Cambrai. The 18th Army relocated from the Eastern Front and prepared an attack on St. Quentin to split the British and French armies. After that, the two northern troops would attack the British position around Arras before moving northwest to cut off the BEF in Flanders. Finally, it was planned to reach the Somme in the south and then maintain the river's line against any French counter-attacks; the southern advance was expanded to include a crossing of the Somme.

British Defensive Preparations

The Third Army (General Julian Byng) guarded Arras and the Flesquières Salient territory in the north. The Fifth Army held the line to the south until the French arrived at Barisis. With twelve disunions and three cavalry divisions, 1,650 guns, 119 tanks, and 357 aircraft, the Fifth Army had the most extended front of the BEF. In 1918, a typical British division had 11,800 men, 3,670 horses and scuffs, 48 weaponry pieces, 36 mortars, 64 Vickers substantial machine-guns, 144 Lewis light machine-guns, 770 carts and carriages, 360 motorbikes and cycles, 14 trucks, automobiles, and 21 motorised ambulances. Based on air reconnaissance images and the testimony of deserters, British intelligence projected a German offensive in the Arras–St. Quentin area in the Weekly Intelligence Summary of 10 March 1918; the prognosis was repeated in the following summary on 17 March. German preparations had been spotted by Allied planes, new supply roads had been built, and shell holes had been converted into hidden trench mortar batteries. Heavy-laden motorized and horse-drawn transports were spotted approaching St. Quentin from the East, and German officers were surveying British defences in the distance. Every night, the British retaliated by bombarding the German front line, rear sectors, and suspected assembly areas. Two German deserters snuck into No Man's Land a few days before the attack and surrendered to the 107th Brigade. On the German front, they spoke of troops, artillery batteries, and trench mortars massing. They reported massed trench mortars in front of the 36th Division lines for wire cutting and a multi-hour artillery barrage as a prelude to an infantry attack. The 61st (2nd South Midland) Division staged a raid on German fortifications on the night of March 20th, capturing additional prisoners and informing them that the offensive would begin the following day. The Fifth Army's defences were still incomplete at the time of the attack. The Battle Zone comprised battalion "redoubts" that were not mutually supporting and vulnerable to German troops infiltrating between them, whereas the Rear Zone just had outline markers. At 03:30, the British authorized a gas discharge on the 61st Division front and an intermittent bombardment of German lines and anticipated assembly locations. At 04:40, a massive German barrage began throughout the Fifth Army front and most of the Third Army front.

Combat

Combat of St. Quentin, 21–23 March

Day 1, 21 March: At 04:35, a heavy German artillery barrage was launched on British positions southwest of St. Quentin, with a depth of 4–6 km (2.5–3.7 mi). A powerful German bombardment commenced at 04:40 along a 60-kilometre (40-mile) front. Heavy artillery blasted rear areas to disrupt Allied artillery and supply lines, while mustard gas, trench mortars, tear gas, chlorine gas, and smoke canisters were concentrated on the forward positions. In the largest barrage of the war, nearly 3,500,000 ammunitions were fired within five hours, striking targets over an area of 400 km2 against the Fifth Army, the majority of the Third Army's front, and some of the First Army's show to the north. The front line suffered significant damage, and communications with the Rear Zone were seriously hampered.

The German infantry had mixed success when the infantry attack began at 09:40; the German 17th and 2nd Armies could not infiltrate the Battle Zone on the first day, while the 18th Army moved further and achieved its objectives. The sun rose, revealing a thick morning mist. By 5:00 a.m., visibility had dwindled to less than 10 meters (10 yards) in some areas, and the fog had taken an eternity to clear. Throughout the day, visibility was poor due to moisture and smoke from the shelling, allowing the German forces to slip well behind the British front lines undetected. Much of the Forward Zone fell in the morning due to a lack of communication; telephone lines were cut, and runners struggled to find their way through dense fog and heavy shelling. Headquarters were shut off from the battle and unable to affect it.

German troops pushed through the southwest of St. Quentin around lunchtime, into the Battle Zone, and were nearly 3 km south of Essigny by 14:30. Gough maintained in touch with the corps commanders by phone until 15:00 then went around to each one. He authorized a retirement behind the Crozat canal at the III Corps Headquarters ("HQ"), was briefed that the Battle Zone was intact at the XVIII Corps HQ, and discovered that the Forward Zone on each side had been captured at the XIX Corps HQ. Gough ordered that the terrain be maintained for as long as practicable but that the left flank is withdrawn to contact the VII Corps. The 50th division was sent forward the next day as a reinforcement. Ronssoy had been seized, and the 39th Division was being moved onward on the rest of the front. The 21st and 9th divisions were holding their ground, and the link with the Third Army's V Corps in the Flesquières Salient to the north had been born. The "Forward Zone" of the Fifth Army was the only area where the defences had been completed and taken. The Germans captured most of the men in the zone, moving up in the fog unobserved; garrisons in the several strongholds and redoubts were surrounded. Despite flame thrower strikes on their lines, many teams inflicted substantial losses on the Germans. Some encircled units surrendered after running out of ammunition and suffering heavy casualties, while others battled to the death.

German troops burst through in the morning in the Third Army Region, along the Cambrai–Bapaume road in the Boursies–Louverval sector and through the 59th Division's weak defences near Bullecourt. The Germans had wrecked through the British Forward Zone and into the Battle Zone on most of the attack front by the end of the day and had advanced over the Combat Region on the right flank of the Fifth Army, from Tergnier on the Oise river to Seraucourt-le-Grand. The 9th Irish Fusiliers combat diary noted that there had been many fatalities, three battalions of the Forward Zone had been gone, and three troops in the Battle Zone had been concentrated to 250 men each, parting only the three reserve battalions relatively intact south of St. Quentin in the 36th Division area. The division suffered 6,109 casualties from March 21 to March 27, with March 21 being the most costly day. To buy time for reinforcements to arrive, Gough ordered a combat withdrawal. As the British withdrew, men in the redoubts battled on in the hopes of being relieved by counter-attacks or putting the German invaders off for as long as possible. To avoid being outflanked, the Third Army's right-wing likewise fled. The use of aircraft had been delayed by early fog, but by the end of the day, 36 Royal Flying Corps squadrons had been in combat, losing 16 aircraft and crews while shooting down 14 German planes; German accounts show 19 and 8 losses. The Germans had sustained roughly 40,000 casualties on the first day of the conflict, slightly more than they had inflicted on the BEF. The German onslaught was bolstered in the south, where the 18th Army gained six new divisions. After the attack in the north failed to isolate the Flesquières Salient, which the 63rd Division had held.

Day 2, 22 March: British troops continued to retreat on the second day of the operation, losing their remaining footholds on the original front line. Operations were hampered by thick fog, which did not disperse until early afternoon. As the Germans advanced and the British held their positions, isolated engagements occurred, with neither side knowing who was on the other's side. The incidents were not under the control of the Brigade or battalion. Because of the fragmented nature of the combat and lack of visibility, platoons, sections, and even individuals were separated from their comrades on this day. On March 22, the greatest threat to the British was a split between the Third and Fifth Armies. Byng refused to withdraw from the Flesquières salient, which his army had won at such a high cost, and Haig ordered him to maintain communication with the Fifth Army, even if it meant retreating farther; the day also saw the first French forces enter the action on the southern flank.

Small groups of British troops delayed actions to allow those in their rear to reach new defensive positions. Some British regiments fought back in the Battle Zone, delaying the German assault and even pulling out last. The 2nd Wiltshire Regiment held out until 14:30 at l'Épine de Dallon, and the garrison of the 16th Manchesters, led by Lieutenant-Colonel Wilfrith Elstob, fought until he was killed. At 16:30 at "Manchester Hill." The survivors retreated to the "Stevens Redoubt" of the 2nd Battalion of the Bedfordshire Regiment, just behind them. After the flanking battalions were beaten back, the redoubt was reinforced by two companies of the 18th King's and attacked from all sides. The Bedfords were ordered to withdraw just as their ammunition ran out, and they retreated through the 20th division's trenches, having lost half their strength.

The most extended retreat took place in the XVIII Corps sector, where corps commander General Ivor Maxse appeared to misunderstand Gough's order for a fighting retreat if necessary to mean that the corps should fall back to the Somme. The Germans used the early mist to bring heavy artillery into Artemis, forcing the remaining battalions of the 109th Brigade (36th Division) to evacuate to Happencourt to join the 108th Brigade. The 36th Division was forced to evacuate to Sommette-Eaucourt on the south bank of the Canal de Saint-Quentin to construct a new line of defence due to a misunderstanding between Gough and Maxse and differing interpretations of boom communications and written orders. The division had to cross the Canal at Dury to do this. The daylight withdrawal to the Green Line was completed gradually over 14 kilometres (9 miles), aided by the Ricardo Redoubt's defence, whose garrison did not surrender until 16:40. Engineers blasted the bridges across the Canal between Ham and Ollézy during the retreat, while the railway bridge at Pithon was only slightly damaged. The Germans were quick across the river and up to 15 kilometres (10 miles) from the Crozat canal. Before British General Headquarters sought aid at 2 a.m. and alerted 12 divisions to march forward the next day, French forces on the British right flank moved promptly to reinforce, with French commander-in-chief Petain dispatching three divisions. Day 3, 23 March: German troops broke through the line in the 14th Division sector on the Canal de Saint-Quentin near Jussy early on Saturday morning, March 23. The 54th Brigade, which was holding the line directly to their south, was initially oblivious of their situation, as they were being outflanked and surrounded without their knowledge. The history of the 54th Brigade may be found here "The weather continued to favour the Germans. The fog was thick over the rivers, canals, and small valleys, allowing him to bring up new armies of troops without being spotted ".. Brigade HQ sought to figure out what was going on near Jussy during the chaos, and by late morning, the British were retiring in front of German soldiers who had crossed the Crozat Canal multiple times. Aubigny, Brouchy, Cugny, and Eaucourt fell during the day because all lines of defence had been overwhelmed, and there was nothing left to stop the German onslaught. Despite never having been in battle before, Lieutenant Alfred Herring of the 6th Northamptonshire Battalion of the 54th Brigade led a little inexperienced platoon as part of a three-company counter-attack against German troops who had taken the Montagne Bridge on the Crozat Canal. The bridge was regained and held for twelve hours before Herring and his company was apprehended. The leftovers of the 1/1st Hertfordshire Regiment were fleeing through the southernmost borders of the 1916 Somme battlefield, with only eight officers and roughly 450 men remaining by the morning of 24 March.

Ludendorff delivered an order to the troops "As soon as the line Bapaume–Peronne–Ham was achieved, the operations continued: The 17th Army will launch a fierce offensive in the direction of Arras–St Pol, with the left-wing focusing on Miraumont 7 kilometres west of Bapaume. The 2nd Army will march in the direction of Miraumont–Lihons. The echeloned 18th Army will take Chaulnes–Noyon as its advance route and send substantial forces via Ham." The 17th Army was to roll up British forces in the north, while the 2nd Army was to outbreak west laterally the Somme, towards Amiens, a crucial railway hub. In the Second Battle of Picardy, the 18th Army intended to march southwest, destroying French reinforcements on their March and threatening the approaches to Paris (2e Bataille de Picardie). However, the advance had been costly, and the German men showed weariness symptoms; transportation problems had arisen, and supplies and heavy artillery were lagging behind the passage.

Activities at the Somme Crossings, 24–25 March

Day 4, 24 March: The front line was severely shattered and highly fluid by this point, as the Fifth Army's remaining divisions were fighting and moving in small groups, frequently made up of troops from different formations. The logistical requirements of the corps and divisional staffs became nearly impossible as German figures advanced erratically, and some British units wound up under French command to the south or behind enemy lines to the east. The 109th Brigade planned a counter-offensive in the early hours of March 24. Still, German troops entered Golancourt, just northwest of Villeselve, before daybreak, forcing British troops to remain in defensive positions. The front was about between Cugny and Golancourt to the south. The 54th Brigade of the 18th Division, for example, had c. 206 soldiers in the 7th Bedfordshire and 6th Northamptonshire battalions by dark on 23 March. The 11th Royal Fusiliers had 27 people, who were rapidly reorganized and then took station in the timber north of Caillouel at 10:00 am. The fighting raged throughout the morning along the entire front, and at 11:00 a.m., the 14th Division's remnants were ordered to evacuate further south to Guiscard. The tired British troops were removed piecemeal by a succession of modest German attacks, and the Germans exploited the gaps in the lines produced by this gradual withdrawal. Episodes from the northeast and northwest gradually outflanked the 54th Unit. The Brigade was forced to retreat into Villeselve, where it was extensively pounded by German artillery beginning at midnight. The British attempted to maintain the position here with the help of French soldiers, but the French were ordered to evacuate, leaving the British flank exposed; the British followed the French and fell back through Berlancourt to Guiscard. The 54th Brigade ordered the remaining battalions to retire to Crepigny, and they crept away under cover of darkness to Beaurains at 03:00 on March 25. Except for a sector between the Omignon and the Tortille, the British had lost the Somme line before nightfall. The Third Army's right flank gave up territory as it struggled to maintain touch with the Fifth Army's left side due to combat and retirements in the face of constant pressure from the 2nd Army.

First Combat of Bapaume, 24–25 March

Day 4, 24 March: After surviving unrelenting shelling, Bapaume was evacuated in the late hours of March 24 and seized by German forces the next day. The men were fatigued after three days. The advance slowed as moving artillery and supplies over the Somme battlefield in 1916, and the wasteland of the German retreat to the Hindenburg Line in 1917 became increasingly difficult. German soldiers had also examined abandoned British supply dumps, which led to disappointment when they discovered that the Associates had sufficiently of food despite the U-boat operations, with luxuries like chocolate and even Champagne slipping into their hands. Fresh British forces were rushed into the area and moved towards Amiens, a crucial rail hub. The German breakthrough happened just north of the French-British armistice line. The German attack's new focal point came dangerously near to severing the British and French armies. The need for French reinforcements became more pressing as the British were pressed further west. Late that night, Haig travelled to Dury to meet the French commander-in-chief, General Pétain, at 23:00 (after initially dining with General Byng, who pushed the Third Army to "hold on... at all costs"). Pétain was apprehensive that the British Fifth Army had been defeated and that the "main" German onslaught against French forces in Champagne was about to begin. Historians disagree about the instant reaction of the British. According to the traditional account, Petain informed Haig on March 24 that the French army was preparing to fall back to Beauvais to safeguard Paris if the German advance persisted. This account is echoed in Edmonds' Official History, written in the 1920s. This would open up a breach between the British and French armies, forcing the British to retreat to the Channel Ports.

According to the standard story, Haig then sent a telegram to the War Office requesting an Allied conference. The earlier document version of Haig's diary, rather than the edited typeset version, is quiet on the reported telegram and Petain's desire to quit the British for Paris, according to more recent historians (a withdrawal also geographically implausible).

Day 5, 25 March: The 25th of March's movements were exceedingly jumbled, and reports from various battalions and divisions were frequently inconsistent. The fighting centred to the north of the 54th Brigade, which had joined forces with the French and the fighters of the 18th division, which had struggled to recruit enough soldiers to form a tiny Brigade. As the French encircling the 7th Bedfordshires fled by 10:00 on the 25th, the left flank of the 7th Bedfordshire's was exposed again, and another withdrawal was ordered. They retreated further south, away from the British Fifth Army, to Mont Du Grandu. They were in a better position about midday when French weaponry and machine guns unlocked fire on them, misidentifying them for Germans, making them to flee to high ground west of Grandu.

The 36th Division's surviving men were instructed to retire and reorganize. They embarked on a 24-kilometre (15-mile) march west to support the French troops who were now in charge of the front. They came to a halt in Avricourt around lunchtime for a few hours of rest. They were given orders to head for a new line built between Bouchoir and Guerbigny while they were there. Allied soldiers and civilians with laden carts and wagons clogged the roads south and west during the day as the Germans advanced quickly. The Germans crossed the Canal du Nord through Libermont. The town of Nesle was taken further north while German troops fought the French along the Noyon–Roye road south of Libermont. After spending the night in Maricourt, the 1/1st Herts "From MARICOURT to INSAUNE, they marched. After breakfast, the Bn marched across the SOMME River at CAPPY to CHUIGNOLLES, where they reorganized and spent the night." The RFC flew low-altitude flights to machine-gun and bomb ground targets to slow down the German advance. They were particularly active west of Bapaume on March 25. The German assault was halted by rearguard battles by the Third Army's cavalry, but by 18:00, Byng had ordered a further retreat beyond the Ancre. The infantry of the Third Army advanced through the night of March 25 to their posts, although gaps formed along the way, the greatest of which was almost 6 kilometres (4 miles) between V and VI Corps. On the 25th of March, Sir Henry Wilson, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, arrived at General Headquarters at 11:00 a.m., where they discussed the position of the British Armies astride the Somme River. Haig sent a note to French Premier Clemenceau, requesting at least twenty French divisions to assist in defence of Amiens. The next day was the Doullens Conference.

Combat of Rosieres, 26–27 March

Day 6, 26 March: On March 26, the Allies met at Doullens for a summit. The British Prime Minister, French President, Minister of Munitions Winston Churchill, and Generals Pétain, Foch, Haig, and Wilson were among the ten critical Allied leaders and generals there. General Foch was granted command of the Western Front and then made Generalissimo of the Allied forces due to the conference. It was agreed that the Germans would be held east of Amiens. The Fifth Army would be reinforced by a growing number of French divisions, eventually taking over significant sections of the front south of Amiens. On March 26, Ludendorff issued new directives. The seizure of Amiens and an advance towards Compiègne and Montdidier, which fell on March 27th, were handed to all three of his troops.

The New Zealand Division, which had advanced to the line Hamel–Serre to plug the British line near Colincamps, held a gap in the British line near Colincamps. British "Whippet" tanks, which were light and faster than the Mark IVs, aided them. It was their first time on the battleground. Around 1:00 p.m., "Twelve Whippets from the 3rd Tank Battalion appeared out of nowhere from Colincamps, where they had arrived at midday and found only two infantry posts of the 51st division. They created an immediate impression as they descended from the village's northern edge. Three hundred enemy soldiers ran in terror as they were ready to arrive from the east. When their retreat was cut off, several others surrendered to 51st Divn infantry." Despite this achievement, German pressure on Byng's southern flank and communication blunders forced the early withdrawal of soldiers from Bray and the abandoning of the Somme crossings westwards. In the face of protracted battle, French soldiers on the extreme right (south) of the line, led by General Fayolle, were defeated and fell back; significant gaps emerged between the retreating divisions. As German troops took Roye, the majority of the 36th Division arrived in their new positions at 02:00 on March 26th and were able to sleep for nearly six hours, the most continuous sleep they had in six days. The 9th Irish Fusiliers were far behind the rest of the division, having been delayed by their battle north of Guiscard the night before, and their retreat was a 50-kilometre night march from Guiscard to Erches along the Guerbigny–Bouchoir route. They marched from Bussy to Avricourt, then to Tilloloy, Popincourt, Grivillers, Marquivillers, and last to Erches via Guerbigny, where they arrived around 11:00 March 26th, absolutely weary. The German troops who had taken Roye early in the morning continued to advance on the Bouchoir–Guerbigny line and were in Andechy by mid-morning, 5.6 kilometres from the new British line.

Day 7, 27 March: The town was soon taken by German troops, who looted whatever they could find, including writing paper, liquor, and other valuables. The defensive fight of the XIX Corps against relentless German attacks from the north, east, and northwest at Rosières, less than 30 kilometres east of Amiens, saw a series of ongoing complex engagements and manoeuvres on March 27. The Third Army's hasty evacuation of Bray and the twisting line of the Somme river, with its crucial bridgeheads westwards towards Sailly-le-Sec, on the afternoon of March 26 resulted in this. On March 27, the French lost control of Montdidier, an important communications centre.

Third Combat of Arras, 28–29 March

Day 8, 28 March: On March 28, the German attack's emphasis shifted once more. Operation Mars would be aimed at the Third Army in the Arras area. The Third Army was attacked by twenty-nine units, which were repelled. By this time, German troops moving against the Fifth Army had penetrated 60 kilometres (40 miles) from the initial front at St. Quentin, reaching Montdidier. Rawlinson took over for Gough, who was "Stellenbosched" (fired) despite organizing a long and successful retreat under the circumstances.

In comparison to the Fifth Army, the German onslaught on the Third Army was less successful. Because of the British bastion of Vimy Ridge, the northern anchor of the British defences, the German 17th Army east of Arras advanced just 3 km (2 mi) during the offensive. Despite making more advance south of Arras than the Fifth Army, Below's soldiers posed less of a danger to the larger Third Army than the Fifth Army, owing to superior British defences to the north and the impediment of the former Somme battlefield. Ludendorff anticipated his soldiers to march 8 kilometres and take the Allied field artillery on the first day. The problem for Ludendorff was that the areas of the Allied line he wanted to break the most were also the most well-defended. As a result, much of the German assault occurred rapidly but in the wrong way. On the southern side, where the Fifth Army's defences were most vulnerable. Operation Mars was hurriedly organized to expand the breach in the Third Army lines, but it was repelled, resulting in nothing more than German fatalities. Day 9, 29 March: The enemy remained quiet except for machine gun fire — 1/1 Herts war diary, 29 March 1918, according to the Herts war diary.

Day 10, 30 March: On March 30, the Germans launched their final broad assault. Von Hutier resumed his offensive on the French south of the new Somme salient, while von der Marwitz started attacking Amiens (First Battle of Villers-Bretonneux, March 30–April 5). Although the British lost some ground, the German offensive was fast losing strength. The Germans had sustained many fatalities throughout the conflict, many of whom were from their strongest divisions, and the advance had paused in certain areas. At the same time, German troops stole Allied supply stores.

Battle of the Avre, 4 April 1918

Day 14, 4 April: The Germans launched their final assault on Amiens. On the 4th of April, fifteen divisions attacked seven Allied divisions on a line running east of Amiens and north of Albert. Ludendorff chose to attack Amiens' outermost eastern defenses, which were centered on Villers-Bretonneux. His goal was to take the town and the surrounding high ground so that artillery could progressively demolish Amiens and render it unusable to the Allies. The battle was notable for two reasons: the simultaneous use of tanks by both sides in the conflict and a hurriedly organized night counter-attack by Australian and British soldiers (including the tired 54th Brigade) that re-captured Villers-Bretonneux and halted the German advance. The 14th Division, 35th Australian Regiment, and 18th Division maintained the line from north to south. By 4 April, the German 228th division had pushed the 14th Division back. In the First Battle of Villers-Bretonneux, the Australians defeated the 9th Bavarian Reserve Division, while the British 18th division detained off the German Guards Ersatz Division and 19th divisions.

Combat of the Ancre, 5 April

Day 15, 5 April: On 5 April, the Germans' attempt to restart the offensive failed, and by early dawn, the British had driven the enemy out of all but the town's south-eastern corner. The onslaught against Amiens had reached its furthest westward point, and Ludendorff called it off.

Aftermath

Analysis

The Germans had taken almost 3,100 km2 of France and advanced up to 65 km, but none of their strategic goals had been met. Over 75,000 British soldiers were captured, and 1,300 artillery pieces and 200 tanks were destroyed. With the losses incurred by the elite German troops and the failure to conquer Amiens and Arras, it was of little military use. Because much of the gained ground was part of the shell-strewn wilderness left by the 1916 Battle of the Somme, it was challenging to manoeuvre over and defend. Throughout the German withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line in March 1917, the transport infrastructure had been damaged and wells poisoned elsewhere. The initial joy of the Germans at the successful start of the onslaught quickly faded as it became evident that the attack had not been decisive. In 2002, Marix Evans wrote that the magnitude of the Allied defeat was not substantial because reinforcements were arriving in large numbers. By 6 April, the BEF would have acknowledged 1,915 new guns, that British machine-gun production was 10,000 per month. Tank production was 100 per month, and that British machine-gun production was 10,000 per month. The Doullens Conference had formalized the Allied forces' command structure by appointing Foch as Generalissimo.

Casualties

Davies, Edmonds, and Maxwell-Hyslop claimed in the British Official History (1935) that the Allies lost c., 255,000 troops, with the British losing 177,739 killed, wounded, and missing. The 36th Division suffered the most casualties, with 7,310, the 16th (Irish) Division suffered 7,149, and the 66th (2nd East Lancashire) Division suffered 7,023 casualties. All three formations were destroyed, and they had to be removed from the battle order to be rebuilt. Six divisions lost more than 5,000 troops. In addition, there were 250,000 German casualties. Many of them were irreplaceable élite troops. From March 21 to April 30, including the Battle of the Lys, German casualties totalled 348,300. A comparable Allied statistic throughout this period is 92,004 French and 236,300 British, for a total of over 328,000. Middlebrook estimated that the 31 German divisions engaged on March 21st lost around 39,929 men, while the British lost about 38,512. Up to 5 April, Middlebrook recorded over 160,000 British casualties, including 22,000 killed, 75,000 captives, and 65,000 wounded; French casualties were estimated to be around 80,000, and German casualties were around 250,000 troops. Marix Evans recorded 239,000 men killed, many of whom were irreplaceable Stoßtruppen, 177,739 British fatalities, 77,000 were taken prisoner, 77 American casualties, and 77,000 French casualties, 17,000 of whom were captured in 2002. There were also 1,300 artillery, 2,000 machine guns, and 200 tanks lost by the Allies. In 2004, Zabecki claimed the lives of 239,800 Germans, 177,739 British soldiers, and 77,000 French soldiers.

Cultural References

Journey's End, a play by R. C. Sherriff, is set in an officers' dugout in the British trenches facing Saint-Quentin from March 18 to 21, just before Operation Michael. The anticipated "great German attack" is frequently mentioned, and the drama culminates with the start of the German attack, in which one of the primary characters is slain.

Operation Michael is represented in Battlefield 1 by two maps: St. Quentin Scar and Amiens.

The first character is presented to the reader in Tad Williams' Otherland. Paul Jonas is the City of Golden Shadow, who is fighting for the Allies on the Western Front on March 24, 1918, somewhere between Ypres and Saint-Quentin.

Operation Michael is the massive German operation that Bruno Stachel's (George Peppard) unit is backing with planned air attacks and air combat against Allied forces in the 1968 film The Blue Max. The General James Mason proclaims the incomplete barrage of 6,000 guns on the Western Front, refers to Russia's recent defeat, which allowed troops from the East to be released to reinforce the Western armies, and expresses the High Command's hope that victory in the offensive will be achieved before America can effectively intervene. Following the intermission, the film's second part opens with the German offensive failing and the armies being forced to retire.

Last updated: 2021-December-22
Tags: History World War I
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