Good man in a crisis
Byng’s army was holding firm in the north, but by the evening this distortion of the line was leading to dangerous gaps between divisions. The Germans were exploiting these, and desperate efforts at plugging them with reserves (including some French companies arriving be bus) were barely adequate. The northernmost Corps of Gough’s army, below the Flesquieres salient, led by General Ivor Maxse, pulled back to the Somme at Peronne to support those on his right. This of course, created a gap between the 5th and 3rd Armies, and Byng was obliged to withdraw behind the Canal du Nord to align. He also lost some ground in front of Arras including Bullecourt, but thereafter held firm.
All through the night into the 23rd the 5th army pulled back, under severe pressure. Gough was soon faced with withdrawal across the Somme to avoid complete destruction. He began this on the morning, and all bridges and crossings were blown as soon as the men could be got across. Buchan refers to Saturday 23rd as “possibly the most difficult day in the annals of the British Army”. Fierce rearguard actions continued all day between Tergnier and Peronne, and north of the latter the Germans, by then end of the day, had reached the furthest points of the Allied gains in November 1916. On this day, significant efforts were made by RAF aircraft harrying German advances and supporting British withdrawals.
In a separate action on this momentous day Ludendorff agreed to launch ‘Mars’ – a subsidiary operation to ‘Michael’, attacking the British line north of Arras. However, Byng was alert to the danger, and had withdrawn his men out of range of the German field artillery. The Germans were frustrated and decided to wait until they could bring up heavy artillery.
Taking stock after three hard days of rearguard actions, Petain agreed to Haig’s request to take over Gough’s section south of Peronne. British units still remaining there now came under the French command of General Fayolle (French Sixth Army). The days of 25th and 26th became a managed retreat, with fierce fighting, heavy casualties and heroics. In particular, the artillery, cavalry and RAF earned great credit for the support of the hard pressed and exhausted infantry. On the old Somme battleground of Combles and Lesboeufs (see post 30/8/2016) the valiant actions of the South African Brigade (recalling ironically its amazing actions at nearby Delville Wood two years earlier) resulted in its destruction, but enabled Byng’s right flank to retreat and consolidate a line.
|Ivor Maxse. Stout|
resistance. Made his
reputation in tactical
training for the final
The crisis was at hand. Haig had requested the CIGS (Sir Henry Wilson) presence on site, and Lloyd George also sent Lord Milner, Secretary of the War Cabinet. On 26th they met with Petain, Foch and Clemenceau at Compiegnes. They agreed that the emergency called for unified action, directed by a military supremo. The 66 years old Marshall Ferdinand Foch was in the right place at the right time, and late on that day became the Supreme Allied Forces Commander. He inherited a parlous position. The route to Amiens was almost open, and the British and French armies in danger of separation. Greatly to their credit, Gough and his staff (removed from the front line action) organised a good defensive line to the east of Amiens. This would hold and keep the two sides connected. After 26th the line north of Albert stabilized, thanks to the arrival of reinforcements including a new generation of smaller, more mobile tanks. There were also some signs that the German juggernaut was running out of steam, through exhaustion and extended communications. To the south, the Germans continued to make gains, pushing south and west of Nesle, and heading towards Montdidier to block French movements. Von Hutier’s most strenuous efforts took him within range of Montdidier, but he was dangerously extended.
March 28th proved another tumultuous day. The Germans made their final concerted effort to break through to Amiens. Although Ludendorff’s original plan had been stymied, he still hoped that by taking the more southerly route, particularly capturing Amiens and Montdidier, he could isolate the British army. To the north he re-launched Operation Mars against Arras and Vimy Ridge with heavy artillery in support. Magnificent defence and counter-offensive by 3rd army ensured that this gambit failed completely to break through. Also, this day spelt then end for Gough’s brave, shattered army. They were take completely out of the line, to be replaced by Rawlinson’s 4th army. Rawlinson was ordered to hold a seven miles section of the new front, south of the Somme (compare this with 5th Army’s 42 miles section on 21st March).
The French now felt the force of von Hutier’s thrusts to break through between Roye and Montreuil. After a two day lull, he made his final small gains on 4th April. By 6th April, Operation Michael was at an end. Amiens was safe, and the line held there at Villers Bretonneux. The Noyons/Montdidier/Montreuil line was held by the French. The Germans, in this sector, were punched out.
Nevertheless, the map showed extraordinary German gains, and there was consternation in London. Gough was scapegoated. It was an undoubted defeat, but out of this disaster came two indicators of a shift in fortunes. Firstly, Foch in his new role as Generalissimo was able to achieve rapid transfer of colonial forces to reinforce Montdidier, holding off von Hutier; second was the repulse of von Below’s forces at Arras and Vimy Ridge. Ludendorff’s memoirs record that action as the point he realised the spirit of his army was cracking.
Thus, it was a defeat that showed the way to victory. The British suffered 300,000 casualties (German losses were similar). The 5th Army had barely a chance – its ‘rout’ was epic nonetheless, and helped the armies either side of it to foil the German plans. Byng’s 3rd army had blunted the sharpest weapons the Germans could throw at them. Ludendorff still had other places to look for his next attempt at the killer breakthrough, but time was not on his side.