Tuesday, 3 April 2018

"Kaiserschlacht" 4: The March Retreat

Ferdinand Foch.
Good man in a crisis
The scale of the German attack on 21st March had been unprecedented. A look at the map shows that the area captured in two weeks was many times greater than the entire Allied gains of the five months Somme campaign in 1916 (shaded area). Seemingly a major German victory? In terms of ground gained, perhaps. But in other ways the gains were inadequate. Firstly, Ludendorff’s objectives for day one had not been met (he was as guilty as Haig of overoptimistic planning). Secondly, a look at the map and the triangular shape of the final gains, shows much greater success in the southern half of the sector. However, it was in the north that Ludendorff needed greater progress to roll up the British army in Flanders; and it was in the north where Byng’s 3rd Army defences were much stronger than Gough’s 5th Army. As Operation Michael progressed it was natural that the Germans would want to exploit the breakthrough at the Crozat Canal (see previous post 21/3/2018), but here they would have to travel further west to block the French routes fro reinforcement to the British – and greater distances meant longer lines of communication. Von Hutier’s demands for men and supplies began to outweigh those of von Below and von Marwitz.

The 22nd April began badly for Gough’s army in the south, and deterioration continued for several days. Tergnier was captured by mid morning at the southern limit of Gough’s section, and by early afternoon all of his men were on their rear most defensive lines, from east of Peronne down to Tergnier (see map).  

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 destructionHe 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
By now the right and centre of Byng’s army and the left of Gough’s were virtually back to the Somme front line of 1/7/1916, whereas Maxse’s Corps was still clinging on near the Somme south of Peronne. All were in weak and makeshift defences. Continued pressure pushed the lines back beyond the Ancre, and to the south between the Somme and the Oise, making Maxse’s position untenable. The Germans reached the important town of Noyon. French reinforcements began to arrive in numbers, but the Germans punched a gap in the line at Nesle, enabling rapid further progress and a check on the French move towards Roye (see map).
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.

Wednesday, 21 March 2018

"Kaiserschlacht" 3: Operation Michael 21st March 1918

German Infantry advancing through Saint-Quentin
March 1918
All along the Western Front expectation was high. The much anticipated German offensive was at hand, but where would the first, vital blow land? In estimating the probabilities, both Army Commanders-in-Chief had unwittingly contrived to leave the German chosen sector as their weakest. For Britain Haig was more concerned to protect the Pas de Calais and communications to the Channel ports than the southern end of his line. He was prepared to accept the weak position of Gough’s 5th Army in front of Saint-Quentin to keep his defences stronger in Flanders. Petain was pre-occupied with the danger to Paris of an assault through Champagne, and his vulnerability further to the south east. Although he had reserve Divisions available, as agreed with Haig, to support Gough’s army, they were placed too far south to reach the area rapidly in a crisis – and a crisis was shortly to develop. On 14th and 15th March British aircraft had reported on a concentration of German forces behind Saint-Quentin, so the warning signs were there, but in the eerie calm of 19th and 20th the weather was drizzle and mist and at dusk on 20th a dense fog set in. This enabled 30,000 German troops to infiltrate stealthily to their forward positions less than two miles from the British ‘blue’ line.

Before the term assumed its modern significance, an ‘eleventh hour’ warning of the German attack was issued along the British front at 2am on 21st March. At 4.30am followed an order to move men into position in the Battle (secondary) zone. Scarcely in time, for at 4.45 a devastating German artillery barrage commenced. Accurate fire landed all across the forward and battle zones, but also into the rear areas, up to 20 miles behind the front line. Large amounts of poison gas were added to the barrage. For good measure, a more general artillery attack took place all along the front from the Channel coast to the far south east section. In the fog covering the 3rd and 5th Army positions confusion reigned. Only wireless messages could be communicated, and these were slow and unreliable. Coincident with the opening of the barrage, the elite storm troopers surged forward to the British blue line, and rapidly made their way through to the deeper areas of the Forward Zone (see Previous Post 2/3/2018). As dawn arrived, the thickness of the fog allowed for no improvement in visibility. The fog was hazardous for both sides, but definitely conferred an advantage to the early German spearheads.
The red line shows the 21st March advances, the
orange shows the eventual limit of Germany's advance
Between 8am and 10am the main German infantry moved forward to exploit the holes punched in the British defences. The Tommies were already uncomfortable in their new, distributed, defence mode, compared to their usual ‘hold the line’ mode. Add to that the blanket of fog, with super-added poisonous gas clouds and ceaseless barrage and it is not difficult to understand how defenders were simply overwhelmed in so many places.
By 11am news was filtering through to Divisional HQs of large German incursions – the largest being in the marshy southern end of the 5th Army’s front on the Oise (where trouble had not been expected). Further bad news came from the Bapaume/Cambrai road area; Lagnicourt and Bullecourt in the northern half of the front (see map). At Ronssoy, in the centre, the attackers had broken right through the battle zone. This was very serious news, and such reserves as there were moved in to plug gaps as quickly as conditions allowed.
By early afternoon the fog had lifted, and the Germans were able to launch their planned supporting air attacks, targeting the remaining strong points in the forward zone. Desperate defence, much of it heroic but piecemeal, continued through the afternoon. The risk of a major rupture of the line between 3rd and 5th Armies grew alarmingly.* But the worst news came from south of St. Quentin. The German were well beyond the battle zone, and by evening had reached the Crozat canal (part of the longer Saint-Quentin canal, linking the Rivers Oise and Somme – see map).
At the northern end of the sector, Byng’s 3rd Army was holding hard to its positions. Byng had more men to hold a shorter section of the line, and his defensive positions were better prepared. Heavier casualties were inflicted on the attackers, and the deeper battle zone held firm (in some places only just). Most ground was lost between Demicourt and Croisilles (see map). One result of this (alongside a corresponding loss of ground to the south) was to accentuate the Flesquieres salient, increasing the risk of encirclement of the large number of troops inside it. The salient itself had a relatively quiet day, other than heavy repeated poison gas attacks, leaving its occupants confined and unaware of the major events to the north and south. (Haig finally ordered Byng to withdraw from most of the salient later that night).
As night fell, both sides looked to shore up their positions in preparation for the 22nd. In a tumultuous day, 32 British Divisions had been involved against 64 German, with both sides suffering heavy casualties. Only on the disastrous first day of the Somme did the British have more casualties (49,000) in a single day than on this (38,000). As the attackers, the Germans were prone to heavier casualties, although on this first day the fog had afforded them a good deal of protection. Middlebrook estimates German day 1 casualties of Operation Michael at almost 40,000.
Right along the line the forward zone had been lost. The battle zone rear edge was just about intact along its length, except at the southern end where Gough’s men were authorised to make their stand behind the Crozat canal and its link to the Somme canal. The Royal Engineers moved in to prepare all the bridges for destruction.
As the 22nd March dawned, the heavy fog had returned, frustrating the British artillery’s hopes to stall the next German waves of attack. The beleaguered 5th Army had no relief at all, and stood vulnerable, outnumbered by four to one.

* This was the source of bitter controversy in the blame culture surrounding these events back in London later in 1918 and 1919.