Anzacs dig in for Winter & expected German Spring Offensive

Winter 1917imageFollowing the cessation of the Third Ypres or Passchendaele offensive the British Army in Flanders went into its winter positions and for I Anzac Corps, relieved from their Ypres front line positions, they proceeded to the quieter front in the vicinity of Messines (image right). With winter setting in General Birdwood’s focus was now how to keep the troops fit and well, and avoid the illnesses and trench foot that had caused many casualties the previous winter on the Somme.

Ploegsteert - E04488Most expected that the British offensive around Ypres would resume in the Spring, but the attitude changed in mid-December when Field Marshall Haig issued an order to prepare for a German Spring Offensive instead and work commenced on developing the British lines of defence (photograph right of the 22nd Battalion creating wire entanglements), plus the conservation of the troops and the training for a defensive battle. His loss of six divisions to Italy following the Austro-German Caporetto offensive in October 1917 and the shortage of reinforcements were as big a part in his decision making as the prospect of facing a regenerated German Army following the collapse of the Russians on the Eastern Front. Haig believed that it would be almost impossible to stop a massive German strike at the front so the British Armies prepared for defence in depth, comprising three systems with each having at least three lines. The forward line was to be prepared only as an outpost, designed to stop all but the major attack. The second system was to be placed some two to three miles behind the front line, built on advantageous ground, and some 2,000 – 3,000 yards in depth. The area between these first and second systems would become the battle zone. This was the only period in the war in which the Australian divisions undertook on a large scale the construction of defences with concrete (photograph below of Australian engineers completing a concrete dugout in March 1918).

Pillbox - E02346Intelligence estimated that Germans were transferring 30 to 40 divisions from the now quiet east over the winter, so for Haig the question was how to distribute his forces against the expected attack. With the Americans still slowly arriving it made sense that if the Germans were to attack it would be sooner than later, probably in early March. Although the weather had been bad for flying and for observation, British airmen had brought in photographs of numerous new aerodromes, dumps, railway sidings and hospital camps in the region opposite the British Third and Fifth Armies from Arras to Peronne. But similar reports were coming in opposite the British Second Army on the Lys, and also on the French front in Champagne near Rheims. By mid-February 1918 British intelligence now estimated that the Germans now had 178 divisions on the Western Front, with nearly half being opposite the British Army. However Haig felt that the main blow would come against the French to the south, but his Army commanders should be prepared for an attack across the old Somme battlefields where communication for the British remained difficult. He also felt that the initial blow was less likely to be delivered in Flanders where the ground remained wet much later in the Spring than further to the south.

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