In the south of the British line the situation on the Fifth Army’s front was becoming critical with the French continuing to withdraw in a south-westerly direction opening up a dangerous gap between the British and French armies, so Brigadier-General Rosenthal’s 9th Brigade, initially protecting the Third Army’s right flank at the River Somme (photograph right) was ordered south of the river immediately to the rear of Villers-Bretonneux and be placed under XIX Corps of the Fifth Army. To compensate for this loss and to guard the bridges Elliott’s 15th Brigade, the first of the AIF 5th Division to arrive on the Somme, were brought to Corbie and placed under Monash’s 3rd Division.
Violent fighting took place as the Germans attempted to cross the railway line between Albert and Dernancourt held by the 12th Brigade, during which Sgt MacDougall (photograph right) of the 47th Battalion was awarded the Victoria Cross. At one stage and out of bombs the defenders could only throw stones in retaliation to the Germans on the other side throwing their grenades. Minenwerfers and shelling were also taking a toll on the exposed men firing over the rails. The 4th Division artillery supported by British batteries focused on the two German assembly points leaving the machine-gunners and riflemen to focus on the attackers that managed to get through the shell fire. By the end of the day, the spirit of the German soldier had noticeably changed from that of supreme confidence to that of being depressed having been so definitely stopped and the attempt to cross the Ancre between Albert and Buire defeated.
The stream of retreating British troops, tired and disheartened, were completely intermingled with one another and villagers. The Australians were the only ones in sight moving forward. Half eaten meals on cottage tables showed how hurriedly the people had left. The artillery of the AIF 4th Division which just three days earlier been in Flanders arrived by forced march and took up positions to cover the infantry. By nightfall orders were received to probe forward and to secure the village of Hebuterne which in turn was be probed by forward German patrols and my midnight the 13th Brigade had formed a defensive line through the village.
However orders were received that the AIF 4th Division had to urgently march to a new destination south and towards Albert, and the 12th & 13th Brigades who had just reached their billets had to set off on a night march, accompanied by the sound of planes bombing and machine-guns rattling off to their left. Leaving the 4th Brigade at Hebuterne the column moved through almost empty villages, reaching their destination in the once familiar countryside between Warloy and Albert by dawn. The two Brigades of Gen. MacLagen’s 4th Division, plus the three of Gen. Monash’s 3rd Division would come under the command of General Congreve’s VII Corps and be tasked to deploy in a line across the German Army that had broken through his line between Albert and Bray, and now heading towards Amiens between the Ancre and the Somme. The Australians were now the most southerly of the British Third Army and given the task to protect its right flank. If the Germans were not stopped at about the line of the old French defences of 1914/15 to the east of Amiens then the German Army would be free to turn northwards behind the line of the British Third Army and southwards across the Somme and behind the Fifth Army.
News began to come in that the German Army were now fighting in High Wood, within a short distance of Pozieres where two summers previous I Anzac Corps fought its bloodiest battle. In fact the British front was broken with the Fifth Army driven back and the serious danger of the separation of the British and French Armies. The orders coming through to the two Australian divisions preparing to move were now in a tone reflecting the seriousness of the situation and that everything must be done to halt the Germans, for many, at last, the very job for which they had enlisted and gone overseas. As the troops crammed twenty-five in each lorry moved south, they carried their Lewis and machine guns plus their ammunition as they might have to fight soon after arrival. For the divisional commanding officers, trying to locate X Corps or British Divisional HQ’s was proving problematical as everything was in a state of disarray, illustrating the problem of communication and ability to create a chain of command needed to co-ordinate the defence across the various retreating units against the German advance. As the leading brigade of the AIF 4th Division arrived at St.Pol, the previously undamaged town having been twenty-two miles behind the front-line, the veteran 4th Brigade entered a town battered by the German long-range guns. The people of the village were loading carts with their possessions to beat a hasty evacuation, but their spirits were lifted by the sight and the reputation of the arriving Australians. Although in reserve the 12th Brigade whose billeting village was closest to the front picketed all roads leading from that direction into divisional reserve. For the AIF 3rd Division detraining at Doullens they entered a chaotic and rumour filled scene with the population preparing to evacuate en-masse and the exhausted British troops appearing from the east telling tales that the German cavalry and armoured cars were on their heals. With the arrival of the first battalions of the 3rd Division defensive dispositions were placed to the east of the town, and unit commanders stopped and directed hundreds of retreating but able bodied British soldiers to halt and join their defensive positions.
For the AIF 3rd Division in reserve instructions were issued for all units to prepare for a move, to dump unessential baggage, to fill up all mobile supplies, and to stand by in readiness to march at a few hours notice. The first orders received said that it was to move north and Ypres – and not south and to the Somme that it had hoped – to be placed in army reserve in case of a secondary attack. However within a day the order had been changed and they began their move along with the AIF 4th Division to head south and to join the British X Corps in reserve.
Shortly before 5am on the 21st March 1918, the mighty German force comprising four armies of 27 divisions and supported by the biggest artillery barrage of the war with more than three million shells fired in five hours, fell upon the central Allied position between Arras and St. Quentin held by the British Third & Fifth Armies, in what was known as Operation Michael and the start of the German Spring Offensive, or ‘Kaiserschlacht’. Aided by the foggy conditions the German Stormtroopers were able to penetrate deep into the British lines. By the end of the first day, the British had lost 7,500 dead and 10,000 wounded and the Germans had broken through at several points on the front of the Fifth Army. After two days the Fifth Army was in full retreat. As they fell back, many of the isolated redoubts were left to be surrounded and overwhelmed by the following German infantry. The right wing of Third Army became separated from the retreating Fifth Army, and also retreated to avoid being outflanked.
Within days the ferocity and speed of the German Spring Offensive saw the advancing divisions achieve territory gains on the Western Front not seen since 1914 and the formation of the trench systems that ran the length of the front. News began to come in that the German Army were now fighting in High Wood, within a short distance of Pozieres where two summers previous I Anzac Corps fought its bloodiest battle. In fact the British front was broken with the Fifth Army driven back and the serious danger of the separation of the British and French Armies. The orders coming through to the Australian divisions were now in a tone reflecting the seriousness of the situation and that everything must be done to halt the Germans, and for many, at last, this was the very job for which they had enlisted and gone overseas.
Statements from Alsatian and Polish deserters, a captured flying officer and other prisoners were all pointing to the principal point of attack on the British sector would be between Arras-St.Quentin in the coming days. The troops of the British 3rd & 5th Armies were told to expect an attack on the morning of either 20th or 21st March. However for the men in the front, warnings had been issued before and nothing had happened. In light of the intelligence Haig transferred four of his divisions from the 2nd Army in the north to the 3rd & 5th Armies expected to take the brunt. The triple defence system had been established along the British line, but the sector recently taken over from the French was in the poorest condition. Moreover the Fifth Army’s sector was the widest and most lightly held. For the purposes of harassing the enemy, 700 cylinders containing gas were fired from the AIF 5th Division’s front by a special company of the Royal Engineers. The history of the 226th RIR says that 21 of its men were gassed, nine fatally.
With the expectation of the coming German offensive, the need to build intelligence on where the blow was most likely to fall increased. Patrols were sent out to capture and identify the opposing troops, such as by the 57th & 59th Battalions of the AIF 5th Division, but it was often the attempts by the Germans and the capture of their patrols that supplied the necessary information. Morale in the Australian Corps was high with the expectation that this time, as the defenders, they could do some serious damage to the enemy.
Enemy shelling of the country immediately behind a considerable part of the British front began to noticeably increase. In the Australian Corps sector in Flanders this shelling fell mainly in the Douve Valley and in the battery areas which were bombarded with gas. Large Gotha planes also bombed Bailleul along with German long range guns shelling the town and the dumps and villages behind the lines. This intensity included the use of ‘minnies’ on the front line trenches, and at La Basse Ville, where the 22nd Battalion were holding the front line, 2nd Lieut. Robbins of the 5th/22nd having only just returned with his commission from the Officers Cadet Battalion in England, was killed in action along with three other ranks.
The AIF 2nd Division relieved the AIF 3rd Division and took over the southern section of the Australian Corps front in the vicinity of Ploegsteert, with the 3rd Division retiring to the Reserve in the countryside at Nielles-lez-Blequin not far from Boulogne. With the 18th Battalion on the right flank and the 24th Battalion on the left the 22nd Battalion took up their position in the front line in front of Warneton and La Basse Ville, with the River Lys protecting the right flank. The line was held by a series of posts: two Companies occupying the front, one in support and the fourth in reserve. Patrols were active.