For the Australian Imperial Force the 15,083 losses between 21st March and 7th May 1918 during the German Spring Offensive resulted in the need for re-organisation, something that was dreaded by all, and particularly for the men of the 36th, 47th and 52nd Battalions that were earmarked for disbandment over the coming weeks. For the British, the stream of reinforcements through conscription increased from a trickle to a flood, but mainly with the use of boy soldiers under the age of 19, many of whom were good but still lacked the hardening process and thus thrown headlong straight into some of the hardest fighting of the war.
Having sent French divisions north to help the British, plus the increase in frontage now held as a result of the bulge caused by Operation Michael, General Foch sent a request to Field Marshal Haig for British divisions to help reinforce his armies. It was decided to send four exhausted divisions to the quiet French Champagne sector, and by the middle of May the IX Corps comprising of the 8th, 21st, 25th and 50th Divisions were in the line of the French Sixth Army on a 15 mile front on the River Aisne.
On 25th April the Fourth German Army in Flanders attacked Mount Kemmel and captured it. However, with the German offensive stalled because of logistical problems, exposed flanks, the counterattacks by British, French and Anzac forces which had slowed and stopped the German advance, Ludendorff ended Georgette on the 29th April. Hazebrouck remained in Allied hands and as the British abandoned the comparatively worthless territory they had captured at vast cost the previous year in the Third Battle of Ypres thus freeing several divisions to face the German attackers, the newly occupied land was now a vulnerable salient under fire from the British on three sides. As with Operation Michael, losses were roughly equal on both sides with approximately 110,000 men wounded or killed.
At 4.45am and under a mist an intense German artillery bombardment including gas shells fell on Villers-Bretonneux extending six miles south of Hangard into the French sector. This was not a resumption of the Michael offensive but a localised attack to put pressure on Amiens and create a diversion to the offensive that was taking place in Flanders. The village and its front was held by the 8th British Division, a particularly good British division but which had lost half of its 10,000 infantry in the March offensive. Reinforcements now coming from England included many young fresh-faced soldiers, and in some cases the battalions were more than half manned by boys under the age of nineteen. To the north and rear of the town Brig-Gen. Elliott’s 15th Brigade were in divisional reserve, with the 14th Brigade manning the front to the north of the village. If the village was lost Elliott had already primed his 59th & 60th Battalions for the counter-attack. Around 8am patrols from the two 15th Brigade battalions came across both wounded and non-wounded British troops that the Germans had been attacking with tanks. By 8.35am the 14th Brigade’s 56th Battalion in reserve on Hill 104 could see the village and that the Germans were now holding it and advancing north i.e. around the front of the 14th Brigade, but the position was secured through both the 56th Battalion and a battery of British field artillery firing at point blank range. At about noon the 8th Division began their counter-attacks, the first of which was delivered by three heavy tanks, one ‘male’ and two ‘female’. Heading for the vulnerable Cachy Switch Trench the tanks soon came across at a distance of 300 yards a German tank approaching with two waves of infantry, and two more tanks on either side. The machine-gun carrying ‘female’ tanks were no match and after being fired upon retired leaving tank commander Lieut. Mitchell in his ‘male’ tank, carrying two six-pounder guns, to fight what would become the first tank duel with the leading German tank, manoeuvring to bring first one gun into action and then the other. Eventually Mitchell took the risk of stopping to give the gunner a better platform and at once hit the opposing tank three times causing the crew to abandon and flee (photograph above of the disabled German tank ‘Mephisto’). Seeing this and to his surprise the two other tanks turned and made off. As Mitchell retired after being hit by artillery shell he was passed by seven light ‘Whippet’ tanks speedily coming in to action to clear up the situation in front of Cachy, causing havoc to the German battalions forming up in the open. German artillery and their remaining tanks fired at the whippets putting four out of action, but by now the contemplated attack by the Germans had been foiled. As for the British, the only counter-attack carried out with success by the infantry was by 2nd Royal Berkshire in front of the 14th Brigade’s position on Hill 104. At 9.30am and as soon as General Rawlinson had learnt of the loss of Villers-Bretonneux he ordered the nearest Australian reserve brigade, the 13th Brigade billeted at Querrieu north of the Somme, to march south at once to III Corps to assist in the recapture of Villers-Bretonneux, which as he put it was ‘imperative to the security of Amiens’.
The first attack on the AIF 1st Division’s new front line at Hazebrouck was made shortly after midnight when a Company of Germans came marching up. Holding their fire until they were within twenty yards they were met with withering fire and the attacking survivors panicked and fled. At daylight more Germans were seen massing and marching forward for an attack. The seven brigades of the Royal Field Artillery covering the Australians effectively scattered the attackers, and the Lewis gunners and machine-gunners had rich targets albeit at long ranges of a half mile and more. The waves that got closer were met by rifle fire from the forward posts. With the exception of two posts of the 8th Battalion which were destroyed nowhere else did the Germans reach the Australian posts. Along with the 5th British Division, the Australians had completely stabilised the front between Hazebrouck and St.Venant, and furthermore the British First Army to the south had thrust back the Germans. For the Germans attacking from Merris, the battle of the 14th April was their third day in which they had come against a stubborn defence and the stress was beginning to take its toll, and with this set-back the offensive was suspended to the south and west of Armentieres.
Meanwhile on the Somme the 22nd Battalion returned to the front line at Dernancourt, relieving the 21st Battalion
As the 3rd & 2nd Brigades of the AIF 1st Division were marching to relieve the AIF 3rd Division in the Baizieux and Corbie areas of the Somme, a disturbing message was received at its headquarters that the Germans had attacked the previously quiet sector of the front held by the Portuguese troops between the La Basse canal and Bois Grenier and had penetrated four miles on a ten mile front. They later heard that the front had been extended north of Armentieres which the I Anzac Corps had just left. At 7.30pm came a message countermanding all moves previously laid down for the division and warning it to be prepared to entrain next day for the north. Unbeknown to the Australians at this stage, the Germans had on 9th April 1918 launched their next phase in the Kaiserschlacht – Operation Georgette , or the Battle of the Lys – with with the thrust towards the vital British rail-head at Hazebrouck and gateway to the Channel ports of Calais, Boulogne and Dunkirk. The belts of wire entanglements and concrete strong-points built so diligently by the Australians during the previous winter were overrun in just a few hours.
With the German offensive running out of steam Ludendorff called off Operation Michael on the 5th April and his attentions now moved to the next phase of the offensive. During Operation Michael the Allies lost nearly 255,000 men, 1,300 artillery pieces and 200 tanks, but all of this could be replaced particularly with the American manpower. German troop losses were 239,000 men, many of them specialist Stormtroopers who were irreplaceable. Although achieving significant success and territory gains on the Somme in the first week of their Spring Offensive, the German Army was becoming exhausted, it’s elite units depleted, and it was becoming increasingly difficult to move supplies and artillery forward to support the advance across the wastelands of the 1916 Somme battlefields plus the destruction caused by the Germans themselves during the 1917 withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line. In terms of morale, the initial German jubilation at the successful opening of the offensive soon turned to disappointment, as it became clear that the attack had not achieved decisive results.
General Rawlinson, British Fourth Army Commander later said: “I feel that no mere words of mine can adequately express the renown that they have won for themselves, and for the position they have established for the Australian Nation, not only in France, but throughout the world”. French Prime Minister Clemenceau added: “We knew you would do well: we did not know you would astonish a Continent.”