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.”
At 5.30am a German bombardment fell on all the villages in the area of Villers-Bretonneux southwards as well as the front line itself signalling an imminent attack. At 7am the whole German line was seen to advance – a resumption of the offensive across a 21 mile front now that the German engineers had laid new railway lines enabling artillery and ammunition to be brought forward – and with the S.O.S. flare fired the British barrage fell upon the advancing infantry and combined with an intense rifle fire sent them to ground. However on the 35th Battalion’s left flank the Germans had broken through the British 14th Division on the north of the Roman Road and began to appear in their rear.
By 11.35am the troops of the AIF 3rd Division north of the Somme spotted German infantry entering the village of Hamel, but although British infantry were retreating the Cavalry in the area performed well to help secure a new defensive position to the north-east of Villers-Bretonneux up to Hill 104 which commanded observation both east over the Germans and west to Amiens. In the afternoon the Germans broke through the British to the south of the 9th Brigade. This event caused consternation at headquarters and the 36th Battalion was ordered to counter-attack. Moving at a jog-trot the 36th quickly passed the crest of the hill and came in view of the advancing Germans, who at once hesitated and turned back into the wood. Meanwhile on the Roman road the 33rd Battalion leapt at the chance of counter-attacking with the Cavalry with their swords and lances drawn, while at the same time three cars of a Canadian motor machine-gun battery lent by the IX Corps roared into action.
The German offensive of the 4th April, though it had failed in its objective, had driven back the British Fourth Army on its whole front and at some points for nearly two miles. To the south the French had too been forced back but with reinforcements arriving the danger was probably less than at Villers-Bretonneux. The defence of Villers-Bretonneux predominately by the 3rd Cavalry Division and the 9th Brigade, who lost 30 officers and 635 men during this period, had a major influence on the outcome of the spring campaign in this area. A continuous line, albeit a thin one had been re-established north as well as south of the railway. Meanwhile the 5th Brigade having just arrived from Flanders with the rest of the AIF 2nd Division was detached from its sister brigades and assigned to hold the reserve line (known as the Aubigny Line) behind the northern flank of the Fourth Army and with the 8th Brigade now also in reserve General Rawlinson was feeling happier about keeping the Germans out of Amiens.
The New Zealand Division on the right at Hebuterne made a sharp minor attack on a 1,200 yard frontage to secure the higher ground in front of its centre and in the process captured 230 prisoners and 110 heavy and light machine-guns and the news of this came as a great tonic to the whole of the British Army during these difficult days.
To the south a German bombardment opened up south of the Somme and on the AIF 3rd Division holding the Ancre-Somme spur, accompanied by German aeroplanes swarming overhead. The Germans were spotted deploying for the attack but even despite being a distance away were met with intense fire leading to confusion in the attackers ranks. No Germans were able to get within 300 yards of the 44th Battalion’s outpost line. To their left the 40th Battalion on the hill crest were also able to pour heavy fire into the advancing Germans who were soon stopped. Several hundred men tried to take shelter on the Somme flats but the artillery was soon brought to bear upon this group. By 4pm the only visible movement in most of the enemy’s area was that of the stretcher-bearers working among the wounded. That day the 11th Brigade lost some 150 casualties, though the enemy’s was far greater. Actual German losses are difficult to verify – some Australian’s including General Monash – put the number of killed as 3,000. This is likely to be widely exaggerated but the historian of the German 8th I.R. that was involved in the attack stated the attack ‘was a miscarriage such as the division had never before suffered…. Spirit sank to zero…. Was this the end? …Was the offensive beyond our strength?’ During the night the remainder of the Australian 3rd Division’s Artillery came into the line, and with the British 35th Division relieved by the 13th Brigade of the AIF 4th Division the front between Albert and the river Somme was now held by two Australian divisions, each of two brigades with their third still under temporary deployment elsewhere on the front. At least for the present the British front line north of the Somme was fairly secure. Furthermore the preparations for the continuance of the advance were hampered by the wet and the lack of railway communications across the old Somme battlefields. After consultations regarding the sufficiency of ammunition Ludendorff ordered a postponement to the offensive for several days.
To the south of the Somme, the 33rd Battalion of the 9th Brigade was ordered to mount a counter-attack and with a cycle unit and the cavalry of the 12th Lancers moved forward passing stragglers that had been in the front moving to the rear. The attack began at 5pm through the surrounding woods in the direction of Aubercourt, with the cavalry driving the forward elements of the enemy back enabling the 33rd to get in position to mount the main attack. As the 33rd Battalion advanced, without artillery, they soon encountered the new German front line on the crest of the ridge where machine-guns were able to enfilade into the attackers. This action was only partially successful in its territorial gains and came at a cost of 200 casualties, but it did have the desired effect of giving a morale boost to the British troops that had hitherto been on the retreat and at the same time to diminish the morale of the enemy. Also that day the 35th Battalion were brought forward to man the defence line, of some 2,800 yards in length, immediately to the south and west of the vital town of Villers-Bretonneux. Although long in length, the recovery of abandoned Lewis Guns and panniers resulted in a total of 30 Lewis and Vickers machine-guns to give a formidable defensive fire-power. Being flat countryside and bereft of wire entanglements the men in the forward outposts were ordered to dig deep, and keep low and out of sight.
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.