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.
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.
The new Bolshevik Government of Soviet Russia agreed to peace with Germany in the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. The harsh German terms included ceding control of the Baltic States and Poland to Germany plus the province of Kars Oblast in the South Caucasus to the Ottoman Empire, and recognised the independence of Ukraine. Historians believe that Lenin was willing to give up vast tracts of land with great economic wealth in order to concentrate on dealing with problems in the main part of Russia following the revolution and dealing with the White Russians.
At dark on the morning of 26th February, the Glenart Castle was leaving Newport in the Bristol Channel heading towards Brest, France, when despite being lit as a hospital ship she was hit by a torpedo. The blast destroyed most of the lifeboats, while the subsequent pitch of the vessel hindered attempts to launch the remaining boats. In the eight minutes the ship took to sink, only seven lifeboats were launched, and the rough seas with inexperienced rowers swamped most of the boats. Only a few survivors were reported and 162 people were killed including the Captain Bernard Burt, eight nurses, seven Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) medical officers and 47 medical orderlies. Evidence later found suggested that the submarine may have shot at initial survivors of the sinking in an effort to cover up the sinking of Glenart Castle. After the war, the British Admiralty sought the captains of U-Boats who sank hospital ships, in order to charge them with war crimes. Kapitänleutnant Wilhelm Kiesewetter — the commander of UC-56 — was arrested after the war on his voyage back to Germany and interned in the Tower of London. He was released on the grounds that Britain had no right to hold a detainee during the Armistice.
Air reconnaissance and other intelligence picked up signs of a new German Army HQ being established between Arras and St.Quentin. By then GHQ estimated that the German forces in the West had grown to 181 divisions, and during the following fortnight signs of a pending attack became increasingly evident.