Western Front: 1918

poppy-216th May 1918: In the middle of May Allied Supreme Commander Marshal Foch asked for Field Marshal Haig’s co-operation in a joint Anglo-French offensive should the enemy delay further in resuming their own offensive. The plan was for a pincer attack across the German salient on the Somme caused by Operation Michael, with General Rawlinson’s reformed British Fourth Army along with the left flank of the French Tenth Army being the left arm of the pincer. The French Third Army further south would be the right arm of the attack. In studying Foch’s proposal Haig already had the idea of sending Rawlinson the three Canadian divisions currently in reserve at Arras to make up the British forces alongside the Australians and III Corps. During the meeting Haig urged Foch not to write his plan nor allow the French commanders to talk about it, stating that the success will depend mainly on secrecy.   

30th April 1918: 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, Marshal 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.

29th April 1918:  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.

24th April 1918: German troops successfully captured Villers-Bretonneux – the last major village before Amiens and an important railhead to Paris. As the Germans had stretched their supply lines in the great advance of Operation Michael, it was deemed important for allied troops to regain control of the village. Australia’s 13th Brigade of the 4th Division and 15th Brigade of the 5th Division launched a counter-attack and were able to wrest control of the village from the Germans. The successful counter-attack cost the two brigades 1,469 casualties.

Lys_offensive_19189th April 1918: Ludendorff and the German Army 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.

5th April 1918: With the German offensive running out of steam Ludendorff (picture below) 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 LuddendorfArmy 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.”

Arras Flying Memorial1st April 1918: The formation of the Royal Air Force through the amalgamation of the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Navy Air Service. [Photograph of the Arras Flying Services Memorial which commemorates the 990 British casualties who died on active service on the Western Front in France and in Belgium and who have no known grave.]

28th March 1918: Ludendorff launched a hastily prepared attack (Operation Mars) against the left wing of the British Third Army at Arras, to try to widen the breach in the Allied lines, but was repulsed.

Rawlinson27th March 1918: With the apparent collapse of the British Fifth Army on the Somme the decision was made to re-form the Fourth Army, again under the command of General Sir Henry Rawlinson (photograph right). The British Fourth Army would become the flank British Army in contact with the French on the Somme, and with the Australian Corps acting as the south flank.

21st March 1918: The German Spring Offensive – 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.

ww1_kaiser_michael_mapWithin 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. [Map courtesy of Webmatters -click on image for detail.] 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.

Treaty of Brest Litovsk3rd March 1918: 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.

hs_glenart_castle26th February 1918: 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.

Operation Michael25th February 1918: 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.

16th 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 Field Marshall Haig felt that the main blow would come against the French to the south, but told his Army commanders to 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 and therefore less suitable much later than to the south.

31st January 1918: The build-up of American troops in Europe was progressing slower than expected. Conscription meant that men had to be trained, but the main issue was the insufficient number of transports available to ship the men across. By the end of January only four American divisions had arrived.

14th January 1918: The British began to extend its front southwards taking over from the French, first to St.Quentin and then by the end of the month to Barisis. Field Marshall Haig now had 125 miles to defend with 57 divisions, but these were much weaker than before. Intelligence estimated that Germans were transferring between 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 3rd and 5th Armies from Arras to Peronne. But similar reports were coming in opposite the British 2nd Army on the Lys, and also on the French front in WilsonChampagne near Rheims.

8th January 1918: US President Wilson (photograph right) published his ‘Fourteen Points’ which must be conceded by Germany before the US could think of peace. With one exception they were the same as British Prime Minister Lloyd George’s and although not all agreed by the French they became recognised as the general basis upon which the Allies would consent to negotiate. 

4th January 1918: The Hospital Ship Rewa was returning to Britain HS Rewafrom Malta with 279 wounded officers aboard. Neutral inspectors from Spain had boarded the ship in Gibraltar to confirm that she had no military function. At 11:15, she was hit by a torpedo 19 miles off Hartland Point, Devon. The ship took around two hours to sink, allowing all wounded and ship’s crew to board lifeboats except for the four engine men who died in the initial explosion.


Events Archive 1917

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