Western Front: 1918

poppy-218th July 1918: The German failure to break through, or to destroy the Allied armies in the field at the Marne, allowed Ferdinand Foch, the Allied Supreme Commander, to proceed with the planned major counter offensive. 24 French divisions, including the American 92nd and 93rd Infantry Divisions under French command, joined by other Allied troops, including eight large American divisions under American command and 350 tanks attacked the recently formed German salient.

2nd_marne15th July 1918: German commander Ludendorff launched what would be the last German offensive of the First World War against the French either side of Reims in the Second Battle of the Marne. The attack was designed as a major diversion to draw troops away from Flanders for what would be Ludendorff’s main objective, a decisive victory over the British, for defeating the Allies.

12th July 1918: Marshal Foch wrote to Field Marshall Haig requesting for an early British offensive. Recent minor operations had shown the Germans were now manning their forward positions with tired, under-strength or poor quality units, with the stronger better troops in the rear for offensive operations. This now gave an opportunity of launching a surprise offensive and to make deep in-roads into the German lines.

le-hamel4th July 1918: Using aircraft, artillery, and armour in effective combination with infantry, the Hamel attack mounted by Australian Corps Commander Lieutenant General Monash was over in the space of 93 minutes – just three minutes over schedule – having achieved its objective of straightening the allied line and taking the town of Hamel. The Australian Corps advanced the line by two kilometres across a 6.5-kilometre front and captured 1,600 prisoners, 200 machine guns, trench mortars, and anti-tank weapons. The Australians suffered 1,204 casualties. This battle demonstrated the value of carefully planned, integrated battles with limited objectives. For the first time, Australian troops worked alongside American troops.

llandoverycastle-127th June 1918: One of the more controversial events during the Great War was the sinking of the Canadian Hospital Ship Llandovery Castle by a German submarine, U-86, off the coast of Southern Ireland. Launched in September 1913 the Llandovery Castle (photograph right before commisioned as a Hospital Ship) was requisitioned in 1916 and was used to transport the 22nd Battalion from Alexandria to Marseille in March 1916 as the AIF moved from Egypt to France for the fighting on the Western Front. She was commissioned as a hospital ship on 26th July 1916, and assigned to the Canadian Forces, equipped with 622 beds and a medical staff of 102.

The ship was returning to England after having brought Canadian casualties back to Halifax, Nova Scotia. Being a Hospital Ship, it was clearly identified as such with a brightly illuminated Red Cross, was unarmed and running with full lights. On board, the crew consisted of one hundred and sixty-four men, eighty officers and men of the Canadian Medical Corps, and fourteen nurses, a total of two hundred and fifty-eight persons. The Llandovery Castle was struck by torpedo at night, and despite difficulty the crew and medical staff were able to get into a number of lifeboats before she sank, and they started to pick up survivors in the water. The submarine came up and interrupted the recovery and went alongside the Captain’s lifeboat. The U-boat commander took Captain Sylvester on board and started questioning him along with a Canadian Medical Officer in the belief that the ship had eight American Flying Officers on board. This was denied and the Captain and Medical Officer were allowed back into the lifeboat. However with most of the U-boat crew now below deck in preparation for diving, orders were given to open fire on the lifeboats to destroy the evidence of the torpedoing. Only one lifeboat survived the attack. It was picked up by the destroyer Lysander on the morning of 29th June, 36 hours after the attack. Just twenty four Victory_bonds_(Llandovery_Castle)people survived the attack on the lifeboats, including six members of the Canadian Army Medical Corps. All 14 Nursing Sisters on board lost their lives. For the Canadians this was the most significant naval disaster in the war, and given the status of the ship and the medical crew on board was met with outrage. After the war, the British initiated a War Crimes trial against the officers of U-86. The commander, Helmut Patzig could not be found and was never brought to trial. The two other officers, Ludwig Dithmar and John Boldt were tried and convicted. The men were sentenced to 4 years of hard labour, but escaped while underway to the prison. It is unclear if they were ever recaptured.

15th June 1918: The second Battle of the Piave River, Italy, opens with a massive offensive by the Austro-Hungarian Army. Italian and British troops first hold and then push back the attackers. Despite heavy losses the Allies destroy the Austro-Hungarian Army, precipitating the collapse of the Empire.

11th June 1918: At Compiegne a sudden French counter-attack by four divisions and 150 tanks with no preliminary bombardment, caught the Germans by surprise and halted their advance. Gneisenau was called off two days later, and losses were approximately 35,000 Allied and 30,000 German. 

Matz9th June 1918: Ludendorff sought to extend Blücher-Yorck westward with Operation Gneisenau, the last of the four great operations in the Kaiserschlacht, intending to draw yet more Allied reserves south, widen the German salient and link with the German salient to the north at Amiens. The French had been warned of this attack by information from German prisoners, and their defence in depth reduced the impact of the opening artillery bombardment. Nonetheless, the German advance consisting of 21 divisions attacking over a 23 miles front along the Matz River was impressive, resulting in gains of 9 miles despite fierce French and American resistance.

Aisne 1918 map27th May 1918: Operation Blucher-York, the Third Battle of the Aisne. At 1am a tremendous German bombardment fell on the whole of the Soissons-Reims front, including a crushing onslaught on the forward lines by trench mortars. The sector was partly held by five depleted British divisions – 8th, 19th (Western), 21st, 25th & 50th – which were ‘resting’ after their exertions earlier in the year. At 3.40am the Germans attacked in what was the third major campaign of the German Spring Offensive. By midday the Germans had reached the River Aisne – some five miles behind the Allied line. During the afternoon the second line between the Aisne and the Vesle Rivers was lost by both corps, and before nightfall the Germans were across the Vesle, beginning to outflank the French at Reims. The Germans in the centre had penetrated 12 miles, and by the third night as in 1914 the River Marne and then Paris (50 miles away) were becoming threatened. Petain and Clemenceau were convinced that the earlier attacks in the Spring Offensive Battle-of-Aisnewere merely designed to draw French reserves away to help the British in the north, and now Paris was vulnerable. Or was it just another feint to draw French resources away and for the Germans to renew their attack on the British and drive them to the sea? Foch believed it was the latter and was cautious in withdrawing his reserves in the north to the Marne.

26th May 1918: French staff were startled that statements from two German prisoners indicated that a massive attack was going to take place on the Chemin des Dames in the coming days. Headquarters of the British IX Corps and French XI Corps were warned at about 4pm. Local reserves were brought up and the British artillery opened up in ‘counter-preparation’.

16th 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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