On this day – The German Spring Offensive begins – 21 March 1918

British Troops moving up

On this day one hundred years ago the Germans launched Operation Michael, part of the Kaiserschlacht (Kaiser’s Battle).

Kaiser with Ludendorff

Also known as the Spring Offensive it was actually a series of attacks along the Western Front between March and June 1918 during the First World War and marked the deepest advances made by German forces since 1914.

The surrender of the Russians as a result of the signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk at the beginning of March 1918 allowed Germany to move nearly 50 Divisions from the Eastern Front to the Western Front as they realised that their only remaining chance of victory was to defeat the Allies before the arrival of large numbers of American soldiers in France. The Spring Offensive actually consisted of four different operations codenamed Michael, Georgette, Gneisenau, and Blücher-Yorck.

Operation Michael was the main attack intended to break through the Allied lines then outflank and defeat British forces holding the front from the Somme River to the English Channel. Once this was achieved, it was hoped that the French would seek terms for an armistice. The other offensives were subsidiary to Operation Michael and were designed to divert Allied forces away from the main offensive on the Somme.

German Spring Offensive Map Use this One

No clear German objective was established before the start of the Spring Offensive and they changed constantly as the tactical situation developed. In contrast, the Allies concentrated their forces to defend critical areas like the vital rail junction at Amiens and the approaches to the Channel Ports leaving other areas lightly defended.

Panoramic attack

The Germans were unable to move supplies and reinforcements fast enough to maintain their advance and each offensive subsequently petered out. By late April 1918, the danger of a breakthrough had passed with the German army suffering heavy casualties and now occupying ground that would prove impossible to hold.

Haig 2

At the height of the fighting in early April where the outcome was in the balance, Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig (shown above), Commander in Chief (CINC) of the British Army in France issued his famous ‘Backs to the Wall’ special Order of the Day (shown below):

‘There is no other course open to us but to fight it out. Every position must be held to the last man: there must be no retirement. With our backs to the wall and believing in the justice of our cause each one of us must fight on to the end. The safety of our homes and the freedom of mankind alike depend upon the conduct of each one of us at this critical moment.’

Special Order of the Day

In August 1918, the Allied counter-offensive began with the support of almost two million American soldiers. The ‘Hundred Days’ Offensive resulted in the Germans retreating or being driven from all of the ground taken in the Spring Offensive, the collapse of the Hindenburg Line and the capitulation of the German Empire, resulting in the Armistice on 11 November 1918.

8 August 1918

You can find out more about the German Spring Offensive here: https://www.nam.ac.uk/explore/1918-victory

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War Poetry – ‘Aftermath’ by Siegfried Sassoon CBE, MC (1919)*

sassoon-1380b

“Have you forgotten yet?…
For the world’s events have rumbled on since those gagged days,
Like traffic checked while at the crossing of city-ways:
And the haunted gap in your mind has filled with thoughts that flow
Like clouds in the lit heaven of life; and you’re a man reprieved to go,
Taking your peaceful share of Time, with joy to spare.
But the past is just the same–and War’s a bloody game…
Have you forgotten yet?…
Look down, and swear by the slain of the War that you’ll never forget.

Do you remember the dark months you held the sector at Mametz–
The nights you watched and wired and dug and piled sandbags on parapets?
Do you remember the rats; and the stench
Of corpses rotting in front of the front-line trench–
And dawn coming, dirty-white, and chill with a hopeless rain?
Do you ever stop and ask, ‘Is it all going to happen again?’

Do you remember that hour of din before the attack–
And the anger, the blind compassion that seized and shook you then
As you peered at the doomed and haggard faces of your men?
Do you remember the stretcher-cases lurching back
With dying eyes and lolling heads–those ashen-grey
Masks of the lads who once were keen and kind and gay?

Have you forgotten yet?…
Look up, and swear by the green of the spring that you’ll never forget.”

At the centenary commemorations of the Battle of the Somme in 2016 the actor Charles Dance gave a beautiful rendition of this poem. You can view it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Ks-x5Dfj5k

*this poem was very popular in the 1920s and often formed part of Remembrance services held throughout Britain and her Dominions.

Great Reads – ‘Somme Mud’ by Edward Lynch (2006)

Somme Mud by E.P.F.Lynch

I picked this book up off an eBay seller last week, following a recommendation from Lambis Englezos AM, who was instrumental in finding the lost Australian soldiers buried in mass graves at Fromelles in France in 2008. I met Lambis at a recent event on the Centenary of the Battle of Beersheba run by Military History & Heritage Victoria (MH&HV).

‘Somme Mud’ tells of the devastating experiences of Edward Lynch, an 18 year old Private soldier during the First World War when he served with the 45th Battalion AIF on the Western Front.

I will read it over Christmas and let you know what I think of the book in the new year.

 

 

Great Battles – ‘I died in hell – (They called it Passchendaele)’* – The Centenary of the Third Battle of Ypres

Friday 10 November 2017 marks the centenary of the end of the Third Battle of Ypres, more commonly referred to as ‘Passchendaele’.

The Third Battle of Ypres was the major British offensive in Flanders in 1917. It was planned to break through the strongly fortified and in-depth German defences enclosing the Ypres salient, a protruding bulge in the British front line, with the intention of sweeping through to the German submarine bases on the Belgian coast. The battle comprised of a series of limited and costly offensives, often undertaken in the most difficult of waterlogged conditions – a consequence of frequent periods of rain and the destruction of the Flanders’ lowlands drainage systems by intense artillery bombardment. As the opportunity for breakthrough receded, Sir Douglas Haig still saw virtue in maintaining the offensives, hoping in the process to drain German manpower through attrition. The main battles associated with Third Battle of Ypres were:

– Pilckem, 31 July to 2 August
– Langemarck, 16-18 August
– Menin Road, 20-25 September
– Polygon Wood, 26 September to 3 October
– Broodseinde, 4 October
– Poelcapelle, 9 October
– Passchendaele (First Battle), 12 October
– Passchendaele (Second Battle), 26 October to 10 November.

Australian Divisions participated in the battles of Menin Road, Polygon Wood, Broodseinde, Poelcapelle and the First Battle of Passchendaele. In eight weeks of fighting Australian forces incurred 38,000 casualties. The combined total of British and Dominion casualties has been estimated at 310,000 (estimated German losses were slightly lower) and no breakthrough was achieved. The costly offensives, ending with the capture of Passchendaele village, merely widened the Ypres salient by a few kilometres.

* Taken from Siegfried Sassoon’s poem ‘Memorial Tablet’ written by him in October 1918 and first published the following year.

 

 

War Poetry – ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’* (Wilfred Owen)

Wilfed Owen

“Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,

Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,

Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,

And towards our distant rest began to trudge.

Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,

But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;

Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots

Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

 

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling

Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,

But someone still was yelling out and stumbling

And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—

Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,

As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

 

In all my dreams before my helpless sight,

He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

 

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace

Behind the wagon that we flung him in,

And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,

His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood

Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,

Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud

Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest

To children ardent for some desperate glory,

The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est 

Pro patria mori.”

* Latin phrase is from the Roman poet Horace meaning “it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country”.

Wilfred Owen’s poem was published posthumously in 1920, two years after he was Killed in Action in Northern France, one week before the Armistice in November 1918.