Friday, 23 March 2018

The Beginning of the Spring Offensive

In early March 1918, the new Bolshevik government of Russia signed a treaty with the Central Powers, ending fighting on the Eastern Front. Germany moved its army that had fighting there, to the Western Front, in order to mount a series of large scale attacks. The intention was to destroy the British Army, the only way Germany could see to win the war. They felt that the British Army was in a weakened state after the 1917 Battles of Arras, Messines, Passchendaele, and Cambrai.
Germans gathering at Saint Quentin on 19 March 1918, IWM Non Commercial Licence © IWM (Q 55479)
The area of battle was back at the Somme region, fighting on ground already fought on in 1916, this is where Germany wanted to break though the line. Of the German strategy, The Long Long Trail website writes:
"Their infantry attack would be preceded by an intense barrage concentrated not on the British infantry holding the forward posts, but on the artillery and machine gun positions, headquarters, telephone exchanges, railways and other important centres of communications… When the German infantry attacked, they would operate in small groups, specially trained to “infiltrate” – exploiting gaps and moving forward, not worrying about areas that were held up… For the British, unused to a discontinuous line and the idea of a deep zone of defended hotspots, such a tactic would spell chaos, uncertainty and disaster". 

The offensive would consist of four operations, Michael, Georgette, Gneisenau, and Bl├╝cher-Yorck. For the British Army, it later became officially known as The First Battles of the Somme 1918. The British were expecting an attack in March, but did not know when exactly, their defences were not complete when Operation Michael (or the Battle of Saint Quentin) began on 21 March. 

Many battalions of the Durham Light Infantry (DLI) were involved in the battle, including 2 DLI. Acting Lieutenant Colonel David Lloyd Brereton was in command of the battalion at this time, holding the left sub-sector of the Morchies Section (near Arras and Cambrai), and wrote a narrative of the events of 21 March 1918.

They had been warned of the probability of an attack so “patrols were out throughout the night and the battalion ‘stood to’ at 5am. At that hour, a heavy gas bombardment was opened on to our trenches, especially the Reserve Line”.

B and D Companies were in the Front Line, A and C Companies, and the Battalion Headquarters, were in the reserve.

At 7am, B Company reported that the shelling was getting worse and then the communication wire broke down. Communications with their brigade (18th Brigade) and the 1st Battalion West Yorkshire Regiment (1 West Yorks) in the right subsector were also severed. “About this time I sent two runners (Privates Matthews and Turnbull) to try and find out what was happening in the Front Line; they […] had to pass through a terrific bombardment but they managed to visit both the Company Commanders and to bring back a report that the bombardment had greatly increased and that their casualties were very heavy. I regret that both these runners are amongst the missing. I cannot speak too highly of their gallant behaviour.” 
British prisoners captured in the German breakthrough at St. Quentin arriving at a village south of St. Quentin, March 1918, IWM Non Commercial Licence © IWM (Q 51460)
Colonel Brereton had the Reserve Line in gas masks until 9am, and contacted the Brigade HQ by pigeon. The Front Line had been captured had been captured and the enemy were advancing towards the Reserve Line. They managed to keep the enemy from advancing over the open ground, but they managed to reach the Battalion HQ using bombs. Second Lieutenant McBain mounted a counter attack and took four machine guns and ammunition and returned it to the Reserve Line. Using this, 2 DLI killed many of the approaching enemy, who they later found out to be 3rd Prussian Guard. Whilst the shelling lessened, heavy machine gun fire remained trained on the Reserve Line. 
“About 11 am after the counter attack the Artillery Liaison Officer who was wounded as he came up to join the battalion at 5 am from Lagnicourt attempted to get the anti-tank gun along Leech Avenue into action but found it impossible to do so. This officer was of great assistance to me throughout the day and I do not know whether he got back or not. I regret that I have forgotten his name.”

The Germans were advancing on the left and right flanks of 2 DLI and 1 West Yorks. Both were ordered to retire. However, the enemy still could not cross the open. A company of the 11th Essex Regiment arrived to support 2 DLI, and two companies to 1 West Yorks. The remainder of the latter joined up with 2 DLI about 4:30pm, Lieutenant Colonel Alfred Boyall DSO was in command of 1 West Yorks, and Major Guy Stockdale MC was in command of 11 Essex. The three commanding officers decided it would not possible to retire during daylight “owing to the enemy’s machine guns which were now on three sides of us, and the only thing to be done was to hang on till dusk and then attempt to get back”.

They ran out of bombs whilst there was still an hour to go before dusk. About 7:15pm, a thick mist formed and they took the opportunity to get back to the Corps Line. “The order was given only just in time as five minutes later the whole of the Reserve Line would have been surrounded. I estimate that about 300 all ranks attempted to leave and that probably about 250 reached the Corps Line. These numbers were made up of the different units. Directly the move was made heavy machine gun fire opened on three sides and the Germans followed in great numbers at about 300 yards. There was no chance for anyone who was hit. The majority reached the Corps Line by the copse in front of Morchies.”

The Corps Line did not go untouched, the following day, more men and officers were killed. After the two days of action, only two officers (including Colonel Brereton) and 58 other ranks were unwounded. 

The companies in the front line obeyed their orders to ‘hold on to the last’ but no more was known due to the loss of communications. None returned. 

Writing to a fellow officer on 1 April, Brereton wrote, “I have a fairly good nucleus on which to build up again, as there was a large leave party and several at courses. I have had reinforcements from the other regiments and we shall soon be up to strength again”. He goes on to say, “The battalion I am satisfied has fully upheld the traditions of the old regiment and I am thankful that I have been able to be here now and help in the reorganisation… I have 13 excellent officers with me and several good NCOs [non-commissioned officers] and men with the 1914 Star and the battalion will soon be ready again”.

You can read more about Lieutenant Colonel Brereton and the transcripts of his account and letter on Durham at War:

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