Wednesday, 21 March 2018

"Kaiserschlacht" 3: Operation Michael 21st March 1918

German Infantry advancing through Saint-Quentin
March 1918
All along the Western Front expectation was high. The much anticipated German offensive was at hand, but where would the first, vital blow land? In estimating the probabilities, both Army Commanders-in-Chief had unwittingly contrived to leave the German chosen sector as their weakest. For Britain Haig was more concerned to protect the Pas de Calais and communications to the Channel ports than the southern end of his line. He was prepared to accept the weak position of Gough’s 5th Army in front of Saint-Quentin to keep his defences stronger in Flanders. Petain was pre-occupied with the danger to Paris of an assault through Champagne, and his vulnerability further to the south east. Although he had reserve Divisions available, as agreed with Haig, to support Gough’s army, they were placed too far south to reach the area rapidly in a crisis – and a crisis was shortly to develop. On 14th and 15th March British aircraft had reported on a concentration of German forces behind Saint-Quentin, so the warning signs were there, but in the eerie calm of 19th and 20th the weather was drizzle and mist and at dusk on 20th a dense fog set in. This enabled 30,000 German troops to infiltrate stealthily to their forward positions less than two miles from the British ‘blue’ line.

Before the term assumed its modern significance, an ‘eleventh hour’ warning of the German attack was issued along the British front at 2am on 21st March. At 4.30am followed an order to move men into position in the Battle (secondary) zone. Scarcely in time, for at 4.45 a devastating German artillery barrage commenced. Accurate fire landed all across the forward and battle zones, but also into the rear areas, up to 20 miles behind the front line. Large amounts of poison gas were added to the barrage. For good measure, a more general artillery attack took place all along the front from the Channel coast to the far south east section. In the fog covering the 3rd and 5th Army positions confusion reigned. Only wireless messages could be communicated, and these were slow and unreliable. Coincident with the opening of the barrage, the elite storm troopers surged forward to the British blue line, and rapidly made their way through to the deeper areas of the Forward Zone (see Previous Post 2/3/2018). As dawn arrived, the thickness of the fog allowed for no improvement in visibility. The fog was hazardous for both sides, but definitely conferred an advantage to the early German spearheads.
The red line shows the 21st March advances, the
orange shows the eventual limit of Germany's advance
Between 8am and 10am the main German infantry moved forward to exploit the holes punched in the British defences. The Tommies were already uncomfortable in their new, distributed, defence mode, compared to their usual ‘hold the line’ mode. Add to that the blanket of fog, with super-added poisonous gas clouds and ceaseless barrage and it is not difficult to understand how defenders were simply overwhelmed in so many places.
By 11am news was filtering through to Divisional HQs of large German incursions – the largest being in the marshy southern end of the 5th Army’s front on the Oise (where trouble had not been expected). Further bad news came from the Bapaume/Cambrai road area; Lagnicourt and Bullecourt in the northern half of the front (see map). At Ronssoy, in the centre, the attackers had broken right through the battle zone. This was very serious news, and such reserves as there were moved in to plug gaps as quickly as conditions allowed.
By early afternoon the fog had lifted, and the Germans were able to launch their planned supporting air attacks, targeting the remaining strong points in the forward zone. Desperate defence, much of it heroic but piecemeal, continued through the afternoon. The risk of a major rupture of the line between 3rd and 5th Armies grew alarmingly.* But the worst news came from south of St. Quentin. The German were well beyond the battle zone, and by evening had reached the Crozat canal (part of the longer Saint-Quentin canal, linking the Rivers Oise and Somme – see map).
At the northern end of the sector, Byng’s 3rd Army was holding hard to its positions. Byng had more men to hold a shorter section of the line, and his defensive positions were better prepared. Heavier casualties were inflicted on the attackers, and the deeper battle zone held firm (in some places only just). Most ground was lost between Demicourt and Croisilles (see map). One result of this (alongside a corresponding loss of ground to the south) was to accentuate the Flesquieres salient, increasing the risk of encirclement of the large number of troops inside it. The salient itself had a relatively quiet day, other than heavy repeated poison gas attacks, leaving its occupants confined and unaware of the major events to the north and south. (Haig finally ordered Byng to withdraw from most of the salient later that night).
As night fell, both sides looked to shore up their positions in preparation for the 22nd. In a tumultuous day, 32 British Divisions had been involved against 64 German, with both sides suffering heavy casualties. Only on the disastrous first day of the Somme did the British have more casualties (49,000) in a single day than on this (38,000). As the attackers, the Germans were prone to heavier casualties, although on this first day the fog had afforded them a good deal of protection. Middlebrook estimates German day 1 casualties of Operation Michael at almost 40,000.
Right along the line the forward zone had been lost. The battle zone rear edge was just about intact along its length, except at the southern end where Gough’s men were authorised to make their stand behind the Crozat canal and its link to the Somme canal. The Royal Engineers moved in to prepare all the bridges for destruction.
As the 22nd March dawned, the heavy fog had returned, frustrating the British artillery’s hopes to stall the next German waves of attack. The beleaguered 5th Army had no relief at all, and stood vulnerable, outnumbered by four to one.

* This was the source of bitter controversy in the blame culture surrounding these events back in London later in 1918 and 1919.

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