THE GERMAN OFFENSIVE MARCH 1918

 

The winter of 1917-1918 gave the New Zealand Division some time to recover from the mauling it had received in the ill-fated Battle of Passchendaele. In its winter quarters, the Division continued the process of integrating the reinforcements into devastated battalions and its commanders attempted to restore morale shattered by the reality of the Division's first defeat. Facing them was the prospect of another year's hard fighting, with the only bright spot being the imminent arrival of American troops in Europe to help defeat the Germans.

The Germans were well aware of the long term threat that the American soldiers posed. Although the Americans would be inexperienced compared with other Allied units, their competence and numbers would only grow. While German forces in the West had been boosted by the arrival of units from the collapsed Eastern Front, their army had been weakened by battles of attrition with Allied forces. Shortages caused by the British naval blockage and political unrest within Germany placed pressure on the Germans to end the war before the Americans arrived in sufficient force to decide the issue. Thus the Germans prepared to move from the defensive to the offensive, and began to plan a massive final offensive aimed at bringing the war to an end. This was a huge gamble. Should the offensive fail, this opened the prospect of more open warfare rather than the siege warfare of the trenches.

At dawn on 21 March 1918, the Germans unleashed a huge barrage of artillery fire on British positions on the Western Front, primarily concentrating on areas around the Somme . This was the beginning of the “Kaiserschlacht” – the “Kaiser's Battle ” which, it was hoped, would end the war before the arrival of the Americans in substantial numbers. The main German offensive in the Somme was code-named “Operation Michael”, and initially had stunning success. Many of the areas chosen for the assault were lightly held, and the British defenders lacked the ability to hold this offensive. The British Third and Fifth Armies lost 38,000 casualties and hundreds of its guns in this assault, and many units began to retreat. For a short period of time, there was a fear that the whole of the Allied Western Front would collapse. Suddenly, years of dour siege warfare had ended, and a more open war of manoeuvre had begun.

The Germans had studied the British tactics used in the offensives of 1917. They realised that the key to successful offensives was firstly, the quality of the artillery barrage, then the use of automatic weapons employed by infantry in the “fire and manoeuvre” tactics, supported by light trench mortars and flamethrowers. The Germans augmented this technology with the tactical development of Sturmabteilung , or elite storm troops, who would press forward, avoiding strongholds (which would be left to following regular infantry), and to threaten the enemy artillery further to the rear. The regular infantry's role was to mop up the bypassed positions, and then the trenches seized would be held by troops of lesser quality. Such tactics depended on constant reinforcement and supply, as well as the element of tactical surprise. The sudden success of Operation Michael had caught the British unawares. It drew on its reserves to try to halt the remarkable advances being made by the Germans. The New Zealand Division, along with Australians divisions, was ordered to halt the Germans in their drive towards the important French city of Amiens.

On 23 March, the New Zealand Division began a long slog to the area of the Somme around the Ancre River , close to where they had fought in 1916. Within three days, the Division was involved in a desperate battle with the Australians to halt the seemingly unstoppable German advance and save Amiens. While the Division was on the march, orders changed according to the deteriorating military situation near Amiens . The New Zealand Division was placed under the control of Lieutenant-General Harper's IV Corps. It was to move through the village of Mailly-Maillet to a line between the villages of Hamel and Serre, take up positions in old 1916 trenches and try to hold the German advance there. The initial journey was by train, then by trucks (a novel experience for many troops) and finally by forced march to the battle area. On the way they met retreating British soldiers, which caused some New Zealanders to comment caustically about the fighting abilities of the British soldier. They also encountered French refugees fleeing the fighting, which some found upsetting. There are some reports of refugees halting flight when they recognised Australian and New Zealand troops, which have led to an exaggerated impression that these forces were solely responsible for defeating Operation Michael. This is, of course, a myth, but with a kernel of truth. Both Australian and New Zealand Divisions had earned the reputation as elite troops and their performance over the next two weeks was to demonstrate how well-deserved this status was.

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Halting the German Advance

The first New Zealand unit to arrive was the 1st Battalion of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade (1st Rifles). It was followed by Auckland and Canterbury battalions, and two machine gun companies. Russell hurriedly formed them into two brigades and moved them into a gap between Puisieux and Hamel, close to 1916 trenches. They had only the weapons they carried, as no artillery support was available. They were facing troops that were confident and successful, and if Amiens was to be saved, this gap had to be closed. Glyn Harper summarised the situation early in the morning of 26 March thus:

“All told, it was a very risky prospect as General Russell well recognised. ‘The Division came on in the nick of time. There was a big gap and by dint of hard marching we managed to fill it in time … I was not sure we were in for a catastrophe.' ”

The first contact with the Germans was made with units of the 1st Rifles at about 11.00 a.m. They had secured the key Auchonvillers Ridge, linked up with units of the British 12th Division near Hamel and were pushing northwards towards Serre. Here a company encountered much larger numbers of Germans and a sustained firefight developed near a sugar factory by some crossroads between Auchonvillers and Serre. Although this company was nearly overrun, reinforcements in the form of a company from one of the two Canterbury battalions arrived mid-afternoon and helped to secure this left flank of the New Zealand line. The other companies helped to occupy the ridge line from Hamel in the south to Beaumont-Hamel further northwest. From this ridge, they had a good view of the German forces massing to attack them. They were able to occupy and strengthen the 1916 trenches and spent the night of 26 March relatively unmolested by the Germans.

The First Brigade, consisting of the 1st and 2nd Auckland Battalions, was sent to re-take the village of Colincamps. As it moved to do so, it came under strong attack near the sugar factory on the Serre Road. Two determined bayonet charges cleared the immediate area, but the Aucklanders were still exposed. To secure this flank, they attacked again at dusk and cleared the German positions at bayonet-point. This enabled them to link with the Canterbury battalion on their right flank to command the higher ground. In the meantime, light Whippet tanks had cleared the village of Colincamps and the New Zealand rear was now secured. The New Zealanders spent a cold night in the trenches waiting to see what would transpire the next day.

The gap that the Division had been sent to close had been narrowed, but was not yet fully blocked. It had not yet linked up with the Australians further north in Hebuterne and its left flank near Le Signy farm was overlooked by Germans on the higher ground. This gap needed to be closed by troops from the New Zealand Division that had not yet been committed to the struggle. These units, a mixture of 3rd Rifle Brigade and Wellington and Otago battalions, were formed into a composite Third Brigade under Lieutenant Colonel A.E. Stewart. They advanced through Colincamps, and then came under heavy machine gun fire. Despite this, the composite brigade advanced up the ridge line, drove out the German defenders and linked up with New Zealand units near Le Signy farm on their right, and the Australians at Hebuterne on their left. By 7.00 a.m. on 27 March, the gap had now been closed; it would need to be held against the inevitable German attack. Holding this high ground enabled the New Zealanders to see the massing German forces below them in the Ancre valley.

Apparently the Germans were unaware that this gap had been closed. When they advanced in columns down the Serre road, the New Zealanders allowed them to get close before opening up a devastating enfilade of rifle and machine gun fire. Ormond Burton described this terrible moment.

“In a second, the parapet was lined with excited men firing magazine after magazine. Such an opportunity had not come to most of them during the whole war. The self-confidence of the enemy was rudely checked, but still they came on … Along the line the ascendancy rapidly passed to the New Zealanders who, although the German line was in places packed with men, showed themselves freely, came right up on the parapet and shot and shot at every movement.”

The Germans made a number of efforts to shoulder the New Zealanders aside, but each attack failed. Four counter-attacks were launched in the afternoon of 27 March, but all were held. It was probably during one of these attacks that William Clarkson was killed. Murray Morris recalled these attacks more than seventy years later. “The Germans came over three times the next day in close formation and they (the New Zealanders) just wiped them down. And they sent another lot and they got wiped down just the same. Just wiped them down. Terrible.” Although there were parts of the New Zealand line where the situation was more precarious, the Germans failed to achieve a breakthrough. Because the New Zealanders could not be supported by artillery, the German attacks were broken by the work of the machine gun companies. German casualties numbered in their thousands; the New Zealand casualties less than 300.

Meal time in a front line trench near Le Signy Farm within 200 metres of the Germans. (H468, Kippenberger Military Archive)

The night of 27-28 March gave the men a respite from the fighting and Russell the opportunity to reorganise his units and replace those who had experienced the hard fighting with reserves. During that night, reserve trenches were dug to provide greater depth in the defensive line. Further support arrived in the form of the New Zealand artillery, and when dawn came on 28 March, they registered their guns on German targets and began firing. The Germans launched further attacks in an effort to dislodge the New Zealanders, but the combined effect of artillery and machine gun fire repulsed these attacks. The success of resistance across the front buoyed the Allied morale, while German morale tumbled in the face of mounting casualties.

However, the New Zealanders had to contend with pouring rain and relied on hard rations overnight before facing renewed German pressure. An attempt by the 4th Rifles to improve the situation at Le Signy farm resulted in a number of casualties, including William Vague and Frederick Phillis. A larger scale attack the next day, Easter Sunday, finally seized the farm after stiff fighting. 300 Germans were killed and a similar number taken prisoner. Capturing Le Signy farm deprived the Germans of an ability to overlook New Zealand positions. Its success provided encouragement for other Allied units and strengthened the whole of the New Zealand line.

A quiet period then developed while Ludendorff prepared a fresh attempt to seize Amiens . This was welcomed by the New Zealanders as an opportunity to continue to strengthen their position. The usual patrols were sent out and sniping continued, a pattern reflecting a resumption of trench warfare. However, many of the units that had experienced the heaviest fighting had the chance to rest and recuperate. Reinforcements were brought up, though they found the introduction to the realities of trench warfare, with poor food in cold, wet trenches somewhat of a trial. On 4 April, the Germans launched another attack south of the New Zealand positions, but after initial advances were held near Hamel. They then decided to attack elsewhere.

As part of a wider German thrust west of Amiens , the Germans aimed to seize the village of Colincamps , west of Le Signy Farm. Information from captured material and prisoners gave prior warning of this intention. At 5.00 a.m. on 5 April, the Germans unleashed a sustained artillery barrage, which caused relatively light casualties. There were contrasting responses to this artillery barrage. Murray Morris, as part of his recollections of the 1918 Somme battles, remarked that “they (the Germans) bombed that place where we were for twelve hours, never stopped. It's a wonder we lived through it.” Harry Highet's memory of being under shellfire at this time was different. “We were under shellfire a lot. I recall picking up a book, a novel, and I sat reading this novel while about a twenty minute-half hour ‘hate' was going on. Little narrow slit trench, pretty safe, hard to hit a man in a slit trench.” This shelling was the precursor to a series of infantry attacks launched against the 4th Rifles' position at Le Signy farm and sections to the right of the line held by Canterbury battalions. The attack was repulsed, and another one at 2.00pm was driven off relatively easily.

The failure of the wider German offensive of 5 April ended any chance of success for Operation Michael, and with it, any chance that the Germans could now win the war. Although they had begun the offensive with considerable success, the introduction of fresh reserves, including the New Zealand Division, blunted then halted the German advance. The New Zealand Division was not solely responsible for this, but its swift action on 26-27 March in closing and holding the gap in the British line west of Amiens , and then surviving the German counter-attack on 5 April, was critical in ensuring that the Germans did not break through.

 

Further Reading

Burton O.E. The Silent Division, Angus and Robertson, 1935

Harper Glyn, Spring Offensive: New Zealand and the Second Battle of the Somme , Harper Collins, 2003.

Pugsley Christopher, The Anzac Experience: New Zealand , Australia and Empire in the First World War, Reed, 2004

Stewart H. The New Zealand Division 1916-1919, Whitcombe and Tombs, 1921