Chapter Five

1918

Following a tour of the front and a series of staff conferences, on 21 January Ludendorff selected Operations Michael and Mars for the Spring offensive; preparations began immediately.

‘After selecting the divisions and assembling the material available for the attack, it was decided to strike between Croiselles, south-east of Arras, and Moeuvres, and, omitting the Cambrai re-entrant, between Villers-Guislain and the Oise, south of St. Quentin.’ Arras was not to be involved in the initial phase of the Kaiserschlacht.

Army territorial boundary changes saw the arrival of a new army on the front. 17 Army, formerly 14 Army in Italy, commanded by General von Below was put in between and 6 Armies opposite Arras. The boundary between and 17 Armies was half way between Arras and Lens, that between and 17 Armies was at Moeuvres. With 17 Army making an attack on the line Croiselles-Moeuvres, this left a large section of the Arras front to be defended by 6 Army. The possibility of broadening the attack was anticipated and feints and preparations for further attacks were made between Ypres and Lens.

A view the British censor would never have allowed to be sent home.

With an attack pending on the western front the best troops from the eastern front were replaced by the worst from the west. Here officers pose on a train bound for the western front.

‘By the day of the attack the British positions would be faced by over 31/2 million soldiers, forming 194 divisions, of which sixty-seven were facing thirty-three enemy divisions. Secrecy was paramount. All important and large-scale troop movements should be carried out at night; no troop train could unload unless there were arrangements to disperse the men immediately. ‘Safety Officers’ controlled all means of communication and censored the mail. Any officer who knew any detail of the attack was sworn to secrecy. Secrecy was taken a stage further with the use of police aircraft and balloons to camouflage and search for any new tracks left by moving men and equipment. However, the possibility of an attack was deduced by the British from statements they took from deserters and their reconnaissance flights that showed the construction of large ammunition dumps and light railways. The date of the attack was a well-kept secret until 18 March, when a German pilot who had been shot down revealed the date as either 20 or 21 March. When, on 19 March, this was corroborated by German prisoners and deserters, the only questions still in doubt on the British side were ‘whether the first attack would be the main effort or merely a preparatory one, and whether or not the French would be attacked simultaneously.’ So confident were the British that General Gough wrote home that night that he expected the bombardment would start on the night of 20 March, last between six and eight hours and be followed by German infantry on 21 March; he was only a few hours early with his prediction’.

‘The assault troops were brought up to the front on 20 March without serious difficulty, even though the British artillery shelled the front line trenches during the evening and night. For the men in the first wave, time passed slowly, and tension rose as zero hour approached. Then, at the appointed time, 4.40 am on 21 March, nearly 10,000 field guns and mortars opened fire on the British positions on a front between the Oise and Sensée rivers, shelling the area between the forward positions and the battle zone; four hours later the first wave of infantry charged out of the trenches and moved quickly towards the British lines through thick fog. Preceded by the Sturmabteilungen, forty-three divisions of Second and Eighteenth Armies assaulted the British Fifth Army, while a further nineteen divisions of Seventeenth Army attacked the British Third Army. The well trained attackers were in excellent spirits and confident that they would win the war’.

‘The infiltration tactics of the German infantry were eminently suited to the nature of the British defence, but were certainly favoured by the mistiness of the morning. The men of the advanced groups had rifles slung and made no attempt to use them, trusting to the stick bombs with which they were well provided. When they reached a trench they hurled their bombs and at once jumped in to settle the defenders with club or bayonet. The next parties pushed on through the gaps and then came others to deal with the centres of resistance by means of machine guns, flame projectors, trench mortars and field guns, and, in some instances, tanks. When the fog lifted the rearmost lines were exposed to view in masses, moving in column or forming up for attack, and these suffered heavily.’

Although the attack went well on the first day, it did not have the success hoped for and the advance was dealt with in the official daily communiqué in a brisk fashion: ‘From south-east of Arras to La Fère we attacked the British positions. After a heavy bombardment of artillery and trench mortars our infantry assaulted on a wide front and everywhere captured the enemy’s first lines.’ Their success was of greater importance to the British commanders. For the attackers the only real advantage had been gained by Eighteenth Army, that had struck a weak spot. In general though, General von Kuhl, the Chief of the General Staff of the group containing the other two of the three attacking German Armies, stated that the hoped for objectives had not been reached, while his commander, Crown Prince Rupprecht, stated clearly ‘that the expectation had been that the British artillery positions would be over-run’, but this had not been fulfilled. There were also concerns about the serious losses of material in Second and Seventeenth Armies artillery units caused by British artillery fire.

The Bavarian Crown Prince concluded that the British Fifth Army was in the act of voluntarily retiring to the Crozat canal when the attack took place, and that on the front of Second and Seventeenth Armies, the British had planned to pull back to the ‘Third Position’ [the back line of the Battle Zone].

Only the Kaiser, who was in Supreme Command of the battle, and the German Crown Prince, believed that it was a victory; their feelings were not shared by any responsible commander and indeed Ludendorff made no remarks on the results of the first day. What is significant is that he left the heavy artillery with the attacking Armies which, ‘if success were achieved, he had intended to shift northwards, in order to carry out the attack on Arras, so as to secure that pivot and lengthen the front of attack.’

Although the attacking forces continued to enjoy considerable success over the next few days, their progress did not come up to expectation. So on 25 March Ludendorff gave new instructions for the continuation of operations against the British by Crown Prince Rupprecht’s group of Armies. ‘First of all, the British front on both sides of the Scarpe as far as the Lens basin must be shaken and smashed by the attacks “Mars North” and “Mars South” and “Valkyrie”, in combination. The attack would then be carried forward on both sides of Arras with the main pressure on the Lorette ridge towards Houdain. The attack between the La Bassée canal and Armentières should also be prepared, but in a reduced form’. St. George would become Georgette.

Tactically difficult and requiring thorough preparation, zero day for the Mars attacks was fixed as 28 March, with the date for the even more difficult attack against Lorette ridge being a day later. However, by 27 March the offensive was clearly showing signs of slowing down and the hopes that Mars would bring new life to the waning offensive power of Second and Seventeenth Armies were dashed. Aimed at the junction of two British armies, the attack only achieved slight gains of ground.

Facing the greater part of the attack were three high quality British divisions who were aware that an attack was imminent and whose commanders kept a minimum number of troops in the front line, in many cases relying on outposts rather than a line. The main line of defence was further back towards the rear of the forward zone of defence. Through the night the British troops were alert; the night was dark and the area eerily silent with the only activity in no man’s land being British patrols.

King Ludwig of Bavaria at a march past of Bavarian troops on the Arras front in early 1918.

At 0300 hours the bombardment opened with mustard gas on British artillery positions. South of the Scarpe, from 0415 hours onwards, the bombardment was directed on the front trenches. An hour later the fire lifted, progressing from south to north. As the bombardment moved on, aircraft flew along the British lines, firing their machine guns as the infantry attempted to get through the British wire.

Although the bombardment had been accurate and effective, it had not destroyed the machine guns and trench mortars that were spread across the attack zone and housed underground until needed. As a result, the attacking troops, expecting little resistance, were met by every description of fire, and, although communication with their field guns was cut, the British artillery noted the changes in German artillery fire and followed suit. With such determined resistance the attacking troops were unable to make a general break-in and throughout the fighting heavy losses were sustained, as wave after wave came on through the smoke and shell-fire, forming excellent targets for the defenders.

Further north the attackers moved on with less difficulty, being hidden by the rolling ground near Monchy. Slowly but steadily the British troops moved back but the British Battle Zone still held, and by 1400 hours OHL was reporting to Second Army that Mars was a failure.

Aerial photo of the ground over which the 1918 Battle of Arras was to be fought, showing trench lines and destruction.

From 0840 hours a series of assaults was preceded by a barrage, allowing troops to infiltrate and turn the defence from the rear. In the face of such a determined attack the British troops slowly fell back during the afternoon, replacing losses with divisional cyclists and details from the wagon lines. However, as the result of over seven hours of heavy fire against them, the advance began to slacken with only isolated further attacks. By 1700 hours, Mars south had failed.

North of the Scarpe, seven divisions attacked two high quality British divisions preceded by a bombardment lasting four and a half hours, with the artillery being joined by trench mortars from 0500 hours. As a result most of the thinly held front line posts were obliterated. Nevertheless, when the attacking infantry advanced over the 100 yards No Man’s Land, they were met with sufficient firepower to lose the advantage of their creeping barrage. However, progress was made in a swampy area between the two British divisions being attacked where the outposts had been destroyed by the German artillery, and at two other positions where the British defence was turned. In places the attackers were shoulder to shoulder and provided easy targets for the defending British troops, but sheer pressure of numbers pushed the defence back.

In order to boost troop numbers, the British divisions called up engineer companies and pioneer battalions but, even so, between 1000 and 1300 hours, further progress was made against the two British divisions. But, finding any advance over the open was too costly, the attackers, with artillery support, worked up the British communication trenches, cutting off some of the defenders. In some of the British sectors the situation was becoming critical; the order to retire was given to maintain contact with units on either side. To assist the attacking troops, field artillery batteries were sent forward, but these were caught and stopped by British shrapnel fire.

The British withdrawals consolidated the British line and enabled them to put up further resistance. This continuing resistance, combined with German losses, took the edge off the attack, and, although further attempts were made to force the line, they were not carried out with any great determination. To further assist the attackers, under the smoke of a heavy bombardment, field guns were brought forward, but these too were knocked out by British counter fire.

‘At 4.15 and 5 p.m., infantry attacks were made on the 4th and 56th Divisions, respectively, both up the communication trenches and across the open; these were…repelled by the concentrated barrage of guns, machine guns and rifles.’ Like its sister attack in the south, Mars North had also failed. By 1700 hours both attacks were at a standstill with heavy losses but even so Crown Prince Rupprecht’s Army Group, convinced that victory was still possible between Albert and Arras, requested further divisions to resume the attack; OHL refused and the offensive was brought to a close. Although not the success that had been hoped for, the official communiqué that evening reported that 56 British Division had been annihilated!

On a military basis, a German writer poetically summed up the Mars attack: ‘As the sun set behind rain clouds there also vanished the hopes which OHL had placed on the attack. “Mars”, to whom so much blood was offered, was unable to break open the British Arras salient.’ At midnight on 28 March, the Mars offensive was cancelled but the general attacks continued along the front with minor success. Apart from the determined resistance of the British defenders, a further factor was playing its part on the German side – hunger; only so much could be expected of troops who had been in action continuously for sixty-plus hours and had not eaten for forty-eight, except stocks available for plunder. There was a shortage of reinforcements so divisions had to be kept at the front to keep up the momentum.

The troops were getting both physically and mentally tired. Some fought for eight days without taking off their boots or clothes, though this mattered less as the only water for washing was that in the shell holes. Even drinking water was in short supply.

The offensive would now move north and Arras would again be a relatively quiet front for a few months.

‘The offensives continued up and down the front with varying degrees of success until the Entente were able to launch their own offensive on 8 August at Amiens. At 4.20am on 8 August, Australian, British and Canadian troops, assisted by a devastating artillery bombardment, 800 aircraft and over 400 tanks, launched themselves at Second Army; by lunchtime the Entente success was virtually complete.’

‘The official German account acknowledged that it was the greatest defeat since the start of the war with an estimated loss of up to 700 officers and 27,000 men, of whom about seventy per cent were POWs. And it was not only under-strength and tired divisions that failed to hold the enemy advance: at Hangard Wood, a fresh full strength division collapsed when attacked by Canadian troops. After the war the Germans blamed the defeat on the unprepared defensive position which looked pretty on the map, but in many cases merely amounted to a white tape on the ground to show where the line was supposed to be.’

‘August 8th was the black day of the German Army in the history of this war’, wrote General Ludendorff. ‘This was the worst experience…except for the events that, from September 15th onwards, took place on the Bulgarian front and sealed the fate of the Quadruple Alliance.’

‘However, the British attacks next day were not as successful and many of the senior commanders did not accept Ludendorff ’s black day scenario; by the next day it was clear that the men were recovering from the initial shock of the attack and that resistance was stiffening, with the effect that the British advance was slowing down. Fortunately neither the British or the French were able to exploit their tactical success and the position stabilised for the defenders.’

The British Official History agreed with senior German commanders and their appraisal of the first day of the offensive, ‘on the face of it, the 8th August hardly seems to have deserved the fatal label of “the black day of the German Army”.’

Casualties had been high but they were even higher for the attackers. The question of morale was once again visited when casualty rates were analysed: sixtynine percent of the casualties were missing, the majority assumed to have become POWs.

After 15 August ‘there were indications of an offensive between Arras and the Ancre, especially towards Bapaume. The 17th Army was not to hold its front line but to give battle in a position three to four kilometres in rear; the front line was merely to be held by outposts who were to fall back on to the main position before the attack.’

Although the troops were withdrawing, many had not lost the will to fight, raiding enemy trenches and shelling the trenches overnight with gas to make them untenable for the British troops. However, much of the area around Arras was regarded as a quiet one. Indeed, the British 8 Division felt that the troops facing them north of Arras, were well sheltered in deep-dug trenches behind strong belts of wire, showing little inclination to fight unless pushed.

A relatively quiet night at the front.

‘On August 21st the English attacked south of Arras between Boisleux and the Ancre; this was the first of a series of attacks on Crown Prince Rupprecht’s sector which lasted almost uninterruptedly to the end of the war and made the heaviest demands on the Group Headquarters and their armies.’ Five days later, after 17 Army had pulled back successfully, ‘the English offensive against the Arras-Cambrai road opened.’

While some areas were evacuated, others fought on regardless. After Gavrelle was evacuated, British troops quickly occupied and started to move north only to be met with determined resistance from the defenders in Oppy who delivered four counter-attacks against British positions on 28 August. Then, just as quickly as it had flared up, the fighting died down.

The troops fell back according to plan but eventually further British attacks broke the Drocourt-Quéant line and reached the Wotan position. ‘On September 2nd a strong assault by English tanks over-ran obstacles and trenches in this line and paved a way for their infantry.’ As a result 17 Army requested and were given permission to retire to a new line in front of the Arleux-Moeuvres Canal; during the night of 3 September it withdrew behind the canal; such withdrawals shortened the line and economised on manpower.

‘OHL recognized defeat’ and about mid-day 2 September ‘issued orders for retirement behind the Sensée and the Canal du Nord’ beginning that night. The movement was to pivot on the River Scarpe near Etaing, east of Arras, with a new defensive line running eastwards along the north bank of the Sensée to near Arleux. By the morning of 3 September, Seventeenth Army, which held positions on the Arras front to near Lens, had occupied a new position from Havrincourt through Marquoin, Arleux and Sailly-en-Ostrevent. The next day raids took place against British posts around Oppy.

Out of the line men had the luxury of a hot meal provided straight from the cooker – a midday meal in enemy territory.

Crown Prince Rupprecht was returning to the front after sick leave on the day OHL issued its retirement orders. There was considerable unrest over the continuation of the war, as he recorded in his diary: ‘In Nürnberg the inscription on a troop train was to be read: “Slaughter cattle for Wilhelm & Sons”. Public feeling, for that matter, is not only very bad in Bavaria, but also in North Germany’.

At the OHL conference at Avesnes, on 6 September, Ludendorff blamed both leaders and troops for the events of the past few days. He also gave notice that as a result of troop shortages, infantry battalions would be reduced from four to three companies and baggage would be cut down to reduce transport needs. He then demanded sharp measures against shirkers. On the same day, British troops raided Oppy village in a tit-for-tat attack to be followed by an attack on British positions on 16 September with the inevitable retaliation the same night. There were further British raids on 20 and 26 September resulting in casualties on both sides for little or no real gain.

On 22 September, General von der Marwitz was removed from command of the Seventeenth Army, after the failure of a counter-attack by three nearly fresh divisions, near Havrincourt, at 1700 hours on 18 September.

South of Arras, on 27 September, the British Third Army started a new offensive. The same day, on the Arras front, the British 20 Division made a successful diversionary attack against the Fresnoy sector north of Oppy. While the main Allied thrust was to the south there was intermittent hostile shelling and ordinary harassing fire by British heavies, day and night, with field guns and machine guns joining in at night.

With continued pressure from Allied attacks, casualties mounted so severely, that, on 30 September, Hindenburg telegraphed the Army Groups with the information that they could no longer assume that OHL reserves would be available; nevertheless ‘an enemy break-through must in all circumstances be prevented’ and every effort must be made to gain time and inflict heavy losses on the enemy while the Hunding-Brunhild Stellung was prepared.

The manpower shortage is confirmed in regimental histories, with battalions being reported as being down to an average of 150 men. Those that were left were a shadow of the their former selves: ‘the troops were completely used up and burnt to cinders’.

On 2 October, in the northern sector of British First Army front at Arras, Allied troops discovered that there was little or no opposition in front of them, except for the area around Cité St. Auguste. The next day troops from British VIII Corps found that Lens had been evacuated by Sixth Army. However, further south, resistance was stiffer though the British troops made progress, except in the most southern sector of British VIII Corps where there was no German retreat; the troops were firmly entrenched.

Well entrenched and capable of considerable resistance, but time and Allied pressure were against them. After confused fighting in a counter-attack which saw both sides fighting each other in both sets of trenches simultaneously, the final battle in the Oppy sector commenced on 6 October when British troops bombed their way along the trenches, cutting off Oppy from other defensive positions and capturing the garrison.

The fall of Oppy opened up the whole southern sector, and the next day Allied attacks pushed through the powerful defence line between Biache-St. Vaast and the Fresnes-Gavrelle road to the north; by the evening the greater part of the system between Oppy and the Scarpe had been taken by the British 8 Division. The fighting showed that the defenders had no immediate intention of evacuating the area. However, determined British attacks pushed the defenders back and by 9 October the battle had moved on towards the Drocourt-Quéant line. There was a similar story all the way along the Arras front and on the British Third and Fourth Army fronts.

On 9 October, Izel fell to British troops and, after an unsuccessful counter-attack by the defenders, Rouvroy was found to have been evacuated. Two days later, 8 British Division attacked the Drocourt-Quéant positions to the north of the Gavrelle-Brebières road to find only rear-guard parties who informed the attackers that the division had left hours earlier. Similar attacks by British troops found the same situation – evacuated positions.

The next day the British First Army continued its advance on both flanks, with the left wing being hampered more by the waterlogged and – in places – flooded levels of the Douai plain, than by any resistance. British units found many positions unoccupied or being evacuated. There was only occasional resistance from the defenders, although in key villages like Arleux this could still considerable. Defending units did not always make things easy for the future occupiers, leaving behind presents to catch out the attacking troops: Corbehem and its suburbs ‘were found to be full of mines and booby traps’, so much so that they could not be occupied until engineers cleared the place.

In general, the further eastwards the attackers moved the greater the defence; an artillery bombardment was required on Douai prison and the outlying area before the defenders moved on. In some areas resistance from machine guns and field artillery was sufficient to stop the British advance and on 13 October a local counter-attack succeeded in pushing back the advancing British troops at Aubigny au Bac. Another means of holding the Allied attack was cutting the banks of the River Scarpe. By 16 October the front had stabilised in front of a canal line with only a few footings beyond it.

17 October brought further withdrawals with little opposition except from artillery, leaving the British troops with insufficient bridging material to follow. Those units that scrambled across the destroyed bridges or crossed by raft encountered little opposition, while Douai had been evacuated and left to burn. The war on the Arras front was over until next time – 1940.

Newly arrived troops learning how to set up and use a small trench mortar.

Heavy artillery carefully camouflaged and ready for the British attack.

One complaint along the front was the youth of the new replacements. Here two youthful soldiers pose for a last photo before leaving home for the front.

As Allied airpower grew, it became more necessary than before to camouflage everything.

The trench mortar soldiers were a law unto themselves. Positions were set up along the front, mortars fired and then they moved on, leaving the trench soldiers to receive the Allied retaliation.

A heavy trench mortar lends its weight to the artillery barrage against the British troops holding the positions around Arras in the Mars offensive.

Anton Müller, a farmer’s son from Reichsdorf, holder of the Iron Cross Second Class and a reservist with 1 Company of 13 Infantry Regiment who died a hero’s death on 24 March 1918 in an artillery barrage at Boiry near Arras.

With a shortage of men and materials, equipment was likely to break or wear out.

A knight of the road – drivers had their own uniform and stood apart from the normal soldier.

Out on rest – did every unit have one soldier who felt the need to dress as a woman?

A heavily fortified dugout, complete with water butt.

A light field artillery piece, heavily camouflaged and ready.

Storm troopers were the cream of the army – here a section poses for the camera before moving to the front.

Field artillery laying down a barrage during the winter of 1917/1918.

Generalleutnant Ludendorff.

A sight to bring a smile to troops who were starved, literally, of food – a provision wagon on its way to the front.

The second enemy in the trenches: every army suffered from lice. Here soldiers are cleaned and their clothes fumigated – clean for a few minutes until they went back into the trenches.

The war over, 7 Bavarian Field Artillery Regiment arrive back in Munich on 22 November 1918.

Along with lice, rats were a constant problem. Dogs provided companionship and also liked to kill rats; here, Greÿ shows off his trophies.

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