This atmospheric painting conveys the sense of threat and isolation felt by pockets of British troops caught in significant attacks during the German Spring Offensives. This small band of British infantry contrasts with the ominously long line of German troops visible on the horizon. The man clutching his wounded hand is the artist himself, who served with 8th Battalion, King’s Royal Rifle Corps.
Click through to the Collections item to see licencing options
On a damp misty morning, British and Allied troops were met with a huge concentration of German artillery, gas, smoke and infantry. That day, 21 March 1918, heralded the start of Operation 'Michael', the first of the German Spring Offensives. It was Germany’s last throw of the dice.
Using infiltration tactics, the German Army achieved unprecedented gains measured in miles rather than yards. Germany had now concentrated all of her resources on the Western Front after the defeat of Russia. Facing them was a weary Allied force that for three years had largely been on the offensive, had not fully organised for defence-in-depth and was beginning to suffer manpower shortages.
In the face of the onslaught the Allied line bent but did not break. The fighting became uncharacteristically open as isolated pockets of defenders attempted to slow the German advance. Douglas Haig issued his famous 'Backs to the Wall' order of the day, summing up the desperate fighting but also the determination of the defence.
But whilst the German offensives were tactical successes, they were strategic failures. The advances had no decisive goal other than to punch a hole in the line and primarily target the British. The largest gains took place where the Allies were most willing to give ground. German casualties were high, particularly amongst the best units.
The Allies appointed Marshal Ferdinand Foch as Allied Generalissimo to better co-ordinate their defence. The tide began to turn. By early summer the German offensives ground to a halt and the Allies prepared to counter-attack.
Interview with Leonard Ounsworth, British signaller with 144th Heavy Battery, Royal Garrison Artillery. Leonard Ounsworth describes the situation on the first morning of the German Spring Offensives on 21 March 1918. As a signaller with an artillery battery, Ounsworth would usually have been behind the British front line, but the German advance forced the British back, meaning that the guns of his battery were soon stranded in no man’s land and he came under direct fire. His account emphasises the disorienting effects of gas and smoke, which added to the confusion.