By midnight, we’d gone by every one of these new gun positions and trenches; he’d driven us back so far, so quick. He came through us like a scythe…
By early 1918, Allied troops on the Western Front were weary from years of launching failed campaigns against the Germans. They were overstretched, short of manpower and suffering from low morale. In contrast, the German Army was boosted by the arrival of men from the Eastern Front – and busy preparing for a huge attack. German officer Hartwig Pohlmann described his optimism at this time.
At the beginning of 1918, we began to feel that something had to be done. We had finished the great war in Russia and so many divisions from the Eastern Front came to the Western Front. One day we were relieved – it was at the beginning of January – and taken back behind the front line and trained for an attack. Every day we had to make our training and it was a hard time for us because the food was scarce at that time, we felt the blockade which lasted on Germany. But nevertheless we were convinced we would be able to stand it through and to get peace. We hoped for the victory of our attack.
The German plan was known as the Kaiserschlacht, or Kaiser’s battle. The first phase, Operation Michael, was to begin in March. The British knew it was coming. NCO Richard Tobin recalled his sense of foreboding.
In the trenches at night, when the wind was in the right direction, we could hear the German trains and transport rumbling up their great army that was going to sweep us into the sea. We were grim, we were determined. Behind us lay the old Somme battlefields, every yard soaked with British blood shed through almost two years of hard battle.
The Germans had meticulously prepared for the assault, as British private C Cain discovered on the eve of the battle.
All the shelling and all the machine guns had ceased firing – there wasn’t a shot being fired. We remarked it was too quiet to be healthy and we all felt that here was the German Army poised to attack and we were going to be in the brunt of it. The sergeant had seen a big wiring party in no man’s land in the early evening and he mentioned to me that he thought it would be a good idea if we went out to see what they had been doing. So he said ‘Will you take three men out and have a look around?’ Well I found three men – volunteers – and we picked our way through the gap in our wire. And then a strange thing: when we got on to the German side, we found that we had no wire to contend with. At least, it had all been cut and laid on the ground.
In the dark, early hours of 21 March 1918, the Germans began an enormous bombardment of the British lines. German NCO Walter Rappolt took part in the barrage.
It was just an unimaginable amount of guns which was in position. I had to direct the guns, use my tables to adjust for strength and direction of wind. And at a certain time the barrage started, all at one time – a terrific intensity. Normally we used to protect our ears when the gun was discharged, by just holding our hands against the ears. But this time that was pretty impossible. The effect was that for a few days afterwards I was almost deaf.
Shaken out of sleep as the earth reverberated around them, the British hastily responded to the attack. Arthur Behrend of the Royal Garrison Artillery recalled his sudden awakening that day.
When we went to bed we felt quite certain that something was going to happen the next morning. Well, I went to sleep and I woke up with a feeling of incessant noise in my head and everything seemed to be vibrating, the ground and my bed. I opened my eyes and then really said to myself, ‘Well now, this the beginning of the thing.’ I struck a match and lit the candle to see what time it was and it was five o’clock. And then I said to myself, ‘Well it’s no good lying here, I might as well get dressed.’ So I got up and by this time the concussion of the shells had blown the door, the wooden door, off my dugout and blown my candle out and I dressed in the dark. I remember saying to myself, ‘Well I’d better put on my best tunic because whether we’re killed or not, the probability will be that one will either be wounded or captured and it’s no good being captured in an old tunic, I might as well put on the new one.’
The bombardment lasted for around 5 hours. It smashed vital communication lines. British officer Douglas Wimberley was alarmed when he realised this.
Actually on the morning of the 21st at about 3.30a.m. I was asleep in my dugout but I was woken to hear the earth thudding all round me and the noise of exploding shells. I remember a certain amount of shivers going all round me because we realised that the great attack had started. The only thing to do was to listen to the signaller trying to get through to the different units. He would say, ‘Hello Seaforth, hello Seaforth, hello. Line cut to Seaforth, sir.’ ‘Hello Gordons, hello Gordons, hello Gordons. Line cut to Gordons, sir.’ When the attack started we had communication with about four or five different headquarters, but quite soon they were all cut. And I remember in the darkness at the bottom of the dugout feeling rather a sense of isolation.
The bombardment immediately caused great confusion among the men. British private M Cundall was one of those affected.
When we got up this morning at about four o’clock we were awakened by a terrific barrage coming from the German lines they had put up what some people have said was the most terrific barrage of the war. Anyhow, when we heard all this going on, orders came to put on gas masks. So we stumbled out of the hut into the complete darkness and there was a mist all round as well – which added to the confusion and sense of isolation – and then waited for orders.
British command centres, means of communication, reserve and forward lines were all destroyed by the shelling. Heavy artillery positions were also targeted. Sidney Woodcock was one of many who had to act quickly to save his guns.
There was a barrage, oh, we’d never heard anything like it. The barrage came on and I said to my chaps, ‘Here we go; now we’re for it. We’d better get going.’ No sooner with the barrage within half hour, I got orders we were to take the six tractors up, and we had two guns forward and four in the rear. The two guns forward were to be spiked and the four guns it was up to us to get them out. So of course we got the orders to move so we packed up – we packed up camp and everything, and we put everything on the tractors, the bivouac and all the lot went on the tractors, our kits and all the lot and then off we went because we knew we wouldn’t be back again at that place! So we set off with these six tractors and our job of course was to get these four guns out. Well now, that was up to the battery – not us – all we’d got to do was to cart them away. So we went in and got these guns out.
Finally, the devastating bombardment ended. Highly trained German infantry left their trenches and crossed no man’s land, which was shrouded that morning in mist and fog. Hartwig Pohlmann was among those who raced across to the British lines.
When we went on through the fog, suddenly we heard some guns firing behind us and so we turned around and came from behind to a British battery which was firing barrage fire they didn’t know that we had broken through and they are always firing their barrage fire. One of our men laid the hand on the shoulder of the British officer and said, ‘Cease fire.’ And suddenly they were surprised to see us from behind.
The fog helped the Germans to surprise the defenders, who were still recovering from the intense shelling. British private Arthur Baxter described the chaotic conditions.
All them trained troops, this morning they come over the top and it was that foggy, I’d never seen a foggy morning like it. I’ve read since, it was so thick, some sort of mist. They captured a hospital, big guns, little guns, every mortal thing. I and a chap named Jock Nicholson we got parted from our company. I don’t know how, because it was so foggy, you see.
Thomas Brown of the King’s (Liverpool Regiment) explained the terrifying effect that enemy troops suddenly appearing out of the mist could have.
Well what he did, you see, he was clever – in the fog. So our chaps, next thing they knew was that Jerry was behind them, you see. And they couldn’t see. Well, one chap – we sent a small detachment forward – and I remember one chap named Jones, he’d come back and, my gosh, he was scared. I said, ‘What’s happened?’ ‘Tom,’ he said, ‘I just came out of this fog and there was a big fat German in front of me!’ He said, ‘I didn’t know what to do, so what I did was, I slipped my arms through my kit, he grabbed me, and he grabbed the kit and I ran away as fast as I could!’ I didn’t tell anybody about it, because he could have been… But he was scared stiff!
The German soldiers quickly overran the British Forward Zone and pressed on. Faced with this breakthrough, many – including British NCO W. Daniels – despaired at the situation.
They broke through in a mass formation. The SOS went up – ‘Save Our Souls’. And that’s a marvellous feeling, when you see the lights going up: ‘Save Our Souls’ – there’s somebody in trouble. We fired as much as possible until the infantry came to us and they said the Germans was coming. I made an oath and I said, ‘Oh God, this is the end.’ And actually I thought it was the end of the war, as far as we were concerned. After four years against them that we had lost the war, this is the end. After all the lives had been sacrificed.
The British line was severely weakened – but it did not break. In many places, British troops – such as Frederick Plimmer – put up determined resistance.
They advanced, you see, it was fine then – a beautiful day no fog, no gas, no nothing. Just a few odd shells. And some of our people were coming back, retiring from in front of us and then we just waited. Then all of a sudden, we saw the Germans come over the hill – waves of them – I should think about half a mile away, something like that. Probably a little more. They were in machine gun range. So we only had a couple of guns but the infantry had several Lewis guns and we were down to nothing there was only me and one bloke on this one gun, the other gun I don’t know where that was, it was somewhere. They came down this slope and we just fired at them.
But such defensive measures could only delay, not check, the German onslaught and orders were issued for British troops to fall back. Douglas Wimberley explained what he did after being told to abandon his post.
I went via my dugout because I had my secret code in the dugout and one or two secret papers. And so I ran down the steps and I burnt my code. I then started running towards my nearest guns and just at that moment the whole of the mist rolled away, almost like a curtain and I saw more Germans than I’d ever seen before in my life. They really rather reminded me of men almost coming away from a football match.
William Dann described the disorder as the British fell back.
Eventually an officer came along and he said, ‘Oh well, they’re through on our right and every man’s for himself.’ And so of course that was us. So of course we picked up everything they’d got to pick up and cleared off back, best you could, best you could. That was all you could do. It was absolutely disorganised. You didn’t know who was who and where you were and where you was going. Off we still went and really disorganised. Nobody knew where anybody was, where your battalion was or nothing about it.
The Germans made swift and significant gains in their initial assault. For Harry Forrester of the Royal Field Artillery, this was clearly shown by the position he was forced to fall back to.
We drew back for a little way, where things were calmer and find out just what was going to happen. Now what had been done previously to this, this Jerry’s attack, we’d had trenches dug, gun positions made ready to fall back into, fall back to, fall back to. Somewhere about six of them I daresay altogether to fall back, fall back. And for the first time they told me that the artillery held the line while the infantry dug in behind them. That was the 18 pounders, held the front while the infantry dug behind them. Now when Jerry’s offensive on the 21st of March, by midnight we’d gone by every one of these new gun positions and trenches; he’d driven us back so far, so quick. It was a terrible job. He came through us like a scythe.
21,000 British prisoners were taken on the opening day of the German Spring Offensive. Royal Engineer Thomas Cass was one of them.
There was masses of Germans, they come over like hoards. They come over and overwhelmed us and so I was taken prisoner at 2 o’clock and I was in the German trenches with them until 8 o’clock at night. Then we got up behind the line and they were collecting all the prisoners – the German guards were – and we had to march back to St Quentin, then. I always remember one German soldier, a young chap he was, he was marching by the side of me, and he patted me on shoulder and I’ll always remember what he said. He said, ‘Brave Englander’, he said, ‘brave Englander’ and patted me on the back.
In response to the overwhelming German assault, reserve troops were moved up to help strengthen the Allied line. Charles Templar of the Gloucestershire Regiment had been nearly 20 miles from the front when the bombardment started, but was hurriedly pushed into action.
We marched the whole of that day with a 10 minute halt each hour as usual, until we came within shelling distance of the line, as it was then. That was about nightfall and we were put into huts, sort of big Nissen huts in our various companies. During the night, when we were all asleep, Jerry started shelling the area and he hit the hut which contained most of the ‘C’ Company men and caused a lot of casualties there. So that after that, we were more or less awake.
On 22 March, intense fighting continued as the German attack pressed on. Edmund Williams of the King’s (Liverpool Regiment) was in action that day.
We’d got settled, and about just as it was coming dawn somebody on my left said, ‘They’re attacking.’ This was Germany’s first attack, about half-past six in the morning, the day’s start. So we all lined the trench. I found myself firing rapid rounds as fast as I could into the mists. My little brother was firing his Lewis gun. The machine gun in Roupy was enfilading us quite severely, in fact some of the bullets were coming in – I was just got a bit of traverse – but coming into the trench just behind me. One officer managed to make it back from the number three platoon, he got a bullet through the arm and went down. But that was the only person I ever remember going back.
Despite these attempts to stem the German advance, large parts of the front were given up by retiring British forces. Leonard Ounsworth of the Royal Garrison Artillery outlined his part in this confused and hasty retreat.
As we got into a little bit of order on the retreat the major organised it so that we always had at least two – sometimes four – guns in action by splitting the battery duties into three sections, right, left and centre sections. He would take the retreating section back to a position where they’d to be operative, and then he would go forward again – and I was his personal orderly during that time – he would go forward again to the advance section and pull them out. On one or two occasions we pulled out in face of the enemy – had just a few infantry left to sort of cover us till we got the guns out. And then leap-frog that section over the other two, then come back and repeat the process like that so that he always had some of his guns in action, which meant that there was always some cover for the retreating infantry, some protection from enemy traffic coming up, you see.
For the rest of March, the British were forced back, often in a disorganised manner. NCO Ernest Bryan was among these exhausted and depleted troops.
We knew what the orders were; they must not break through. If retirement, and it will be necessary, retire, but don’t let them break through. That’s all our orders, and that’s what was done, from 21 March, nine days and ten nights of scrapping and retiring, scrapping and retiring round the villages. We got to Ham eventually. That was the biggest town there was there, outside St. Quentin. When we got into there nobody knew anybody. There was no such thing as a battalion. We were a nondescript pile of all sorts of regiments, bits and pieces, anybody at all; sanitary people, cooks, everybody, they were all in it.
The retreating men had to abandon their normal daily routine, finding food and shelter where they could. Alfred Griffin of the King’s Royal Rifle Corps explained how he kept himself fed.
We came back in dribs and drabbles. You just kept together for safety’s sake. We had an officer, up to the time we got to this embankment. We came back here fighting and fighting. We had nothing, never had any rations at all issued to us. All we were doing was, if we saw a dead man the first thing we did was empty his haversack and see what he’d got to eat – we were starving. We’d used up our first rations the first day. We just done what we could. Where we saw a lorry crashed with bully beef and that on, well of course nobody stopped us looting it: we’d have eaten them!
As well as the huge numbers of Allied prisoners taken in the opening phase of the offensive, heavy casualties were suffered. Maberly Esler of the Royal Army Medical Corps described the difficulty of trying to help wounded men amidst the confusion and danger of the fighting.
I remember a sergeant beside me, a shell went up and smoke occurred, as the smoke cleared he was sitting with his two stumps waving in the air, his legs completely shot off, and we said, ‘Well, we’ll take you to the side of the road.’ He said, ‘You’re not going to leave me here?!’ I said, ‘I’m afraid we can’t do anything about it, we’ve got no stretcher-bearers, we’ve got nothing to carry you with, we’ve got nothing to give you, we’ll put you out of the way of the tanks’ – which were following us down the road – ‘so they won’t run over you, and I hope you’ll be picked up.’ It was an awfully painful thing to have to do. People who could walk and were wounded, a lot of people, were helped along; I had about five people clinging to me, one with a jaw blown away bleeding all over me. Getting through that was a miracle really, a miracle. It was like a nightmare.
By early April, the Germans had advanced around 40 miles into Allied territory. Despite this dire situation, British signaller Jim Crow didn’t see men’s morale break.
Well, it was… I don’t know exactly what you did think. Sometimes you thought, ‘Well, we’re doing alright.’ Then another time you was a bit despondent. I don’t know that ever I saw any of the infantry what you might actually term panicking. They’d run back and try and get in some trenches or under a bit of cover. But the morale was really grand, taking it all through. Considering what we were losing.
The Germans launched a second attack, Operation Georgette, on 9 April – further north, in Flanders. Again it opened with a massive bombardment on British lines. Walter Grover of the Sussex Regiment narrowly escaped its effects.
Our post where we were standing, there was a dugout each side. I was on guard at one entrance and another young chap, he was on the other entrance. And one of the German minenwerfers, that was their big mine thrower, the minenwerfer. And it was a great big thing and it fell right onto where this chap was. The explosion, the concussion, fetched the blood from our nose – we were bleeding from concussion – blew us off the fire step. Fortunately we were just suffering from concussion, but this poor chap, it, well… We picked up what pieces were left of him. But it killed most of them down in the dugout. The blast, you see, it went right down and killed most of them then and there.
Intense fighting on that first day led to further German gains and heavy British losses. German gunner Paul Oestreicher witnessed the impact this had on exhausted British prisoners taken in the battle.
We were standing near Armentieres. We had before the attack many weeks of preparations, and were calculating the shooting exactly. This day, we entered Armentieres without practically any difficulties. The day was fighting, with very, very little resistance because the artillery had prepared it extremely well and after a few hours, heaps of prisoners came from the other side. They were in a rather desperate condition and very tired and worn out from the long shooting. They all said nothing else but, ‘The war is over for us and we don’t want to go back any more.’
German gains continued during the next few days. The situation once again looked critical for the Allies. On 11 April, British commander in chief Sir Douglas Haig issued a special order of the day, urging his men to fight on to the last. British private Walter Cook did not think much of it.
There was a thing given out about ‘Backs to the wall’ by the commander in chief but I don’t know where the wall would be. Backs to the sea, I should thing would have been more like it… But morale was not low it was over the old ground again; they weren’t gaining anything. They were only gaining a morass of shell ridden country.
Despite its initial success, Operation Georgette lost momentum and was called off at the end of April. A third phase of fighting began on 27 May, when the Germans attacked along the Chemin des Dames ridge. British officer Sidney Rogerson remembered the opening barrage.
I was actually standing in the mess having a whiskey and soda, when suddenly: whizz plop, whizz plop. Two German gas shells burst right on our doorstep. And within a second, the biggest barrage that I was ever in in the war burst on us. Or rather, we thought it had burst on us, but what the Germans had done on this occasion was to direct the whole weight of their gunfire onto the reserve areas and concentrate their mortars onto the front line, the fighting line. So the casualties among the reserve staff were enormous.
The Allied line was mainly held by the French, although British troops had been sent down for a period of rest. British private George Thompson was wounded in the battle.
As we entered the woods of the Chemin des Dames the bombardment started. Oh, it was a terrific bombardment. We got down into dugouts at first for the worst of it. You see, if they are bombarding you, they can’t attack or they’d be bombarding themselves. So you wait until the bombardment’s subsided and then you come out. When we came out of dugouts we went forward into trenches. We were standing in the trench waiting for the attack to come and we got heavy rifle fire from the left. And I got a bullet through the shoulder, under my chin like that and went through my shoulder. Then another one in beside my spine and out at the side, that got me down. I went down in the trench and the next thing I knew, I was being rolled over by two German soldiers.
As in March and April, the Germans made large gains and inflicted heavy casualties on the Allies. Yet again, British troops had to make a desperate defence in the face of an enemy onslaught. But Ernest Millard of the Royal Field Artillery kept his nerve.
They advanced and they captured ‘C’ Battery of my brigade from the rear and they were at our rear, left rear. So they came in through the woods. There was no question of nerves. I never had any thought of nerves. There was a job to be done, whether it was under fire or not it had to be done, that was a priority. I’d never had any flinching – ‘Oh God, this is awful.’ Nothing like that, nothing ever. There was a job to be done and we just got on with it.Despite huge successes since March, by early June the overall German offensive was faltering.
The German soldiers were exhausted from successive battles and had out-run their supplies of manpower and food by advancing so far and so fast. British signaller George Banton recalled the end of this phase of the offensive.
We retreated day by day and almost invariably Jerry was in that place within 24 hours. But it gradually simmered out. The 19th Division, they went in and they managed to hold up the advance and it gradually petered out. But the Germans had made a very large salient and that might’ve assisted – been partly responsible – for their not proceeding further. It was getting dangerous for them. They’d reached Chateau Thierry and that was as far as they dared go.
The German Spring Offensive delivered stunning successes and nearly succeeded. But ultimately, the advance could not be sustained. For Allied troops, it was difficult to maintain morale as they gave up ground and retreated under fire. Alexander Jamieson of the Royal Scots summed up how he felt as the enemy closed in during the early part of the offensive.
We retired again to what was known as the Green Line. The Green Line was a recently constructed defence trench that was nothing like finished and while we were there the order came along, ‘This position must be held at all costs – to the last man.’ And I felt terrible. I just thought, ‘I’m only 19, I’ve only been here five weeks and apparently I’m going to be killed. And how am I going to be killed..?’
Voices of the First World War is a podcast series that reveals the impact the war had on everyone who lived through it through the stories of the men and women who were there.