The First Battles of the Somme 1918

21 March - 4 July 1918

This period incorporates the German attack known as Operation Michael or Kaiserschlacht
and subsequent fighting on the Somme

Background

On 11 November 1917, the German High Command decided to make a decisive attack in the west in the following Spring. Their target was the destruction of the British Army. They believed that the British were exhausted by the four major efforts in 1917 (Arras, Messines, Passchendaele and Cambrai). By mid-February 1918, the Germans had moved many Divisions from the now collapsed Eastern front to the West. It was believed by British intelligence that the Germans now had 177 Divisions in France and Flanders, out of their world-wide total of 241. Of these, 110 were in the front line, of which 50 faced the relatively short but recently extended British front. A further 67 were in reserve, with 31 of these also facing the BEF. By late 1918, the manpower advantage enjoyed by Germany would be gone as the American forces slowly built up to strength. The time to strike was now: it would win the war; it was to be the "Kaiserschlacht" (Kaiser's Battle).

German strategy

It is a common misapprehension that the German attack was aimed at splitting the British and French armies, which joined south of Saint Quentin. Ludendorff's aim was actually to cut through on the Somme - "punch a hole and things would develop", he said - as they had against the Russians. If all went well they might even then wheel north-west to cut the British lines of communication behind the Artois fronts, bottling up the BEF in the narrow neck of land in Flanders. The British armies would be surrounded with no means of escape, which would inevitably lead to surrender.

Kaiserschlacht

The extra miles of 'line' that the BEF had recently taken over from the French barely existed, and much labouring and construction work was needed to put it in a defensible state. Unfortunately, the labour was just not available. When the battle opened, few of the defensive positions were ready, and the second and third lines did not exist at all.

German tactics

The German army adopted an approach that had succeeded on the Eastern Front, particularly at the Battle of Riga. Their infantry attack would be preceded by an intense barrage concentrated not on the British infantry holding the forward posts, but on the artillery and machine-gun positions, headquarters, telephone exchanges, railways and other important centres of communications. In other words it was a very deep barrage designed to knock out the British ability to respond - but lasting only a few hours before the infantry went in. When the German infantry attacked, they would operate in small groups, specially trained to "infiltrate" - exploiting gaps and moving forward, not worrying about areas that were held up: they would be dealt with by follow-up units. For the British, unused to a discontinuous line and the idea of a deep zone of defended hotspots, such a tactic would spell chaos, uncertainty and disaster. It very nearly worked.

British intelligence had come to the conclusion that a German attack was to be expected, as early as November 1917. It was known to all by March 1918 and only the precise date, time and place was to be determined. Forecasts made by the "E" (Enemy) Group of the British military staff at the Supreme War Council proved to be reasonably accurate but were largely dismissed by GHQ as a result of politics between the trwo.

British in state of flux

At the same time as German strength was growing, the British Army was depleted, having to face up to a manpower crisis and resultant reorganisation, and at a low point of morale after enduring the conditions of Passchendaele and the disappointment after early success at Cambrai. They were also coming to terms with the need to fight a defensive battle for the first time since 1915 and the adoption of a deep defensive zone rather than a continuous trench line system.

The battlefield

. This area is generally known as "the Somme" sector, although geographically it includes the Cambrésis and the Santerre plateau. The entire area between the St-Quentin/Cambrai front line and the Bapaume/Albert area had been deliberately laid waste by the Germans when they withdrew from that area (in Operation Alberich) in spring 1917. The Bapaume/Albert area had been the site of the Battle of the Somme in 1916. Thus, other than the area west of Albert and on to Amiens, this was in effect one endless area of devastation. The only significant geographical bariers to an advance were the River Somme south of Péronne and the Canal du Nord north of it.

Kaiserschlacht

 

British order of battle

Phase: the Battle of St Quentin, 21 - 23 March 1918

Third Army (Byng)
IV Corps (Harper)

6th Division
19th (Western) Division
25th Division
41st Division
51st (Highland) Division.
V Corps (Fanshawe)
2nd Division
17th (Northern) Division
47th (2nd London) Division
63rd (Royal Naval) Division.
VI Corps (Haldane)
Guards Division
3rd Division
31st Division
34th Division
40th Division
59th (2nd North Midland) Division.

Fifth Army (Gough)
III Corps (Butler)

2nd Cavalry Division
3rd Cavalry Division
14th (Light) Division
18th (Eastern) Division
58th (2/1st London) Division.
VII Corps (Congreve)
9th (Scottish) Division
16th (Irish) Division
21st Division
39th Division.
XVIII Corps (Maxse)
20th (Light) Division
30th Division
36th (Ulster) Division
61st (2nd South Midland) Division.
XIX Corps (Watts)
1st Cavalry Division
8th Division
24th Division
50th (Northumbrian) Division
66th (2nd East Lancashire) Division.

Subsequent: the actions at the Somme crossings, 24 - 25 March 1918

Fifth Army (Gough)
VII Corps (Congreve)
39th Division.
XVIII Corps (Maxse)
3rd Cavalry Division
20th (Light) Division
30th Division
36th (Ulster) Division
61st (2nd South Midland) Division.
XIX Corps (Watts)
8th Division
24th Division
50th (Northumbrian) Division
66th (2nd East Lancashire) Division.

Phase: the First Battle of Bapaume, 24 - 25 March 1918

Third Army (Byng)
IV Corps (Harper)

19th (Western) Division
25th Division
41st Division
51st (Highland) Division
62nd (2nd West Riding) Division.
V Corps (Fanshawe)
2nd Division
12th (Eastern) Division, less 37th Brigade
17th (Northern) Division
47th (2nd London) Division
63rd (Royal Naval) Division.
VI Corps (Haldane)
Guards Division
3rd Division
31st Division
40th Division
42nd (East Lancashire) Division
59th (2nd North Midland) Division.
XVII Corps (Fergusson)
15th (Scottish) Division.

Fifth Army (Gough)
VII Corps (Congreve)
1st Cavalry Division
9th (Scottish) Division
21st Division
35th Division
37th Brigade of 12th (Eastern) Division.

Phase: the Battle of Rosières, 26 - 27 March 1918

Fifth Army (Gough)
XVIII Corps (Maxse)
20th (Light) Division
30th Division
36th (Ulster) Division
61st (2nd South Midland) Division.
XIX Corps (Watts)
8th Division
16th (Irish) Division
24th Division
39th Division
50th (Northumbrian) Division
66th (2nd East Lancashire) Division
Carey's Force.

Phase: the First Battle of Arras, 28 March 1918

First Army (Horne)
XIII Corps (de Lisle)

56th (1st London) Division.

Third Army (Byng)
IV Corps (Harper)

41st Division
42nd (East Lancashire) Division
62nd (2nd West Riding) Division
New Zealand Division
4th Brigade of 4th Australian Division.
V Corps (Fanshawe)
2nd Division
12th (Eastern) Division.
VI Corps (Haldane)
Guards Division
3rd Division
31st Division
2nd Canadian Division
97th Brigade of 32nd Division.
XVII Corps (Fergusson)
4th Division
15th (Scottish) Division.

Phase: the Battle of the Avre, 4 April 1918

Fourth Army (Rawlinson)
Lieut-General Sir Hubert Gough was relieved of command of Fifth Army between 5-6pm on 27 March 1918. He was replaced by Sir Henry Rawlinson, hurriedly recalled from his position as British Permanent Military Representative to the Supreme War Council. Sir Henry brought in his own staff and the command became Fourth Army.
XIX Corps (Watts)
3rd Cavalry Division
14th (Light) Division
18th (Eastern) Division
24th Division
58th (2/1st London) Division
5th Brigade of 2nd Australian Division
9th Brigade of 3rd Australian Division
8th and 15th Brigades of 5th Australian Division.

Phase: the Battle of the Ancre, 5 April 1918

Third Army (Byng)
IV Corps (Harper)

37th Division
42nd (East Lancashire) Division
New Zealand Division
4th Brigade of 4th Australian Division.
V Corps (Fanshawe)
12th (Eastern) Division
47th (2nd London) Division
63rd (Royal Naval) Division.
VI Corps (Haldane)
32nd Division.
XVII Corps (Fergusson)
12th and 13th Brigades of 4th Australian Division.

Consequences

The German Army advanced some 40 miles and came within reach of the vital railway junctions at Amiens. The crisis demonstrated that the "gentlemen's agreement" between British and French commanders-in-chief Haig and Pétain, namely to provide reserves to go to the assistance of the other if attacked, was unworkable. It finally forced the Allies to consider a joint command, and they appointed Foch as Generalissimo.

Commander of the British Fifth Army, General Sir Hubert Gough, was sacked as a result of this battle. He is now generally considered to have been very badly treated and to have been made a convenient scapegoat. His Army had, after all, taken over a line to which David Lloyd George had committed the army against its wishes; had no time to build suitable defences; and was hit by an overwhelming attack. Fifth Army, while suffering terrible losses of men and material and giving up much ground, did not break.

Battle casualties

The British Official History, which made a painstaking compilation of casualty statistics, quotes a total of 177,739 men of Britain and the Commonwealth lost as killed, wounded and missing in this battle. Of these, just under 15,000 died. Of the 90,000 quoted as missing, a very large proportion were taken prisoner as the Germans advanced. For the same reason, an unusually high proportion of those who died have no known grave.

The greatest losses were to 36th (Ulster) Division [7,310], 16th (Irish) Division [7,149] and 66th (2nd East Lancashire) Division [7,023]. All three formations were effectively destroyed and had to be taken out of the order of battle in order to be rebuilt. Six other divisions each lost more than 5,000 men.

Those men who died in this battle and have no known grave are commemorated on the Arras and Pozières Memorials, for Third and Fifth Armies respectively.

German casualties, for a slightly different period of 21 March to 30 April (which includes the Battles of the Lys) are given as 348,300. A comparable Allied total over this longer period would be French losses of 92,004 plus British of 236,300, making just over 328,000.

Subsequent actions

The actions of Villers-Bretonneux, 24 - 25 April 1918

Fourth Army (Rawlinson)
III Corps (Butler)
8th Division
18th (Eastern) Division
58th (2/1st London) Division
Australian Corps (Monash)
4th Australian Division
5th Australian Division.

The capture of Hamel, 4 July 1918

Fourth Army (Rawlinson)
Australian Corps (Monash)
6th Brigade of 2nd Australian Division
11th Brigade of 3rd Australian Division
4th Brigade of 4th Australian Division
Two companies of 131st and 132nd Infantry Regiments of 33rd American Division were under command of 4th Australian Division and took part in this engagement.