The 1918 Spring Offensive – Operation Michael

The 1918 Spring Offensive was a series of German attacks on the Western Front beginning on 21 March 1918. It was a period when Rugby suffered some 40 men ‘killed in action’ or who ‘died of wounds’ in the France and Flanders sector.

Following the Russian Revolution and the Russian Capitulation, the Germans had nearly 50 Divisions of troops available from the fighting on the Russian Front. Although short of supplies, the Germans’ only chance of victory was to use these additional forces to defeat the Allies before the men and resources of the United States could be fully deployed, following the US entry into the war in April the previous year [1917].

There were four German offensives planned – Michael, Georgette, Gneisenau and Blücher-Yorck.   Operation Michael was the initial main attack on the British Fifth Army and the right wing of the British Third Army. This started on 21 March 1918. It was intended to break through the Allied lines between the British and French armies and outflank the British forces before driving them to the Channel.   The Germans expected that the French would then seek an armistice. The other offensives were subsidiary and designed as diversions.

The Allies had concentrated their main forces to defend the approaches to the Channel Ports and the strategic city of Amiens. They had left the more ‘worthless’ and devastated ground in the Somme area more lightly defended.

The First Battles of the Somme in the defence against Operation Michael can be divided as below, however the nature of these many defensive actions in so many places makes it difficult to apportion Rugby’s many casualties to any particular Action without further detailed study:[1]

Battle of St. Quentin, 21–23 March

Actions at the Somme crossings, 24–25 March

First Battle of Bapaume, 24–25 March

Battle of Rosières, 26–27 March

First Battle of Arras, 28 March

Battle of the Avre, 4 April 1918

Battle of the Ancre, 5 April 1918

To enable their initial breakthrough, the German artillery developed an effective and economical phased creeping barrage scheme: first, a brief bombardment on command and communications; then, destruction of artillery; and lastly an attack on the front-line infantry. The artillery bombardment began at 4.40am on 21 March 1918, and hit targets over an area of 150 square miles. It was claimed to be the biggest barrage of the entire war – over 1,100,000 shells were fired in five hours.[2]

The German army had concentrated its best and most experienced troops into specially trained self-supporting ‘storm-trooper’ units, to infiltrate and bypass the Allied front line units, leaving any strong points to be ‘mopped-up’ later. Whilst this gave the German army an initial advantage in the attack, many of these specialist formations suffered very heavy casualties and the quality of the remaining units, without their more experienced men, proved to be less effective. The Germans failed exploit their gains and the following German infantry, attacking in large waves, also suffered heavy casualties.

During this period, the allies were moving back, fighting rearguard actions at a very heavy cost in casualties. There were very poor trench-lines in the areas recently handed over to the British by the French – indeed, in some cases, the expected trench lines were merely marked by the removal of the turf! Defence had depended on strong-points and when these were by-passed and later surrounded, the men fought to the last of their ammunition and were then killed or captured as they tried to fight back through the Germans to their own lines. A large number were forced to surrender and were taken prisoners.

In the critical period from 21 March to end April 1918, some 27 men from Rugby were killed in action or died from wounds in France and Belgium: 12 in March and 15 in April. They were from a wide range of units, as all available men were thrown into the many desperate defensive actions.

Because the Germans were moving forward, there were many casualties whose bodies were not recovered or identified and these men are now remembered on Memorials to the Missing. Large numbers were also taken prisoner and their fate was not always known until after the war.

However, the German army had also suffered heavy casualties, and these were of their specialist and experienced troops. Also, because of their rapid initial progress, the Germans were unable to move supplies and reinforcements forward fast enough to maintain their advance and the offensives petered out. By late April 1918, the danger of a German breakthrough had passed and they were left holding ground on the old Somme battlefields which was now of dubious value and which would prove impossible to hold with their depleted units.

After the situation stabilised somewhat in May 1918, five more men from Rugby were lost during the month, and another eight in June, two of them from the newly renamed Royal Air Force, as the German advance faltered and counter-attacks to stabilise the line were carried out. A number died of wounds which meant that they were at least recovered to a first aid process, rather than being completely lost.

In August 1918, the Allies began a counter-offensive with the support of great numbers of American troops and started using new artillery techniques and more effective operational methods. This ‘Hundred Days’ Offensive’ resulted in the Germans retreating or being driven from all of the ground taken in the Spring Offensive, the collapse of the Hindenburg Line and the capitulation of the German Empire in November.

[1]    Information edited from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spring_Offensive. – For a more detailed description, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Michael#St._Quentin. For further information see, Muirland, Jerry, Retreat and Rearguard Somme 1918 – the Fifth Army Retreat, Pen & Sword Books, ISBN: 978 1 78159 2670, 2014.

[2]       Other references say 3,500,000 shells.

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16 thoughts on “The 1918 Spring Offensive – Operation Michael

  1. Pingback: Bicknell, Albert Victor. Died 21st Mar 1918 | Rugby Remembers

  2. Pingback: Chambers, Charles William. Died 21st Mar 1918 | Rugby Remembers

  3. Pingback: Haggar, William Muston. Died 21st Mar 1918 | Rugby Remembers

  4. Pingback: Hardman, Charles Henry. Died 21st Mar 1918. | Rugby Remembers

  5. Pingback: Reeve, Frank Basham. Died 21st Mar 1918 | Rugby Remembers

  6. Pingback: Smith, Thomas J L. Died 21st Mar 1918 | Rugby Remembers

  7. Pingback: Chant, George Frederick. Died 23rd Mar 1918 | Rugby Remembers

  8. Pingback: Keats, Bernard. Died 26th Mar 1918. | Rugby Remembers

  9. Pingback: Sharman, Percy John. Died 1st Apr 1918 | Rugby Remembers

  10. Pingback: Mann, George Henry. Died 3rd Apr 1918 | Rugby Remembers

  11. Pingback: Burton, Alfred Joseph. Died 5th Apr 1918 | Rugby Remembers

  12. Pingback: Elson, Alfred William. Died 6th Apr 1918 | Rugby Remembers

  13. Pingback: Hall, Sidney George. Died 11th Apr 1918 | Rugby Remembers

  14. Pingback: Packwood, William Henry. Died 12th Apr 1918 | Rugby Remembers

  15. Pingback: Barnwell, George Woodruffe. Died 13th Apr 1918 | Rugby Remembers

  16. Pingback: Wilson, Robert Victor. Died 13th Apr 1918 | Rugby Remembers

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