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The Official History of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade

Part 1.—The German Thrust at Amiens

page 271

Part 1.—The German Thrust at Amiens.

General situation—Expected German offensive—Opposing forces —Enemy offensive opens, March 21st—Enemy successes—Amiens threatened—Marshal Foch in supreme command of the Allied Armies—Situation on the Ancre.

When the Third Battle of Ypres ended early in November, 1917, Russian resistance in the eastern theatre of war had entirely ceased, and the situation on the Italian front was extremely grave. Already the transfer of German Divisions from the Russian to the western front had begun, and it wag recognized that this movement would continue until the fighting strength of the enemy had become vastly superior to that of the Allies. The growth of the American forces in France could not be expected to keep pace with this development for Some time to come. Moreover, negotiations were in progress for the taking-over by the British of some twenty-eight miles of the French front by the end of January, 1918, and for the withdrawal of the French First Army that had been co-operating with us in the recent fighting north of Ypres. It was clear that for a time the initiative must pass from the Allies to the Germans. A defensive policy was therefore adopted, and preparations were made to meet a strong and sustained hostile offensive.

By the end of February, 1918, it became evident that the enemy was about to attack our Third and Fifth Armies on the Arras-St. Quentin front, from the Sensee River southwards, with the double object of severing the connection between the French and British Armies, and advancing on Amiens and capturing that vitally important centre of communications. To meet the attack, which was expected to open on March 20th or 21st, more than half the available troops were allotted to the defence of the threatened sector; and arrangements were made for the co-operation of the French and for the rapid transport of reserves from other fronts as occasion might demand.

page 272

The Fifth Army was on the British right, and held forty-two miles of line from Barisis to Gouzeaucourt, the average frontage per Division being 6,750 yards. The Third Army held about 27 miles from Gouzeaucourt northwards to Gavrelle, with 4,700 yards as the average length of line per Division. The average for the enemy was 1,200 yards.

By March 21st the number of German Infantry Divisions in the western Theatre had risen from 146 to 192, an increase of nearly one-third. On the first day of the attack on our Fifth and Third Armies the Germans employed no fewer than 64 Divisions, a number considerably exceeding the total forces composing the entire British Army in France. Opposed to this huge concentration were 29 Infantry and three Cavalry Divisions, just half the number of enemy Divisions. As the attack developed, the number of German Divisions rose to 73, and by the time his advance was held up our own numbered 49.

The long-expected assault commenced on the morning of March 21st, on a front of 54 miles between the Oise and the Sensee Rivers. Until 1 p.m. dense white fog covered the ground, rendering it impossible to see more than fifty yards in any direction. This was a doubly advantage to the enemy, for, while his numbers made it difficult for him to lose direction, the lack of visibility nut only prevented the British artillery from distinguishing the S.O.S. signals sent up from the outpost line, but also hindered the work of the crews of machine-guns and forward field-pieces, for they were unable to pick up targets until too late to be effective. The enemy also had in his favour an advantage denied to the British in our 1917 offensive—an unusually dry spring.

The attacking forces met with immediate success at many points, and by sheer weight of numbers the enemy's advance progressed from day to day until eventually practically the whole of the Fifth Army and part of the Third were pressed back. By March 25th the British had lost most of their previous gains on the Somme battlefield, and the enemy's thrust at Amiens seemed likely of achievement. The French were as rapidly as possible taking over that part of our battle-front running from Peronne southwards. In accordance with the decision of the Governments of Prance and Great Britain, the page 273supremo control of the operations of the French and British forces in France and Belgium was taken over by General Foch on March 26th.*

It is not expedient in this short history to follow in detail the developments over the whole battlefield. The New Zealand Rifle Brigade was more immediately concerned in the operations on the Third Army front in the region of the Ancre. The position there can best be understood by a consideration of the following extracts from Sir Douglas Haig's Despatch:—

"…During the night of 24th/25th March, constant fighting took place on the northern portion of the battle-front about Sapiguies and Behagnies, where the enemy made determined but unsuccessful efforts to break through. On the following day, the 25th, the enemy maintained great pressure on this front from Ervillers to the south. Shortly after dawn a very heavy attack on our positions east of the Arras-Bapaume Road between Favreuil and Ervillers was repulsed with great loss, and a counter-attack by the 42nd Division drove the enemy out of Kapignies. Later in the morning the 2nd Division beat off an attack at Ligny-Thilloy, and our positions north of this point were maintained practically unchanged until mid-day.

"At noon fresh attacks developed in great force, and the right of the IVth Corps, with which the Divisions of the Vth Corps were not in touch, were pressed back. The enemy gained (Irevillers, in which neighbourhood the 19th Division were hotly engaged, and also Bihucourt. North of this point our positions were substantially maintained, and at the end of the day our troops still held Ervillers. On the north bank page 274of the Somme, also, between the neighbourhood of Hem and Trones Wood, all the enemy's attacks were held.…Between Montauban and the neighbourhood of Grevillers, however, our troops had been unable to establish touch on the line to which they had withdrawn on 24th March. After heavy fighting throughout the morning and the early part of the afternoon, Divisions commenced to fall back individually towards the Ancre, widening the gap between the Vth and IVth Corps.

"During the afternoon the enemy reached Courcelette, and was pressing on through the gap in our line in the direction of Pys and Irles, seriously threatening the flank of the IVth Corps. It became clear that the Third Army, which on this day had assumed command of all troops north of the Somme, would have to continue the withdrawal of its centre to the line of the Rivn Ancre..…All possible steps were taken to secure this line, but by nightfall hostile patrols had reached the right bank of the Ancre north of Miraumont and were pushing forward between the flanks of the Vth and IVth Corps in the direction of Serre and Puisieux-au-Mont. In view of this situation, the IVth Corps fell back by stages during the night and morning to the line Bucquoy-Ablainzevelle, in touch with the VIth Corps about Bnyelles. On the right the remaining divisions of the Third Army were withdrawn under orders to the line Bray-sur-Somme-Albert, and thence took up positions along the west bank of the Ancre to the neighbourhood of Beaumont Hamel.…"

Thus, early on the morning of the 26th, a definite gap of three miles existed between Puisieux-au-Mont aud Beaumont Hamel, these places being opposite Hebuterne and Auchonvillers respectively; but the despatch goes on to say that for a further distance of two miles southward to Hamel, opposite Englebelmer, "the situation was not clear."

* In his introduction to the French edition of Sir Douglas Haig's Despatches, now published in book form, Marshal Foch writes a fine eulogy on the British Commander-in-Chief and his work. Referring to "the change in the decisive period when the Allies advanced to victory at the double, only to be stopped by the German capitulation at the Armistice," he states that in the Despatches "the results are briefly set forth, but their causes are not explained. All mention of the hand that guided the instrument is omitted," and goes on to say, "We maybe allowed to make good this deficiency, in which the all-important part played by the British Higher Command is lost to sight." Of the momentous decision to unify the command he writes in these graceful terms: "Was it not the insight of an experienced and enlightened Commander which led him to intervene as he did with his own Government on the 24th of March, 1918, and with the Allied Governments assembled at Dnullens on the 26th, to the end that the French and British armies might at once be placed under a single command, even though his personnl position should thereby suffer!.…"