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The Official History of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade

Part 1.—the General Situation

page 342

Part 1.—the General Situation.

Ready for a vigorous offensive—Opposing forces—The turning point—Renewed German thrust towards Paris—Foch's counter-stroke, July 18th—Allied plans—Battle of Amiens, August 8th, and advance to the edge of the old Somme Battlefield—Attack transferred north of the Somme—The New Zealanders' pressure at Hebuterne—Plans for the Battle of Bapaume.

It was now becoming abundantly evident that on the Western Front the Allies were drawing near to the close of the stage of transition from the period of active defence to that of vigorous offence. The interval of comparative quiet since the holding up, at the end of April, of the German advance, had effected a striking improvement in the condition of the British Armies. Despite our losses in guns during March and April, we were now stronger in artillery than ever we had been. Drafts from England and reinforcements from abroad had been absorbed and trained, with the result that the number of effective Divisions had increased from forty-five to fifty-two. Reinforcements for the French Armies had been largely augmented; and with the arrival of a million troops despatched from America on July 2nd, the opposing forces were rapidly approaching an equilibrium in strength. Harassing operations had been carried on steadily on the Lys front and east of Amiens throughout May, June, and the early days of July, resulting not only in the improvement of our positions, but in a very great aggregate loss to the enemy in men and material.

The turning-point in the year's campaign was marked by the Allied counter-attack on July 18th near Soissons. The enemy's second great offensive had opened on May 27th, when with twenty-eight Divisions, supported by tanks, he attacked the French Sixth Army on a front of thirty-five miles north-west of Rheims. In this thrust on Paris he took Soissons, and page 343for the second time reached the Marne. On July 15th the enemy launched his third great offensive, directing his attack east and south of Rheims. He succeeded in crossing the Marne, but was held by the French, American and Italian forces. These enemy thrusts had been expected, and Marshal Foch had completed his preparations for a great counter-stroke. This he delivered on July 18th with such definite success as to effect a complete change in the whole military situation. The enemy's ambitious offensive collapsed. The bulk of his accumulated reserves had been used up, and the period of maximum strength was past. Plans were immediately made for a converging advance, the French and Americans towards Mezieres, the British towards Maubeuge, two great railway centres near the Belgian frontier. If these operations should be successful, and the advantage fully exploited, the German lateral communications in this region would be cut, and those in Flanders seriously threatened.

The British attack opened with the Battle of Amiens on August 8th, when the Fourth Army, with which the French First Army co-operated on the right, struck on a front of over eleven miles from the Amiens-Roye Road to Morlancourt. The object was to free the main Paris-Amiens railway and then to cut the enemy's communications by seizing the important railway centre of Chaulnes. The troops employed were the Canadian Corps on the right, the Australian Corps in the centre, and the IIIrd Corps on the left. Behind the British line, the British Cavalry Corps, a special mobile force of two Motor Machine Gun Brigades, and a Canadian Cyclist Battalion, were placed in readiness to exploit successes. The attack was a complete surprise, and resulted in a series of brilliant victories. By nightfall on August 12th the advance had reached the line of the original Roye-Chaulnes defences on the edge of the old Somme battlefield. The French had also made rapid and deep progress, and had taken Montdidier in their stride.

The enemy was now found to have heavily reinforced this front, and, while our pressure was steadily maintained in order to deceive, the front of attack was transferred north of the Somme, where the Third Army was ordered to operate in the direction of Bapaume, and so turn the line of the old Somme defences from the north.

page 344

Opposite the sector held by the New Zealand Division east of Hebuterne, the enemy's line formed a small salient, the area of which we had reduced considerably by the minor operations in July already described. Disappointment had been felt when we were not permitted to exploit these successes. The reason for thus holding our hands now became apparent, for on August 14th, after the Battle of Amiens, the enemy began to withdraw from this salient voluntarily, and the role of the 1st and 2nd Brigades, then in the line, was merely to follow him up, keep touch, and continue such pressure as would hasten his movement.* This was maintained with such vigour that by evening the Divisional front had advanced to the line Serre-Box Wood-Fork Wood, and by the 17th to the western out-skirts of Puisieux-au-Mont.

On August 18th the New Zealand Rifle Brigade relieved the 2nd Brigade and details of the 3/317th American Regiment in the right sub-sector, and next day took over the whole Divisional front extending from a point about 1,000 yards south of Puisieux to a point a similar distance south of Buequoy. The maximum strength of units in the line was fixed at 640, any surplus being sent back to the Details' Camp.

The great series of engagements extending over the period of twelve days from August 21st to September 1st, and known as the Battle of Bapaume, was about to commence. The object of this attack, in a south-easterly direction on the front between Albert and Arras, was to turn the line of the Somme south of Peronne, thus constituting a step forward towards the strategic objective St. Quentin-Cambrai.

The general plan was for the Third Army to deliver, on August 21st, a limited attack north of the Anere, to gain the enemy's main line of resistance on the Arras-Albert Railway. On the following day the Fourth Army would swing forward its left flank between the Somme and the Anere, and then on August 23rd the main attack would be delivered by the Third Army and those Divisions of the Fourth Army which were north of the Somme. Following upon the success of the Third Army, the First Army was to extend the frontage of the attack page 345as far north as the Sensee River, and, by turning the western extremity of the Hindenburg Line, compel the enemy to make a further retreat.

* At about the same time, as a further result of the Amiens reverse the enemy prepared to abandon the salient on the Lys front also.