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Official History of the Otago Regiment, N.Z.E.F. in the Great War 1914-1918

Battle of St. Quentin

Battle of St. Quentin.

It is necessary to briefly review the situation which obtained on the Western Front at the beginning of 1918. Russia had ceased to exist as an active belligerent Power on the side of the Allies, and the transfer of German and Austrian Divisions from the Russian to the Western Theatre of War had already commenced. This gave the enemy a definite numerical superiority. The American Army to come was in a mere stage of development. Consequent upon these events, the British Army set itself a policy of defence; but there were certain considerations which tended to limit this defensive policy. In January, 1918, after protracted deliberations, the British relieved the French of about 28 miles of front, and with this extension to the right the British Army was holding a front which stretched over a distance of approximately 125 miles. The exhausting operations conducted at the close of 1917 had seriously drained the strength of the Army, and when the German blow fell in March, 1918, it would seem that the British Army was still deficient of the necessary reserve of strength.

Certain it was that the enemy was about to launch a formidable offensive. Frequent air reconnaissances indicated that communications by road and rail were being extended, and that great ammunition and supply dumps were being established in rear of the whole enemy front from Flanders to the Oise. In his Despatch covering events of that period, Sir Douglas Haig, Commander-in-Chief of the British Armies, stated that on the 19th March his Intelligence Department reported that the final stages of the enemy's preparations for an offensive on the Arras-St. Quentin front were approaching completion, and that from information obtained it was probable the actual attack would be launched on March 20th page 273 or 21st. "On our side," he added, "our dispositions were as complete as the time and troops available could make them."

The Armies holding the front affected were the Fifth and the Third. The front of the Fifth Army, at that stage commanded by General Sir H. Gough, extended from the junction with the French, just south of Barisis, to north of Gouzeaucourt, a distance of about 42 miles. The Third Army, under the command of General the Hon. Sir Julian Byng, held a front of approximately 27 miles, from north of Gouzeaucourt, to south of Gavrelle.

The great German Offensive was launched on March 21st on a front of about 54 miles; and on March 28th extended northwards until from La Fere to beyond Gavrelle about 63 miles of our original front were involved. According to estimates, a total of 73 German divisions were engaged against the Third and Fifth Armies and the right of the First Army, and were opposed in the first instance by 22 British infantry divisions in line, with 12 infantry divisions and three cavalry divisions in close reserve. Additional reserves were hurriedly collected from other parts of the front, once the enemy's intentions became known. Before the end of March a further eight British divisions had been brought south and committed to the battle, and by April 9th an additional four divisions had arrived.

The opening of the German attack was signalled at 5 o'clock on the morning of March 21st by a bombardment of terrible intensity with gas and high explosive shells from guns of all calibres directed along the front and back areas of the Fifth and Third Armies from the Oise to the Scarpe River. Heavy bombardments on other parts of the Western Front broke out simultaneously. Shortly after 9 o'clock the infantry assault had been launched along the whole of the selected front. Following upon this terrific artillery preparation, and under cover of a dense fog, great masses of German infantry swept forward to the attack, completely overwhelmed the British foremost defences and advanced field guns, and by midday had reached the first line of battle positions on almost the whole front of the attack. The most desperate resistance was unavailing against this avalanche. Attack followed upon attack, and a break-page 274through by the enemy at one point imperilled the position and compelled a withdrawal at another. The offensive was renewed with equal determination on the 22nd, and despite heavy losses inflicted on the enemy at short range, the British had again to give ground under the weight of the onslaught. By the evening of the second day of the battle, the enemy had penetrated to the third zone of defence at several points. The whole of the resources at the command of the Fifth Army had already been committed to the fight, and a withdrawal to the bridgeheads east of the Somme was inevitable.

On the morning of the 23rd the Fifth Army Commander, in order to avoid almost certain defeat by committing his exhausted divisions to an engagement with fresh and vastly superior numbers, decided to continue the withdrawal to the west bank of the Somme. Retractions were also necessary on the front of the Third Army; and at the junction of the two Armies the position became critical. One result of these retirements was that divisions and brigades lost touch, and with the enemy, now flushed with success, maintaining an incessant pressure, the rearward movement continued. The days of the 24th and 25th were equally disastrous. On the 24th the III. Corps (the right Corps of the Fifth Army) passed under the command of the French Third Army, and French troops were coming rapidly to its assistance. On the 25th the situation over the front of the Third Army had improved, and there were hopes that the enemy would be stopped north of the Somme and the line of the Ancre held. South of the Somme there was more cause for anxiety. The troops had reached a state of almost complete exhaustion; and it was not to be wondered at that serious demoralisation and disorganisation had set in.

On the night of the 25th orders were given that in the event of the enemy continuing his attacks in strength, the divisions affected should fall back to the approximate line Le Quesnoy-Rosieres-Proyart, and the Fifth Army link up with the right of the Third Army at Bray. The enemy did resume his assaults on the morning of the 26th, south-westwards and westwards from Nesle, also about Hattencourt, in the neighbourhood of the St. Quentin-Amiens Road, and at Herbecourt. The withdrawal accordingly commenced and page 275 the new line was taken up. North of the Somme the situation was becoming more settled, although a dangerous gap existed between the V. and IV. Corps of the Third Army, over the area between Hamel and Puisieux. It was into this gap that the New Zealand Division, which had travelled by rail and forced march from the north, was thrown, definitely arresting the enemy's advance about Colincamps and Beaumont Hamel, and then quickly hurling him back from the high ground which gave him observation far to our rear. It was on the 26th of March that General Foch assumed supreme command of the Allied Forces on the Western Front.

On the 27th, again attacking in great strength against the greater part of the Fifth Army front and against the French, the enemy continued to gain ground. An unfortunate retirement to beyond the Bray-sur-Somme-Albert line on the previous day precipitated a withdrawal further south, and the great railway junction of Amiens, towards which the German wedge had been driven to a depth of over 40 miles from the starting point, became imperilled. At the close of the day of the 27th the approximate line held at this point was the defence of Amiens. On the 28th the enemy renewed his attacks with great violence, notably from Puisieux to north-east of Arras, which represented an extension of the original front so far as the northern flank was concerned. While gaining ground at many points, the Germans failed to achieve the dramatic successes of the preceding days. The great force was expending itself, and the resistance was becoming more durable. Two further efforts, the first on April 4th, south of the Somme, and the second on April 5th, north of the Somme, were no more successful. The stupendous Battle of St. Quentin was at an end.