Monday, April 30, 2012

The BEF’s preparations for and conduct of the defensive battles during the spring of 1918 – Part 9

Back to Part 8

Operation Michael

The fog on the morning of 21 March 1918 caused problems to both sides.  With its Forward Zone paralysed, much of its artillery suppressed, and communications severely disrupted by the initial German barrage, the fog proved more problematic to the BEF.  Within the first few hours of the German infantry assault 47 battalions, deployed in the Forward Zone, had disappeared from the BEF’s order of battle (Gray, Kaiserschlacht 1918, p 36.).  At the end of the first day Maxse, XVIII Corps commander, was to report to Gough that all nine of his battalions deployed in the Forward Zone had been almost annihilated (Gough, The Fifth Army, p 267.).  When the fighting stopped at the end of the first day German stormtroopers had penetrated up to 8,000 yards behind the British front in some places.  The greatest losses were experienced at the southern end of 5th Army’s front where III Corps, outnumbered eight to one, had been pushed out of its Battle Zone (J.P. Harris, Douglas Haig and the First World War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), p. 447 and, Middlebrook The Kaisers Battle p. 274.).

GHQ was slow to appreciate the true impact of the days fighting.  Chief of the General Staff, Lawrence, during a phone call with Gough, went so far as to speculate that:

‘the Germans would not come on again the next day’Gough, The Fifth Army p. 271.

The two GHQ reserve divisions, earmarked as 5th Army reserves, had been released to Gough and were being fed piecemeal into the line.  The promised French divisions were not immediately available.  French G.Q.G believed a German offensive in Champagne was highly likely having been misled by a German signals deception plan that created a false Army opposite the French front.  The first French division arrived on 22 March.  Additional BEF reserves were to be moved south with 3rd Army receiving the first divisions, 5th Army would have to hold on with what it had.  Gough had little choice but to implement his ‘gradual retirement’.  At 10.45 a.m. on 22 March 1918 he authorised a general retreat.  At this stage the ‘fog of war’ descended on both sides.

Confusion over Gough’s withdrawal orders compounded by growing command dislocation within 5th Army on 22 March resulted in Maxse’s XVIII Corps retiring prematurely to the Somme river, leaving Watt’s XIX Corps to its north with an exposed right flank, and Butler’s III Corps the same problem on its left.  Coincident with this, and perhaps because of it, Ludendorff decided to switch the main focus of the German attack to the south to take advantage of the success against III Corps; the aim was to force a split between the French and British armies.  It was arguably this switch in focus that doomed the offensive to failure.

By the 26 March with the BEF on the verge of pulling back and northwards, effectively abandoning 5th Army, after 3rd Army’s withdrawal from the Flesquieres salient had left a gap between 3rd and 5th Armies (the Flesquieres salient had been held by Byng’s 3rd Army against Haig’s better judgement), and the French looking to cover Paris, the allies finally unified their commands under General Foch.  Whilst not necessarily saving the day the appointment of Foch as ‘Generalissimo’ served to steady both Haig and Pétain, improved allied understanding and coordination, and prevented a catastrophic split between the two allied armies.

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