Monday, May 21, 2012

The BEF’s preparations for and conduct of the defensive battles during the spring of 1918 – Part 11

Back to Part 10


On 21 March 1918 the Germans, assisted by fog, employed a revolutionary attack method, combined with significant local numerical superiority, in an offensive that highlighted obvious failures in the BEF’s understanding and application of their new defence-in-depth doctrine.  This failure was compounded by a manpower shortage resulting in an enforced reorganisation, and an extension to the British line that, due to the manpower constrains, resulted in incomplete defences.  The corollary, with the BEF attempting to implement a new defensive doctrine, was the compromise of vital training.  Significantly though when the German numerical superiority was not so great (Operation Mars) the offensives were contained and the defensive failings, although present, were less evident [Comparison of numbers: ‘On the 21st March 40 divisions against 111/3 (north of the Oise); on 28th, 9 against 4.’. (Edmonds, Military Operations France and Belgium 1918 Vol 2, p. 478.)].  The Official History alludes to the fact that but for the collapse of the 2nd Portuguese division Operation Georgette would have been more easily contained.

‘…it seems unlikely that the enemy would have had any such success as he did in the Lys offensive had not the Portuguese 2nd Division given way and left a large gap in the front.’ Edmonds, Military Operations France and Belgium 1918 Vol 2, p. 478.

Contrary to Travers’ implication the BEF was learning, as early as 5 April 1918, ‘Notes on Recent Fighting No 1’, containing an analysis of the lessons from 21-22 March was published and issued down to Brigade level.  Travers states that ‘…GHQ did not issue a document on defence tactics until May 1918…’ (Travers, How the War was Won, p. 93).  In reality As early as 5 April during the first phase of the German offensive, GHQ issued the first of a long series of “Notes on Recent Fighting” in which an analysis of the lessons 21-22 March were “issued down to brigades”.’  (Gary Sheffield, 1918: Defining Victory, The Indispensible Factor: The Performance of British Troops in 1918, p. 6.).  Arguably GHQ’s mistake was to expect to implement a doctrinal change on this scale to an under strength and overstretched BEF within the time available.  On the 21 March 1918 GHQ knew they had a problem, the BEF were just starting to learn how to defend.

When the offensive started;  ‘The BEF remained undertrained in the methods of dynamic defence appropriate to the new lay out, and GHQ was aware of this.’  Harris, Douglas Haig and the First World War, p. 436.

Fortunately for the allies Ludendorff had chosen to leave a significant number of his troops in Russia, including his cavalry, and in March 1918 the Germans had not worked out how to exploit the success of their breakthroughs.


Primary Sources

National Archives

CAB/23/1, Image Reference 0039
War Cabinet Minutes. War Cabinet 39, (19 January 1917)

CAB/23/5, Image Reference 0014
War Cabinet Minutes. War Cabinet 322, (15 January 1918)

CAB/23/5, Image Reference 0063
War Cabinet Minutes. War Cabinet 371, (23 March 1918)

CAB/23/13, Image Reference 0035
War Cabinet Minutes. War Cabinet 316A, (17 January 1918)

CAB/23/44/B, Image Reference 0007
War Cabinet Minutes. War Cabinet 316, (17 January 1918)

CAB/24/4, Image Reference 0024
Geddes, Memorandum by the Minister of National Service, Problem of the Maintenance of the Armed Forces, (15 November 1917)

CAB/24/4, Image Reference 0030
War Cabinet. Report of Cabinet on War Policy, (10 August 1917)

CAB/24/19, Image Reference 0097
Hankey, War Cabinet. Notes on the Manpower Problem, (14 July 1917)

CAB/24/20, Image Reference 0083
Geddes, War Cabinet Memorandum. The Theory and Practice of Recruiting, (23 July 1917)

CAB/24/25, Image Reference 0026
War Cabinet. The Development of the Military Plans of the Allies in the Principle Theatres of War During 1917, (1 September 1917)

CAB/24/34, Image Reference 0084
Haig, GHQ Letters, Extension of British Front, (2 December 1917)

CAB/24/38, Image Reference 0011

CAB/24/58, Image Reference 0090
Pearson, War Cabinet. Report on Labour Organisation in France, (11 March 1918)

CAB/25/15, Image Reference 0046
War Cabinet. Memorandum on the Military Situation and the problem of Man-Power, (1917)

CAB/25/15, Image Reference 0066
Memorandum by the Adjutant General to the Army Council regarding The Position and Prospects of Recruiting, (31 May 1917)


Haig, Douglas (Eds Sheffield, Gary and Bourne, John)
Douglas Haig War Diaries and Letters 1914-1918 (London, Phoenix, 2006)

Secondary Sources

Unit Histories

Marden, T.O. (Ed)
A Short History of the 6th Division, Aug 1914 – Mar 1919 (London, Hugh Rees, 1920), accessed via project Gutenburg.

Roberts, Glynne & Herbert, Enos
The Story of the "9th King's" in France (Liverpool, Northern Publishing, 1922), accessed via project Gutenburg.

Rose, G.K.
The Story of the 2/4th Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry (Oxford, Blackwell, not dated), accessed via project Gutenburg.

The Story of the 6th Battalion, The Durham Light Infantry France, April 1915-November 1918 (London, St Catherine Press, 1919), accessed via project Gutenburg.

The Seventeenth Highland Light Infantry (Glasglow Chamber of Commerce Battalion) Record of War
Service, 1914-1918 (Glasgow, David Clark, 1920), accessed via project Gutenburg.

Weetman, W
The Sherwood Foresters in the Great War 1914-1918 (Nottingham, Forman & Sons, 1920), accessed via project Gutenburg.

Wilson, S.J.
The Seventh Manchesters July 1916 to March 1919 (Manchester University Press, 1920), accessed via project Gutenburg.


Baynes, John
Far From a Donkey (London, Brassey’s, 1995)

Bowman, Timothy
Irish Regiments in the Great War: Discipline and Morale (Manchester University Press, 2004)

Brown, Ian Malcolm
British Logistics on the Western Front 1914-1918 (London, Greenwood Press, 1998)

Dockrill, Michael & French, David
Strategy and Intelligence, British Policy During the First World War (Continuum International, 1996)

Edmonds, James
Official History of the War: Military Operations France and Belgium 1918 Vol 2 (Nashville, Battery Press, 1995)

Evans, Martin Matrix
1918 The Year of Victories (London, Index, 2004)

Gough, Hubert
The Fifth Army (London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1931)

Gray, Randal
Kaiserschlacht 1918 The Final German Offensive (London, Osprey,1991)

Harris, J.P.
Douglas Haig and the First World War (Cambridge University Press, 2008)

Hart, Peter
1918 A Very British Victory (London, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2008)

Lloyd George, David
War Memoirs of David Lloyd George Volume II (London, Odhams, not dated)

Ludendorff, Erich
Ludendorff's own story, August 1914-November 1918; the Great War from the siege of Liège to the signing of the armistice as viewed from the grand headquarters of the German Army Vol 2 (London, Harper & Brothers, 1919)

Middlebrook, Martin
The Kaiser’s Battle (Barnsley, Pen & Sword, 2007)

Moorhouse, Brendon
Forged by Fire, The Battle Tactics and Soldiers of a World War One Battalion (Staplehurst, Spellmount, 2003)

Neillands, Robin
The Great War Generals on the Western Front 1914-1918 (London, Constable, 2004)

Occleshaw, Michael
Armour against Fate: British Military Intelligence in the First World War (London, Columbus Books, 1989)

Samuels, Martin
Doctrine and Dogma: German and British, Infantry Tactics in the First World War (New York, Greenwood Press, 1992)

Sheffield, Gary
Forgotten Victory (London, Headline, 2002)

Simpson, Andy
The Evolution of Victory, British Battles on the Western Front 1914-1918 (London, Tom Donovan, 1995)

Stevenson, David
1914 1918 The History of the First World War (London, Penguin, 2005)

Travers, Tim
How the War was Won (Barnsley, Pen & Sword, 2005)

Travers, Tim
The Killing Ground (Barnsley, Pen & Sword, 2003)

Journals and Periodicals

Carey, P.R.

Ferris, John
‘The British army and signals intelligence in the field during the First World War’, Journal of Strategic Studies, 3, (4), (March 1988)

Edmonds, J.E.
‘The Fifth Army in March, 1918’, Royal United Services Institute Journal, 82, (February 1937)

Greenhalgh, Elizabeth
‘David Lloyd George, Georges Clemenceau, and the 1918 Manpower Crisis’, The Historical Journal, 50, (2), (2007)

Greenhalgh, Elizabeth
‘Myth and Memory: Sir Douglas Haig and the Imposition of Allied Unified Command in March 1918’, The Journal of Military History, 68, (3), (July 2004)

Greenhous, Brereton
‘Evolution of a Close Ground-Support Role for Aircraft in World War 1’, Military Affairs, 39, (1), (February 1975)

Grieves, Keith
‘Total War?: The quest for a British manpower policy, 1917-18’, Journal of Strategic Studies, 9, (1), (March 1986)

Terraine, John
‘The March Offensive 1918: Part 1’, History Today, 18, (3), (March 1968)

Terraine, John
‘The March Offensive 1918: Part 2’, History Today, 18, (4), (March 1968)

Travers, Tim
‘The Evolution of British Strategy and Tactics on the Western Front in 1918: GHQ, Manpower, and Technology’, The Journal of Military History, 54, (2), (April 1990)

Woodward, David R.
‘Did Lloyd George Starve the British Army of Men Prior to the German Offensive of 21 March 1918?’, The Historical Journal, 27, (1), (March 1984)


Brown, Ian

Griffiths, William

Sheffield, Gary

Lupfer, Timothy

Prior, Robin & Wilson, Trevor

Stackpole, Patrick


Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The BEF’s preparations for and conduct of the defensive battles during the spring of 1918 – Part 10

Back to Part 9

Operation Mars

Towards the end of March, with Allied reinforcements in place, the German assault lost its momentum.  German attacks had become less sophisticated with conventional infantry assault tactics being adopted by ill trained ‘trench’ divisions, a result of the high rate of casualties sustained by the stormtrooper divisions.  German artillery support had become negligible.  The German supply lines were fully stretched and exposed to constant harassment by the RFC.  The supply problems were magnified by them having to pass through the ‘devastated’ zone, an area created by the Germans themselves on their withdrawal to the Hindenburg line in 1917.  On the 28 March Ludendorff, realizing perhaps that his offensive had been sidetracked in favour of exploiting local success, attempted to put Michael back on track.  A hastily prepared 29 division assault, Operation Mars, was launched against the left flank of BEF 3rd Army where it linked with 1st Army.  The attack failed and was cancelled on the day it began.  The failure was it part due to faulty German tactics but also the defences attacked were stronger and the new defensive principles, particularly in the area held by XIII Corps in 1st Army, were correctly applied.  Ludendorff realising that ‘Michael’ had failed switched his attack.

Operation Georgette

Ludendorff had wanted to follow Operation Michael immediately with the previously planned Operation George.  The Germans were however exhausted, and the resources no longer existed with which to implement the full operation.  A scaled down version, Operation Georgette, comprising a sharp thrust in the direction of Hazebrouck, intended to isolate the bulk of the BEF forces in the Ypres salient and force a general withdrawal, was implemented.  The attack began on 9 April following a ‘Michael’ style artillery barrage.  The Portuguese 2nd division in the path of the main attack were rapidly overrun.  The British 55th division to the south refused their left flank and formed a firm defensive line.  To the north the British 40th division was outflanked and attacked from the rear.  On day two the Germans widened their attack to the north capturing most of the Messines ridge.  By the end of the day the British were hard-pressed to hold a line along the river Lys.

In the Lys area like the Somme differences were evident in the defensive principles employed by BEF units.  Even in the 55th division, which stubbornly held its position, an understanding of the defence-in-depth principles were lacking.  The 55th divisional commander wrote in reference to the term “Battle Zone”:

‘To this day I don’t clearly comprehend what this term implies – nor have I met anybody who did.’  Travers, How the War was Won p. 93.

The key difference between the Georgette and Michael offensives was the availability of BEF reserves that allowed a defensive line to be maintained:

‘In the Lys fighting in April, reserves, if only in small number, were available, and, in spite of the gap left by the Portuguese, a defensive line was formed and maintained.’ Edmonds, Military Operations France and Belgium 1918 Vol 2, p. 480.

After a week sufficient allied reserves had arrived and with German logistical problems making themselves felt the offensive began to lose momentum, stopping finally on 29 April.

Next: Conclusion