The Allied leaders finally did what they should have long before and named a supreme commander for the Western Front. A conference was held at Doullens on the 26th March 1918, with ten Allied politicians and generals present. Their choice was French Marshal Ferdinand Foch and he was appointed on the 26th March 1918 to counter Erich Ludendorff’s German Spring Offensive, Foch unselfishly loaned French troops to the beleaguered British and the Allies weathered Ludendorff’s spring storm until American troops began to arrive in significant numbers.
Operation Michael – The Spring Offensive
With the signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk between the Central Powers and Russia, on the 3rd March 1918, the German army had available thousands of experienced troops. These troops would be deployed as reinforcements on the Western Front as part of the Spring Offensive. Operation Michael was a major German military offensive launched from the Hindenburg Line that began the Spring Offensive on the 21st March 1918. Starting from Saint-Quentin the goal was to break through the Allied lines and advance north-west to seize the Channel Ports, which supplied the British Expeditionary Force (BEF). Chief of the German General Staff, General Erich Ludendorff, changed the plan and headed due west along the British front north of the River Somme. The plan was to separate the French and British armies, by capturing the strategically important town of Amiens.
The Battle of St. Quentin began on the 21st March 1918, along a 60 km (40 mile) front. The German artillery bombardment began at 04.35 and lasted for five hours whereby over 3,500,000 shells were fired. The British front line was badly damaged. When the German infantry assault began at 09.40 they had mixed success. The 17th and 2nd Armies were unable to penetrate the Battle Zone, but the 18th Army reached its objectives. Early in the afternoon the German infantry broke through reaching the Battle Zone. The first day of the battle had been costly for the Germans, who had suffered more than 40,000 casualties, slightly more than was inflicted on the BEF. The attack had failed to isolate the Flesquières Salient. On the 22nd March 1918, British troops continued to fall back but the biggest danger facing the British was the 3rd and 5th armies might become separated. The first French troops entered the battle on the southern flank. During the daylight retreat British Engineers blew up both canal and railway bridges, but the Germans were soon able to cross the canal and advanced to the Crozat canal. Early on the 23rd March 1918, the Germans had crossed the Crozat canal and the British were retreating across the southernmost edge of the 1916 Somme battlefield. By the evening the German infantry were beginning to show signs of exhaustion, and their supplies and heavy artillery were lagging behind the advance. On the 24th March 1918, the British front line was badly fragmented and highly fluid, as the remnants of all divisions were fighting and moving in small bodies. By nightfall, the British had lost the line of the Somme.
The First Battle of Bapaume began in the late evening of the 24th March 1918, after enduring unceasing shelling, and Bapaume was evacuated. The whole of the British Third Army had retired seventeen miles (27 km). The new line, consisting partly of old trenches and partly shallow ones dug by the men themselves, started at Curlu on the Somme and ran past places well known during the first Battle of the Somme, and then extended north to Arras. Fresh British troops had been hurried into the region and were moved towards the vital rail centre of Amiens. The German breakthrough had occurred just to the north of the boundary between the British and French armies. The new focus of the German attack came close to splitting the British and French armies. As the British were forced further west, the need for French reinforcement became increasingly urgent. After three days the German infantry were exhausted and the advance slowed down, it became increasingly difficult to move artillery and supplies over the Somme battlefield of 1916 and the 1917 area vacated by the German retreat to the Hindenburg Line. German troops were surprised when they examined abandoned British supply dumps and they found the Allies had plenty of food despite the U-bout campaign. During a late night meeting between the British commander-in-chief Sir Douglas Haig and the French commander-in-chief General Pètain on the 24th March 1918, Pètain informed Haig the French were preparing to fall back to protect Paris, if the German advance continued. Haig requested a conference to resolve the French/British positions and the Doullens conference took place on the 26th March 1918. The British movements on the 25th March 1918 were confusing with different battalions and divisions being ordered to take up new positions. With the inability to locate anyone anywhere, constant orders were received to retire. The Royal Flying Corp (RFC) flew sorties at low altitude in order to impede the German advance, where they were particularly active west of Bapaume. Rear-guard actions by the cavalry of the Third Army slowed the German advance and the British had ordered a further retirement beyond the Ancre.
The Battle of Rosières was fought on the 26th & 27th March 1918. The Germans tried to capture the village of Colincamps, which is on the St. Quentin-Amiens road. The New Zealand forces held Colincamps and were there to fill the gap in the British lines. Twelve British Whippet tanks, which were far lighter and quicker than the Mark IVs, drove away two German battalions who were about to enter Colincamps. Nevertheless, the Germans were able to take the towns of Roye, Albert and Montdidier, but the British were able to hold onto the town of Rosières.
On the 28th March 1918, at the Third Battle of Arras, the focus of the German attack changed again, with the British 3rd Army based around Arras, being the objective. Twenty nine German Divisions attacked the 3rd Army but was repulsed. The German Army east of Arras advanced only 3km (2 miles) during the offensive, largely due to the British advantage on Vimy Ridge, the northern anchor of the British defences. The German operation known as Operation Mars was hastily prepared, to try to widen the breach in the 3rd Army lines but was repulsed, achieving little but German casualties. At the same time, German troops were advancing against the 5th Army, which was located south west from the original front at St. Quentin, had penetrated some 60 km (40 miles) reaching Montdidier. The 5th Army was thinly spread over a 38 mile (61 km) front which was forced into a rear-guard action. They contested every village, field and, on occasions every yard. With no reserves and no strongly defended line to its rear, and with eighty German divisions against fifteen British, the 5th Army fought the Somme offense to a standstill on the Ancre, not retreating beyond Villers-Bretonneux.
The last general German attack came at the First Battle of Villers-Bretonneux on the 30th March 1918, when the Germans renewed their assault on the French, south of the new Somme salient. In the meantime another German attack was being launched toward Amiens against the British. Some British ground was lost to the Germans as they advanced toward Amiens, but the attack was rapidly losing momentum. The Germans had suffered massive casualties during the battle. In some areas the advance slowed when German troops located and looted Allied supply depots. Stubborn resistance allowed the Allied forces to fall back to Bois de Hangar on the 5th April 1918.
On the 3rd March 1918, the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was signed by Russia and the Central Powers. The signing of the peace treaty ended Russia’s participation in the Great War. The treaty was signed at Brest-Litovsk after two months of negotiations. The treaty was agreed by the Bolshevik government under threat of further advances by the German and Austrian forces. According to the treaty, Soviet Russia defaulted on all of Imperial Russia’s commitments to the Triple Entente alliance of Russia, France and England. Vladimir Lenin, leader of Bolshevik government, requested that the Bolshevik representatives should get a quick treaty from the Germans to bring about an end to the war so that the Bolsheviks could concentrate on the work they needed to do in Russia itself. While Lenin wanted to accept the German peace proposals immediately, a majority of the Bolshevik Central Committee disagreed. The “Left Communists” believed that Germany and the other Central Powers were all on the verge of revolution. They wanted to continue the war while awaiting revolutions in these countries. Thus the Soviet delegation returned to the peace conference without instructions to sign the proposed peace treaty. After a temporary ceasefire, whilst the discussions were taking place, the Germans resumed hostilities on the 18th February 1918, seizing most of the Ukraine, Belarus, and the Baltic countries during Operation Faustschlag. Lenin again pressed for acceptance of the proposed terms. This time a majority of the Central Committee supported Lenin. The Soviet government sent a new delegation with instructions to accept the proposals. On the 3rd March 1918, the treaty was signed, and the new Soviet government agreed to terms worse than those they had previously rejected. In the Treaty, Bolshevik Russia ceded the Baltic States to Germany. Russia also ceded its province of Kars Oblast in the South Caucasus to the Ottoman Empire and recognised the independence of Ukraine. Congress Poland was not mentioned in the treaty, as the Germans refused to recognise the existence of any Polish representatives. The treaty marked Russia’s final withdrawal from the Great War. In all, the treaty took away territory that included a quarter of the population and industry of the former Russian Empire and nine-tenths of its coal mines. Lenin argued that though the treaty was harsh, it freed Bolsheviks up to deal with problems within Russia itself, and Lenin’s pragmatic, realistic approach enabled him to strengthen his hold on the party even more.
The Battle of Bakhmach was fought from the 8th to 13th March 1918. The city of Bakhmach, in the present day Ukraine, was fought over by the Czechoslovak Legion in Russia and German forces occupying Ukraine. When Russia signed the Brest-Litovsk peace treaty with Germany, it gave up control over the Ukraine. On the 8th March 1918 the Germans reached Bakhmach, an important railway hub and the Legion was in danger of being encircled. The threat was grave because captured legionnaires were summarily executed as traitors of Austro-Hungary. The Assault battalion of the Czechoslovak Army Corps of the Legion, together with the 6th and 9th Rifle Regiments, set up defensive arrangements for the city against the incoming German Infantry divisions. Not only was the fighting for the Bakhmach railway junction, but also for the bridge over the river Desna. On the 10th March 1918, the Czech Legion’s victory over the Germans, by holding the city, led to a negotiated truce. During the truce Czechoslovak armoured trains could freely pass through the Bakhmach railway junction. The Czechoslovak Legion (approximately 42,000 soldiers) set up an escape route from Russia via the Trans-Siberian railway. The armies of Germany and Austro-Hungary began to occupy the land on the 13th March 1918 without much resistance. Losses of the Legion were 145 killed, 210 wounded and 41 missing. An estimate of German losses was approximately 300 dead and hundreds wounded. The Battle of Bakhmach became one of the iconic symbols of Czechoslovakian Legions in their fight for independence.
When the Germans launched their spring offensive on the 21st March 1918, they introduced a new weapon to terrorise the people of Paris. The new weapon was the long-range railway–mounted Paris Gun, which could fire shells a distance of 120 kilometres (75 miles). Beginning on the 23rd March 1918, three hundred and three of these huge shells were fired into the city and on the 29th March 1918 one shell struck the St-Gervais-et-St-Protais Church, killing 88 civilians, approximately one third of the total casualties sustained in Paris. The Paris Gun was not a great military success as the 21 metre (69 ft.) long barrel required frequent replacements and the guns’ accuracy was only good enough to hit city-sized targets. The German objective was to build a psychological weapon to attack the morale of the Parisians, not to destroy the city itself. The gun was taken back to Germany in August 1918 as the Allied advances threatened its security. It is believed the guns were destroyed as they have never been found. Another enemy struck Paris in the spring of 1918, even deadlier than the German artillery, which was the outbreak of the European epidemic of the Spanish influenza.
Mesopotamia and the Middle East
When the British Army captured Jerusalem and Jericho during the Sinai and Palestine campaign in February 1918 the occupation of the Jordan valley began. The Battle of Tell ‘Asur took place between the 8th to 12th March 1918 and fighting was extended over an area from the Mediterranean to the edge of the Jordan valley. General Edmund Allenby’s Egyptian Expeditionary Force (EEF) right flank was secure but was not broad enough to support the planned operations across the Jordan to the Hedjaz railway. During these operations a general advance on a front of 14-26 miles (23-42 km) was required. The British infantry attacked two separate Turkish defending forces on the 8th March 1918. The British XXI Corps engaged with the Turkish Eighth Army along the Mediterranean coast. The final objective was the line near the ancient town of Arsuf which the XXI Corps took on the 10th March 1918. The Turkish forces evacuated the area on the 11th March 1918 leaving behind 112 soldiers who were taken prisoner and about 40 dead. The main advance by the British infantry was inland against the Turkish Seventh Army on the 8th March 1918. They advanced north astride the Jerusalem to Nablus road cutting off all tracks and roads leading to the lower Jordan Valley. The objective was the capture of Tell ‘Asur. The Tell was a valuable observation post with views extending north to Galilee, east and south east to the Dead Sea, south to Hebron and west to the Mediterranean. It was captured after a heavy artillery bombardment but the position was far from secure owing to a successful counter-attack which was eventually driven off. The final line was captured, on the 12th March 1918, and was found to be overlooked on all sides so a slight retirement to the just south was made and the positions consolidated. The success of these infantry operations provided a sufficiently large base to support the Transjordan operations which began later in the month with the first Transjordan attack on Amman.
Following the successful Battle of Tell ‘Asur, the First Transjordan attack on Amman took place between the 21st March and 2nd April 1918. Firstly the crossing of the Jordan River was successfully captured between the 21st and 23rd March 1918, followed by the first occupation of Es Salt in the Moab hills on the 24th/25th March 1918. The First Battle of Amman took place between the 27th and 31st March 1918 when the Anzac Mounted Division and the Imperial Camel Corps Brigade were reinforced by two battalions of the 181st Brigade followed by a second two battalions from the 180th Brigade and artillery. The Turkish Forth Army headquarters located in Amman was strongly garrisoned and during the battle received reinforcements on the Hejaz railway. Meanwhile, the mounted columns continued marching north and south of the infantry column on to Amman 30 miles (48 km) east of Jericho on the high plateau. Their objective was to effectively cut the main supply line to the north and south of Amman by destroying long sections of the Hejaz Railway. Amman was strongly defended by the Turkish Army and the blown up sections of the railway were quickly replaced to allow reinforcements to continue to arrive and strengthen the defenders. British Empire infantry and artillery reinforcements were also sent forward from Es Salt, both of which took considerable time to cover the difficult terrain. Although the combined force and mounted troops made a determined attack on Amman, Allied troops were forced to retreat to the Jordan Valley from both Amman and Es Salt when it became clear the defenders were too strong. The operation objectives proved to be almost impossible to achieve and the attacking forces had to retire back to the Jordan Valley between the 31st March to the 2nd April 1918. The Jordan Valley would continue to be occupied by the Egyptian Expeditionary Force (EEF) through the summer until the middle of September 1918 when the Battle of Megiddo began. The only territorial gains following the offensive were the establishment of bridgeheads on the eastern side of the Jordan River.
The Action of Khan Baghdadi was an engagement during the Mesopotamian Campaign was carried out on the 26th and 27th March 1918. The 15th Indian Division had been at Ramadi since its capture of the town in September 1917. On 9th March 1918, it advanced and occupied the town of Hit in a bloodless victory, the Turkish forces evacuating without a shot being fired. The next objective along the Euphrates was the town of Khan al Baghdadi, present day Iraq. Most battles in Mesopotamia had been tied to the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers. Securing a proper victory was difficult. In an attempt to break with the usual pattern, the 15th Indian Division were supplied with 300 Ford lorries, the 8th Light Armoured Motor Battery (armoured cars), and the 11th Cavalry Brigade. A mobile blocking force was assembled using divisional infantry in the lorries, the armoured cars, the cavalry brigade, and one of the artillery batteries. This mobile force was sent on a wide flanking march around Khan Baghdadi, and dug in behind the Turkish positions. The remainder of the division then assaulted frontally in the normal fashion, and the Turkish forces retreated from the town. They ran unexpectedly into the blocking force, and their discipline quickly disappeared. The entire force of about 5000 men were taken prisoner. The mobile force was then dispatched further up the Euphrates in the direction the Turkish had expected to retreat. 46 miles further upstream was the settlement of Ana. Here was the main Turkish supply base, which was now captured along with some high-ranking German officers attached to the Turkish Army. This was the last attack on the Euphrates Front.