APRIL 1918

APRIL 1918

Operation Michael – The Spring Offensive

The Battle of Avre was the final attack of Operation Michael and was contested on the 4th and 5th April 1918. The object was to secure the outermost eastern defence of Amiens centred on the town of Villers-Bretonneux in order to secure the town and surrounding high ground. The German attack was against the British and Australian defenders. Both sides used tanks and eventually the British/Australian troops were forced back but a night counter-attack recaptured Villers-Bretonneux and halted the German advance. The Germans attempted to renew the offensive on the 5th April 1918 and by early morning, the British/Australians had forced the Germans out of the town with the exception of the south-east corner. German progress toward Amiens had reached its furthest westward point and the German High Command terminated the offensive.

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The British had pioneered the use of tanks on the Somme in 1916, but the Germans didn’t appear all that interested in the tank as a weapon. However, they did try using some captured British machines and developed their own version, the AV7. The Second Battle of Villers-Bretonneux began on the morning of the 24th April 1918 at 03.45 hours when the Germans shelled Cachy, a small village south east of Villers-Bretonneux, with gas and explosives. For once, the Germans began to use their AV7 tanks which caused considerable damage. This was an attempt to dislodge the British and Australian troops in order to capture Amiens. British tanks began to move toward the village when, out of the mist, they were confronted by a single AV7 tank. The Germans had modified the captured tanks by increasing the armour but had only six machine guns and a 57mm cannon as weapons. Two British female tanks, although no match for the AV7, harassed the German tank whilst a third British male tank closed in on the German AV7. When in range the AV7 was forced to retire and British Whippet tanks were used to stem the tide of battle against the village. Whilst the village did fall into German hands for an evening, the following morning the 26th April 1918 the Australian Infantry not only took the village but captured a thousand German prisoners with it. Amiens would never fall to the Germans and the advance had been broken.

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Operation Georgette – The Spring Offensive

Operation Georgette, also known as the Battle of the Lys, was the second phase of the Spring Offensive by the Germans and began on the 7th April 1918. The objective of Operation Georgette was to capture Ypres forcing the British back to the channel ports and out of the war. On the 29th April 1918 the German High Command called off the offensive after it became obvious the operation could not achieve its objectives. Operation Georgette was similar to Operation Michael, which had been contested in March 1918, but was a smaller offensive with disappointing results for the Germans.

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The Battle of Estaires began when the German bombardment opened on the evening of the 7th April 1918, against the southern part of the Allied line between Armentières and Festubert. The barrage continued until dawn on the 9th April 1918. The German Sixth Army then attacked with eight divisions, and the assault struck the Portuguese Second Division, which held a front of approximately 11km (6.8 miles). The Portuguese division was overrun and withdrew towards Estaires. The British 55th Division, to the south of the Portuguese, pulled back its northern brigade and held its ground for the rest of the battle. The British 40th Division (to the north of the Portuguese) collapsed under the German attack and fell back. The British committed reserve forces to stem the German breakthrough but they too were defeated. The Germans broke through 15 km (9.3 miles) of front and advanced up to 8km (5 miles), the most advanced probe reaching Estaires on the Lys. They were halted by British reserve divisions. On the 10th April 1918, the German Sixth Army tried to push west from Estaires but were contained for a day. They pushed north against the flank of the British Second Army and took Armentières. At the conclusion of the Battle of Estaires the Portuguese Second Division was incorporated into some British units. They had suffered an estimated 7,000 casualties, which constituted something like 65% of their force on the Western Front.

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The German Forth Army attacked the British 19th Division at the Third Battle of Messines on 10th April 1918. The attack began north of Armentières with the Germans advancing 3km (1.9 miles) along a 6km (3.7 mile) front. They broke through and captured the village of Messines and the British were forced to retreat. By the 11th April 1918 the British situation was desperate, and it was on this day that Sir Douglas Haig, commander of the British Expeditionary Force, issued his famous “backs to the wall” order.

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On the 11th April 1918, Field Marshall Sir Herbert Plumer, commander of the Second Army, assessed the heavy losses of the Second army and the defeat of his southern flank during Operation Michael. He authorised a withdrawal of the southern flank of the Second Army on the Passchendaele Ridge enabling the line to be shortened along the Ypres Salient and release troops for the other armies. He also ordered his northern flank to withdraw from Passchendaele to Ypres and the Yser Canal. The Belgian Army, to the north, conformed and also withdrew to the Yser Canal. The withdrawal was carried out at night with the Germans unaware the British were retiring. By late afternoon on the 16th April 1918 the German patrols had discovered the withdrawal and began to occupy the area. The new defensive line around Ypres was established on the 27th April 1918. The Battle of Bailleul  was fought from the 13th to 15th April 1917 when the Germans drove forward in the centre, taking Bailleul, 12 km (7.5 miles) west of Armentières.

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In the Battle of Hazebrouck on the 12th APRIL 1918, the German Sixth Army renewed its attack in the south, toward the supply centre of Hazebrouck. The Germans advanced 2-4 km (1.2-2.5 miles) and captured Merville. On the 13th April 1918 they were stopped by the First Australian Division, which had been transferred to the area. The British Fourth Division defended Hinges Ridge, the Fifth Division and the 33rd Division held Nieppe Forest.

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At the First Battle of Kemmel on the 17th to 19th April 1918 The German Forth Army attacked the Kemmelberg, which is the high ground commanding the area between Armentières and Ypres. The attack was repulsed by the forces of the British Second Army.

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At the Battle of Bethune, to the south of Mount Kemmel, the German Sixth Army attacked from the breakthrough area on 18th April 1918. Stubborn resistance by the British First Army repulsed the attack.

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The newly appointed French Marshal Ferdinand Foch, commander in chief of the Allied Armies, agreed to send French reserves to the Lys section. A French division relieved the British defenders of the Kemmelberg at the Second Battle of Kemmel. From the 25th to 26th April 1918 the German Forth Army made a sudden attack on the Kemmelberg and captured it. This success gained some ground but it did not make any further progress toward a new breakthrough in the Allied Line.

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A final German attack, at the Battle of Scherpenburg on the 29th April 1918, resulted in the Germans capturing the Scherpenburg hill located north-west of the Kemmelburg. At the end of the Battle of the Lys, both sides had suffered heavy losses. Of the 800,000 men the Germans had available for the engagement they sustained 120,000 casualties. The British and French had taken a similar number of casualties. In twenty days the Germans had retaken all the ground the Allies had gained in 1917 which had made the fighting around Ypres even more futile. The Battle of the Lys created a short term crisis for the British, whilst awaiting the arrival of the American forces. It caused the German Army to suffer severe and critical damage, which prepared the way for the Allied counterattacks of the last hundred days of the war.

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The Western Front

On the 21st April 1918, in the skies above Vaux sur Somme in France, Manfred von Richthofen was killed in action by Allied fire. Richthofen was the notorious German flying ace who was enduringly nicknamed by the English as the “Red Baron”. He was flying a Fokker triplane, which was most commonly associated with him and was painted entirely in red. With eighty victories under his belt, Richthofen penetrated deep into Allied territory in pursuit of a British plane. He was flying too close to the ground, when supposedly an Australian machine gunner shot him through the chest, and his plane crashed into a field alongside the Corbie to Bray road. Another account has Captain A. Roy Brown, a Canadian in the newly formed Royal Air Force (RAF), shooting him down. British troops recovered his body, and he was buried with full military honours. While German pilots with twenty victories ensured legendary status, Richthofen, when he was killed at 25 years old, was a legend with eighty victories. He was highly decorated, and among others he was awarded the following honours: – Pour le Mérite (The Blue Max), Order of the Red Eagle, House Order of Hohenzollern and the Iron Cross (1st and 2nd Class).

Theodore Bailey Hardy was a 51 year old priest when the Great War broke out in 1914. He volunteered at once but was turned down as being too old. Eventually in August 1916, he was accepted for army service as a Temporary Chaplain to the Forces, 4th Class and attached to the 8th Battalion, The Lincolnshire Regiment. The summer of 1917 saw the launch of the Battle of Passchendaele and the Reverend Hardy with the 8th Lincolns were to see action throughout the Offensive. In the September of 1917 he was awarded his first decoration, the Distinguished Service Order for his actions in the field. He was out in the open to help bring in wounded. On discovering a dying man totally buried in mud, he remained under fire, ministering to his needs until the man died. For repeatedly going out under heavy fire to help the stretcher bearers during an attack in October 1917, he was decorated with the Military Cross. In the spring of 1918 the Lincolns were on the old Somme battlefield and deployed near Bucquoy, east of Gommecourt. For three very brave and selfless actions carried out on the 5th, 25th and 27th April 1918 the Reverend Hardy would be awarded the highest honour, the Victoria Cross. The first was to stay with a badly wounded patrol officer in no-man’s land, under enemy fire, and brought him in when assistance arrived. His second experience came after one of the battalions posts had been shelled, burying the occupants. The Reverend Hardy again under shell fire set about digging the men out of the rubble, managing to save one, but before the other man could be rescued he had died. His final valiant deed came after the Lincolns had launched an attack on a wood, but were pushed back. The Padre was the last man out of the wood and on reaching an advanced post persuaded a sergeant to go back with him to bring out a wounded man. This they managed to do whilst under enemy fire the whole time. Three tremendous deeds of gallantry yet when he heard of his VC nomination his reaction was typical of the man, “I really must protest”.

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Other Theatres

The Royal Air Force (RAF) was founded on the 1st April 1918 by the amalgamation of the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) and the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS). Established three months earlier, the British Government Air Ministry controlled the new service. The RFC had been under the control of the British Army whilst the RNAS was the naval equivalent controlled by the Admiralty. The significant impact of air power during the Great War was the reason for the decision to merge the two services and create an independent air force. To emphasize the merger of both military and naval aviation in the new service, the titles of the officer were deliberately chosen as Flight Lieutenant or Wing Commander or Group Captain or Air Commodore.

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The Zeebrugge Raid on the 23rd April 1918 was an attempt by the Royal Navy to block the Belgian port of Bruges-Zeebrugge. The British intended to sink obsolete ships in the canal estuary to prevent German vessels from leaving the port which was  used by the Imperial German Navy as a base for their U-boats and light shipping. The canal entrance was protected by a mile long mole connected to the mainland by a viaduct. The raid began with a diversion against the mole. The attack was led by an old cruiser, Vindictive, with two Mersey ferries, Daffodil and Iris II. The three ships were accompanied by two old submarines, which were filled with explosives to blow up the viaduct connecting the mole to the shore. Vindictive was to land a force of 200 sailors and a battalion of Royal Marines at the entrance to the Bruges canal. The wind changed direction and the necessary smokescreen was blown offshore. The marines immediately came under heavy fire and suffered many casualties. Vindictive was forced to land in the wrong location, resulting in the loss of the marine’s heavy gun support. The attempt to sink the three old cruisers, to block the flow of traffic in and out of the port, had failed. Unable to secure the mole, three blocking ships, HMS Thetis, Intrepid and Iphigenia, which was filled with concrete received the full force of the German artillery shelling. HMS Thetis hit an obstruction and was scuttled and did not make the canal entrance. The other two ships were scuttled at the narrowest part of the canal. Of the two accompanying submarines, only HMS C3 actually collided with the mole viaduct. HMS C1 did not take part in the raid as it parted company with the ship towing it from Dover. Submarine HMS C3 destroyed the viaduct with an explosion for which the commander Lt. R.D.Sandford was awarded the Victoria Cross. The accompanying crew were awarded the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal (CGM) for their actions. The crews of all three blocking ships and submarine HMS C3 were rescued by motor launches. The British deemed the operation to have been a success, although the sunken ships did not create a total blockage for German access to their submarine pens.

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Mesopotamia and the Middle East

The Second Transjordan attack on Shunet Nimrin and Es Salt, known as the Second Battle of Jordan, began on the 30th April 1918. The battle followed the failure of the First Transjordan attack on Amman at the end of March 1918. During the first attack across the Jordan River occurred in three main areas. The first area was in the Jordan valley between Jisr ed Durrieh and Umm esh Shert. The Egyptian Expeditionary Force (EEF) defended their advanced position against an attack by units of the Turkish Seventh Army based in the Nablus region of the Judean Hills. The British 60th (London) Division attacked the Turkish Army garrison was the second area of the Jordan Valley Offensive. The garrison was based at Shunet Nimlin, on the main road from Ghoraniyeh to Amman. The third area of fighting occurred after Es Salt was captured by the light horse brigades to the east of the valley in the hills of Moab, where they were strongly counter-attacked by Turkish forces converging on the town from both Amman and Nablus. The strength of the Turkish counter-attacks forced the EEF mounted and infantry forces to withdraw back to the Jordan Valley on the 4th May 1918, where they continued the occupation during the summer until mid-September 1918 when the Battle of Megiddo began.

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