MAY 1918

MAY 1918

Spring Offensive – Operation Blücher-Yorck

The Third Battle of the Aisne was launched on the 27th May 1918 that focused on capturing the Chemin des Dames Ridge. It was the third of series of offensives, known as the Kaiserchlacht, planned to defeat the Allies before the total American Expeditionary Force (AEF) arrived in France. The Germans were certain success at the Aisne would lead them to within striking distance of Paris. On the morning of the 27th May 1918 the Germans began a bombardment of the Allied line with over 4,000 artillery pieces. The British were the prime targets and suffered heavy losses. The French were reluctant to abandon the Chemins des Dames which had been captured at such a high cost the previous year. Following the bombardment was a poison gas drop, and once the gas had dispersed, the main infantry assault commenced. Taken completely by surprise and with their defences spread thinly, the Allies were unable to stop the attack and the German army advanced through a 40 km (25 mile)   gap in the Allied lines. Reaching the Aisne in under six hours, the Germans smashed through eight Allied divisions on a line between Reims and Soissons, pushing the Allies back to the River Vesle. On the 30th May 1918 victory seemed to be achievable but the Germans were beset by numerous problems, including supply shortages, fatigue, lack of reserves and many casualties. Following many successful Allied counter-attacks the Germans were halted at the Marne River on the 6th June1918.  Operation Blücher-Yorck ended the same way as Operations Michael and Georgette with the Germans overstretching their resources, and leaving them 56 km (35 miles) from Paris.

The Battle of Cantigny, fought on 28th May 1918 and was the first major American battle and offensive of the Great War. The U.S. 1st Division, was selected for the attack near the village of Cantigny, as the most experienced of the five American divisions then in France and in reserve for the French Army. The objective of the attack was to reduce a small salient made by the German Army in the front lines and also to instil confidence among the French and British Allies in the ability of the inexperienced American Expeditionary Force (AEF). At 06.45hours American soldiers of the 28th Infantry Regiment left their trenches following an hour long artillery preparation. A rolling barrage, advancing 100 metres every two minutes, was calculated to give the attacking troops time to keep up with the bombardment. The 28th Infantry Regiment plus two companies of the 18th Infantry, three machine-gun companies and a company of Engineers captured Cantigny from the German 18th Army. Because the Americans did not have sufficient support equipment the French supplied the necessary equipment. With this massive support and advancing on schedule behind the creeping barrage, the 28th, Infantry took the village in 30 minutes. The first German counter-attack at 08.30 was easily repulsed, but the Germans bombarded the 28th Infantry for most of the day. Large scale counter-attacks took place at 17.10 and 18.40 hours but again they were repulsed. A series of counter-attacks over the next two days were also defeated and the position held. The Americans sustained 1603 casualties, including over 300 killed in action, but significantly they captured 250 German prisoners. The American success at Cantigny assured the French that American divisions could be entrusted in the line against the German offensive to take Paris.

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The Caucasus

On the 21st May 1918, the Turkish Third Army crossed into Eastern Armenia. The Turkish Army intended to crush Armenia and seize Russian Transcaucasia and the oil wells of Baku. The German government objected to this attack and refused to assist the Turkish Army in the operation. In January 1918, two months after the Bolshevik seizure of power in Russia, the highest government authority issued a decree which called for the withdrawal of Russian troops from the Caucasus Front. This move threw the Armenian leadership in the Transcaucasia into a panic, since it removed from the region the only force capable of protecting the Armenian people from the Turkish Empire, which had effectively exterminated its Armenian population. The Armenians refused to recognise the authority of the Bolsheviks and attempted to form military units to defend the front and the Turkish armies prepared to expand eastward. The Armenian victories at Saradarabad, Bash Abaran and Karakilisa, on the 29th May 1918, halted the Turkish invasion of Eastern Armenian and was instrumental in allowing the formation of the short-lived First Republic of Armenia.

The Battle of Sardarabad was fought from the 21st to 29th May 1918, and was the first of a three-pronged attack. The Armenian people managed to halt the Turkish advance thereby preventing the complete destruction of the Armenian nation. The Armenians viewed the Turkish offensive fearfully as they did not have anywhere to retreat, and the only option was to make a stand and prepare for the on-coming battle. Church bells rang for six days calling for all the citizens (men, women and children) to form into organised military units. Initially the Turkish army defeated an Armenian unit and took Sardarabad on the 21st May 1918. An Armenian offensive by the 5th Armenian Regiment checked the advance of the Turkish Army on the 22nd May 1918 and various Armenian flanking manoeuvres were employed whereby the Turkish forces sustained heavy losses. On the 29th May 1918, the Turkish commander ordered a general retreat after their forces had been put to flight.

The Battle of Bash Abaran began on the 21st May 1918 when the Turkish 3rd Regiment of the 11th Caucasian Division moved down from Hamamlu. This was the second of a three-pronged attack and after three days of fierce fighting the Armenians launched a counter-attack against the Turkish on the 25th May 1918. The Turkish forces then retreated north back to Hamamlu on the 29th May 1918.

The Battle of Karakilisa was fought from the 24th to 29th May 1918 and was the third of the three-pronged Turkish attack. The Turkish forces reached Karakilisa and massacred all its population of 4,000 citizens, but had no more forces to intrude further into Armenian territories. Under the general orders the Turkish army retreated back to Hamamlu. The Armenian victory at Karakilisa as well as at Sardarabad and Bash Abaran were instrumental in allowing the First Republic of Armenia to come into existence.

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Other Theatres

In the Balkans, the Treaty of Bucharest was a peace treaty, signed on the 7th May 1918, between Romania and the Central Powers. Romania was isolated after Russia withdrew from the war in March 1918 following the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. Romania was forced to accept harsh conditions, having to give Austro-Hungary control of the Carpathian Mountains, and to lease its oil wells to Germany for 90 years. Romania also relinquished two million tons of grain from Romanian farmers. These materials were vital in keeping Germany in the war to the end of 1918. German civil servants were given the power to veto decisions by the Romanian cabinet and to fire Romanian civil servants who had been appointed to oversee every Romanian ministry, in effect stripping Romania of its independence. The new German-sponsored Prime Minister Alexandru Marghiloman signed the treaty at Buftea, near Bucharest, on the 7th May 1918 and it was later ratified by the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate. However, King Ferdinand I of Romania refused to sign it. The treaty put Romania in a unique situation compared to other German occupied countries. Though the country had to cede land it still emerged larger than before entering the war, thanks to the German recognition of the union with Bessarabia.

On the Eastern Front, the Battle of Kaniow took place during the night of the 10th/11th May 1918, between Polish and German troops. On the 15th February 1918 Poland protested against the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk which reduced the chances for the creation of an independent Poland. The II Brigade of the Polish Legions, formally part of the Austro-Hungarian Army, broke through the frontline near Raraneza and merged with the Polish units formally in the Russian Army. They were joined by the newly formed Polish II Corps in Russia. On the 18th April 1918 the II Corps was ordered by the Polish Regency Council to stop near Kaniow in the Ukraine, and in a triangle between Potik, Kozyn and Stepantsi. The Polish soon found themselves being surrounded by nearby German units. On the 6th May 1918 the German Commander issued an ultimatum to the II Corps, demanding it lay down its arms and surrender. II Corps readied for battle, and surprised the Germans who were unprepared for battle. Soon however Germany received reinforcements. On the night of the 10th to the 11th May 1918, Polish II Corps was surrounded and attacked by German units. Polish units formed on the village of Yemchykha and took up defensive positions. The II Corps resisted for a day, and both sides sustained losses. By the evening of the 11th May 1918 the Germans, who did not expect the Poles to put up such a resistance, proposed a ceasefire and negotiations. With supplies running low the Poles accepted the offer to negotiate, and eventually agreed to an honourable capitulation. The battle resulted in heavy losses for the Germans, estimated at about 1,500 dead and 273 wounded. Polish losses were estimated at about a few dozen killed and about 150 wounded. Half of the Polish survivors were arrested and sent to prisoner of war camps. An estimate suggests 4,000 imprisoned, and 1,500 to 2,000 managed to escape.

In the Balkans on the Macedonian front, the Battle of Skra-di-Legen was a two-day battle between the Allies and Bulgarian forces. The battle was fought from the 29th to 31st May 1918, and took place at the Skra fortified position, located northeast of Mount Paiko, which is northwest of Thessalonica. The battle was the first large-scale employment of Greek troops of the newly established Army of National Defence. The Allied force comprised three Greek divisions of the National Defence Army Corps plus on French brigade. In the early morning of the 29th May 1918, Greek artillery fired on the Bulgarian positions in preparation for the next morning’s assault. At 06.30 on the 30th May 1918, Allied forces captured Skra from the heavily outnumbered Bulgarians. Starting from the same evening until the 31st May 1918, the Bulgarian army launched several counter-attacks on the positions held by the Crete Division. All attacks were repelled, and resulted in the capture of the heavily fortified Bulgarian position, cementing the Allied victory. In the battle, 441 Allied soldiers were killed, 2,227 wounded and 164 missing in action. Bulgaria suffered 600 soldiers killed and 2,045 taken prisoner. Thirty two machine guns and twelve artillery pieces were also captured.

At the Western Front on the 30th May 1918, Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) driver Bertha “Betty” Stevenson was killed instantly by shrapnel from an enemy bomb. The bombs were dropped during a German air raid on Étaples YMCA encampment in the Pas-de-Calais region of France. She was in a party of women being moved to a safer area but they were caught out on the open road during the attack. Betty Stevenson was killed and two others were injured. She was buried with full military honours, at Étaples Military Cemetery even though she was a civilian attached to the YMCA section of the British Army. She was posthumously awarded the Croix de Guere avec Palme and it was presented by General Pétain, for courage and devotion to duty. Due to her pleasant demeanour she was known as The “Happy Warrior” and had served in the YMCA since 1916. At the time of her death she was 21 years of age. Over the course of her time in France she graduated from canteen volunteer to YMCA driver. She was responsible for transporting lectures, concert parties and especially relatives from England visiting the wounded in hospital.

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