Spring Offensive – Operation Gneisenau
The fourth German offensive launched in 1918 was known by the German code-name of Operation Gneisenau. In May 1918, the fighting lines had reached the west of Château-Thierry at Vaux and Belleau Wood. The Battle of Belleau Wood was fought from the 1st to 26th June 1918, and was the first major battle the Americans were involved in fighting against the German army. At the end of the German Aisne Offensive, the American Second Division moved in to replace a French corps in the sector. The German advance was stopped on the 4th June 1918. Two days later this American division made a successful counter-attack against four German Divisions, and recaptured Vaux and Belleau Wood which the Germans had previously over-run as part of Operation Blücher-Yorck. The Americans were operating under French Corps command during the earlier battles, but the American Expeditionary Force commander General John Pershing was working towards the deployment of an independent U.S. Field Army. The rest of the American forces followed at an accelerating pace during the spring and summer of 1918. By June American troops were arriving in Europe at the rate of 10,000 a day and most of them were trained by British, Canadian and Australian battle-experienced officers and senior non-commissioned ranks. The training took a minimum of six weeks due to the inexperience of the servicemen.
The Battle of Matz was fought from the 9th to 12th June 1918 and the German plan was to push the German Front Line westward in the sector between two salients. The northern salient had been formed from the fighting towards Amiens and the southern salient was to be from the previous German offensive in the Aisne sector. In attempting to straighten out the bulge between the two salients the Germans made progress on the first day, but the French organised a counter-attack on the 11th June 1918. Three French and two American divisions were supported by tanks and two days later the Germans halted their offensive.
In the Middle East, British forces defended the Jordan Valley. The Action of Arsuf was the second Battle of Jordan, and was fought between the British and Turkish Empires, on the 8th June 1918. The British Empire forces involved were the 21st Brigade comprising the 2nd Battalion the Black Watch, the 1st Guides Infantry, the 29th Punjabis and the 1/8th Gurkha Rifles. The 21st Brigade, was tasked with the capture of two hills, 1 mile (1.6 km) from the Mediterranean Sea known as the two sisters. The hills were defended by elements of the Turkish 7th Division. The hills were being used as observation posts and the intention was to deprive the Turks of their use. The successful assault was carried out by the Black Watch and the Guides. The Turks responded with two counter-attacks of their own. The first succeeded in recapturing a section of their previous position before being driven back. The second counter-attack was defeated before they managed to reach the British position. The Turkish forces suffered considerable losses and had four officers and 101 other ranks taken prisoner. The capture of the two hills greatly improved the British position. Their loss deprived the Turks of an observation post that overlooked British lines and rear areas. They also gave the British their own observation post that could see the Turkish rear areas. The British forces occupied this high ground up to the Battle of Megiddo in mid-September.
In the Caucasus, with the Russians out of the war, following the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918, the growing German-Turkish rivalry for Caucasian influence and resources began. The resources were notably the oilfields near Baku, the Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan, and the associated rail and pipeline connection to Batum on the Black Sea. Early in June 1918 the Turkish 3rd Army renewed its offensive on the main road to Tiflis and confronted a joint German-Georgian force. On the 10th June 1918, the Turks attacked Vorontsovka and took many prisoners, leading to an official threat from Berlin to withdraw its support and troops from the Turkish Empire. The Turkish government had to concede to German pressure and halted its drive and further advance into Georgia for the Batum-Tiflis-Baku railway and associated pipeline. The Turks changed their strategic thrust towards Azerbaijan with a blocking action against British forces in north-west Persia.
On the Italian front, the Second Battle of the Piave River, fought between the 15th and 23rd June 1918, was a decisive victory for the Italian Army against the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Following the defeat at the Battle of Caporetto in the autumn of 1917, the Italians retreated to the Piave River and were reinforced by French and British infantry divisions. The Austro-Hungarian’s had ambitions of forcing the Italians into an armistice. Divided opinions within the Austro-Hungarian command resulted in a decision to attack the Italians at the Piave River. The Italian commander had learned the exact timing of the Austrian attack: 3.00 a.m. on the 15th June 1918. At 2.30 a.m. the Italian artillery opened fire on the crowded enemy trenches, inflicting heavy casualties. In some sectors the barrage had the effect of delaying or stopping the attack, and the Austrians began the retreat to their defensive positions, but in the greater part of the front the Austrians still attacked. The Austrians were able to cross the Piave and gained a bridgehead in the face of Italian heavy resistance, before the Austro-Hungarians were finally halted. One joint Austrian group commander, Svetozar Boroevié von Bojna was forced to order a retreat. On the following days the assaults were renewed, but the Italian artillery barrage had destroyed many of the river’s bridges. Subsequently the Austrians were unable to receive reinforcements and supplies. An estimated 20,000 Austro-Hungarian soldiers drowned while trying to reach the east bank. On the 19th June 1918 the Italians counter-attacked into Boroevié’s flank, inflicting heavy casualties. In the meantime, on 15th June 1918, the other joint group commander, Conrad von Höttzedorf (the former Austrian Chief of Staff) attacked along the Italian lines west of Boroevié on the Asiago Plateau. His forces gained some ground, but came upon stiff resistance by Italians units, 40,000 casualties were added to the Austrian total. Lacking supplies and facing attacks the Austro-Hungarians were ordered to retreat by the Austrian Emperor Karl on the 20th June 1918. By the 23rd June 1918, the Italians recaptured all the territory on the southern bank of the Piave and the battle was over. The battle signalled the end of the Austro-Hungarian army as a fighting force and the beginning of the collapse of the Empire.
On the 15th June 1918, Captain Edward Brittain was shot in the head and killed during an early morning counter-attack against an Austrian offensive, on the Asiago Plateau, part of the Battle of the Piave River. Following his wounding at the Battle of the Somme in 1916, for which he was awarded the Military Cross (MC), he spent nearly a year recuperating in England. He returned to the western front in 1917 and was immediately sent into battle, before being sent to the Italian Front with the 11th Sherwood Foresters in November 1917. Edward Brittain was close to his sister Vera and was one of the “Three Musketeers”. He, Roland Leighton and Victor Richardson formed a four-way friendship with Vera. Geoffrey Thurlow was to become part of that friendship. However, the Great War took the lives of the four male participants, who meant the most to Vera Brittain, and was one of the many reasons why she became a pacifist. Edward Brittain is buried in Granezza British Cemetery in Italy, and in September 1921 Vera visited the cemetery, but never fully got over the death of her brother, Edward. After her death in 1970 her will requested that her ashes be scattered on Edward’s grave on the Asiago Plateau in Italy: – “for nearly 50 years much of my heart has been in that Italian village cemetery” and her daughter Shirley Williams honoured her request in September 1970.