greatwar-1914: The British Army in Spring 1918…

greatwar-1914:

The British Army in Spring 1918

“After the high hopes of 1917 and that year’s cruel disappointments, my philosophy was that ‘perhaps we shan’t be in it, and if we are, perhaps my good luck will see me through.’ We did not discuss it, but I am sure most men felt like that.” – Private W. Greenhalgh, 2/6th Manchesters

The British army that faced the German Spring Offensive on March 21 1918 was a different one from that which had attacked at the Somme on July 1 1916, just as that army been different from the one which went to war in August 1914. Here is the British army’s state on the eve of the German Spring Offensive of March 1918. 

 When Britain first went to war it had only six divisions of professional troops. That brilliant little army had been ground down in the battles of 1914 and 1915. In its place came Kitchener’s New Army, the battalions of volunteer “pals” who joined up so eagerly and went to their deaths in thousands during the Battle of the Somme. Afterwards, in late 1916, Britain had fallen on army conscription for the first time in its history. Martin Middlebrook estimates the average composition of a British company in 1918 thus: 

2      1914 men

19    1915 men

24    1916 men

50    1917 men

5      1918 men.

Two facts are immediately notable. First is that most men in the army were now conscripts raised in 1917. But that did not mean they were not blooded – these were the veterans of Arras, Passchendaele, and Cambrai. The 1917 soldiers had been out since the winter of 1916-17 and endured perhaps the worst campaigns ever fought by the British army, and survived, perhaps traumatized but also battle-hardened.

The second noticeable fact is how few 1918 men there were. This is because Prime Minister David Lloyd George was deliberately holding the recent drafts in England, refusing to send them to France. He did so because he believed General Haig would get them butchered. Perhaps he was correct, but in doing so he left the BEF on the Western Front undermanned and thinly stretched while 400,000 fresh troops idled away at home. Recently Haig had been forced to take over 25 miles of French trenches to the south. General Hubert Gough’s Fifth Army was stretched to the limit to do this, and on March 21 Gough and his northern neighbor General Julian Byng’s Third Army would bear the full weight of the German assault.

Lack of troops forced some creativity on the part of Haig and his generals. For one thing they consolidated their army, reducing the number of battalions in each brigade from five to three. The cuts fell entirely on the New Army formations of 1916, and many once-proud “pals battalions” now disappeared from history. “It was like the breaking up of a happy family,” wrote an officer in the 8th Leicesters, now stricken from the records. One dismembered but defiant battalion had a mock funeral, burying an empty coffin and erecting a wooden cross with a steel helmet on top: “Burial place of the 1/7th Londons,” it read.

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The other new system was the organization of a defense in depth. Soldiers on the Western Front had fought in continuous lines of trenches in 1915 and 1916. But now they adopted a more “elastic” defense. The front-line trenches were largely abandoned, left to skeleton forces that could warn of a coming attack, but only stall it momentarily. The bulk of the British divisions would be in a “Battle Zone” several hundred yards behind the forward zone, placed in redoubts that could fend off attacks from all sides. These were connected to each other by trenches but could fight on independently, like islands in the sea. Mine-fields dotted the areas between them, and artillery pieces laid in wait in well-hidden dug-outs to act as anti-tank guns.

In practice this was a sensible system and one that the Germans used with much efficiency. But it was not fully prepared. In many places the “Battle Zone” had been marked on maps, but not actually dug. On March 21 British troops in many parts of the line would find themselves fighting from little more than ditches. It also did not suit British soldiers either tactically or temperamentally. This was an army that had been on the offensive since 1914, and the men did not like the idea of giving up ground. Nor had anyone explained the concept of a defense in depth to them, and on March 21 many would find themselves alone in surrounded outposts, with no friendly faces to either side. In many places soldiers surrendered because they assumed they had been abandoned. “It don’t suit us,” wrote one NCO of the new system. “The British army fights in line and won’t do any good in these bird cages.” Finally many officers themselves did not understand the concept. The 16th (Irish) Division, for example, had almost all its battalions put into the forward zone by its corps commander. On the morning of March 21 these men would bear the full weight of the German bombardment and be swiftly overrun.

There is one final quality to evaluate of the British army on the eve of one of its greatest tests. What was its morale? Many claimed that it was a broken army after the miserable experience of Passchendaele. This is not totally true. Certainly this was no longer the eager crusading force of 1916, nor the total professionals of 1914. Much of the old camaraderie was gone. The war looked further away from its end than ever; the Italians were in crisis, the Russians had surrendered, the Americans were still far away.

But if morale was in no regards excellent, it remained steady. The British army is the only one to have fought two world wars from start to finish with no break-downs in its spirit. The attitude among British troops on the eve of March 21 could be described as fatalism: “Stick it,” read a newspaper cartoon on New Year’s 1918, and that summed it up. Most men wanted the war to be over, but they wanted it to end with victory. A trench song captured the mood in other words: “We’re here because we’re here, because we’re here, because we’re here.”

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Images taken from Martin Middlebrook’s The Kaiser’s Battle 21 March 1918: The First Day of the German Spring Offensive