At 03.00 on the morning of 21 March 21 1918, a lightning barrage crashed down on British positions on the Western Front. Particularly hard hit in the initial bombardment were artillery positions, headquarters and logistics hubs, deluged with a mix of shrapnel, high explosive and poison gas.
The British response was badly hindered by a thick fog which screened enemy batteries and troop movements.
Towards 05.00, the barrage switched to the British front-line positions and wire entanglements prior to the German ground assault. The first waves comprised parties of elite sturmtruppen armed with machine guns, grenades and flame-throwers. These hand-picked troops used infiltration tactics, bypassing strong-points and moving to destroy enemy command and control elements to ensure maximum disruption and to hamstring a British response. Mopping up was left to conventional infantry following behind.
This offensive, Operation Michael, the first of five known collectively as the ‘Kaiserschlacht’, was made possible by the exit of Russia from the war following the October Revolution of 1917. This released almost a million German troops which Hindenburg and Ludendorff, the real power in Germany, realised needed to be employed to win the war on the Western Front before the Americans were present in sufficient numbers to turn the tide in the Allies’ favour.
Operation Michael was squarely aimed at the British 3rd and 5th Armies in the Cambrai-Somme area of the front. The German High Command aimed to drive a wedge between the British and French, pushing the British Army back to the Channel before turning to destroy the French.
Under the onslaught, the British Army was forced back across the previous year’s gains at Cambrai and the hard-fought 1916 battlefield of the Somme, until the town of Albert, behind the lines for the whole war, fell to the advancing enemy.
A sobering reminder of the battle for Albert was revealed in March 2014 during road widening near the village of Bouzincourt – a field grave containing the remains of two British soldiers, one of the Bedfordshire Regiment and one of the Dorsets, identifiable by their brass shoulder titles. Both had been hastily buried, still in uniform, probably in a shell crater. The Bedfordshire soldier still had his respirator and the Dorset his steel helmet and a clasp knife, although neither had boots on his feet; these had probably been removed by German soldiers, in whose army good leather boots were in short supply. Turn to p30
Investigations showed the Dorset soldier was from the regiment’s 6th Battalion and had most likely been killed in an enemy attack on 29 March 1918. Attempts were made to find a DNA match, but this is very difficult in purely skeletal remains and he remains unidentified, although now known to be one of six men on the Arras Memorial who have no known grave.
In November 2017, almost a century from his death, this young soldier of the Dorset Regiment and his Bedfordshire Regiment companion were laid to rest in Bouzincourt Ridge Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery in a moving ceremony attended by serving soldiers of the British Army and representatives of the French forces.
As one part of the German offensive petered out, another was launched under the codename ‘Blucher-Yorke’. On 27 May, the Devonshire Regiment’s 2nd Battalion fought a heroic last stand at Bois des Buttes on the River Aisne, holding up a massively superior enemy force for around 11 hours at the price of their own annihilation. The Croix de Guerre awarded to this battalion is part of the collection held in The Keep Military Museum in Dorchester.
Even as the Devons sold their lives dearly, the tide was beginning to turn. The German Army was exhausted and short of supplies, and following the Battle of Amiens in August, the enemy was forced into retreat.
In the period known as ‘The Hundred Days’ the German Army was forced far back across the areas of France and Belgium they had occupied since 1914 and by November 1918 the German High Command was compelled to ask for an armistice.
In one of life’s bitter ironies, men on both sides were still being killed as the armistice drew near. One of the last Dorset Regiment soldiers to fall was Private Allen John Green, who died in a casualty clearing station at Caudry on 5 November just days before the Armistice was signed on 11 November.
Allen Green was a farmer’s son from Chesterblade near Shepton Mallet and, as such, was in a reserved occupation. Sadly for him, shortages of manpower meant that increasing numbers of individuals capable of bearing arms were ‘combed out’ as the war went on. Allen Green’s father appealed against his son’s conscription, but the last appeal possible was turned down in May and, after training, Allen went to join the Dorset Regiment’s 6th Battalion in France. Following his death and burial in what is now Caudry British Cemetery, the young soldier’s possessions were returned to his family. The small collection is exactly what might be expected – a pipe and tobacco pouch, which a century later still contains some of its original contents; a wallet; and a few silk cigarette cards.
These humble items were contained in a patterned cotton bag produced as part of ‘Lady Smith-Dorrien’s Hospital Bag Fund’, whereby wounded soldiers were provided with a bag for their belongings as muddy and often blood-soaked uniforms were stripped off. The stained bag and its contents provide mute testimony to the last hours of a young man who so nearly survived. In a further irony, the place of Allen Green’s death is just a few miles from Le Cateau, where the British Army fought one of its earliest battles of the war in August 1914.