German Spring Offensive
March 21st – August 6th 1918
The German Spring Offensive, or Kaiserschlacht, was the last German attempt to win the war. They held the strategic initiative and their troops were bolstered by the return of men from campaigning in Russia. The offensive began with “Operation Michael” starting on March 21st. It took place in the St Quentin area and fighting covered much of the same ground as the 1916 Battle of the Somme. The offensive continued with Operations Georgette (Battle of the Lys), Blucker York (Third battle of the Aisne) and Gneisenau (Battle of the Metz).
March 21st – April 5th 1918
On March 21st 1918, the Germans launched a massive offensive in the area between Arras and La Fère against the British Third and Fifth Armies; included in the latter was the 36th (Ulster) Division which was decimated during this campaign. The Germans opened the attack at 04.40 a.m.and pounded the British for five hours with over a million shells. These high explosive shells wreaked havoc on the trenches where men had to contend with mustard, chlorine and tear gas as well as the impact. Support systems behind the lines were badly damaged by the explosions. At 09.40 a.m. infiltrating elite stormtroopers led an assault, attacking through a morning mist thickened by artillery and trench mortar smoke. Serious breakthroughs of the British line occurred, particularly around the southern position of the Fifth Army. Many British troops there were taken prisoner. One of the units present was the 2/7th Manchester Regiment fighting with the 66th Division. They suffered extremely heavy losses, similar to the 36th Division, and afterwards had to be withdrawn from the line.
March 21st 1918 Private 42408 John Phillips, 2/7th Manchester Regiment, 66th Division, who enlisted from an address in Radcliffe on Trent, was reported wounded and missing. He was captured and died on May 31st 1918, age 24, while in the hospital at Meschede prisoner of war camp, Germany.
Among the Irish infantry facing the Germans was the 1st Irish Fusiliers. They became isolated during the intense barrage and lost contact with supporting units. By the end of the day their casualties included 275 other ranks missing – many were later discovered to be casualties. One of the missing was from Radcliffe on Trent.
March 21st 1918, Seraucourt-le-Grand, France, located about 8 kilometres south-west of St Quentin, east of the River Somme. Death of Private 31909 Cecil Bolton, 1st Bn., The Princess Victoria’s (Royal Irish Fusiliers), 108th Brigade, 36th (Ulster) Division, age 19. He went to school in Radcliffe, emigrated to Australia but then returned to enlist, initially in the W. Yorks. He was missing in action during the conflict. A witness said:
“I saw Pte Bolton wounded in the hand by shrapnel, about 11 am on 21st March 1918. He was taken back to the Dressing Station at Serracourt which was captured about 4 pm. I did not see him again. He was 5ft 4in, fair, clean shaven” (Informant Private Kelly, 98711st Royal Irish Fusiliers, A Coy speaking to the Earl of Lucan Red Cross Society).
By the evening of the 21st, just under 15,000 men from Britain and the Commonwealth had been killed and around 21,000 of the 90,000 men quoted as missing had been taken prisoner. One of the prisoners (who was released after the Armistice) was George Newham from the 2nd Bn Sherwood Foresters, 6th Division, Fifth Army. He was a regular soldier from Radcliffe on Trent who was wounded in the thigh then captured on this day. The Fifth Army bore the brunt of the losses; a limited withdrawal was issued during the night of March 21st. By the end of Operation Michael, which involved sixteen days of intense fighting, both the Allies and Germans had lost around a quarter of a million men each, plus a considerable amount of artillery and supplies.
In “Operation Georgette”, the second phase of the spring offensive, the Germans planned to smash through British lines and advance to the Channel by capturing Hazenbrouck, regaining control of Ypres and cutting off the Allies to the north. The Battle of the Lys began with a heavy German artillery bombardment and ended with massive loss of British ground. Nevertheless, the German plan failed. Both sides suffered heavy casualties. First and Second Army were present.
Battle of Estaires
April 9th – 11th, 1918