50th Division had the misfortune to be involved in three German Offensives in the Spring of 1918. It was part of Fifth Army during the Michael offensive on the Somme (March 1918), it had been moved to the Lys and was caught in the Georgette offensive (April 1918) and was sent to the Chemin des Dames as part of IX Corps to rest and ‘embed' the new recruits (having lost so many men). Unlike the earlier battles, 50th Division was now in the front line and not held in reserve when the Blucher Offensive opened on 27 May 1918.
IX Corps was part of the French Sixth Army commanded by General Denis Ducheme. Ducheme ignored Petain and d'Esperey's instructions for holding the line in the new defensive ‘defence in depth' - he pushed all his men up to the front which left them exposed to the German artillery when the battle opened, something he would be sacked for when the Blucher offensive was over. The Chemin des Dames ridge is between the Ailette (north) and Aisne (south) rivers, and 50th Division was holding part of the eastern section, the Plateau de Californie. Brigadier-General Rees (150 Brigade, 50th Division) records the division having to hold 11,000 yards of frontage with companies whose officers were completely untrained. Although the newly formed (from the RFC) RAF had failed to observe the German build up, the signs of a major German offensive were becoming apparent to experienced officers. The German artillery was suspiciously quiet, and when it did score a hit on a gun emplacement, the shelling would stop. This was a sure sign that the Germans were calibrating new guns. By 26 May 1918 the German offensive was expected within 24 hours as deserters and prisoners confirmed that the next German offensive would be on the Chemin des Dames. Officers recorded waiting during the ominous silence from the German guns in a scene reminiscent of that from ‘Journey's End'
At 0100 on 27 May, over 3,700 German guns opened up in the fire pattern devised by Colonel Bruchmuller, saturating the gun emplacements, isolating the HQs as the communication lines were broken, and disorientating the defenders. The effect of gas shells was not to kill, but to cause every possible form of nuisance to the key personnel of the British Army in carrying out their duties. Everything was made more difficult, everything was more uncomfortable, everything was more tiring and stressful.
Captain Sydney Rogerson of the neighbouring headquarters, 23 Brigade, 8th Division, reported that:
‘Crowded with jostling, sweating humanity the dugouts reeked, and to make matters worse headquarters had no sooner got below than the gas began to filter down. Gas masks were hurriedly donned and anti-gas precautions taken - the entrances closed with saturated blankets and braziers were lighted on the stairs. If gas could not enter, neither could the air.'
The barrage went through its phases until the stormtroopers burst out of their trenches at 0340. No one in either 8th Division or 50th Division Headquarters had any idea of what was happening. Officers like Captain Lyon (1/6 Durhams, 151 Brigade, 50th Division) had to emerge from their dugouts to check for themselves. When he looked at the German lines he could see that the new German tactics were to put the advance troops immediately behind the barrage so that the British defence had no time to recover. He observed files of German troops immediately in front of his own line. They were advancing leisurely meeting with little or no resistance. When he looked up he could see German aircraft sweeping the trench line with machine gun fire. It soon became apparent that the British defence had crumpled.
Brigadier General Edward Riddell (149 Brigade, 50th Division) left his brigade headquarters at Centre d'Evreux to speak to Brigadier General Martin of 151 Brigade. After a few paces in the open a shell burst very close to them. Riddell was seriously wounded (later he found he had a hole in his face) and Martin was killed. Riddell initially refused treatment as a bandage around his head would have prevented him from giving orders.
All along the British front the Forward Zone had been overrun and German infantry were still pushing ever onwards. 24 Field Ambulance, 8th Division, found their dressing station was too far ‘advanced'. When fewer and fewer casualties reached them after the barrage lifted, they found they were surrounded by German stormtroopers and had little choice but to surrender. Caption Lyon (1/6 Durham Light Infantry, 151 Brigade, 50th Division) had been to told to make a stand with the 1/5 Durhams on a wooden hill, the Butte de l'Edmonde. As they advanced on the hill they became aware it was already in German hands. As he lead his men in retreat under machine gun fire from both the hill and from aircraft, Lyon lost men until his group was reduced to a handful of wounded men. Eventually he instructed them to surrender as they were clearly surrounded by German with levelled rifles.
Brigadier General Rees was still in his headquarters, cut off from everyone except a group of 5th Yorkshires on the Plateau de Californie. When the Yorkshire's Colonel told him that counter attacks launched with the reserve company had been swept away and his remaining men were now being fired on from Craonne in their rear, he instructed the Yorkshires to make a run for it. Eventually, Rees himself decided to withdraw. He set off with his orderly for Croannelle. They set off as the barrage lifted, using trenches filled with gas so their progress was slow. Their group was well behind the advancing Germans and it was only time before he was taken prisoner. His story does not finish here. He was taken in a car and driven without explanation to Craonne. Here he was told that the Kaiser wished to speak to him! Rees remembers being asked many questions with regard to his personal history. When he revealed he was a Welshman, he was promptly asked ‘Are you a kinsman of Lloyd George?' After further comments regarding the intense hatred the Kaiser felt the French had for Germans, he asked Rees whether England wished for peace. ‘Everyone wishes for peace' Rees replied. With this the interview was over, the Kaiser bowed to Rees and Rees withdrew.
A last comment about the day's fighting goes to the 2nd Battalion, Devonshire Regiment, 23 Brigade, 8th Division, who made a spectacular but ultimately useless last stand for the bridge at Pontavert. Holding off the oncoming Germans meant that fleeing French, Middlesex and West Yorks were able to cross the River Aisne. The Devonshires fought until their battalion lost its cohesion. Small groups of isolated Devonshires would pull back with their Lewis guns and have another go. When the gunners ran out of ammunition, single individuals would creep forward to ransack the packs of their dead and wounded lying between them and the Germans. Eventually when the men were down to a few rounds each, Captain Burke and his sergeant major led a group of 23 in a charge on the Germans. Captain Burke was almost immediately wounded in his legs, otherwise he would have died. He was soon picked up by the Germans, his wounds dressed before he was sent back to join the other prisoners.
This action of the 2nd Devonshires won them the Croix de Guerre.
The German army had had a startlingly successful first day - it had ripped a hole in the Allied lines 35 miles wide and 12 miles deep. By the 30 May the Germans had advanced 40 miles and reached the Marne. It would appear that Ludendorff fell for his own trap and started to move his reserves to reinforce the Aisne Offensive. Foch decided the German's Aisne offensive made no strategic sense so he decided to wait before he moved reinforcements. When French resistance stiffened and the battle spluttered to a conclusion in June, the Germans were left holding a rather large salient. Then Ludendorff attempted to widen the salient with Operation Gneisenau. The French Third Army, holding the ground he intended to take, was fully aware of what was coming. Their tactics were not to hold the front line in depth, to allow the Germans to advance into artillery fire and eventually to counter attack behind a creeping barrage supported by tanks and low flying aircraft. In the end Ludendorff was forced to call off the offensive.
This article is based on a talk given by Peter Hart to the Yorkshire branch of the WFA.
(image and map courtesy Wikimedia)
Contributor: Peter J Palmer.
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