At 4:40 AM on the 21st of March 1918 a century ago today the long awaited German Spring offensive began.
In little over 5 hours over a million shells were fired on the British Army who were entrenched overlooking St Quentin. A thick fog envelops the battle area and is added to by clouds of poison gas and explosive fumes. The thinly held defensive redoubts in the forward zone are attacked, isolated and bypassed and were taken later by specialist assault troops.
In one of these redoubts aptly named Manchester Hill were the 16th Battalion of the Manchester regiment who fought a ferocious defensive action, Commanded by the 29 year old Lieutenant Colonel Wilfrith Elstob who in his pre battle briefing said "This is Battalion headquarters, Here We Fight, Here We Die!" At Dawn high explosive and gas rained down on the Manchesters for two hours until the Stormtroopers came out of the fog and a bitter close quarter’s battle began. By 9AM German bombing parties had entered part of the redoubt and were driven out by rifle and bayonet rushing to the front Elstob shouted out “You are doing magnificently boys! Carry on-keep up a steady fire and they’ll think there’s a Battalion here.” Despite several wounds he continued to fight with rifle, revolver and bomb alongside his men encouraging them “Tell the Men not to lose heart. Fight On! ”. By 2PM German troops were streaming past Manchester Hill while the battle continued most of the defenders were dead or wounded. By this time the Germans had bought up field guns to fire point blank into the hill. The Germans called on Elstob to surrender he shouted back “Never” and was shot dead. By 4PM the survivors surrendered, Of the 8 Officers and 160 Men who went into action on that morning just two Officers and fifteen other ranks survived. Wilfrith Elstob’s body was never found and probably still lies on Manchester hill. For his action that day he was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross.
The German Stormtroopers crashed into the British rear areas and cooks, grooms, signallers, aides and armourers had to down tools and pick up rifles. In this battle there would be no rear echelon soldiers.
In the period up to the 5th of April the British army took 177,739 casualties and the French army 77,000. On the first day alone 7,512 were dead and 10,000 were wounded. The allies lost all of the ground on the Somme that was so bitterly fought over in 1916. For Germany the victory they achieved came at a bitter cost of 240,000 men, many of whom were irreplaceable Stormtroopers.
Operation Michael was quickly followed by operation georgette and by the end of spring the allies were beaten back. This was only a short lived victory. The offensive precipitated the end of trench warfare and the beginning of the war of movement that had eluded our generals since winter 1914. It spelled the end of static defence on the western front. On the 8th of August 1918 at Amiens the allies counter attacked, beating the German army in the field who began a long retreat over there recent gains , a retreat that continued until November 1918 pursued by the allies and was in my opinion one of the most successful campaigns ever waged by the British army.
The casualties sustained on this day a century ago were only surpassed by the opening of the First day of the Somme. Yet this day is little known outside of those with an interest in the Great War. Today unlike the Somme centenary there will be no whistles at dawn, no expensive arts project and no national day of mourning. Hopefully in future that will change; the recent production of “Journey’s End” has bought a bit of attention to this battle.
But this battle does not fit the perceived view of the Great War; of poor conscripts herded in to battle against faceless Germans by callous uncaring officers. The truth is so much more complex and if anything good comes from this centenary let it be that those who lived and died in those days are remembered as real people and not just names on a memorial or numbers on a casualty report.