MY FAMILY AT WAR
UNDER THE STORM OF STEEL
1. Background to the 1918 German Offensive
‘The shelling has risen to a fury. The solitary candle burns with a steady flame. The whine of a shell rises to a shriek and bursts on the dugout roof. The timber props of the door cave slowly in and the sandbags fall and block the passage to the open air. Very faintly there comes the dull rattle of machine guns and the fevered spatter of rifle fire.’ - R C Sheriff ‘Journey’s End’
The above words are the conclusion of the play ‘Journey’s End’- a powerful reconstruction of life in the trenches based upon the author’s own experiences of fighting in the First World War as an officer in the East Surreys. The play depicts the period of March 1918, when the British sat and waited for the expected German offensive.
The German High Command had been able to reinforce their Western Front forces by the transfer of men and armaments from the Eastern Front following the surrender of the Russians at Brest Litovsk in 1917. The Allies were in a weakened state at the beginning of 1918. The Battles of Arras, Messines, Ypres, Passchendaele and Cambrai in 1917 had taken a big toll. The French had been reluctant to do anything other than defend their lines after the failure of the Neuville offensive on the Aisne in June 1917. The huge losses inflicted on the Poilus, resulted in mutinies that forced the BEF to take the responsibility for an enlarged part of the Western Front, but with weakened forces.
The Americans had entered the war, but with a small regular army and a very slow mobilisation process, they failed to meet the promised number of troops until the late spring of 1918. In addition, the British Generals in France and the politicians in London did not see eye to eye on the tactics to win the war. Lloyd George and Douglas Haig were not on good terms. The former did not consider that the war could be won on the Western Front; preferring expeditions to Mesopotamia, Salonika and Italy. He also considered that Haig’s tactics in 1917, especially at Passchendaele, had resulted in unacceptably high casualties. Thus, he refused to meet Haig’s requests for reinforcements, even though there were many new conscripts in UK based training camps. This refusal forced Haig to reorganize the structure of the BEF by reducing the Brigade strength from 4 to 3 Battalions. It also resulted in a thinning out of the troops on the front line, especially in the area defended by the British 5th Army under Gough, south of Peronne on the Somme.
So it was, that the Germans decided to target the British south of Arras in their March 1918 offensive, code-named St Michael. They had developed a new tactic of a massive creeping barrage, followed by waves of storm troopers attacking across No Man’s Land and pushing deep behind the defensive outposts to reach the British artillery, destroying it before it could be effective. Against this, Haig’s staff had developed new defensive tactics, with a Forward Zone of isolated outposts and behind these the Battle Zone of very strong defensive positions. The Battle Zones included masses of barbed wire and machine guns, and had been quickly built in early 1918 using thousands of infantry-men as labourers.
Haig had to best guess where the Germans would attack first. By mid March 1918, intelligence gathering resulted in the conclusion that the attack would be south of Arras against the 3rd and 5th Armies- that part of the BEF front line where infantry reserves were at their weakest.
Figure 1. Map of the First Battle of the Somme March 1918 (CWGC booklet)
2. The 1918 German Offensive Opens
‘Fog’ A simple small word but a natural phenomenon that rendered the carefully crafted British defensive plan all but useless on 21st March 1918.' - Peter Hart ‘1918, A Very British Victory’
At 04.40 on 21st March 1918, there began the biggest artillery barrage of the war, which in one day was to see 3.5 million shells rain down upon the BEF in a line from just south of Arras to the Somme. The main targets were behind the front line - the BEF artillery positions. These were hit by gas shells to prevent the gunners from retaliating. The BEF Forward outposts were soon over-run by the German’s new storm trooper formations who were taking full advantage of the mist. Soon BEF battalions were in full retreat to prevent capture or annihilation.
The 5th Army, under General Hubert Gough, was particularly hard hit. The lack of in depth reserves in the Battle Zone began to tell, where the defences had been hurriedly built after taking over from the French. As Haig had predicted, the lack of these reserves meant that all the troops could do was stand and fight to the last, which is exactly what they did in most of the situations. BEF casualties on 21st March alone were horrendous at 38500 of whom 21000 became POWs.
The 5th Army under General Gough desperately tried to defend the bridges over the River Somme. Eventually he resorted to packing every bridge with explosives, ready to blow them up if the Germans crossed. Regrettably, when the time came, it did not always work. So the Germans were able to find several crossing points, pushing the BEF further back. There were many acts of heroism as small units of men fought rearguard actions to allow others to withdraw. Roads became clogged with men and transport columns, presenting easy targets for both the enemy artillery and their planes.
By 23rd March the retreat had become something of a flight in some sectors, so much so, that Haig insisted that Gough’s 5th Army should hold the line of the River Somme at all costs. Haig also met with the French commander Petain to ensure that the French and British Armies retained contact, preventing the Germans from infiltrating between them. All BEF reserves were now in the Battle Zone, but the defenders were spread too thinly along the whole retreating front line and time was too short to allow the building of robust defences to hold back the masses of German troops.
As the BEF retreated, so supply lines became disrupted, so that in a few isolated positions, the discipline of the British Army cracked, resulting in the looting of supply dumps and civilian farms.
The Somme line could not be held by the 5th Army, as the whole of its structure was beginning to disintegrate under the storm. Battalions from different Regiments and Brigades from different Divisions all got mixed up, as the HQ staff officers tried to manipulate their reduced forces as best they could. The Germans too were tiring in their relentless pursuit of an enemy, who took every opportunity to stand and fight and in many instances inflict severe losses on them.
Between 21st and 26th March 1918, the BEF had lost 75000 men, - a figure that stunned Lloyd George and forced him to reverse his policy. In early 1918 Lloyd George had refused to provide Haig with additional men to make up the numbers after the casualties of Third Ypres. This refusal had been a major contributory factor in the weakness of the 5th Army. Now belatedly, Battalions were withdrawn from other theatres and sent to the Western Front. The fighting age was reduced from 19 to 18 years of age and battalions on meaningless Home duties were dispatched to France.
The retreat in the southern sector of the front proceeded until just East of the crucial railway hub of Amiens. By the end of March 1918, the defences were beginning to hold, aided by the French and the fresh Australians. In April 1918, the town of Villers Bretonneux became the point where the German attack lost its impetus. The Germans had been stopped short of their objective and Amiens remained in allied hands. Had the German offensive blown itself out? Had the BEF with its limited resources been able to stop itself from being isolated from the French?
3. The Allies Under Pressure
March 1918 was the beginning of a series of events that shaped the latter stages of the Great War. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers, including some of my relatives, had their own experiences of the St Michael Offensive. I now want to examine the actions in which they were involved between 21st March and 5th April 1918.
When the German offensive began on 21st March 1918, General Byng’s Third Army was opposite Cambrai, with the 40th Division in reserve. Part of this Division was the newly created 40th Battalion Machine Gun Corps, in whose ranks was Sergeant Wilfred W Livermore MM, my grandmother’s cousin. Wilfred Livermore had been serving in France since May 1915 and had won the Military Medal at the Battle of Arras.
As the strength of the German offensive became apparent, Byng called up the 40th Division to stop the break through. Sergeant Wilfred Livermore and the rest of ‘D’ company were defending the retreating infantry around the village of St Leger, south of Arras, where they inflicted substantial casualties upon the successive waves of storm troopers. But the tide could not be stemmed, in spite of the heroism of the machine gunners, who remained behind to cover the retreating infantry. By the night of 25th March the 40th MGC was in tatters and orders were received for them to withdraw and for the 42nd Bn. MGC to take over.
The War Diary of 40th Bn. MGC WO95/2601 provides a summary of the very fluid situation between 21st and 25th March.
40TH BN. MGC, WO95/2601
March 21st 5 am Very heavy bombardment on the whole front opened at 5 am. Received message from 40th Division at 6 am to take precautionary measures-message received at 10 am “ no enemy attack yet reported.”
6 30 am B and D companies reported ready to move.
11 30 am B and D companies ordered to take up positions in the 3rd system to support the 120th and 121st Brigades.
March 24th Enemy attack continued all along 40th Division front. Orders received for the relief of 40th Division. Battalion to be relieved on 25/26 March. Issued orders to B , C and D companies for relief.
March 25th Battalion Headquarters and A company moved to MONCHY AU BOIS. B, C and D companies joined from the line at night.
March 26th Battalion paraded to move to BIENVILLERS AU BOIS. Stopped en route and ordered to send guns for defence of ADINFER WOOD.
This War Diary WO95/2601 also contains a very detailed report on the period 21st to 26th March 1918, written after the action by Lt. Col. J Roberts. This clearly shows the very rapidly changing nature of the conflict and the ability of the MGC sections to stop the storm troopers in their tracks. Sergeant Livermore was in charge of a gun team in D company, to which this report makes many references.
The guns of D company arrived at the ST LEGER—VAUX road at 5 pm on 21 MARCH 1918 and immediately came into action-------about 600 of the enemy advanced west of ECOUST and coming into action from their limbers annihilated them.
At about 10 am on 22 MARCH 1918 the enemy drove strong attacks. D company brought heavy fire to bear on them inflicting very heavy casualties and on one occasion annihilating about 1000 of the enemy in massed formation.
22/23 MARCH 1918 north of Mory the enemy launched a heavy attack in the afternoon and forced our infantry back. 3 sections of machine guns caught him as he advanced over the ridge doing great execution and covering the withdrawal of the infantry.
At 10 am the enemy again attacked and forced our infantry to withdraw. The machine guns were able to cover the withdrawal and inflict heavy casualties on the Germans.
On 25 MARCH about mid day the enemy attacks on ERVILLERS were resumed. No 2 section was enabled to deal with large masses of the enemy and to inflict heavy casualties on them . The section only withdrew when it was practically surrounded on the high ground west of Ervillers.
On the night of 25/26 MARCH 1918 orders were issued for the guns of 40th Bn. Machine Gun Corps to withdraw as the 42nd Bn Machine Gun Corps had taken over the machine gun defence of the line.
2/Lt. Baker D company volunteered to remain and organized the front line of the infantry.
2/Lt. Whittaker with his 4 guns remained in position after the infantry had withdrawn and held off the enemy firing at 800 yards into dense masses.
The War Diary lists 9 killed, 65 wounded and 61 missing from the 40th Bn MGC. Included in the missing was the name of Sergeant Wilfred Livermore MM “D” company. (Figure 2)
Figure 2. Entry from War Diary 40th Bn MGC March 1918 (N A Kew)
Wilfred Livermore is now buried in the CWGC British Cemetery, just outside the village of Favreuil north of Bapaume and some distance south of the area of the fighting recounted in the War Diary. His headstone has the date of his death as 24th May 1918, two months after the action. The probable explanation for this was that he was wounded and taken prisoner and died in captivity from his wounds. This has been confirmed by the ICRC (Red Cross Geneva) who hold the records of Prisoners of War in WW1 which they are currently in the process of digitalizing, ready for 2014. The ICRC attestation document shows that Sergeant Livermore was captured at Gommecourt N W of Albert and a short distance from Adinfer Wood mentioned in the War Diary. He was detained in a German army Field Hospital in the village of Beugny, north of Bapaume and near to his current resting place.
The document (Figure 3) also says that, on his death, he was buried in plot 194 of the German cemetery in Beugny. At some point, after the end of the war, his body was transferred to the Favreuil British Cemetery along with 7 other British soldiers who had been buried in the Beugny No 3 German Cemetery.
Figure 3. ICRC Attestation for Sgt W W Livermore (Red Cross Geneva)
Sergeant W W Livermore M M is commemorated on his home village war memorial in Felsted, Essex and in the Machine Gun Corps Roll of Honour in St Wulfram’s Church, Grantham.
Another part of the 40th Division was the 12th Bn. Suffolk Regiment, in whose ranks was my grandfather’s cousin, Arthur William Maltby from Cambridge, who had been called up in May 1916 and whose only real action had been at Boulon Wood in the Battle of Cambrai in November 1917. (Figure 4)
Figure 4. Medal Index Card for Arthur Maltby (N A Kew)
At the time of the St Michael offensive in March 1918 the 12th Battalion was in training behind the lines and was called into the front around St Leger south of Arras. By the 22nd March the Battalion found itself virtually surrounded by waves of storm troopers and lost its commander Lt. Col. Eardley-Wilmot shot by a sniper through the mist. A message from HQ telling the battalion to withdraw did not reach them, such that three companies of men were almost all killed or taken prisoner. It was a miracle that any survivors were able to withdraw under cover of darkness and on 26th March 1918 the battered Battalion of the 12th Suffolks, including Pte Arthur W Maltby, was withdrawn.
The Battalion War Diary WO95/2616 provides a graphic account of the suffering during their brief involvement in the St Michael Offensive.
22nd 6 am The Commanding Officer Lt. Col. T Eardley-Wilmot DSO took a platoon out of the front line to form a forward platoon & cover a gap on our left. There was a very heavy ground mist and the enemy snipers had taken up good positions and sniped the C O and the artillery liaison officer killing them both.
4pm We opened LG and rifle fire upon the enemy and got good results.
6 30 pm Later we saw the enemy advancing and driving our troops back.
Our forward coys were ordered to fall back to the Army line. The message was delivered too late as no one from the 3 coys returned.
Remainder of Battalion retired to MORY COPSE
11pm to 1am the enemy attacked but we held the line on our front.
23rd 1am All touch had again been lost with other units and as the enemy fire died down the troops were marched in column of route under cover of darkness across country towards ERVILLERS.
Night 23rd—24th comparatively quiet but enemy shelled our positions and sprayed us with MGs all day.
March 25th 3pm enemy attacked in force on wide front but did not reach our trench.
At 8 pm this line was evacuated and the remnants of the Bn. Marched to AYETTE where they spent the remainder of the night.
March 26th 8 am Battalion marched to BIENVILLERS and took up an outpost position.
Exhausted, depleted and traumatized, the survivors of 40th Division were moved north to a quiet sector around Armentieres, a town made famous by the song ‘Mademoiselle from Armentieres parlez-vous’.
Further South from the 40th Division actions, the 50th Division had been in training at Boves near to Amiens and was quickly ordered East of Amiens to meet the German attack on 21st March 1918. Part of the 150th Brigade of 50th (Northumbrian) Division was the 5th Battalion Yorkshire regiment in whose ranks was Private Samuel R D Maltby, another of my grandfather’s cousins from Cambridge.
Samuel Maltby had been wounded in April 1917 during the Battle of Arras and had returned to his old unit in January 1918. The 5th Battalion War Diary WO95/2836 provides a detailed account of their rearguard action fought between 21st and 31st March 1918, in which they withdrew nine miles to the S.E. of Amiens. The 4th and 5th Battalions of the Yorkshires fought together in this action, which was so chaotic and fast moving that in the end Battalion identities were lost, as groups of stragglers were formed into the 150th Brigade Composite Battalion.
5TH Battalion Yorkshire Regiment. WO95/2836
23rd March . 8 am received orders to withdraw along main MONS-BRIE road, 4th Yorks to cover withdrawal to Mons. Then engaged with the enemy and withdrawal difficult as enemy was coming round right flank. From MONS to BRIE fought rearguard action. Withdrew and crossed R Somme at Brie about 3pm.
On 23 March 50th Division was relieved by 8th Division, but on 24th the Germans crossed the river Somme and 150th Brigade was ordered to rush across country to bolster the defences of the river at Licourt.
25th March . At about 9 am the enemy attacked and the WORCESTERS gave way and enemy occupied LICOURT by 10 am. The 2 Coys. of the Bn. in front line held on till the end and only a handful of men got away. Lieut HEPTON and many of his men were wounded and captured. At 10 30 am the enemy completely occupied LICOURT and enfilade fire caused the Bn and 4th E Yorks to withdraw and take up position on high ground. The Bn and 4th E Yorks held on here from 9am to 5 pm. During the night Gen Haig sent for Col Thomson 5th Yorks and thanked him and told him he might be required to fight rearguard action if withdrawal ordered.
26th March . At about 8 am enemy appeared and firing ensued. Withdrawal by WORCESTERS took place . This incident made withdrawal of 150th Composite Battalion very difficult and whole of rearguard platoon of 5th Yorks was either killed or captured.
27th March. Casualties caused by our own artillery, one gun firing short.
Col Wilkinson was here wounded and Col. Thomson assumed command of 150th I B , unit.
The enemy launched an attack at about 7 pm, but was driven back with fairly heavy casualties.
28th March. Other units were constantly retiring through the Bde unit.
Gen. Haig said position had so altered that he was at a loss to decide on course to be pursued, but that Col. Thomson had better take up a position on high ground S of CAIX and cover withdrawal of troops in front.
30th March. The composite Battalion would take up a position and fight a rearguard action to cover the safe withdrawal by troops across the R. de LUCE.
Owing to his being hit Col. Thomson withdrew to Bde H Q at HOURGES and handed over command to Capt. Pollock 4th E. Yorks.
At 7pm the 150th I.B. unit in conjunction with the French on right counter attacked re took the copse and some 70 prisoners.
31st March. At about 12 noon enemy put down heavy barrage on line and on DOMART and HOURGES and at about 2 pm attacked on a frontage extending beyond both flanks of 150th frontage. The French having given in on the right, the enemy outflanked and arrived in the rear of 150th party. Capt. Pollock and party fought till the last moment and inflicted heavy casualties on the enemy.
The enemy worked up the valley S. of the wood and bringing enfilade fire causing all parties to withdraw (Figure 5)
Figure 5. Map showing actions of 150th Bde 50th Division March 1918 (Bill Danby 4th Bn Yorkshire Regiment website)
The 5th Battalion Yorkshires had experienced 372 casualties by the 31st March, including its C.O. Colonel Thomson, who was wounded, but remained at his duty. On 1st April what remained of the Composite Battalion marched off to the suburbs of Amiens. It was totally exhausted by ten days of constant fighting with no sleep or proper food and numbered only 849 men of which 234 were 5th Battalion men including Samuel Maltby. The 50th Divisional History pays this tribute to its men.
To the undying glory of the British soldier, let it be remembered of him that in the greatest battle the world has ever known , he carried himself with great honour and courage fighting the harder as the situation grew more desperate, often preferring death to surrender.
In addition the History also bemoans the fact that whilst other units fighting rearguard actions received praise in the official dispatches, the 50th Division appeared to go unrecognized.
The results of the Great German offensive on the Somme in March 1918 were terribly disappointing to the enemy. That he did not break through was due to the splendid courage and tenacity of the British soldier. The fine fighting displayed by ALL units of the 50th Division received but little notice in official dispatches.
Haig used 56 Divisions to defend the Somme river crossings but it did not mean that all of them experienced the same arduous fighting and withdrawals. My grandmother’s cousin Private Frank Jarvis had been wounded at the Battle of Arras, recovered in the UK, and posted back to the Border Regiment in late 1917. In early 1918, as part of the Army reorganization, he was transferred to 11th Battalion Border Regiment, known as the Lonsdales, having been formed by the Earl of Lonsdale in 1914. As can be seen from the Medal Roll Fig 6, this was one of no less than six battalions of the Border regiment that Frank Jarvis served in during his two years army service. (Figure 6)
Figure 6. Medal Roll Border Regiment (N A Kew)
As the St Michael offensive commenced, the 11th Bn was hastily moved south from the Ypres sector to an area around Moyenneville and Ayette, south of Arras.
The Battalion War Diary WO95/2403 suggests that unlike other units the 11th Borders took a minor role in stemming the tide of the German advance.
28.3.18. Bn moved at 8 30 am to occupy old trenches in vicinity of Adinfer Wood
30.3.18 Bde relieved by 96th Bde. Btn by L. F . Relief completed by 10 30 am. Btn moved forward to advanced positions and relieved Yorks and Lancs and Scots Guards in line in front of Moyenville to Ayette
3rd Apr. Enemy reported massing in front of B coy . Later 500-600 men leaving trench in small parties; these were probably reinforcements rushed up to hold up an expected attack
4th Apr Bat relieved by 10th A & S H. Relief complete by 11 20 am
Whilst other Battalions were fighting for their lives, the 11th Borders remained in old German trenches, enduring the occasional bombardment. This was effectively the end of the 11th Battalion’s war because in May, it was amalgamated with 5th Battalion, with whom Frank Jarvis fought until, in October 1918, he was killed in action.
4. The Germans switch their attack
From a German perspective, the St Michael offensive had failed in its major objectives of splitting the BEF and French armies and in pushing the BEF back to the Channel ports. Thus, Ludendorff switched his attention to Flanders and the second offensive, code named Georgette. Here the objective was Hazebrouk like Amiens a major railway hub and only 50 miles from the ports of Calais and Dunkirk. If they could take Hazebrouk then the BEF supply lines would be significantly disrupted. Haig had used 56 Divisions in the defence of the Somme, many of which were exhausted and in need of rebuilding. Some of these divisions had been moved north around Bethune and Armentieres for rest and recuperation, but this was the very area chosen for the next storm of steel to hit. The difference was that the BEF had learned a lot about defensive tactics and this area had in depth defences unlike the South of the Somme. (Figure 7)
Figure 7. Map of the Battles of the Lys April 1918 (CWGC booklet)
On 9th April 1918 at 04.15, the German barrage commenced, followed at 08.45 am by the storm troopers attacking across No Man’s Land under cover of yet another mist. It was a repeat performance of St Michael. The outposts were soon overcome and the BEF was engaged in trying to stop the Germans from crossing the river Lys. Again, Haig had to manipulate his weakened forces and, although Lloyd George had released more UK based reserves, the proportion of this enlarged army devoted to infantrymen was only 36% compared with 59 % in 1917. The ‘poor bloody infantry’ the so called Joe Soap’s army had to bear the brunt of this new attack.
Supreme command of the Allied Forces had been given to the French General Foch in April 1918 and it was to him that Haig requested that the French take over a larger sector of the Front Line. Foch refused this request, preferring to keep back his reserves, fearing another German attack in another sector. Haig and the BEF were again alone. The German attack now extended to Armentieres, a town that had always been in allied hands and also to the Messines ridge which had only been taken in June 1917. There were elements of a retreat, though not on the scale of March 1918. On 11th April 1918, Haig felt the need to issue his now famous ‘backs to the wall’ special order of the day to instill into his men the need to hold fast at all costs.
“There is no other course open to us but to fight it out. Every position must be held to the last man; there must be no retirement. With our backs to the wall and believing in the justice of our cause each one of us must fight onto the end.”
The defences held for as long as they could, before falling back to the next town or village; all the time getting closer to Hazebrouk. Again the BEF just managed to halt the progress of the Germans and with fresh divisions from Italy, Palestine and Egypt and some French divisions, the crucial rail terminal at Hazebrouk was secured. However, further north, the British had lost the Messines ridge and eventually had to withdraw from the Passchendaele ridge too. By the end of April, although large areas of land had been gained, the Germans had failed to take Hazebrouk and the Channel ports. Time was running out for Ludendorff as more and more Americans began to arrive in France and more troops were released from training camps in the UK.
5. The Battle of the River Lys
How did my relatives fare during the Georgette offensive - the Battle of the River Lys?
The 40th Division had suffered substantial losses during the St Michael offensive and was moved north to a quiet sector around Armentieres.
Private Arthur Maltby, my grandfather’s cousin and the others in the 12th Suffolks, must have thought that they had survived everything that the Germans could throw at them. However, they were wrong - for this quiet sector of the front was shattered by another German attack.
On 9th April at 04.15, the enemy attacked along the River Lys. The 12th Suffolks were called from reserve to defend around Fleurbaix, where they put up a stout resistance, inflicting substantial casualties upon the thick waves of attacking storm troopers until 16.30, when they fought a rearguard withdrawal.
On 10th April they withdrew across the river Lys to Nieppe, where they dug in, before withdrawing further west to be in front of the railway terminal of Hazebrouk.
The Battalion War Diary WO95/2616 provides a detailed account of their involvement from 9th to 13th April 1918.
4.15 am A very heavy bombardment by the enemy was put down on front line and FLEURBAIX defences a tremendous amount of gas being used.
11 am The whole line under machine gun fire from enemy.
The fighting was severe and continuous and very heavy losses inflicted on the enemy who continued to move in sections in single file across our front towards the WEST.
4 30 pm Our casualties very heavy particularly “ B “ and “ C “ coys.
6 am Heavy shelling and MG fire on our front and left followed by enemy attack. Our troops generally driven back to ERQUINGHEM.
2 am Orders received to make our way to NIEPPE and hold the railway.
2 pm Battalion ordered to counter attack and restore position.
The attacking lines moved off and took buildings killing number of the enemy. The enemy retired in a northerly direction but left several MGs and a large number of snipers in the buildings.
At 6 pm orders were received not to press the attack but to hold on to our positions until 8 30 pm. Our casualties were heavy about 70 in this attack but we inflicted heavy casualties on the enemy.
8 30 pm Moved back in order.
9 pm Marched to LA CRECHE arriving at 11 pm and at 4 30 am marched to STRAZELLE where we dug in .
4 30 pm Marched and joined our transport and at 9 15 pm marched to BAVINGHOVE arriving at 11 30 pm and bivouacked for the night.
9 15 am Marched to ST. OMER to billets.
The defence of Fleurbaix had held up the German advance and prompted Haig to write:
“In this fighting, very gallant service was rendered by the 12th Battalion Suffolk Regiment 40th Division who held out in Fleurbaix until the evening though heavily attacked on three sides.”
So ended the 12th Battalion Suffolks involvement in the Great War, having lost 423 men from their ranks. In May, it was reduced to cadre, with officers and men being sent to base depot for re drafting including Arthur Maltby, who found himself posted to 2nd Battalion Northamptonshire Regiment in June 1918.
The 50th (Nothumbrian) Division, which included the 5th Yorkshires and my grandfather’s cousin Samuel R D Maltby, having suffered during the St Michael offensive, had been moved to a quiet sector to the north of Bethune. The sector in which they found themselves was held by Portuguese troops, who fled, leaving a huge gap in the defensive lines when the Germans attacked on 9th April. The 50th Division was tasked with plugging the gap and preventing the enemy from crossing the river Lys at ESTAIRES.
The Divisional History records:
Large bodies of the enemy attempted to press back the line but the battalions with fine tenacity stuck to their positions.
This time the troops of 50th Division were mentioned in the official dispatches.
“At Estaires the troops of the 50th Division tired, reduced in numbers by exceptionally heavy fighting of the previous three weeks and threatened on their right flank by the enemy’s advance south of the river Lys were heavily engaged. After holding their position with great gallantry during the morning they were slowly pressed back in the direction of Merville.“ (Figure 8)
Figure 8. Map showing 150th Bde action at Estaires April 1918 (Bill Danby 4th Bn Yorkshire Regiment website)
On 11th April the situation was even worse as the Division History reports:
At 9. 5. am the Green Howards reported that the enemy pressure on the front was great. Fighting hard, the Green Howards held on until practically surrounded. Many of them were captured and wounded owing to the impossibility of getting away.
Brigadier General Rees C. O. of the 150th Brigade said on 11th April:
“Up and down the line for the next couple of days this was the nature of the fighting on the 50th Division front. Desperate men clinging on as best they could, falling back, filtering in the newly arriving reinforcements that were inevitably chewed up in the intense fighting.”
The 5th Battalion War Diary WO95/2836 describes the period 9/16th April in detail, the main points of which are:
9th 7 am placed under 1 hours notice to move. On arrival found ESTAIRES heavily shelled and main street impassable.
10th At about 11 am information was received that the enemy having crossed the R. LYS at BAC ST. MAUR was then occupying LA BOUDRELLE.
Here the line held for the remainder of the day and all night. There was continuous rifle fire and heavy casualties were inflicted on the enemy.
11th In the early morning of this day the enemy attacked the left flank heavily The Middlesex on the left withdrew but the Coys holding the salient held on till practically surrounded and many were captured or left wounded, it being impossible to get away. When the line withdrew the Battn got badly scattered. At 1pm orders received to form a stragglers post to collect all men of 150th I. B.
Men were collected and the 150th I.B. formed a Battn under Lt Col THOMSON though a very weak Battn.
Orders from 150th I.B. received about 7 pm instructed force to hold on till darkness at all costs, and then if unable to hold to withdraw and move to VIERHOUCK where 50th Div were forming a line running towards MERVILLE.
12th The Battn was assembled and took up a position on the right of the GUARDS. In this position the mixed Battn held on until 4 pm . At about this hour some detached posts of the Guards were surrounded and had to surrender. This and constant MG fire and sniping started a withdrawal of the mixed men.
At about 8pm Battn relieved and moved back to LA MOTTE
13th The Battn arrived here at 9 30 am where it was met by the transport and bivouacking, was fed and remained till 5 pm when it was ordered to occupy billets in the vicinity and remained the night.
14th The Brigade reorganized and each Battn formed a Coy the whole 150th Bgde. Battn. Under Col. THOMSON.
16th Battn. Moved to LA LACQUE, Div. now being in CORPS RESERVE.
During this period 9th to 16th April the 5th Battalion had suffered 11 deaths, 126 wounded and 159 missing. During both German attacks it had suffered 698 casualties, so that during May it received a mass of new recruits to bring it up to strength. Samuel R.D. Maltby, aged 24, was now a veteran, having been in the battalion since August 1916. Given what he had experienced, he must have thought that his life had been protected. If he thought that the worst was over, how wrong he was.
My maternal grand father, George Maltby of Cambridge, having been called up in March 1917, after a period with the 18th Training Bn., was posted to one of the oldest regiments in the British Army - the 1st Bn the Royal West Surreys, The Queen’s. (Figure 9)
Figure 9. Photograph of Pte George Maltby 1st Bn The Queen’s (Family archive)
On 11th April 1918, as part of the 19th Brigade 33rd Division, they found themselves in Brigade reserve around the town of Meteren, east of Hazebrouk, with orders to move at short notice and in fighting order,with each man having been issued with 220 rounds. By April 12th they were dug into positions south of the village of Meteren, ready to defend it against the waves of attacking storm troopers. Their war diary WO95/ 2422 provides a detailed description, with a map of their action during 12th and 14th April 1918. The following is a synopsis of the main actions during this period as reported by Lt Col. Welch C.O. 1st Bn The Queen’s Regiment.
OPERATIONS SOUTH OF METEREN 12-14/APRIL/1918
12th April On the night of 11/12th April , the Battalion was close billeted in huts at west end of METEREN . The village was shelled continuously during the night.
The Battalion was held in readiness to move at very short notice.
1pm. Battalion to occupy a defensive position at once covering METEREN a distance of 3000 yards as 31st Division was reported to be retiring northwards in this direction.
1 45 pm The high ground that the Battalion was to occupy was found to be held by enemy machine guns. These inflicted very few casualties during the advance which was carried out in an extremely quick and efficient manner through some intricate and enclosed country.
3.0 pm The Battalion was now disposed on a frontage of 2100 yards. No touch had been gained on their flanks. The machine guns of 33rd Bn Machine Gun Corps were disposed in depth in and behind the Battalion’s front and throughout the operations rendered very valuable services.
5.0 pm “B” company reported enemy digging about 400 yards from their front and apparently being reinforced.
5 32 pm “C” company reported “ About one company of enemy advancing on my right. Am killing them . “
Enemy attacked in waves several times but was stopped without difficulty and suffered heavy casualties.
9.0 pm Enemy reported all along the front digging in in small posts.
11.0 pm Patrol sent out along the whole of the Battalion’s front encountered parties of enemy digging in on an average of 400 yards from our front.
13th April 1918.
12 35 am Message sent to Brigade HQ “ The holding of the front is made precarious owing to the enemy being in occupation of OUTTERSTEENE from which most of the line is enfiladed. I would suggest that as soon as troops become available , every effort should be made to secure this place and MERRIS. I do not consider that I have enough reserve to do this without support as it would greatly lengthen front.
5 30 am Morning very misty.”D” Company was attacked by two lines of enemy. Attack was driven off by rifle and L.G. fire. Following on this attack enemy under cover of very considerable artillery and machine gun fire made continual attempts to penetrate the line but were continually held up . Heavy casualties were inflicted upon them during these attempts.
8 45 am A heavy attack developed from the direction of OUTERSTEENE Three posts held by “B” company were overwhelmed. The occupants were reported missing. This necessitated the withdrawal of the remaining posts.
11 30 am . Line now held by Battalion being precarious, C.O. went to Brigade H. Q. After conference with Brigade Commander it was decided to withdraw
1.0 pm Withdrawal begun , under cover of fire of M G Corps and local covering fire.
4 30 pm Enemy under cover of fairly heavy shelling attacked posts along the line were driven back.
During the afternoon there was considerable enemy movement all along the front. Several reports of enemy cavalry being in action.
7 30 pm Position of the centre of Battalion was found very unsatisfactory owing to enclosed country and enemy machine guns on high ground enfilading the whole of the Battalion’s front. It was therefore decided to withdraw centre and left of the Battalion. This operation being carried out without any difficulty. The withdrawal effectively covered by machine guns.
14th APRIL 1918.
6 am . Enemy began to mass opposite left centre of Battalion moving down all roads in strength and deploying. Many excellent targets for machine guns and rifle fire. Occupants of posts forced to evacuate them but were shot down almost to a man by enemy machine guns. The situation was now extremely critical
8 15 am Enemy began to mass opposite right of the Battalion and an attack developed but was stopped by machine gun and rifle fire.
12 15 pm Two platoons of 18th Bn Middlesex Rgt holding trenches having fired off most of their ammunition withdrew without warning and for no adequate reason. Orders were issued for the trench line to be re occupied at nightfall. This was done.
Co operation between Boche infantry and gunners extraordinarily good.
4 30 pm Arrangements for the Battalion’s relief 14-15th.
15th. APRIL 1918
3 45 am. Relief completed without incident.
The battalion was concentrated in the NOOTE BOOM area and billeted in a farm.
The following casualties occurred during the operations:
TOTAL OFFICERS - Killed 2, Wounded 10, Missing 1 = 13
OTHER RANKS - Killed 36, Wounded 161, Missing 160 = 357
George Maltby and the Queen’s 1st Battalion had survived the Battle of the Lys with over 350 casualties. Their war diary shows that they were involved in further heavy fighting around Steenvorde in the first two weeks of May 1918, but unlike other Battalions, they remained in operational status ready to take part in the final stage of the war, ‘The Advance to Victory.’ On 20th May 1918 the 19th Brigade of 33rd Division, including George Maltby and the 1st Bn Queen’s, were inspected by the Army Commander, General Sir Herbert C. O. Plumer. As the war diary WO95/2422 records:
The Brigade was formed up in a hollow square at 11 30 am each of the three sides being a battalion in mass formation. Military Medals were presented to men of the battalion for distinguished conduct in the operations S of Meteren on 12/14th April.
Gen. Plumer delivered a speech in which he congratulated the 33rd Division & the 19th Brigade upon the excellent work done at the critical time 12th / 16th April in the operations around BAILLEUL & Meteren.
My paternal grandmother’s brother, George Shallish of Banwell, Somerset, joined up in 1917 at the age of 29, and was posted to the 4th Battalion Worcestershire Regiment, part of the 29th Division. (Figure 10)
Figure 10. Medal Roll Worcestershire Regiment (N A Kew)
In the early part of 1918, they were in the Ypres salient and on 9th April had been sent back to a camp some miles behind Poperinghe. However, they had only been in this camp for a few hours when they received orders to be ready to move to an unknown destination. On 10th April, they were moved off in London omnibuses towards Bailleul. As they passed down the Armentieres road, they met up with groups of stragglers, including the remnants of the Portuguese brigade that had broken ranks and fled in the face of the German bombardment.
The 4th Battalion War Diary WO95/ 2309 provides details of this and the subsequent actions, written in a very matter of fact unemotional narrative - almost totally disguising the extremely serious nature of the situation at the time.
April 10th A few miles from BAILLEUL the convoy was stopped from proceeding any further in the direction of ARMENTIERES. We were informed that everyone was in full retreat and that there was nothing between us and the advancing enemy other than a few stragglers and refugees. Colonel Clarke in command of the convoy gave orders for all to disembark and sent the buses away. He decided to seize the village of LA CRECHE and the station and railway embankment to the south of it .
The enemy were advancing in considerable strength towards the village and along the railway embankment and 4th Worcs were soon heavily engaged but managed to inflict severe loss on the enemy and reached their objectives. The fighting was severe at the station which changed hands three times during the day but eventually remained in possession of the 4/Worc.
April 11th. Were fairly quiet although we were at intervals heavily shelled
& 12th. and occasional raids endeavoured to penetrate our line.
April 13th. During the morning of the 13th orders were received to withdrew to the Mont de Lille during the night.
At , I believe , midnight the evacuation of our position commenced – this was carried out to such exactitude that not a shot was fired, and we were well consolidated in our new positions on the Mont de Lille just as dawn broke.
April 14th. It was some time before the enemy was seen advancing towards us and this was done in a very clever manner, small parties of machine gunners making their way towards our new position down the hedges, and it was exceedingly difficult to watch them .
Their tactics appeared to be to get machine gun detachments through the gaps in our lines and then fire on our troops from behind. They succeeded in doing this on our flank, which had rather a terrifying effect.
We were successful in holding onto our position in spite of these continual raids until we were eventually relieved on the evening of April 15th.
April 15th. This relief was most welcome , as neither officers nor men had had any sleep to speak of since we went into action on the 10th April.
It was a great feat to hold up the enemy for a period of six days , which undoubtedly gave time for reorganization behind at a very critical time.
After relief we marched back to a well equipped Nissen Hut Camp.
No sooner had we decided to settle down when the Brigade Major informed us that the enemy had broken through the part of the line we had just left ( imagine our disappointment and even disgust when we heard this after we had held on for nearly a week) and that we were to go up and counter attack at dawn.
April 16th. Fortunately, the situation was not so serious as was anticipated and we were successful in regaining the position on the Mont de Lille we had so recently left.
I do not remember how long we remained there, I think only for the one day , when we were again relieved and once again settled down to trench warfare of rather a more open character in the Vieuve Bequin section. We remained here for some weeks , being periodically relieved and then were sent back to near Cassell where the Battalion was re-equipped and well rested.
Private George Shallish of the 4th Bn Worcestershires, was one of these men who retired from the fighting, preparing themselves for the final actions of the Great War.
My four relatives, who had fought in the Battle of the Lys, had luckily all survived to fight another day. The British Press heralded it as a German defeat, although the British had suffered severe losses, with some units being totally disabled. However, the Germans had made no real strategic gains and the territorial gains had extended their lines, thus requiring more men to protect them. If the Battle of the Lys had been won by the British, it was through personal bravery and a strong desire not to be beaten.
‘The Battle was won by the many thousands of junior leaders , NCOs and men a proportion of whom were just 18 years old and doing their bit.’ - Chris Baker ‘The Battle for Flanders’
6. The German’s Last Attempt to win the War
There was to be one more roll of the dice for Ludendorff. One more attempt at the big break through. For the Allies, it was a guessing game as to where the next German attack might be directed. Some of the BEF Divisions had been severely battered by the March and April offensives. In a particularly bad state were the 8th, 21st 25th and 50th Divisions. Haig and Foch agreed to swap these divisions with some French divisions from a very quiet area of the front in the Chemin Des Dames, the scene of the French disaster in June 1917. Therefore, in May 1918, these BEF Divisions came under French command on the Plateau de Californie, with the river Aisne at their backs. They were not to know that Ludendorff’s next plan was to attack this very sector, so as to draw in reserves from the north before launching a main attack against the weakened Flanders area.
At 01.00 am on 27th May 1918, the German bombardment began with such an intensity that the British infantry could not even get out of their deep dug outs. The pattern of the German offensive was being repeated again. At 03.40 the storm troopers attacked, creating total confusion amongst both the BEF and French defenders on the Plateau de Californie ridge. Many units were surrounded and captured before they could even fire a shot. Those that did survive this onslaught, fell back to defend the bridges over the river Aisne. It was indeed the same story as in March and April, with the BEF fighting rearguard actions to defend river bridges. But it was impossible to hold the Aisne line, so the retreat continued with some units being sacrificed to allow others to escape.
The Germans now had the river Marne and Paris in their sights - as they had done at the beginning of the war in 1914. This was such a prize to Ludendorff that he poured in his reserves from Flanders, effectively changing his whole strategy at the prospect of capturing Paris. However, the French too summoned up every possible reserve, together with the newly arrived Americans, so that by June 1918 the German offensive began to peter out. The French now took to the offensive in July 1918 and pushed back the Germans. By August, with the assistance of American and BEF troops, the French had regained all of the territory lost on 27th May 1918. Ludendorff had to cancel his ‘war winning offensive’ in Flanders and the allies began to plan their own advance to victory. The battle of the Aisne proved to be the last German attempt to win the war and had it had indeed come mighty close to doing so. (Figure 11)
Figure 11. Map of the Aisne May 1918 (Bill Danby 4th Bn Yorkshire Regiment website)
Those BEF divisions, that had been transferred to that ‘quiet sector’ on the Aisne, had been pulverized beyond recognition and in the case of the 50th Division, beyond repair - so much so, that some of its battalions ceased to exist for the remainder of the war. My relative Samuel R. D. Maltby, was in the 5th Battalion the Yorkshire Regiment, part of the 150th Infantry Brigade of the 50th Division. His experiences in May 1918 testify to the severity of the situation and provide an example of how, for many, the war ended with imprisonment as a POW.
7. The Battle of the Aisne
The war diary of 5th Battalion the Yorkshire regiment WO95/2836 shows, that on 7th May 1918, they were in the front line trenches at Craonne in the river Aisne sector, having relieved the 273rd Infantry Regiment of the French army. There, they trained the new recruits who had replaced the losses of April and May. They spent a quiet time in the trenches, in an area that had seen no major actions since the disastrous French attack of June 1917. Then on 27th May the diary records succinctly:
27.5.18. Enemy attacked at 4 30 am. Barrage commenced 1am.
29.5.18 } Battle continues ( Summary of operations prepared by Division to be attached ]
Indeed the narrative of operations by the 150th Infantry Brigade was attached to the war diary and makes harrowing reading. The following is a summary of the main points of the Battle for the Plateau de Californie.
26th May The 150th Infantry brigade was occupying the PLATEAU DE CALIFORNIE . Total front about 2400 metres ( 2600 yards )
A warning being received from Division about 4 pm of an impending hostile attack reported by prisoners to be due to open with a 2 or 3 hour bombardment at 1 am 27th.
27th May . At 1 am the bombardment opened with all nature of shell including gas. All communications were cut within a very short time.
The bombardment was the heaviest yet experienced and heavy casualties were caused in the forward posts on the plateau.
An infantry attack developed against the Brigade front from the North.
The plateau was enveloped on both flanks by about 6 30 am. The hostile barrage was maintained on the Plateau itself to the last it is feared that many men were captured in the deep dug-outs before they were able to come out.
Lt Col Thomson (C. O. 5th Bn Yorkshires) reported about 5 45 am that his Head Quarters Company were then fighting around his command post and that they appeared to be surrounded.
The Brigade HQ had now become dispersed as a result of hostile shelling. The Brigade Major was wounded whilst withdrawing towards the AISNE. Brigadier General REES, it is believed, became too exhausted to continue and was captured.
These few words hardly encompass the devastation that happened to the British Divisions, who had been sent to this previously quiet patch after the March and April mauling.
Brig. General Rees reported that Col. Thomson rang up to say that the counter attack he had launched had been swept away and that he was desperately fighting around his headquarters.
He was afraid it was hopeless and said “ I’ll say goodbye General, I’m afraid I shall not see you again.” - Peter Hart ‘1918, A Very British Victory’
Lt Col. Thomson was right, for in making a run for it, he was shot in the back by a machine gun near to Craonne. He is buried in Vendresse British Cemetery and commemorated on his home-town war memorial at Malton, Yorkshire. Brig. General Rees was indeed captured and taken to see the Kaiser who said to him:
“My troops made a successful attack. I saw some of your men who have been taken prisoner, they look as if they have been through a bad hour. Many of them were very young.”
Indeed many were new recruits, aged 18, fresh from UK training camps, who had had no time to make a fight of it. The 50th Division history sums up the whole awful situation of May 1918:
The terrible disaster which befell the infantry of 50th Division on 27th May saw the end of all those gallant battalions which, whenever possible, had put up a stout resistance. But the majority were surrounded and forced to surrender before they could come into action.
On 27th May, in one day alone, the 50th Division had 227 officers and 4879 ranks killed, wounded or captured. The losses on the Aisne were so great for the battalions of the 50th Division that they could not be replaced. Thus, their old battalion identities disappeared.
My grandfather’s cousin, Samuel R. D. Maltby 242471 5th Battalion Yorkshire regiment, was one of the thousands who swelled the ranks of the POWs. We can only imagine their mixed feelings of relief at being alive, tinged with a disappointment at having failed to hold back the enemy.
‘Whatever his rank the stigma of capture was something that each man had to deal with in his own way. Many wondered if they could have done more in the final moments before capture.’ - Peter Hart ‘1918, A Very British Victory’
For relatives back home, these were anxious times - worrying about their loved ones. In 1918, there were 17500 other ranks imprisoned, almost 50% of whom had been captured between March 21st and November 11th 1918. Much reliance was placed upon the ICRC (Red Cross) in Geneva to provide relatives with information about these POWs. A letter from Samuel Maltby’s wife to his Regiment illustrates that such information could be some time in the coming.
Figure 12. Letter from the wife of Pte Samuel R D Maltby 5th Bn Yorkshires (N A Kew)
8. Reflections on the Spring of 1918
So ends the story of my six relatives, who like thousands of other infantry soldiers, endured 4 months of the ‘Storm of Steel’ as the German Army made its final attempt for victory. Wilfred Livermore died in captivity, after valiantly attempting to hold back the enemy in March 1918. Samuel R.D. Maltby joined the massed ranks of POWs in German prisons and was lucky to survive the deprivation before repatriation in early 1919. Four survived to fight on in the Advance to Victory – Frank Jarvis was killed at the Battle of St Quentin in October 1918, George Shallish, Arthur Maltby and my grandfather, George Maltby survived to return to civvy street and family life.
The centenary commemorations of the Great War has given us time to remember all of these men - plucked out of their normal lives and thrown into the horrors of mechanized warfare that we can never fully appreciate. For those who did not return, there are their gravestones, found in the beautifully kept CWGC cemeteries across the Western Front and the memorials erected in their home-towns and villages by a grateful nation. (Figures 13 and 14)
Figure 13. Gravestone Favreuil British Cemetery (C R Weekes)
Figure 14. War Memorial Felsted Essex (C R Weekes)
For those who survived there is little evidence of what they did. Even the paper army service records for 75% of them no longer exist, due to the German Blitz of May 1940. Only their relatives can try to piece together their stories, using information more readily available thanks to the internet.
This is the story of six of my relatives, with information gathered through personal researches. Hopefully, it does them justice and helps in our understanding of what they had to endure, even if most of them found it difficult to talk about their experiences for the rest of their lives.
National Archives Kew London, Medal Index cards, Regimental Medal Rolls
War Diaries series WO95/ 2601, 2616, 2836, 2403, 2422, 2309
CWGC Publications Maidenhead UK
Soldiers Died in the Great War 1914-1919 data base
Ancestry. com data base census papers / army service records.
Fourteen eighteen Research. Chris Baker
Yorkshire Regiment WW1 website. Edward Nicholl
4th battalion Yorkshire Regiment website Bill Danby
Paul Hart 1918, A Very British Victory Phoenix Books 2008
Chris Baker The Battle for Flanders Pen & Sword Books 2011
Wylly H C The Green Howards in the Great War Naval and Military Press 2007
Wylly H C The Border Regiment in the Great War Gale & Polden.
Wyrall Everard The Fiftieth Division 1914-1919 Naval and Military Press
C R Murphy The History of the Suffolk Regiment 1914-1927
Graham Sacker Suicide Club Promenade Publications.
ICRC (Red Cross) Geneva Karen Terzi Archivist