As 1918 began, Germany was on the ropes. There was continued unrest at home from a populace that was increasingly war weary, unhappy with the military oligarchy now in control of the country. The Allied superiority at sea was causing huge hardship from a naval blockade. Austria-Hungary, under a new Emperor, had secretly tried to negotiate a way out of the war, while the Ottoman’s were being pushed back in the Holy Land.
And on the western front, the casualties that had been sustained at places like Verdun, the Somme and Passchendaele could not be easily borne. Stretched thin, it seems likely that if the Allies had all managed to stay in the war, that Imperial Germany would have collapsed by the summer.
But of course, they didn’t all manage to stay in the war. Amid revolts and intense resentment motivated by a wide variety of grievances, Russia’s Tsar Nicholas II had abdicated in March 1917; a provisional government had struggled on, maintaining the war effort until November, when communist forces seized control. The new Soviet Republic, under Vladimir Lenin, signed an armistice with the Central Powers in December.
Fifty German divisions were freed up by the end of the fighting in the east, and they were soon streaming to the west. Germany found itself with the last surge of manpower it could reasonably expect. Conferences in November 1917 had decided on a return to the doctrine of decisive battle, that the war would be decided by a single great feat of arms, eschewing the attrition strategy that had dominated thinking for years. Essentially, Germany would use its temporary advantage in men to launch one massive offensive, designed to breach the western front and push the British all the way back to the ports, and maybe the French back to Paris, theoretically winning the war with one stroke (German generals would be criticised afterwards for the simplicity of their strategic goals, which remained in flux throughout the campaign). And the clock was ticking: American troops would soon counter-act the departure of Russia from the stage, and make any German victory an impossible proposition.
Britain and France were not blind to what was occurring, and the early months of 1918 were spent trying to organise a drastic change of circumstance on the western front, whereby their nominally offensive minded forces would be changed to a defensive posture, one where they would await, absorb and then turn back the inevitable German attack, before they, with the Americans, would sweep onwards to victory.
A simple strategy, but one not easily implemented. The Germans had years to perfect modern defensive warfare on the western front, with limited troops holding front lines being backed up by strong defences in depth, supplemented by state-of-the-art bunker complexes, finely tuned artillery and troops well-versed in trench fighting. The Germans had taken terrible losses on the western front, but they had inflicted huge numbers of casualties themselves. Now, the Allies had decided to do the same thing, only they had a few months to prepare, not years.
A rapid re-organisation occurred, based around a simple idea of a layered defence: “forward” areas with strongly built defences held by a relatively small number of troops, designed to slow the initial enemy advance; “battle” areas behind, in three lines, where the majority of troops would be stationed and where the majority of the fighting would take place (theoretically); and a “rear”, to be called upon if necessary.
And while all of that was being organised, there was a rapid, and messy, change-up of divisional structure in many places, including the 16th (Irish) and 36th (Ulster). The terrible losses of 1917 meant that battalions were merged, or outright disbanded, all along the line. Numerous battalions of the 16th and 36th, some that had been fighting since 1914, suddenly ceased to exist, what was left of their manpower sent to fill-up other battalions, sometimes outside of the Irish divisions. Some of the Irish troops that had fought under the 16th or 36th suddenly found themselves with Irish Horse units who themselves were frequently suffering the indignity of having their horses sent backwards, the remaining men mounted by bicycles instead.
Some of the 16th were sent to flesh out support battalions of transport or digging units, while there was even an instance of a largely nationalist unit – the 2nd Royal Irish Rifles – being transferred to the 36th, to the befuddlement of many. Some of the units that were retained, like the 6th Connaught Rangers, were badly understrength, and in terms of the Irish identity of the Irish divisions, it was felt that the greater influx of non-Irish troops and officers into the divisions was diluting things greatly. And other named Irish units suffered: the Irish Guards underwent a divisional switch our of the Guards Division, and three of the four Tyneside Irish battalions were disbanded.
While never stated bluntly outright, it has often been thought, then and since, that Hubert Gough and others were influenced by the political situation at home when deciding the fate of the Irish divisions, especially the 16th. This was a time when things were starting to tilt Sinn Fein’s way in Ireland, and the coming crisis on the western front would, indirectly, only accelerate this. Two years out from the Easter Rising, the Irish units serving in the British Army continued to be given an unfair stigmatism of potential untrustworthiness, and this may well have influenced the idea of gradually breaking them up and moving their constituent parts into other units.
In combination with the continuing command of Gough in the Fifth Army, the entire situation contributed to a certain fall in morale that affected the Irish divisions in the New Year, along with the British military at large. Gough’s leadership in this period has long been a source of controversy and debate, and it is clear, in retrospect, that the 42 mile section of the line in the Somme sector that his army manned was too large for them, and not adequately prepared for the coming storm anyway, with some parts of the “Battle” positions non-existent in terms of constructed trenches.
So, the Irish divisions were under-strength, poorly led, their morale seeping away, manning defences that were not complete as part of a strategy that was full of holes. And it was in this condition that the 16th and the 36th would be forced to fight. Because it was here, in the Somme region, at the point where so many men of both sides had died in 1916, where the British lines met up with the French, that the Germans decided to aim directly at for their opening movement of what would come to be called the “Spring Offensive” or “Kaiserschlact” – the “Kaiser’s Battle”. And in the early hours of March 21st, they flung themselves into the teeth of the Irish divisions, with the entire war in the balance.
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