Ireland’s Wars: Operation Michael

At 3.30 AM on the 21st March 1918, the Spring Offensive, Germany’s last great gamble, began with the launching of “Operation Michael”, an attack in the Somme sector, aimed squarely at the British Army lines, just north of where they met their French equivalents. Right in the middle of the onrushing tide were the 16th (Irish) and 36th (Ulster) Divisions, along with a smattering of other “named” Irish units. Part of Gough’s much maligned Fifth Army, they now held the unfortunate responsibility of having to defend against one of the biggest attacks of the war, one that put the entire cause of the western Allies in serious jeopardy.

Michael began with a huge bombardment, comprising conventional artillery with gas, that rained down on British trenches for several hours, while smaller pieces tore up barbed wire emplacements and other obstructions. Under-strength units struggled to take up positions, in the isolated redoubts of the “forward” zone, and in the three trench lines of the “battle” zone, while other units, in the “rear” zone and elsewhere, were still not immediately aware that the long anticipated offensive had begun. After all, artillery bombardments were not irregular occurrences. For those right at the front, the harsh reality became terribly clear when the bombardment lifted and the German infantry surged forward, 76 divisions comprising many “stormtrooper” units, well-trained in the latest trench-breaking tactics, and battle-hardened after years on either the western or eastern front. With bombs, flame-throwers and even some tanks, they ready and able to press home their advantage.

The 16th was covering a 2’000 yard front on the ridge of Ronssoy, while the 36th was focused more south, in front of the German held village of St Quentin, after whom this portion of the fighting would be named. Thick fog helped to obscure the German attackers as they went forward around 8.30, as they smashed against the many redoubts and lines in that section of the front.

Holding to their plan, the Germans largely bypassed the forward zone and the redoubts, pushing on to the battle zone, and leaving enough troops to surround and harass the British that were left. The inadequacy of the redoubts and the forward zone was thus exposed: yes, they held up part of the German force, but only a fraction, and the soldiers that were holding them were hopelessly beleaguered, now facing the choice of fighting to death or surrender, with little hope of friendly troops fighting through to them. Gough, well aware that the troops in the forward zone were largely sacrificial lambs, had been adamant that there would be no strategic placement of troops in rearward areas. Other soldiers, not trapped in the redoubts, were still largely helpless in the face of German strength.

The 16th’s part of the fighting was mostly to the north of the general battle area: the 7th Royal Irish Regiment, now part of the South Irish Horse, were among the first of the Irish units engaged. They held the ground just ahead of Ronssoy village, and were easily swept aside by the German stormtroopers, spending the rest of the day fighting and scrapping back to the village of St Emille, with their entire strength, bar 40 or so men, becoming casualties in the process. Their relative lack of resistance meant that the village was easy pickings, including the battalion HQ and any other soldiers there, who were lucky to get a scrapping of troops away intact.

Similar stories were to be told elsewhere, with the combined 7th/8th Royal Innsikilling Fusiliers HQ being surrounded by enemy infantry before those inside were even aware of what was happening: a section of them were able to cut their way out of the encirclement, but were then caught in the maelstrom of bad communications and general ignorance of what was occurring. Coalescing at the hamlet of Hamel, they held back repeated German attacks there, taking an astonishing 750 casualties in the process. The 2nd Royal Irish Regiment, strung out near Lempire, were rapidly engulfed, with small pockets holding out for as long as they could.

As the morning wore on, units across the rear zone were ordered into the line, but the speed and ferocity of the German attack meant that the effectiveness of the Fifth Army at large was hamstrung, as communications between command and soldiers broke down. Held by the 36th, across the initial stages of the attack, a succession of mini-battles was fought at the redoubts, most of which had been given names, formal or informal.

“Racecourse”, held by the 15th Royal Irish Rifles, was quickly swamped. All sides of the position were attacked in a flood of German infantry, and for seven hours, the rapidly decreasing Rifles dealt with the bullets, grenades and flame-throwers of the enemy. Only two companies held the redoubt, but they provided enough resistance to hold-up two German battalions for seven gruelling hours, before their Colonel, with only 30 unwounded men left, felt obliged to surrender.

“Boudicea”, held by the 2nd Royal Inniskillings, had luckily avoided serious targeting during the initial bombardment, so were better capable of resistance in the face of the German units assigned to quieten it. But they could do little than stay in place as trench mortars began to rain down ordinance. They held on throughout the terror of the day for as long as they could, before early evening brought the realisation that it was surrender or death. Still, in a bizarre (considering the circumstances) call-back to a bygone age, the Inniskilling Colonel would only lay down arms once his German counterparts noted, in writing, that regimental honour had been satisfied by the extent of their resistance.

“Jeanne d’Arc”, held by the 12th Royal Irish Rifles, was quickly overcome, the first of the Irish redoubts to fall, though elements of the battalion operating out of the nearby Le Pintchu Quarry kept up the fight as best they could, even launching small counter-attacks, engaging the Germans with bullet and bayonet for four blood-soaked hours. Reduced to less than the strength of a company, they surrendered when an entire battalion, with armour support, was seen advancing towards them.

“Station”, held by the 1st Royal Irish Fusiliers, was a bit further back than the others, and so the soldiers there had some time to prepare for the storm that was about to engulf them. But it availed them little: their supporting units melted away on either flank, leaving them easy prey. Pinning their foes down with Lewis gun fire, the Irish here were left waiting for a relief they must have felt was unlikely to come. Of all the units holding redoubts, they perhaps faced the best, holding fast until late in the evening, and then orchestrating a fighting retreat all the way back to the westward canals.

“Ricardo”, held by the 1st Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, was a vital point to cover the possible retreat of the rest of the 36th, but the troops there were forced to fall back themselves relatively early in the fighting, taking many casualties in the disorganised withdrawal.

The 16th held a redoubt of their own, with the 2nd Munsters at Malisse Farm. They had suffered cruelly under the initial German bombardment, a result of Gough’s ill-advised orders for the division to concentrate a greater number of men in the forward zone than was necessary. They did well to hold off the German assaults until mid-morning, when they were forced backwards.

One of the units assigned to the desperate task of counter-attacking was the under-strength 6th Connaught Rangers, whose breakfast that day was interrupted by the call for them to go forward and re-capture Ronssoy, with promised tank support. It was a fool’s errand, and thanks to the breakdown in communications, the Rangers went forward without adequate protection on their flanks, and with the tanks being engaged, and destroyed, elsewhere. Hit from the right by Germans they had mistook for Royal Munster Fusiliers, they made no headway, and were forced to engage in a desperate fighting retreat. When they got back to the trenches of the battle zone, they were told that the orders to counter-attack at Ronssoy had been cancelled: the Munsters had gotten the message, but the Rangers hadn’t.

As night fell, it was clear to all and sundry that a disaster had occurred. The Germans had torn open a huge gap in the western front, and were pouring troops through: though they advanced only a few miles as the deepest point of penetration, it was a veritable miracle of ground gained in comparison to the previous few years. And yet, the signs of problems to come were there, if the Allies had the calm to see them. The Germans took 40’000 casualties on the first day of the Spring Offensive, more than the British, and four times as many as they had taken on the first day of the 1916 Somme fighting. They had also failed to break through in the central area of Cambrai, leaving a dangerous salient. There was no way that Germany could, at that stage in the war anyway, sustain an advance at such cost in men for too long.

But on the night of the 21st such larger strategic realities would have meant little to the soldiers of the 16th and 36th Divisions. It is impossible to accurately know their casualties, as so many men were simply listed as “missing”, and their loss was only measured with any precision at the end of this campaign. But they were substantial. The 16th, it’s morale hanging by a thread, had largely melted away in the face of the attack, and the 36th, which held for longer, but with little in the way of measurable result, was so beaten up that it was in serious doubt that it could prove useful in the days to come.

And there was bitter fighting in that. The alarm bells were ringing in London and Paris, but for the moment, it was all the Allies on the western front could do to prevent a total collapse in the sector concerned. Now, four and a half years on, it was time for another great retreat, and the last fight of the Irish divisions.

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