The latter part of Spring 1918 appeared a grim time for the Allies, and for the Irish. Germany’s offensive had gained significant amounts of ground, casualties had been high, the Irish divisions had taken a pounding and, to cap it all off, the British need for manpower has precipitated a crisis back in Ireland, over whether the policy of conscription would be introduced. More on that at a later time.
In the theatre of war itself, it was a time of desperate reorganisation. I have discovered that it has been often reported that the 36th Division’s final battle were fought in March 1918, and like many a writer since, I too have been sucked into such thinking. Additional reading carried out since my last post has educated me that the 36th did keep fighting, on into the summer and autumn of 1918 and I have altered some of my preceding posts accordingly, so that this can be accurately reflected. It was the last hurrah for the 16th Division though, that unit broken up or relegated to training duties for the remainder of the war.
For the 36th, all who could be found were given rifles and prepared for the frontline, like personnel normally relegated to entrenching works, or reserve battalions not entirely ready for the fight. Irish pools to draw from had all but dried up, and now the 36th was swelled with conscripted men from England and Scotland.
With Operation Michael having ground to a halt, the Germans had to try elsewhere, and on the 9th of April launched Operation Georgette, also known as the Battle of the Lys. Nine German division smashed into the Hazebrouk section of the front, to the north. They couldn’t have picked a better time to do so, that section of the front in the middle of a messy reorganisation, where Portuguese divisions were being replaced by British ones. The first day of the attack brought similar success to Michael, with the Germans re-capturing almost all of the Messines Ridge, and sending Allied units scrambling back to the River Lys. Among them were battalions of the Royal Irish Rifles and Royal Irish Fusiliers, the 108th Brigade, swapping the 36th Division for temporary confines of the 19th, but unable to stem the tide. The loss of the Messines Ridge would have been a particularly hard one to take, considering the difficulty in taking it.
On the 10th, the 4th Guards Brigade, now containing the Irish Guards, was flung into the fighting at a gap in the line near Vieux-Berquin. In a testament to the confusion of the time, the Guards had been marching in parade order when they got the direction to head for the front. For four days, the 2nd Irish Guards were involved in brutal fighting, losing over 200 men in an action that delayed that segment of the German advance significantly. It was not a battle without cause: the gap opened up by the initial German advance could, if exploited properly, have led to a rapid strike at the Channel Ports.
Obeying Douglas Haig’s famous “backs to the wall” order as best they could, the Irish battalions with the 19th fought as much as they were able, even if some “battalions” were really companies in all but name. Part of their fighting was the action at Kemmel Hill, were various units of the Fourth Army beat off German assaults for three days, retreating and counter-attacking, whether it be in the front with rifle and Lewis gun, or in support trenches enduring constant artillery bombardment. By the end of this fighting the 108th “Brigade” had to be reorganised as a battalion, before retiring to re-join the 36th. The larger division had held a quieter section of the line, but had been forced into several retreats when the line elsewhere was bent backwards.
Despite the losses, the Lys offensive was not a defeat for the Allies, at last not strategically. The German breakthrough was limited and, as with Michael, the losses the enemy had incurred were pyrrhic in the extreme, and the larger goals were not achieved. Rushed in French reinforcements stemmed the tide, and by the 30th of April Georgette was at an end.
While the 36th was still in the fight, somewhat, the other Irish Divisions were realising their own fates. The bulk of the Irish battalions of the 10th arrived in France around this time, with the remainder fighting alongside their “Indianised” units back in the Holy Land for the rest of the war. But they would not see serious fighting for a while, as they became accustomed to the terrain – so different to that of the desert – cleared up the remaining out breaks of malaria they had brought with them, and were reinforced.
And the 16th underwent its dismemberment, its battalions combined with others and then transferred out, some to do a little bit more fighting, others to act purely in a support role, and others still left to train some of the units of the newly arrived American Expeditionary Force.
For the named Irish units at large, the remainder of the Spring Offensive would past them by, even though the Germans kept hammering on the door in giant numbers. On the 27th May, Operation Blucher-Yorck, better known as the Third Battle of the Aisne, was launched, with another mass deployment of troops near Reims. More tremendous success was had for the Germans here, as they brushed past several depleted British divisions and tore a hole in the Allied line, advancing as far as the Marne River, seemingly putting the French capital at risk again. But by the opening days of June the extended German supply lines and exhausted troops could no longer advance properly, and so another attack ground to a halt.
Ludendorff was running out of options. Blucher-Yorck was originally meant to just be a divisionary attack before a larger blow aimed at the British further north, and the Channel Ports, but the success of the operation convinced him to focus on that sector, with another westward plunge through Operation Gneisenau. Again the Germans broke through in force and again they made a spectacular gain in ground, but again there was only so far they could go, with their French opponents now focusing on a defence in depth. Within two days of the initial strike, a French counter-attack turned the Germans back.
The Germans had just enough left for one last desperate throw of the dice. On the 15th July, Ludendorff launched Freidensturm, or the Peace Offensive, aiming to break the Allied lines on the Marne. His soldiers managed to get across the river in places, but that was as far as they would ever get. There was no second “Miracle of the Marne” this time, just the Allied strengths in every department showing. The Spring Offensive had left the German military crippled: its supplies expended, its best units obliterated, the rest exhausted and its support lines badly over-extended. On the 18th of July, the French counter-attacked, and Ludendorff began the painful process of withdrawing his troops from the giant salient they had created, lest they be overwhelmed and destroyed. By the end of the first week of August, the Germans were back to their original lines in this area.
And the Allies were not of a mind to stop. With the Americans ready to join the fighting wholesale, with the Central Powers’ war effort collapsing on all fronts, and with Britain and France in a position to counter-attack in force, the time had come for the final combined offensive of the war. And, eventually, the Irish would be with them.
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