On the 8th August 1918, a combined assault of British, Australian, Canadian, American and French troops smashed into the German lines near Amiens, doing so without a major artillery bombardment beforehand, but relying instead on the support of over 500 tanks. A gap of almost 15 kms was opened, and the Allies advanced 13 kms by the end of the day at the farthest point of penetration. The exhausted, demoralised German armies simply melted away under the onslaught. Ludendorff would famously dub the 8th August as “the black day of the German Army”, as it became clear to him and others that Germany’s defeat was now simply a matter of time.
This was the spectacular beginning of what would subsequently be known as the “Hundred Days Offensive”, the final attack that would bring the First World War to a close. But the Irish infantry weren’t there, at least not on the first day, with the 16th (Irish) held back, the 36th (Ulster) stationed further north, and the 10th (Irish)’s battalions still scattered about.
Who was there was the 6th Inniskilling Dragoons, serving as part of the British 3rd Cavalry Division. It wasn’t a glorious war for any cavalry unit really, often re-assigned to support work, cycling units or even machine gunning, but the Dragoons were going to get one more shot at traditional cavalry attacks, despite all of the lessons over the last four years of combat. While supporting Canadian cavalry trying to take advantage of the breakthrough, they were ordered to assault German machine gun posts that were putting flanking fire down on Allied troops near the remains of the Mont Cremont Wood. The squadron that attempted this, drawn swords and all, were cut down to a man; the remainder dismounted and operated as infantry, clearing the position eventually. Even in this moment of Allied victory, the same tactical stupidity was being played out. The Amiens attack went on for another few days, before the Allies had gone too far beyond their artillery and supply lines.
It wasn’t until later in the month that other Irish units were able to get involved, as Haig launched a succession of attacks in the Somme and Ypres sectors, aiming to keep the pressure up on the enemy. It was the 36th engaged around Messines on the 22nd August, where some battalions used the subterfuge of fake gas canisters, that replicated the small of gas without actually containing any, to take enemy trenches. But the battalions of the 36th would not always be so fortunate, as the 9th Royal Irish Fusiliers and 1st Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers took over a hundred casualties in subsequent fighting in the area, as the operations in the Bailleul sector opened up.
As September began, the Germans began pulling back all over the line, seeking to reduce the extent of exposed salient they had created for themselves out of the Spring Offensive. The 36th, due to be pulled out of the line, were instead sent forward again and again, as every unit available was required to maintain the advance. Numerous towns, like Bailleul itself, were taken with relatively little fighting. Other units would not be as fortunate.
It was at nearby Reincourt that the 1st Royal Munster Fusiliers were properly re-introduced to the fighting, having been transferred from the 16th to the 57th (2nd West Lancashire) Division. There they repelled some of the few vigorously pushed German counter-attacks, with the battalion so badly pressed at one point that a CSM, Martin Doyle, took command for a time, winning a Victoria Cross for leading a bayonet charge, saving a tank from enemy capture and then going on to seize a machine gun post.
The focus of the fighting now turned to getting back to the teeth of the Hindenburg Line, with the Germans losing almost everything they had sacrificed so much to gain during the Spring Offensive. For the Allies, this involved some bitter fighting to re-take positions they had held only a few months before, but now it was clear that the enemy will to fight was disintegrating rapidly. At Wulverghem at the beginning of September, the 7th Royal Irish Regiment was involved in heavy fighting as the British advanced further into Belgium, while the 109th Brigade of the 36th attacked Ravelsberg Hill, pushing close to the nearby village of Neuve Eglise. From there, they moved to support attacks on “Hill 63”. The Germans counter-attacked frequently, and employed mustard gas at times. It took days of fighting, with brigades being rotated due to exhaustion, but the Allied advance could not be halted for long.
By now things were rapidly getting out of control for the Germans, with continued unrest at home from food shortages, as reinforcements sent to the front were sometimes jeered by veteran soldiers, accused of simply prolonging the lost war through their participation. But still, the high command refused to throw in the towel, even though Hindenburg and Ludendorff both privately insisted that an armistice had to now be sought. The initial German terms presented to US President Woodrow Wilson were considered unacceptable, and so the fighting continued.
Ferdinand Foch wanted to maintain the Allied momentum – added to by success in other fronts, such as in the Balkans, the Holy Land and in colonial arenas – and this meant breaching the Hindenburg Line and breaking out into the open country beyond, and maybe even into Germany itself. For this task, he designed, in concert with British, French, Belgian and American commanders, the “Grand Offensive”, a series of multiple attacks all along the front, from Ypres in the north to Cambrai in the south, with the aim of bypassing or smashing through the last serious stretch of German defences.
The Irish units still in the field were on the cusp of helping to secure victory in the titanic struggle, but were nearly all exhausted themselves, from days upon days of frontline service and little in the way of rest. But still, the 36th, the 10th and the scattered units that were part of the 29th, 57th or 63rd Divisions would have to rally themselves again, for what was, for real this time, the last big push. In Ypres, in Cambrai, they would truly now be facing their last fights.
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