According to Shakespeare, Julius Caesar was warned ‘to beware the Ides of March’ (which is the 15th of the month). By that date in 1918, the scene was already set for a colossal disaster on the Western Front, with the top man of the Fifth Army most at risk. It is worth considering the situation as it affected the Fifth Army and the Twentieth Light Division, the former spread out over 42 miles of front before St Quentin, from Gouzeaucourt in the north to Barisis beyond the Oise in the south. Much of this had formerly been in French hands.
General Sir Hubert Gough, in charge of the Fifth Army, has left a detailed if self-serving memoir of the situation and times. While I am not a great fan of him as a man or as a general, I think his account has a great deal of truth in it, is well supported with documentation and cogently argued.
When he was able to explore the area in greatest detail from January 1918, Gough found that the trench system was generally in a very neglected state. He found the local peasants filling in trench lines at Villers-Bretonneux to revert to farming – a practice he had stopped and reversed, and which was to prove crucial a few months later. Most seriously, behind a reasonable front line, there was no second line and he had to construct from scratch a “Battle Zone consisting of front line, support and reserve trenches” with dugouts, communications trenches, roads and railways. He also had to create an equivalent Rear Zone, since he fully anticipated that the Germans would, at some time, launch a massive attack.
He was thwarted in much of what was needed to be done by GHQ. Desperately short of labour, it took until the middle of March before he had anything like the numbers of men required. The more he asked for resources, the more GHQ insisted he create defences and bridgeheads somewhere else than where this was most needed, without any more men or material. Haig insisted that the attack would be made on the French to the south and any action on the Fifth Army front would be no more than a feint – a position continued even after the first day of the attack. Gough had consulted with the French General who had previously held this part of the Front and he pointed out exactly where the weak points were that the Germans might and did exploit.
As well as having to re-organise his army with three instead of four battalions per Brigade, and other structural cutbacks, most of the drafts of men Gough received were the returning sick and wounded, rather than fresh troops. Gradually the intelligence grew to suggest an attack on 21 March, and on 19 March a German airman was captured who confirmed that. Gough also knew by then that the German General opposite him was Von Hutier, who had considerable experience from the Eastern Front and had already conducted blitzkrieg style attacks on Riga. Gough decided that he wanted to move his reserves closer to the Front, including 20 Division, which was 15 miles behind – permission refused. To rub salt in Gough’s growing wounds, several of his key Corps and Division Commanders were changed by GHQ in the last few days, including his top Intelligence and Administration (i.e. logistics) officers. Men with no experience were drafted in at the last minute.
On 19 March, after a long and helpful dry spell, it began to rain, creating the conditions for morning mists and fog. Ideal cover for an attack. Having visited all his Corps and Division Commanders, Gough took time out to attend horse riding competitions with 20 Division. That might sound odd, but Gough was keen to build morale in the face of what he knew was impending.
 General Sir Hubert Gough, The March Retreat, (Cassell & Co, London, 1934) – a reprint of a section of his earlier history of the Fifth Army.