The night of 26 March 1918 – the context

As the remnants of 11 DLI re-organised around Arvillers on the night of 26 March, they had been under sustained attack for six days without respite. They had advanced, fought, retreated, counter-attacked, tried to hold onto strong points, held the line to protect other retreating troops and had found strength to repeatedly dig new defences on demand. They had dug trenches twice that very day. Their numbers were severely depleted and their CO had been pulled out of the line. They were led by a much-diminished number of junior officers. They had regrouped into something resembling a unified battalion, which in the preceding few days had several times seemed beyond possibility. Their officers and NCOs had been a steadying influence at critical junctures. They were hungry, exhausted and in desperate need of a rest. That was not to be.

Events had been happening above their heads, about which they were probably oblivious. The idea of a retreat on this scale, accompanied by terrible losses of men and equipment, would have seemed unthinkable to an army that had fought valiantly on the Somme, at Third Ypres, at Cambrai. Yet great swathes of territory had been lost and a near catastrophic collapse had been avoided by the French transferring several Divisions as reinforcements. Despite this, although the line of the Fifth Army was fragile, not least because of a gap of 1½ miles between them and Third Army to the north of the River Somme, the Germans had not broken through and the British forces had not collapsed into total disarray.

The politicians found their scapegoat in General Gough, commander of the Fifth Army, who was dismissed from his post and relegated to the task of preparing a Reserve Army to hold the line from Amiens to the sea. The Fifth Army was so fragmented it existed in name only, nominally under the command of General Rawlinson and his staff. Much of one Corps were already detached to the north, under the command of Third Army, while the most southerly units (including the remnants of 20th Division) were under the command of the French. Strategic planning was now effectively under the control of the French Commander-in-Chief, Marshal Foch, with Haig reduced to his second.

 

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