The Bulletin of the Birmingham Branch of the WFA
Compiled by Richard Lloyd
The Germans held a Conference on 11thNovember 1917 at Mons in Belgium to consider plans for 1918. The choice of venue and date seem with hindsight somewhat ironic. At the heart of their considerations was how to take full advantage of their temporary superiority in numbers of Divisions available, before the Americans arrived to bolster the Allies.
The Germans were already planning the removal of Divisions from the Russian Front which would bolster numbers on the Western Front. They would have known that the British had been forced to send Divisions to strengthen the defences on the Italian Front. They were probably also aware that many British Divisions were under strength. The total Allied strength in late 1917, which included French, British Empire, Belgian, American and Portuguese troops numbered 168 Divisions to the German 171 Divisions. By March 1918 the German superiority would be even greater, 192 Divisions to the Allies 171.
There had been some discussions with the Allies about a possible ‘comprehensive peace’ but perhaps too much blood had been spilt for the Allies to settle for less than ‘unconditional surrender’. Various plans of attack were discussed, but the decision was made that it should be an attack on the Western Front, before the Americans arrived in significant numbers, and while some evidence of dissention had been identified amongst the Allies.
It was primarily General Erich Ludendorff’s decision as neither the Kaiser, The Crown Prince or Field Marshal von Hindenburg, were present at the Conference. The attack was to take place as soon as possible, but when the worst of the winter weather was over, possibly late February or March. The Germans already had a number of plans ready for consideration. One was for another attack at Verdun, and another for an attack in the North on the Ypres Salient. These were rejected in favour of a plan to attack the British Front where it met the French section near the town of St Quentin, but extending almost as far as Arras. This was Operation Michael.
This was a very ambitious plan for an attack on a Front of nearly 60 miles with the strategic aim of striking a fatal blow on the British Expeditionary Force. General Ludendorff assured the Kaiser, saying “It is difficult but it will be successful”. Perhaps he had some intelligence on the state of Allied forces in late 1917.
The French in December 1917 disbanded a number of Divisions, and they had a critical lack of reserves. The Belgians were in a similar situation. The Portuguese were perhaps not best suited to trench warfare so far to the North. The American arrival had been much slower than expected but the British Empire Divisions were by contrast up to strength and ready for battle.
The British response to the depleted battalions was to embark on a major reorganisation of the B.E.F. Until then each British Infantry Division was made up of twelve Battalions and one Pioneer Battalion. With so many Battalions under strength, the solution adopted was to amalgamate some and disband other battalions. The men would then be transferred to other battalions as reinforcements. The justification was the belief that the army would be better able to mount attacks and withstand assaults.
The order for this major reorganisation was issued by the War Office on 10th January 1918. The Empire Divisions were to remain intact, but Field Marshal Haig decided that all 47 British Divisions would lose three Battalions. However, there were complications as no Regular, First Line Territorial Battalions, or Guards Battalions were to be touched. Three Guards Battalions left to join the 31st Division.
The cuts were therefore to fall entirely on the New Army Battalions, the men who had rallied to Kitchener’s call in 1914, and on Second Line Territorial Battalions that had been formed during hostilities. While the conditions at the Front may have made the provision of basic facilities a priority for the men, there was some regret at having, with little notice, to move to a new battalion. Few men would have been left of the original draft. In the 18th Manchester’s, a Pals Battalion, there were only six men of the original draft left in the Rifle Companies. In the 1st/7th Sherwood Forester’s only eleven of the men who had arrived in France in January 1915 remained.
Those Battalions thought to have underperformed, as well as the weakest and most junior were ordered to disband. For the most part they were at least sent to another Battalion in the same Regiment. Corporal A. Bowler, 17th Sherwood Foresters, was transferred to the 2nd/5th Sherwood Foresters where routines were very different. “They just split us up between their platoons and that was that”. Corporal Arnold Loosmore VC had been on leave to be decorated by the King. On his return to France his 8th Service Battalion, The Duke of Wellington’s (West Riding Regiment) was disbanded. Some tricky decisions had to be made as to the future of the 8th Battalions String Band, and a new home also had to be found for the Band of 10th Battalion York and Lancaster Regiment.
Francis Charles Cecil Ferrers of Baddesley Clinton was forced to resign his Commission in the Royal Engineers in January 1916. At some point in 1917 he volunteered in Worthing for The Queens Royal West Surrey Regiment. He was probably in a Training Battalion but by 1918 he was in France with the 2nd/6th Lancashire Fusiliers. In late January it was renamed 6th Battalion Lancashire Fusiliers. Records indicate that a number of men from Cavalry and Infantry Regiments were transferred to the Battalion at that time.
It is a tribute to the organisation of the B.E.F. that this very complex process was completed by 4th March 1918. In five to six weeks 115 Battalions had been disbanded and 38 reformed to make 19 new Battalions. All this must have produced a mountain of paperwork for a large number of people. It was also accomplished while the army continued to carry out their normal duties in the trenches
There was a great deal of concern that the line would have to be held with fewer men and that there might be less opportunity for rest and recuperation. It was significant that at this time a new Company was added to the newly formed Machine Gun Battalions. This increased fire power, alongside the same number of artillery pieces as before, might compensate for the fewer infantry available. This was soon to be tested with men who were often new to the Battalion and the area in which they were expected to operate. Their time, alongside whatever Pioneers who were available, was often taken up creating a series of defensive positions capable of withstanding any German offensive.
The Kaisers Battle by Martin Middlebrook.
To the Last Man,Somme 1918 by Lyn Macdonald.
The Fusilier Museum, Bury, Lancashire.