The Bulletin of the Birmingham Branch of the WFA
Compiled by Richard Lloyd
OPERATION MICHAEL 1918
General Ludendorff was anxious that the attack on the Western Front would start as soon as possible, but it was decided that preparations could not be completed before 21st March. Detailed plans were prepared for the movement of artillery, the infantry and the air force. The latter would move into their new positions between the 9th and 12th March. Bridges were strengthened, artillery positions surveyed and firing plans prepared. Every dwelling and farm building in villages behind the lines was packed with men, horses and munitions. Vehicles and artillery were concealed in the woods.
British Intelligence were aware that something was being prepared, and by early March were aware that two of the German Armies top Generals, von Bulow and von Hulier had moved into the area facing the British 5th Army. The Royal Flying Corps Reconnaissance Squadrons had been very active and spotted ammunition dumps which were subsequently dealt with by the artillery. Whilst an attack was expected it was not clear as to where or when, although letters the soldiers had received from home told them that the newspapers were full of reports that an attack was imminent.
No satisfactory explanation could be found at the time for the ‘holes’ that began to appear in No Man’s Land. Only later was it discovered that these were to provide shelter for the attacking infantry. Trench Raids to capture prisoners for interrogation were carried out with little success and the usual casualties. The few men captured were from Divisions whose job was to hold the line not to take part in any attack.
German deserters were another source of information, but those captured in early March provided contradictory information. A group of men from Alsace from the 41st Minenwerfer Company, captured on March 17th revealed their role was to blow the British barbed wire. They also revealed there would be a gas attack lasting six hours.
All these pieces of information led the Intelligence Staff at GHQ to conclude that an attack was imminent, probably on the 20th or 21st March. When this information was passed on to the various units, not all of them took it as seriously as they might have. There had after all been a number of false alarms.
An attack in March had at least given time to prepare defensive positions. There was to be a ‘Forward Zone’ , an ‘outpost ‘ which was to consist of well protected machine gun posts sited to provide a covering field of fire. It was intended to hold up any advancing troops and weaken the attack. The ‘Battle Zone’ was to be the main line of defence. Only the Forward Zone would be permanently manned with the majority of fighting troops in billets behind the lines. There was no time to implement a planned third line of defence.
Every available man was used in the attempt to prepare these defences but at least six months would have been required to complete the plan. Every day men would go up to the line in working parties, digging trenches, creating strongpoints and laying barbed wire. After a few hours rest in some makeshift billet they would gather again at nightfall and start all over again.
At exactly 4 am on 21st March the German bombardment began. More than 600 guns were firing a combination of high explosive and gas shells. By dawn the German fire was concentrated on the British Forward and Battle Zones as the German Infantry left their trenches. They slipped through the mist to infiltrate the gaps between the Forward Zone redoubts, leaving a second wave of infantry to surround and mop up each isolated post.
The mist covering most of the battlefield ensured that some British outposts were missed in the initial attack
and they were able to delay the advancing Germans. The lingering gas also caused problems, and the much fought over terrain was now pitted with many new shell craters and difficult to negotiate.
How the British responded is best described by the men who were there. I met Frank Bowler who had fought with the 2ND/4TH Leicester’s in the 1970’s, but on 20th March 1918 he had been looking forward to his first home leave in 19 months. His hopes were to be dashed as on March 21st at 5 am he moved with the rest of the Battalion to a second line defensive position. This was only 18inches deep, and as they attempted to dig in a number of men were killed. They were soon joined by men from other Regiments and learnt that the Germans had taken the Front line and occupied the village of Ecoust.
From their position they could see the massed ranks of the Germans moving towards them. A runner was sent to find the Battalion to their left. It was discovered they were over 800yds away, so they had to extend their line to cover the gap. They were ordered not to open fire until the Germans were within 900yds, ‘It was a sight to see our men, some standing, some kneeling, like the old time battle pictures’. The Leicester’s held their ground.
They were relieved in the afternoon by a Battalion of the Highland Light Infantry. Frank Bowler was sent back to Mory Abbey to direct the rations to their new position. That was not a success as the line had moved back from Mory. So they had to make do with what they could scavenge which was tea, sugar, bully beef and biscuits. On their way back the got lost in the mist. The Germans had taken advantage of the mist and overrun the Battalion of Highland Light Infantry, so the Leicester’s withdrew to Mory.
By the morning of 23rd March they still had not received any orders, but runners discovered the rest of the Battalion digging in on the outskirts of Ervillers. They reached them via a sunken road, with only a few casualties. The bonus was that Ervillers had been a rest billet and the abandoned Church Army Hut provided chocolates biscuits, eggs, cigarettes and to their great joy, a barrel of beer.
On 24th March Frank Bowler saw a Guards Battalion counter attack only to suffer heavy casualties. He also witnessed another Battalion ‘retreating in a very disorderly manner’ and their Officer refusing to attach themselves to the Leicester’s. There was no sign of the promised relief from the 40th Division, so with two Lewis Guns and spare ammunition they remained at their Forward Post – a shell crater.
On 25th March Frank Bowler wrote ‘they came over in their thousands’ and the Leicester’s were returning fire at point blank range, but they were surrounded and surrendered to the Germans. Frank had to remove the two bandoliers which did not contain ammunition but the cigarettes that had been liberated from the Church Army Hut. He was to spend the next six weeks in a barbed wire ‘cage’ behind the German lines, where nearly half the men captured with him died. His story as a prisoner of the Kaiser features in my talk on British POW’S in German captivity.
On another part of the line, Francis Charles Cecil Ferrrers of Baddesley Clinton was now a Lance Corporal with the newly formed 6th Battalion, Lancashire Fusiliers. On the night of 20/21st March the Fusiliers slept in ‘battle order’ but were awakened at 4.00am by the noise of an intense bombardment. Within 30 minutes the whole Battalion were ready to move and occupy their battle positions. This was a line of shallow trenches to the North of the Roisel-Templeux road about 2,000yds from Roisel. Although well sited on a ridge with a good field of fire, newly dug they were very conspicuous as a line of white chalk, but too shallow to provide sufficient cover.
The Battalion was sent off in platoons with a 100 yards gap between each. It was decided, as the German Shelling was falling 200yds behind the prepared line, to make use of whatever protection it offered. As they approached the ridge the fog got worse. A Private Harrop of the 6th Battalion noted; ‘so dense was the fog that men groped their way to the line maintaining touch with one another by each man holding on to the bayonet scabbard of the man in front’. Despite these difficulties the Battalion was in position by 6.00am. With the shelling, the gas, the fog as cover, and the overwhelming numbers of Germans involved in the attack there were a number of casualties. By 10.30 am the front line to the left of the Lancashire Regiment had been breached.
Three Companies, B, C, and D of the 6th Lancashire Fusiliers counter attacked around noon and entered the village of Templeux. Lance Corporal Ferrers was in D Company. There were a number of casualties including the Commanding Officer of D Company, Captain Cameron described as ‘a very gallant fellow’. Overlooked by the Germans their position in the village was untenable. They were even strafed by bright red painted tri-planes similar to those in Baron von Richtofen’s Squadron. It was dusk before they established contact with Brigade HQ and requested permission to withdraw to their original battle stations. The reply came they were not to withdraw one inch but do the best they could where they were.
The next morning they counted the casualties from the overnight shelling. As the fog lifted they could see the enemy all around them, their situation was grim. Francis Ferrers led his section out of the village to a safer position. Private Victor Neville Nutter, also of D Company wrote to Mrs Ferrers, ‘I am so afraid that Frank paid the price that so many of the lads have paid. Several seem to have seen him hit, but being at close grips with the Boche, to give assistance to anyone was impossible’.
The only survivors were those who under the advantage of the fog, and in Sections, made their way back to Roisel. The Battalion had lost so many Officers and Men that it had been reduced to ‘cadre’ strength.
The Ferrers family were informed that Lance Corporal Ferrers was ‘missing in action’. This was the news that confronted many families, and for over 20,000 the news would follow months later that ‘their man ‘was a Prisoner of War. Many hundreds of men were kept by the Germans behind the lines, and never made it to an official camp, and never received a food parcel from home or from the Red Cross. Some turned up on their door steps after the Armistice, their families thinking they had been killed.
For Mrs Ferrers and her young daughter there was no good news. Lance Corporal Francis Ferrers’ death was confirmed in a telegram on 2nd May 1918. He has no known grave and is commemorated on the wall of the war cemetery at Poziers.
As the British fell back over the remains of the Somme Battlefield, one can only reflect on the lives lost to win that ground in the first place. There was again great sacrifice and the line eventually held, and Ludendorff had failed to achieve his initial objectives.
The Kaisers Battle by Martin Middlebrook
To The Last Man, Somme 1918 by Lyn Macdonald
The Fusilier Museum, Bury, Lancashire
The War Diary of Frank Bowler