The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which marked Russia’s withdrawal from the war, was signed on 3rd March 1918 by the new Russian government which had come to power in the October Revolution. For the first time since the conflict had begun, Germany and the Central Powers could concentrate their efforts on the Western Front.
For the German High Command it was of vital importance to exploit this opportunity as soon as conditions on the ground in the spring of 1918 allowed it. After more than two years of determined neutrality, the vote of the American Congress to enter the war on 6th April 1917, following the sinking of American merchant vessels by German submarines, meant that unless the German army achieved a swift victory on the ground, German troops were likely to be increasingly outnumbered. Throughout the winter of 1917-18, therefore, Germany prepared for a last, desperate attempt to break the stalemate on the Western Front before it was too late.
Finally, after months of preparation, at 4.35 am on 21st March 1918 a five hour German bombardment began along 40 miles of the allied line from just north of Arras to east of Noyon, as a prelude to a long expected attack. Over the course of the barrage, German artillery units fired over 1,160,000 shells – as much as the British had managed to unleash during a week during the Battle of the Somme in 1916. British intelligence reports from aerial reconnaissance and captured prisoners had revealed a massing of troops, guns and supplies in the weeks leading up to the German attack.
Altogether 74 German divisions, 6,600 guns, 3,500 trench mortars and 326 fighter aircraft were deployed against 26 British divisions, subsequently reinforced by 23 French divisions as the events of the next few days unfurled, during the first of several German attempts to break the stalemate of the previous three years, during the spring and early summer of 1918.
The intention of the German offensive, codenamed Operation Michael, was to overrun the British defences and advance rapidly to the Channel ports, capturing the strategically crucial rail junctions of Arras and Amiens on the way.
The German attack was eventually halted on 5th April at Villers-Bretonneux, just east of Amiens, at a cost of 177,739 British soldiers killed, wounded or missing. German losses approached 250,000, including many elite troops, formed into storm troopers, who had acted as the vanguard of the German attack. It was as a result of this offensive and the build up to it that 15 Lewes men lost their lives in what rapidly became one of the bloodiest phases of the Great War.
The first Lewes casualty of this new phase of the war was Private Frank Green, 13th Royal Sussex Regiment, aged 38, killed during a minor skirmish on 10th March, in the days leading up to the launch of the German onslaught. His death was followed by three more Lewes men on 21st March, the opening day of the campaign, a further three on 22nd March, two more on 23rd and on 24th, one more on 25th, two on 28th and two more on 31st.
This almost daily toll of death was to continue throughout much of spring 1918, making the weekly columns of local newspapers like the Sussex Express, a continuous record of communal loss and families’ misery.
For Private Green himself, his death brought an end to four years of upheaval which had begun with the death of his wife, Mary, matron of Lewes Isolation Hospital (now St Mary’s Social Centre), at the age of only 34, in February 1914 and the consequent loss of his own job there as caretaker in July of the same year, as the positions required the services of a resident married couple. She had died of the results of internal injuries, having fallen off a ladder in the course of her work, in the previous March. There were no children.
Some idea of the circumstances in which some of these Lewes men met their deaths can be found in the battalion war diaries of the units in which they served. One of those killed on 21st March 1918, the opening day of the German attack, was Private Wilfred Harland, 25th battalion Northumberland Fusiliers. At the start of the offensive, they were holding a line in the north of the area of attack, midway between Arras and Cambrai.
The battalion war diary sets out in stark terms the ordeal the men went through and the confusion as the situation rapidly deteriorated and units were forced to withdraw as best they could. According to its author, the day began at 4.30am with a heavy bombardment which lasted for four hours and, after a twenty minute lull, recommenced. At 11.30 came the order to counter-attack and an hour later, as the British position became untenable, a second order to form a defensive flank on the right.
Masses of enemy troops could be seen 3-500 yards in the battalion’s right rear and they were subjected to heavy rifle and machine gun fire from a nearby spur, captured by German soldiers. This led to many casualties, forcing the battalion to an initial retreat north-westwards, followed by a further withdrawal about 2pm along a railway embankment, each attempt at holding their position resulting in further losses, as all the gains of the previous three years were rapidly overrun. By nightfall the battalion had been forced to retreat several kilometres to the line of the Croisilles-Ecoust road, 13km north-east of Bapaume, which was itself overrun by the German advance two days later.