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MAY 1918: THE BRITISH IN TURMOIL

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  • MAY 1918: THE BRITISH IN TURMOIL

    From May 8, 1918, 4 British Infantry Divisions arrived at the Chemin des Dames, to hold the front from Craonnelle to the south of Berry-au-Bac. These units suffered heavy losses in March and April 1918, in front of Amiens and Armentières. Despite reinforcements, made up of young inexperienced recruits or convalescent soldiers, they are understaffed and suffer from a lack of cohesion. These Divisions are under the command of General Hamilton-Gordon, but obey the orders of General Duchêne, at the head of the 6th French Army, when they are confronted with the German offensive of May 27, 1918.

    A sector deemed calm

    The British are commissioned to hold a large area deemed calm since the end of 1917 and the German retreat on the Ailette River, following the Battle of La Malmaison. On the British side, the lack of effectives leads to a defense organization in three zones: an "advanced zone", consisting of spaced out support points surrounded by barbed wire, equipped with deep shelters that must be covered with each other; a "combat zone", about 1 km behind, consisting of heights or fortified hills, where the artillery, command posts and regimental rescue posts are located; and finally a "rear zone", located after the Aisne River, it is a line of defense little organized and little occupied, where are positioned reserves. In the event of an enemy attack, the orders of General Duchêne are to hold at all costs those positions dearly conquered in 1917. The soldier Alfred Victor Bullock of 1/5th Yorkshire Regiment, relates his arrival at the Chemin des Dames, in 1918:
    "The company to which I belonged was the first to go and occupy trenches on the front line, relieving the French. From Maizy, we have been forced to walk to Craonne, known for its ridge where several hundred thousand French had died to hold it, it had been occupied by the Germans, but finally captured by the French. the whole ridge was traversed by a tunnel. "
    Being a grenadier, I was on the far left of our section, and with another guy smaller than me, we were placed in front of an opening leading into the no man's land. A Frenchman advised us to pay attention, in the best English possible. He pointed to the no man's land and said, "Allemands," then to the trenches and said, "Entente." The parapet of the trench was about 90 cm higher than us, so we could not see much. It rained all night and our rifles became dirty with the sandy earth, and if we had been surprised by a patrol, we would not have been very useful.
    We spent time in the tunnel that was spacious enough to house thousands of men. The only lighting for a section was a candle in common [...] We stayed there for 8 days, without any significant event, except for a few gunshots in the evening and at dawn ".

    Map of British positions on the eve of the German offensive of May 27, 1918, at the Chemin des Dames.

  • #2
    "To play the soldier"

    Even if the front is deemed calm, the danger persists. In the area of ​​Berry-au-Bac, Private Walter Hall, surviving the battles of 1916 and 1917, says: "As a sniper, I was pretty free of my movements and could satisfy my curiosity. , putting my nose in funny places, during the first two weeks here there was no activity of ambushes, and I had no opportunity at all, when suddenly I became myself, a target, in the guard post, facing the German front, at that moment, as I started to shave for the first time, I fixed my mirror against the wall of the trench, I got up and started soaping myself in cold water, when, "Ping!", the mirror fell to the floor, I stood there, speechless, too surprised to move when the Sergeant shouted "Watch out ! "Then I decided to find the position of this German sniper, and I moved a little further into the trench. , about 300 meters in front of me, a tank destroyed in no man's land. This one had already been watched but nothing conclusive had been discovered. I did not see locations for other shooters, especially since the enemy front line was farther away than the tank, and as there was no other way to hide, I focused my attention on the tank. After two days of observation, I saw the tank in my sleep. On the third day, after an hour of observation, I saw movement; in the back of the tank, we could see the light of day through an opening and suddenly it was darkened. I aimed for the opening and immediately the shadow disappeared, and I saw the light of day again. The following night, one of our patrols visited the hiding place and found obvious signs of occupation. "
    The days flow quietly, and the Captain Elser, doctor, writes: "We were happy to stay there, to play the soldiers, until the end of the war".

    Soldiers of the 50th British Division in the French trenches at the foot of the Chemin des Dames

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    • #3
      In the face of the German offensive of 27 May 1918

      The British, who were ordered to constantly harass the Germans, made several prisoners between 24 and 26 May. These reveal that a German offensive is imminent. It is, however, too late to react. On May 27, 1918, at 1 am, more than 4,000 German guns opened fire. It is a real hell that falls on the British at the Chemin des Dames. This bombing is composed of a mixture of explosive shells and especially toxic shells to neutralize the defenders, the positions of artillery and the positions of command.
      At 3:40 am, the German assault battalions, accompanied by flamethrowers, attack with great speed. Their goal is to seize the bridges to cross the Aisne and its canal, as soon as possible. Five British tanks, seized after the battle of Cambrai in 1917, even participate in the German offensive in the area of Juvincourt. Four will be destroyed by French cannons. Above the battlefield, many German planes bomb or fire at low altitude.
      In the "advanced zone", the British survivors, dazed by the bombing, are trapped in their shelters. Their positions are bypassed, attacked and grenaded from behind. The fight is brief and violent. The British defend themselves with the energy of despair, at 1 against 10. They die or are taken prisoner for the most part. The Plateau de Californie and Craonne fall in less than 3 hours. On the whole front, the Germans infiltrate everywhere.
      In the "combat zone", after the terrible bombing and rapid infiltration of German assault groups, some command posts are encircled, and some artillery positions are conquered. The greatest confusion reigns. But the Germans also encounter more resistance. Like in the Bois des Buttes where Lieutenant-Colonel Anderson Morshead and the men of the 2nd Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment inflict losses to the attackers. They resist foot to foot, before succumbing in turn around 12:30. 23 officers including Anderson Morshead and 528 men are killed or missing. After the Armistice, for this stubborn resistance, this British unit will be decorated with the French Croix de Guerre, just like the 5th battery of the Royal Artillery of His Majesty, nicknamed "Gibraltar", which resisted until the end in the area of La Ville-au-Bois-lès-Pontavert. The attack was so violent that most British units were decimated. The command was also very touched. Brigadier-General R. Haig was gassed, the General of the 25th Division, Ralph Husey, is missing, he will die of his wounds. With regard to the 8th Division, the total strength, which managed to cross the Aisne, was only a few hundred men. His command was entrusted to Brigadier-General Grogan, who incorporates what remains of the 23rd Brigade, to retreat towards the Marne.
      One hundred years later, the British losses for the day of May 27, 1918 are estimated at about 20,000 killed, wounded, missing or prisoners. Today, the names of British soldiers are commemorated on the Soissons Memorial. Among them, Philip Anthony Mercer, Charles Gordon, Hubert York, William Coombs and Cyril Buxton, were all five only 17 years old. Others rest in military cemeteries. A Craonnelle, on the stele of the soldier of 19 years Henry Harrison is engraved the epitaph: "For ever in our Thoughts".

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