‘I’D just addressed many men who in 12 hours would be in their graves’ wrote Antrim man Alexander Irvine of the uncanny calm before the storm of ‘Operation Michael’, the first in a series of mighty last-ditch German offensives in the first half of 1918.
The ‘Kaiserschlacht’ or ‘Kaiser’s Battle’, as the Germans called it, encompassed one of the most critical periods of fighting in the entirety of the First World War and marked one of the greatest challenges for Antrim’s own fighting men.
Representing perhaps the high-water mark of Germany’s westward advance, the ‘Spring Offensive’ swept through the Allied lines on a broad front, pushing deeper and claiming more territory than either side had managed since the genesis of the Western Front’s infamous trench stalemate back in 1914.
In retrospect, the battle makes for a stark reminder as to how close a contest the Great War truly was, in that the beginning of the conflict’s final year brought about one last feasible window within which the Germans could score a strategic victory and force the Allies to sue for peace.
Everything hung in the balance, and even at this late juncture the war’s ultimate outcome remained very much in doubt.
After all, although the United States had declared war against Germany in 1917, American troops had not yet arrived at the front in large enough numbers to be considered a major military obstacle. Meanwhile, the surrender of a Russia in the throes of revolution not only stripped Britain and France of a crucial ally, but also freed 50 surplus German divisions from duty on the Eastern Front.
As such, the Germans now had a short-lived manpower advantage to wield against their Anglo-French foes in West - and they needed to utilise it quickly lest it be lost in the wake of the thousands of US ‘doughboys’ soon to be arriving daily in France.
The main thrust of Operation Michael, the first and largest of the offensives, would aim to break through lines held by the British Expeditionary Force around the River Somme.
Having achieved this via the pioneering use of so-called ‘stormtroopers’ - elite infantry detachments armed to the teeth with grenades, submachine guns, and flamethrowers and well-versed in ‘infiltration’ tactics - the British could be outflanked and, if all went according to plan, forced to surrender. The entire Western Front could be unhinged, leaving the road to Paris wide open.
Despite the deprivation caused by an effective Allied naval blockade, German troops were in high spirits and were confident of victory at the beginning of 1918, in complete contrast to their British enemies for whom morale was at an all-time low.
Two years of enormous assaults against German trenches, barbed wire and machine guns had seemingly resulted only in futile, fruitless slaughter, and, worse still, the grand German attack was to be of no surprise. Men on the frontlines could only ponder nervously on their fates as the inevitable offensive crept closer by the day.
“In the trenches at night, when the wind was in the right direction, we could hear the German trains and transports rumbling up their great army that was going to sweep us into the sea,” recalled a British non-commissioned officer called Richard Tobin.
“We were grim, we were determined. Behind us lay the old Somme battlefields, every yard soaked with British blood shed through almost two years of hard battle…”
Once again, the 36th Ulster Division - battered and weary after two years of murderous fighting at Thiepval, Messines, Passchendaele, and Cambrai - would be in the eye of the battle’s storm.
In fact, in an almost poetic twist, the division (with many local men included within its ranks) would be entrusted to stand fast and hold ground not far from the location of their gruesome baptism of fire on the Somme in July 1916, the frontline of St. Quentin only a few miles forward of the cratered wasteland on which the Allies’ ill-fated ‘Big Push’ had ground to a torturous halt just over a year prior.
By this late stage of the war, the division bore little resemblance to the formation that arrived in France in 1915.
Badly understrength due to severe casualties in the campaigns of 1916-17, a number of units were hastily reorganised and re-shifted in readiness for the German attack, denting cohesion and morale even further.
As former Guardian reporter Alvin McCaig records in his peerless book ‘Antrim in the Trenches’: “South Antrim’s men were dispersed into various battalions, thus breaking the tie to their home district.”
Jack Rainey, a future Market Square barber, found himself moved from the infantry to a pioneer battalion, whilst Samuel Ashe of Church Street ‘started the war with the South Antrims and served with 9 and 10 R.Ir.Rifs before finally transferring to the Labour Corps’.
Additionally, the poor integration of replacement personnel meant that the Ulster Division of 1918 possessed little of the esprit de corps that had defined the formation’s counterpart of only two years earlier.
In preparation for the German thrust, early 1918 found the British in the process of constructing a series of fortifications to blunt the anticipated advance. A thinly manned ‘forward zone’ made up of isolated redoubts would impede the progress of the initial attack as long as possible before, if possible, the defenders would fall back to the ‘Battle Zone’.
This was a more densely manned and entrenched area where, it was hoped, the push would be contained once and for all. Beyond that lay the ‘Reserve Zone’ where reinforcement troops could be gathered to mass for a counterattack to push the by-then exhausted German attackers back.
In a worst-case scenario, a last stand defence would be staged there.
Unfortunately, by the time Operation Michael began, these defences were incomplete. Some of the trenches in the Ulster Division’s sector were little more than knee deep, providing little to no protection from small arms or artillery fire.
“At the window of my billet I watched the long procession of guns and men pass along to be swallowed up in the mouth of Hell,” Alexander Irvine recorded of his experiences on the eve of the great melee.
The previous day, March 20th, he had delivered talks to some 10,000 soldiers at Ham Opera House.
‘They were singing now - singing the old songs with the same gusto - but at dawn thousands of them would be leaving a vacant place in the heart of the world’, he wrote.
‘At four the guns belched their lava of death. I was talking but there was no sound’.
The German barrage that opened at 4.40am on March 21st, 1918, was the most enormous of the entire war. 10,000 guns, ranging from trench mortars to siege howitzers, struck targets over an area encompassing 150 kilometers with high explosive and poison gas. Over 1,100,000 shells were fired in just five hours.
Inspecting the positions of the 9th Scottish Division at Nurlu, Minister of Munitions (and future Prime Minister) Winston Churchill witnessed first-hand the terrifying display of German gunnery that heralded the beginning of the long-awaited battle.
“Exactly as a pianist runs his hands across the keyboard from treble to bass, there rose in less than one minute the most tremendous cannonade I shall ever hear,” he later said.
“It swept round us in a wide curve of red leaping flame… quite unending in either direction...the enormous explosions of the shells upon our trenches seemed almost to touch each other, with hardly an interval in space or time.
“The weight and intensity of the bombardment surpassed anything which anyone had ever known before.”
Chaos reigned across the front as phone lines were severed and units were unable to contact neighbouring formations. Such was the weight of the shelling that there was no distinction between forward and rear areas, screaming projectiles finding their mark at battalion headquarters and frontline trenches alike.
That the morning found the battlefield draped in a thick fog that limited observation to but a few metres was a happy coincidence for the first waves of German stormtroopers who used it as a natural smokescreen. Trained to bypass the most heavily defended sections of front - those could be ‘mopped up’ later by follow-up waves of regular infantry - and to advance as far into the enemy lines as possible so as to target artillery positions, supply depots and headquarters positions, the ‘Sturmtruppen’ crept right up to the British trenches unmolested in the mist as the barrage reached a furious climax.
“When we went on through the fog, suddenly we heard some guns firing behind us, and so we turned around and came from behind to a British battery which was firing barrage fire,” remembered German stormtrooper Hartwig Pohlmann.
“They didn’t know that we had broken through, and they are always firing their barrage fire. One of our men laid his hand on the shoulder of the British officer and said, ‘Cease fire’. And suddenly they were surprised to see us from behind.”