German attack at St Quentin, March 1918

The priority of the British over the winter of 1917/1918 was to repair the roads and construct new supply lines, hospitals and light railways, as well as digging more trenches and installing more barbed wire opposite the Hindenberg Line.

The Allies were expecting a German offensive as their December Armistice with Russia made it possible for Germany to transfer men and guns from the Eastern Front to the Western one. The Germans had a time constraint, because although the USA had joined the Allies in April 1917, their soldiers were not expected to be ready for the front until the Spring of 1918. Hence a German attack could be expected as soon as winter had receded sufficiently to allow it.

The Allies had no idea where the attack would come. Haig was concerned that the Germans would seize the Channel Ports, but was denied any more troops by the British Government . The only way he could defend them was taking soldiers from the south of his command (the area held by among others the 16th Irish Division) and moving them to the Channel. This left the area round St Quentin dangerously under-defended. The Germans attack, code named Michael, was aimed to at the point where the British southern flank joined the French northern flank.This attack would be aimed towards Amiens.

The Germans expected the British to have to draw reserves from Flanders in the north. A second attack, codename George, would then take place in the Hazebrouck area with the intention of breaking through to the Channel.

The Germans had developed a new form of attack, based on "storm troopers", specially chosen crack troops, to lead the attack. The attack would take place after a comparatively short artillery bombardment, followed by poison gas shells. Pockets of resistance would be by-passed and the next days objectives would be set on what had been achieved that day. Reserves would be sent where the attack was progressing, not where it was stalled

The defensive tactics had altered since the Somme in 1916. No longer did 2 front lines, fully manned, look out over each other. In the new system, only a few men manned the front line trenches, and they were protected by barbed wire, and by strong redoubts manned by machine guns covering possible attacks. . The main defensive force was dug in on the reverse slope, and they were to be given sufficient warning of an attack, to get into a position to hold the attackers. At that point British artillery was to destroy the attackers who would have no protection.

Further back a defensive line covered the Somme crossings, and 350 bridges had been mined, ready to be blown.

The Germans managed to move up 500,000 men over a period by night, and they were ready eventually to attack a British force of 200,000 defenders.

Map showing Dublin Fusiliers front line in March 1918

The 16th (Irish) Division at this time was holding the Blue Line, a 4 mile section of the front. 48 and 49 Brigades were in the front line as shown, and 47th Brigade were in reserve.

The forward Blue line was a continuous line of established trenches with listening posts close to the German line. The front was well wired, but only lightly defended, apart from the redoubts.

Behind the Blue line the Division held the Red Line. This line was where the main body of the Divisions infantry was meant to stop any German attack head on.

There was a Green Line, further back, but the trenches for that had not yet been dug.

A number of trench raids against the Germans were made on Mar 19 and 20, but little information about the attack was gained

21 March 1918

At 4.40am on 21 Mar 1918 the Germans fired 1.16 million shells over a 80 km front in a 5 hour period Their shells were both explosive and gas. Further as dawn broke, a thick mist reduced visibility to 25 metres. At 9.35 am, 500,000 German soldiers advanced through the mist. During the day the Dublins withstood the direct attack, but the Germans managed to make an advance on the junction with 66 Division at the side of the salient. They surrounded Ronssoy, and threatened to attack the Dublins from the rear.

By midnight the 1st Battalion withdrew through the brown line, which was held by 47 Brigade. They were missing about 600 soldiers from the 1st Battalion wen they withdrew. They got to Divisional HQ at Tincourt about 4am to re-group. There were only 5 officers and 90 other ranks left. They took up a position along the road running north-west out of Tincourt

The 2nd Battalion also withdrew, reaching the Brown Line around 3pm, and holding positions there until relieved at 4am on 22nd March. 7 officers and 200 men were all that was left of the battalion by the time it reached the Brown Line.

The retreat lasted 8 days and nights, with stops to briefly hold defensive positions.

22 March 1918

The 1st Dublins occupied the Green Line and by now had 140 men. The Germans attacked at 10.30am, but did not attack this section of the front. The line was held until the following morning. The 2nd Dublins by now were also at Tincourt. A series of orders from above to withdraw were given, then countermanded during the day. So both battalions remained at Tincourt

23 March 1918

Another heavy mist restricted visibility to 50 yards, and this was used to cover a withdrawal through Courcelles to a position at the Bois des Flaques covering Bussu and Peronne. . The retreat began at 7am and they used compasses to guide themselves in the mist. They were supported by tanks. Their new position was on a line from Doight to Bussu

1st Dublins were the Brigade reserve, and reached their positions without incident at 11am. They were 1mile SE of Peronne at Doingt, and their role was to cover the retreat of the brigade across the Somme if that became necessary. And at 2pm they were ordered to cross the Somme and take up a position at La Maisonette, a height overlooking Peronne and Biaches, and some men were sent further west to a position 2 miles east of Flaucourt

2nd Dublins were on the northern edge of Doingt when the Germans attack. This attack was repulsed and the brigade withdrew west of Peronne, where it was ordered to hold the bridgehead over he Somme for as long as possible.The Brigades on either side of them had already fallen back over the Somme. The platoon that was left holding the bridge was never heard from again

At 10.30 pm the depleted remains of 16th (Irish) division were ordered to march the 7 miles from Biaches to Cappy and form a reserve.

24 March 1918

An orderly retreat through the night saw he men arriving at Cappy at 4am to receive a hot meal. 1st and 2nd Dublins allowed to rest in Cappy till 4.30

1st Battalion marched to Froissy. Where they were the support unit.

2nd Battalion had gathered a few reinforcements from the transport unit and was able to form two weak companies with the 7 officers and 120 men that it now had. They too marched to Froissy and took up positions on the south bank of the canal in order to guard the bridge.

The night passed without incident

25 March 1918

The Brigade was ordered to return east to the Somme bridgehead and cover it. Both Battalions moved out at 3pm and marched to Eclusier to guard the bridge, until the RE blew the bridge at 1am. There was no contact with the advancing Germans

26 March 1918

There was a strong German attack at dawn, and there was a general withdrawal towards Chuignolles, to form part of a Bray-Proyart Line

1st Battalion RDF was the Brigade reserve, and at 9am dug in a mile to the rear of the line, at the crossroads 2 miles east of Mericourt.

The 2nd Battalion dug in between Chuigolles and Proyart.

A strong German attack ensued at 2.30pm, supported by heavy artillery. The Germans captured Chuignolles, turned the 2nd Dublins left flank, and forced them to withdraw to an old French trench position neat Mericourt.

The 1st Dublins held their position till the other battalions had moved through them, then they too withdrew, going to the Brigade reserve position in the hill south east of Mericourt.

27 March 1918

The Germans shelled their new positions at dawn, and attacked from the east. Major Wheeler of 2nd Dublins ordered them to "hold on and fight to the last", but decided to withdraw at dusk as they were in danger of being surrounded, and their position was no longer of any value.

The 2nd Dublins passed through Morcourt, and reached he bridge at Ecluse at 8pm. Finding the north side of the bridge held by the Germans, they went back to Morcourt which was in flames, and along the south bank of the canal to the bridge at Cerisy. Here again they found the bridge held by Germans. They decided to rush the bridge. Major Wheeler's batman was a heavyweight boxer, and he helped the column to overpower the German sentries. They killed more German sentries at the next village of Sailly-Laurette, and marched south to Le Hamel, arriving at 2am the next morning. They had marched 12 miles though German lines. Altogether there was Major Wheeler, Capt Stitt, Lieutenant Beaumont and 44 men from 2nd RDF plus some 250 officers and men from other units who had joined them.

1st Dublins had remained in position to cover the withdrawal, and then moved back to a position in the sunken road between Morcourt and Cerisy at 5pm. A few minutes later the Germans crossed the bridge at Cerisy and attacked them from the rear. So they had to withdraw south to the main road from Peronne to Amiens, east of Lamotte. An unsuccessful counter-attack was organised at 7pm, they moved forward about a mile, but fell back under enfilading machine gun fire. They withdrew to Villers-Bretonneux, which they reached at 11.30pm

28 March 1918

The Amiens defence line was east of Villers-Bretonneux, and was under the command of Major General George Carey. The remains of 16th (Irish) Division were assigned to this force as they reached the area. By now the Division was reduced to one brigade of 4 under-strength battalions.

2nd Dublins were in support just east of Le Hamel

1st Dublins was by now only 45 men and they marched the 2 miles north to Divisional HQ at Fouilly, on the edge of the small town of Corbie. They were billeted at Aubigny

29th March 1918

1st Dublins were then incorporated into a group known as the "Aubigny Details", and marched out at 5am to occupy a position Bois de Vaire at Le Hamel, in support of the line at Bois des Tailloux. Heavy enemy shelling was reported.

49th Brigade War Diary records. Drafts for 16th Div., men returning from leave & stragglers being collected & re-equipped at Aubigny under Lt.-Col Moore, 1st Dublin Fusiliers. 130 men refused to carry wire up to the line, the diary does not say who they were. The fate of the 130 men who, on 29th March, refused to carry wire up to the line is not known, apart from their being marched off by the A.P.M.

30 March 1918

Around noon the Germans launched a big attack from the river south of Bois des Tailloux, supported by a heavy bombardment. The 2nd Dublins, who included a number of 1st Battalion men, received casualties. They counter attacked and retook the line, but suffered heavy casualties.

31 March 1918

The "Aubigny Details" men were reassigned to their own units. The 1st Dublins got 23 men back from 2nd Dublins. And at 11pm the 1st Dublins relieved the 2nd Dragoon Guards in front of Le Hamel.

1, 2, 3 April 1918

1st and 2nd Dublins remained in position. The 1st Battalion by now had received 200 reinforcements.

On 3rd April they were relieved, and marched via Aubigny to Blangy-Tronville, where the took buses to Saleux on the outskirts of Amiens.

4th April 1918

Entrained for a journey that eventually took them north to Campagne les Boulonnais, a village 12 miles SW of St Omer

5 April 1918

The last day of the battle, the Germans called off their offensive.

1st Dublins War Diary shows total casualties of 28 officers and 600 men (of whom 19 officers and 340 men were killed or missing).

2nd Dublins War Diary shows total casualties of 39 officers and 916 men (of whom 15 officers and 723 men were killed or missing).

Later figures show that 142 men died in 1st Battalion, 126 men died in 2nd battalion, 34 men died in other RDF battalions, and 34 RDF officers died in total. Using the accepted ration of 3 wounded to every man who died, one would put the wounded at about 1000

The 16th (Irish) Division had a total of 1085 killed, 3255 wounded and about 1000 unwounded taken prisoner.

14 April 1918

The remains of 1st and 2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers moved to Clety, south of St Omer. Here they were amalgamated into a composite battalion of just two companies called 1/2 Royal Dublin Fusiliers. Lt Col K. Weldon DSO was the CO.

15 April 1918

The new battalion arrives in Boeseghem (between St Omer and Bethune) where it helped in the building of a defensive line.

19 April 1918

1st Dublins was reformed under Lt Col Athelstan Moore DSO.

2nd Dublins were reduced to a training cadre of 10 officers and 43 men.

26 April

1st Dublins rejoined 86 Brigade of 29th Division, with which it had fought until Oct 1917

Ist Battalion Royal Dublin Fusiliers