- The Great Attack
- March 21st 1918
Germany's Final Offensive
pages from 'the War Illustrated'
- left : Amiens burning during the bombardment
- right : a shelled village during the March 1918 offensive
Germany's Final Offensive
The Germans launched their great offensive in a dense fog on the morning of March 21st. They had a heavy superiority in men and guns. They had an overwhelming power of artillery. Opposite three of our divisions they had 1,000 guns, and in most parts of the line one gun to every twelve or fifteen yards of front. They concentrated heavy fire upon our battery positions, ammunition dumps, roads of communication, and villages in back areas. They had brought up a number of long range naval guns, and their shell fire was scattered as far back as twenty-eight miles behind the lines.
Their infantry had been trained to a new system of attack which was called "infiltration". It was done by small units, led by non-commissioned officers, who acted like molecules of the larger masses and, with great skill and courage, took advantage of the gaps in our fines when a break-through had been made. The fog helped them. Out forward troops found themselves isolated, with the enemy beyond them and around them, before they had become aware of their danger. Many of our outposts were cut off like this, and fought to the last. So it was in the Manchester Redoubt, near St. Quentin, where the 16th Manchesters of the 30th division held out with their machine-guns for ten hours after being surrounded. By means of a buried cable they were able to send messages. The last words came from the commanding officer at about 3.30 in the afternoon when he was wounded. He spoke calmly, even cheerily; but said they could not hold out much longer, as practically every man was hit. "The Manchesters will defend this Redoubt to the last moment," he said. No other words came from him and the Redoubt was overwhelmed.
The Germans smashed through our lines in many places, and advanced rapidly, in spite of heavy losses inflicted upon them by our rearguard actions. Some of their divisions lost between 30 and 50 per cent of their man-power, but their reserves still came on over their dead bodies, and our battalions, losing touch with each other, because all telephone wires had been put out of action by shell fire, fell back and fought desperate rearguard actions, with the enemy cutting in between them and behind them. They came back over the old battlefields for which we had fought in the Battles of the Somme at stupendous cost, and back again over the ground from which they had retreated to the Hindenburg Line. After five days and nights our men were utterly exhausted and drugged with lack of sleep. "Nothing could keep them awake," said one officer, "except another attack." There were only small bodies and groups of men standing between the enemy and the Channel ports when they had fallen back through Albert and through Bapaume where the Germans got very drunk on our stores at the Officers' Club, and almost to the outskirts of Amiens.
General Sir Hubert Gough's Fifth Army had been almost annihilated.
I was an eye-witness of many scenes in this disaster and realised its bitterness and tragedy. It was a dreadful thing to see the enemy coming back to the old fields of the Somme and to see places which had been quiet, far behind our lines, under shell fire again. I saw, without field glasses, the German guns and transport coming through Fricourt and Montauban which we had captured on July 1st, 1916. Having the use of a car I could reach positions not yet captured, and I remember going up to High Ridge when it was still held by the Naval division. An officer spoke to me cheerfully. "We can hold this position till the crack of doom."
"The enemy is cutting in behind you," I said. "They are already driving through the ruins of Mametz. You have hardly time to get out."
They had to make a forced march back to escape from the trap closing upon them.
The Germans came as near to Amiens as Villers-Bretonneux on the low hills outside. Their guns had smashed the railway station of Longeau, which to Amiens is like Clapham Junction to Waterloo. Across the road was a tangle of telephone wires, shot down from their posts. For one night nothing - or next to nothing - barred the way, and Amiens could have been entered by a few armoured cars. Only small groups of tired men, the remnants of strong battalions, were able to stand on their feet, and hardly that.
That evening, having seen the worst, our small bunch of war correspondents, seven of them, I think, because we had been joined by two Americans-Philip Sims of the United Press and De Witt Mackenzie of the Associated Press of America-sat down to get a scratch meal in the old H6tel du Rhin, where many times we had been billeted during the Battles of the Somme. In the room were officers on lines of communication which had been cut by the enemy, and Town Majors who had lost their towns, and other administrative officers. Behind the cash desk sat the lady to whom we paid our bills. Her face was pallid beneath the dabs of rouge on her cheeks. Gaston, the head waiter, a boastful fellow like Tartarin de Tarascon, was subdued by the imminent peril and looked as though death were near. as indeed it was.
The first bomb fell during dinner. It was a colossal crash, very near, and many of the officers at table went to the floor. We heard a splintering of glass. Many windows had broken but we were all undamaged. Captain Cadge, in charge of our cars and general organisation, raised the question whether we should go or stay that night. The enemy might come into Amiens at any hour and we might all be captured. Was there any sense in that? There seemed to be a diversity of opinion among us. Cadge wrote out seven ballot papers and suggested that we should put a X against the alternative Stay or Go. I voted for staying. So did a majority of the others. We stayed the night in Amiens.
It was not an amusing night. Until 4.30 in the morning the enemy sent over squadrons of aeroplanes and bombed this small city mercilessly.
We had better go down into the cellar," said Montague. "There's no sense in staying upstairs." There were good cellars below the Hotel du Rhin, full of wine casks and crates. The Town Majors who had lost their towns, and the officers on lines of communication which no longer communicated, bedded themselves down in straw. So did our Colonel Faunthorpe. At intervals through the night I saw him stretched out, sleeping as peacefully as a babe, with the flickering light of candles on his hawk-like profile.
The candles had been lit by the two Americans, Philip Sims and De Witt Mackenzie. They had settled down to a game of cards, using a wine cask as their table. So they played all through the night.
I did not like that cellar. I was restless and sleepless and kept going upstairs to my bedroom, lying down on the bed awhile, and then getting up when the sound of exploding bombs and crashing buildings, like avalanches of masonry, shook the bed and the floors and the walls as though by earthquake shocks. I smoked innumerable cigarettes, and wondered what it would feel like if the floor suddenly yawned beneath my feet and I was hurled to death amidst the ruins of the Hotel du Rhin. Should I feel anything? Should I have time to know anything? I wondered what would happen after death. Should I retain my personal consciousness and awareness? Would my brain go on working after its physical mechanism was destroyed? Would something in me - the soul - be liberated and continued? Or was death just nothingness? I crossed myself several times, I remember. But I was not afraid, I think. And looking back on that night now I see that it was no worse than hundreds of nights in London and other cities where millions of citizens-women and girls-went through such hours with a kind of fatalism and were still unnervous; at dawn.
Through the broken windows on the big staircase I could see brilliant moonlight shining on roofs and walls, and somewhere nearby great fires were raging with scarlet flames. I could feel the heat of them, and smell the acrid smoke. A part of Amiens was a roaring furnace.
Before dawn I went downstairs again. Suddenly the aerial bombardment had ceased. Broken glass crunched beneath my feet on the stairs. In the hall I met Montague. "Let's go outside," he said.
We went outside and walked a little way down the rue des Trois Calloux - the Street of the Three Pebbles-which was the main street of Amiens, trodden by hundreds of thousands of our men, and by Australians, and New Zealanders, and South Africans, and Scots and Irish, during and after the Battles of the Somme. Muddy soldiers in dripping capes had pressed their noses against the window panes of small shops, and moved from one bistro to another for glasses of porto blanc. At night little torches had flashed into the eyes of young officers, and the voices of little sluts had lured them in French or English, " Une nuit d'amour, mon petit." . . . "Come with me, leetle English officer." Soft bands had grabbed at their Sam Browne belts. In the Godebert restaurant little Marguerite, as saucy as a vivandiere, had made eyes at all the pretty boys, who craved for a kiss after the lousy trenches .
Now that night part of it was on fire. All the Arcade was a glowing furnace. Over 2,000 houses had been hit. In the Street of the Three Pebbles lay the bodies of dead horses and dead men. The body of a British officer lay at the entrance of the Hotel du Rhin. He had been killed as he banged at the door. The street under the moonlight was like burnished silver. The old Cathedral still stood, every pinnacle and bit of tracery shining like quicksilver, with magical beauty.
That morning all the living inhabitants - many were killed that night - fled from Amiens, which presently was under shell fire, with the enemy outside.
Many times afterwards I went through that deserted city in which I had made many friends-Mademoiselle Carpentier of the book shop, an old printer with his three pretty daughters, one of whom - the most beautiful - fell in love with an English officer who was already married, and other pleasant bourgeois people. It was very sinister then in Amiens, with only a few soldiers walking single file close to the walls and shells coming over intermittently. But, while it was deserted like that by all civilians, I had lunch one day in a cellar beneath the Hotel de Ville as the guest of a French general. It was the 14th of July and he had decided to give a little banquet. Among his guests was a young American officer, representing the American Army now fighting round the Chemin des Dames and Chqteau Thierry. With me went Colonel Neville Lytton who had joined our staff, to our great pleasure because of his wit, gallantry, and artistic temperament. (He played Bach on an eighteenth century flute and spoke French like a Parisian, and was beloved by French correspondents of whom he had been in charge.)
Down in the cellar of the H6tel de Ville the tables were decorated with roses from the little gardens of Amiens, now abandoned and neglected. Each of us had a menu by the side of his plate. There were speeches. The French general, a fierce-looking old man, but a fine type, drank to the health of the glorious British Armies. It was Neville Lytton who returned thanks, in perfect and humorous French. The French general drank a toast to the glorious American Army. The young American officer had to respond. He rose, uttered the one word "merci" and sat down again, not knowing any more French. A year or so later I found myself in New York. An invitation to lunch with the young American officer had been delivered on board before we landed. I accepted it, and by my plate in an American apartment was one of the menus from the cellar in Amiens, and we had the same things for lunch, and the same French wine, and the table was decorated with little red roses. Only an American would have thought out this idea, which I found charming.
pages from 'the War Illustrated
- by Philip Gibbs
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