Western Front in 1918

In 1918, a series of major German and Allied offensives broke the stalemate of trench warfare on the Western Front, resulting in the collapse of the German Army and the end of the war within the year. New Zealand units played their part in Allies final push for victory, helping breach the main German defence system – the Hindenburg Line – and capturing the walled town of Le Quesnoy during the last few months of the war.

At the beginning of 1918, events had seemed to be turning the war in the favour of Germany. The collapse of Russia’s resistance following the Bolshevik revolution in November 1917 allowed the Germans to transfer more than 50 divisions to the Western Front. On the back of this influx of troops, the German high command launched a massive offensive with the goal of ending the war before the full might of the United States (which had entered the war in April 1917) could be brought to bear.

German spring offensive: Defence of Amiens

The German spring offensives which began on 21 March 1918 created the biggest crisis of the war for the Allies. In Operation Michael, 60 German divisions attacked along an 80-kilometre front between St Quentin and Arras, punching a hole through British defences on the Somme and almost destroying the Fifth Army. In some places they advanced as much as 60 km, an incredible feat after three years of mostly stationary trench warfare.

Retreating British troops set up a last line of defence around the city of Amiens, a vital logistics link between the Somme, Flanders and the Channel ports. Its loss would force the British to abandon the Somme, opening a massive gap between themselves and the French armies to the south, and cutting off the remainder of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in Flanders.

Change of name

In January 1918, II Anzac Corps was renamed XXII Corps to reflect the changing composition of the force. With the creation of the Australian Corps, the only ‘Anzac’ element left in II Anzac Corps was the New Zealand Division. As all the other divisions were British, it made sense to renumber it as a British corps.

The New Zealand Division, recovering after a difficult winter in the Ypres Salient, was among forces rushed south to the Somme on 24 March. Attached to General Sir Julian Byng’s Third Army, the New Zealanders moved into the Ancre Valley, taking up positions on the Somme battlefield of 1916. Over four days of desperate fighting around Mailly-Maillet, they managed to stabilise their section of the front, repelling a series of German attacks at Auchonvillers Ridge and Colincamps, and capturing 300 prisoners and 110 machine guns at La Signy Farm. These actions cost the New Zealand Division some 2400 casualties, including more than 500 dead.

A German follow-up attack against Arras on 26 March – Operation Mars – was defeated, although the British abandoned the town of Albert, further south. The German advance was running out of steam as losses amongst their leading units mounted. Their artillery struggled to keep pace with the advancing infantry, and discipline suffered as troops looted British supply depots.

As dawn broke on the 26th March, we passed through and halted just outside the village of Colincamps. We were warned that Fritz was in the vicinity. Our scouts headed out to have a look. The rest of us prepared for a short stop while our officers palavered on the situation. The stop was too short. The scouts were back quickly. The Germans were marching along the road, half a mile away, towards us.
The skipper gave us orders to stand by. He then spoke those words that make any soldier face hell 10 times over and never think of saying die.
‘Well, boys, it’s up to us. There’s no one behind us for miles – but there soon will be.’
We all knew this was bluff as other troops were days away, but the skipper continued.
‘I want this crowd stopped here, right here, and knowing you, I have faith in you. Now go to it.’ No more orders were necessary. We all knew what was required. Like clockwork, we fell into extended battle order. We waited just inside the cover of the trees for that word which would take us back into action. Our platoon officer lay beside me. I knew what that meant. I could now see the Germans, less than 300 yards away. They were coming towards us in great style and pace.
The officer said in my ear, ‘Sonny, you can start the ball. Fire.’

Len Coley, The Wellington Regiment, in Gavin McLean, Ian McGibbon and Kynan Gentry (eds), The Penguin book of New Zealanders at war, Penguin, North Shore, 2009, p. 209

The crisis seemed to galvanise the Allies, whose leaders agreed to unite their forces under the command of French General Ferdinand Foch. The American authorities agreed to place several of their divisions under temporary British and French command, and two French armies moved forward to help defend the Somme. British forces repelled another attack against Amiens on 4 April, ending the German offensive in this area. The Germans had occupied over 300 sq km of territory – at a cost of 250,000 casualties. The BEF suffered 177,000 casualties, while the French lost 77,000 men killed, wounded or captured.

The German Army launched four more offensives between April and July. In Flanders, Operation Georgette (9-29 April) pushed the British out of Passchendaele and Messines, territory won at such cost the previous year, but failed to capture the important Hazebrouck rail hub. New Zealand units were involved here too, helping stop the German advance in the Battle of the Lys. Mounted, cyclist and entrenching troops from Lieutenant-General Sir Alexander Godley’s XXII Corps filled crucial gaps in the line south-east of Ypres, fighting as de facto infantrymen at ‘Shrewsbury Forest’ (near Hill 60), Mount Kemmel, the Vierstraat Road and Hill 44 before being withdrawn.

A further attack on the River Aisne at the end of May netted the Germans another 40 km, but their strategic aims remained beyond their grasp. Each advance only stretched their dwindling resources. German factories, starved of materials by the Allied naval blockade, struggled to replace the weapons and equipment that had been lost. Between March and July, the German Army lost a million men killed or wounded, including many irreplaceable experienced and elite soldiers. In desperation, the German authorities began sending 17-year-old conscripts to the front.

The Allies were also close to exhausting their available manpower, but unlike the Germans were able to keep increasing their firepower. Infantry units now possessed plenty of mortars, machine guns and grenades, while artillery accounted for more than a third of the BEF’s total strength on the ground. The British Tank Corps, formed in July 1917, continued to expand, as did the Royal Air Force (formed in April 1918) and the French Aéronautique Militaire. The Germans could not match this combination of forces. Even as the last German offensives unfolded in June-July, the Allies were planning a devastating counter-attack.

Allies hit back: Second Marne and Bapaume

The New Zealand Division remained in the Ancre Valley on the Somme until it was relieved in early June. After a period in reserve, the division went back into the line on 2 July, occupying trenches in front of the town of Hébuterne. They spent the next few weeks carrying out aggressive patrolling and fighting small actions to improve their tactical position. By now, the nature of the battlefield had changed dramatically. Much of the new front line ran through territory not destroyed by years of shellfire. Towns, forests and farmland were largely intact, and conditions were ripe for a return to open warfare.

In July 1918, the Allies struck back, landing a series of blows on the increasingly demoralised Germans. French forces, supported by British and American troops, pushed the Germans back outside Paris during the Second Battle of the Marne (18 July-9 August). New Zealand mounted troops of XXII Corps (attached to the French Fifth Army) took part in this fighting, and the New Zealand Cyclist Battalion captured the village of Marfaux on 22 July. The British Fourth Army followed up this success with a stunning victory in the Battle of Amiens (8-11 August), capturing 50,000 Germans and 500 field guns. These huge losses prompted German commander General Erich Ludendorff to label the first day of the battle the ‘Black Day of the German Army’.

Three VC winners

Samuel Forsyth, Reginald Judson and John (Jack) Grant were all awarded the Victoria Cross for separate actions over nine days during the fighting around Biefvillers (Forsyth, 24 August), Bapaume (Judson, 25 August), and Bancourt (Grant, 1 September). All three were cited for their bravery in attacking German machine-gun posts, amongst other courageous acts.

With the Germans now clearly on the defensive, the Allies looked to maintain the pressure with a series of fresh offensives. On 21 August, the British Third Army (including the New Zealand Division) attacked along a 15-km front north of Amiens, breaking through the German line and driving toward Bapaume. The New Zealand Division played a support role for the first few days of the battle, then spearheaded the attack from 24 August, capturing Grévillers, Loupart Wood and the village of Biefvillers in a single day.

On 25 August, the New Zealanders reached Bapaume. After two days of savage fighting, the German defenders abandoned the town on the night of 28 August, slipping away to new positions to the east. New Zealand troops entered Bapaume next day, then push east through the villages of Frémicourt and Bancourt. After clearing strong German positions on Bancourt Ridge, the New Zealand Division advanced another 6 km before halting near Bertincourt to regroup. The Battle of Bapaume was over.

By early September, the British First, Third and Fourth armies had pushed the German forces on the Somme back to the Hindenburg Line – the point where the German Army had launched its spring offensive in March. This was now their last line of defence on the Western Front.

Hundred Days’ Offensive: Havrincourt, Canal du Nord, Hindenburg Line, Selle and Sambre

As the Third Army followed the retreating Germans across the Somme, the New Zealand Division mopped up a succession of rearguards, fighting their way through Havrincourt Forest and Gouzeaucourt Wood before reaching Trescault Ridge. This position was part of a chain of enemy outposts and strongpoints screening the Hindenburg Line, just 4 km to the east.

On 12 September, the Third Army attempted to overwhelm the German positions along Trescault Ridge, capturing the villages of Havrincourt and Trescault and some of the high ground during the Battle of Havrincourt (12-14 September). The New Zealand Division, weakened from their efforts at Bapaume, struggled to advance on Trescault Spur, an offshoot of the main ridge which was defended by troops of the elite Jäger Division. After two days of bloody fighting the New Zealanders were relieved and moved back to Bapaume to rest.

In late September, the Allies launched a massive offensive against the Hindenburg Line, attacking simultaneously along more than half of the Western Front. On the 26th, American and French forces struck in the Meuse-Argonne region in the north-east. The next day, the British First and Third armies pushed toward the city of Cambrai, capturing 10,000 prisoners and 200 field guns. In Flanders, the British Second Army and the Belgian Army punched through German defences near Ypres on 28 September, advancing up to 9 km in 24 hours – more ground than was taken in three months of fighting at Passchendaele in 1917. Back on the Somme, the British Fourth Army attacked the central sector of the Hindenburg Line on 29 September, crossing the St Quentin Canal and penetrating German support lines.

Stunned by the scale and ferocity of the Allied offensive, the German high command implored the Kaiser to seek an immediate armistice to allow their troops to withdraw to Germany and regroup. On 4 October, the German government asked the Americans to broker a ceasefire.

The New Zealand Division came out of reserve for the final phases of the Battle of the Canal du Nord (27 September - 1 October). Fighting their way through the main Hindenburg Line, the 1st New Zealand Infantry Brigade seized the town of Crèvecoeur on the final day of the battle, establishing a vital foothold across the Scheldt Canal in the process. The Third Army was able to expand this bridgehead when the Germans withdrew to the ‘Masnières-Beaurevoir line’, a trench system prepared hastily behind the Hindenburg Line.

After pausing to regroup, the British Third and Fourth armies renewed their attack on 8 October. Breaking through weak German defences, the New Zealand Division advanced more than 5 km to take the village of Esnes, capturing more than 1000 prisoners and a dozen field guns along the way. The 800 New Zealand casualties included 150 dead. That night German forces withdrew to the River Selle, allowing Canadian troops to take Cambrai unopposed. The New Zealanders continued the pursuit to the Selle, advancing 18 km before being relieved on 14 October.

The division returned to action a week later, taking part in the closing stages of the Battle of the Selle (17-25 October) before halting outside the old fortress town of Le Quesnoy, which was encircled by elaborate and historic brick ramparts.

On 4 November, the British First, Third and Fourth armies launched a major offensive (later designated the Battle of the Sambre). It would prove to be the final attack of the war. On the opening day, the New Zealand Division captured 2000 prisoners and 60 field guns and advanced to the edge of the Mormal Forest. Le Quesnoy fell the same day, after soldiers from the 4th Battalion, New Zealand Rifle Brigade, scaled the walls with a ladder.

[Leslie] Averill and [Harold] Kerr were already working along the tree-covered bank to the edge of the inner moat. They picked up the ladder, and stepping on the knife-edge bridge in single file reached the sluice-gate. The whole place was ominously still but for the low gurgle of water in the moat below them… Quietly they raised the ladder against the wall. It reached the top of the bricks with a foot to spare, resting against a 2-foot high grassy bank which crowned the rampart… Averill started to mount it, telling the others that he would shout down to them from the top if all was quiet.
It was now about 4 p.m. Averill quickly reached the top of the brick-work, and stepped over the coping on to the grassy bank. Crouching behind it, he peered over. It was one of the most dramatic moments in the Division’s history. There was an instant crashing through some brushwood on the far side, and Averill saw 2 Germans of the bombing post running off panic-stricken. He sent a revolver bullet after them. Kerr was now on the topmost rung. The 2 officers could see a pair of machine guns on the salient on their right pointing into the moat but abandoned. They stood up and walked over the top of the grass slope and down the other side towards the boulevard. They were greeted by a great jabbering of German. Kerr fired a shot at the man who appeared to be leader, but missed. The whole enemy party bolted at once into an underground cavern under the rampart.

Colonel Hugh Stewart, The New Zealand Division 1916-1919: A popular history based on official records, Whitcombe and Tombs Limited, Auckland, 1921, pp. 591–2

This was last significant action of the war for the New Zealanders. By 5 November they had cleared the Mormal Forest and the division was relieved overnight. New Zealand artillery remained behind to support British units before heading back into reserve on the 9th. New Zealand units would not go into action again; two days later, the war was over.

Abandoned by its allies – Bulgaria, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire had all ceased hostilities – its population suffering due to the Allied blockade, and its armies in disarray, Germany accepted defeat. An armistice on the Western Front came into effect at 11 a.m. on 11 November 1918.

Armistice and occupation

The conditions of the armistice gave the German Army 14 days to leave all occupied territory and 28 days to withdraw across the river Rhine. The Allies also insisted on sending their armies into Germany to occupy three bridgeheads around the cities of Cologne, Coblenz and Mainz. British forces occupied the Cologne area, while the Americans and French took control of Coblenz and Mainz.

Sent to join the British occupation force, the New Zealand Division marched 240 km through France and Belgium in December, reaching the German border on 19 December. Led by 1st Battalion, Canterbury Regiment, the infantry entered Cologne the next day, followed on Boxing Day by the artillery and other horse-borne units.

The New Zealanders’ role as occupiers was short-lived. Once it became clear that Germany could not resume the fight, thoughts turned to demobilising the troops and getting them home. Beginning in late December, married men and those who had enlisted in 1914-15 were sent back to England and from there to New Zealand. The process sped up from January 1919, with 700-1000 men leaving each week. On 25 March 1919, the last New Zealand soldiers left Cologne and the New Zealand Division was officially disbanded. After nearly three years’ service and at a cost of more than 12,000 lives, New Zealand’s war on the Western Front was over.

Further information

This article was written and produced by Gareth Phipps.

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How to cite this page

'1918: Amiens, Bapaume and victory - Western Front campaign', URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/war/western-front-1918, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 22-Dec-2016