As 1917 ended the Allies knew that they would soon face a major German offensive in the west. In December 1917 Russia and Romania suspended hostilities with the Central Powers leading to an influx of divisions relocating to France and Belgium; 33 before the end of 1917.
By contrast, the Allies faced manpower shortages which necessitated a series of wholesale reorganisations in efforts to maintain combat unit viability. By early 1918 most British divisions were reduced from 12 battalions to 9 in an attempt to cover the same ground with fewer men. Also, to replenish the ranks, on the Western Front 115 battalions were broken up and 38 others amalgamated. The 4th Guards Brigade, soon to play a major role in the Battle Of Hazebrouck, was a composite unit borne out of this process.
Finally, the Americans were not able to offer immediate assistance, having only 130,000 troops in France in December 1917; many units requiring further training before they could be deployed.
So, as 1918 started, the Germans had the rare luxury of outnumbering the Franco-British forces on the Western Front, deploying 192 divisions against 156.
They certainly intended to make the most of it.
The objective was victory on the Western Front before American strength became overwhelming. A Kaiserschlact (Imperial Battle) would be launched; a series of successive interlocking attacks planned to cause the collapse of the Allies. The German view was that if the British & Dominion forces were defeated, then the rest would cave-in without putting up much of a fight. The initial German blow would therefore be aimed principally against the British.
For flexibility, the Kaiserschlact comprised a number of plans which could be adapted and varied to meet the evolving needs of events as they unfolded. Starting with Operation ”Michael” on 21st March 1918, the Germans launched as series of 5 offensives culminating in Operation “Marneschutz-Reims” in July 1918.
Although the Kaiserschlact made large territorial gains, in the final analysis is was a failure in that the primary objective of bringing about the collapse of British forces was never achieved. More ominous for the Germans, the first American attacks of the war had taken place on 28th May when the 1st US Division seized Cantigny, followed by events on 26th June when American troops cleared Belleau Wood. In both cases the Americans had faced and decisively beaten hardened German units. For the German cause, by mid-1918 the writing was well and truly on the wall.
The story of the 2nd Royal Fusiliers and of the 29th Division is bound up with the second of the five Kaiserschlact offensives; “Operation Georgette”, or “George 2”.
Operation Michael, the first of the series of offensives, was called off by General Ludendorff on 5th April when his plans to take Amiens were frustrated by the 9th Australian Brigade and units of the British 3rd, 18th & 58th Divisions. “Operation Georgette”, a scaled-down version of “Operation George”, called for the 6th Army under General von Quast to strike the Allies between Givenchy and Armentieres; driving then to the north-west across the Lys valley in the direction of the important rail centre at Hazebrouck, which supplied the Ypres salient with half its ongoing daily requirements of general stores, munitions, and supplies. As a bonus, Hazebrouck also happened to be the site of the somewhat vulnerable communications junction between the British First and Second Armies.
The attack opened on the 9th April near Neuve Chapelle, beginning what would become known by the Allies as “The Battles Of The Lys”, or “Fourth Ypres”. The Germans carefully chose the weakest point in the Allied lines, attacking and quickly overrunning the 2nd Portuguese Division; advancing 4 miles at small cost. On 10th April General von Arnim’s 4th Army joined the offensive to the north of the 6th Army, successfully gaining Messines village and part of the high ground on the Messines-Wytschaete Ridge. Caught in between the two converging German thrusts, the British were forced to abandon Armentieres.
By the 11th of April the Germans were within five miles of Hazebrouck. Field-Marshall Haig, with little immediate prospect of major reinforcement, knew that he faced a crisis. On 11th April he issued his famous “backs to the wall” special Order of the Day which stated:
“There is no other course open to us but to fight it out. Every position must be held to the last man; there must be no retirement. With our backs to the wall and believing in the justice of our cause each one of us must fight on to the end.”
By the 11th April the 2nd Royal Fusiliers had already taken part in the first of the three Battles Of The Lys; The Battle Of Estaires. To the north, the second of the three battles, The Battle Of Messines, had also concluded. The scene was set for the third, final and most desperate of the three Lys clashes; The Battle Of Hazebrouck.
(Photograph: Celery Copse from road near Lynde Farm. October 2008.)