21 March 1918: The 16th ‘Irish’ & 36th ‘Ulster’ Divisions were attacked in the ‘Kaisers Battle’/Kaiserschlacht that began on this day. The German Spring offensive, known as 'Operation Michael’, was launched along a 50-mile front at dawn. A massive preliminary bombardment preceded the onslaught of groups of infantry led by specially trained ‘Storm Troops’. The Germans had gathered together 6,473 artillery guns and 3,532 mortars. During the bombardment they fired over one million shells, filled with a mix of munitions that included a variety of different types of poisoned gas. Holding part of the Front Line day were men of the 16th Irish Division who were part of the Anglo-Irish General Sir Hubert Gough’s Fifth Army.
The 16th Division was still designated Irish but the proportion of troops from Ireland had been greatly reduced owing to casualties and fresh volunteers being assigned on a less stringent national basis than heretofore. At the time of the Offensive there were nine battalions distributed amongst three Brigades. The Ulster Division, despite all else, had managed to retain a strong regional identity but this battle was to test it to the limits. It too had nine battalions distributed amongst three Brigades.
At 4.30 am that morning the 49th Inf. Brigade of the 16th Division reported that intense hostile bombardment had been opened on the main battle positions & support lines, Mainly gas shell on forward lines and Brig. H.Q. All wires were cut and communications by visual & pigeon impossible owing to the dense mist. No S.O.S. signals were given. The German attacks were sustained throughout the day and into the night as fortified outposts were cut off and forced to surrender. The German Storm troops were able to infiltrate through the Irish lines and advance deep into the rear as the remnants of the Division were forced back. Within days the cohesion of the 16th Irish had been shattered and it never saw action again as a unit. Its constituent battalions were either broken up or assigned to other Divisions for the duration of the War.
The Ulster Division was not quite so overwhelmed but its relatively cohesive state meant it was used to conduct a fighting retreat that left it 5,000 men short by the end of the month. It was only put back in the line near end of the War to support the final advance of the Allies.
At first the Hun had all in his favour, as for the first five days you could not see 50 yards ahead owing to the mist, and we always found on retiring that the enemy had gone four or five miles past us…on the second day of the offensive we held the Haig Line, although the Germans were five miles past us. We stopped one night in a village but next morning the Hun was on top of us, so it was a case of fighting again. It was very sad to see the women and children flying for their lives and leaving everything behind.
The Irish on the Somme
By Steven Moore
However the German assault was finally halted at Villers-Bretonneux, near Amiens, on April 4/5. Though a 40-mile salient had been created in the British lines, Ludendorff's armies failed to achieve a decisive breakthrough.
But this did not save the Wexford born General Gough, whose military reputation was ruined by his inability to hold the line and then being forced into Retreat. He was dismissed and his Army never saw action again and was broken up.
For the soldiers from Ireland 21 March 1918 and the days following were some of the bloodiest battles of the War and indeed in Irish History as they attempted to hold the line against the most intense attacks ever witnessed in modern warfare up to that point.