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Thursday, 21 March 2013

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.