The Battle of St Quentin, 21-23 March 1918
The colossal German offensive launched on 21 March, following the largest bombardment ever seen on the Western Front, resulted in spectacular successes but failed to achieve the outright breakthrough sought by Ludendorff. Slowed by the innumerable defiant actions of outnumbered garrisons in isolated British redoubts, the end of the day, contrary to German expectations, saw the greatest gains achieved against Gough’s Fifth Army on the front from St Quentin to the Oise. The night of 21/22 March witnessed a frenzy of activity as near-reeling British Divisions readjusted to the incursions into their defensive zones and German forces were reinforced to inflict further damage.
Dense mist again prevailed on the morning of the 22 March; a day of intense and continual fighting. Third Army continued to hold ferocious German assaults in its Battle Zone until mid-afternoon when its centre was forced back producing scenes of disarray on the Bapaume-Cambrai road. More seriously Fifth Army, under incessant pressure began to show worrying signs of collapse. No longer holding a continuous front, extensive enemy infiltration between its units destroyed any semblance of co-ordinated defence; in the bewildering turmoil of exhausting and never-ending small retirements British casualties were heavy.
The Germans were through the Reserve Line by evening. Facing an unprecedented disaster all available troops were hastily thrown into action on 23 March to bolster the failing Fifth Army but were unable to stop German infantry swarming over the Somme; Péronne was evacuated. A near forty-mile wide breach was made in the British line; Fifth and Third Armies became perilously separated. Haig ordered in his depleted reserves, desperately sought further aid from the French and in high anxiety for the safety of the entire BEF ordered the construction of new rear defence lines on which to hold the expected continued German onslaught.
Campaign map Army structure Terminology