The First Battle of Bapaume, 24-25 March 1918 – defensive fighting – ‘The Retirement’
German successes up to 23 March convinced Ludendorff that a mortal blow had been struck against the British; his modified plans were based on this assumption as he now sought in subsequent attacks to separate French and British forces.
The sodden mist-shrouded dawn of 24 March, Palm Sunday, prefaced a day of grave political and military crisis as more ground was lost by British Fifth and Third Armies; the exhausted and disorganised remnants of the former effectively disintegrated as XVIII and III Corps were forced further back. By nightfall the British had lost the line of the Somme (except between the Omignon and the Tortille). In heavy fighting north of the river (and in the face of unceasing pressure by the German Second Army) the right of Third Army repeatedly gave-up ground as it sought vainly to keep contact with Fifth Army's endless retirements. That evening, after enduring unceasing shelling, Bapaume was evacuated.
During the night elements of the right of Third Army completed a long and confused retirement across the 'devastated zone' and occupied a new line but renewed German onslaughts ensured chaotic rearward moves continued throughout the next day, though Royal Flying Corps forays and resourceful rearguard actions by Byng's cavalry slowed the German advanced guard. By 6pm Byng ordered a further retirement beyond the Ancre to a new front on which to make a stand. Throughout the night of 25 March the greater portions of Third Army attained their designated positions but in the process 'gaps' appeared in the defensive lines - the largest of over four miles between V and VI Corps. With Haig increasingly fearful for the safety of Amiens, and uncertain of continued French support, the prospect of continued retreat loomed large.
Campaign map Army structure Terminology