The second major German offensive of spring 1918 was codenamed Operation Georgette. Operation Michael had failed to decisively end the war and the Germans had suffered very heavy losses. With fewer soldiers available the original German plan called “Georg” was reworked as a smaller attack, “Georgette”. The Germans secretly massed 36 divisions in Flanders, east of the French town of Armentières. Less than 20 miles away was the vital Allied rail hub of Hazebrouck.

The Battle

At 4.15am on 9 April 1918 more than 2,250 German guns opened fire on some 25 miles of British front held by just 12 divisions. After four and a half hours of bombardment the German infantry advanced, overwhelming much of the lightly held British front and advancing over three miles in the first few hours. Heaviest hit was the 2nd Portuguese Division which was virtually annihilated.

The next day the village of Messines, taken at great cost the previous year, was lost, despite a counter-attack by the South African Brigade. By 11 April the situation seemed desperate. German units were just a few miles from Hazebrouck and to rally his men Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, commander of British forces in Western Europe, issued an order of the day ‘…with our backs to the wall and believing in the justice of our cause, each of us must fight on to the end'.

However, the tide was turning. Allied reinforcements were arriving and the 1st Australian Division took up positions in the forest of Nieppe to block further German advances towards Hazebrouck. In response the Germans turned their attacks on Mount Kemmel, a dominating geographical feature in West Flanders.

On 15 April the British were forced to reduce their line in the Ypres Salient, giving up virtually all of the gains made during the Third Battle of Ypres the previous year, but crucially holding on to Ypres itself. Mount Kemmel fell on 25 April, but it was the last German success of Georgette. Fighting continued for several more days until German commanders finally called off the offensive on 29 April.

Destroyed Allied trenches near Armentieres, May 1918. © IWM (Q 87752)

Aftermath

This was one of the most critical periods of the war as a German breakthrough in Flanders, so close to the vital channel ports, could have forced a British withdrawal from the continent. The British and French had held the line, but only just. British casualties were more than 80,000 and French losses were some 30,000. In 20 days of fierce fighting the German Army had again captured a large, but mostly unimportant geographical area. They also suffered very heavy losses and some 85,000 German soldiers were wounded, captured or killed.

The first two German offensives of 1918 had fallen mainly on the British, but with the help of French reinforcements the Germans had been stopped. Knowing that this must have weakened the French line the Germans now prepared for a third offensive, this time against the French on the Chemin des Dames Ridge near the River Aisne. Operation Blücher-Yorck would begin on 27 May 1918. The outskirts of Paris were just 50 miles away.    

Related Cemeteries and Memorials

British and Commonwealth service personnel who died during Georgette are commemorated by the CWGC across the former battlefields and further afield.


Memorials

Those who died during the operation and have no known grave are commemorated by the Commission on memorials to the missing. At the centre of the battlefield more than 5,300 are commemorated on the Ploegsteert Memorial. A further 4,000 are commemorated on the Tyne Cot Memorial to the north and more than 1,400 on the Loos Memorial to the south. In addition, the missing of South African forces are commemorated on the Ypres (Menin Gate) Memorial and those of Australian forces on the Villers-Bretonneux Memorial.

Cemeteries

There are many cemeteries where those who died during the operation are buried. Some are small like Suffolk Cemetery, La Rolanderie Farm, where there are just 40 graves of soldiers of the Suffolk Regiment who died in April 1918. Others are much larger, like Le Grand Beaumart British Cemetery where there are more than 550 graves, over 230 of whom died during Georgette.

Behind the lines the cemeteries begun by medical units tell a story of their own of wounded soldiers rushed back during the heat of battle in need of urgent attention, but who succumbed to their wounds. One of many medical sites is Haringhe (Bandaghem) Military Cemetery. It is the final resting place of more than 800 servicemen, over half of whom died in April 1918.