31 January 2018

How 21 March 1918 became the second worst day in British military history

This March marks 100 years since the German Spring Offensive. Codenamed Operation Michael, the first day of the attack saw the second worst day of losses in British military history with more than 38,000 casualties. The Commission commemorates more than 8,000 who died in France during the first day of the operation, which is depicted in a new film adaption of RC Sherriff’s play Journey’s End. Ahead of the film’s release this week, here is more about the offensive and CWGC sites where those killed are commemorated.

 

French 22nd Division and British 20th Division covering a road near Nesle, 25 March 1918, © IWM Q10810 (left) and a scene from the new film adaption of Journey's End (right)

Operation Michael

The 1918 Spring Offensive, also known as the Kaiserschlacht, ‘The Kaiser’s Battle’, was a series of German attacks along the Western Front during the First World War. The Germans intended to force the Allies to the negotiating table before American forces could be fully deployed.

There were four major German offensives, codenamed Michael, Georgette, Blücher-Yorck, and Gneisenau.

Launched in the early hours of 21 March, Operation Michael was the first attack of the offensive. German bombardment began at 4.40am. It lasted only five hours, but was one of the heaviest artillery bombardments in history with more than 3.5 million shells fired. By the end of the day, the British were fighting a desperate battle of survival in their rearmost defensive positions. British casualties numbered 38,500, including almost 21,000 British soldiers taken prisoner.

The first day of Operation Michael remains the second worst day in British military history, surpassed only by 1 July 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

The offensive continued until 5 April, by which time the German Army had taken more ground on the Western Front than the Allies had managed since 1914. In 16 days they had captured some 1,200 square miles, compared to 125 square miles taken by the British in 141 days during the Battle of the Somme in 1916. Tens of thousands of British soldiers had been taken captive and in total the British and French suffered nearly 250,000 casualties. However, success had come at terrible cost and almost 240,000 German soldiers were wounded, captured or dead, soldiers the Germans could not replace.

The missing and the dead

CWGC Pozieres Memorial in Pozieres British Cemetery

The Commission commemorates almost 37,000 service personnel who died in France during Operation Michael. More than 23,000 have no known grave and are commemorated on CWGC memorials to the missing.

The cemeteries on the battlefields of Operation Michael were often begun by medical units or created after the war by the concentration of isolated graves and small cemeteries, many containing a very high number of unidentified servicemen. The sites where the dead of Operation Michael are commemorated each have a story to tell. They include Pozieres Memorial, Chauny Communal Cemetery British Extension, and Ham British Cemetery.

Journey’s End

A scene from the new film adaption of Journey's End

Based on RC Sherriff’s play and novel of the same name, Journey’s End is set in the trenches near Saint-Quentin, in March 1918. It follows just one company of men, led by the heroic, war-weary alcoholic and self-torturing Captain Stanhope (Sam Claflin) as they await an impending and massive German attack.

Stanhope and his fellow officers (Paul Bettany, Stephen Graham, Tom Sturridge) and their cook (Toby Jones) attempt to distract themselves in their dugout while they wait for the inevitable onslaught. They are joined by Raleigh (Asa Butterfield), a young new officer fresh out of training, excited about his first real posting, and a chance to serve under his boyhood hero Stanhope. Raleigh’s naivety serves as a stark contrast to the other men’s impending fear as the tension rises and the attack draws ever closer.

Journey's End will be released 2nd February 2018 by Lionsgate

Read the film producer’s blog on the CWGC’s new platform: Journey’s End – A Producer’s Perspective, by Guy de Beaujeu