A blogpost by Dr Emma Hanna, Gateways to the First World War.
The period of the war this time 100 years ago became known as the German Spring Offensive. Fought between 21 March and 18 July 1918, the ‘The Kaiser’s Battle’ (Kaiserschlacht) was a series of four major German attacks along the Western Front to compel the Allies to the negotiating table before the arrival of American troops. They were codenamed Michael, Georgette, Blücher-Yorck (after two Prussian generals of the Napoleonic wars) and Gneisenau (after a 19th century Prussian field marshal). The first day, Operation Michael, began at 04:40 hours on 21 March 1918. During a short but deadly five-hour bombardment, the German army fired more than 3.5 million shells on Allied positions. That first day saw the second worst day of losses in British military history. British forces suffered more than 38,000 casualties, with 8,000 dead and approximately 21,000 soldiers taken prisoner. This first offensive continued until 5 April, by which time the German Army had captured 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, this initial success had come at terrible cost for Germany; almost 240,000 German casualties were losses the Germans could not afford, from which they would never recover.
That’s the basic military side of things. However, as we are becoming increasingly aware, there were a number of voluntary-aid organisations who were assisting the Allied war effort, whose work near the front lines would be greatly affected during the German Spring Offensive. The YMCA was the organisation with the largest number of staff and hut/canteen/camp establishments on the fighting fronts. These were places where servicemen could get hot drinks and snacks, buy provisions, sit and read the papers, listen to and/or play music, attend religious services and write home on free stationery. By 1918, the YMCA had 300 sites in France and Belgium, staffed by approximately 1500 men and women civilian volunteers. In the weeks prior to the German Spring Offensive, the YMCA had built and staffed a significant number of additional establishments between the lines of communication and the front lines in the northern sector. Two huts were opened the day before Operation Michael and they were ‘compelled to abandon them.’
During the later stages of Operation Michael, in a letter to Sir Arthur Yapp, the head of the YMCA based in London, one leader Robert G. Macdonald wrote that it had been ‘a very anxious and somewhat trying time’. He said that ‘If it was sad to see so much of our handiwork of the past year destroyed so suddenly, yet with a full heart we thanked God for the work he enabled us to do in these many centres, which will not be lost.’ Of the workers, Macdonald reported that the majority ‘have had quite miraculous escapes from death’ and that ‘a good number had only left my H.Q. Hut some 15 minutes before it was wrecked by a bomb.’ Some 75 of these YMCA workers were taken in by the 3rd Army ‘with characteristic kindness’ by the Camp Commandant, Colonel Lawson. This influx of willing YMCA workers looks like it was a boon to Colonel Lawson and his staff as the YMCA members ‘have been doing much to entertain the men of certain Divisions which are resting in the neighbourhood after their most heroic and trying time in the line.’
YMCA worker Harry Lyne, one of the other leaders in the northern area, described how their work ‘was developing nicely -stores were beginning to come through and we were pretty well off for men’ but they ‘little knew then that within two days we would have lost everything.’ For three days from the start of Operation Michael, Lyne’s YMCA workers were ‘on stretcher-bearing and dealing chiefly with the wounded.’ In this area the YMCA lost 33 centres, 2 which were under construction, 2 further military centres which they had taken over and were converting into camps, 4 stores and their own headquarters. The 'Walthamstow' hut at Remy was one example of a YMCA facility that was temporarily abandoned during the German offensive. However, Yapp proudly reported that ‘The leader in charge transferred operations to a dug-out across the way, which adjoined a clearing station. The inevitable caterer's boiler enabled him to keep up a constant supply of hot tea and coffee for the wounded.’ Abbeville was made a base for stores and the YMCA stocked and sent large lorries to temporary encampments of soldiers. This meant that the soldiers could obtain necessities and comforts and the YMCA’s takings would not be so badly affected.
Oliver McCowan, overall head of the YMCA on the Western Front, detailed that by 13 April approximately 100 YMCA establishments had been ‘taken or destroyed by the enemy’ in the 3rd Army and 5th Army areas. Understandably, the YMCA leaders’ correspondence speaks of their shock at the ‘heavy blow to our work’. However, Lyne’s determination that ‘we still have hope within us and are trusting to get right back into the thick of things in the very near future’ is shared across the board. It was a relief to the organisation that no YMCA workers were captured, injured or killed, and that the takings were safe. Nevertheless, McCowan estimated that the organisation’s losses were in the region of £150,000, close to £8.85 million in today’s money. Yapp would later recount that at Henin the last to take cover were two YMCA padres who, ‘with their keen and commendable sense of duty’ had ‘waited to gather up the cash before taking refuge from the shells.’ The YMCA operated via charitable donations to enable their canteen to charge cost prices to the men – unlike the Expeditionary Forces Canteen (ASC) which worked for profit – so it was imperative for them to keep hold of their money.
However, the YMCA were not the only voluntary-aid organisation operating on the fighting fronts. In May 1918 the Salvation Army reported that they were doing ‘the largest benefit work in its history.’ A Salvation Army chaplain serving with the Canadian Expeditionary Force relayed that during the period of Operation Michael, with the support of the Red Cross, the organisation was running nine coffee stalls at advanced dressing stations which were staffed day and night. The chaplain estimated that the coffee stalls, which he underlined were ‘fully in the shelled area’, had served 1200 gallons of hots drinks to 10,000 men every 24 hours. At this time, Haig wrote to Salvation Army headquarters to say that ‘their members had shown themselves to be the right sort’, that they were ‘one of the best influences of the moral and spiritual welfare of the troops’ and the ‘inestimable value of these influences is realized after the morale of the troops is put to the test at the front.’ Other organisations, for example the Church Army, would have been there, too. It is however difficult to establish what they were doing and where, as the 1918 copies of The Church Army Gazette are missing from the archives at the University of Cambridge. I would approximate that the Church Army ran a similar number of huts to the Salvation Army, around 40 behind the lines in France and Belgium. If someone else can tell me a more definite figure I’d love to hear from them.
By midsummer 1918 the British Army regrouped. With the help of the American Expeditionary Force the Allies pushed the Germans back to the Hindenburg Line. Germany was losing the war, and General Ludendorff famously called 8 August 1918 ‘the black day of the German Army’. When the YMCA re-entered Albert, Bapaume and Péronne in the first week of August, they found that most of the buildings lay in ruins. A war correspondent at the Front reported that the YMCA were quick to re-establish their services:
In one part of the line three hours after the troops reached their final objective they were eating a hot breakfast as part of the programme of the day. The familiar, ever-welcome sign of the "Y.M.C.A." blossomed on a roofless French cafe six miles within the crumpled German line, before the tanks had finished chasing the 11th Corps staff out of Framerville and down the Péronne road. Food, and even books and papers, were set out under the Red Triangle for tired and hungry fighting men as they trooped into the rickety building to eat and be refreshed in a room carpeted with German papers.
In Péronne, the YMCA were surprised to find that their large building had been left intact:
[W]e marvelled still more when on entering the building the first object that met one’s gaze was a fine German piano. Surely it was an act of kindness on the part of the wily Hun to leave it for our men! Was it? […] A Tommy who could play made a bee-line for that piano, but his officer restrained him bidding him first look inside. It was well he did so as there were three powerful bombs attached to the strings of the piano, and the moment he had touched one of the keys concerned he himself, the piano and the building would have been utterly destroyed.
Next door, an elderly woman was returning to her house. YMCA workers watched as she exhumed the family treasures she had buried in her garden, including silver spoons, together with her husband’s weapons and uniform from the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71). Ever the campaigner, Yapp asked his readers to imagine ‘[i]f instead of Péronne in Northern France it had been that sweet little town in England or Scotland, or that village in Wales or Ireland in which you live?’ What we do know is that one day later, a YMCA worker arrived in Bapaume ‘with a pack-horse laden with dolly-cakes and cigarettes which he distributed among the troops.’ The Allies went back on the offensive: the last 100 days of the war had begun.
The Commonwealth War Graves 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. They include Pozieres Memorial, Chauny Communal Cemetery British Extension, and Ham British Cemetery. For more information on these cemeteries visit https://www.cwgc.org/
The first day of the German Spring Offensive was recently depicted in a new film adaption of R.C.Sherriff’s play Journey’s End.
You can read Arthur Yapp’s account of YMCA work during the conflict in Sir Arthur K. Yapp, The Romance of the Red Triangle, (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1918) – this can be viewed and downloaded at: https://archive.org/details/romanceofredtria00yapprich
The YMCA cinema hut at Bailleul, destroyed during Operation Michael in March 1918. The YMCA leader for the Western Front, Oliver McCowan, is pictured among the ruins.