Battles in History – 1st Bapaume – March 25th 1918

So we’re trying out this new idea, every couple of months we’ll pick a battle which coincides with our publication date, describe it, and then discuss how it would work using Flames of War scenarios, the initial plan is that in the intervening months one (or more of the team) will try playing the battle in scenario terms and write it up.

It would be really good to get feedback on these articles given it’s new and a bit different.

Anyway given that we got the v4 update for Great War in March, I’ve gone with a battle to match, right down to the day!

By the spring of 1918, the stalemate of the Western Front had lasted nearly 3 and a half years, although the allies had managed minor tactical gains, particularly in 1916 and 1917 the strategic breakthrough they so craved still eluded them. Hope for the allies was building however as slowly from the summer of 1917 American troops had started to arrive in France. The US had resisted committing troops to battle piecemeal, wishing to create an American army, and by the spring of 1918, their numbers were approaching a critical mass in that respect. The allies hoped that by the summer a new army of fresh troops would be available to prosecute the war in addition to the veteran, but weary British and French.

The Allies optimism, however, was matched by the Central Powers. The October Revolution and subsequent Treat of Brest-Litovsk had removed the Russians from the war, and even allowing for an army of occupation this freed up scores of divisions for redeployment to the Western and Italian fronts. However, the Germans, in particular, realised that they needed to strike first before their increased strength on the Western Front was counteracted by the arriving Americans.

Stosstruppen in action

The huge expanse of the eastern front made trench systems, defences in depth and fixed fortifications much more difficult to build and develop than on the shorter western front. This environment allowed the Central Powers, led by the Germans to develop and practice a newer style of warfare, less dependant on protracted siege style bombardments and mass wave attacks and instead relying on “hurricane” bombardments where batteries registered by survey rather than shooting, and infiltration tactics rather than mass attacks (such as those undertaken by the British on the Somme in 1916). There is some considerable debate amongst historians about when these new style low level tactics started to develop in World War 1, the late great military historian John Terraine (who screenwrote the award winning BBC documentary The Great War) wrote in “White Heat – The New Warfare 1914-1918 ( a book I highly recommend) 

“There is no doubt that the German “attack divisions”, when they appeared in battle were formidable. Their prowess, and their dramatic initial success on 21st March, have led to the legend that “Storm Troopers” were a brilliant German tactical innovation of 1918. This is far from the truth. It was, in fact a French officer, Captain Andre Laffargue, who first advocated a system of infiltration by carefully trained “groups de tirailleurs” armed with automatic rifles, hand grenades, and gas bombs, in a pamphlet written in the autumn of 1915 and published in May 1916. The British Official History says that Laffargues pamphlet “had no influence on either the French or British training manuals at the time – which is curious in the light of Major General Sir Edward Spears description of a French infantry attack on the Somme on 1 July 1916”

“The French had already adopted the self contained platoon as a unit. Tiny group, taking every advantage of cover, swarmed forward, intangible as a will o the whisp, illusive (sic) as quicksilver. The German artillery were baffled and their defences overrun by these handfuls of men who were everywhere at once. In a few minutes they had disappeared over the skyline. The attack was successful” 

According to the official history, a copy of Laffargues pamphlet was found in a captured trench shortly after publication and “was at once translated and issues in German for tactical training of the new assault troops”. The Stosstruppen made their Western Front debut in the successful counterattack following the British tank success at Cambrai in November 1917 

The German assault was launched in fog enhanced with artificial fog

And so the stage was set for the great German Spring Offensive, the first stage of which was codenamed, Operation Michael. The artillery bombardment began at 0435 on March 21st to the depth of 2.5 to 4 miles on the front SW of Saint Quentin, later the Germans began a heavy barrage on the front lines along a 40-mile front, with intensive gas shelling of the front line trenches, along with the use of smoke canisters. Heavy artillery continued to bombard rear areas, in 5 hours the German artillery expended 3.5 million shells. The front line was severely damaged and in many areas communication with rear areas ceased

German 21cm Howitzer, these guns woudl have fired relentlessly at British rear areas during the opening barrage

In addition to the smoke generated by canisters the morning of the 21st was also very foggy with visibility in parts down to 10 yards. German infiltration parties were able to penetrate far into the forward zone, company and battalion HQs were isolated and destroyed, and by midday, the front line had been decisively penetrated, whole battalions of the British army had simply ceased to exist, some battalions fought to the last rounds, other battalions surrendered when cut off. loss rates in surviving battalions were as high as 65-70% in some cases. opening day casualties for the British army were in the region of 40,000 men, Martin Middlebrook puts the casualties on March 21st as 7512 dead, 10,000 wounded and 21000 captured, only one day in the war saw higher British loses (July 1 1916), but worryingly for the Germans their casualty rate was no lower. The British, however, lost more guns on this day than on any other 382 on the 5th Army Front, 150 on the 3rd Army front. For the next three days the situation remained fluid and for the British highly chaotic, the Germans were now concentrating on splitting the British from the French army to their south, and some retreating British units now came under French command. In the front lines some isolated battalions fought on into the evening of March 22nd, but by the 24th the British army had been driven back to the battlefields of 1916, land which had taken two years to capture was lost in 3 days

The Michael Offensive

On the evening of March 24th the strategic railhead at Bapaume came under heavy artillery fire and was evacuated, and the British had been driven away from the line of the Somme River.

The area around Bapaume on the eve of the battle, note lack of trenches

The situation was becoming increasingly confused. The British Official Historian of WW1 Brigadier General Sir James E Edmonds described the situation thus “The whole of the Third Army had swung back, pivoting on its left, so that, although the VI and XVII Corps were little behind their positions of the 21st March, the right of V Corps had retired seventeen miles [27 km]. The new line, consisting partly of old trenches and partly shallow ones dug by the men themselves, started at Curlu on the Somme and ran past places well known in the battle of the Somme, the Bazentins and High Wood, and then extended due north to Arras. It was, for the most part, continuous, but broken and irregular in the centre where some parts were in advance of others; and there were actually many gaps…Further, the men of the right and centre corps..were almost exhausted owing to hunger and prolonged lack of sleep”. Whilst the Germans too were struggling to move supplies and guns forward across the old Somme battlefields, their attack was driving a wedge between the British and French armies, So worrying was this thought that General Douglas Haig the commander of Imperial forces in France drove that night to meet his opposite number General Petain (a name of some infamy in WW2) who informed him that he was under pressure to retreat south and west to cover Paris, and react to a German build-up in Champagne, such a move would rupture the front.

General Douglas Haig KT GCB

By the morning of the 25th, the fighting had become incredibly disjointed. Where the British and French armies joined there was inevitable confusion as the ability to coordinate the two armies at a strategic and tactical level was hampered by both the lack of voice communications, but also by the fragmented nature of the fighting. The 18th Division operating at the junction of the two armies could barely field a Brigade’s worth of troops and was relying heavily on French support. The incredibly complicated nature of the battle is illustrated by many Divisional and battalion records having contradictory reports of the days’ events. the confusion is perhaps best illustrated by an unknown officer’s comments to the Official Historian

“What remains in my memory of this day is the constant taking up of new positions, followed by constant orders to retire, terrible blocks on the roads, inability to find anyone anywhere; by exceeding good luck almost complete freedom from shelling, a complete absence of food of any kind except what could be picked up from abandoned dumps.”

South West of Bapaume the 18th Division was tasked with holding the line in the area of the junction between the British and French armies, as we have seen, losses in the previous 3-4 days meant the Division was hardly at Brigade strength.

At around 1000 the 1st Bedforshires of the 54th Brigade were forced to retreat from their positions when their left flank was exposed by a French unit retreating without notice , the pulled back to a strong position on Monte du Grandu, here they were able to resist the German advance until the early afternoon, when they were driven from their positions by French artillery and machine gun fire which had mistaken them for Germans. The Battalion withdrew toward Grandu and this pulled the Brigade even further away from the 3rd Army and into the French area of responsibility.

Cap Badge of the Bedfordshire Regiment

As the 54th Brigade was being slowly pushed back, units of the 39th Division were being moved from north of the Somme to try and form a defence line between the villages of Bouchoir and Guerbigny to assist the French, this required a route march of 24 kilometres across the front of the advancing German army, along roads packed with retreating units and civilians. German troops had captured Nesle, were across the Canal du Nord at Livremont and were close to cutting the Royan to Noye road an important lateral communications route. so the 54th was ordered to turn about and counterattack. The result is described in E J Rowans book “The 54th Infantry Brigade 1914-18, Some records of battles and laughter in France” (1919)

British heavy artillery in action during the retreat

“More orders were received at 3pm to move to Varesnes on the south bank of the River Oise but whilst en-route they were countermanded with surprise orders to counter-attack and retake a village called Babouef. Therefore, the war worn Brigade who had been fighting and marching for four punishing days solid were about faced and moved off to the attack with an enthusiasm that is nothing short of incredible. By rights, the Brigade should have been incapable of the action yet those quoted as being there remark that it was the most memorable event of the entire rearguard action. At 5pm, with the Fusiliers on the right, the Bedfords on the left and the Northampton’s in reserve, the Brigade formed up with the Babouef to Compeigne road on their right and the southern edge of the woods above Babouef to their left. The Germans had not expected a British counter-attack, thinking there was nothing but ragged French units in their area, so were surprised at the arrival of three small but determined British battalions. They put up little fight up and many Germans fell in the hand to hand fighting that lasted for around 20 minutes before the village was secured and the remaining enemy – that could get away – fled. Ten machine guns and 230 German prisoners were taken with very light casualties recorded by the Brigade; an incredible feat whatever way you view it. They dug in on the German side of the village amongst the cornfields and settled in for the night. Cooking limbers were even brought up and the idea of a quiet night gave the exhausted men a welcomed break from the extreme stress they had all been through in the past five days. Unfortunately, their rest did not last long.”

As night fell the Germans had started to pull apart the British and French armies, on the British front gaps had started to appear not just between the 3rd and 5th Armies but between individual corps, between V & VI corps a worrying 6km gap had opened. The great supply base at Amiens was threatened and the British urgently requested the release of 20 French Divisions to bolster the front. The stage was set for the great Doullens Conference of March 26th and the creation of a joint high command under Foch. 

Losses in the 54th Brigade were such that many of the battalions were subsequently disbanded or merged with other units of their Regiment. In May 1918, 7th (Service) Battalion, Bedfordshire Regiment merged with the 2nd Battalion, which took its place in the Brigade

Gaming the Battle

Table Set-up 

The events of the 25th March around Babouef were played out in an area whose landscape was different from the iconic trenchscape that many would recognise as a WW1 battlefield. The map below is taken from a March 1918 Trench Map (70E.NE 1:20k), the trenches noted are German ones dating from before their withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line in February 1917. The map is marked as Trenches corrected to March 1917. Its issue is clearly a response to British troops finding themselves fighting over the area. At that time of the war, British trenches were marked in blue and German trenches in red. It’s highly unlikely given the distance of the area from the front line that the human geography would have changed by March 1918. Scenarios could, therefore, be fought on a table without trenches, with the British defending from dug-in positions.  The slopes of Mont du Grandu are wooded and fall gently to the villages of Grandu and then Babouef, with a number of wooded hills and slopes

March 1918 map (70.E.NE 1:20k) of the area fought over by 54th Brigade

The Forces

The battle lends itself to a German v British, or German v British with an allied French Formation encounter. The Germans would most likely be from the Stosstruppen list, with the British most likely being an Infantry list, given all the units engaged were “New Army” Service battalions then a Line Infantry list rather than a veteran list would be better I’d contend.  The Official History makes mention of cavalry covering the retreating infantry, especially on the 3rd Army Front, so there is the ability to try out the new British Cavalry Squadron list. Tanks are not mentioned in any of the sources, their use would be anachronistic, but of course totally down to choice.

German infantry bypass a British strongpoint

The Scenario

The new V4 Great War book has in addition to more traditional trenchscape scenarios also included options for using more traditional Flames of War scenarios. The initial action involving the Bedfords on Mont du Grandu seems to lend itself ideally to Rearguard, Breakthrough or No Retreat, Rearguard and No Retreat would also be appropriate for a cavalry based action.  You might also consider Counterattack for the Mont du Grandu action with a French force being the counterattack reserves, based on a hypothesis that the French played a less havoc-making their part in this part of the action!!. For the 54th Brigade counterattack I’d recommend Hasty Attack, Counterattack, or (using the Great War specific scenarios) Through The Mud And The Blood. For players with French armies wanting to game the German attack on the Canal du Nord then perhaps defending in Bridgehead would also appropriate. I think all of these scenarios are likely to replicate the confused nature of the urgency of the attack for the Germans and desperate defence for the Allies

British infantry holding the line

Finally a note on the trench maps used in the article, these are from my personal collection, however, the National Library for Scotland holds a fantastic collection of trench maps (select Find By Place and select Trench Maps under “Category”) which can be viewed free of charge to give you ideas for terrain and scenarios. Memory Map offers a paid option with 4 different packages available.

That hopefully gives some food for thought.  Let us know what you think of this feature below or on our facebook page and, if you play some scenarios based on these thoughts, let us know how you got on!

Category: Battles in HistoryBritishFlames of WarGermansGreat War

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4 comments

  1. I love the format of combining a “this day in history” look back at the battle combined with how to play it in Flames.

    I’m always on the lookout for good scenario ideas (Fire & Fury has a fair range for Battlegroup, but they need a little conversion) so will definitely keep my eyes on this feature!

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Article by: Richard Hardy