Germans Begin General Withdrawal to Hindenburg Line
French troops greeting French civilians left behind by the Germans in Noyon, within a half hour of its liberation on March 18. The French flag flying was likely kept in hiding for over two years of German occupation.
March 16 1917, Noyon–Since early February, the Germans had been preparing to shorten and strengthen their lines by willingly evacuating a large salient between Arras and the Aisne, surrounding but far larger than the ground lost on the Somme last year. They had made sure that the Allies would not be gaining any ground of much use, however, destroying all the infrastructure and buildings they could find, damming rivers, leaving booby traps and fouling wells. Anyone who could be useful for the war economy was taken further behind German lines, leaving the French with children, the elderly as additional mouths to feed.
Many Allied commanders had realized the Germans were planning a retreat by early March, and it had become increasingly obvious in the past few days. Even Nivelle had realized what was going on by the 15th. The Germans abandoned the front lines in the wee hours of the 16th, leaving the French to face empty trenches. The Allies soon followed, but could not maintain the same pace over ground that had been wrecked by years of fighting and deliberate German scorched-earth policies. Nevertheless, the few soldiers still left who had fought in the first months of the war, it felt like August or September of 1914 again; no longer stuck in trenches, they were moving over open country. Cavalry commanders were excited at the prospect of chasing down the retreating Germans, though a lack of forage and water ultimately prevented the cavalry from being effective.
Nivelle had refused to believe that the Germans would give up this ground; Noyon lay only 40 miles from Paris. The politician George Clemenceau would exhort the readers of his paper: “Monsieurs, les Allemands sont toujours en Noyon.” (Monsieurs, the Germans are still in Noyon.) When Noyon fell two days later, Nivelle supposedly cabled Clemenceau, telling him “Monsieur, les Allemands ne sont plus en Noyon.” (Monsieur, the Germans are no longer in Noyon.)
March 23 1917, La Fère–The Germans had been doing their utmost to make sure the Allies could not interfere with their retreat to the Hindenburg Line nor get much use out of the land they were ceding back to the French. As the Belgians had done to their own country in 1914, the Germans now did to the French; by damming a key canal, they caused the River Oise to flood, inundating the town of La Fère (which had been evacuated of all civilians by the Germans) and making the area generally impassable to the French. The next day, France would make its displeasure known diplomatically, protesting to neutral countries of Germany’s devastation of her land.
A soldier attempting to clean off his gun on the bank of the Ancre.
November 13 1916, Beaumont Hamel–The weather on the Somme had turned in October, and the British had not been able to make much progress since their last major attack. The ground had turned to mud, making it difficult for infantry to advance, for shells to make it to the artillery, and for artillery to do significant damage on the sodden ground. Nonetheless, Haig wanted to make one final push before winter set in. Certain positions were tactically unfavorable, and he did not want his lines to be subject to unopposable shelling until the spring. More importantly, he explicitly acknowledged, there was an inter-Allied conference coming up on the 15th, and he felt it would be politically expedient for the British to have a victory before then.
The objective of the attack would be Beaumont Hamel, a town that was supposed to have fallen on July 1, the first day of the Somme. There was a week’s long preliminary bombardment, and the main barrage opened at 5:45 AM on November 13; for a month before there had been heavy shelling at that time every morning in order to confuse the Germans. Even after dawn, there was little light due to a heavy fog, preventing accurate German shelling. The British had at last worked out a reliable creeping barrage–when the infantry could keep pace behind it, and the attacks succeeded in many areas. Near Beaumont Hamel, a 30,000 lb mine was detonated, preventing enfilading machine gun fire, and the British were able to capture the remnants of the village within five hours.
At 5.45–all the watches were synchronized–’Bang! Bang! Bang!’ All of a sudden, behind us, the whole sky was red…immediately afterwards you could hear the shells going over your head and really and truly you could almost feel the shells. Then you heard the sound, the light was first, the shell was next and then the sound! There was a lot of them falling short. We expected to be shelled by Jerry, we didn’t expect to be shelled by our own men, but you knew by the thrust which way they were coming….We knew we had seven or eight minutes, then the Germans would retaliate, they would bombard beyond the front line to the reserves coming up–which they knew would be there. So the quicker we got out of our positions towards the barrage, in a way the safer we were….
We’d got to still go forward. We go on to to this Green Line and there seems to be more prisoners giving themselves up than what there was fighting men. We…were at least three or four hours ahead of our time….In the afternoon our artillery was firing on the Yellow Line. That was wrong to us. We’d been told that at that time it would move forward to the village of Beaucourt. We move up and then somebody realized, “Look the barrage hasn’t lifted!” It was there or thereabouts that I got blown up. There was a shell burst very near, it hit me crouched down and I got wounded in the abdomen, little bits of shrapnel in here and a bit of a shell took off the skin and pubic hair, nasty. The abrasion was worse than the wound. I can remember thinking what to do and –’BANG!’—something else, I don’t know what. The next I knew I was in Mesnil, lying on a stretcher and somebody washing the mud off my face.
Beaucourt itself (unlike Beaucourt Hamel) remained in German hands at the end of the day.
I feel excited; but I do not want to be, for that is not right. I want that quiet rapture again. I want to feel the same powerful, nameless urge that I used to feel when I turned to my books. The breath of desire that then arose from the coloured backs of the books, shall fill me again, melt the heavy, dead lump of lead that lies somewhere in me and waken again the impatience of the future, the quick joy in the world of thought, it shall bring back again the lost eagerness of my youth. I sit and wait.
Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front (Im Westen nichts Neues; translated by A.W. Wheen)
German Booby Trap Explodes in Bapaume, Kills French PMs, Australian Soldiers
Australian soldiers picking through the debris left over after the destruction of the Bapaume town hall.
March 27 1917, Bapaume–While preparing their retreat to the Hindenburg Line, the Germans left behind all manner of hazards and traps to interfere with any Allied attempt to pursue. Some were straightforward: fouling of wells to prevent cavalry from obtaining sufficient water, destruction of bridges, setting up of mines that would explode when the Allies entered a building or tried to clear away rubbel. Others were set to trigger later, well after the front lines had passed over, in order to inflict the maximum amount of chaos and fear behind the lines. On March 27, after the Allies had been in Bapaume for nine days, acid finished eating through a steel wire serving as the trigger to a large mine under the Bapaume town hall. The resulting explosion killed several Australian soldiers who were using the building as a barracks, as well as two French members of Parliament who were visiting the newly liberated area.
Caused by the British, the crater resulted when the 19 mines they dug and placed underneath the German positions near Messines in West Flanders was detonated on 7 June 1917. A total of 10,000 soldiers were killed in the blast, amongst those casualties was nearly the entire 3rd Royal Bavarian Division.
In the history of man, the blast is considered to be the biggest non-nuclear explosion, and was heard in both Dublin and London.