21st March 1918 – Start of The German ‘Operation Michael’ Offensive

Dom Ambrose Agius of Downside Abbey had been a chaplain with 21st Division since April 1917.  On this (old) Feast Day of St Benedict he found himself at the heart of the German spring offensive that very nearly won the war for the Germans. They made huge gains over the next two weeks while the British beat a rapid retreat.   General Gough, in charge of the 5th Army,  was unjustly blamed for not being able to defend the line and was relieved of his command by Lloyd-George.

In April 1968 Tancred was moved to enter into correspondence with the Catholic periodical “The Tablet”, in which he took exception to views expressed there about the German Offensive, “Operation Michael” of March 1918.

Fifty years after the event, Dom Ambrose was still able to provide a detailed account of the numerous acts of courage he witnessed on the battlefield that week. And today, another  fifty years after his letter was published, we can bear witness to the outstanding loyalty and admiration he felt for the men he had worked among – men who were determined “to finish this business off”:

“Sir: I read with great interest and some nostalgia N.’s reminiscences of Ludendorff’s “Operation Michael.” I was then R.C. Chaplain to the 21st Divisional Artillery … We were next-door neighbours to N’s 16th Irish Division. The long-expected attack came at 4.30 a.m. on the feast of St. Benedict [March 21st]: just when the monks at Downside were being called for matins. Lloyd-George had starved us of reinforcements: too late, 80,000 men a week were subsequently sent out. That, and the thick mist, were prime factors in the rapid German break-through.

But I take exception to the statement that none of us felt that “he was a participant in a glorious feat of British arms.” Our division held, though grievously outnumbered. Nearly all the infantry were casualties or overrun in the first two days, but our guns stayed in action all that week, fighting several positions a day and “running the wheel” over any ammunition left behind. Our Lt. King survived air attack on a successful quest to salvage two forward guns then two miles behind the German front line. One battery, attacked at point blank range, pulled two guns out of the pits, broke the attack, and kept the other four guns covering the cooks, secretaries, and batmen holding the line. I met a machine gunner, sole survivor of his unit, and said: “I expect you’re glad to be out of it.” He replied: “No, I can’t wait to get back and help to finish this business off.”

At one time, till the Australians came down from the north, we had our batteries in action with no infantry in front. On the second night our wagons, going up with ammunition, found a brigadier sitting in a cane chair from the deserted village holding the line with 63 men, the remains of his brigade. 

After a sleepless week we were relieved and moved north. One day we were passed by the car with Clemenceau and Foch going into Doullens to secure the unification of command. General Gough was made a scapegoat to cover up Lloyd-George, but Fifth Army survivors formed the Red Fox Association and in due time our leader’s name was cleared and blame laid where it belonged. Finally, Haig’s “backs to the wall” came to us like a clarion call and rallied a Fifth Army weary, decimated but still in business.

Ambrose Agius, O.S.B. (21st Division Artillery) Newark, New Jersey.”