Battle Honour ST QUENTIN - German Spring Offensive 1918.

Event
Thursday, March 21, 1918
36th (Ulster) Division's Brigade positions.

The Battle Honour ST QUENTIN is emblazoned on the Queen's Colour of The Royal Irish Regiment.

On 21 March 1918, the Germans launched a massive offensive in the area between Arras and La Fère against the British Third and Fifth Armies; included in the latter was the 36th (Ulster) Division. The German High Command had moved some fifty divisions from the eastern front, where the Russians had surrendered, to confront what they perceived as a weakened British Expeditionary Force (BEF). The main aim was to outflank the BEF in Flanders, attack its lines of communication, cut off its supply lines from the channel ports, defeat the British and force a French armistice; if successful, the Kaiser would defeat the Allies and win the war. Although the USA had declared war in April 1917, they had not fully arrived on the Western Front. The German imperative was to launch their spring offensive before the well-trained American Expeditionary Force was committed in strength.

The German’s opening and main attack, Operation MICHAEL, began at 0440 hours when their heaviest preparatory artillery bombardment yet seen on the Western Front pounded the British around St Quentin in depth with the forward trenches receiving mustard, chlorine and tear gas thickened by smoke. Then at 0940 hours the Germans attacked using their recently developed ‘Offensive in Trench Warfare’ tactics. Elite infiltrating stormtroopers led the assault and the infantry followed, attacking out of an early morning mist made dense by artillery and trench mortar smoke.

IWM Q56607Among the Irish infantry facing the German spring offensive were the 1st, 7th, 8th and 9th Battalion The Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers; the 1st, 2nd, 12th and 15th Battalion The Royal Irish Rifles and the 1st and 9th Battalion The Royal Irish Fusiliers; the 1st Battalion The London Irish Rifles in another area bore the brunt of a German attack supporting Operation MICHAEL around St Quentin.

Above left, German stormtroopers in gas masks, © IWM (Q 56607)

DeWindIn the 36th (Ulster) Division's 108 Brigade, the 1st Faughs, soon lost contact with 12 RIR in the Forward Zone; the intense enemy artillery barrage cutting all communications. As the Rifles fought desperately throughout the morning against the German infantry, the attack against the 1st Faughs did not arrive until 1300 hours; the 12th Battalion was annihilated. Because flanking units fell back under the enemy pressure, 1st Faughs became isolated until 9th Faughs moved forward into line on the left. By dusk, for fear of being isolated again, both Battalions had withdrawn. The 1st Faughs' casualties were estimated at the time as 10 men known to be dead, one officer and 55 men wounded and nine officers and 275 other ranks missing - many of those missing were later discovered to be casualties. The 9th Battalion was even less certain of its losses.

Second Lieutenant Edmund De Wind, right, 15th Battalion The Royal Irish Rifles was awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions at Grugies, southwest of St Quentin.IWM Q23839

By the end of the spring offensive, the 36th (Ulster) Division had suffered 7,310 and the 16th (Irish) Division 7,149 casualties; they would be destroyed as effective formations and removed from the British order of battle for reconstruction.

Left, German photograph of a captured soldier with Royal Irish Rifles shoulder titles. © IWM (Q 23839)