The Western Front: March – November 1918

The Western Front stretched from Belgium through Northern France to the Swiss border and from the close of 1914 had witnessed entrenched positions from both the Allied and German forces; the war of movement had ground to a halt. Trench warfare became the hallmark of the fighting until March 1918. With the onslaught of the German Spring Offensive and then the Allied counterattacks targeting the heavily defended German Hindenburg Line, the war of movement recommenced. It is in this situation that my father found himself fighting the enemy; in ‘Two Trees’ John finds himself in a very similar position.

‘John began to wonder whether he was really being sent into the fires of a giant furnace in France that just consumed everything that went near it. Hopefully the German advance would have come to a halt by the time he and his squad were ready to face the enemy.’ (‘Two Trees’ Chapter Three)

Key dates and events March – November1918

20th March: Start of the German Spring Offensive – German forces manage to advance 40 miles in the next three months but fail to take Ypres (Belgium), Arras, Amiens or Reims (France)

26th March: French Chief of Staff Ferdinand Foch appointed Commander in Chief of Allied Forces on the Western Front

13th April: Douglas Haig’s ‘Back to the Wall’ communique to rally British troops against German attacks and advances

18th-19th July: Second Battle of the Marne – Germans begin to be pushed back

(Source: First World War Atlas ed Martin Gilbert)

31st July: Full scale Allied offensive begins

8th August: Allied attacks near Amiens leads the German General Ludendorff to call this “the black day of the German Army”

21st August: British attack German positions south of Arras

26th September: Allies drive Germans back to the Antwerp-Metz railway line thus severing a vital German supply link

29th September: Allies take the St.Quentin canal on the Hindenburg Line

9th November: Kaiser William II abdicates against the background of revolution in Berlin

11th November: Armistice agreed at Compiegne to take effect at 11am

Tom to his sister: ‘I’ve just thought; the war has ended at 11 o’clock on the 11th day of the 11th month. I wonder how many generations of school kids are going to have that drummed into them over the years?’ (‘Two Trees– Chapter Ten)

The significance of Arras, Northern France 1917-1918

Between April and May 1917 the Arras sector of the Western Front in Northern France was the scene of a series of engagements between British and French forces and German positions in an attempt to break the deadlock of trench warfare and herald a major victory for the Allied forces. This proved not to be the case and by the summer of 1917 the French army was effectively in a state of exhaustion and mutiny because of their devastating losses in the fighting. By March 1918 Arras again became a focal sector as the Germans attempted a major breakthrough of their own in their Spring Offensive; the offensive failed to take the city and Arras became part of the Allied springboard to launch a counteroffensive from July 1918 which subsequently led to the capture of the German Hindenburg Line in September and the Armistice in November 1918.

Part of the centre of Arras 1917-1918 with wire entanglements and British troops

‘The squad John belonged to was billeted in Arras. The city had been the base for an enormous offensive in 1917….Beneath its streets, the maze of tunnels and caverns enabled the British Army to base up to 25,000 men complete with barrack rooms, hospital, kitchen facilities and a light railway.’ (‘Two Trees’ – Chapter Seven)

Map showing the network of Allied caves and subways constructed to accommodate British troops beneath Arras 1917-1918

Arras western district underground network plan – Source: Somewhere on the Western Front Arras 1914-1918 Jean-Marie Girardet, Alain Jacques & Jean-Luc Letho Duclos (2003)

Wellington Quarry Museum in Arras, Northern France

The above map illustrates the extent of the underground facilities that the Allies carved out of the caves under Arras. One of these facilities was The Wellington Quarry which was constructed by New Zealand troops. This is now an underground museum and can be visited today. The link below provides further details.

Wellington Quarry: the end of the tunnel

The significance of the village of Moyenneville

Moyenneville was one of many villages in the region of Arras (see map below); in peacetime these villages were essentially agricultural in nature but during the 1917-1918 campaigns of the war they took on real significance as strategic targets for the opposing sides to try to occupy and then retain. Two Tree Cemetery lies just beyond the village of Moyenneville; today the village has returned to its agricultural character and the cemetery is located down a farm track in the middle of a huge field.

Showing the relationship of Arras to Moyenneville during the German advance between March and June 1918. Source: Wikimedia Commons. In the novel Two Trees, John is taken prisoner in Moyenneville where the site of Two Tree Cemetery is located.

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