The road between the twin villages of Ronssoy and Epéhy presents a vista of big skies and fertile fields all the way to the horizon. One hundred years ago it was a highway of death for the Irish who were slaughtered in shocking numbers during the first day of the German Spring Offensive.
This part of the Somme, east of the battlefields of 1916, is a forgotten front. Aside from the occasional Cross of Sacrifice which appear above the fields of beetroot and wheat, there are few reminders of the terrible battles that took place here in 1918.
The attack came out of a morning so foggy that visibility was down to 10 metres. Men were tightly packed into their trenches awaiting an assault they knew was coming. Many had been in the trenches without relief for six weeks.
They had inherited them from the French, and these trenches were so shallow and poorly defended that even weeks of back-breaking preparatory work had not made them secure.
The sense of dread was compounded by a realisation that the men were not prepared for what they knew was coming
A single strand of barbed wire was all that stood between the men and the German attack they knew would surely come.
The Kaiserschlacht (Kaiser's Battle), also known as Operation Michael, was an attempt by the Germans to win the war before the Americans arrived in force on the Western Front and after the Russians had effectively surrendered. This freed up 50 German divisions for service on the Western Front.
The 25 British divisions from the Third and Fifth Armies holding the long frontline southwest of St Quentin were understrength and war weary. Most had been through the Somme and Passchendaele. The sense of dread was compounded by a realisation that the men were not prepared for what they knew was coming.
One officer, Capt Charles Miller of the 36th (Ulster) Division, calculated that they had one man for 15 yards of front against an enemy they knew to be massing in force. “Everyone knew by then that in all probability we were in for a bad time,” he said.
That bad time arrived at 4.40am on March 21st, 1918. The 16th (Irish) Division was effectively destroyed as a division in the assault. It was its misfortune to be at the schwerpunkt or central part of the attack.
The men from the division were targeted by a sustained bombardment which drenched their lines in poison gas and high explosives, followed by the force of five German divisions who ascended on their trenches with an unmatched fury. The voluble Lieut Col Rowland Feilding of the 6th Connaught Rangers said he had never seen anything like it, not even during the Somme.
The Irish did not stand a chance. At the epicentre of the catastrophe were the first and second battalions of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers. Both of these battalions were in the forward zone when the attack went in.
Their plight is documented in Sean Connolly's book A Forlorn Hope: The Royal Dublin Fusiliers in the Kaiser's Battle. The two battalions sustained nearly 270 fatalities in a single day. The 1st Royal Dublin Fusiliers put up fierce resistance but the men of the 2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers were overwhelmed in both the forward and battle zones.
The death toll for the Irish was terrible on March 21st, 1918
Other regular battalions of the British Army – those who had been there when war broke out – were also crushed in the onslaught. These included the 1st Royal Munster Fusiliers, survivors of the first day at Gallipoli, and the 2nd Royal Irish Regiment which had been wiped out on several occasions.
The first day of the German Spring Offensive was, with the exception of the first day of the Battle of the Somme, the worst day of the war for the British.
In excess of 7,500 men were killed and 20,000 prisoners taken. Some units of the German army advanced 19km on the first day alone, a progress that would have seemed unthinkable to many who had endured the relentless trials of static trench warfare.
The death toll for the Irish was terrible on March 21st, 1918. The 16th (Irish) Division sustained 572 dead. of whom 439 were from what is now the Republic of Ireland, according to historian Tom Burnell. The 36th (Ulster) Division listed 250 dead.
By the time the 16th Division was relieved on April 3rd, it had suffered 7,149 casualties, among them more than 1,000 dead. “Just got back from the line, taking up a draft,” wrote Max Staniforth, an officer with the 16th (Irish) Division 10 days after the initial assault. “The division has ceased to exist. Wiped off the map. They took the Boche attack full smack, the first day they were in the trenches.”
March 1918 would spell the end for the division as it did for John Redmond, the man who envisaged this overwhelmingly nationalist formation would constitute an Irish army in waiting once the war ended.