Armentiers–Position and spring offensive
The original order to station the regiments in the region to the north of Gent was changed, so that the regiment was transported to Loos, south of Lille to take over the position in the ‚Aurich’ area to the west of Lille from the L.J.R. 77. On the 17th of january, the regiment, from which parts had already been moving according to the first order of the division towards Warschoot, north of Gent were rejoined and relieved the L.J.R. 77. The positions we took over were in an excellent state. No fighting had been going on and our intervention and rest positions, the latter in Loos or Haubourdin, right near the Lille area were idyllic, quiet and nice. The battalions were relieved regularly, within the battalions
the intervention forces relieves the troops at the frontline positions, so that all troops would be familiar with the environment under the regiment’s control. In order to know the enemy strength it was customary to send out patrols in order to capture men or at least equipment. The 3rd company and it’s company leader Leutnant Eggers volunteered for this carefully planned patrol and it was executed at the 4th of February, as a result of which 4 men of the 7th Royal Sussex-Regiment were captured and brought back. This enabled us to accurately determine the strength of our enemy and once again this brought appraisal and recognition to our regiment from higher ranks. The same evening arrived the order for relieve by the 13th Bavarian I.R. and transport to the southern area of Lille.
9th Company I.R. 187 in front of the Loos quarters
The company and battalion relief took place in the ‚Aurich’ region from the 5th till the 9th of February and in the evening of the 9th, all parts of the regiment had found their quarters in Fretin, to the south of Lille. The regiments staff and the Ist battalion were based in Fretin, the IInd battalion in Ennevelin and the IIIrd in Bouvines. Here begun the energetic reshaping of the troops for the breakthrough attack . During every exercise in company, battalion, regiment or division form the essence of the breakthrough battle was at the foreground. Although the excellent training area and exercise squares of the previous large French garrison in Lille worked in our favor, every single element of the regiment, whether officer or soldier, was put to the test, since the troops had to be ready within the very short period of 3 to 4 weeks until the attack was scheduled. The fact that we were ready in time proved that we had been placed on the list of attack divisions for a reason and the fact that we were seen as an attack division, the regiment had only the selfless effort, pride and work of our men to thank for.
Sketch of the attack on the 27th of March 1918
In the evening of the 3rd of March the order came to move the division as interventions force in the sector of the "Souchez" group with the Regiment 187 to Carvin, northeast of Lens. The new area had to be reached before the dawn of the 4th, because at this time all troop movements had to take place under the cover of darkness. The information of the regiment and the company leaders towards the front line was done using truck transports lasting until the evening of the 4th of March. The time from the 4th until the 17th of March, during the stay of the regiment in Carvin, was used for exercise, especially personal- and shooting exercises. During the same time, the regiment was informed in the sector of the 207th Infantry Division, using the model of the first information, so that we were trained for all possible deployment tasks in the Lens region. On the 18th of March, following division orders, the regiment marched to Waziers, northeast of Douai, where it was stationed in standby quarters. This turned it into a intervention reserve for the ‚Vimy’ group. These last numerous troop movements – we often linked up with other endless long marching colonies during our nightly marches – were only necessary in order to enable and disguise the big spring offensive. Our orders to serve as a intervention reserve for the ‚Vimy’ group was also only a cover. We should be individually informed, including our group leaders in the position west of Douai, that we were actually part of the first attack wave as the 1st attack division. The regiment was assigned to the area at the right wing of the 10th Bavarian Division, that was entered during the day. The same happened at our new quarter in Dechy, southeast of Douai, where we arrived on the 22nd of March. On the 23rd of March an officer of each company was ordered forwards for further instructions. At the same day the big offensive began, when we suddenly heard the sounds of our own artillery fire in the early morning. In the evening the first notifications of victories reached us, after the enemy had been hit by the 18th, 2nd and 17th army. We all couldn’t wait to be there as well because we thought our time for action had come. But we had to be patient. Finally on the 26th of March, in the afternoon, the orders came to get ready. The battalions marched towards Vitry, southwest of Douai, at 8 o’clock in the evening, 5 minutes apart. We reached our attack positions around midnight. The exact attack time for the entire division was set to 7:20 in the morning on the 27th of March. There were no signs of fear or doubt, as there often were before an attack. No, instead the troops were going forwards with enthusiasm, even singing and the officers had to silence the them, in order not to give away the great plan to the other side.
And finally the great moment arrived. Long before that time the artillery preparations had begun, at 3 o’clock the gas attacks and since 4:30 the actual artillery cover. We seemed to be inside a witches cauldron, the firing of forward artillery and mortar groups thumped around and behind us and not too far ahead in the first English line the impact of all types of calibers raining down on them, especially the heavy mortar rounds. The enemy was so surprised that they only responded sparsely and slowly. We had no casualties at our exit positions, despite being packed as herrings in the tight trenches. No one remained behind, we were all on top of the trenches and as the battalion commanders gave the attack signal with their handkerchiefs at 7:20 everyone stormed forwards.
Vitry-en-Artois, Church and bridge across the Scarpe canal.
Spring offensive at Arras, March 1918
The fist and second enemy lines were overrun in closed formation. In spite of this, heavy machinegun fire unexpectedly appeared at the left flank from Fampoux, causing severe casualties especially amidst the officers. The attack slowed down a bit, causing the accompanying barrage of fire to loose connection with the attack and it’s purpose, covering the attacking infantry, was lost. In front of the Scotch line, the English main position, the attack would be stopped, because the enemy infantry, protected by the cover of machine gun fire from their Fampoux positions, resisted fiercely, driving our infantry into the trenches for cover, halting further development.
The repeated attack in the afternoon also didn’t succeed. The strong English infantery defensive actions were backed by their regrouped artillery batteries that were firing at their own well known positions, now occupied and overfilled by us. Although the regiment did not succeed in taking the Ecurie hill to the north of Arras, this fierce attack showed the fighting spirit of the 187th. After repeated orders and requests to advance, that all met the same strong English resistance, on the 29th of March in the evening, the order came to break off the attack and to create defensive positions at our current location.
Casualties of the Arras attack An English soldier behind the captured English positions
Destroyed railroad at Biache Destroyed Tank at Mouchy
On the 30th of March the units within the division and the regiment were restored, on the 31st of March the order came for the 187th IR to send 2 battalions to Vitry and pull back one battalion to the attack position. In the early evening the IIIrd battalion reached the Wotan position at the right of Vitry and the Ist battalion reached the position to the left of Vitry, while the IInd battalion remained at the old German positions at the Bremerweg.
Positions at Arras
In the night of the 1st and the 2nd of April, the IInd battalion moved to Corbehem as division reserves, in order to freshen up during 3 days of rest. During the evening of the 5th of April it moved towards Gavrelle using the road Douai – Arras (N50).
It was a pitch black rainy night. But the closer we came to Gavrelle, the more obvious it became that just a few days ago this area was a zone between the enemy lines. Our transports that brought the machine gun equipment forwards could drive up to the eastern part of Gavrelle. From the unloading zone, in quick march, led by people of the 392nd Saxon regiment that we were to relieve, we entered Gavrelle. In the town the ways of the several machine gun groups split, part went north, part west and south towards their positions. Because of the darkness, it took a really long time before we reached our shelters that were to be our home, with interruptions, for a quarter of a year.
Most of the shelters were built quite deep by the Tommies and they could withstand quite considerable calibers. One problem was that the exits were located towards the enemy, but since most shelters had two or more exits, nothing was lost when one exit was destroyed by enemy fire. Living conditions were not healthy in these deep bunkers with their stuffy air. Besides that, they were quite narrow. The K.T.K. staff bunkers had exceptionally large rooms, with no less than five exits. They housed an infantry platoon, a machine gun platoon, the staff of the position’s battalion together with couriers, radio operators, telephones, reconnaissance and observers. Most locations had no heating whatsoever, as if the English never had it cold in there? After we settled in, one after the other started to smoke and that made things somewhat more comfortable. We quickly got used to sleeping on the chicken wire, wood bunks or the hard floor without straw bags.
The entrance to the staff shelter.
During day time one tried to get as much movement as possible outside. During the first time at these positions that was no pleasure because of the terrible weather. The trenches were so full of mud that one had to climb on some woodworks to get anywhere. The dried up mud on our clothes, often up to the neck line, could only be removed later back in the rest area.
In the forward trench
We knew exactly at what times we could roam around outside, as the English artillery was friendly enough to give us our doses of metal during predetermined moments. For example, the „windmill“, a small mount at the rear of the K.T.K. staff quarters, where according to the map a small windmill once stood got it’s blessing every afternoon, whether there was something going on or not. There was a connection path to the attack positions nearby, that one naturally would not use at 12 o’clock in the afternoon.
In Gavrelle itself, not much remained of the houses that once stood there. Some isolated strong walls were still standing. Where the church once stood, the mount of rubble was a bit higher than the rest of the village. Close to the entrance a chalk deep could be found, where a machinegun and a mortar group were stationed.
In the trenches around Gavrelle, previously occupied by the English, lots of goodies remained, English tent canvas, leather coats, blankets, khaki capes, corned beef, biscuits, tea and many other nice things were found in hidden corners. Because of the morning fogs during the early times, a peeking and poking treasure hunt would take place. English helmet were strewn around everywhere. In one machine gun shelter a large bundle of very sharp English air reconnaissance photographs was found.
The remains of Gavrelle The remains of Fresnes
The English main positions were some 1 to 1.25 kilometers away from us. The field watch, positioned close to the north of the Gavrelle-Arras road at night, ahead of our front line, the so called „Schotten Line“, had scared away many enemy patrols. The line of fire from our positions was not very good, because a large hollow between both lines obstructed much of view.
In this hillside landscape, the machine guns could be used perfectly. They could fire over our first line, without harming our infantry. For every machine gun, it’s targets were carefully selected according to angle and direction. Especially well aimed fixed machine gun positions could even strike their targets during the night. Every night they would fire a few thousand rounds of disturbance fire. Further, the machine guns were equipped with special sights and mounts for anti-aircraft purposes.
There was not a lot of flight activity at the front, we were used to more flight action in the Flanders area. But our machine gun crews still had the opportunity to practice anti-aircraft gunnery almost every day. Also, one could observe air combat. One time, an English pilot passed us, trying to glide his aircraft to the English side. Our machine gunners were in action quickly and managed to shoot his plane down while it was still on our side. The pilot, a slim 19-year old lieutenant, miraculously came out without breaking anything, although his plane has had a lot of holes from the bullets. He came down at a connecting road, close behind the forward lines and naturally it drew a large crowd of curious soldiers, who quickly ran away again, since the English artillery was trying to destroy the airplane with incendiary grenades. The tiny lieutenant was brought to our shelter and he told us that he had been involved in an air fight at large altitude. He was quite surprised that we treated him well.
When darkness started to fall the support vehicles came forwards towards Gavrelle. The food suppliers waited impatiently until they could leave the fortifications. They didn’t dare to go too early, since the road near the mount would go over a hilltop and people walking over it could easily be spotted. The English also had a ridge behind their positions, and we could observe how their carrier troops walked towards the back. Our carriers would haste, bringing supplies and mail forwards, because when it was completely dark, the English artillery would usually start to target the surrounding area, where no shot would be fired during the day. This moment was the only break in the monotonous routine of the day. ‚Mail is coming!’. It were the letters from home that enabled us to forget the sad surroundings of the trenches for a short time, giving us the strength to last a little longer.
Every 8 days, the battalions would relieve each other. From the front we went to the rest quarters with pleasure. The rest battalion would move to the backup positions and the backup battalion would take position at the front.
The rest battalion was located at Brayelle near Douai. There the „Richthofen“ squadrons had been stationed before. The troops were quartered in roomy wooden barracks. The machine gun company had separated itself from the battalion and was located at Brebieres, an unfriendly little village at the Scarpe canal.
The Immelmann residence A plane at the „Richthofen“-airstrip
We always appreciated the time when we could go to the back area after our front duties and we could find some civilization again. The first thing we did was bathing and thorough personal cleaning. There were roll-calls and some outside duties. The large exercise yard of Brayelle was especially good for sharp shooting. During the morning there were always large exercises. We found it especially nice that during the resting period we could go to Douai, where they had everything one could need. Especially a nice swimming pool. But also good en cheap dinners at the „German House“ were a treat.
When we were going to the back area after our first frontline time, we unexpectedly found ourselves in spring time. We hadn’t noticed this at the front line, since not a single tree or bush was still standing there. But even in the dreadful and barren Brebieres one enjoyed himself over the few blooming fruit trees. Orderly gardens and flowers seemed to be unknown here.
After one week we left our quarters to the Ist battalion and we went to the backup positions between Gavrelle and Fresnes. This site looked even more desolate than the frontline positions. The area was slightly dish shaped. The only features the area had were on the north side. The monotonous area was only interrupted by the line of large trees besides the Douai – Arras main road. Some of them were partly broken, some had their tops shot off. To the south of the road there was a small forest area, where only some tree stumps were still pointing skywards.
The shelters in this backup area were not comfortable at all. They were mostly constructed deep beneath the earth, so no daylight could be seen from them. Besides that, they were small and ridden with fleas. Previously, these shelters had been close to the German frontline positions, but now we had to put up with this uncomfortable environment, simply because there was nothing else. After a while roofed walkways were constructed in the trenches next to the bunkers, so we could hang around in those during daytime.
The daily walks around the entire backup position were generally speaking not very exciting, one could see nothing but destruction. The countryside was barren, without any trees or undergrowth left, here and there small impact craters, which appeared as white spots on the green countryside. The soil consisted of chalk in several areas, so that the well-treaded pathways between Gavrelle and Fresnes and to the left of the main road to Arras lighted up as white stripes.
The days in the backup area came and went in a dumbfounding way. Everywhere people were vigorously playing cards. Things had turned into the same boring paper warfare it had been before the offensive had begun, we all had hoped that the spring offensive would spawn a fresh, entertaining moving war that would revive our senses again. Instead we got elongated instructions from behind and we were expected to extensively report daily about fighting strength, activities, etc... We had no serious health issues during that time, only the flu was spreading around unpleasantly for some time. The infantry occupied itself with sleeping and card playing during day time, while the companies went forwards at night for reinforcing, barb wire pulling or re-supplying tasks. This also helped in getting accustomed with the front line positions again, which were taken up again after 8 days.
This repeated itself for some time, until we were relieved by the 15th Reserve Infantry Regiment on the days of 22nd till the 24th of may and our entire regiment moved towards our rest quarters at Sin-le-Noble, a bit east of Douai, where our luggage had been in the mean time. We started a relatively large training program during our rest time, accompanied by the nicest weather possible. The field exercises and target practice were done mostly during the morning. They were very entertaining in this mostly beautiful area. In the afternoon, in company format, we would go to briefings and roll-calls. Very attractive were the baths in Douai, which were only 20 minutes away. Douai was a favorite target for English bomber squads and one day we could hear the distinctive sound of the slowly falling bombs near the baths. At the same time an entire block of bricks flew through the wall and into our cabins. The bomb hat left a large hole across the entire width of the boulevard .
In Sin-le-Noble a company party was organized again. Some barrels of beer were organized for the company and we all had an entertaining evening with funny speeches and all sorts of pranks. It started off with sports games like running competitions and sack races. The field kitchen would supply a second warm dinner, since a soldier was always hungry. Eating always played a major role anyway. During the resting periods the field kitchen meals could really be varied, because the companies would regularly send people to Gent to buy quantities of peas, carrots, cabbage, etc.., something one could get really cheap. Of course, this was illegal but when the company could provide it’s men with really cheap rations, rules could be bent.
A scrollable high-resolution image follows:
Aerial photographs of the spring offensive region from a height of 700 metres,
1st of July. 1918, 10 o’clock.
Photo: Ltn. Bochskanl.
Arras lies to the left and Givenchy-South to the right.
After our last long rest period of the war, we returned to our former positions again after 4 weeks, from the 18th until the 20th of June. There were little changes, only the backup positions which had been so bleak during spring could hardly be recognized again, since the entire area was colored red by the blooming poppy’s. Parts of it were blue with corn flowers. We had a single relief action within the battalion, but one day installation forces of the 221st regiment appeared, by which we would be relieved on the 5th of June. We gladly left our positions to our successors since the quarter of the year we had spent near Arras had been the most boring time our regiment had ever spent since nothing had happened at the front besides the big attack on the 28th of March that regrettably didn’t bring the advance we hoped for.
On the 6th of July, 1918 we left northwards from Douai.