Alexander Pepys’ War Diary – March 1918

Our Armies face a dreadful crisis. The Boche have launched great assaults against our men. They are throwing in large waves of troops – storming into our lines regardless of the casualties they are taking as our men bravely resist them. Reports have come in that the Manchesters fought to the last man and the last round. Elsewhere, our troops surrendered when hope was lost of hurling back the enemy.

Bertie is dead. He went forward, to recover supplies from a depot in front of Amiens, in one of our ROD locos and it was hit by a shell, It plunged off the track: Bertie was riding in the cab, he and the driver were killed. The fireman had a miraculous escape, as did most of the men in the trucks behind. I shall miss his jaunty approach to life, as when we went forwards to see beyond the trenches. I have written to Mrs. Richards with my condolences , I could say little other than he was a great friend and a splendid chap.

As we speculated in the bar of the War Office, what would happen if the Bolcheviks gave way at Brest-Litovsk? They did so on the Third. Suddenly the Germans had thousands of extra troops. On the 13th, they began a gas bombardment of our front line, following by explosive shells which went on for eight days until their waves crashed against our Somme trenches. Unfortunately the Fifth Army was unprepared – I had already noted a shortage of materials being carried there in our trains.. Once through the front line, the Boche pushed our troops back for many miles. British tanks and planes have been thrown at the enemy in desperation, they have taken great losses as well.

Even Paris is being bombarded, a huge cannon behind German lines is launching shells from a distance of some seventy miles, civilians are being killed. The French soldiers to the south of the Fifth are fighting alongside our units in support and are taking casualties. More aid cannot be given as Petain fears a thrust in the Champagne region. The situation is so grim that even American railwaymen have gone into action.

Some positive news from Doullens when I got there is the appointment of Ferdinand Foch to overall command of all our forces. He has the skill and diplomatic finesse which will get strong performance from the BEF and American commanders. For too long, I suspect, national priorities have weakened our response to the unitary German command. Two days later General Gough was sacked. the price of his Army being pushed back forty miles. With his going, morale is being restored, our Australian and Canadian troops helped recapture Moreuil Wood. The momentum of the Boche advance has been slowing for the past two days, it is clear our troops have exerted a high price in German casualties for their advance. This is despite the criticism of their performance from those not close to the action.

An urgent telegram has reached me at the Amiens railway centre when I arrived there from Doullens. Delphine has let me know that Thom is determined to enlist, he no longer is happy to read of boys not much older going over to France. He threatens to lie about his age. I have put to Delphine that she approach Sir Percy about Thom being asked to be recruited into the cavalry as a groom. I do not want him to lie about his age and he would not be allowed to serve in the trenches. Helping the British Empire needs men with all skill, not just military. I have confidence that when we halt the offensive and begin to push back the enemy, we shall need the cavalry and their magnificent horses.