In this special monthly post, I will be highlighting key dates throughout the First World War. This post features the key events that happened during the month of April.
22nd – The Second Battle of Ypres begins at 1700 with the first large scale deployment of poison gas by the Germans against French territorial and colonial troops who retreated from the area and left a 4-mile gap in the allied line. The Germans followed behind the gas at approximately 1715 wearing protective equipment and had an unhindered route to Ypres. They eventually came to a stop that evening on the high point of Pilkem Ridge.
The fighting continues for 33 days, resulting in 59000 British and Commonwealth casualties, 35000 German casualties and approximately 21000 French casualties. Whilst the city of Ypres did not fall to the Germans, the allies ended the battle with a disadvantage due to the fact that the Ypres Salient was now much smaller and even more vulnerable to German artillery bombardment.
25th – Allied forces launched an amphibious invasion to seize the Gallipoli peninsula (in modern day Turkey) from the Ottoman Empire. Landings took place around various parts of the Peninsula. The Ottoman troops mounted strong resistance, and the terrain proved to be far more inhospitable than expected. The conditions for the troops were appalling. They were exposed to the elements with little water and unable to bury all of the dead. Flies and disease were endemic. They were often overlooked by Ottoman troops who held the higher ground. In early August, new landings failed to end the stalemate and resulted in heavy causalities on both sides.
As autumn turned to winter, the Peninsula was blasted by icy gales and blizzards which caused serious flooding. With hopes fading and soldiers suffering terribly from disease, frostbite and exposure, the decision was taken to evacuate Allied forces. In December, the evacuation of troops commenced, and the final soldiers left in January 1916. Of the approximately 410000 Commonwealth servicemen who served on the peninsula, some 205000 became casualties, including 43,000 dead, captured or listed as missing. Some 47,000 French servicemen became casualties. Ottoman casualties are estimated to have been between 250000 and 350000.
16th – A large scale deportation of French civilians by the Germans was carried out on this date. Approximately 25000 men and women between the ages of 16 and 55 were taken from the cities and towns of Roubaix, Tourcoing, and Lille, with persons being selected by German officers from their home addresses. The men selected were forced to undertake agricultural work in the Departments of the Aisne and the Ardennes for the German war effort and the women were utilised for cooking and laundry work for German troops.
24th-29th – The Easter Rising was an armed insurrection in Ireland during Easter Week, April 1916. The Rising was launched by Irish republicans who wished to bring an end to British rule in Ireland and establish an independent Irish Republic while the United Kingdom was fighting the First World War. It was the most significant uprising in Ireland since the rebellion of 1798 and the first armed action of the Irish revolutionary period. Sixteen of the Rising’s leaders were executed in May 1916, but the insurrection, the nature of the executions, and subsequent political developments ultimately contributed to an increase in popular support for Irish independence.
6th – America enters into the First World War. When the First World War commenced there was a strong sentiment for neutrality from a large section of American society. However, even before the First World War had broken out, American opinion was becoming increasingly negative towards Germany and reports of atrocities in Belgium in 1914 and the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915 only exacerbated this. In 1917, a British economic embargo and naval blockade was by now causing shortages of fuel and food in Germany, at which point Germany decided to resume unrestricted submarine warfare. The aim was to break the supply chain to Britain, although the German high command realized that sinking American-flagged ships would almost certainly bring the United States into the war. Germany also made a secret offer to help Mexico regain territories lost in the Mexican American War in an encoded telegram known as the Zimmermann Telegram, which was intercepted by British intelligence. President Woodrow Wilson asked Congress for “a war to end all wars” that would “make the world safe for democracy”, and Congress voted to declare war on this date.
9th – The Battle of Arras began on this day in conjunction with the French Nivelle Offensive which would start a week later. The British effort was an assault on a relatively broad front between Vimy in the north-west and Bullecourt to the south-east. After a long preparatory bombardment, and in terrible weather conditions, the Canadian Corps of the First Army in the north fought the Battle of Vimy Ridge, capturing the ridge. The Third Army in the centre advanced astride the Scarpe River and in the south, the British Fifth Army attacked the Hindenburg Line but made few gains. The British armies then conducted smaller attacks to consolidate the new positions.
The British Third Army at the River Scarpe achieved the longest advance since trench warfare had begun, surpassing the record set by the French Sixth Army on 1st July 1916. The British advance slowed in the next few days and the German defence recovered. Although these battles were generally successful in achieving limited aims, they came at considerable cost. By the end of the battle, the British Third and First Army had suffered about 160000 casualties and the German 6th Army about 125,000. The British suffered on average more than 4000 casualties every day, the highest average daily casualty rate of any of their First World War assaults. When the battle officially ended on 16 May, the British had made significant advances but had been unable to achieve a breakthrough. New tactics and the equipment to exploit them had been used, showing that the British had absorbed the lessons of the Battle of the Somme and could mount set-piece attacks against fortified field defences
16th – The Nivelle Offensive began on this day and continued until 9th May 1917. It was carried out in conjunction with the British Battle of Arras.The offensive was intended to be strategically decisive by breaking through the German defences on the Aisne front within 48 hours. A preliminary attack was to be made by the French at St Quentin prior to the offensive and the British at Arras, to capture the high ground and divert German reserves from the French fronts on the Aisne and in Champagne. The main offensive was to be delivered by the French on the Chemin des Dames ridge known as the Second Battle of the Aisne, with a subsidiary attack by the Fourth Army known as the Third Battle of Champagne. The final stage of the offensive was to be the meeting of the British and French armies, having broken through the German lines, then the pursuit of the defeated German armies towards the German frontier.
The Franco-British attacks were tactically successful; the French Third Army captured the German defences west of the Hindenburg Line near St. Quentin, before further attacks were repulsed. The British Third and First armies achieved the deepest advance since trench warfare began, along the River Scarpe in the Battle of Arras, which inflicted many losses on the Germans, attracted reserves and captured Vimy Ridge to the north. The main French offensive on the Aisne began on 16th April and also achieved considerable tactical success but the attempt to force a strategically decisive battle on the Germans was a costly failure and by 25th April the main offensive had been suspended. By the end of the Nivelle Offensive, there were 187000 French casualties in addition to the British casualties from the Battle of Arras. The failure of the Nivelle strategy and the high number of French casualties led to mutinies and the dismissal of Nivelle, his replacement by Pétain and the adoption of a defensive strategy by the French, while their armies recuperated and were rearmed.
1st – The Royal Air Force is created by the merger of the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service. After starting in 1914 as the RFC with approximately 2000 personnel, by the start of 1919 the RAF had 4000 combat aircraft and 114000 personnel in some 150 squadrons and played an integral part in the undertaking the First World War – through reconnaissance missions and also dogfights – air battles between multiple aircraft.
9th – The Battle of the Lys – part of the German Spring Offensive of 1918 – started on this day codenamed as Operation Georgette. The Germans attacked on a front that was approximately 25 miles long from the area around Ypres in Belgium to the area around Béthune in Northern France. The plan of attack was to break through and cut off the British forces from their crucial supply lines which ran through the ports of Calais, Dunkirk and Boulogne. The Offensive was called off on the 29th April when it became apparent to German High Command that the Operation had not been successful in the manner in which it was intended.
German casualties for the offensive came to approximately 120000. British casualties came to approximately 160000 casualties, 22000 killed, 75000 prisoners and 63000 wounded. Included in this figure are Portuguese casualties. 20000 soldiers were part of the Portuguese Expeditionary Force who, at the time of the Offensive, were greatly undermanned, lacking in almost half of their officers and suffering with very low morale. The two Portuguese Divisions involved at this time suffered just over 7000 casualties, about 35% of its fighting capacity.
24th – The Second Battle of Villers-Bretonneux took place from 24 to 27 April 1918, during the German Spring Offensive to the east of Amiens, around the same time as the conclusion of the Battle of the Lys. It is notable for being the first occasion on which tanks fought against each other.
On 17th/18th April, the Germans bombarded the area behind Villers-Bretonneux with mustard gas, causing 1000 Australian casualties. On the evening of 23rd/24th April, an artillery barrage was fired, using again mustard gas and high explosive rounds. Next morning, the Germans attacked the village with four divisions. The German infantry, with thirteen tanks in support, broke through, making a three-mile wide gap in the Allied line. The town of Villers-Bretonneux fell to the Germans and the railway junction of Amiens became vulnerable to capture and bombardment from artillery. A counterattack by two Australian brigades and a British brigade during the night of 24th April partly surrounded Villers-Bretonneux and on 25th April – which just happened to be ANZAC Day – the town was recaptured. Australian, British and French troops nearly restored the original front line by 27 April. This battle caused approximately 15000 British, Australian and French casualties and approximately 10500 German casualties.