The fifteen kilometre British sector in front of St Quentin was held by the XVIII Corps of General Sir Ivor Maxse and was made up of the 30th, 36th (Ulster) and 61st Divisions. To their north was the XIX Corps and to the south the III Corps covering as far as La Fère and the French Army.
From north to south the 61st were positioned between the villages of Gricourt and Selency. On their right was the 30th who continued the line as far as the village of Dallon. The right flank of the Corps was held by the 36th (Ulster) Division who occupied the front until just before Urvillers where the 14th (Light) Division of III Corps took over.
For the most part the Forward Zone was only lightly defended and the supposed support trenches in the Rear Zone were all but non existent. There had been neither the time nor the labour available to do much in the way of enhancing the defences.
The front was loosely held with eight redoubts in the forward zone with a further eight a little further back.
It has already been mentioned that Field Marshal Haig had been forced to reorganise his Army in order to bring his Divisions up to some sort of decent strength. This had required disbandments of some battalions and the shuffling about of others.
Thus, on 31st January 1918 the 1/5th Bn Gordon Highlanders found themselves posted from the 51st (Highland) Division to the 61st which in theory was supposed to be made up of units from the south Midlands.
The Highlanders were given the task, on their arrival in the Division, to occupy and defend the Fresnoy le Petit Redoubt. They had, at best, six weeks before the Germans launched their offensive. Not long in which to conduct a transfer, settle in and dig defences.
At 0940 hours on 21st March 1918 the German Stormtroopers commenced their advance, creeping through the fog and infiltrating much of the British Forward Zone with ease. Either they overcame resistance with grenade, flamethrower or bayonet, or if they couldn’t, they flowed around the problem.
The German training had worked on the theory that if they continued to advance wherever they could, then defenders who held out would become isolated, or, even if this was not actually the case, begin to worry about becoming so. Once the British defenders could hear fighting going on behind them they would only have two choices available : retire before it was too late or stand and fight until killed or captured.
The bombardment put down by Bruchmüller’s artillery had done a superb job in destroying lines of communication and with the thick fog it was very difficult for the British to respond to events.
At Fresnoy le Petit the Highlanders had suffered badly from the shelling. Their position had been demolished and almost all the battalion was dead or wounded. The Germans filtered in and through their lines capturing the survivors including Lt Colonel McTaggart their Commanding Officer.
Just thirty men made it back to the rear lines.
Further south at the Ellis Redoubt the 2/8th Bn Worcestershire Regiment had profited from a raid in the small hours of the morning by their sister battalion the 2/6th. This had yielded a number of prisoners, all of whom talked of an offensive due to be launched within a few hours.
Despite the storm of shells which fell on their redoubt the Worcesters held on until 1730 hours when their ammunition ran out and the fall of the Enghien Redoubt on their left flank had left the Germans free to deal with them.
The Official History records that only one officer and six men made it back to Brigade HQ that evening.
On the front of the 30th Division it was a similar story. At the L’Epine de Dallon the 2nd Bn Wiltshire Regiment managed to hold out until 1430 hours before being over run. Lt Colonel Martin and his men had been faced by two Divisions of German infantry. Most, including himself, were either killed or captured. A half dozen managed to get back to Roupy to carry the news.
At Francilly-Selency the 16th Bn Manchester Regiment were holding a position named in honour of the 2nd Battalion who had taken it on 2nd April 1917. It had been well prepared and was complete with a bunker which served as an artillery observation post.
Because their position was relatively strong, the battalion had a front of about 1500 metres to protect. The redoubt itself was defended by D Company and the HQ staff under Lt Colonel Wilfrith Elstob.
Elstob was in no doubts about the situation he was in. As the bombardment battered his forward positions and the fog rendered observation impossible word began to filter through — the Germans had the forward posts surrounded and it was only a matter of time before they succumbed and the Germans were advancing again.
The stormtroopers were well trained and by midday, as the fog began to clear, Elstob and his men discovered that they had been by-passed, with the German advanced positions already reaching towards Savy and Roupy behind them. All the Manchesters could do now was wait on the tide that would form the second wave of the attack and one that would wash over them rather than flow around.
By 1400 hours Elstob had reported back to his Brigade that he was completely surrounded and that his men were engaged in hand to hand combat trying to hold their position. The fighting was savage and for the British conducted knowing that there was no escape and no last minute chance of relief.
Shortly before 1600 hours Elstob contacted his Brigade to say that the fight was all but over ; his men were being overwhelmed by the weight of the enemy. Called upon to surrender his position Elstob refused and was brought down by a bullet. His body was never recovered and he is commemorated on the Pozières Memorial.
The survivors surrendered and a handful even managed to escape and carried with them the story of 29 year-old Elstob’s defiance.
An extract from the London Gazette, dated 6th June 1919 records the following
For most conspicuous bravery, devotion to duty and self-sacrifice during operations at Manchester Redoubt, near St. Quentin, on the 21st March 1918. During the preliminary bombardment he encouraged his men in the posts in the Redoubt by frequent visits, and when repeated attacks developed controlled the defence at the points threatened, giving personal support with revolver, rifle and bombs.
Single-handed he repulsed one bombing assault driving back the enemy and inflicting severe casualties. Later, when ammunition was required, he made several journeys under severe fire in order to replenish the supply. Throughout the day Lieutenant-Colonel Elstob, although twice wounded, showed the most fearless disregard of his own safety, and by his encouragement and noble example inspired his command to the fullest degree.
The Manchester Redoubt was surrounded in the first wave of the enemy attack, but by means of the buried cable Lieutenant Colonel Elstob was able to assure his Brigade Commander that: The Manchester Regiment will defend Manchester Hill to the last. Sometime after this post was overcome by vastly superior forces, and this very gallant officer was killed in the final assault, having maintained to the end the duty which he had impressed on his men — namely : Here we fight, and here we die. He set throughout the highest example of valour, determination, endurance and fine soldierly bearing.