After one of the heaviest days of fighting on the Western Front, General Sir Hubert Gough’s Fifth Army was still in control of most of its Battle Zone, the exception being in the south where III Corps had been forced back to the Crozat Canal ; an obstacle that the Germans could not ford.
The line had been buckled under the tremendous weight of the German divisions ranged against it. The whirlwind barrage, had done much to destroy communications and wreak havoc in the rear areas but the line had not given way completely.
The buckling though, did create further problems for Gough. His line was some six kilometres longer than it had been twenty-four hours beforehand ; when it had already been held very lightly. Many of his divisions had been reduced to less than half their strength. If the Germans repeated their assaults of the day before, there was a serious chance of the British line giving way altogether.
In normal circumstances reserves would have been rushed up but Lloyd George’s decision to starve Field Marshal Haig of his Cannon Fodder meant that reserves in any quantity were not available and in particular against an area so far from the Channel ports.
Gough reasoned that making a stand and being annihilated served little purpose. His understanding of Haig’s instructions were that ; this far from the coast, the ports were in little danger and that he was to fight a rear guard action whilst waiting on the French commander, Général Pétain to honour his agreement with Haig. The British took over more front line — the French would provide the reserves.
Gough contacted his Corps Commanders and instructed them that in the event of serious hostile attacks they were to fight rear guard actions whilst withdrawing to the Rear Zone and if necessary to the back of it.
There are few surviving documents from this period as many were destroyed during the retreat over the days to come, but somewhere during the morning of the 22nd March, Lt General Maxse commanding XVIII Corps assumed that he had been ordered to retire immediately to the Somme — his rear line. His actions would have serious consequences for Gough’s future.
III Corps, on the extreme right of the Army’s line, were behind the Crozat Canal. Although not fordable, the Germans managed to force two passages across it, using the shattered remains of road bridges near Tergnier. They secured a small bridgehead but this was the only incursion on the Corps’ front.
By evening, elements of the French 125e Division d’Infanterie (DI) began to arrive near Tergnier and started taking over the defences. Most of III Corps retired leaving its right flank, 58th Division under French control.
Général Diébold’s 125e DI would be subjected to numerous attacks during their stay in the area. Transferred towards the Marne it was involved in the battles of June and then again in the severe fighting during the Germans’ final attempts to break the line near Château-Thierry in July. A battle in which the American 3rd Division and in particular its 38th Infantry Regiment distinguished themselves.
The retirement of III Corps on the previous day had left the 36th (Ulster) Division of XVIII Corps holding a prominent salient from Roupy down to St Simon with its apex at Fontaine les Clercs. It was there that the Germans managed to force their way through, obliging the 1st Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers to retire on Ricardo Redoubt. Here they held out until 1640 hours, by which time the entire Corps was pulling back to the River Somme.
Notwithstanding the fact that Lt General Maxse’s line had rebuffed numerous frontal attacks, he made it clear to his Divisional Commanders, by early afternoon, that the Corps would retire to the left bank of the Somme. It would appear that he had interpreted General Gough’s messages about French reserves coming up and the all important phrase about serious hostile attacks as requiring him to pull right back to a position where a new defensive line would be established.
By 1700 hours the Divisions had fallen back to the Green Line which was no more than a crayon mark on maps. There were no trenches to speak of and the retirement had increased the Corps’ front by five kilometres. That evening the Corps retired to the Somme destroying any bridges that they left behind them. All did not go a smoothly as had been hoped because the Germans dogged the retiring units all the way.
To the north XIX Corps was heavily engaged from early morning but with little mist to conceal their approach the Germans suffered badly in their attacks over the open ground.
At Le Verguier, a fortified position jutting out from the new line, the 8th Bn Queen’s Regiment and part of the 24th Machine Gun Battalion made a desperate stand against attacks that had commenced at 0400 hours, whilst the morning mist was still in the air. Five battalions attacked the small group of defenders but their approach from the east was spotted and shot to pieces. The attack from the north succeeded, however, in breaching the defences at about 0930 hours and within an hour it was clear to Lt Colonel Peirs of the Queen’s that his men were being cut off. Giving the order to retire the survivors managed to get back to the next line of trenches with surprisingly few casualties.
It had been the intention of Lt General Watts to have his forward units retire through his 50th Division, in reserve and preparing the Green Line. Necessity forced his hand and the 50th Division found themselves in shallow trenches with little covering wire on the forward slope of the hill — in full view of the enemy. In the few hours that they had been given they had not been able to reinforce their position which covered about twelve kilometres of front.
By mid afternoon the two forward Divisions and dismounted cavalry that had joined them were retiring through the Green Line in the hope of getting a moment to catch their breath. In some places the Germans were too tired to chase them, but in others they were hounded all the way back.
By 1630 hours 149th Brigade on the right could see swarms of Germans advancing towards them down the Omignon Valley. Eight waves of attackers crashed into the defenders and forced them back.
150th Brigade in the centre, and despite being in a more flat and open position, fared better and withstood most of the oncoming assaults. The same could be said for the 151st brigade on the left who had all three of their battalions in the front line.
Despite their temporary success it was clear to all that a concerted effort the following day would carry the flimsy defence works. Permission was requested to fall back to the new line (between Brusle and Monchy Lagache) and having heard that XVIII Corps was already falling back to the line of the Somme General Watts could do little but consent.
During fighting at Hervilly Wood, Private Herbert Columbine of the 9th Bn Machine Gun Corps took over his machine gun and remained with it until the bitter end.
For his courage he was awarded the Victoria Cross.
For most conspicuous bravery and self-sacrifice displayed, when, owing to casualties, Private Columbine took over command of a gun and kept it firing from 9 a.m. till 1 p.m. in an isolated position with no wire in front. During this time wave after wave of the enemy failed to get up to him. Owing to his being attacked by a low-flying aeroplane the enemy at last gained a strong footing in the trench on either side. The position being untenable he ordered the two remaining men to get away, and, though being bombed from either side, kept his gun firing and inflicting tremendous losses.
He was eventually killed by a bomb which blew up him and his gun. He showed throughout the highest valour, determination and self-sacrifice.
He is commemorated on the Pozières Memorial.