After three-and-a-half years, and no sign of an Allied breakthrough on the British front lines in France and Belgium, the outlook was worsening daily in January 1918.
Germany was able to bring hundreds of thousands of troops back to the Western Front following the collapse of Russia in the east and the negotiation of an armistice.
Shortage of new conscripts caused massive restructuring of the British forces, with infantry brigades reduced from four to three battalions. A brigade went from 4,000 to about 3,000 men at full strength, although few were ever more than three-quarters manned during service at the front.
Many of Kitchener’s ‘New Army’ battalions were broken up and their troops reallocated, often not even with the same regiment. This was the cause of great annoyance to the men who had enlisted together and were still – often a very small number – serving together.
The old regular battalions resisted any idea of being broken up, irrespective of the state of manpower, and territorial force battalions also lobbied hard, such that the army’s personnel management was instructed to avoid any loss of long-established formations with strong county affiliations.
By February 1918, the 21st battalion, Tyneside Scottish (NF), was amalgamated into the 23rd battalion, only to be disbanded in May. In late February the 24th/27th Tyneside Irish, already composited in view of earlier losses, was broken up, and from May to July the remaining Tyneside Scottish and Tyneside Irish battalions were scattered, with the reduction of the 18th battalion Northumberland Fusiliers, the divisional Pioneer battalion, to cadre strength and most of its men transferred to other units.
The 34th Division, which had existed from 1915 and had suffered the terrible losses for two of its three brigades engaged at La Boisselle on July 1, 1916, was then completely reformed and became a new entity, unrecognisable from the division formed entirely of Kitchener volunteers, two thirds of whom were north east men.
But before this sad end to the original 34th Division, it would have to endure the onslaught launched against the men in Operation Michael on March 21, 1918, as General Ludendorff cast his last throw of the dice in an attempt to break the British and French armies apart and force the British back to the Channel ports, hoping that weakened French armies would then collapse.
All of this was based on the premise that Germany had to make a decisive attack before the United States army could take to the field and tip the balance irretrievably in favour of the Allies.
In the next few weeks we shall cover the initial German attack, which cost the British over 16,000 men taken prisoner, including Fred Greenacre and Thomas Baker Brown, of North Shields.
Sadly, Fred Greenacre died in captivity, but Thomas Brown lived through nine months of harsh treatment to walk out of his POW camp in November 1918 and return home.
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