One hundred years ago, in May 1918, Lance-Corporal Talbot Mohan and his comrades of 1st Battalion The Duke of Edinburgh's (Wiltshire Regiment) were resting in a quiet sector of the Western Front when the Germans launched the third phase of their Spring Offensive. Mohan's unpublished war diary offers a unique eyewitness account of the chaos of the subsequent Allied retreat.
On 27 May 1918, the Germans launched Operation Blücher-Yorck, a surprise attack aimed at putting them within striking distance of Paris. If successful, it would also force the Allies to divert troops from Flanders to defend the French capital, thus allowing the Germans to renew their northern offensive.
At 1am, the heavy German bombardment began with gas and high explosives, and the British suffered heavy losses as a result of the barrage. Three hours later, Mohan and his battalion, part of 25th Division, were attacked by the German infantry. Mohan describes in his diary being ‘entirely caught by surprise' by the German infantry's unexpected bombardment:
'The Germans came over in massed formation and although our fellows put up a splendid fight it was impossible to hold them. Nearly the whole B Company were either killed or taken prisoner.'
With the Germans in pursuit, the survivors of Mohan's battalion managed to extricate themselves and retreat along with fleeing civilians and military traffic. Mohan describes the scene as ‘an endless stream of refugees who had just had to leave their homes, snatching up the most necessary things and fleeing for their lives... A sadder sight I never saw, and one which I can never forget'.
The 19 miles the 1st Battalion marched that day were under some of the toughest circumstances:
'No sooner had we emerged from the wood than the shelling began. They dropped all around us, in front and behind us, and still we plodded on... being shelled in the open with no cover available is terrible... it cannot be described.'
In the days that followed, 25th Division's units were thrown into action where many were all but destroyed. Despite the arrival or Allied reinforcements the German advance continued:
'Every time a shell burst very close we would shrivel into our holes... At intervals there would be the rat-tat of a German machine gun, and bullets would whizz and split over our heads as they swept the railway line.'
The survivors of the 1st Wiltshire were temporarily forced into a composite unit, fighting a withdrawal as the enemy pressed on. Mohan wrote that he ‘would willingly have given away a limb to get away from that hell' when watching injured soldiers be stretchered away.
By 30 May, German troops were only 37 miles from Paris. The Germans had also captured over 50,000 Allied soldiers and over 800 guns; victory seemed imminent. But supply shortages, troop fatigues, lack of reserves, and over 100,000 casualties caused numerous problems for German troops.
On 6 June, they were finally halted and pushed back by several Allied counter-attacks. Soon after, Mohan's unit was finally withdrawn. Describing his experiences during the retreat, Mohan says:
'Being shelled in the open with no cover available is terrible... it cannot be imagined or described... We were streaming with perspiration from the exertion, and almost blinded and choked by the gas from the shell... My body urged me to give up, but my mind told me that the only hope of safety was to go on.'
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Talbot Greaves Mohan (1895-1979) was born in Torquay, Devon. In 1917, he trained with the 34th Training Reserve Battalion of 8th Reserve Brigade in Devon and Dorset. He was posted overseas from Folkestone on 12 April 1918 with a reinforcement draft bound for the 1st Wiltshire.
Mohan’s draft joined the battalion in April near Poperinghe. He was initially kept in reserve with a small group that would form a new battalion should the original be destroyed.
Mohan was promoted to corporal and in July 1918 he declined a commission, preferring to stay with his close friends in the ranks. He continued to serve with the 1st Wiltshire at Thiepyal and the Miraumont Ridge until he was later shot in the shoulder during the British attack near Etricourt in September 1918. He was discharged from the Wiltshire Regiment on 25 February 1919.
After leaving the Army, Mohan began studying for holy orders. He lived in Sydney, Australia from 1956 until 1959, where he was Honorary Canon of St Andrew’s Cathedral. He later returned to the UK and passed away in Sevenoaks, Kent, on 10 January 1979.
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