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Retention of Ypres - Politically Important


PhilB
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Of course he's only asserting an opinion, as is everyone in this forum - but what an opinion! Are you seriously suggesting that the considerations of a respected historian who rose to be a General of the British Army should be ignored simply because he's offering an opinion?

How do you imagine he arrived at such an opinion, by guessing? In any court of law, his qualifications and experience would make him an expert-witness i.e. on matters within his field of expertise he would be allowed to offer weighty opinion on events when the evidence of those not so qualified would be inadmissible. If a man of such academic and military experience is to be dismissed so easily then I would suggest that the opinion of every contributor in this thread becomes totally inadmissible.

Cheers-salesie.

The problem with your hero worship of F-H is that I have not read any other sources, particularly contemporary, that agrees with his assertions. I would just like to know of some. That is what history is all about scrutiny of the sources. F-H was doubtless a very good soldier but his Great War writings were a very long time ago. To put F-H into total context you also have to remember that he frequently appeared on our TV screens in the past with his 'assertion' that his old Regiment did no wrong on 'Bloody Sunday'!

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Here is one British interpretation of the military significance of the town of Ypres:

"As the meeting-point of many roads, the town [of Ypres]... had a special military significance in a country where traffic, after heavy rain, was restricted to the highways. Robert

But, Robert, there`s little point in holding the salient largely to protect the west-to-east roads through it, which only feed the salient. It`s like sitting on a branch simply to stop someone cutting it off behind you! (Pardon my simplistic approach :huh: ) Is Ypres worth protecting just for the north-to-south roads?

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QUOTE (Phil_B @ Jun 29 2009, 10:59 AM) <{POST_SNAPBACK}>
But, Robert, there`s little point in holding the salient largely to protect the west-to-east roads through it, which only feed the salient. It`s like sitting on a branch simply to stop someone cutting it off behind you! (Pardon my simplistic approach :huh: ) Is Ypres worth protecting just for the north-to-south roads?

The only road of importance comes from Poperinghe, so the Allies could fall back on a line Kemmel-Poperinghe and be served by the same road.

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.

Because the obvious defensive line is behind Ieper: Kemmelberg-Scherpenberg-Mont Noir- Mont Rouge-Mont des Chats and north in front of Dunkirk. Because there were no operational Channel Ports to loose to the East of Dunkirk. This is the shortest, straightest line, and the most difficult for the Germans to penetrate. The Allies could have withdrawn to prepared positions and challenged the Germans to assault them,

Hugh,

Tactically this is a sensible option to consider, but I don't think we can divorce the political element from the debate. The Allies freely giving up territory would not have been politically acceptable, particularly with the Belgians and French. They were especially concerned and intent with ejecting the Germans from their territory, not with challenging the Germans to assault them on preferable ground. Nor was pulling back to the proposed line such a simple task - it was a significant operation. Looking at Robert's map, the amount of territory to be given up, while it might seem insignificant, would have required political approval and I doubt very much the Belgians or the French would have agreed to it. I doubt the Royal Navy would have supported such a withdrawal.

Your option makes tactical sense, but what happens if the Germans capture, or envelop from the north and south, that piece of high ground - where do the Allies fall back to next and challenge the Germans to assault them? Nor do I think it offers any significant advantages overall other than holding a piece of tactical defensive ground in one part of the line - much of the proposed new line appears to be across flat country. It offers no strategic advantage at all.

The Allies were never going to win by sitting on the defensive and challenging the Germans to assault them on strong ground. Thus they had to take the initiative and drive the Germans back.

The Ypres area's strategic advantage is it offered the only real option of turning a flank of the Western Front and the high ground east of Ypres had to be taken before this could occur. Strategically the Germans had no real depth in that area, the Dutch border being some 80 -100 km in their rear. Once the high ground was taken an offensive in this area offered an opportunity to clear the Belgian coast, threaten the rear of the German line in the north and provided the shortest and easiest route into German territory. This is probably why the Allies chose not to withdraw further west and why the Germans fought so hard to try and retain the high ground in 1917.

Cheers

Chris

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QUOTE (Phil_B @ Jun 29 2009, 09:59 AM) <{POST_SNAPBACK}>
...there`s little point in holding the salient largely to protect the west-to-east roads through it, which only feed the salient.
Phil, I don't think the salient was held for this reason. Take the town of Ypres out of the equation for a moment. Let's assume that there were multiple east-west roads that served the salient. So long as there was a major concern about the German occupation of the Belgian ports, then the salient would still have been militarily important.

Once again it is important to emphasize the distinction between the town and the surrounding terrain.

Robert

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Hugh,

The Allies were never going to win by sitting on the defensive and challenging the Germans to assault them on strong ground. Thus they had to take the initiative and drive the Germans back.

In the Ypres salient, the Allies sat on the defensive from 1914 to June 1917, and essentially challenged the Germans to assault them on weak ground, to contradict the above. They did not take the initiative and try to drive the Germans back at all in any concerted sense.

The Ypres area's strategic advantage is it offered the only real option of turning a flank of the Western Front and the high ground east of Ypres had to be taken before this could occur. Strategically the Germans had no real depth in that area, the Dutch border being some 80 -100 km in their rear. Once the high ground was taken an offensive in this area offered an opportunity to clear the Belgian coast, threaten the rear of the German line in the north and provided the shortest and easiest route into German territory. This is probably why the Allies chose not to withdraw further west and why the Germans fought so hard to try and retain the high ground in 1917.

In 1915 and 1916 there was no attack from the salient to capture the channel ports etc . That's two whole years from the start of the campaign that the Allies sat in the salient and took a pasting from the high ridges. The serious attempt to break out of the salient came after this two years. If from the start, the plan was to hold the salient in order to seize the ridges and drive for the ports and Dutch border, the generals took a really long time to get around to it.

I may have forgotten something, but isn't the early history of the salient just desperate defensive fighting? I know Hill 60, St Eloi were attacked, but even the most optimistic general wasn't thinking that these attacks might break the German line and allow a charge to the coast. These were just to ease the pressure. I still maintain that the holding of the salient in 1915 and 1916 was poor generalship and wreckless with human lives. The line should have been shortened, at least back to the Ypres ramparts.

Hugh

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"In 1915 and 1916 there was no attack from the salient to capture the channel ports etc"

What about Second Ypres in 1915?

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In the Ypres salient, the Allies sat on the defensive from 1914 to June 1917, and essentially challenged the Germans to assault them on weak ground, to contradict the above. They did not take the initiative and try to drive the Germans back at all in any concerted sense.
Hugh, this is not quite correct on several points. The Allies had been on the defensive in October/November 1914 and then again in April 1915. In the first instance, they had not been sitting on the defensive but were engaged in offensive actions that struck a larger force in a meeting engagement. More significantly, if the BEF had had its way, then they would have attacked out of the salient much earlier. Plans were being made as early as October 1915. However, it was not until late 1917 that the British were able to pursue their strategic intent for the salient. They had been the minor partner up until then.

Furthermore, virtually the entire Western Front involved the Allies defending ground that was lower than the ground held by the Germans.

The British were not passive in the salient before July 31st 1917. As with other 'quiet' areas of the Western Front, there were frequent raids into the German lines.

The terrain around Ypres held by the British cannot be regarded as 'weak'. It is true that they rarely held the highest ground, which is what I think Farrar-Hockley may have been alluding too. But the British held a number of terrain features that were extremely difficult to take, which is why the British retained them. These included key woods and copses, for example. Shrewsbury Forest would have been just as difficult for the Germans to capture as Inverness Copse proved to be on the other side of the Stirling Castle ridge.

That's two whole years from the start of the campaign that the Allies sat in the salient and took a pasting from the high ridges.
What do you mean by 'pasting'? The entire Western Front was associated with a constant wastage, even in 'quiet' areas. The Ypres salient was not significantly different in this respect. When quiet, it did not stand out as an area of the Western Front associated with huge losses. The 23rd Division was holding quite a long area of the line, around the Stirling Castle area, in November 1916. During that month, the 68th Brigade lost 9 killed and 24 wounded; the 69th Brigade 7 killed and 33 wounded. In the Division's history, a footnote records:

"Compare with casualties in the last tour in the Noulette sector [north of Arras, also a 'quiet' sector] in the preceding June, when the Division, in less than a month, lost 89 killed, 433 wounded."

Elsewhere the history noted:

"The next few weeks in the line were uneventful. Shelling on both sides was continuous but seldom violent, though the arrival of German shells from every direction, except in the immediate rear, was always a disconcerting feature of life in the Ypres salient.

Three recreation-rooms, two baths, and a laundry were soon in working order in Ypres. Here also improvements were carried out in the YMCA reading room, where, if the opportunity for quiet study could not always be found, warmth, and a cheering contrast to trench life could be reckoned on."

Robert

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Thanks Robert, a lot of detail new to me & all very educational.

I'm still not persuaded that the British did the right thing in hanging on for the first two years as I do think the physical disadvantage of their position was too great. It's all very well to point out that the sector was relatively quiet in 1916, but the Germans were occupied at both Verdun and the Somme at the same time, and would have thinned the lines in the North to support these battles.

As the 23rd Division history you quoted says, even of this quiet period, " German shells from every direction, except in the immediate rear, was always a disconcerting feature of life in the Ypres salient." I still maintain that two years in this pocket, instead of simply straightening the line at least back to the Ypres ramparts, was unnecessary.

Squirrel: Sorry, should have been more clear - no attack by the Allies with intent to capture the channel ports 1915-Mid 1917.

Hugh

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Can someone enlighten me - whilst holding the line of the outer salient, did the BEF prepare a strong, fully wired defensive line through Ypres or elsewhere to fall back to? I mean a line prepared at leisure rather than one hastily dug in emergency.

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It's all very well to point out that the sector was relatively quiet in 1916,

Hugh

Wasn't there a significant German attack in the Mount Sorrel sector of the salient in the first days of June 1916 ?

This was, I suppose, a diversion ; just as the attack at Vimy had been the previous month.

All the same, it was a vicious affair.

I would hazard a guess and suggest that British casualties in the Flanders salient in 1916 amounted to the best part of one hundred thousand.

Phil.

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Wasn't there a significant German attack in the Mount Sorrel sector of the salient in the first days of June 1916 ?

Phil.

I forgot about that attack and counter attack. The actions that are remembered in 1915-1916, Hill 60 and St Eloi, the Bluff attack and counter attack, the Mount Sorrel attack and counter attack, are not general offensives and however atrocious, they are aimed at local positional improvements and I'm sure other smaller scale ones were almost continuous.

The German attack "Second Ypres" is somewhat different, but really, not a general offensive designed to capture Calais etc, it just wasn't persued with that weight of numbers. 2nd Ypres is an attack from the flatter, no advantage to either side lands of the northern salient, and I don't suppose the Germans knew how effective the gas would be either, particularly as their own troops had to advance into it. Was it not that the ridge positions were good enough, and a change of position on the flat northern plain could never leave the Germans in a worse position than before?

I don't know if I may be forgetting any significant offensive action in 1915-1916 in the salient. But it seems to me that it each side just held on. But the Allies were on the worst ground half encircled for two whole years and surely a good generalship should have dictated some strategic withdrawal to a better, prepared positon than grinding away at St Eloi, Hooge and Hill 60.

Phil, I don't think a wired position through Ieper was necessary, as the ramparts with moat would have made the Ypres frontage the strongest part of the whole front line, sea to Belfort. Best, a small ( and it is relatively small) withdrawal pivoted on St Eloi (resopnding to the German 2nd Ypres gains), taking up position on the Ypres-Comines canal to the Lille gate, with conforming line along the Ijzer where the northern ramparts end. That's pretty tough to crack open.

The Allies still have future options in this area for a breakout towards Ostend etc. But surely, without hindsight, any breakout is more likely to succeed if it doesn't first involve having to capture the only ridge line high ground. What's on the other side? More flat ground. As the evolving tactrics of WW1 showed, if the enemy has a strong point, go around it and deal with it later.

Hugh

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In the Ypres salient, the Allies sat on the defensive from 1914 to June 1917, and essentially challenged the Germans to assault them on weak ground, to contradict the above. They did not take the initiative and try to drive the Germans back at all in any concerted sense.

Hugh,

As Robert has said, this is not quite correct. The Allies made several offensivies in 1915 and 1916. In 1915, the British had very much to conform to French wishes. All of the British offensives in 1915 were in support of French offensives and the French dictated where they would be. Allenby did mount an attack at Hooge in September 1915, albeit as a diversionary to Loos. When Haig become CinC BEF he wished to make the main offensiive at Ypres in 1916 but under presuure from Joffre and the British Government he was forced to make it on the Somme, at the junction of the British and French Armies. I think Haig realised the strategic advantage an offensive at Ypres provided the Allies. Again, the Arras offensive in early 1917 was in support of Nivelle's offensive, at Nivelle's insistence and supported by Lloyd George. It wasn't until June 1917 that Haig was able to put his preferred plans into effect and by then the Germans had strengthened their defences at Ypres quite considerably.

However the point of my original post was one ought not argue why the Allies held Ypres from a purely tactical ground viewpoint. It must be undertsood in its strategic and political context, both of which took priority over tactical issues.

Cheers

Chris

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No major offensive should ever have been considered from Ypres in 1916. Attacking the enemy's strong points was hopeless. The carnage of the attempts to capture Hill 60, St Eloi in 1915 should have ruled out an attack on Passchendaele, and the fantasy of capturing the ridges as a first step to a breakout to the channel ports should have been disgarded.

A short realignment North -South after 2nd Ypres would have negated the value of holding the salient ridge position to the Germans. It would have freed troops lining the bag which was the Ypres salient for an attack over better chosen ground, and saved many lives from needless attritional warfare. It was poor generalship, even by 19th century standards. The ridges ARE THE ONLY SIGNIFICANTLY HIGH GROUND in facing the Allies in Flanders. Why keep throwing your men at it?

Hugh

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No major offensive should ever have been considered from Ypres in 1916. Attacking the enemy's strong points was hopeless.

Hi Hugh

Where were the enemy's weak points that should have been attacked? Perhaps you can outline how and where the Allies should have attacked in 1916 and what advantage such an offensive would have brought?

I agree with Robert in that Ypres couldn't be described as "weak" ground. The main ridge doesn't tower over the salient and within it the spurs running towards the coast constitute rolling country. Both sides held this rolling ground. The main advantage the Germans had was around the Hooge to Hill 60 area and further south along the Messines ridge. I think you may be overstating the weakness of the Allied position; they certainly re-took most the vital ground at Hill 60 and Messines Ridge when they did mount the offensive on 7 June 1917, while Plumer's attacks along the high ground in 20 Sep - 4 Oct (Menin Road, Polygon Wood and Broodeseinde) were remarkably successful.

Cheers

Chris

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I attach a modern satellite map, and surely the generals had contour maps in front of them, if not the lessons of past experience. White dot is Ypres. There's got to be a weaker point to attack than this?

post-19252-1246411367.jpg

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The problem with your hero worship of F-H is that I have not read any other sources, particularly contemporary, that agrees with his assertions. I would just like to know of some. That is what history is all about scrutiny of the sources. F-H was doubtless a very good soldier but his Great War writings were a very long time ago. To put F-H into total context you also have to remember that he frequently appeared on our TV screens in the past with his 'assertion' that his old Regiment did no wrong on 'Bloody Sunday'!

You see an expert opinion, then almost instantaneously dismiss it out of hand, then go on to talk about sources disproving the opinion but don't actually mention those sources. Seems to me, Alan, you're in no position to "teach" anyone what history is all about. Farrah-Hockley's expertise makes his opinion valid in the context of this debate, perhaps instead of kneejerk reactions from you it would make your own case valid if you took time to consider the opinion and then offer evidence why you believe it to be wrong?

Cheers-salesie.

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I'm still not persuaded that the British did the right thing in hanging on for the first two years as I do think the physical disadvantage of their position was too great.
Hugh, let's approach this from a slightly different direction. Leave aside, for one moment, the possibility of using the salient as a springboard to attack towards Passchendaele, then Thorout - Staden. Assuming you had charge of the defence of this sector (let's say as GOC British Second Army), what rationale would you provide to your French counterpart, General Anthoine, who is defending the sector on your immediate left flank, to the north?

"I am ordering a withdrawal back to the town of Ypres and the line of the canals (north and south of Ypres) because.... [Please provide clear rationale for decision here]"

Robert

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"German shells from every direction, except in the immediate rear, was always a disconcerting feature of life in the Ypres salient."
Hugh, I am unsure why you re-quoted this comment. It seems as if you are suggesting that this aspect of being in a salient was a major problem, a justification to withdraw? The historian noted, however, that this type of shelling was 'disconcerting'. It was not associated with heavy casualties during 'quiet' periods. The British took steps to minimize the effects of the shelling, just as they did elsewhere. Would a withdrawal be ordered because some aspect of a defended locality was 'disconcerting'? Where would such an approach stop?

A withdrawal is made to Ypres itself, let's say. Lo, the town is shelled on an even more regular basis as there is no requirement to disperse the activity of the German artillery across the salient. This becomes more 'disconcerting' to the troops defending the town. Let's withdraw again - it is quieter further back. Oops, now it has become 'disconcerting' again. And so it goes...

Perhaps the problem was not the periods of 'quiet'. Perhaps the concern is the periods of 'action', such as the actions around Hill 60, etc. Heavier casualties than during the 'quiet' periods, no doubt. But are these episodes a reason to withdraw? Where would that stop? We have already seen that the suggestion to defend the higher ground further west (Kemmel - Mont Noir) creates an even worse salient. Supposing we could adjust the line slightly, using Poperinghe as the focal point for this further north. Now Poperinghe becomes the new Ypres. Oh, let's fall back again.

I am not trying to be sarcastic, merely posing questions to draw out why the Ypres salient deserved different treatment from other problem areas on the Western Front.

Robert

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"I am ordering a withdrawal back to the town of Ypres and the line of the canals (north and south of Ypres) because.... [Please provide clear rationale for decision here]"

Robert

If I may make a suggestion:-

1/ It will appreciably shorten my line, thereby producing higher density of defenders, both artillery and infantry.

2/ It will remove the "nipping out" option.

3/ It will mean I only have enemy to my front, not to both sides as well.

Is the salient not militarily contraindicated unless there are good reasons for its retention?

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"I am ordering a withdrawal back to the town of Ypres and the line of the canals (north and south of Ypres) because.... [Please provide clear rationale for decision here]"

Robert

Here's my try:-

I am ordering a withdrawal back to the town of Ypres and the line of the canals (north and south of Ypres)to cut the active battlefront from over 25km to less than 10, freeing up most of our forces engaged for action elsewhere. The new Rampart position has a 2km field of fire over flat ground and will be held by garrison troops. We have dug prepared artillery positions behind the ramparts, and accomodation, supply depots medical support within them, forming a solid second/reserve line with a forward line of intersecting machine guns waiting for the German move down the forward slopes of their previous position.

Attacks on the prepared high ground defenses of Hooge, Bellewaerde, St Eloi, Hill 60 has been too costly. We conclude these would slow, even stop altogether, the beginning of any major offensive aimed at a breakthrough in this sector. In future the British high command will insist on an attack to capture the Belgian coast taking place from the flat land on your front. The terrain gives no advantage to either side, but is better than commencing from a disadvantage.

We will argue for this offensive to take place after the land dries, mid year 1916. On no account, based on previous experience, will we consider any offensive against ridge positions with prepared defences. Like the Somme front.

Thanks for the challenge Robert and I hope this is OK (Probably it's just what you expected from me), and I've read your subsequent post. The withdrawal to the 'mountain line' would create a salient, but it's one the Germans would have to occupy. And they'd be unwise to go anywhere near it if it had been pre-prepared. That's the key distinction. Pick your own battleground. Don't just sit there where they can observe you and you can't see them. If the enemy has the best ground, you move. Following 2nd Ypres, and some defensive preparation, the amount of land conceeded would be small - the wreckage of Zillebeke, not much else.

Hugh

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We will argue for this offensive to take place after the land dries, mid year 1916. On no account, based on previous experience, will we consider any offensive against ridge positions with prepared defences. Like the Somme front.

Hugh

By so insisting, you would repudiate the agreements reached at Chantilly in December 1915, whereby the British were comitted to join the French in a massive Entente attack in Picardy. By mid 1916 the need for this cooperation was especially urgent, in view of the pressure on France at Verdun and also because the Russians had kept faith with their promise and were smashing up the Central Powers in the Brusilov Offensive. Imagine the effect on the coalition war-making effort if the British renaged on their promise and insisted on straightening their line in Flanders instead of deploying on the Somme.

Phil.

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By so insisting, you would repudiate the agreements reached at Chantilly in December 1915, whereby the British were comitted to join the French in a massive Entente attack in Picardy.

Phil.

Fair point. The Somme thing was just an aside really, an extrapolation of the idea that the previous experience of assaulting the enemy dug in on ridge tops brought heavy loss for little gain. If the Ypres position was reduced to shorter frontage or not in mid 1915, the Chantilly could or would have followed the same course. I'm just saying that the ground in front of Ypres was never suitable for any allied offensive, should have been abandoned, and could have been in mid 1915.

Hugh

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Was it the expression of this rationale that got Horace Smith Dorrien the sack? 'orace your for 'ome. Is that right, 'ugh ?

Phil.

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Wars are fought with a much wider strategic aim than the reduction of casualties. Where would you withdraw to? Where would the front line run after you fell back through Ypres ? What would happen on either side? Would you give up Bethune? Loos? Arras? Albert? All came under constant artillery barrage. Any point on the front line which could be easily attacked and held against counterattack would have already have been attacked. The line settled down where we could no longer push the Germans back. To your way of thinking, the Germans should not have assaulted Verdun, the French should not have attacked Chemin des Dames and we should never have attacked at Vimy. Battles are fought where the reward for success is commensurate with the effort and the casualties which will certainly be sustained, not where casualties will hopefully be light.

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