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Retention of Ypres - Politically Important


PhilB
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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

According to a TV programme I`ve just watched, that was probably the German view too. It`s claimed that, following Verdun, the German High Command decided to stay on the defensive in chosen and very strong defences and to let the Allies attack, assuming the new defence lines to be impregnable. The so called Hindenburg Line was an integral part but the Flanders lines were left in situ, so they were presumably considered unbreakable. This situation lasted for almost two years.

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QUOTE (Phil_B @ Jul 1 2009, 10:32 PM) <{POST_SNAPBACK}>
2/ It will remove the "nipping out" option.
Phil, I presume you are referring to the possibility of the Germans attacking the Ypres salient on both sides and cutting the salient off. As you know, the Germans made two determined efforts to do this in 1914 and 1915. Are you saying to your French counterpart that the British are now not capable of defending of the salient and preventing this happening?

3/ It will mean I only have enemy to my front, not to both sides as well.
Interesting, especially when you take into account the French position just to the north, specifically around Dixmude. I have added a map with the red-dotted line indicating where the front line was prior to the Battle of Messines. If the Ypres salient is removed so that the British only have the Germans to the front, then the French will be even more exposed on the south side of their salient. Are you saying that the British can't cope with having the enemy on the sides, but the French can?

post-1473-1246552301.jpg

Robert

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... a forward line of intersecting machine guns waiting for the German move down the forward slopes of their previous position.
Hugh, do you mean when the Germans move forward to occupy the ground that has been abandoned, or do you mean when the Germans launch an offensive to capture Ypres after having occupied the abandoned ground?

Robert

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The former, Robert.

Good map, that, as it shows the high ground. Shows the possibility of linking a line in front of Kemmel behind Ypres with the French/Belgian canal line South West of Dixmiude.

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Just to make the debate still more concrete, here is a map of the salient pre-Messines. The line is marked in dotted red.

I have taken the liberty of creating a new line that follows the canal into Ypres. It has the dotted purple colour.

Where should the new line go from Ypres? The graph has been overlaid to enable folks to specify exactly where the line would go. Please note that the red dotted line cannot be advanced to the right at all, eg to indicate the taking of Messines and Wytschaete.

post-1473-1246556913.jpg

Robert

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Thanks for the comments, Robert. I`m afraid a sentence starting with "Are you saying that..." usually begs the answer "Not really"!

In removing the nipping out option, I`m not saying " I can`t defend against it" but " I`ll remove that option from the enemy`s tactical menu" and "I`ll no longer have to beef up the shoulders to guard against the possibility".

As regards Dixmude, would I be right in thinking that that lesser salient actually follows the canal line, which would make it an obvious line of defence?

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Shows the possibility of linking a line in front of Kemmel behind Ypres with the French/Belgian canal line South West of Dixmiude.
Hugh, do you mean abandoning Ypres altogether?

Robert

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Well, we were talking about a line further back earlier in the string.

In the case of the above excellent map, you've kindly marked the Ypres-Comines canal below the town. I'd propose linking from D4a (St Eloi), NNE to a line in front of the ramparts around Hellfire Corner.

Hugh

post-19252-1246559101.jpg

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QUOTE (Phil_B @ Jul 2 2009, 06:51 PM) <{POST_SNAPBACK}>
As regards Dixmude, would I be right in thinking that that lesser salient actually follows the canal line, which would make it an obvious line of defence?
Only to the south of Dixmude. To the north, the front line followed the elevated railway track, with the inundations to the east.

Robert

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Hindenburg made this pithy comment in his memoir, referring to the fighting of April 1918 "....Our adversary began to withdraw from the Ypres salient which he had pushed out in months of fighting in 1917. Yet to the last Flemish city he clung as if to a jewel which he was unwilling to lose for political reasons."

The bold print is mine.

We need to consider the German perspective. I wonder if the Germans saw the British fixation on Ypres as a tactical trump card. It suited them to keep the British army there : to maintain a constant harrasing fire from three sides, and to compound this by making local attacks ( such as Mount Sorrel ) would ensure that the BEF would cling resolutely to territory...perhaps the Allies were dancing to Germany's tune. I do not think that the Germans were content to sit back and await attack in the Flanders salient : maybe they were more pro-active, and, by judicious use of terraine and firepower, coupled with siginificant local attacks, they ensured that the British were made to feel that they could not leave. Keep up the pressure and provoke relentlessly, and the British will fall into the trap and bleed profusely...a profitable situation for the Germans.

Phil.

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I wonder if the tactical withdrawal proposal of 1915 had been voiced or written by any other commander than Smith Dorrien it might have received more consideration.

Hey General Robert, do you think there's any sense in any of this, or are you just indulging the fantasists?

We need to consider the German perspective. I wonder if the Germans saw the British fixation on Ypres as a tactical trump card. It suited them to keep the British army there : to maintain a constant harrasing fire from three sides

I'm wondering if they didn't use this to tactical effect in 2nd Ypres. The Germans had limited forces available for this attack, and crucially were able to anchor their flanks, on the canal on one side, and on the rising ground on the other.They could calculate that they were safe from counter attack there. Why move down to less advantageous ground on the plain in front of Ypres. As Allied soldiers said of 2nd Ypres, 'they could just have walked into the town' at some points. But in an attack such as this with limited objectives, they had to consider the shape of their resulting front line. Allied soldiers seemed surprised that the Germans began digging so soon after they advanced. Does this not point to a certain satisfaction with the south eastern portion of the Salient?

Hugh

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General Smith-Dorrien suggested shrinking the size of the salient, not abandoning Ypres. He proposed the GHQ line, which was still east of Ypres.

Robert

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...do you think there's any sense in any of this...

We need to consider the German perspective. I wonder if the Germans saw the British fixation on Ypres as a tactical trump card. It suited them to keep the British army there : to maintain a constant harrasing fire from three sides

Hugh, I don't think there is any sense in this. Once the Race to the Sea had ended, the Germans launched four major offensives on the Western Front: First Ypres; Second Ypres; Verdun; and the Spring offensives, one of which (Operation Georgette) was aimed at Flanders. Offhand, I don't know the German casualty rates for 1st and 2nd Ypres, nor Operation Georgette, but the total would be very significant IMHO. Then there were the very significant losses sustained in the Battle of Messines and subsequent battles in Third Ypres. To suggest that the German High Command somehow toyed with the British in the Ypres salient seems to seriously under-estimate the German High Command and, more importantly, the significance of this region. But I will come back to this issue later in this thread.

Robert

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I'd propose linking from D4a (St Eloi), NNE to a line in front of the ramparts around Hellfire Corner.
Thanks, Hugh. The two options are clearly illustrated on the maps. I will translate these suggestions onto higher resolution maps of the area. Then we can discuss the purely tactical issues that might have arisen with both options.

Robert

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Hindenburg made this pithy comment in his memoir, referring to the fighting of April 1918 "....Our adversary began to withdraw from the Ypres salient which he had pushed out in months of fighting in 1917. Yet to the last Flemish city he clung as if to a jewel which he was unwilling to lose for political reasons."
Phil, sour grapes would be another way of describing Hindenburg's comment. Two major campaigns (First and Second Ypres) failed to take Ypres, neither of which took place during Hindenburg's time on the Western Front. Operation Georgette was launched by Ludendorff under Hindenburg's command. Despite the eventual capture of Mt Kemmel, the Germans failed to dislodge or cut-off the British from the French. Ypres did not fall, though the salient was deliberately contracted back to the GHQ line (roughly). This action was based on a pro-active decision, and was not due to direct military force (but was due indirectly to the cumulative effects of the Spring offensives). The decision showed that the loss of lives in gaining the expanded salient did not override the military imperative to free up divisions by shortening the line. It should be noted that the specific area of the Somme battlefield was not bitterly contested in Spring 1918 just because so many British lives had been lost there in 1916. There were defensive actions in some places, but the major line of defence was established further west, including the abandonment of Albert.

Although the capture of Mt Kemmel made things more unpleasant in the contracted salient, the Germans were equally in trouble, if not more so, within the salient they had created, particularly along the southern flank and base near Givenchy.

Robert

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Were the Germans really trying to take Ypres in April/May 1915 ? I doubt it. This was a local offensive, testing a new weapon and, it would appear, conducted in a fairly tentative way. As for the casualties at 2nd Ypres, the Germans appear to have enjoyed a two to one advantage, inflicting 59000 British, an estimated 10000 French and about 1500 Belgian casualties for a loss of 35000 to themselves. In my simplistic way, I see a formula here that Falkenhayn was to try the following year at Verdun. This was very different from 1st Ypres, in which the German attacks were prodigal and the strategic objective commensurate : the rolling up of the Entente flank on the Western Front and the capture of the Channel Ports.

I admit that it can hardly be argued that the Germans were "toying" with the British in the Salient, but I do suspect that the Germans might have regarded it as a position from which they could engage in some serious fighting which would yield them very positive attritional results. I wish I knew more about those battles around Mount Sorrel in 1916 : I reckon that the character of those local battles might bear out my suggestion.

The more I dwell on this, the more I think that Falkenhayn was judicious in his approach to strategy on the Western Front in 1915 and 1916. Verdun is regarded as his folly, but it's easy to appreciate the rationale if you look at what had been happening in the Ypres Salient.

Of course, we have to acknowledge that, apart from any political considerations regarding the "last Flemish city", the limited depth of the front compared with the deeper and wider arena of Picardy made the loss of territiry far more frightening in Flanders.

Phil.

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This was a local offensive, testing a new weapon and, it would appear, conducted in a fairly tentative way.
Phil, the earliest phase of the battle may have started in this way, particularly the tentative follow-up to the first release of the gas. It quickly developed, however, into a major battle that lasted several weeks. The Germans made several efforts to expand the re-entrant they created. Put another way, they tried to reduce the Ypres salient and were not simply passive in the face of the numerous Allied counter-attacks.

I don't have the full details of the Battle of Mt Sorrel immediately to hand. IIRC, it was not a battle that was designed primarily to be attritional in nature. The fact that at least one Württemberg division was involved means that it should be possible to get more detailed insights into the planning and rationale for the battle, from the German perspective.

Robert

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If there is any truth in the suggestion that the Germans were happy to allow the BEF to attack in the Salient, it would date from the inception of the Hindenburg Line plan (Probably when the Verdun Offensive was deemed to have run its course). It would be part of an overall scheme to make the Western Front impregnable and to facilitate attrition of the BEF by sitting on the defensive till the most opportune time to throw all into a Grand Offensive. The absence of any serious and large scale German attack between Verdun and Somme 1918 is supportive of that view.

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Phil, I strongly recommend that you read Jack Sheldon's new book when it comes out. It covers the Battle of Cambrai, but Jack has devoted a whole section to the creation of the Hindenburg Line, and the debates/controversies that surrounded it within the German High Command. The problem was not as simple as you suggest, given that the Germans were themselves suffering from the attrition of the Somme and Verdun. The angst involved in deciding to withdraw, and the reasons for this angst, should indicate what would have happened if the British had tried to do the same thing from the Ypres salient.

The Germans did not want to sit passively on the Western Front. They had to, particularly if they were going to put effort into taking Russia out and end the problem of the two fronts. The Austro-Hungarian Empire was in deep trouble, and it took a lot to ensure that the Russians collapsed first.

Robert

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Of course, we have to acknowledge that, apart from any political considerations regarding the "last Flemish city", the limited depth of the front compared with the deeper and wider arena of Picardy made the loss of territory far more frightening in Flanders.
Phil, yes it is important to acknowledge this. From the German perspective as well. As Chris has already pointed out, the Germans had little room for manoeuvre beyond the high ground of the Passchendaele ridge. If you go to this post here then you will see the excellent maps that MartH kindly uploaded. In the lowest of the two maps, there is a heavy green line that starts just north of Dixmude and passes down through Roulers. This line represented the furthest point that Kronprinz Rupprecht felt could be defended by the Germans before the U-Boat bases on the coast would have to be abandoned. Until the second phase of heavy rains came during the Third Ypres campaign, real concerns were building that the British might reach the line. Operation Georgette was originally conceived by Rupprecht as a counter-attack to the British continuing their offensive towards this line in the Spring of 1918. So the Ypres salient should not be thought of as a mere plaything for causing attrition. It was strategically important to both sides.

Robert

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Operation Georgette was originally conceived by Rupprecht as a counter-attack to the British continuing their offensive towards this line in the Spring of 1918.
I posted some information about this here.

Robert

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The Germans did not want to sit passively on the Western Front.

Robert

No, they certainly did not want to, and I feel more inclined to the view that they did not. We tend to view the fighting on the Western Front in 1915, 16 and 17 as a series of Entente attacks against strong German defenses, with the conspicuous exception of Verdun, and the lesser but significant battle of Second Ypres. This, I think, fails to take into account large numbers of local German attacks : against the British at Vimy and Mount Sorrel in the early summer of 1916, and against the French at many places along the front - a good example being the attacks they mounted in the Argonne in the summer of 1915. These were local affairs, but they were characterised by lavish use of firepower on small sectors, combined with innovative technology - gas, flamethrowers - and a corresponding economy of manpower. The attritional prospects of this fighting were good for the Germans, as we see from the disparity between Allied and German casualties. The Germans were not passive on the Western Front - they were the invaders, and hence the attackers - and I think that they were adept at combining use of terraine, firepower and good defensive positions with a lethal aggression....pressure, provocation and exploitation; this was put to good effect at Ypres.

The British success at Messines ( and perhaps at Arras?) marked the end of this German ascendancy, both at Ypres and at other areas of the Western Front. The Allies, especially the British, were becoming much more adept. Messines must have been a frightful shock to the Germans - both literally and in terms of their sense of tactical superiority.

I must stop, because I'm wandering away from the original question of this thread...

Phil.

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The Germans did not want to sit passively on the Western Front. They had to, particularly if they were going to put effort into taking Russia out and end the problem of the two fronts. The Austro-Hungarian Empire was in deep trouble, and it took a lot to ensure that the Russians collapsed first.

Robert

I agree from an early time the Germans did want the option of sitting passively on as much of the Western Front as possible, given the unknown military capability of Russia and their Austro Hungarian allies. They needed to hold a front, parts of which could if need be be lightly defended.

After the defeat on the Marne, they retreated to the Aisne heights, and were able to resist a fierce onslaught. Once that battle subsided, from a defensive point of view they were (I'm guessing) able to hold that front lightly given that they had such an advantage from the terrain.

Having had this experience, once initial contact between the armies took place to the east of Ypres in 1914, an examination of maps must have shown the Germans that capturing the ridge line from Ploegsteert to Passendaele was a primary objective in order to stabilise the line in the best possible geographical position. The same goes for the Somme sector.

The point I'm making is that German stratergists were concentrated on choosing the physical features of the landscape in their own favour. But given the opportunities to do do the same in a limited way at Ypres, the Allied commanders unable to make that leap of imagination, except H. S-D who got sacked for suggesting it.

If you don't have the forces to win outright in the West, attrition is the answer. Hence Verdun, inspired in my view by the Allies dogged holding of Ypres. The Allies at Ypres aided the success of this strategy. The Germans almost seem to goad the allies into action at times, such as Mount Sorrel and the Bluff mines of 1916. The two biggest mines of 21.01.16 and the fifteen ton explosion of 25.07.16 were not even followed up by attempts to capture the craters.

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The point I'm making is that German stratergists were concentrated on choosing the physical features of the landscape in their own favour.
They had to earn the advantages of the high ground around Ypres the hard way. They did not withdraw to it, as was the case with the Chemin des Dames for example. They had to fight for every inch of Messines-Wytschaete ridge, and every part of the Gheluvelt-Passchendaele-Staden ridge that was captured during First and Second Ypres.

But given the opportunities to do do the same in a limited way at Ypres, the Allied commanders unable to make that leap of imagination...
Sorry Hugh but this statement is complete tosh. Allied commanders knew right well the importance of holding as much high ground as possible, and as many of the other terrain features such as the woods. They fought hard, along with their troops, to achieve this in the face of overwhelming odds at times. Please don't belittle their efforts and their intelligence.

Robert

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They fought hard, along with their troops, to achieve this in the face of overwhelming odds at times. Please don't belittle their efforts and their intelligence.

Robert

Steady on there, that's a bit of a low blow. It's the fighting against the 'overwhelming odds' that I'm trying to explore.

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