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Retention of Ypres - Politically Important


PhilB
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FWIIW, I would not regard the specifics of an attack on Hill 60 as an indication of the "imperative behind decisions taken by the British high command in the Ypres sector". A very specific objective, like Hill 60, is of local tactical significance, and would barely register on the interests and thinking of GHQ, if at all. As to the best way to attack Hill 60, then the local commander would have made the decision. To understand why the attack was deemed necessary and why the method of frontal attack was chosen, then you would have to consult the Operations Order and other planning documents issued by the commander concerned.

The British High Command's rationale for attacking the high ground east of Ypres in 1917 has been extensively reviewed in this thread, and in the thread that discussed the planning of Third Ypres. The rationale was based on the strategic imperatives of engaging the German Army in attritional battle and preventing the continued use of Belgium ports by the German Navy. It so happened that the high ground lay between the British positions around Ypres and the fulfillment of the latter strategic imperative. Given the importance of the high ground to the Germans, who were determined to defend their presence on the coast, then the first strategic imperative was guaranteed by an attack that threatened the coast.

Robert

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Hugh,

is whether capturing high ground was a particular driving force or learned imperative behind decisions taken by the British high command in the Ypres sector

In most battles terrain plays a pivotal part and holding the high ground offers considerable advantages. Whether or not it becomes an imperative in fighting a battle depends on whether the high ground offers genuine tactical advantages over the remaining terrain and/or operational advantages for the campaign, which the Messines- Passchendaele Ridge did in both cases for the reasons discussed on this and other threads.

Is there a difficulty with a thrust towards the Ypres-Comines canal and at Klein Zillebeke that I am not taking into account?

I think you will find these would have constituted frontal attacks on a line that had no open flanks. Furthermore, by themselves they would have been no more than narrow local attacks. The question in return is: what are the objectives or intent of these attacks? As Robert says, Hill 60 is a minor tactical issue on a much greater operational and strategic canvas.

The thread Robert is referring to is here: http://1914-1918.invisionzone.com/forums/i...=69261&st=0 It is lengthy and one has to pick the eyes out of it but essentially it considers the options for attacking at Third Ypres and concludes that we could not improve on Haig's original intention.

Regarding Haig, perhaps this thread might be of interest http://1914-1918.invisionzone.com/forums/i...t+Road+Damascus.

Cheers

Chris

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J P Harris suggests that the German fortifications in the Salient of late 1917 were about the most formidable faced by the BEF with 4 lines of defence and 2 more under construction, arranged as defence in depth, a network of strongpoints with pillboxes, bunkers and concrete protected machine nests. Were GHQ aware of this and would it have changed their plans if they had been?

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GHQ was aware of the depth of the German positions around Third Ypres. It was GHQ who argued for a less ambitious advance on the first day of the attack, when reveiwing General Gough's battleplan for Fifth and Second Armies. It was not GHQ's role to be aware of every detail of the defensive positions, e.g. the presence of specific concrete pillboxes, etc. The various infantry Corps were responsible for collating this information, in part because the heavy artillery assets needed to neutralize strongpoints were under Corps' command. GHQ's Intelligence services fed information into the planning process, given that they had access to some items of intelligence from sources not available to the frontline intelligence services. Most of the detailed planning for the neutralization was based on information gained from repeated aerial obervation with photographs, and from captured German prisoners. The latter furnished details of the layouts of various strongpoints, which were published to the respective infantry divisions. Not every new position was located, however, before the offensive got underway.

In summary, the campaign of Third Ypres was launched with a specific set of high-level strategic objectives, taking into account the strength of the German defences.

Robert

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The definition of 'most strongly defended part of the Western Front' is J.P. Harris'. It reflects an Anglo-centric view that is not necessarily correct.

GHQ was aware that the attack would be against very strong defences. I have never seen any estimate from all of the detailed GHQ documents I have studied on Third Ypres that it was the 'most strongly defended part of the Western Front'.

GHQ anticipated that the attacks might be successful and that the attacks might fail. This dual approach was not specific to Third Ypres, however.

Robert

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But GHQ were aware that they were attacking the most strongly defended part of the Western Front?

Was it? Or are we accepting JP Harris's claims on face value? Given the extent to which he has distorted other sources of information in his book, to what extent can we believe his claim that Ypres was the MOST strongly defended part of the Western Front? While accepting the German position at Ypres was very strong I am not sure how Harris can be sure it was the STRONGEST position on the whole of the Western Front. Looking at trench maps in other areas four or five lines of defensive trenches were not uncommon. For example the defences at Bellicourt had an outpost line, two lines of trenches of the Hindenburg Line, one line at the Le Catelet Line and finally two lines of the Beaurevoir Line.

If the strategic imperative was to clear the channel ports, and perhaps turn the German flank, and at the same time engage the Germans in a battle of attrition, where else could they have attacked and achieved all of these aims?

Chris

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To be fair to Harris, his words were "German fortifications in this part of the front were fast becoming perhaps the most formidable the British had yet encountered". From the above posts, it seems that GHQ were aware of that, at least to a lerge extent. I wondered if the German preemptive strike at Nieuport combined with the knowledge of the German defences at Ypres might have changed plans. Evidently not, at least until the 3rd Ypres battles were well advanced?.

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Thanks for the full quote, Phil. Harris has made a reasonable assumption, given that it is caveated with "perhaps". FWIIW, I wouldn't assume that because the German fortifications were being increased then the Ypres salient was the strongest fortified sector on the Western Front. Nor would I assume that it was the most formidable encountered prior to July 31st 1917. No matter though, because these observations are merely a matter of degree. There is no question that the German defenses (fortifications, methods, etc) were very formidable. GHQ knew this. Everyone right down to chain knew it.

The German pre-emptive strike on Nieuport had a marginal effect on the planning process. It isn't even mentioned in the detailed planning documents that I have from Fifth and Second Armies. Rawlinson and Haig continued to discuss the criteria for launching Operation Hush after the German attack. Having a deeper British-held salient at Nieuport was not one of the criteria, so there were no major revisions needed. This is because Operation Hush was designed to give the Germans a hurry-along once their rear was definitely threatened. It was not designed to be a complete operation in and of itself. The major criterion was that the British attack should have got beyond Passchendaele ridge. Had this been achieved, then German coastal defences would have been very vulnerable to being cut-off. The hold around Nieuport would have become very tenuous, enabling the British troops in this area to launch a delayed counter-attack with some certainty of success.

Robert

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  • 2 weeks later...

Some further information from Alan Palmer's book on the salient.

1. Haig suggesting withdrawing to the equivalent of the GHQ Line during First Ypres. Palmer suggests that this suggestion was overruled by Foch.

2. The French were the first to create the GHQ Line, in January 1915 when they were responsible for the salient.

Robert

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Is it possible that withdrawal from the Salient was militarily indicated at some stages of the war but not at others - or were the considerations always the same?

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In this thread, it has been demonstrated that the option of shrinking the salient back towards Ypres was considered on three occasions: First Ypres; Second Ypres; and during the execution of Operation Georgette in 1918. All three occasions were associated with German offensives involving the salient. In First and Second Ypres, partial withdrawals took place as a direct result of German attacks. Foch played a significant role in limiting the extent and the timing of the withdrawals in both cases. During Operation Georgette, the withdrawal was conducted as a pre-emptive measure, in order to shorten the lines and free up resources to bolster the defence of the area to the southwest of Ypres. The British advocated complete withdrawal from the sector, abandoning Ypres as well. Foch resisted this suggestion too, though it is still not clear to me that the British were intending to withdraw or that they were pushing Foch to get him to put reinforcements where his mouth was, so to speak. Arrangements, in the form of temporary defensive lines, were made in the event that a withdrawal towards St Omers was required, demonstrating that the British were not totally wedded to the Ypres salient because of the losses that occurred there in 1914.

Robert

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So withdrawal was a good option for defence purposes but not for potential offense. A delicate question for the CinC as to whether short term tactics or long term strategy should decide. Do I bolster my defence now or keep the status quo to help a future advance? Would withdrawal to a GHQ or Ypres line have made a future Passchendaele type offensive much more difficult?

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Many reasons must have been at work over the years that the British and French held Ypres, to impel them to hold on. Some strategic, some tactical and some political. These would have changed, in emphasis at least, over the period. One of the facts we should perhaps bear in mind is that the line settled where each side could defend itself except against a major effort. If The Entente were able to sit on the defense at Ypres it was at least partly due to the fact that the Germans could not oust them from that line without such an effort. The killing at Ypres was not all on one side.

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At a meeting of the War Cabinet (401) at 12 noon on 30 April 1918, the question of a withdrawal from Ypres was once again discussed. It was in the context of "which would be the more costly", an attack to retake Kemmel or remaining at Ypres while the enemy held Kemmel. CIGS Wilson agreed to discuss the matter with Foch. Has anyone seen documentary evidence of Wilson's discussion with Foch?

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