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Remembered Today:

Many marbles


marksealey

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As a child at school, one learnt quickly that it's easier to land a marble in a hole if you throw in a handful at a time!

Did similar thinking lie behind the strategy of sending masses of men over the top: that if enough were sent, some may 'make it' and be successful?

And others (50%?) would inevitably perish?

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Somewhat simplistic - what do you mean by "make it"? Different bodies of soldiers would have different objectives, some would be trying to break into the enemy's front line, others would be tasked to push on further and secure certain key points, others would follow up and do mopping up and or consoidation. Planning a WW1 battle was very complex and became more so as the war progressed.

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centurion,

Thanks for that clarification: I need to look into the different roles they played.

(I think I may have imagined that everyone was ordered out of the trenches in an attack merely to 'run at' the Germans. Not so, obviously; thanks.)

But even then, weren't far more men employed in trying to achieve each of those objectives than could have done so if (it had been known in advance that) everyone was going to survive?

And by what in hindsight turned out to be a factor of two to one?

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Maybe you should go to the Book Review forum and make yourself a reading list.

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Mark,

A study of some of the war diaries will show you how attacks were planned and the different objectives allocated to elements within an infantry battalion. The following diary from 1/4 King's Own is available online from the National Archives for £3.30 (PayPal accepted). In it are pages of detailed preparations for the attacks in 3rd Ypres in July and September 1917. The whole point of any infantry attack is to hit defences with an overwhelming number of attackers- any assault that is delivered piecemeal is easily beaten back by defenders. 'Fire and movement' had been taught from well before the beginning of the war, but by 1917 the advent of the Lewis gun and rifle grenade had opened up the possibilities for very sophisticated infantry tactics and those used in the attacks in the Salient by 55 Division in 1917 were hardly different from those I was taught in the 1970's.

regards,

Kevin

http://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/SearchUI/Details?uri=C14055950

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Kevin,

Thanks so much for your helpful reply, and pointer to those resources.

I shall look at those details. You're helping me see that such attacks were not random, nor considered overkill. But part of a planned strategy.

I see there is a new book on 'Fire and Movement' to appear in the autumn…

If an 'overwhelming number of attackers' is needed, isn't it still inevitable that a huge number will - to continue my marbles-in-the hole metaphor - fail/fall?

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If an 'overwhelming number of attackers' is needed, isn't it still inevitable that a huge number will - to continue my marbles-in-the hole metaphor - fail/fall?

Probably fewer than if the attacking force was smaller. On 31st July 1917, the attackers from 55 Division used 'walking fire' to suppress enemy fire. (shooting from the hip whilst advancing) (It was standard practice with Soviet forces during Cold War and it's surprising how accurate this can be with practice- I found I could consistently hit a Coke can at 25 meters with an SLR when we tried it and get pretty close with a first round shot at 50 metres.) The tactic was analysed after the battle and it was found to be effective in keeping the enemy's heads down, though Stockwell, 164 Brigade commander considered it expensive in ammunition, but the more attackers there are, then the more rounds keeping the enemy's aim poor.

Infantry would attack in 'waves', with a typical battalion attack over a longish distance such as the 3rd Ypres, split into a formation of two companies forward (side by side) and two following behind them. The lead companies would have a two platoon front, side by side, 5-10 yards between each section, a gap of 25 yards and the next two platoons following behind. The following company would be spaced 100 yards further back and use a similar formation.

Infantry would advance in 'artillery' formation- single file, until engaged from the front, when they would move into line abreast. (If any enfilading fire was heavier than fire from the front they would stay in artillery formation). Once engaged from the front by say a machine gun position, the rifle section, the rifle grenadiers and the Lewis section would go to ground and engage the target, whilst the bombers would attack the position from the sides or rear. The after-action reports from 1/4 King's Own show total confidence that providing there were enough attackers to provide covering fire, that any single position (linked positions were a different matter) could be taken with no more than a five minute delay using this tactic. If defensive fire was very heavy, the attackers would advance in a series of small rushes, the sections not moving, providing covering fire whilst the others got to cover and the roles reversed.

Attacks and large trench raids were rehearsed many times before the actual attack, usually on similar ground with the enemy positions marked with tape or 'spitlock' trenches (just dug down a few feet). Men studied models of the target and aerial photos until all men knew their objective and much of the time men were trained to take up at least the next position in the chain of command. One Sgt commented on the preparations in his after-action reports after the July 31st 1917 attacks that, "even the most dense man in my platoon knew what his job was." 55 Division practice was for the senior surviving man in each platoon to write a detailed report after an attack, giving his opinion of what was good and what was bad about the attack. These were then studied by company commanders, the CO, by brigade commanders and then by the divisional commander himself. Jeudwine even visited the battalions who had taken part in attacks and raids and discussed these informally with platoon NCOs. It's quite clear when studying the series of after-action reports that issues raised in earlier reports were dealt with, as these don't tend to reappear.

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If an 'overwhelming number of attackers' is needed, isn't it still inevitable that a huge number will - to continue my marbles-in-the hole metaphor - fail/fall?

Do you have any concept of the great war?

Men on both sides defending/ trying to advance along a 400 mile front. These were men involved at times in hand to hand fighting. No computer fly by wire technology back then.

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Johnboy,

Do you have any concept of the great war?

That's what I'm trying to develop!

Although I am a historian, this is not a polemic :-)

Yes, I would - if pushed - tend (at this point in my studies at least) to subscribe to the theory that lives were wasted.

I just want to understand the thinking of those who commanded when waves of attackers were sent over the top in the surely certain knowledge that their movement forward against gunfire was like that of… a handful of marbles being loosely aimed at a hole. Thanks…

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Kevin,

Thanks. That's really illuminating.

I learnt three things from your post:

  1. there is a wort of reciprocal 'safety' in numbers… small groups could more easily be picked off
  2. it wasn't just a mass run to an objective
  3. there were rehearsals - hence, presumably whistles and synchronised watches?

I'm going to reread and digest. Appreciated. I am beginning to see there was much more to it than a mad rush.

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Kevin,

Thanks. That's really illuminating.

I learnt three things from your post:

  1. there is a wort of reciprocal 'safety' in numbers… small groups could more easily be picked off
  2. it wasn't just a mass run to an objective
  3. there were rehearsals - hence, presumably whistles and synchronised watches?

I'm going to reread and digest. Appreciated. I am beginning to see there was much more to it than a mad rush.

Synchronised watches, artillery barrages, with rate of fire timed to the minute, with 'lifts' specified to the yard. Men in the sections of the flanks detailed to keep touch with units on the flanks, etc, etc. If you read that diary I suggested- look for Operational Order 44a and 44 at the end of July 1917 and 52a at the end of September 17 to see the level of planning- none of the artillery and other arms orders are in that diary, but they are all equally detailed. An example of an after-action report from one of the NCO's below.

b526fffa-58b9-42d2-a16f-2240b2b16aa5_zps

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Kevin,

It's all beginning to make more sense, now. Thanks. Two questions suggest themselves, though, don't they:

  1. men in any given push surely knew that they stood a good chance of being casualties because of the magnitude of the opposing fire to which, however well-planned, they were exposed?
  2. is the 'huge numbers slaughtered' description of WF action too simple?

Your help much appreciated!

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Kevin,

It's all beginning to make more sense, now. Thanks. Two questions suggest themselves, though, don't they:

  1. men in any given push surely knew that they stood a good chance of being casualties because of the magnitude of the opposing fire to which, however well-planned, they were exposed?
  2. is the 'huge numbers slaughtered' description of WF action too simple?

Your help much appreciated!

The men had to trust their officers and the gunners laying the barrage. The barrage was meant to cover the advancing men and do damage to the enemy trenches. The attacks were planned beforehand.

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It's called war. Inevitably lives were lost. Techniques were perfected by trial and error. Until 1917 technology and techniques of defence were better than those of attack. Where lives wasted? If you look at the consequences of the war being lost and Germany consuming Europe it becomes an interesting question. They gave their lives and we still enjoy our freedom. You call it. I know where I stand.

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Hi

Considering the day today, what was D-Day? It was a 'Frontal Attack' on a well defended position where 'everyone knew' casualties could be high. To minimise casualties the infantry went 'over the top' (or rather in landing craft and then onto the beach) under the cover of 'artillery fire' (from naval guns and aircraft) and smoke screens, using tanks and 'fire and manouver' to get close to the defences and fight their way through them. All methods used in WW1 for 'frontal attack' on a trench system! So were the WW2 'Generals' stupid during D-Day or were they (like WW1 Generals) using the methods they had to overcome enemy defences?

Mike

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Plus of course 'air'.

Absolutely- official estimates for casualties for the Glider Pilot Regiment on Operation Tonga was 80%- luckily they were wrong or I may not be here now typing this!

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One absolutely awesome attack was against the Givenchy Craters on 24th August 1918. Attackers sent squads out overnight to cut gaps in both British and German wire. There was no preliminary bombardment, but a regular harrassing fire by trench mortars and all the battalion's snipers were out making life difficult for enemy sentries during the night.The attackers were laying up in No-Man's Land a mere fifty yards from the enemy's line some five hours before the attack. (They'd even been given sandwiches and chocolate to sustain them during the wait) At 0720 hrs a signal rocket was fired to start the attack and the infantry rushed the defences, reaching them before the enemy could react. The enemy didn't even fire their first shot until two and half minutes into the attack and their first SOS rocket didn't go up until four minutes after the start of the attack and that was from well behind their lines. At 0730 hrs British artillery began a bombardment of enemy positions to the rear of the craters and by 0735 hrs all the craters were taken and fire positions established on the far rim of each crater and telephone communications established back to battalion HQ. At 0733 hrs German artillery began a feeble bombardment well behind the attackers, unsure of where their own troops were. At 0743 hrs, patrols went forward to destroy trench mortar positions and the battalion got its first casualties when some British guns fired short. The battalion snipers had established positions on higher ground to the rear and as they had a better view of the objective than the attacking company commanders, each sniper had a couple of runners attached to send information forward to the attacking force. Two hours after the attack, all positions were consolidated, the RE had cleared all dugouts for booby traps and communication trenches had been dug forward to the new positions. The tactical gains were considerable as it now gave the British a view down into German positions, the cost to the British being 11 dead and 40 wounded, half the casualties coming from the barrage that dropped short.

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I think there was a view ( from Paddy Griffiths excellent book on Battle Tactic ) in official thinking along the following....

One wave will always fail

Two will usually fail but sometimes succeed

Three will usually succeed but sometimes fail

Four will always succeed

Not sure if I've got my source right and not sure I would agree but there is some logic in it.

TT

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Repeating (if I may) that my posts are not polemical, but ones of inquiry, isn't the logic of this that there is likely to be greater success in greater numbers?

And that thus - since higher numbers must involve higher losses - the marbles-in-the-hole metaphor is a good one?

IOW, I now understand the military logic of mass attack - thanks to those who've helped :-)

But wasn't it, by its very nature, costly?

After all, Haig's policy was attrition no matter what the cost in lives.

One wave will always fail
Two will usually fail but sometimes succeed
Three will usually succeed but sometimes fail
Four will always succeed

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Mark I think you are quite brave for asking the question in the first place and now that you have asked it, I will admit when entering this, of having the same thoughts on WW1 myself. I thought they defended their trenches and had battles where one side just threw men at the other in the hope that they would break the other side and the more men they threw at them, the better the chances of success. I thought it ended because one side was running out of men and resources to keep their men going. I think I held the simplistic view on WW1 of the average person in the street.

Then, I read a battalion war diary, followed by their brigade diary, followed by their divisional diaries. What an education I received in training, tactics and planning. I would recommend you do the same. Choose a regiment and battalion one that stays in the same division throughout the war otherwise you will have to download more than one. Then follow that battalion through its diary and look at the corresponding brigade and divisional diaries. Reading these answered many of the internal questions I had about the war, so I had no need to ask the questions. After that, I turned my attention to books those about the men at higher levels such as Haig.

Recommending to read books is fine but you need to know which books to read and you need to have some of the jargon under your belt to start with and I must admit reading through battalion diaries, I had to consult dictionaries from time to time.

I found it a steep learning curve but an enjoyable one.

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Higher numbers do not equate to higher casualties! The more attackers you have, the more likely you are to overwhelm the defence before it can be effective, therefore reducing casualties. 'To win a fight you first win the firefight', a concept familiar to every infantryman in the Great War and today (numerous contemporary references to this in after-action reports, it's not just a modern concept) and the way you do this is by putting so much fire onto, and close to, the enemy that their ability to return accurate fire is degraded. Clearly the more men shooting at the defenders, the better this works.

War is always going to result in death and injury, but is something that politicians decide upon, not the military. Any commander that just sat there doing nothing is soon going to be replaced and in the long run casualties would be even higher, as a war lasts a lot longer. Any analysis of an infantry battalion in the Great War would show that about 40% of their fatalities came from just holding the line, so mathematically there would come a time when prolonging a war by not attacking would kill more than just sitting there. Trenchtrotter's quote fits in nicely with the military truism still used today, that an attacker needs to outnumber a defender by three or four to one to succeed. It is only when you have the advantage of a 'force multiplier' (to use a modern expression) that you can get away with a lower ratio.

The policy of attrition was simply the only plausible way to fight a war when both sides were too strong for any single thrust to lead to breakthrough and the collapse of the other. The death rate in the mobile phases of the war in 1914 and 1918 was considerably higher anyway! (for complex and mixed reasons, but basically difficulty of providing supporting fire and lack of protective cover) The Western Front ran along ground that, on the whole, had been chosen by the Germans to give them tactical advantage and if breakthrough were to have any chance of success then it wasn't going to happen from a starting point of tactical disadvantage.

Haig and other generals did not deliberately waste men's lives needlessly. Countless occasions arose when generals have cancelled attacks as they believed that the losses would outweigh the gains. On 3 August 1916 on the Somme, Haig sent a communication to the army groups on the Somme instructing that this phase would be a "wearing out" battle (attrition) and that "economy of men and material" were to be maintained and that attacks should not happen unless "the responsible commanders on the spot are satisfied that everything possible has been done to ensure success."

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IRC Kevin, I do agree with you and I know that now but it wasn't always so and it we all have the starting point of nothing or misconceptions. While researching I became quite engrossed in the content of the diaries, I learned and absorbed as I went along. I then chose to further my own learning in various aspects of the war by making reading choices and I continue to do that, each time broadening into another aspect of the war.

Now, occasionally I reflect and am surprised at myself. I am responding to topics I would never have dared to do a few years ago. It hasn't occurred overnight, it has been a long voyage of discovery that continues down the paths of my choosing. I think most people would agree, you need to spend a lot of time reading around a subject before you can develop your own informed opinions. It is down to the individual how they accommodate and assimilate information that will eventually change their opinions and ideas.

As in individual, I am more influenced by the advice of others than the opinions of others and prefer to use the advice to seek out information for myself, learn, form an opinion of my own. Whereas others might readily accept the opinions of others - how does that person then react when they come across someone with a different opinion? Do they defend the opinion they have gained from another? Do they then have a conflict of opinions? I don't really know - everyone takes their own route to learning.

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Seaforths,

Thanks for your post!

IRC Kevin kindly pointed me to just such a document, which I bought and downloaded.

Yes; I expect it to show much more precise strategy than massive numbers against massive numbers in the hope that sheer… numbers will win out in the end.

OTOH - generations of historians and commentators at the time and since have… 'marvelled' at the huge loss of numbers, apparently for very little.

So maybe the truth lies somewhere in between: the strategists, the generals, the politicians even (though I have read that Lloyd-George was disturbed at Haig's apparent disregard for the lives of those marbles who fell outside the hole simply because some of the marbles did hit home) had clear, cold military theories, which - in terms of achieving objectives - seemed to work by certain criteria.

But - surely it cannot be denied - millions of lives were lost in the achievement of those aims, whether by accident or design.

Was it really the only way - militarily?

For example, and - at the risk of repeating myself - my inquiry is not a polemic - I can see how mines placed under German/Central Powers trenches cost the lives of very few Allied miners. No attrition there. No marbles throne there.

But the exposure over no mans land?

…I thought they defended their trenches and had battles where one side just threw men at the other in the hope that they would break the other side and the more men they threw at them, the better the chances of success. I thought it ended because one side was running out of men and resources to keep their men going. I think I held the simplistic view on WW1 of the average person in the street.…

I have no intention of not refining my understanding about what I sense folk here are saying is a misconception. Thanks again!

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IRC Kevin,

Thanks again for that illuminating post - yet again.

Something you don't refer to, which strengthens your case further, is the ratio between deaths as a (direct) result of the very conditions in the trenches without even a whisper of an attack and 'action'. Isn't it about 50-50?

The more attackers you have, the more likely you are to overwhelm the defence before it can be effective, therefore reducing casualties.

So would it be true to say that more attackers were used in the genuine belief that they could actually shorten the length(s) of and reduce the number of battles?

Is the 'slaughtered millions' view of WWI depicted and described by WWI poets and writers since very wide of the mark?

(Not a political or ethical question - please?)

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