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Steven Broomfield

Furchtbarkeit - 'Most Feared' Divisions

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Steven Broomfield

I'm currently reading Friends are Good on the Day of Battle (on the 51st Highland Division) by Craig French, and in it the author mentions the alleged German list of most-feared British divisions. He references a note from the Pall Mall Gazette on 6th February 1918 (held in the IWM) in which a captured document was quoted as putting (obviously) the 51st as the most-feared British division (29th second and Guards third). The author notes that the document has never been found, and his evidence comes pretty third-hand.

 

I have seen this document referenced before (first time was probably 50 years ago) but I can never recall any conclusive evidence as to whether it really existed or was the imagination of some British press wallah.

 

I have tried a Forum search (unsuccessfully) to see if this has been discussed before, so if it has, I apologise.

 

Has anyone any evidence either way on this?

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bierast

The term 'most-feared' smells like British propaganda to me, but I would be astonished if the Germans did not maintain and circulate qualitative assessments of British divisions similar to the well-known British qualitative assessments of German divisions (which can be seen in e.g. the book 251 Divisions of the German Army Which Participated in the War).

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AOK4

I haven't seen German assessments of British divisions (although I think they must have had them), but the Germans at least did have assessments of their own divisions, such a list I have seen before.

 

Jan

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Steven Broomfield

Thanks. I'm surprised this has elicited such little response from members: I'm sure I can't be the only one who has wondered about the provenance and truth of this alleged list.

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Guest

This topic has been debated a number of times and largely ends up in tribal disputes about Dominion Troops v Scots v the rest and arbitrary lists of Divisions that generally dont all agree on the alleged order. It has similar qualities to the imagined list of 'smartest regiments'. .... Some respected authors such as Simkins certainly believe such a list existed, although I have not seen the provenance of the alleged evidence.

 

It is difficult to understand how Divisions could be assessed and compared. They were constantly changing in composition, quality of recruits (volunteers then conscripts) and leadership as well as the opposition tey faced and the conditions in which they fought. It is a multi-factored model that would be impossible to objectively assess. At best the alleged list would be a highly subjective assessment by a few individuals over a short period of time.

 

I don't doubt some Divisions were more feared than others, but I cant  imagine how this was quantified. MG

 

Edited by Guest

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bierast
11 minutes ago, QGE said:

It is difficult to understand how Divisions could be assessed and compared. They were constantly changing in composition, quality of recruits (volunteers then conscripts) and leadership as well as the opposition tey faced and the conditions in which they fought. It is a multi-factored model that would be impossible to objectively assess. At best the alleged list would be a highly subjective assessment by a few individuals over a short period of time.

 

I don't doubt some Divisions were more feared than others, but I cant  imagine how this was quantified. MG

 

By 1918 the British graded German divisions from 1st to 4th class based on their observed performance, deployment history and composition (e.g. proportion of potentially disloyal Alsace-Lorrainers or Poles). It was clearly a fairly arbitrary system - for example all Saxon divisions were downgraded one class during 1918, although some of them had clearly not declined in quality to any appreciably greater degree than their Prussian equivalents. Divisions which remained on the Eastern Front in 1918 (and had invariably had their fittest men combed out and transferred to other divisions heading west) were graded as 4th class, as were almost all of the cavalry divisions (which invariably lacked anything like the numerical manpower of infantry divisions).

Edited by bierast

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Neill Gilhooley

Here is the Pall Mall 6.2.18, similar in the Evening Standard 23.2.18 and repeated frequently during and after the war. I think Bewsher's account of the 51st Division is excellent, though we might question the confidence he places in the 'Furchtbarkeit' status of the division. It is not surprising to find his name at the bottom of a division circular passing these articles around in Feb 18. He might have been the source! 

 

Christopher Duffy ('Through German Eyes’), in relation at least to 1916, has not found evidence of this type of list, except of the type the OHL produced on 26th August 1916 regarding the British Divisions opposite the First Army. The distinctions Good, Medium and Poor refer to their effectiveness at a given time, as Guest suggests, and not to ‘indicate absolute worth.’ Source Rupprecht, ‘Mein Kriegstagebuch’, 1929, Volume III, 90-91

 

Furchtbarkeit.jpg

Furchtbarkeit2.jpg

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Guest
50 minutes ago, bierast said:

 

By 1918 the British graded German divisions from 1st to 4th class based on their observed performance, deployment history and composition (e.g. proportion of potentially disloyal Alsace-Lorrainers or Poles). It was clearly a fairly arbitrary system - for example all Saxon divisions were downgraded one class during 1918, although some of them had clearly not declined in quality to any appreciably greater degree than their Prussian equivalents.

 

Subjective indeed. The BEF saw 90% casualties in 1914, meaning the composition of their Infantry divisions would have changed considerably in less than 6 months; in broad terms from 40% regulars and 60% Army Reservists to about 90% Reservists with a heavy tilt towards Special Reservists  plus others. Their replacements also saw 90% casualties in 1915,  (there are some fascinating breakdowns of the sources of these men -it is a very mixed bag) in less than 18 months most of these formations had turned over twice*. The K1 New Army Divisions were all annihilated in 1915, K2 and K3 largely pulverised in 1916 etc... the composition was simply not static...it was a constantly moving dynamic and one I would argue was impossible to measure. Then we add the sheer scale - how does anyone, or any group of individuals manage to compare events across hundreds of miles of front with scores of Divisions. The problem is chaotic and too complex to be broken down...

 

The British had their own view on their own formations. After the perceived failure of the New Armies on the Western Front the Divisions were reorganised with Regular battalions sent to 'stiffen' New Army Divisions. TF Battalions sent off in 1915 were barely trained, so there were a myriad of factors recognised by the British of a so-called 'pecking order' of 'reliability'.  while casualties are an extremely crude and equally subjective measure, they might give some indication of how often the British used certain Divisions....  I have done some separate research largely based on the 1914 Star and 1914-15 Star medal rolls (which recorded battalion and casualties) that show the gigantic burden shouldered by the old Regular Battalions compared to their TF and New Army battalions within County Infantry regiments**. The distortions or skew towards the old regulars is quite acute in some instances where Regiments kept records. This might suggest that the Divisions with the highest proportions of regulars were considered more reliable and used more with more harrowing consequences. There is a strong correlation which doesn't provide 'proof' but at least provides food for thought.

 

On Core Topic. All roads lead to the Quartet of the SHLM  - Simkins, Hammond, Lee and McCarthy who more than a decade ago attempted to quantify the fighting qualities of British formations. I understand the work was never completed but Simkins has been quoted in conferences with a long list of what he calculates to be the 'best' British formations. I don't believe they used any German sources (happy to be corrected) so it probably doesn't answer Steven's question, but might explain why certain 'orders of merit' continue to circulate.

 

Personally I think the question is just too complex. We tend to think of the question in terms of the Infantry in the attack. Given it was an Artillery War, one might be more informed trying to measure the Artillery assets, available ammunition (a huge variable between 1914-1915 and 1916) and in particular its careful coordination with the infantry. The 'All Arms' coordination may have proven to be the killer application so to speak, rather than the genetic fighting qualities of Canadians, Australians, Irishmen, Scotsmen or indeed Englishmen in kilts. 

 

MG

 

* The Hampshire Regiment's 1st and 2nd Battalions saw at least 5,419 men pass through their ranks before the end of 1915. On a nominal strength of 995 Other Ranks each (1990 combined) that represents 2.7 times their War Establishment. This was very typical. The figures are extremely conservative as they do not include men in 1915 subsequently transferred to other units. 3.0 times would I believe be a reasonable estimate if these were included. 

 

** The Hampshire Regiment's 1st and 2nd Battalions (just 2 of the Regiment's 18 'Field Service' Battalions) saw 46% of all Hampshire Regiment fatalites. One might reasonably assume a similar proportion of all Battle casualties. These regular battalions served in the the 4th and 29th Divisions respectively. If being the 'Best' was measured by casualties as a proxy for hard fighting, it would be an easy calculation. I would not necessarily subscribe to that methodology but the skew in the data has to explain a significant part of how the Regulars and Regular Divisions were used.... Just a thought. MG

 

 

Edited by Guest

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Steven Broomfield
24 minutes ago, Neill Gilhooley said:

Here is the Pall Mall 6.2.18, similar in the Evening Standard 23.2.18 and repeated frequently during and after the war. I think Bewsher's account of the 51st Division is excellent, though we might question the confidence he places in the 'Furchtbarkeit' status of the division. It is not surprising to find his name at the bottom of a division circular passing these articles around in Feb 18. He might have been the source! 

 

Christopher Duffy ('Through German Eyes’), in relation at least to 1916, has not found evidence of this type of list, except of the type the OHL produced on 26th August 1916 regarding the British Divisions opposite the First Army. The distinctions Good, Medium and Poor refer to their effectiveness at a given time, as QGE suggests, and not to ‘indicate absolute worth.’ Source Rupprecht, ‘Mein Kriegstagebuch’, 1929, Volume III, 90-91

 

Furchtbarkeit.jpg

Furchtbarkeit2.jpg

 

Thanks, Neil: that's the snippet quoted by French in his book as noted in my opening post. The question is whether anyone has ever proved that this alleged list actually existed outside the imagination of the Pall Mall Gazette correspondent.

 

As Martin says, although Peter Simkins believes a list might exist (or might have existed), there is no evidence (as far as I can see) that it did, which rather makes me wonder why reputable authors quote it without a very large set of quotation marks around it.

 

Thanks for the input all: I wasn't really trying to start a discussion on 'good', 'bad' or 'indifferent' divisions (British or German), merely trying to understand what the perceived wisdom is about this list.

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Guest

51st Highland Division provides a good example of how a formation was constantly changing. 

 

During the War:

6 changes GOCs

7 changes GSO 1

7 changes AQMG

14 changes in CRAs

7 changes in CREs

26 changes in Brigade Commanders across 3 Brigades

The complex inter-relationships of these key personnel would impact its smooth and consistent performance. 

 

One of the original Brigades was English. It was replaced in Jun 1916 by a Scottish Brigade. 

In all, 17 separate Battalions served in the Division. I suspect way more than 50 changes in Commanding Officers and at least a 300% turnover in Battalion Officers. 

 

 

Supporting arms that changed the fighting abilities of each Brigade:

MG Coys formed part of each Brigade in March 1916

Trench Mortar Batteries appeared on 5/4/1917

Hy Trench mortar batteries appeared on 3/10/1917

Edited by Guest

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Guest
36 minutes ago, Steven Broomfield said:

....although Peter Simkins believes a list might exist (or might have existed), there is no evidence (as far as I can see) that it did, which rather makes me wonder why reputable authors quote it without a very large set of quotation marks around it.

 

 

The list shown in the newspaper clipping by definition misses any assessment of Divisions in the first year of the War as the Guards Div was not formed until mid 1915 and its first major action was Loos Sep 1915 - not exactly a resounding success. 

 

Edit. One must extend this to March 1916 as the 29th Division did not arrive on the Western Front until this date....so the performance of the Divisions in the first 20 months (of the War's 52 months on the Western Front) are not assessed in this alleged list. If it existed it can only be an assessment at a later point in time rather than a general assessment through the war. 

 

As a small adjunct to this, having transcribed the Grenadier Guards diaries (4 battalions in 4 separate Guards Brigades), they were out of the line for surprisingly large parts of 1916. They seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time in training for set pieces. I found this the single most surprising aspect of their diaries considering the propagand surrounding the alleged elite nature of the Guards Division.  Also 50% of their casualties occurred over just 37 dates during the War  - just 4% of their time on the Western Front). For the 4th Bn some 50% of its casualties occurred over just 8 dates.

 

This extraordinary concentration is very surprising but it seems is far from unusual  - however it is something that authors rarely touch on. It belies the fact that battalions, Brigades and Divisions spent significant parts of the War preparing for large set piece battles. If one was looking for German sources assessing British Divisions I suspect they are likely to correlate with operational assessments post major British offensives. It would be interesting to see where the 51st Highland Div, Guards Div and 29th Div fought and whether there is any proximity in their major set piece battles... it might provide a clue as to when this alleged list was drawn up. Just a thought. 

 

MG

 

Edited by Guest

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Guest

A cursory trawl of the Battles and Battle honours provides an overwhelmingly high correlation with the Battle of Cambrai 1917 and Flesquieres in particular  -where the 51st HD did particularly well. 

 

If the list exists, I strongly suspect it was compiled in the aftermath of Cambrai. It certainly fits well withe the later dates of the newspaper articles.... MG

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Wexflyer

Why didn't the Germans counter by sending in their Polish Lancers..?

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Steven Broomfield
5 hours ago, QGE said:

51st Highland Division provides a good example of how a formation was constantly changing. 

 

During the War:

6 changes GOCs

 

I think that' a little misleading: the pre-war GOC left on 23rd August 1914 and was replaced (temporarily - for 4 days) by one of the brigade commanders. The new GOC then lasted until September 1915 (13 months) until being de-gommed (following Givenchy). His replacement lasted until March 1918 (getting a Corps), handing over the BGRA for 6 days before the new GOC arrived.

 

I'd suggest the temporary holders shouldn't really be counted, so I'd say they had three GOCs or two effective changes during their war service.

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Steven Broomfield
5 hours ago, QGE said:

51st Highland Division provides a good example of how a formation was constantly changing. 

 

During the War:

14 changes in CRAs

 

Orders of Battle suggests:

 

Brendon (up to July 15)

McCarthy (to July 16)

Oldfield to the end of the war with a break of 5 days in March 18 while temporarily commanding the division and another about two months after being wounded: both these breaks covered by the same man

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Steven Broomfield
5 hours ago, QGE said:

51st Highland Division provides a good example of how a formation was constantly changing. 

 

7 changes GSO 1

 

Orders of Battle suggests six different men held the post (one - Moir - being promoted on the outbreak of war). One (Dick-Cunyngham) was promoted to the command of 152 Bde, an appointment he held for about a week before becoming a POW.

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Steven Broomfield
5 hours ago, QGE said:

51st Highland Division provides a good example of how a formation was constantly changing. 

 

7 changes AQMG

 

10, actually. Interestingly, one (Moir) had been GSO1, so we must bear in mind that some of the changes were internal promotions so may well not have been as disruptive as we might expect.

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Steven Broomfield

And regarding the changes of Infantry Brigade GOCs, many of those 'passing through' were very temporary post-holders following the death, wounding or capture of the Brigadier General, and 154 Brigade left the division en masse in January 16 and was completely replaced, so again the numbers of people who may or may not have held a post is possibly less important than the lngth of time the 'proper' man was in the job. If you've not read it I recommend the essay on Pelham-Burn in Trevor Harvey's excellent book, An Army of Brigadiers.

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Guest
33 minutes ago, Steven Broomfield said:

 

Orders of Battle suggests:

 

Brendon (up to July 15)

McCarthy (to July 16)

Oldfield to the end of the war with a break of 5 days in March 18 while temporarily commanding the division and another about two months after being wounded: both these breaks covered by the same man

 

 

OK, I take your point, however....this assume s commanders have identical approaches. I don't believe they do... I served under three Squadron Leaders and three Commandants .. one would be forgiven for thinking they were from different worlds never mind the same regiment.. .  Individual personalities have exponential impact on command and control. At Le Cateau 5th Div were decimated due to a radically different command style of Ferguson (GOC 5th Div) compared to GOC 4th Div (Snow) and GOC 3rd Div. "Fight to the last" cost the Division more than half of the casualties at Le Cateau despite the fact that there was no order to do fight to the last. . CRA 5th Div was equally gung-ho and this had catastrophic consequences. There is a list as long as one's arm of RFA Officers critical of their own CRA at Le cateau as well as the RA's own assessment.. Lord only knows what the Germans thought of the relative fighting qualities of the three divisions.... They might have mistakenly believed 5th Div were more determined. (my speculation)......but the reality was that they were given the wrong orders by over-zealous commanders. It illustrates the consequences of one man's impact on thousands of others  and by extension how that formation might be perceived. 

 

1. Command during a Division's formation is critical. Snow writes about this in detail in his account of the formation of the 27th Div in late 1914.  It defines the way the formation works as in any large organisation  - business or the military - key personalities are important dynamics and the ground rules need to be established from the start. Just look at the dislocations of HQ BEF in Aug 1914 for evidence of the effects of imperfect command and control and the fraught relationships under French's immediate command.  As you know Smith-Dorien was forced on French by Kitchener. Both SD and French eventually lost their jobs before the end of 1915 and the fallout lasted to the 1930s. 

 

2. The Dyson/ Oldfield changes happened in succession during a critical phase of the war - March 1918.  3 or 5 (depending on how one counts 'changes') ...  it still illustrates the change in command and control and while I dont know the style of the individuals in question, I suspect they were not identical....when resolved against the other changes there are relatively short periods when the General Staff was static without change.  This is not unusual. It simply illustrates the nature of any typical command structure during the war.... 

 

The point - pertinent to the OP question -  is that any Germans assessing this Division (or any other Division for that matter) are assessing a fighting unit undergoing regular change in command and control and the weapons and support available to it. I cant see how this can be considered as a stable or static situation due to the multiple complexities. The 51st HD  of 1915 was a different beast to the 51st Div of 1916 which was a different beast to the 51st HD of late 1917. least of all the weapons integrated into the brigades in the shape of TMBs and MGCs. The changes in tactics such as the creeping barrage and the box barrage as well as the massive changes in available ammunition and type of ammunition (esp HE) and the amount dedicated to preparatory fire-plans was a world apart form that available in 1914-15... I would argue that comparing Divisions is fraught with potential error.  MG

Edited by Guest

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Guest

Given the Guards Division appears on the phantom list and is also mentioned by Simkins and his acolytes, it is worth looking at the dynamics.... Guards Div turnover in Command between formation (mid 1915) and Armistice Day (ex temporary appointments). 

 

GOC ..................3.... the third took over towards the end of the War. 

GSO I................5

GSO II...............5

GSO III.............7

AAQMG............3

DAQMG...........5

CRA...................3

CRE....................3

 

1st, 2nd & 3rd Guards Brigades...... 11 different Brigade Commanders. Six had previously commanded battalions in the Division

13 Battalion Commanding Officers.....60 different Commanding Officers...averaging more than 4 COs per battalion..... some Battalions had served from Aug 1914. 

 

the 2nd Bn Coldstream Guards had 7 different COs during the War. Pereira, MacGregor (twice), Steele, Follett (three times), Crawfurd, Gibbs, Brassey. plus one temp. 

 

Very roughly speaking the command functions turned over three times in just over three years, and interestingly the further down the chain of command the greater the turnover. Brigade and Battalion turning over at least 4 times (different individuals) during the same period. 

 

The Grenadier Guards Officers' BWM &VM roll records 575 names who served between the ranks of 2nd Lt and Lt Colonel. Spread across 4 battalions averages 143 officers per battalion. The war diaries and published history kept meticulous records and provided  regulat nominal rolls throughout the war.....on a War Establishment of 30 implies a turnover of 4.8 times. Even adjusting down for Staff Appointments, say 15% still gives a turnover of 4 times. One might reasonably argue most Staff Officers had served at Battalion level so this adjustment makes the numbers quite conservative.  445 Grenadier Guards Officers were either killed or wounded during the war (77%) suggesting most were in a combat role. 

 

The Other Ranks BWM & VM roll records 15,660 Grenadier Guards.... some 3,915 per battalion (on average) or 4 times War Establishment. ...the numbers are consistent and will be conservative as the roll will miss those medically downgraded and transferred out to other units such as the Labour Corps. Incidentally 11,447 were killed or wounded (73%).

 

Either way one cares to slice the data, turnover at all levels of Command was running between 3 and 4 times. Spread over 3-4 years (depending on when the formation or Battalion entered theatre. Roughly speaking I think it is a reasonable suggestion that command turned over around every 12 months. I don't think the Guards Div was particularly unusual (I suspect the 29th Div turnover was higher). Put another way, anyone lasting more than 12 months was doing well. 

 

The Germans assessing these formations were trying to measure a fairly dynamic body. 

 

Martin. 

 

 

 

Edited by Guest

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Neill Gilhooley

 

The Evening Standard article 23.2.18 offers this definition 'according to a German prisoner, statistics have been compiled from all fronts showing what enemy troops kill most Germans'. Though we are no nearer a source. If it were a British invention, the inspiration could have been Ivor Maxse's comments to Fifth Army, 27 September 1917, that the 51st Division were ‘now one of the two or three best divisions in France.’

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Steven Broomfield

One wonders who captured the 'German prisoner' - was he perhaps trying to ingratiate himself with some hairy-arsed Jock by telling him how wonderful the Huns thought they were?

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Neill Gilhooley

Or a figment of the imagination of a bde intelligence officer conjured up with whisky.

Certainly seems a common subject of discussion. Robert Graves: 'The mess agreed... Highland Scots took unnecessary risks in trenches and had unnecessary casualties; and in battle, though they usually reached their objective, too often lost it in the counter-attack; without officers they became useless. English southern county regiments varied from good to very bad. All overseas troops seemed to be good. The dependability of divisions also varied with their seniority in date of formation.' 

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Steven Broomfield
1 hour ago, Neill Gilhooley said:

Or a figment of the imagination of a bde intelligence officer conjured up with whisky.

 

 

Surely not!!!!

 

I am slightly surprised that French references this list: although he does cast some doubt on its existence, he still quotes it approvingly.

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Guest
2 hours ago, Neill Gilhooley said:

 it were a British invention, the inspiration could have been Ivor Maxse's comments to Fifth Army, 27 September 1917, that the 51st Division were ‘now one of the two or three best divisions in France.’

 

It is an interesting thoery... The History of the Black Watch (Vol II) has a slightly different quote:

 

"...The Division fights with gallantry and can be depended upon to carry out ably reasonable task allotted to it in any battle. For this reason I venture to place it among the three best fighting Divisions I have met in France during the last three years"

 

The comment were made of course during the height of the Battles of Third Ypres  where casualties were mounting at an extraordinary rate (45,000 fatalities between 31st July and his speech on 27th Sep 1917)

 

Passchendaele British fatalities. Star denotes Maxse' speech.

 

Passchndaele.JPG

Edited by Guest

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