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Attrition


PhilB
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There doesn't seem to have been a German strategy for total military defeat of the Allies, not until 1918 at least, when the realisation struck home of the threat of America's industrial might and her considerable manpower reserves,forced them into, what turned out to be, a make or break series of offensives.

Post Verdun it is difficult to speculate what Germany's long term aims were other than an eventual negotiated peace. It did seem to be a case of "here we are and here we stay", until as you say US intervention forced Germany's hand although up until 1917 they were obviously fighting on both the western and eastern fronts.

Taking all this into account, there was little choice in the method adopted, and attritional warfare was, and always is, likely to bring with it heavy casualties, irrespective of how Haig or any other senior commander on any side conducted a particular battle or phase of battle.

I dont disagree that attrition would at times lead to heavy casualties - that was inevitable. My problem is accepting that the casualties sustained in the British offensives were necessary, that the designated objectives were attainable, and that the care given to the preparation was reasonable before sending PBI over the top.

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The fact that HL advocated offensive action initially in the East, while standing on the defensive in the West does not necessarily show that they had embraced an attritional strategy. I would say the opposite was true. HL felt that attritional battles in the West would only lead to non-decisive results. Only by concentration of forces could this decisive results be achived. They were pushing for decisive actions in the east to free up forces for later decisive actions in the west.

Paul, sorry if I wasn't very clear before. I agree. While I think it is true that attritional battles were considered a loser in the West, I would like to suggest that this is what happened. It was very hard to for the German High Command to acknowledge this, given that previous thinking had rightly recognised that Germany would loose such a game. Just because they thought it would not be so does not mean it did not come to pass.

I would suggest that this is exactly a policy of annihilation. HL sought a dictated peace on German terms, achieved by defeating the Allies, in turn. Eliminating Russia by strong offensive action and then concentrating forces on the Western front to knock out one of the Allies by manuever after a break-through, or a series of blows is exactly this.

Here is what Ludendorff wrote:

'The situation on the Eastern Front was extraordinarily eased by the Peace of Brest-Litovsk of March 3 [1918].

The training of the army for the offensive was another tremendous task. For this we had to utilize the winter of 1917-18, as the previous one had been devoted to training in defense.

In the same way in which tactical theories had then been summarized in the "Defensive Battle," so now the "Offensive Battle in Position Warfare" came into being. We had to revive in the minds of the fighting forces all those excellent offensive principles which inspired our pre-war regulations. They had to be supplemented by more recent experience in actual battle. Without checking the vigour of the attack we had to keep down losses as much as possible. The whole line of thought of the army had to be diverted from trench warfare back to the offensive. It was necessary in the attack to adopt loose formations and work out infantry group tactics clearly. We must not copy the enemy's mass tactics, which offer advantages only in the case of untrained troops.'

All good stuff... 'keep down losses'... 'loose formations'... etc.

Furthermore, 'for the advance of the infantry in the offensive battle, the concentrated preparation by massed artillery was most important.'

However, problems were evident, even before March 21st. 'I was present at various exercises, and had conversations with many regimental officers. It was evidently not easy for the troops to adopt the necessary open formations. We urgently needed every moment of the time, right up to the middle of March, which was available for training.'

'It was difficult to decide where to attack, but it was necessary to do so early. In the attack the problem was to discover some decisive point, and arrange the distribution accordingly. It took weeks, and considerable foresight and the most detailed work, to concentrate the troops in a confined area...

I discussed the selection of the front of attack with the chiefs of staff of the army groups, and with the officers of my staff, and heard their opinions. Three sectors were considered Flanders between Ypres and Lens, between Arras and St Quentin or La Fère, and on both sides of Verdun, leaving out the fortress. The weakest part was on both sides of St Quentin. In the north the ground was difficult. The condition of the Lys valley depended to an extraordinary degree on the season and the weather; before the middle of April its passability away from the roads was doubtful. That was very late, in view of the Americans.

The center attack [around St Quentin] seemed to lack any definite limit. This could be remedied by directing the main effort on the area between Arras and Péronne, toward the coast. If this blow succeeded the strategic result might indeed be enormous, as we should cut the bulk of the English Army from the French, and crowd it up with its back to the sea.

I favored the center attack. I considered it necessary to take advantage of such successes as we might obtain in order to strengthen the enemy's inclination to peace by means of propaganda.

[After the success of March 21st] the enemy formed a new front north of the Somme, which was sure to be difficult to overcome. In the direction of Amiens the enemy's resistance seemed weaker. The original idea of the battle had to be modified, and the main weight of the attack vigorously directed to that point. I still hoped we should get through to open warfare, and kept it in view in my instructions to the armies. But the Seventeenth Army could not get on.

The enemy's line was now becoming denser, and our armies were no longer strong enough to overcome them unaided. [Further] actions were indecisive. It was an established fact that the enemy's resistance was beyond our strength. We must not get drawn into a battle of exhaustion.

The battle was over by April 4. It was a brilliant feat, and will ever be so regarded in history. What the English and French had not succeeded in doing we had accomplished, and that in the fourth year of the war. Strategically we had not achieved what the events of the 23rd, 24th and 25th encouraged us to hope for. However, our troops had beaten the French and English and had proved themselves superior. That they did not achieve all the success that was possible was due, not only to their reduced fighting value, but, above all. to their not being in all cases under the firm control of their officers. They had been checked by finding provisions, and valuable time had thus been lost.'

Here we see Ludendorff outlining the principles of the 'offensive battle in position warfare.' Attack the decisive (? read 'weakest') point, use overwhelming artillery support, and avoid the 'battle of exhaustion'. The first two principles were effective in forcing the British Fifth Army back. As the battle progressed, however, the sharp end of the attack ran into increasing difficulties. Ludendorff blames failures in discipline due to the finding of provisions. Yes, there were examples of this, such as Rudolf Binding described. But there is much more to this than meets the eye. What was happening at the sharp end? Firstly, Brüchmuller's seige train had moved on. There was artillery support but nowhere near what happened on 21st March. One principle diluted down. Attack the point of weakness, namely Amiens. Good thought, except this was now the edge of a salient. The Entente enjoyed the advantages of the interior lines of reinforcement. More significantly, the nature of the infantry attacks was different.

Consider the experience of the New Zealand Division, who just managed to close the gap near Hébuterne:

'For the New Zealand machine-gunners, 27 March 1918 was a red-letter day. The Wellington Company in support of the composite brigade opened the account. At 10.30 am an enemy battalion was observed at 1800 yards' range moving from near Hébuterne. The Wellington Company's machine guns at once opened up on them and soon found the range.

At noon the situation was repeated: "Two guns at a range of 700 yards engaged two companies of the enemy in mass formation. The enemy was literally mowed down and stretcher-bearers were observed working at the point for three hours afterwards."

But the Germans still kept coming. Mid-afternoon the next target appeared: two long advancing columns of enemy infantry 1600 yards away and gradually converging over the Serre Ridge. Although the Germans were well within the range of the New Zealand machine guns, the order was passed not to open fire until the enemy was within 1000 yards. "Probably no better target presented itself to the New Zealand Machine Gun Corps in France, and the fullest advantage was taken of it." The machine guns played havoc.

"With the second burst of fire about 50 of the enemy were seen to fall, a long burst was then fired into the mass and a very great number fell, the remainder broke and took cover..."

Twelve enemy machine gun crews attempted to move across the open towards an old trench. They were seen and fire on. Some teams were killed outright; the rest fled.

Still the Germans came on. At 3.30 pm they again attacked the composite brigade's position, this time taking the precaution of advancing in open order. They were seen as they came over the ridge some 1200 yards away. The Wellington Company's guns opened up and many of the enemy fell immediately. The rest took cover. For some time afterwards, isolated groups of Germans were seen trying to crawl back over the ridge.'

This is but one example. It doesn't fit with Ludendorff's vision for the offensive. It does fit with some of the worrying signs he observed during training, as well as the problems of fighting at the edge of a deep salient. 'We must not get drawn into a battle of exhaustion'? Maybe that's what Ludendorff thought. The reality was already different. What does he blame? Lack of discipline and reduced fighting value (but not less than the British or French). IMHO, it must have been really really hard, almost impossible, for Ludendorff to acknowledge what was really happening.

Robert

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The 1918 German offensives were planned a series of heavy blows to bring about a final decisive result. These were not attritional battles, but fought to bring an end to the war before America could make her weight felt, as you wrote.
Paul, after the success of Operation Michael, Ludendorff felt that France had 'trembled'. He expected the German politicians to follow-up but 'we did nothing in the diplomatic sense to utilize it.'

The attacks went on. 'The operations to broaden the front of our attack and improve our strategical position were carried out at the end of March and early in April.

On April 6 the Seventh Army attacked on the left bank of the Oise [to] give more security to the long south flank of the Eighteenth Army.

In spite of employing extraordinary masses of artillery and ammunition, the attack of the Seventeenth Army on both banks of the Scarpe was a failure; it had fought under an unlucky star. Apparently the artillery had not been sufficiently effective.

On the morning of April 7 the attack [along the Lys valley] at first went ahead very well. In the afternoon the attack seemed to progress more slowly. The enemy's machine guns continued to give our infantry much trouble; it should have grappled with them more vigorously, as a General Staff Officer told me who had been sent up. But often it wasted time looking for food.

The attacks by the Fourth and Sixth Armies caused General Foch to move his reserves north. In view of the enemy's strength, General Headquarters now checked the attack.

By the end of April... we had achieved successes. We had defeated the English Army. Only a few British divisions were intact.

The loss of many [German] officers of senior and medium rank during the last actions [made] matters worse, as the very young new officers suffered from their natural defects. It was much the same as regards experienced non-commissioned officers. We had reached such a pitch that before an action units detailed a reserve of leaders, who did not take part in the fighting, in order that there might be some leaders left at the end of it.

In arranging for further operations there was no time to lose. The initiative we had seized on the Western Front must be kept, and the first great blow must as soon as possible be followed by a second.

The most favourable operation in itself was to continue the attack on the English Army at Ypres and Bailleul; but on that front the enemy was now so strong in numbers that it was impossible. Early in April the group of the Crown Prince was directed to submit a plan for an attack between Pinon and Rheims.'

Ludendorff describes the success of Operation Blücher but notes 'even after the second great defeat in one year the Entente was not yet ready for peace.

Our army had suffered. Influenza was rampant, and the army group of Crown Prince Rupprecht was particularly affected. The long rest gradually improved the condition of our troops.

The battalion strength had been reduced, but was still high enough to allow us to strike one more blow that should make the enemy ready for peace. There was no other way.'

Obviously I have condensed several pages from Ludendorff's 'Own Story'. I interpret his account as describing the compulsion to maintain the initiative. The effects on the officer corps were particularly significant. The keeping back of a cadre sounds all-too familiar from a British perspective.

You mentioned a series of heavy blows to bring about a final decisive result. I think Ludendorff's account clearly supports this. I would respectfully submit that this was no different from Haig's strategy, except that the 'heavy blows' occurred within a relatively short period of time. Haig's 'heavy blows' tended to occur at longer intervals but occupy more continuous periods of time once started. He too saw that these blows would ultimately lead to a 'final decisive result' for the same fundamental reason. Until the reserves were used up, a final decisive result could not be won.

Ludendorff describes a process whereby his attacks would be stopped when the enemy's reserves had been bought in and made the defences too strong (although this was not always the case in practice as I indicated in my previous post). Haig did not work this way. He chose to keep engaging the German reserves on the same battlefield, week-after-week. On the face of it, Haig's approach seems more wasteful. Ludendorff's tactics would shift the point of attack and sometimes punch a dramatic hole, capturing large numbers of men and equipment. It doesn't seem attritional. But Ludendorff was compelled to keep doing this, despite the successes. The attacks weren't successful enough. Furthermore, there were nasty failures too, such as Operation Mars and the final attempt to take Reims. Even more important though, was the attritional effect that the salients had. The Lys salient was particularly troublesome. The Marne salient eventually fell as a result of Mangin's bold counter-attack, though the German withdrawal was quite masterful. Unlike Haig's attacks, Ludendorff moved his artillery battering ram on to the next potential battlefield. This left the German troops in the salients with relatively fewer guns, compared with Haig's battles where artillery dominance was maintained throughout the campaigns. The grinding successes of Third Ypres were largely down to the huge efforts of the artillery, whose men often stayed for long periods in the salient, much longer than their infantry counterparts.

All the while, the German forces were loosing men, particularly the irreplaceable experienced officers and NCOs. The failure to capture Reims, followed by the Entente's ability to mount a successful counter-attack was a real body blow. The gamble had not paid off.

I am not trying to suggest that Haig's approach was better, or worse, than Ludendorff's. I am just trying to present the case that, fundamentally, the approaches were not so dissimilar in their ultimate effects - wearing down the enemy until a decision could be reached by the one who could hold out longest. It is the nature of modern warfare between determined equals.

Robert

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Guest Evans of the Broke

What's all this thin veneer about German tactics and strategy? After Somme and Verdun Falkenhyn was sacked!

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... I would be interested in your views to the extent the break-through battles engaged by Haig were necessary?
Jonathan, FWIIW I think that 'break-through' battles is something of a misnomer. Several writers, Prior and Wilson being the most prominent currently, have assumed that because Haig set distant objectives that the battles were just about breaking through to reach those objectives on 'day one'. They were not. The agreed objectives for each major attack in any campaign were always shy of the distant objectives. By this I mean that the specific objectives for the infantry units who were to do the actual fighting. Contingencies were often put in place 'in case' there was a break-through. This type of planning makes good sense but should not be interpreted, as P&W have done, as a sign of unrealistic goals, etc.

With respect to your very important question, however, it is irrelevant whether 'break-through' is the best term or not. If I understand correctly, you are asking for views about the seemingly endless, grinding campaigns, such as the Battles of the Somme, Arras or Third Ypres (Phil, I think you used the word 'catastrophic'). The issue of 'break-through' becomes important if it is held that the setting of distant, unachieveable objectives was the key driver for these campaigns. If yes, then the argument is that hundreds of thousands of casualties resulted from some maniac's unrealistic view of military objectives, coupled with the unbridled power to pursue these fantasies, come what may. This is the tenor of P&Ws conclusions for example - any misinterpretation or over-exaggeration is solely my own fault. FWIIW, it is a view that, if true, I would agree with. But I have significant concerns about P&W's reasoning behind these conclusions.

Let's approach this from a different direction for a moment. I have set out an hypothesis that a large-scale war in this era (1914-18) between determined equals could not be concluded quickly. The basis for this is that experienced generals could ensure that even if the enemy achieves a local superiority then threatened corps and armies would fall back (the competent C-in-C would ensure this occurred in a mutually supporting way, just as Joffre did with Lanrezac), reinforcements would be brought up, and encirclement avoided. Basically, the story of the Schlieffen Plan. In an environment where room for manoeuvre was contrained geographically (a key difference between the geography of the American Civil War versus northern Europe), the huge number of men in conscripted armies means that stalemate would ensue. Given that defense dominated attack initially, the line could be held by fewer men, thereby creating the reserves that enable any break-through to be contained. In other words, the highly successful opening campaign of the Franco-Prussian War was an anomaly that was grounded in the flawed command of the French forces.

If the levels of military determination to win, or not to loose, remain unaltered (cf with internal disintergration of the Russian army), then 'winning' depends on reducing the numbers of the enemy to the point where there are too few reserves and the front line is held so weakly that breakthrough and then breakout is possible. Note that when the Germans reached this situation, they did not loose sight of the fundamental military principles outlined above. They fell back, shortening their lines and thereby freeing up some reserves again. Of course, as Phil pointed out, the 'attacker' can only succeed if he has retained sufficient offensive capability to exploit the opportunity when it finally comes.

Back to the drawn-out offensive campaigns of 1915-1918. If my hypothesis is correct, then the only way for the 'attacker' to successfully defeat the enemy militarily was to systematically destroy his military capability. A Blitzkrieg with massive encirclement and complete destruction within weeks was not possible. So the question was: what was the best way to systematically destroy the opponent and achieve victory? Our discussions on the German Spring offensives, coupled with your question, illustrates the two major military alternatives (doing nothing was an alternative but it does not fulfill the criterion of achieving victory). One alternative was to launch a surprise attack with overwhelming local superiority. Once the line was broken, advance as far as possible, using the advance to extract a heavy toll from the off-balance defenders. Then stop and consolidate as the defenses hardened up again. Repeat the sequence in another place. Then another, and so on. The 'Ludendorff approach' if you will.

The contrasting style was to launch an attack in one place, and then keep hammering in that place, exploiting each limited success for the next small step. The 'Haig approach' if you will. In considering this approach, let's suspend the need to have a distant objective at all, just for the sake of clarity. Break-out is no longer an issue, let's say. Both strategies then have the same short- and medium-term aims - wear the enemy down to the point where a different approach (the denouement) is possible.

What are the pros and cons of the Ludendorff vs Haig approach? The Ludendorff approach has a certain intellectual appeal. The 'sudden' strike, the low-cost break-through, the dramatic advance until the defence is restored. The propaganda image of the stormtrooper immediately comes to mind - handsome, strong jaw, looking resolutely ahead. The Haig approach, by contrast, appears pedestrian, dull, uninspired, costly. Looking past the superficial exposes some interesting similarities and differences.

Both approaches require that the attacker maintains the initiative. Both approaches require enormous planning and preparation, particularly the pulling together of sufficient manpower, artillery, ammunition, casualty treatment centres, etc, etc. The Ludendorff approach exposes a tension between the need to maintain initiative and the need to prepare. Even prior to 1918, the Germans had prepared multiple scenarios for the Spring offensive. These scenarios became the basis, with some adjustments, for the rolling campaign - Operations Michael, Georgette, Blücher, etc. They were supplemented with ad hoc operations based on the results of the previous, such as Operation Gneisenau for example. Preparations for the series of attacks took place across the entire German front, partly to deceive but also partly to ensure that resources were in place when the point of attack was changed. Although these preparations were important (creating ammo dumps, improving routes of communication and resupply, etc), there were resources that had to be shifted from attack to attack, most notably the supplementary artillery but also infantry, aircraft, etc. Even though the transport infrastructure had improved throughout the war, transport plus the need to recover between battles meant that there were delays in launching the next attack.

The Haig approach, on the other hand, enabled transport, casualty clearing, communications, water supply and other support infrastructures to be put in the one place. As small advances (relatively speaking) took place, the infrastructure services moved forward as well, keeping pace. Concentrations of artillery were maintained at the ongoing point of attack. In a general sense, the enemy was on the defensive. If counter-attacks were launched, the heavy concentration of artillery caused considerable losses. The slow but relentless forward progress could take a heavy toll on the defenders, particularly morale. The attackers were not immune from effects on morale but the sense that progress was being made, that the enemy was being forced back, is quite different from the sense of being on the receiving end.

Many point to the mistakes that occurred during the Haig approach, particularly the launching of poorly planned, poorly supported infantry attacks on the Somme. The Ludendorff approach was not immune from mistakes. Operation Mars was one such example. No break-through there. Furthermore, it was all very well believing that each operation would only last until the defense consolidated. In practice, it was extremely difficult to stop. Operation Michael showed that. Operation Blücher was an even better example. Following a spectacular break-through, the German forces plunged ever deeper into a vulnerable salient. In these situations, the supplementary artillery was not there (which is not to say there was no artillery) and both infantry and artillery were fighting at the end of a stretched supply chain. As I have illustrated before, the German soldiers who bore the brunt of these problems were not the valiant stormstroopers. Ludendorff mocked the Haig approach as suited only to the untrained. In practice, his front line forces often acted in an 'untrained' (ie in massed formations, etc) fashion, even when supported by stormtroopers. More significantly, the relative lack of ongoing support (by comparison to the Haig approach) allowed some of the Entente forces to begin establishing local dominance over the Germans in their new positions. The 'peaceful penetration' approach of the Australians for example.

The Haig approach made no assumption, in practice, that the enemy would be strategically deceived about the point of attack, at least in the earlier campaigns pre-Cambrai. Local 'surprise' might be obtained by varying the start time of the offensive but the enemy had sufficient warning to enable reinforcements to be brought in beforehand, and stationed nearby. Provided the momentum of the Haig approach could be maintained, then surprise was replaced by the constant drawing in of enemy forces. The inexorable progress of each campaign, even on the scale of only a few hundred yards, constantly forced the Germans to keep appraising and modifying their defensive tactics. When these changes did not work at the fundamental level, ie they did not stop the inexorable slow advance (albeit with some local setbacks on the British side), then the German High Command became increasingly desparate. This was most noticeable during Third Ypres, as I have posted before.

The Ludendorff approach relied on strategic surprise, with rapid exploitation. Then there would be a pause. Ideally, Ludendorff would have wanted the next major surprise attack to start immediately. As mentioned above, this was not possible logistically. The upshot was that the Entente also benefited from the pause. Not just from the recovery perspective. They also learned and adapted. It took a while for the lesson to sink in, that the Ludendorff approach was a recurring theme. Once it did, the Ludendorff approach came in for a real hiding. Operation Friedensturm really came unstuck. Pétain had to insist though that the French general adhered to the new tactics. Otherwise, it would have been catastrophic for the French.

Was there a middle ground? Rapid surprise advances at multiple points with no breaks. To some extent yes. The 'Last 100 Days approach' was just that, well almost that. This approach worked because the logistics supplies were so much better across the whole front, it was possible to keep 'quiet' areas under constant harassing fire, planning and execution was more practised, and there were Americans, lots and lots of them. Most of all, it worked because the German army was reaching that break point. I exaggerate, but you get the point.

Enough for now :blink:. Time for a pause :D

Robert

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So, Robert, are you saying that the battles I described as catastrophic (in loss terms) may have been that but they were also justified? And did you mention that, in the Haig approach, you are constantly attacking over the moonscape you have just created? And into ground that the enemy artillery is pre-registered on? Phil B

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...are you saying that the battles I described as catastrophic (in loss terms) ...were also justified?
Phil, I was just describing the differences. I made no comment on whether these battles were justified or not. What I do think is that the same number of losses would have occurred by whatever means the war was prosecuted - as near as makes no difference to the sense that the losses were catastrophic. If the war had been waged as series of smaller battles, it would have taken longer to reach the same number. No less catastrophic though.

And did you mention that, in the Haig approach, you are constantly attacking over the moonscape you have just created? And into ground that the enemy artillery is pre-registered on?

As you know, I didn't explicitly mention this. It is hard to tell from emails, but I sense that you were concerned about my mention of the word 'catastrophic'. If you thought I was denigrating your use of the term, then please accept my apologies. I was not. The word adds to my 'milder' description of 'seemingly endless, grinding campaigns'. You are quite right to point out the issue of 'moonscape' - fighting across terrain that has been smashed to pieces by incessant bombardments and by the poor weather that must occur at some time in a longer campaign. I missed some of the issues. My comment about 'the inexorable slow advance' is a proxy for this factor, and others associated with the Somme-like method of attack.

The British did make advances into the teeth of prepared pre-registered artillery. Multiple advances. They could do this because of the artillery superiority at the point of attack and because of the developments in counter-battery fire. Contrast this with the situation faced by the Germans who attacked the New Zealanders on the Somme. They were largely unsupported by artillery, other than the divisional artillery that was able to accompany the advance across the Somme wasteland.

Robert

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I actually thought that a case could be made for describing attrition battles as both catastrophic and justified! I suppose it`s largely a question of definition of terms though? Phil B

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Robert - just returned from the Somme and have had some network problems tonight.

I just wanted to acknowledge your above reply to my question - I have speed read it and will read again tomorrow when I have a clear mind.

Jon

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Jonathan, FWIIW I think that 'break-through' battles is something of a misnomer...

Robert – many thanks for your reply and for the benefit of your knowledge. At present I think I am more aligned to P&W but accept I am a complete novice of military tactics. As I read through your reply I made the following notes that I hope will go someway to explain my thinking:

• Agree with you that contingencies needed to be in place incase a breakthrough did materialise. In my reflective thinking I might find it a little comical that Haig used to call up the cavalry “just in case” and then send them back down the line after another failure, but I can appreciate this was both sensible and necessary.

• When I think of Haig offensives I think immediately of three things (the first you have already identified): 1) obtainable objectives – were the objectives set by Haig reasonable or fantasy bearing in mind he knew in reality he was fighting a war of attrition. 2) the rigidness of the command structure that he oversaw, which did not encourage exploiting opportunities as they developed. 3) preparation – this can involve many factors – from training to intelligence to ensuring communication lines back to HQs, to forward saps from which the troops breakout – but specifically I am thinking of artillery preparation – not only the weight of tonnage dropped on each yard of each enemy line but also the counter-battery work.

• Agree that defence dominated attack. Agree with your hypothesis.

• Ludendorff’s approach was always dangerous because you create a salient that exposes you to enfilade fire – you describe this later as the vulnerable salient.

• Taking the 1st July then the Haig approach you describe of small advances enabling infrastructure to advance behind troops was not practical for how Haig planned his battle – for example bringing up the artillery to support the advance would not have allowed for the British to be at Bapaume at the end of the first day, which was an objective. The Haig approach you describe to my amateur way of thinking is reminiscent of Von Falkenhynn and Verdun. Also I am not so sure the Luddendorf approach did depend on surprise –certainly not if 21 March was anything to go by. As I recall not only were the Allies aware that a strong German offensive was imminent, there was also pretty good reason to believe it would happen in the 5th Army sector, which Haig decided to defend weakly – I think my source for this is P&W so you may disagree? Despite this and even allowing for any manpower shortage (remember defence dominated), the British defensive position was in freefall and this despite the superb rear guard actions fought by officers and men thrown together out of necessity and when each, irrespective of their rank, had to use their own initiative rather than be subjected to the same type of inflexible command structure endured when the British were on the offensive.

• Whilst I appreciate and have certainly had my thought processes stimulated by your reply I still think I am looking for an answer. To go back to my question – to what extent were the break-through battles engaged by Haig necessary – and couple that with my three considerations for Haig battles and taking what was effectively the opening day of Haig’s long term strategy of a series of “wearing out” battles, ie the 1 July 1916, then was Haig guilty of your point that “hundreds of thousands of casualties resulted from some maniac's unrealistic view of military objectives, coupled with the unbridled power to pursue these fantasies, come what may”? I think there is argument enough that Haig was for the following reasons:

1) Why tamper with Rawlinson’s original battle plan of “bite and hold” if your long-term policy and understanding is of a war of attrition?

2) Why set unobtainable objectives within the inflexible command structure that Haig permeated, and which ultimately resulted in thousands of men going to their deaths unnecessarily in the pursuit of some ridiculous and fantasical objective? What I don’t understand is how these unachievable objectives had anything to do with the reality of attritional warfare (back to “bite and hold” and to cause the enemy as many casualties as possible for the smallest amount of casualties you yourselves can possibly sustain).

3) The shocking artillery preparation. The Germans had held the Somme and had been able to build up their defence in that sector, practically unmolested, for a considerable period. Taking the examples of the 1915 battles gave a simple calculation that the artillery tonnage per yard on the Somme was not sufficient, together with the knowledge of a % of dud shells, worn artillery, inexperienced gun crews etc. The lack of counter-battery work in some Corps which is just inexcusable and responsibility for this has to be with Haig. Again this was ultimately responsible for a considerable number of deaths or maiming.

4) In his time in command at Aldershot Smith-Dorrien had advocated the use of forward trenches/saps for use in offensives. Why were such forward jumping off posts not employed as a matter of policy on the Somme? (I think it was under Maxse in the south that forward jumping off posts were used in combination with previous counter-battery work and with success).

Just to be clear this is not meant as an anti-Haig post but genuine questions as to his policy and how battles were conducted under his command in the pursuit of victory by attritional warfare.

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Just to be clear this is not meant as an anti-Haig post but genuine questions as to his policy and how battles were conducted under his command in the pursuit of victory by attritional warfare.
Jonathan, fabulous list of questions. Any suggestion of 'anti-Haig' would not have been an issue for me in any case. I will set about providing some thoughts and quotes. It will take a while, especially as work is so busy at the moment. But I am looking forward to continuing this discussion.

Robert

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Robert,

Sorry in the delay in answering your posts. After reading through them we seem to be basically in agreement, or am I mistaken?

I respectfully bow out of the discussion on Haig and his battles. I must admit to only having a cursory knowledge of these. The German effort is more my forte.

This is an interesting subject, and a question that played a huge part from the German side, extending into the post war. Interestingly enough I've read some material that suggests that the huge German advances made on the Eastern Front in 1915 were actually a series of attritional set-peice battles.

The topics we've discussed here, concerning strategies, and strategic choices, are part of what make the war so fascinating as a subject of study.

Paul

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Also I am not so sure the Luddendorf approach did depend on surprise –certainly not if 21 March was anything to go by. As I recall not only were the Allies aware that a strong German offensive was imminent, there was also pretty good reason to believe it would happen in the 5th Army sector, which Haig decided to defend weakly
Jonathan, you are right. The Entente were aware a large German offensive was about to happen, and that it would fall in 5th Army's sector. The element of surprise, however, lay in disguising where the main thrust of the attack would occur. There were signs of the offensive all along the front line, including the French sectors. The British acted as if any offensive towards the Somme was a feint designed to weaken the reserves in the Ypres salient. Then French acted as if the main offensive would be further east. Neither side took significant steps to reinforce 5th Army sector. These reactions by both high commands suggest that, unlike the British preparations for the Somme, the Entente was deceived into the misunderstanding the true scale of Operation Michael. The masterly way in which the Germans assembled their forces helped but the real key, IMHO, was the breadth of preparation.

More to come.

Robert

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Interestingly enough I've read some material that suggests that the huge German advances made on the Eastern Front in 1915 were actually a series of attritional set-peice battles.
Paul, I know much less about the battles on the Eastern Front. It is an area that I am gradually getting into. My general impression is that the frontlines were more stretched than on the Western Front, ie less densely held. I base this solely on the anecdotal reports that I have read from German soldiers and gunners who served on both fronts. The movement of reserves was more difficult on parts of the Eastern Front too. Very happy to be corrected on any of this.

Robert

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Jonathan, you are right. The Entente were aware a large German offensive was about to happen, and that it would fall in 5th Army's sector. The element of surprise, however, lay in disguising where the main thrust of the attack would occur...

Robert - many thanks for your further comments and I now fully understand what you mean.

Look forward to your further comments in due course and if you have the time.

Jon S

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Paul, I know much less about the battles on the Eastern Front. It is an area that I am gradually getting into. My general impression is that the frontlines were more stretched than on the Western Front, ie less densely held. I base this solely on the anecdotal reports that I have read from German soldiers and gunners who served on both fronts. The movement of reserves was more difficult on parts of the Eastern Front too. Very happy to be corrected on any of this.

Robert

Robert,

The Germans employed their artillery as a battering ram, and bludgeoned the Russians out of succesive positions. Most of the casualties were caused by artillery fire.

It was more a series of set-peice attacks, as opposed to a breakthrough with massive encirclements.

Paul

edit: Just wanted to add that a lot of the artillery techniques used at Verdun were first tried in the East in 1915.

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Jonathan, in responding to your queries about Haig's planning, I would like to start with some quotes from "GHQ Letter O.A.D. 12 to General Sir H Rawlinson, 16th June 1916 Stating the Objectives [for the attack on July 1, 1916]":

"1. The Third and Fourth Armies will undertake offensive operations on the front Maricourt-Gommecourt, in conjunction with the French Sixth Army astride the Somme, with the object of relieving the pressure on the French at Verdun and inflicting loss on the enemy.

The First and Second Armies, and the Third Army North of Gommecourt, will operate at the same time, with a view to misleading and wearing out the enemy and preventing him from sending reinforcements to the scene of the main operations.

2. The various objectives of the Fourth Army operations are described below:-

a First objective. To seize and consolidate a position on the Pozières ridge, extending from the vicinity of Montauban to the River Ancre, so as to secure good observation over the ground to the eastward of that ridge.

Simultaneous with the above, to seize and consolidate a good position between the River Ancre and Serre, so as to cover the left flank of the operations south of that river.

b Second objective Having secured a position on the Pozières ridge as described above, to turn that position to the best account against the hostile troops.

This may be accomplished in different ways, depending on how the battle develops [my emphasis]:-

i The enemy's resistance may break down, in which case our advance will be pressed eastwards far enough to enable our cavalry to push through into open country beyond the enemy's prepared lines of defence. Our object will then be to turn northwards, taking the enemy's lines in flank and reverse, the bulk of the cavalry co-operating on the outer flank of this operation while suitable detachments should be detailed to cover the movement from any offensive of the enemy from the east. For the latter purpose the line Bapaume - high ground east of Mory - high ground west of Croisilles - Monchy-le-Preux is of tactical importance.

ii Alternatively, after gaining our first objective, as described at (a) above, we may find that a further advance eastwards is not advisable

In that case, the most profitable course will probably be to transfer our main efforts rapidly to another portion of the British front, but leaving a sufficient force on the Fourth Army front to secure the ground gained, to beat off counter-attacks, and to keep the enemy fully employed. For the last-mentioned purpose further local offensives will probably be necessary in order to continue the battle, to compel the enemy to use up all his reserves, and to prevent him from withdrawing them elsewhere. Such local offensives may take the form of attack on hostile strong points in the front of the Fourth Army with a view to improving the position held, or a move northwards in co-operation with the right of the Third Army against the enemy still holding the defences in front of the latter.

3. The dates of the commencement of the bombardment and of the day of assault will shortly be fixed and will be notified to Armies."

Robert

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Five days later, GHQ issued "OAD 17, Dated 21st June of Commander-in-Chief's Instructions in Amplification of OAD 12, Issued 16th June 1916". Note that none of the content of OAD 17 superceded OAD 12. OAD 17 starts by noting the Intelligence information, which suggests a signicant British superiority of forces but the capacity for the Germans to bring up reinforcements in the first six days. It then goes on to say:

"2. If the first attack goes well [my emphasis] every effort must be made to develop the success to the utmost by firstly opening a way for our cavalry and then as quickly as possible pushing the cavalry through to seize Bapaume. The cavalry in GHQ reserve under Lt Gen Gough is placed at the disposal of the GOC Fourth Army for the above purpose..."

The OAD goes on to describe the exploitation in greater detail.

In his diary entry of Tuesday 27 June, Haig noted:

"I thought [Gough] was too inclined to aim at fighting a battle at Bapaume, forgetting that it was at the same time possible for the Enemy to attack him from the north and cut him off from the breach in the line! I therefore insisted on the offensive move northwards as soon as Bapaume has been occupied.

I then visited Rawlinson at Querrieu. He has ordered his troops to halt for an hour and consolidate on the enemy's last line! Covered by an artillery barrage! I said this must depend on whether Enemy had reserves available and on the spot for counter-attack. I directed him to prepare for a rapid advance: and, as soon as the last line had been gained, to push on advanced guards of all arms as a system of security to cover his front.

In my opinion it is better to prepare to advance beyond the Enemy's last line of trenches, because we are then in a position to take advantage of any breakdown in the Enemy's defence. Whereas if there is a stubborn resistance put up, the matter settles itself!"

To my mind, it is very clear that Haig held both options - exploitation to Bapaume versus a very very limited, if any, success - as being equally possible. This is not the same as saying the chances were 50:50. It means that either one will happen or the other. The key was to plan for both. The experience of the first day of the Battle of Loos suggested that it was possible to burst open the German line at some point if the breadth of attack was wide enough. Arguably, lack of reserves meant the opportunity was lost. It was quite acceptable, in my opinion, to consider how this mistake could be avoided, provided the possibility of failure was also considered.

Robert

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Robert,

Many thanks for your reply. Again I have to point out my naivety on this topic but following are notes (which seem reasonable to me but might have you scratching your head) I scribbled as I read through your comments on GHQ planning.

First I want to say that I understand the point you make is that Haig had considered both the option of a breakthrough and of the advance being held and had planned for both accordingly.

My notes:

• The feint at Gommecourt was not only a disaster but poorly thought out and I believe it was pursued because of Haig’s insistence against the wishes of others in the planning process. As I understand it the feint did not distract forces from the south and away from the Somme as was intended, but attracted the attention of German forces (ie artillery) to the north. I would be happy to be corrected on this.

• Whilst Haig may have planned for both eventualities, greater emphasis and consideration was given to the breakthrough hence Haig’s insistence that Rawlinson adapt his original plan to something more thrusting. I think this was erroneous. For a breakthrough to be achieved then due consideration had to be given to the effort needed to attain the objectives. I am not convinced it was – far too much hope was pinned on the artillery preparation - although amazingly this did not prompt a concerted counter-battery campaign (see next point).

• With regard to attaining objectives, consolidating them and advancing beyond, then very little, in fact virtually no attention was given to the German artillery – in my naive thinking I assume the German artillery would become more intense as the troops progress further into what was enemy held territory.

• Obviously we know that the advance broke down and the focus of the fighting was then to capture or hold those objectives in Allied hands. Yet this was not the end of the attempts to breakthrough – those objectives that had not been taken were attacked again and again and in no better circumstances than 1 July – take 3 July for example: battalions were still being channelled though gaps in wire that remained the same death-traps they had been two days previously (6 Queen’s at Ovillers is an example of this). Haig referred to stubborn resistance settling the matter ie. where the new demarcations would form yet Haig continued to throw good men against hopeless causes.

• I understand that a plan to exploit a breakthrough had to be in place but was Bapaume ever really an option? On what basis could Haig possibly think that the Allies would advance that far in one day and if they had, could the cavalry have got through to Bapaume and the open ground beyond? I am thinking of horses negotiating the debris of a battlefield, terrain that has had a week’s artillery preparation, German artillery etc

• Generally speaking I think I sympathise with Rawlinson who I believe could have achieved much better results if Haig had not interfered (whether he should have stood up to Haig is another discussion).

• Having read your quotes from GHQ I am left with the feeling that Haig was saying the right thing but in practice was responsible for conducting a very different type of battle. 100,000 casualties in the first three days is a difficult number to dispute.

Once again - thanks for the time taken in posting your replies.

Jon

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Whilst, on the one hand, it may be creditable that Haig covered all his options in the battle planning, there is another aspect. Should he have been launching a huge offensive in which the first day results were so clearly unpredicted? I am reminded of Montgomery at Alamein. When the politicos tried to rush him, he responded that he would attack when ready and would win. And he did. With a battle so long in the planning should not Haig have been able to more or less guarantee delivering something better than he did? Phil B

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That's because there are no guarantees in war; FM von Moltke made a famous statement about that. I am also reminded of Arnhem, which Montgomery was also responsible for.

Terry Reeves

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(Jonathan Saunders @ Jul 3 2006, 05:44 PM) 1) Why tamper with Rawlinson’s original battle plan of “bite and hold” if your long-term policy and understanding is of a war of attrition?
Jonathan, I have started by addressing this question. The above information only addresses part of what you asked. There is a rationale for exploiting a possible breakthrough. Please note that breaking out to Bapaume involved very limited objectives after that. In the grand scheme of things, there would have been an attack against the German lines of communication to the North. There was no indication that this manoeuvre would have ended the war, had it been successful. In this respect, even the breakout strategy could still be considered part of a long-term policy and understanding of a war of attrition.

Your question involves another key issue, that of tampering with Rawlinson's original battle plan. Here I believe you are referring to Rawlinson's plan, as presented to Haig in "Plan for Offensive by the Fourth Army. GX3/1" on 3rd April, 1916. In this document, Rawlinson described the front facing Fourth Army. He did not comment on the areas beyond this front. It was not his remit to do so. As you know, Rawlinson drew attention to the more distant German second line, noting that 'Contalmaison, Pozières and Serre are defended localities between the front system and the second line. All the above are well within the range of our heavy guns, and most of the front system are within range of the heavy trench mortars."

Rawlinson then set out his assumptions for the battle plan. He noted that the attack was focused on Fourth Army. He assumed "17 divisions will be available for the offensive [which would enable a front of] about 20,000 yards, with a depth of 2,000 to 5,000. It is understood that 200 heavy howitzers will be available. This number will not suffice to deal with a larger front than 20,000 yards or a depth greater than 4,000 to 5,000 yards."

Rawlinson rightly noted that "it will be difficult to deal with... the second line, and especially with the wire, until we have advanced a considerable distance beyond our present line." He concluded "I do not therefore propose to include the second line South of Pozières in the objectives allotted to Corps. North of the Albert-Bapaume Road, there will also be some difficulty in observing the second line, but it is within 4,000 yards of our front line and I consider its capture, therefore, a feasible operation and one which should be included in the objectives given to Corps. I place great importance on the capture of Pozières and Contalmaison as starting off places for any further advance that may be undertaken against the enemy's position in front of the Maricourt salient."

Rawlinson went on to suggest there were two options for the infantry attack. One was to "rush the whole of the enemy's defenses in one rush as was attempted at Loos." The second option was to "include the enemy's front line and certain important tactical points [including] the ridge running north from Fricourt to Pozières, past Fricourt Farm and Round Wood." This option was the prelude to a futher attack "to be undertaken as soon as preparations can be made."

Rawlinson also suggested two options for the artillery bombardment: one was the short, sharp 5-6 hours duration option; the other was "longer, more methodical, but less intense [lasting] 48-72 hours duration." He posted several arguments for and against both options, concluding "on the whole I consider that alternative b will fit in best with the general plan selected."

Haig's responses came in the form of OADs 710 and 710/1. The first thing Haig did was to put Rawlinson's plan in a broader context. "The attack is to form part of a general offensive to be made in close co-operation by the British and French forces on the Western Front. The inner flanks of the French and British attacking forces will join, at the outset, about Maricourt." This was Haig's perogative, indeed it was his job to maintain this overview. It was not Rawlinson's job, in this particular instance, to create a plan that involved the French, or any other BEF assets for that matter. It should be noted that Rawlinson's task was not unusual in this regard. Earlier in the year, Allenby had been given the job of coming up with a plan for this area. Haig's other commanders were tasked with developing plans in other sectors, such as Plumer for Messines. The process was analagous to Ludendorff sending this senior army commanders away to come up with plans for the Spring offensives. Few of these plans survived unscathed, though many formed the basis for actual operations. This was the nature of planning for offensives.

Haig went on to point out that "your principle effort in the first instance will be directed to establishing a strong defensive flank on the spur from Serre (inclusive) to Miraumont and to capturing and securing the high ground about Pozières and the spurs running thence towards Beaucourt sur Ancre and Grandcourt and towards Fricourt." This was almost identical to Rawlinson's recommendation. No significant sign of meddling with this part of Rawlinson's plan.

Then comes the recommendation that "a simultaneous attack should be made on the enemy's trenches from Fricourt eastwards to the point of junction with the French. In this area, Montauban and the ridge running thence to Mametz are very important features which should be captured and secured as early in the operations as you find possible with the means at your disposal." Given that the French were to be involved, this makes very good military sense. It could be argued that such a shift south would over-extend Rawlinson's Fourth Army, according to Rawlinson's estimates. Why not shift the northern flank further south, maintaining the 20,000 yards frontage? Not a very sensible option because the northern flank, particularly the high ground beyond Pozières would constantly place the BEF at a tactical disadvantage. The alternative would be to find more resources. Rawlinson couldn't do this, although he could suggest it.

Haig was for the short bombardment option. He requested "your further consideration to this question is therefore desirable".

"The Commander-in-Chief desires that further consideration may be given to the possibility of pushing our first advance further than is contemplated in your plan..." Did he mean deeper into German territory? No. "...especially on your left on the spur between Serre and Miraumont and on your right towards Montauban and the Briqueterie." Then the first hints of additional resource. "Simultaneous activity against the Gommecourt salient... is advisable so far as it can be arranged for. The Third Army will probably be able to give some assistance of the same nature further north. There is every reason to suppose that the French... artillery may be able to help in your attack on Montauban."

Finally, Haig "invite[d] your attention to remarks on the use of cavalry made by the Commander-in-Chief at the Conference of Army Commanders... on the 18th March [published in OAD 291/9]. Opportunities to use cavalry, supported by guns, machine guns, etc and infantry, should be sought for, both during the early stages of the attack and subsequently. So far as possible, probable opportunities should be foreseen and all possible preparations made beforehand to enable them to be taken advantage of."

Robert

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As you know, Rawlinson responded on 19th April with his amended plan. He pointed out the dangers of trying to capture the German second line. He continued to argue for the prolonged bombardment. As we know, Haig's statement of objectives on 16th June was for the first objective to be "a position on Pozières ridge extending from the vicinity of Montauban to the River Ancre, so as to secure good observation over the ground to the eastward of that ridge." Not much different from Rawlinson's original first objective, in terms of depth. The second objective was only relevant "depending on how the battle develops." What about the bombardment? In OAD 876, dated 16th May 1916, Haig said "it should be of the nature of a methodical bombardment and be continued until the officers of the attacking units are satisfied that the obstacles to their advance have been adequately destroyed." This was not Haig's original choice.

The lateral extensions to the attack were significant. Rawlinson estimated the frontage had increased to 22,500 yards. He planned to full this extension from his reserves. Rawlinson clearly stated he did not have the artillery for the increase. I have no evidence for this but I would suspect this was said, in part, to encourage the idea, mentioned by Haig, that French artillery would be forthcoming, which they were.

In summary, there were few changes to Rawlinson's plan. After a debate, Rawlinson's artillery bombardment won the day. The lateral extensions of the attack were based on information about the French involvement and Haig's ability as C-in-C to bring Third Army in on the attack to the north.

I want to look at the issue of the artillery bombardment in more detail next.

Robert

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2) Why set unobtainable objectives within the inflexible command structure that Haig permeated, and which ultimately resulted in thousands of men going to their deaths unnecessarily in the pursuit of some ridiculous and fantasical objective? What I don’t understand is how these unachievable objectives had anything to do with the reality of attritional warfare (back to “bite and hold” and to cause the enemy as many casualties as possible for the smallest amount of casualties you yourselves can possibly sustain).

Jonathan, the initial 'bite' was as deep as Rawlinson suggested. Prior and Wilson are wrong, IMHO, when they argue that the initial objective was Bapaume and beyond on day one. I will produce further evidence against their argument. It was the breadth of the 'bite' that was increased. Although resources were increased, it has been argued that the artillery was stretched too thinly. Which brings us to your next point...

3) The shocking artillery preparation. The Germans had held the Somme and had been able to build up their defence in that sector, practically unmolested, for a considerable period. Taking the examples of the 1915 battles gave a simple calculation that the artillery tonnage per yard on the Somme was not sufficient, together with the knowledge of a % of dud shells, worn artillery, inexperienced gun crews etc. The lack of counter-battery work in some Corps which is just inexcusable and responsibility for this has to be with Haig. Again this was ultimately responsible for a considerable number of deaths or maiming.

The artillery preparation was inadequate, mostly. I have seen the calculations of tonnage per yard, comparing Neuve Chapelle, Loos and the Somme. To be honest, and this is just a personal opinion, I am not convinced by this. It was not tonnage that mattered - it was how the shells were used. They had to be deposited on the enemy artillery and on the defensive positions right up until the point where the infantry entered those positions, not lifting just as the infantry left the trenches. So why was the artillery preparation so poor? Well, to be fair, it wasn't poor in all areas. In fact, it was very very good in the area that formed one of the extensions to the attack - Montauban and surrounds. Why was there such a discrepancy? I don't fully understand all the reasons. As for Haig's culpability, let's examine this. As we know, Haig wanted a hurricane bombardment. Rawlinson pursuaded him otherwise. Rawlinson noted "the effect on moral of a long, accurate bombardment, which will pulverize strong points one by one, gradually knock in communication trenches, prevent reliefs being carried out, and systematically beat down the enemy's defences will, to my mind, be much greater...". Despite this emphasis, the Fourth Army Artillery Programme of Preliminary Bombardment, published on 5th June, stated that 'Counter Battery work' would be 'Very active' from "U" until "Y" Days, and then on "Z" Day "concentration of gas shells on hostile gun positions before the assault. Very active'. From Haig's perspective, the artillery programme was consistent with GHQ's requirement for counter-battery fire as an integral part of the preparatory bombardment.

Farndale noted that "artillery commanders were obsessed with need to keep their fire immediately in front of the infantry. In doing so, they again allowed counterbattery tasks, and an ability to switch guns of the barrage to deal with the unexpected, to slip into second priority." How was Haig to know this, especially when reports to GHQ mentioned that counterbattery fire was continuing, and given that many German guns remained silent? Sanders Marble gives a more specific view in his paper on Herbert Uniacke, BGRA for III Corps on the Somme. Marble noted "Rawlinson at one point decided some artillery matters with his own Chief of Staff and MGRA, then left the details to the subordinate artillerymen and the general staff officers. Furthermore, the corps was not yet a strong enough echelon of command to insist that the component divisions obey its wishes. For instance, while the principle of the creeping barrage was outlined at Army level, the actual orders were laid down by the divisions and corps could only do their best to coordinate. On this matter, Uniacke was firmer than some BGRAs, and both divisions of III Corps set the same pace, a sign of something he was shortly to emphasise. Unfortunately, the pace was intentionally set faster than the infantry could advance, so the barrage and the infantry soon became separated and the barrage was ineffective." How was Haig to know this?

Robert

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Robert et al,

The quality of this thread is awesome, and on behalf of all those who are listening and learning, thank you.

Mick

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