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Remembered Today:

Victories on the western front


Dikke Bertha
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I read recently where the battle of Le Cateau was described as a British victory. Would others agree with this? Does delaying the enemy advance for a few hours before continuing your retreat constitute a victory?

Would you say that the Somme, Cambrai and Paschendale were all German victories. Do people here consider these to be British victories.

I don’t have strong views on this as it did not occur to me to consider it until reading the statement about Le Cateau. I gather that Haig regarded the Somme as a victory? I have considered Ypres 1914 and I don’t consider that to be exactly an Allied victory.

Please don't say that it depends on what one defines as a victory. The Somme was intended to break through the German line and Third Ypres was intended to clear the Belgian coast.

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But surely the objectives of the attack determine the extent of the victory/loss.

The attacking side have objectives and the defending side's aim is to stop them reaching those goals. Any result would therefore be weighed against what was achieved and what was stopped from being achieved.

Ultimately, I don't think anyone really won anything during WW1 - especially not those poor sods who remain there to this day.

Tim L.

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Hello,

I think Tim is quite right! However, at the back of my mind is a remark made by some politician in the context of the Versaille conference in answer to a general question along the lines 'what will the people of the future say about all this?' The answer was ' They will not say that Belgium invaded Gemany'

Old Tom

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I should not have asked two questions. My real question is do people here regard Le Cateau (or even Mons), the Somme, Cambrai or Paschendale to be British Victories.

Please don't say that it depends on what one defines as a victory.

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Sorry - forget the beginning of that last post. I did not ask two questions.

Although my first question still stands.

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I do not see battles of WW1 in that way. Previously battles were won or lost fairly quickly.

Le Cateau probably saved the British Army and in that context it could be regarded as a victory to some.

Tactically it was a superb piece of work and in holding the German Army, precious time was gained which would eventually stop the German's. I think German history has to be studied also and they knew beforehand that any deviation or delay in the Schlieffen Plan would probably spell defeat.

Once trench warfare was established, then it was a case of atrition for four years. Each battle/campaign has to be seen as a prelude to the Final Victory. It can be strongly argued that the Somme and Passchendaele were victories as the German Army was retreating and losing more men than it could afford. Cambrai on the other hand saw the British pretty much were they started. Messines was a victory which was not taken advantage of.

The basic premise in warfare has always been the same - I have one man left, you have none - I win!

I believe that once the German Army had failed in taking Paris, their leaders knew that they would eventually lose and like 1945, they did not know how to stop what they had started.

stevem

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Good points Steve Morse.

I was watching the BBC Great War DVDs all about the Eastern Front and it dawned on me that the German army was quite happy with its defensive stance on the Western front as this kapt the western allies at bay while they were free to do what they liked on the eastern front. Much like WW2 in that respect. So any successful defensive action could be regarded as a victory.

Another point about the Somme and Paschendale battles is that driving the Germans off one ridge did no more than to drive them back to the next. There are plenty of ridges before reaching the German border.

Regards

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And then there are the strange cases. Clearly the Canadians at Vimy won. Just as clearly, the Arras offensive was a failure. So, does the "win" count? In a way, the same question arises at 3rd Ypres, since the Canadians do take Passchendaele village.

Perhaps the answer lies in General Haig's statement that it is necessary to consider the war on the Western Front as one gigantic battle. Some might object to this as being either 20/20 hindsight or post-war self-serving schmaltz, but in an attritional war it has some merit.

NMG

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It is hard to say what constitutes a victory and what does not. A delaying action which saves an army and inflicts higher csaualties then those received can be counted as a defensive victory. In this way Le Cateu and Mons were qualified victories. Without the BEF the French Army might have been under a lot more pressure and they may have collapsed under German blows entirely. Thus the saving of this force was important. As far as I can see First Ypres was a hard fought British defensive victory, had the Germans won they would have drunk schnaps at the Cap Griz Nez, they did not, and their leaders had not established any sort of attritional objectives, there failure cannot be doubted.

The British battles of 1915 all appear to me to have been defeats, French battles equally so, although they did exert some attritional effect upon the Germans.

But what of 1916, the infamous year John Terraine named ''The Year of Killing''. The battle of Verdun was, as far as I can see a draw, although the fact that the French Army was not totally defeated cannot be totally discounted. The Somme was certainly not a defeat. It had some important objectives, paramount among these was relief for the French forces at Verdun, an objective that was acheived. While it can be argued that the Germans acheived a defensive success on the Somme by stopping any sort of British breakthrough this meant they were exposed to another one of Haig's objectives, attrition. There cannot be any doubting the effect the Somme had upon German strategy, the German High Command decided to withdraw to the Hindenburg Line and, most importantly, decided to unleash unrestricted submarine warfare, an act (plus a very strange telegram)that would shortly bring America into the war, these are hardly the actions of a victorious staff.

The Arras Offensive of early 1917 was not so much a failure, indeed on the first day British forces won a considerable vicotry, they captured several strategic features, most importantly Vimy Ridge and loyally supported a French Offensive at the same time. The fact that the French Offensive was a tragedy should not desguise the fact that British forces had fought the battle to help them. Even as Arras continued, becoming bloodier and more wasteful as the seconds ticked by, it continued to exert an attritional effect. In a total war, especially one deadlocked by tewchnology, the only way that victory can be acheived is through tough attritional fighting.

Third Ypres was certainly a British tactical defeat, Haig's masterplan drowned in the blood filled shell holes of Passchendeale. However in stragtegic terms, though not a victory, this offensive did have some positive effects for the Allies, especially due to the fact that it continued the bitter process of attrition upon the German Army.

The German Spring Offensives have to be seen as Allied Victories, the Germans could have killed a million of Haig's and Petain's men but if they did not occupy either Boulogne or the Louvre by June their efforts would have resulted in failiure, for by that point American numbers would begin to tell.

It was only during the latter half of 1918 that attrition truly began to effect the German Army as it was driven back by every Allied thrust mounted, these certainly were Allied victories on vast scales, under this sort of pressure all the German Army could do was mount a desperate, but ultimately defeated, defence.

What do you think?

Jon

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Hello,

The Spring offensives an Allied victory? The battle of Kemmel Hill an Allied victory? In my opinion no. Yes at the end of the war the Germans could not hold their positions. But the battle around f "Kemmel Hill was surely not an Allied succes because they - the French- lost too much.

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The Spring offensives an Allied victory? The battle of Kemmel Hill an Allied victory? In my opinion no. Yes at the end of the war the Germans could not hold their positions. But the battle around f "Kemmel Hill was surely not an Allied succes because they - the French- lost too much.

But in strategic terms these gains were utterly meaningless. The Germans had grand objectives for the Spring Offensive, highest among these being victory. Not meeting this objective means that the German Offensive must be called a failure because germany then went on to lose the war.. The Germans won vast tactical victories but in the end these gains acheived nothing.

Jon

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not my opinion,

In the spring offensives the British had to retreat and lost their positions. That can't be av ictory.

The British lost their positions, but so did the Americans during the Battle of the Bulge, in both cases the positions were later regained. What else did Germany win, a massive amount of land some of which they had devastated during their retreat back to the Hindenburg Line in 1917. Land which was useless, indeed it could barely be held even had it been useful. Their best troops were killed. They never acheived their objectives because they captured neither Paris nor the Channel Ports, they did not even march over the Ypres town square (although they came pretty close). The British suffered a huge tactical defeat while the Germans gained a tactical victory, however in strategic terms this was reversed and in early 1918 strategy was all that was important, to the Germans and the Allies. Don't forget that the Allied line, though sent back reeling in agony, did hold eventually and this was all that mattered because as long as this took place the Germans could not capture their objectives, while the Allies simply had to regroup, wait for US support and/or counter attack against a weakened enemy. Some German victory!

Jon

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Hello,

The battle around the "Kemmel" can't be seen as an allied victory. Yes, the allied won the war, but they lost battles.

Tactically that is true, but the March offensive was a strategic offensive, if it failed in the long run then it failed entirely. Kemmel was not an allied victory, it was a defeat, in tactical terms only, but it was a meaningless victory for the Germans.

Jon

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Hello,

The battle around the "Kemmel" can't be seen as an allied victory. Yes, the allied won the war, but they lost battles.

Isn't that the point of war - does not matter how many battles you lose as long as you win the war. Britain is famous for losing the battles but winning the wars. Won't let 'Jonnie Foreigner' beat us yu know'

steve

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Hello,

Don't forget: not only the British, but surely the French, the Americans, the Irish, The Australians, New zealand, etc too. The battles are part of the war. Most of the time the French are forgotten even on 11 november.

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From a tactical standpoint I consider Mons and Le Cateau to be British victories. I can't consider the Somme or Passchendaele to be British victories because of the extraordinarily high casualty rates and small amount of ground captured.

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Good points Steve Morse.

I was watching the BBC Great War DVDs all about the Eastern Front and it dawned on me that the German army was quite happy with its defensive stance on the Western front as this kapt the western allies at bay while they were free to do what they liked on the eastern front. Much like WW2 in that respect. So any successful defensive action could be regarded as a victory...

Hello,

I would say I can't agree with you there. WW1 was not like WW2 in the East. The Germans performed only very limited actions in the East, mostly reacting to Allied moves, or bailing A-H out of the various jams they found therselves in.

The only time the Germans concentrated on the East was 1915, and then reluctantly.

Verdun was the strategy for 1916, don't forget.

Paul

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And then there are the strange cases. Clearly the Canadians at Vimy won. Just as clearly, the Arras offensive was a failure. So, does the "win" count? In a way, the same question arises at 3rd Ypres, since the Canadians do take Passchendaele village.

The objective of Third Ypres was not the ruined village of Paschendale but to clear the Belgian coast. The objective of First Ypres was not to stop the Germans taking Ypres but rather to outflank the German right and reach Ghent with a view to keeping the Belgian coast free and maybe taking Antwerp. The Germans could equally claim both as "defensive victories".

I do not see Mons and Le Cateau in the same light. They did not stop the Germans from continuing on towards their objective

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The quote button did not seem to work very well for me that time. The first paragraph is a quote from nathanmg@rogers.com of 29 September above.

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Vimy was a magnificient achievement and nobody can take from that but it was a local tactical victory.

I hope not to wander off on a tangent here where people's national pride becomes offended.

My question is not intended to denigrate any one nationality's contribution to the ultimate victory. After all the Germans did not dictate the terms of the armistice.

My question relates to the propogation of wartime propaganda and as to whether people still percieve Mons, Le Cateau, the Somme or Paschendale to be victories?

Regards

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Certainly in regards to Le Cateau, I think it can be called a British victory, albeit a limited tactical one.

Consider what Smith-Dorrien wanted to achieve: his force is too tired to run, parts of it are still dribbling in and parts of THAT are already fighting rear-guard actions. If he can give the enemy a sharp smack on the nose, he can hope to pack up and run while Von Kluck's forces deploy for the set-piece attack that is needed to overrun British II Corps (and its hangers on).

The tactical determinant of S-D's victory was that he got the majority of his force away to fight another day while leaving the Germans opposite him to regroup in disarray. The strategic determinant is that with Allenby's Cavalry Corps (still the only screening/scouting force French could rely on in bad weather) and Snow's division attached, II Corps was the greater part of the BEF. To lose it would constitute disaster.

The Somme and Passchendaele will always elicit controversy. At the end of the day, it was the British - and not the Germans - who ended up forward of their start lines. Not by much, true, and the casualty lists were horrendous. The one mitigating factor on the Somme was that relatively untrained British troops were being 'exchanged' for experienced, well-trained German ones. It wasn't just the quantity of the German army that was being whittled down; it was the relative quality too. A bit like swapping two pawns for a Bishop in chess - I lose two men off the board, you lose one, but my strategic position is better in the long run. This was the true nature of attrition, though I agree that it's probably a bit post-facto, and I can't see Haig perceiving this at the time.

The fact remains: the Germans on the Somme were devoted to the counter-attack, and the British Army has always been at its best in defence, with its back to the wall, while German counter-attacks at Ypres were also broken up with depressing regularity. As for the Kaiserschlacht, the Osprey campaign book by Randal Grey (not the loftiest source, I know...), quoting Middlebrook, gives German losses on day 1 at around 40,000 casualties (10,851 dead) to 38,500 British (21,000 captured including wounded prisoners). This is almost the same proportion of killed to total BRITISH casualties at the Somme (Corrected figures for 60,000 casualties would be 16,000-odd dead as opposed to 19,000-odd), whilst at the same time adding to their rear areas an extra 21000 useless mouths to feed and a proportion of wounded to care for (all of which must be kept under guard). Given that the British probably weren't taking too many prisoners, the German figures for killed and wounded are NOT good - even Fifth Army had to have been doing something right - especially since the burden fell on their best men, whereas the British losses would have been across the board. If this was a victory, it was a pyrrhic one, again in terms of 'exchange of quality'.

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Dikke:

Didn't mean to give the impression that National Pride was hurt. Just wanted to know how we were dividing things up. You are absolutely right about Vimy -- indeed, recently one of the deans of Canadian history wrote as much in a newspaper article. For obvious reasons, Vimy looms large in the mythology of Canada; actually, one might say that it IS the foundation of Canada's national mythology. So, discussing it can be touchy. But, as impressive and important as it was, the Battle of Arras, of which it was a part, failed. BYTW, just read Peter Hart's book the RFC in Arras, a fascinating and terrible story.

If we are using the measure of ending up forward of the start line (and this seems as good a measure as any) then we have to judge both Passch. and the Somme as BEF victories. Another measure would be to ask which Army better survived such battles. And as Martin Gilbert notes in his recent book on the Somme, the German Army's losses meant that it never fought so well again. The same is true of Passch., with the previsio being that the German Army did not fight as well there as it did on the Somme; for a final judgement on that, I think, we will have to await Jack Sheldon's forthcoming book on the German on at Passch.

NMG

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