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Mat McLachlan

Western Front tactics in 1917

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Mat McLachlan

Hi all,

I originally posted this in the book review section but, since it relates to broad tactical issues, I thought I'd also bring it up here.

I've just finished reading 'The Great War' by Les Carlyon. I really enjoyed this book, as I did 'Gallipoli'. Carlyon has a wonderful narrative style and a real ability to dig up interesting snippets from private documents to paint a picture of life for the 'common' soldier.

I was a bit confused during his description of Third Ypres though. Carlyon basically said that the method of attack for 1916 (long advances after a static barrage) didn't work - no arguments there. But he then goes on to say that the tactics for Menin Road, Polygon Wood and Broodseinde Risge in 1917 (limited advances behind a creeping barrage) were successful at taking ground but far too costly in terms of casualties. This is the first time I have heard this suggestion put forward (he implies that anyone who considers those 1917 battles as successful is plain wrong) but he doesn't suggest an alternative. If massed advances with distant objectives were a mistake, and well-planned but limited advances were also the wrong way to go, I'm not quite sure what Carlyon would like to have seen happen. Apart from waiting for the Germans to die of old age, there wasn't much of an alternative in 1917.

Thoughts?

Mat

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Crunchy

Mat,

I think it useful to remember that Les Carlyon primarily is a journalist, not a professional historian. Nor does he have any real understanding of military tactics and development and his comment appears to be based purely on the casualties incurred. Hence his inability to provide an alternative. He writes beautifully and his books are a great addition to the historiography of the Great War. If I have a disappointment with his work it is his readiness to accept some of the old myths as fact. His strength lies in his narrative style and his ability to bring the events and people to life that is joy to read. I think some of his assessemnts and comments diminishes the quality of his work.

Anyone with an understanding of the difficulties of the offensive on the Western Front would agree that the tactics used at Messines, Menin Road, Polygon Wood and Broodeseinde were a big improvement over earlier efforts. Unfortunately in even the best laid plans and tactics heavy casualties can occur. Carlyon is right to highlight the casualties were costly but IMHO his assessment is too harsh and is based on a lack of understanding of the difficulties of attacking strong defensive positions without flanks given the technology of the day.

Regards

Chris

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PhilB

It`s the Profit/Loss account question again. Did the gains from 3rd Ypres outweigh the cost? Most would, I imagine, say "No". It leads me to one of two conclusions. Either the battle should not have been fought or it was badly carried out. Either way, not good for the planners. Could it have been better done with "the difficulties of attacking strong defensive positions without flanks given the technology of the day."? I don`t know. What would you suggest, Crunchy?

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Crunchy

Hi Phil,

Did the gains outweigh the the cost? No, I don't believe they did. Could it have been done better? I'm not sure. It is an interesting question that requires some thought. There are are two considerations: tactics and operations.

With regard to tactics, which is the thrust of Carlyon's criticism, I think it is important to understand the factors that influenced planning, the use of resources and the causes of the casualties.

At Menin Road, for example, Bean says that it had been anticipated that three obstacles would hamper the troops: "the debris of Glencourse Wood and the bogs at Nonne Boschen and along the Hannebeek" so these would have precluded the use of tanks. Boggy conditions were a problem for tanks in all of the valleys across the salient. The ground was also pitted with shell holes that would have impeded tanks. So while tanks could have assisted the infantry forward the conditions were not favourable for them as evidenced by the photo of a tank sunk in the bog at Nonne Boschen. It is important to note that in these three battles the Australians were not attacking through a quagmire. At Polygon Wood "The ground was dry, and the shell bursts raised a wall of dust and smoke which appeared almost solid" while at Broodeseinde "the ground was greasy but not drenched" following a light rain prior to the assault.

As to casualties, the Australians suffered heavily before the attacks at Menin Road and Broodeseinde got underway due to German barrages firing on the troops in the FUP which also had a knock on effect of the rear lines bunching up on the forward lines as both strove to get forward out of the barrage area before zero hour. This could have presented more compact targets for the Germans MG's. At Polygon Wood, the 5th Division had to contend with a successful German counter attack immediately south of them the day prior to the assault, which they participated in halting, and this had an impact on the attack itself. At Broodeseinde, the assaulting Australians were confronted by a German attack mounted at the same time and defeated that before moving on to capture their objectives. So is it fair to simply relate the casualties to the tactics adopted? I don't think so.

These factors and incidents fall into the category of what Clausewitz called "the friction of war" - battles aren't fought on level playing fields - and "friction" impacts on planning, the use of resources and results. So while it is very easy for Carlyon to criticise the tactics at these three battles based on the casualties, he appears to make no allowance for the "friction" that occurred. I can't offer a better solution regarding tactics at this time.

On the other hand, there can be no excuse for the abortive attacks on 12th October which were hastily planned without regard for the worsened weather and its effect on the battlefield with the result the troops were committed in quagmire conditions and ineffective protective fire.

Operationally, however, the choice of the salient has to be questioned. I have wondered whether or not, after the success at Messines, the centre of gravity of the attack could have been made NE along the ridge running from Messines through Gheluvelt to Passchendaele rather than pushing out across the Ypres salient and its destroyed drainage system. It's just a thought at this stage and one needs to understand the implications and factors of such an approach before making a judgement. Maybe others have a view on this.

regards

Chris

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Robert Dunlop

Great post, Chris. I would like to post a view ;) - with respect to the key question you have posed at the end of your post. May take a bit to get things together though.

Robert

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PhilB

Thanks Chris. So, once again, if I may, the old question - would 3rd Ypres have been better not fought at all?

Phil B

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Chris_Baker

If he is reading this, I imagine Jack Sheldon may have some interesting insight from the German perpective.

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Jack Sheldon

Goaded into action by Chris! As you might guess, I have devoted a lot of space in the forthcoming book to this question and it is addressed head-on by Peter Simkins in his Foreword. All I really want to say at this stage is that critics of the battle and the Allied generalship and tactics tend to lose sight of the fact that the German army was very badly hurt by Third Ypres, fixed in Flanders and prevented from operating freely elsewhere at a critical time. 'Bite and hold' tactics were costly, but the German generals never designed an effective counter to them. The weather and the winter bailed them out. General Hermann von Kuhl, chief of staff to Army Group Crown Prince Rupprecht provides us in Der Weltkrieg the best summary of the significance of the Allied effort in Flanders from the German perspective:

'After the total collapse of the Russian offensive in July, the Russian army as a fighting force had fallen completely out of the picture. The Italian front was in complete tatters in October. Above all, the hitting power of the French, after the failure of the offensives on the Aisne and in Champagne, followed by the mutinies and internal disturbances was so greatly reduced that they urgently needed relief. The United States was still not in a position to do anything.

The one and only army capable of offensive action was that of the British. If they had broken off their offensive, the German army would have seized the initiative and attacked the Allies where they were weak. To that end it would have been possible to have withdrawn strong forces from the east after the collapse of the Russians. For these reasons the British had to go on attacking until the onset of winter ruled out a German counter-attack.

Today, now that we are fully aware about the critical situation in which the French army found itself during the summer of 1917, there can be absolutely no doubt that [original emphasis] through its tenacity, the British army bridged the crisis in France. The French army gained time to recover its strength; the German reserves were drawn towards Flanders. The sacrifices that the British made for the Entente were fully justified.'

The real criticism, of course, relates to the final six weeks of the campaign where 'bite and hold' was (due to the weather as much as anything) subject to the law of diminishing returns, but notice that Kuhl is quite definite. Despite the awful casualties, which stick in the throat to this day, the sacrifice 'was fully justified.'

Did the gains outweigh the costs? asks Chris. Kuhl certainly thought they did.

Jack

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Old Tom

Hello,

Crunchy's last paragraph also, I think, goes towards the oft raised question of Haig and his choice of Generals. The Messines action by 2nd Army under Plumer was effective. The transfer of the next to move to Gough and the 5th Army seems to me to be questionable. The lay of the land seems to have favoured a further attack on the Messines front while the lower ridge to the north (on the ground it is quite easy not to notice it) while perhaps more direct was not not, I think, a good idea.

This is an appropriate time to think about 3rd Ypres; further reading my change my simple opinion.

Old Tom

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MelPack
von Kuhl

'After the total collapse of the Russian offensive in July, the Russian army as a fighting force had fallen completely out of the picture. The Italian front was in complete tatters in October. Above all, the hitting power of the French, after the failure of the offensives on the Aisne and in Champagne, followed by the mutinies and internal disturbances was so greatly reduced that they urgently needed relief. The United States was still not in a position to do anything.

The one and only army capable of offensive action was that of the British. If they had broken off their offensive, the German army would have seized the initiative and attacked the Allies where they were weak. To that end it would have been possible to have withdrawn strong forces from the east after the collapse of the Russians. For these reasons the British had to go on attacking until the onset of winter ruled out a German counter-attack.

Today, now that we are fully aware about the critical situation in which the French army found itself during the summer of 1917, there can be absolutely no doubt that [original emphasis] through its tenacity, the British army bridged the crisis in France. The French army gained time to recover its strength; the German reserves were drawn towards Flanders. The sacrifices that the British made for the Entente were fully justified.'

Jack

Thank you for your posting.

May I seek clarification as to when von Kuhl recorded his comments? The reason why I ask is that post hoc rationalisations are often unreliable.

My understanding is that in spite of the catastrophic failure of the Kerensky (Galician) Offensive in July 1917, the German High Command could not treat the Eastern Front as secure (thereby permitting the transfer of Divisions for a major offensive in the West) at least until the October Revolution and arguably not until the Treaty of Brest Litovsk had been concluded.

If, as von Kuhl suggests, everything was as positive for the German Army on the different fronts save for the British Army during the Third Battle of Ypres then why did the German High Command not engage in a major offensive at that juncture precisely when the British ( as the only effective opponent) were locked in an attritional struggle on the Salient?

If von Kuhl's analysis is correct then surely the mire of Passchendaele was the German High Command's opportunity?

Regards

Mel

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AndyHollinger

This is why I read the forum.

Thank you all ... all of you ... This is history at it's best.

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Robert Dunlop

Jack mentioned von Kuhl's analysis of Third Ypres. I have previously quoted Ludendorff's view here:

http://1914-1918.invisionzone.com/forums/i...st&p=237002

I think these views are particularly relevant to the question that Jonathan posed re Germans learning more quickly than the British (see: http://1914-1918.invisionzone.com/forums/i...t&p=577907). I have not had a chance to respond to Jonathan's question in detail. Von Lossberg had played a role in helping to coordinate the German response in the latter part of the Somme offensive in 1916. In the context of Third Ypres, Rudolf Binding's observations about the effects that the British offensive, as described by von Kuhl and Ludendorff, had on von Lossberg are also very significant. The quote is here:

http://1914-1918.invisionzone.com/forums/i...st&p=362513

Robert

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Robert Dunlop
I have wondered whether or not, after the success at Messines, the centre of gravity of the attack could have been made NE along the ridge running from Messines through Gheluvelt to Passchendaele rather than pushing out across the Ypres salient and its destroyed drainage system.
Chris, I have edited a map of the Third Ypes campaign. Do the blue dotted lines represent what you described above?

post-1473-1171401769.jpg

Robert

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Jack Sheldon

Mel

You raise an important point. I shall get back to you on this but, rather like Robert, I should like to marshal my thoughts a little before committing myself to a response. Watch this space.

Jack

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Crunchy

Jack,

Thank you for your post. Firstly, let me say that I am not a critic of the battle or of Allied generalship until. as you point out, the last six weeks of the battle when the weather turned foul and the battlefield became a quagmire.

You raise the important issue of strategic gains which I have ignored in my earlier post. My comment of the gains not being worth the cost relates to the losses endured for the ground gained but, as you correctly point out, other considerations need to be taken into account.

I have no doubt the Germans were badly hurt at 3rd Ypres and that the offensive maintained pressure on them. Most of the German accounts talk of the terrible effect it had on them. Nonetheless, the British were badly hurt as well. Depending on what sources one reads, the most commonly quoted figures indicate the British lost around 250,000 casualties to the German's roughly 200,000; so the British hurt was not inconsiderable and, arguably, was greater than the German. These losses influenced Lloyd George withholding critically needed reinforcements in early 1918.

Like Melpack, I am a suspicious of post war accounts by senior German officers which seek to explain away possible criticisms of their failure to do something.

Von Kuhl may well be right about the effect of 3rd Ypres on their inability to mount a counter offensive in the West but I can't see the logic of his argument.

After the total collapse of the Russian offensive in July, the Russian army as a fighting force had fallen completely out of the picture. ... The one and only army capable of offensive action was that of the British. If they had broken off their offensive, the German army would have seized the initiative and attacked the Allies where they were weak. To that end it would have been possible to have withdrawn strong forces from the east after the collapse of the Russians. For these reasons the British had to go on attacking until the onset of winter ruled out a German counter-attack.

Is he suggesting 3rd Ypres stopped the German's from withdrawing forces from the eastern front? His argument appears to be that because all of the other Allied forces posed no threat to the Germans, the Britiish had to continue the Ypres offensive until the onset of winter to stop a German counter offensive. This may be so, but if the rest of the Allies posed no threat to them why couldn't the German's withdraw the necessary forces from the east after the Russian failure in July and mount a strong counter offensive later in 1917? The 88 German divisions that were eventually engaged at 3rd Ypres represented about a third of the German Army, so the rest of the Allies, who according to von Kuhl were incapable of offensive action, were tying down two thirds of the German Army.

As MelPack points out I don't believe the German's were in a position at that time to say the Eastern Front was secure, nor did they know about the French mutinies. So these comments by Von Kuhl appear to be made with the benefit of hindsight and they smack of explaining away a lost opportunity, which they were unaware of, after the event. Had the British broken off the offensive in early October, I'm not convinced the Germans would neccessarily have been in a position to mount a major offensive elsewhere before winter set in. Also, we should not forget the British mounted an initially highly successful offensive at Cambrai in November which the Germans had to contend with, mounting a successful counter attack which recaptured much of the lost ground.

Nonetheless, your point about the strategic gains deserves consideration. I'll need to do some research before commenting further.

Cheers

Chris

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Crunchy

QUOTE (Phil_B @ Feb 14 2007, 01:37 AM) <{POST_SNAPBACK}>
So, once again, if I may, the old question - would 3rd Ypres have been better not fought at all?

Hi Phil,

I think it's too easy for us to look back in hindsight and say "Given what we now know the results were, it would have been better not fought at all". As I am sure you are aware, the issue is more complex than that.

There is merit in Haig's strategic objective of trying to open up a flank on the right of the German line. His immediate operational objective to secure the Passchendaele Ridge is sound, particularly as that whole ridge from Messines to Passchendaele dominates the ground for a considerable distance to the east. It provided a strong base for further offensives in 1918.

Also, IMO, the tactics developed for the battle (limited objectives - bite and hold) were sound and as Robert points out in his links above the German's didn't have an answer to them. They were successful. The problem came when Haig continued the battle in conditions that were unsuitable but, then again, Passchendaele Ridge was eventually captured through a limited objective approach under Currie, albiet at a frightful cost.

To my mind the questions are:

Where should the centre of gravity for the offensive have been? and

Should the offensive, as undertaken, have been halted once the rain set in in October?

I don't have an answer for the first and I am inclined to think pursuing the battle in the quagmire after Broodeseinde was a mistake.

Regards

Chris

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Crunchy
Chris, I have edited a map of the Third Ypes campaign. Do the blue dotted lines represent what you described above?

post-1473-1171401769.jpg

Hello Robert,

Not really. The blue lines show an offensive that is far too narrow in its concept and which can be nipped off at the base.

By centre of gravity I am talking about a broader front offensive that is centred on the ridge. This would mean maintaining the frontage of the Ypres offensive but side slipping it south so that the offensive was astride the ridge. Thus Menin Road, Polygon Wood and Broodeseinde/Gravenstafel would be within the northern sector of the offensive rather than the southern sector. It would have to entail some attacks to secure the flanks of the offensive as occurred at 3rd Ypres.

It seems to me that at 3rd Ypres we were attacking out of a bowl and up onto the ridge from the sides of it whereas attacking astride the ridge may have been a better option. Just a thought at this stage. I need to do a lot more research and analysis.

Cheers

Chris

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Robert Dunlop
By centre of gravity I am talking about a broader front offensive that is centred on the ridge. This would mean maintaining the frontage of the Ypres offensive but side slipping it south so that the offensive was astride the ridge. Thus Menin Road, Polygon Wood and Broodeseinde/Gravenstafel would be within the northern sector of the offensive rather than the southern sector.
Chris, thanks for the extra clarification. I have modified the map again in light of your comments. Firstly, I added the Lys River to the south. I believe this would have been the natural boundary that defined the southern-most limit of an attack. I base this on the major problems that the BEF had in crossing the Lys during their limited offensive prior to the German attacks in First Ypres. Second, I added the approximate positions (apologies for any major topographic errors - they will be mine alone) of the locations that you named. Then I widened the 'blue' objective lines. These don't really represent what you describe, particularly that the locations would be in the 'northern' rather than 'southern' sector of the attack. Therefore I added the 'purple' objective lines, limited by the Lys. Let me know what you think. Do I need to make a composite of the two colours to describe your proposal?

post-1473-1171438110.jpg

Robert

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Crunchy

Robert,

Many thanks for your maps. That is better, although the purple line would run due west from Passchendaele rather than cutting back down towards Ypres. Good point about the Lys, although I don't believe we have to follow the northern bank of the river to the depth on the map above. The objective is to secure the high ground. We have to be careful that we are not creating a deep salient that can be attacked from either side of the base.

Your map certainly shows some of the problems associated with attacking astride the ridge which highlights the difficulties the Great War generals had. Nonetheless I think it is worth considering this other approach. Are you able to model it?

Regards

Chris

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PhilB

Does this new salient promise to withstand the German 1918 onslaught any better than the actual one? Phil B

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Robert Dunlop

Phil, it might do, depending on the extent to which the British right flank extended beyond the ridge line. This could create more of a buffer zone that was observeable and therefore defended easily with artillery - precisely what the Germans achieved in their choice of defensive positions. There is still a lot to think about, however, in weighing up this option.

Chris, I will remodel as suggested. Next time I will add some letters/squares so that you can specify more easily what you think the zone of operations should be. It won't take long but I think it will have to wait until tonight.

Robert

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PhilB
I added the Lys River to the south. I believe this would have been the natural boundary that defined the southern-most limit of an attack. I base this on the major problems that the BEF had in crossing the Lys during their limited offensive prior to the German attacks in First Ypres.

post-1473-1171438110.jpg

Robert

A tactical question, Robert. Stopping your advance at a river makes good sense if you wish to establish a defensive line. The British strategy, however, was always looking forward to the next advance. Wouldn`t stopping at a river make this more difficult, just as it makes an attack by the enemy more difficult? Phil B

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Robert Dunlop

Phil, typically the problem with a river, as I understand it, is that you will be forced to use it as a defensive line, whether you want to or not. The reflects the significant problems trying to attack across a river. At the very least it will slow troop movements. More seriously, it will funnel troops into crossing areas, typically bridges, which are then vulnerable to artillery. Furthermore it is hard to buildup a significant body of troops with sufficient support on the far side of the river to then advance again. Finally, logistics and resupply becomes problematic until the advance carries sufficient ground for the bridges and other crossing points to be clear of enemy artillery fire. Looking at the converse of the British coming down off the ridges and across the Lys, the German cavalry found it very hard to advance towards the BEF positions on the Gheluvelt ridge in 1914 because they were having to advance across the Lys. Their bridges and approach roads were shelled whenever they were used during the day.

There has to be an extremely good reason to want to cross a river as part of an attack.

Robert

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PhilB
Phil, typically the problem with a river, as I understand it, is that you will be forced to use it as a defensive line, whether you want to or not. Robert

Do you mean that an advance will normally stop at a river? Might it not be easier to cross a river at a run, so to speak, than by stopping at it and ensuring an opposed crossing attempt eventually? Phil B

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