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Western Front tactics in 1917

Mat McLachlan

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Chris, good luck with the op, and many, many thanks for your contribution to this thread, as well as that great time and instructions/ lessons/information you gave over lunch.

Bet you learn to one finger type with your left hand. :P

Try it, cause we will miss you.



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yes, good luck with the op and we will await your return with interest

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  • 2 weeks later...

I think it useful to remember that Les Carlyon is a journalist, not a historian. He lacks a real understanding of military tactics and development. 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.




Can I ask a question, does a historian need to have been in the military and thereby developed an understanding of military tactics and developments before they begin a military work? Must a military historian visit the ground he writes about, I think it is imperative, yet many in the AWM say no. I don't believe the writer does have to be a historian, they need to be able to apply the processes of historiography honestly and as impartially as they can and develop and articulate the fruits of their research understanding in their work. Does this obviate Les Carlyon and CEW Bean from writing books on the Great War simply on the basis of professional education and employment, journalism, I hope not, otherwise our culture and understanding of war and history would be so much the poorer, with only the Colonel Blimps, General Armchairs and Warrant Officers Wargamer (the Walter Mitty's of the crowd) writing anything. And none of us want all that revisionism.

Though I haven't begun to read either Gallipoli or the Great War yet, they are propping up my bedside light to a great level, the point is that Les Carlyon does write beautifully thereby, despite both being doorstops, making the history of Australia's participation in the Great War more accessible and understandable to people today is that not what everyone wants?

I would also be careful on the old "Centre's of Gravity" definition you chat about later, the current NATO definition is reasonably fair: The definition of CoG according to the United States Department of Defense (DoD): "those characteristics, capabilities, or locations from which a military force derives its freedom of action, physical strength, or will to fight."

Thus, the center of gravity is usually seen as the "source of strength". Accordingly, the Army tends to look for a single center of gravity, normally in the principal capability that stands in the way of the accomplishment of its own mission. In short, the Army considers a "friendly" CoG as that element—a characteristic, capability, or locality—that enables one's own or allied forces to accomplish their objectives. Conversely, an opponent's CoG is that element that prevents friendly forces from accomplishing their objectives.

That isn't quite what is being discussed later in the thread. If you have a look at German plans and offensives, they often regarded the COGs as the railway junctions towns, whereas the French went for Ridges in battle and the BEF early in the piece went for trenches and later converted to the French philosophy. Theoretically therefore the Allies weren't using COG theory, but elements of Key Terrain : Definition: (DOD, NATO) Any locality, or area, the seizure or retention of which affords a marked advantage to either combatant. See also vital ground. That is to say a defensible position

As a former intelligence analyst I would have been looking more broadly for the COG's and identified the Artillery, supply and rest camps, railheads, all rail lines, aerodromes, Balloons, communications centres and headquarters as well as ammo dumps as being high on my priority list to the ops and fire spt pers, not necessarily the trenches of infantryman. If they can call in no CB and preplanned fire on lost trenches, they have lost a COG, no aircraft over no reports to higher COG, railheads destroyed continually, reinforcements and supplies slower, comms and hq's lose control battle and can't react in time to enemy initatives. In fact if you look at the March 18 German Attack they seemed to do very well in going for COG's in todays milspeak.



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Chris, just to let you know that I was in touch with Chris earlier today. He is recovering well from the operation but it will take a few days yet before normal service is resumed.


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Hi Chris,

My apologies for not replying to you earlier.

Regarding my comment about Les Carlyon in post 2. I am not suggesting he is not a good historian; I am suggesting that his criticism of the tactics employed at Menin Road, Polygon Wood and Broodseinde is faulty. In simple terms Carlyon's analysis is: although these battles were successful, we suffered 38,000 casualties and therefore the tactics were poor. This straight cause and effect logic shows a lack of understanding of the complexities and friction associated with military operations. In post 5, I have outlined some of the factors that contributed to the losses in these three attacks that had nothing to do with the tactics of 'bite and hold' that were employed.

An analysis of the Australian casualties at 3rd Ypres, drawn from the figures in the Australian Medical Official History, shows that Carlyon's analysis is even more flawed than I expected and I have discussed these in post 199. The Australians lost 34, 342 men, not the 38,000 Carlyon claims. Of these, 13,282 were lost at Menin Road, Polygon Wood and Broodseinde, considerably less than 50% of the total casualties suffered at 3rd Ypres. These figures are the casualties for two days of each battle: the day of the attack and the day after. We have figures for the day of the attack on Polygon Wood, which is about 70% of the two day figure for that battle. If we apply the same ratio to the two day figures for Menin Road and Broodseinde we arrive at roughly 9300 casualties for the actual attack days for these three battles, or approximately 20% of the total casualties suffered at 3rd Ypres. We must remember that some of these 9300 casualties were suffered after the objectives had been taken and were as a result of German retaliatory artillery fire and beating off the counter attacks. Thus somewhat less than 20% of the casualties suffered at 3rd Ypres can be attributed to the tactics employed in the assault, less than 3000 per attack. Has Carlyon applied "the processes of historiography honestly and impartially" in claiming the bite and hold tactics were poor because we suffered 38,000 casualties at 3rd Ypres? In this instance I think not.

I agree that Carlyon writes beautifully and is a very fine author, but do these traits make him a fine historian? Certainly he makes the history readable but I think he also has an obligation to present a correct appraisal based on thorough research and reasonable deductions if "our culture and understanding of the war" is not to be based on false assumptions and mythology.

IMO it doesn't matter what a person's background or training is to be a good historian. It is important that historians research in breadth and depth, try to fully understand the context and complexities associated with the subject they are writing about and apply that research as honestly, eruditely and as impartially as they can. If they intend to make an analysis of issues or judgements they should understand that there is no simple cause and effect explanation in military operations. The best book I have read on the subject is Eliot Cohen's and John Gooch's Military Misfortunes: The Anatomy of Failure in War. In this they demonstrate very clearly the matrix of issues that lead to a particular military failure. Their chapter "Failure to Adapt. The British at Gallipoli, August 1915" lists a matrix of 15 factors from the high command to unit level that contributed to the failure at Suvla, rather than the hackneyed old myth that the high command were idiots. What I don't like is "history" that deliberately twist facts, ignores relevant information and includes falsehoods to argue some pre-concieved idea that distorts what happened.

I do not think that one has to have been in the military to be able to write good military history. Many fine military historians have had no military experience and one of the worst military historians I have read served in the Army during World War II. Nonetheless, I think it is beneficial if one has a sound understanding of the practicalities and complexities of military operations and the myriad of practical factors that can impact on them, particularly if one is writing analytical rather than narrative history. Whether this is gained by service in the military or by astute study and observation doesn't really matter.

I think it is imperative to walk the ground if one is writing about battles. It gives a whole new perspective that one cannot get from merely studying the map. I remember seeing the battlefield of 1st Bull Run/Manassas for the first time and it changed my whole understanding of Jackson's position on Henry Hill. At Antietam/Sharpsburg I finally understood why it was so hard to drive the Confederate troops out of the Sunken Road until the Federal troops got onto their right flank. I walked the Anzac area at Gallipoli before publishing my article "The Landing at Anzac: a re-assessment." and adjusted some of my conclusions as a result of it. Terrain is a principal factor in military operations and it plays such an important part in why certain things happened the way they did. Walking the ground is invaluable to understanding these issues.

I am not sure what you mean by your comment that "none of us want all that revisionism". What do you regard as revisionism?

With regard to the Centre of Gravity issue, I take your point regarding the current NATO definition. In this thread I use the term to mean the priority effort and main focus of the attack and this includes the use of all types of resources to support that effort, not just the infantry.



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  • 2 months later...

Chris, I am continuing to read through my sources written by gunners. So far, the only relevant description comes from the Master of Belhaven. In the following extract, dated 21st August 1917 (ie 3 weeks after the initial attack), he describes having to take on a German battery near Lone Star Post. This was located just in front of the initial gains made by 24th Division in the 31st July attack:

"To-day has been a red letter day. This morning it was my day for calling on the battalion commander whom we cover. I went to the OP first and checked my registration, making certain that my guns were absolutely accurately on their zero point, and also finding out for certain what the corrector for the day was. From there I went into the tunnels and saw the colonel of the 12/Royal Fusiliers. I had lunch with him and he told me that one of his subalterns had found a place from which a German battery could be seen. The battery was caught in the act of firing, and located as far as seeing it was concerned. They did not know in the least where it was on the map, but they showed me the exact spot from which it could be seen. I was rather horrified to hear that it was in the middle of Lone Star Post and only 20 yards from a German post. However, the subaltern who was told off to take me there assured me that they had a complete understanding with the Hun infantry, and that we should not be sniped. We went all through Shrewsbury Forest and I was able to really appreciate how badly we had crumped the back of the Hun position. Not a tree was left more than two feet high, and whole place was a mass of shell holes touching each other. We quickly reached the place we were making for, and I was not a little astonished when my guide pointed out a tree 30 yards off, and said that the Hun sentry was there. It is really a most extraordinary situation, neither side has any sign of a trench - both are sitting in shell holes a few yards apart, with no wire in between, and separated by nothing but a few yards of open ground."

And here is the most interesting part. Having just come down from his OP, the Master of Belhaven notes:

"We stood in a shell hole and looked down on the Hun back-country, a truly wonderful view, right back to Zandvoorde."

At this point, the Master of Belhaven goes on to describe how he called up systematically plastered the area occupied by the German battery.

Two key points emerge. One, it was not possible to detect the German battery until almost upon it. The infantry had spotted it firing, not the artillery OPs. Second, 3 weeks into the battle and having captured the highest ground, he had to get to the very front before getting a view over the German rear areas.


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While the British gunners were struggling to get direct line of sight on the German rear areas, the converse was not true on the ridge. The following comes from 'The War Diaries of Brigadier General Alexander Johnston'. The entry is dated 31st July, 1917 - the day of the initial attack:

"The Corps apparently were very nervous lest the 8th Division should be counter attacked off the top of the Bellewaarde Ridge. They therefore ordered a battalion to be sent up to lie out in the open on the reverse slopes of the ridge, not to go east or even into the trenches on the ridge, and not to be used for anything; it was to do nothing but wait until the 8th Division had been pushed off the ridge, and then it was to counter attack the Bosche off it - what an order!!"

In any event, Johnston's battalion struggled into position, whereupon:

"[Next day] the Bosche started to bombard us heavily. The Bosche had got the range to an inch, had direct observation on us from our right [towards Honnebeke], and plastered the area incessantly with crumps, whizzbangs and 4.2"s."


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Thank you for your posts. They provide interesting observations, although I am not sure what conclusions to draw from them. They certainly indicate the importance of the Shewsbury Forest - Stirling Castle - Clapham Junction high ground in the early stages of the battle.

The second post relates to the 31st July when the Germans still held much of the high ground and the forward slopes and had done so for over a year. During that time they would have been able to register a good many DF's and potential targets. They still held commanding positions along the main ridge on the 31st, and later, which would have given them good OP's over much of the salient. Thus I am not sure we can compare, on equal terms, this situation with that of the 21st August

The Master of Belhaven's comments on the 21st August are certainly interesting and illuminating on the German's use of field guns in the front line and the use of camouflage. Conversly, these guns would have been vulnerable to any bombardment on the front line to support an attack. I am not sure of the point you are making that having secured the the very highest ground the British had to be in the front line from before they could see over the German rear areas. The fact that they could see over them was a distinct advantage. It does, I think, again illustrate the importance of securing the main ridge early in the battle, rather than persisting with attacks along the low ground on the left of the offensive.



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Chris, the significance of these quotes lies in the fact that British did gain a significant proportion of the highest ground in their 31 July attack. The following map illustrates the Shrewsbury Forest area. I have highlighted the highest contours in green, and the limit of the 31 July advance in dotted red. The forest lay on the reverse slope. The British should have had the advantage of observation from the high ground, but as the Master of Belhaven's account demonstrates, this advantage was not as significant as one might imagine. He had to come off the high ground and into the very front line on the reverse slope before obtaining the view across more of the German rear areas.



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The map is execellent. It really illustrtates the point and emphasises the importance of such aids when discussing issues such as these. Many thanks.

In reading the quotes you have given I am not sure the Master of Belhaven actually says that they had to stand in the front line in order to gain a view of the German rear area. Nonetheless you may well be correct; looking at the contour lines the difference in height was not all that significant between the highest point and the front line and thus the valley may well have been hidden from an OP further back. Also the view at ground level further restricts observation. Conversely, the view he had was obviously extensive and it illustrates that even relatively small differences in height were crucial to gaining the upper hand in observation in the salient.



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Great to see that this thread has started up again - I am looking forward to joining in

Grateful if you would confirm whether the field guns were sited so far forward for the anti- tank role?


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One morning, on my road to a French sector, I was told by a

friend to visit a famous battery of mountain guns belonging to the

Blue Devils, or Chasseurs d'Alpine.

I trudged through the heavy soil of a ploughed-up beet field

toward a small wood, where I expected to find the battery under

cover of the foliage.

Half way on my journey I was met by a startling and weird

sight. Sticking in the mud were three apparently decapitated heads,

covered with the blue devil bonnets. However, I was much relieved

when one of them smiled at me and another shouted, "Qui va la."

The heads belonged to very live sentries, who were doing duty in

front of their battery, which was camouflaged in an emplacement

deep down in the heavy soil covered by foliage from the adjacent

wood. So well had their guns been concealed from hostile aircraft

that in spite of their being in the same positions for many weeks, the

Huns had never got nearer the battery than the bursting shells seen

in the picture."


VILLIERS, F. (1920) Days of Glory; The Sketchbook of a Veteran Correspondent at The Front, New York, G.H. Doran.

The author is describing a scene in the vicinity of Neuve Chapelle in the early part of 1915.

Les Français intelligents but very much the case in point, methinks.


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Stephen, the forward location of the guns may have partly related to an anti-tank role. This is supported by Sulzbach's quote of January 1917 ('With the German Guns' ISBN 1844150194):

'I do a check inspection of our anti-tank gun, because its just here [near Vaux] that these dreadful tanks have been used as assault weapons by the enemy, and we found out at once how to allow for them: in each sector we have one anti-tank gun, which only fires when tanks are sighted.'

On 5 December 1917, after the Battle of Cambrai, he wrote:

'Meanwhile, in our sector of front, we have dug in what they call a battle-gun, which is only fired in the gravest emergency. The theory and practice of anti-tank training is being taken further all the time. Meanwhile, my battery has a second gun at the extreme front on anti-tank duty, so that I have one section here at Nouvion and one up at the front with the infantry'

Note, however, that these references specify up to a section of guns in this role. Also, as with the British anti-tank guns, they were not meant to fire unless tanks appeared. This clearly wasn't the case with the guns in question, which is how they came to be spotted. Jack's book on Passchendaele includes reference to one-third of field artillery units operating in direct support of the infantry. They played an anti-infantry role too, but were often held back and then moved up with the Eingreif units as they advanced to counter-attack.

Some British artillery officers chose to locate their batteries well forward. Fraser-Tytler did this after the September attack on Flers. Perhaps a similar process was behind the location of the battery in question.


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  • 1 month later...

The following quotes provide some fascinating insights into the role of II Corps in attacking the most important part of the German defences on 31st July 1917. The author was the 7th Earl of Stanhope, who was serving as a GSO 2 on II Corps' Staff at the time. He wrote:

'The Third Battle of Ypres had originally been planned to commence about 22nd July, but General Gough, largely on the representation of II Corps, insisted that the artillery preparation by that date was not sufficiently complete and that owing to the concentration of German fighting aeroplanes we had not obtained real mastery of the air. The attack was, therefore, postponed till 31st July, a decision which proved to be unfortunate, cloudy weather preventing any air photos or good observation after 28th July, and a torrent of rain on the day of the attack soon turning the ground into a quagmire. Fortunately we had timed our barrage to move slowly, and so in most places the infantry had sufficient time to get up to it, and where they failed to do so it was due to misfortune or in one or two cases to the troops being less well trained.

I had had a very long day trying to arrange this barrage on the Corps front with the three divisional commanders, who were still training their troops far in rear, and found it a difficult matter. One of them who had only recently taken over command of a division wanted it to move at a different pace on two different parts of his front, a matter of impossibility owing to the situation at the point where the two speeds joined. Eventually, the work of this day proved to have been thrown away, the pace of the barrage having been settled over our heads in my absence.

The attack was planned to take place with five Corps, one French and the British XIV, XVIII, XIX, and II Corps, in that order from north to south. General Gough had been allowed to select the Corps and divisions which were to take part in the attack, but curiously enough, although II Corps had the post of honour in attacking over the most difficult ground which included the key of the position, two out of the three divisions allotted to it for the first phase of the attack had not been selected by General Gough. The 24th Division on the extreme right of the attack only had to make a short advance, practically pivoting on its right to connect the Second Army front with the new front it was hoped to gain. It was believed to be opposed by a German division which was so bad that it had questioned whether it would obey the order to return to the trenches, but unfortunately this division was relieved just before the attack by a fresh German division. The ground over which the 24th Division had to attack was wooded and broken and the Division in parts failed to reach its first objective, thus maintaining its reputation of not being a lucky division, though apparently composed of troops who fought well.

The centre of the II Corps attack fell to the 30th Division which had done so badly under General Allenby at Arras that he is reported to have said that he did not mind where it went so long as it left his Army. The Division, however, had carried out several successful raids during the time it had held this sector of the front under II Corps, and had handled the enemy division opposite to it so severely that the Germans had been forced to relieve it, though this was largely due to admirably executed gas discharges from Livens projectors, one discharge of only about sixty projectors against Hooge having killed 115 Germans who having come from the Russian front had no experience of this terrible weapon.

In the attack of 31st July, however, the 30th Division as a whole failed. It had to attack through the tangle of Sanctuary Wood and take the woods on either side of the Menin Road which here ran along the crest of the ridge to Gheluvelt.

One of the 30th Division battalions had sheltered for the night in the big dug-outs at Tor Top, the entrances to which the Germans began to shell just as the battalion was emerging to move to its battle position. Having allowed too little time, it got to its jumping off place too late, failed to get up to the barrage, which had already moved on, and made but little progress.

The battalion north of it completely lost direction and instead of moving east by north against Inverness Copse it circled completely round and wound up north-west of its starting point. Above all this battalion failed to take a strong point in which, unknown to us till then, was an anti-tank gun which played most fearful havoc. Owing to the muddy state of the ground there were only two possible lines of advance for a large number of tanks allotted to II Corps, the main route being through the site of Hooge and just north of the Menin Road. This one gun knocked out tank after tank coming through the defile. The failure of these two battalions against the key of the position were really, together with the unusually wet weather, the causes of the failure of the Passchendaele Battle in July and August.

To the north of the 30th Division and forming the left of the II Corps attack was the 8th Division. So well did the 8th Division study all information placed at their disposal that they carried out their attack brilliantly and with complete success... but owing to the failure of the 30th Division on its right to capture the high ground to the south, the Germans were able to bring heavy enfilade fire to bear on the 8th Division, and it had to retire back from some of the ground it had so gallantly won. It maintained, however, a postion fully 1,000 yards in advance of its starting point.

To the left of the II Corps the other Corps had advanced even further, the success being more marked the further the line bent north.

Whenever an attack was not completely successful one was always liable to question whether anything had been neglected, but for which the attack might have been a greater success or whether any mistakes could be laid to one's charge. On this occasion, however, I had a clear conscience, as Colonel Beddington, the extremely able GSO 1 of the 8th Division, rang me up the night before the attack was launched and thanked me and the Corps Staff generally for having been a real help to all formations in the Corps and for having done everything that was possible. It had certainly been desparately hard work, as not only had our Corps more troops than any other, but also more guns than had been concentrated under the command of any single Corps Commander up to that date.'


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...more guns than had been concentrated under the command of any single Corps Commander up to that date.'
Chris, I was impressed by this quote in light of our previous discussion on this issue. IIRC, we were debating whether Haig had taken sufficient steps to ensure that Gough had planned adequately for the taking of the key terrain on the right, namely the high ground of the Gheluvelt-Passchendaele Ridge. In the quote above, and in an earlier quote from the Earl of Stanhope that notes the allocation of five infantry divisions to II Corps, we see evidence that Fifth Army Staff recognised the importance of II Corps' task. It should be noted that, from an infantry perspective, it was difficult enough to squeeze the allocated attack divisions into II Corps' sector:

'During the preparations for the attack on Messines, Second Army had told us that as we were not taking part in the attack we must by content with a very restricted back area, but that they would deal generously with us once that attack was over and we were about to take part in the Passchendaele attack, whereas Corps to the south of us would then in their turn be merely standing by. As II Corps was allotted five divisions, three in front line and two in support to push on in further stages of the attack, together with a vast mass of artillery, it was obvious that a wide back area was essential for the accommodation of the troops.'

Not that jamming more infantry into the area, or into the attack of 31st July, would have guaranteed any increased chance of success. As we both agree, the issue was primarily one of appropriate artillery support for this vital sector of the battle. I raise this issue of relative lack of space because it also had an impact on artillery dispositions too. Leaving this aside for one moment, if we are seeing the prior view of the battle in the Earl of Stanhope's quotes, as opposed to our retrospective view, then we see that greater emphasis was given to II Corps, especially in the allocation of artillery. Thus, when Haig challenged Gough about not recognising the importance of the high ground, Gough could rightly answer that he had recognised the importance, and had taken steps to increase II Corps' resources. Returning to my original point, it is possible for us to say 'not enough', but I find it difficult to see how Haig could say to Gough 'not enough' ahead of time.

Furthermore, it is clear that the weather played an important role in blunting the effect of the artillery that was trying to engage the preponderance of German batteries protecting the high ground. Further inceasing the artillery support for II Corps would have been unlikely to increase the effect, given that aerial observation was sub-optimal. This factor was recognised in the delay of the start date for the offensive.

One last point. The Earl of Stanhope is at pains to point out the relative failings of the 24th and 30th Divisions on 31st July. He suggested, as many do, that their failings on that day related to factors that were intrinsic to the British infantry and their commanders. His comments must be taken with a huge grain of salt, IMHO.

I am just analysing British war diaries for battalions that were involved from 24th and 30th Divisions. I will post the material in the near future. I also have some more information from an artillery officer who was involved in this sector.


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Having read this very interesting discussion certain points spring to mind.

i) As has been noted the 'southern solution' whilst attractive at first sight gradually mutated into the 'northern solution' that was carried out.

ii) Though touched upon I would like more analysis of the question of supply. Was it the case that the offensive was designed from the bottom up - that supply routes; what they were, where they were and what effect German counter-measures would have on them, had at least as much influence on the decisions of Haig, Gough and Plumer as the tactical and operational possibilities of advances to the east (generally speaking).

iii) What possibilities would have occurred if the British advance had brought Roulers into artillery range?

iv) Given German willingness to fight so hard for ground at Ypres, were the British doing to them what the Germans did to the French at Verdun?

Although not an armchair General I claim the style and dignity of armchair Lance Corporal :-)

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Here are extracts from various regimental histories pertaining to II Corps on 31st July, 1917:

19th Manchester Battalion, 30th Division

'31st July

3.50 am The Battn advanced to the assault of the German Trench System, Zero being at 3-50am. Heavy rain had fallen and the going was dreadfully heavy. Eight out of the sixteen Coy Officers became casualties before reaching the German Front Line. The Battn did not reach the Black Line but consolidated just short of the Blue Line. Heavy rain fell consistently during the period 31/7/17-3/8/17, which made the task of consolidating the ground extremely difficult. The Battn was relieved on night of 2nd-3rd August and was withdrawn to Chateau Segard.

Casualties during this action were as follows:

KIA:- 3 officers

WIA:- 12 officers

Other Ranks:- 283'

'Operation Order No. 31

Reference Map ZILLEBEKE 1/10000.

1. The 30th Division, in conjunction with other Divisions of the 5th Army, will attack the enemy East of YPRES, on a date to be fixed later.

The 24th Division will be on the Right of the 30th Division, the 8th Division on its left, and the 18th Division in support.

2. Objectives and Boundaries between Battalions and Coys are as shown on attached map.

The 21st Infantry Brigade will attack and capture:-

(1). The BLUE LINE


The 89th Infantry Brigade will then pass through the 21st Infantry Brigade and capture the GREEN LINE.

The attack on the BLUE LINE will be carried out by the 2nd Bn Yorkshire Regiment on the right and the 2nd Bn Wiltshire Regiment on the left.

The 19th Bn Manchester Regiment will move through the 2nd Bn Yorkshire Regiment and capture the BLACK LINE. The 12th Bn Royal Fusiliers will be on its right and the 18th Bn King's (Liverpool) Regiment on its left.

3. 2 Machine Guns of the 21st Machine Gun Coy and 2 Stokes Guns of the 21st Trench Mortar Battery will be at the disposal of Officer Commanding 19th Bn Manchester Regiment after passing the BLUE LINE.

4. A & B Coys will assemble in CRAB CRAWL Tunnel.

C & D Coys will assemble in MAPLE COPSE.

5. The Battalion will attack on a frontage of 2 Coys.

Each Coy will attack on a frontage of 2 platoons.

The first two waves will be formed by A & B Coys, B Coy being on the right.

The third and fourth waves will be formed by C & D Coys, D Coy being on the right.

Boundaries between Coys are shown on plan.

6. A & B Coys will not cross the British Front Line until half an hour after Zero. If possible, they will leave the British trenches on the compass bearing which will take them direct to their objective. If the Coy Commander of either of these Coys thinks he can make a less expensive crossing by leaving the direct bearing and make a short detour, he is at liberty to do so. He will, however, get back to his original bearing as soon as possible after entering the German system of trenches.

The two leading Coys will be careful to avoid pushing so far forward as to become involved in the fight of the 2nd Bn Yorkshire Regiment. They will ensure however, that they are in a position to advance from the BLUE LINE at Zero plus 1 hr 14 mins.

C & D Coys will not cross the British Front Line until 40 minutes after Zero. The same liberty of manoeuvre as specified above will be allowed to these two Coys for crossing No Man's Land. They will maintain an approximate distance of 100 to 150 yards behind the leading Coys.

7. Passage through Dumbarton Lakes.

B Coy will send two platoons by the South-end of the Southern Lake, and two platoons across the bridge at J.20.a.9.0.

If the bridge is not passable, the two left platoons will move by the track between the lakes.

A Coy will send its two platoons by the passage between the lakes, and its two left platoons round the Northern end of the lakes, using, if necessary, the ground of the 18th King's (Liverpool) Regiment.'

2/Wiltshire Battalion, 30th Division

'July 29th "X" Day

Enemy shelling was continuous throughout the day on Battery positions immediately in rear of RITZ STREET and on the area we occupied, also heavy shelling on CRAB CRAWL and MAPLE COPSE. B Company had a few casualties in the morning. Platoon Commanders and Sgt SMITH for HQ reconnoitred route to VIGO STREET from NE corner of MAPLE COPSE during the day and night. The remainder of the 18th Manchesters moved out of our area to MAPLE TRENCH.

July 30th "Y" Day

Shelling throughout the day was carried out on our area similar to previous day. At 9 pm, the Battalion moved via NE corner of MAPLE COPSE to VIGO STREET, and thus into position in CROSS TRENCH, VANCOUVER AVENUE and GRAB STREET (Assembly Trenches). The enemy put down a barrage lasting about half an hour, and

during assembly there was much machine gun fire from the right. Assembly was complete by 1.30 am.

July 31st "Z" Day

Zero was a 3.40 am, and when our first wave, consisting of three platoons of the B Company under Lieut L.C. MAKEHAM, went over it was still quite dark. The enemy at once put down a barrage on our old front line trenches and on CRAB CRAWL. There was also considerable machine gun fire from the right, which somewhat hindered the 2nd Yorkshire Regt. However, the objective was captured and the trenches cleared by 6.15 am. About 40 prisoners were taken from the JAM SUPPORT and JEFFERY SUPPORT. B Company HQ was finally established at the head of JAM ROW near GREEN JACKET RIDE at J.19.b.4.6.

Three platoons of C Company formed the second wave, and killed a number of Huns in JAM ROW and JAM LANE, but took no prisoners. C Company HQ was established in a Trench Mortar dug-out on dotted line J.19.b.4.2., and the company astride of JAM LANE with 2/Lt Starkey's platoon around J.19.b.0.6.

A Company, together with two platoons of D Company, met with a good deal of resistance from machine gun fire from the woods W of DUMBARTON LAKES and INVERNESS COPSE. About 12 prisoners were taken around junction of JAM LANE and JAM ROW, and about the same number killed up to Strong Point at J.19.b.75.65.

2/Lts Lewis and Bowen established a Strong Point with about 20 men at J.19.b.95.60, and strengthened the position considerably by Lewis guns taken from a derelict tank near by. This position covered low lying ground and junction of JAR ROW and JASPER AVENUE. Later they were joined by men from other units.

The Commanding Officer and Adjutant established Battalion HQ at 9.30 am at J.19.b.10.15 in JAM LANE.

The barrage was said by all to have been splendid.

About 2 pm A Company reported enemy massing around DUMBARTON LAKES, but no development took place. Heavy

shelling continued around our reserve positions and No Man's Land the whole day.'

1st Royal Fusiliers Battalion, 24th Division

'31st July

At 3.50am barrage opened.

At 5.50am Brigade reported that 12th RF had passed through us

At 6.20am Brigade reported 2nd Leinsters capture their Objective

At 7.20am Message received from Captain Hepburn saying that left was held up by STRONG POINT at J.19.d.15.15. but ???? working along'

At 7.25am Brigade reported that several officers had been killed or wounded. Advance held up by STRONG POINT in LOWER STAR POST in front of Leinsters. Re-bombardment about 10.15am.

12th Royal Fusiliers passed through us but were unable to get their objective.

The 3rd Battn Rifle Brigade came through and eventually a line was established and held by men of the 1st and 12th RF, 3rd RB's and Leinsters about 500 yds W of BASSILBEEK.

At the start it was rather dark. The 2 left Coys kept their direction well, but the Right Coys and the Battalion on our Right lost their direction and crowded in to the Left, and they found themselves rather messed up.

There was heavy fighting in the SHREWSBURY FOREST especially along JEFFREY AVENUE and trench running South from it through the Wood.

The Commanding Officer visited the Coys in the afternoon and ordered them to re-organise as under:-

A & B Coy into No 1 Coy (2 officers and 25 men)

C and D Coy into No 2 Coy (2 officers and 64 men)

At about 7.30pm the Front Line was taken over by the 3rd Rifle Brigade and we were ordered to consolidate in a system of STRONG POINTS along a line J.25.a.95.40 to EAST edge of BODMIN COPSE.

During the night, the Companies were heavily shelled and it appeared that the enemy's lighter guns that were not firing much during the advance had been brought back.

There were a few more casualties. Total casualties All Ranks - 283.

[supplementary] Report on Attack on July, 31st. 1917.

The Battalion relieved the 8th Battalion The Buffs in the Trenches on the night of the 28/29th July, 1917 so there was plenty of time for Officers Commanding Companies to reconnoitre the ground over which they had to carry out their attack. Each of the 2 attacking companies had 1 Platoon in the line, which were relieved by another Platoon of the same Company the following night so that all ranks of at least 4 Platoons had an opportunity of seeing by day the ground, over which they had to advance.

Thunderstorms on 29th July, made ground very wet, and hampered all movement.

The Companies left the Tunnel about 10.30pm and formed up in front of the trenches we were holding, with the Support Companies close up, so as to miss the enemy's retaliation barrage.

They were formed up soon after 2.0am. The night was very dark and the weather had been very wet, making the ground difficult to advance over and filling shell holes with water.

At Zero Hour the Barrage started and the Companies moved up close under it, consequently there were no casualties from the enemy's retaliation barrage that he put on our front line.

At the commencement of the advance the Companies moved forward and soon came under Machine Gun fire from LOWER STAR POST, this somehow caused the Battalion on our Right to swerve to its Left and this made my Right Company do the same, and it lost direction advancing almost NE.

There were a lot of casualties caused by Machine Guns as they crossed the valley in which is the SUNKEN ROAD at J.25.d.50.60.

Machine Guns were encountered at J.25.b.00.65 and J.25.b.06.85, which caused casualties but the enemy managed to get them away before they were captured.

The enemy did not attempt to make a stand until the STRONG POINT South of JEFFREY AVENUE was reached, where the party under Lt Flack had some stiff fighting with Rifle Grenades and Rifle fire, they eventually captured the STRONG POINT including a Machine Gun which Lt Flack personally knocked out with a Rifle Grenade. Enemy Snipers were by busy in the locality accounting for a great many men.

Here B Company with a few men of A Company consolidated.

On the Left the right direction was maintained and C Company reached a trench in BODMIN COPSE at J.19.d.38.40. where they consolidated, some of A Company's men were also with them.

Enemy's Snipers were very active around here and fired at our least movement.

D Company had got into JEFFERY AVENUE where they consolidated and joined up with Lt Flack.

The 12th Battalion Royal Fusiliers came through my Battalion and some of them joined up with my men in the trench and South of it.

The 3rd Battalion Rifle Brigade, came up and also went through and occupied a line slightly in advance of us.


There was great difficulty in getting information back to Headquarters owing to so many runners having been hit. Situation reports were frequently sent down from the front but never arrived.

More rifle grenades might be carried and less Bombs in future with advantage.

Great difficulty was experienced in evacuating wounded owing to the sodden state of the ground and the distance they had to be carried.

It was heavy work for Regimental Stretcher Bearers as the casualties were very heavy and several Stretcher Bearers were knocked out, although we started off with 32. They had to be assisted by Fighting Troops.'

13th Middlesex Battalion, 24th Division

'July 31

13th Battn Middlesex Regt acted as Battalion in support to the 73rd Infantry Brigade in the Fifth Army Offensive.

Zero hour for the attack was at 3.50 am on 31st July, 1917. B Company was in close support to 2nd Leinster Regt on the left and D Company was in close support to the 7th Northamptonshire Regt.

D Company was called up to support the Northants very soon after Zero and during a minor operation on the flank lost all the Company Officers.

As the assaulting Battalions failed to advance beyond their first objective and also had very heavy casualties in gaining their first objective, the 13th Battn Middlesex Regt was called upon to relieve the two front battalions on the night of 31st July. D Company also being relieved having suffered rather heavy casualties.

Battlion Headquarters moved up from LARCH WOOD to CANANDA ST DUGOUTS during the evening of the 31st.'

8th Battalion The Buffs, 24th Division


[The offensive] opened punctually and at Zero + 1 hour the Battn moved up to the position vacated by the 12th Royal Fusiliers in CANADA Tunnels. No casualties were sustained. Several wounded were met on the way from different Battns of the Division from whom only garbled accounts of the attack could be gained!'

73rd Brigade MG Company, 24th Division

'At 3.50 am the attack on the Blue Line commenced. The Machine Gun barrage opened a zero with the artillery. Team attached to Battalion went forward with them at zero.

[1 officer] wounded.

2 ORs killed in action

14 ORs wounded in action'


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Thank you for your very informative posts. This level and type of information certainly starts to put flesh on the bones and I think it is demonstrating the difficulty of the task facing the British at all levels in this battle. I accept the point you have made regarding the amount of resources Gough allotted to the opening attack on the high ground and perhaps I have been too critical of him. Also your points are well made that the ground didn't allow more troops and resources to be employed there and attempting to crowd it with more infantry was folly .

Nonetheless, there are still a couple of issues that point to a contrary view concerning Gough's grasp of the importance of the high ground. The first is the case of allocating 30th Division to this important task. It had already been suggested to him by GHQ that this Division was not up to the task given its condition at the time and that it should be replaced by a Division better suited to the task. Yet he ignored this advice and used the 30th which had not yet recovered sufficiently from its experience on the Somme. The second is that after the 31st July his priority of effort was directed in the low ground to the north, rather than making it a priority to clear the high ground towards Polygon Wood. To be fair to Gough, he may have been pursuing the line of reinforcing success, however, the high ground along the ridge was so critical to the success of the operation that securing it as early as possible was important. This did not happen until Plumer took over and the main effort again reverted to a push along the ridgeline.

I would be interested to know why Gough put so much effort into the attacks north of the railway line after the 31st Jujy rather than seeking to make his main effort along the ridge. There must be a reason for his actions, although I gain the impression that Haig urged that he ought to make the high ground his priority and eventually brought Plumer in to do the job.



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Interesting questions.

With regard to the first, this is the issue Robert and I are debating at the moment. Why did the northern sector of the attack "mutate" into Gough's priority of effort when clearly it was important to clear the high ground as early as possible. See my post above.

I am sure that considerable attention was given to the planning of supply and logistics. They are essential to the succees of an operation and issues affecting supply may well have had an impact on the tactical decisions and particularly the allocation of resources. I don't know the answers to your question but they are important points that you raise.

I can't answer your third question.

Jack Sheldon is probably the best person to answer your last question but I think you are probably correct in reality although, unlike the Germans at Verdun, I don't think that this was the principal aim of the battle from Haig's perspective. I suspect he actually believed he could achieve a breakthrough at a point along the Western Front that could turn the German line and capture the U Boat bases along the Belgium coast.



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Thanks for the reply Crunchy.

Clearly with the information that Gough did put emphasis on the attack in the south it is hard to sustain the idea that he was unaware of its importance but that raises the question of why he didn't persist. I like the theory that he tried to reinforce success but by itself I find this insufficient since surely he would have realised that he would be setting himself up for increasing difficulties for as long as the German artillery in the south was unsuppressed. Hmmm, I wonder if the point that has been made that high ground = dry ground is facile may be involved?

In regard of supply (and weather) I'm interested in this because far too often I fall into the trap of underestimating the dependence of operations on it. What's the point of the platoon of specialist Lewis gunners, rifle bombers, grenade throwers and riflemen if they have no water or ammunition? How much supply capacity is absorbed by the needs of the artillery on which so much depends? What influence does the need to have a means of exit as well as entry onto the battlefield (for reliefs, casualty evacuation and equipment salvage)? Presumeably these matters were givens for the planners and so perhaps get less emphasis in later writing?

I'm interested in the question of Roulers because it occurs that an earlier or quicker success may have had such ramifications for the German position in Flanders that it expains why they fought it out at Ypres. I'm pondering the strategic value of the short distance the Allied line moved because I don't know how much more the Germans could lose without it unravellng their defence of the region.

I think that the politico-strategic realm that Haig inhabited encouraged a certain creative obfuscation of his intentions since he was subordinate (in practice) to the French and because Lloyd George was such a particular example of political chicanery. Rather reminds me of Monty at the time of Goodwood.

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In the same way that Haig never lost the urge to clear the Channel Ports, the Germans never lost the desire to extend their hold further to the south. Both sides knew that the Channel ports were an extremely important prize. This was true from a strategic point and also from an internationally political one. Neither side could afford to lose what they held and both sides were prepared to pay a high price to extend their holdings. Strangely this seems to have been a blind spot for the French. Even Foch seems not to have appreciated that the ports were crucial to the Western Front as a whole and not just to the British forces.

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The following quotes are from 'A Subaltern's Odyssey', which is the account of Giles Talbot Kelly's service in 52nd Brigade RFA until his wounding in the Third Battle of Ypres:

"About 24th July [1917] we went into action in the prepared positions. It was over two years since I had been at Ypres, and the change in the appearance of the country was quite appalling. The woods and fields were gone, there was practically no growing vegetation in sight nor any bit of ground clear of shell holes.

Almost immediately after occupying our position we were subjected to two nights of continuous shelling with HE and gas shells. But we had no casualties, merely very bad headaches. Eventually orders came for the barrages to be fired for the opening phase of the third battle of Ypres. Early on the morning of 31st July the battle opened at three fifty am and as the first barrages fell a high explosive shell burst at the entrance to the dugout where the Major and the only other subaltern with us were sitting and blew off the Major's right foot and put out both eyes of the subaltern.

For two and a half years as a battery we had been very lucky; we had had no officers killed or wounded and very few other ranks. Two days before this a single 'whizz-bang' shell at extreme range had burst on our headquarters as the colonel was conferring with battery commanders, killing him and his adjutant and another major instantly; and now another of our battery commanders was gone.

About midday of that unhappy morning I received orders to move the guns further forward under the lee of what had once been Sanctuary Wood, and there for the rest of my time in France I was the only officer remaining at the guns, and after another few days I had only one sergeant left to support me. And the weather worsened and it rained and rained, and the whole area became a great morass and ammunition could no longer be brought up in a wagon but had to be carried, eight rounds at a time, on a led pack-horse.

All night and all day the German artillery pounded the gun lines and quite early on we had two guns damaged by shell fire, one badly. We had had no time to dig gun pits and even if we had had time, we could not have done it in the flooded and boggy ground in which we stood.'

Talbot Kelly suffered internal abdominal pain, probably from liver haemorrhages due to concussion of an exploding HE shell, 'a few days later'. There was no external injury at all, but he required evacuation and regular morphine until the pain subsided. He never returned to France.

Talbot Kelly was frequently involved as a FOO. He gives magnificent descriptions of this role on the first day of the Battle of the Scarpe and after the Battle of Messines, when he spotted for a shoot on Hollebeke. Unfortunately, he does not give any insights into the situation around Sanctuary Wood. Nevertheless, his account illustrates the tremendous amount of punishment that the gunners took throughout the battle in the Ypres salient. He talks about the losses as being 'unlucky' but they illustrate, along with several of the accounts I published above, that the German artillery on the Gheluvelt plateau was not subdued.


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Here are a range of anecdotal reports relating to II Corps, taken from Steel and Hart's book 'Passchendaele: The Sacrificial Ground':

'[We] were spaced at 3 to 4 yard's interval, going forward at the high port, that is with the rifle diagonally across your chest with the bayonet pointing up at the sky. We reckoned to do a minute to a minute and a half per hundred yards. We knew we could run it in nine seconds. But with the shell holes, the men had to go round them, at the same time being fire on and trying to keep their distance between one another and to keep their alignment.

Lt Burke, 2/Devonshire Regt'

'Our barrage had opened; the inferno was deafening. There was nothing more to be done; so, cheering "Forward away, the West Yorks", I turned back for my headquarters. Presently a small fragment of shell scratched my leg; then, as if in answer to my contemptuous, "Pouf! They can't really damage me", a heavy shell whose explosion I neither saw nor heard, buried me in the trench I was about to enter, wounded me severely and knocked me unconscious.

Lt Col Jack, 2/West Yorkshire Regt'

'Everyone was excited and elated. Bursting shells gave light to see by and it was thrilling to see the Northampton bayonets flashing as the troops advanced. Surely nothing could stop us. As we crossed the German support line their barrage fell on us. Shells screamed down and burst all around. I felt as if I had been kicked hard in the backside by an elephant. I was lifted high in the air and fell with a crash, unable to move my left leg. Sergeant Carter shouted, "You alright, Sir?" "Yes", I said, "keep going". On he went into the smoke, flame and dust taking the men with him.

Lt Walkinton, 24th Machine Gun Company, MGC'

Later, Walkington observed:

'a small group of men with rifles and fixed bayonets searching for wounded or shamming Germans. They were "moppers up" whose job it was to kill off any who looked likely to cause trouble..."

'We were moving slowly towards that reddish line. I suddenly see some wicker revetments sticking up amidst the jumbled earth - it is the Boche front line. We are almost in our own barrage now - a shell bursts just in front of me (I don't know whether it was one of Fritz's but probably our own). I expect at any moment to see a Boche aiming at me and keep wondering if I will be quicker than he. For some reason or other the men are all cheering off to the left.

Major Burton, 1/Worcestershire Regt.'

'It was only when you got to within 20 yards of the trench that you said, "Charge!" They then brought their rifles facing the enemy and charged into the trench, killing and bayoneting. It lasted only a few seconds. If there weren't many troops about you knew there must be more so you threw bombs down the dugouts, that wasn't so much to kill them, it was to keep them there.

Lt Burke, 2/Devonshire Regt'

Burke's unit continued on as part of the successful advance of 8th Division. Burke was wounded by a German bayonet in the right shoulder. His assailant was killed and Burke was evacuated from the battlefield. Meanwhile, the right flank battalion (1/Worcesters) discovered that 30th Division was not keeping up:

'I soon find I am the right hand man, with my servant who has stuck to me all the time. I remember shouting and waving to the men to the right, but of course they could not hear. We are now on the [German] second line but still no live and active Boche. One of my puttees comes undone in the wire in front of the parapet - my servant immediately rips it off. By now we are over the ridge and going down the slope. Machine guns and rifle fire started in front but they seem to be firing rather too high. Our guns are firing some shells which burst about 70 feet in the air in big flaming drops of burning oil [sounds like Stoke's thermite bombs??]. By their light I see a small lake in front of us and realise we are about 500 yards too much to our left.

By this time the barrage is a long way ahead. The machine gun and rifle fire is getting more intense. Suddenly I see a Hun just in front in the remains of a wood. I remember shooting him and seeing him fall. As I was doing this, six Huns ran out from somewhere and went into a pillbox shelter behind me. I got a couple of bombs from a bomber and went up to the entrance and put a bomb in... four of them came running out all wounded.

Major Barton, 1/Worchestershire Regt'

More to come...



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This quote from Private Warsop, a runner in the 1/Sherwood Foresters, upon reaching the village of Westhoek:

'All that was left was three or four groups of ruined houses, the basement of which had been turned into a reinforced concrete pillbox. I wanted to see what it was like over the Ridge and on the other side saw a strange sight: down in the valley, perhaps half a mile away, our barrage was still advancing, a line of shells moving forward 25 yards at intervals. In front just like a line of ants was a line of German troops getting away as fast as they could.

[After walking back] I could look down the slope [towards Ypres] and see the ruins of the town. I could understand why it had been a death trap for so long; every street seemed plain without binoculars, any movement an easy target for Germans established on top of the Ridge. At the Headquarters I found an officer who in the past had always seemed very cool and unruffled but who was now very agitated and almost in a panic. He gave me a message saying "For God's sake get it through!". I took it back and afterwards guessed what it was - the reserves could not get through and we were to hold the Ridge at all costs.'

On the right of 8th Division, the 1/Worcestershire Regiment was having to bend back to accommodate the failure of 30th Division's advance:

'We were now the most advanced troops in the neighbourhood, with no-one on our right, and the troops to our left were to our left rear so far as we knew. We lined a slight rise formed by an old German parapet. This, with some odd bits of trench gave us quite good cover. To our right front, about 200 yards away, the Huns lined the ditch or trench on the side of the Menin Road. Most of them must have taken shelter in a tunnel which ran along under the road at this point, and came out when the barrage had passed. There were also six Huns holding out in a trench about 20-30 yards to our left front. Huns were moving across our front in twos or threes to reinforce the strong post on our right. I had two Lewis guns with me at this time and started firing at the strong post. One gun was knocked out by a bullet and the other jammed after a few rounds, which was a pity as these Huns were holding up the advance on our right and we had perfect enfilade fire on them. So we carried on with rifle fire.'

Significantly, Hart and Steel do not provide any anecdotes from 30th Division. They note that the elements of the division became disoriented and intermixed as 'they were confronted by heavy German shellfire when they started, in the morass of shell holes, mud, barbed wire and devastated woodland of Sanctuary Wood, they soon lost touch with the creeping barrage which progressed inexorably ahead of them, allowing the German defending troops to emerge in good time. Although they were successful in grasping the Blue Line objectives they were then held up be severe machine-gun fire emanating from Stirling Castle pillbox complex. The situation was totally confused and made worse when the German barrage fell right across Sanctuary and Chateau Woods and cut all communications.'

18th Division came forward in support of 30th Division, as planned. 'About 3 1/2 hours after the barrage started the Battalion according to plan, formed up in artillery formation and began to advance, to take up the advance from where the Division in front had halted. As soon as we began to move we were horribly shelled by the enemy, 4.2s and whizz-bangs and many of our men were killed and wounded. It was evident from the way that the shelling was done that we could be seen by the enemy. This was not "as planned" for the Division in front of us should by now have captured the whole of the first ridge in front and the enemy should therefore have been unable to see the ground we were advancing over. The going was heavy owing to the mud and we soon had to stop for short rest. The enemy's built up [front line] trenches were almost obliterated the heavy fire of our guns.

We then discovered we were at the limit of our advance - the first division had not captured anything like the amount of ground allotted to them, hence the reason why the enemy shelling and machine gun fire had been so deadly when we advanced.

Signaller Fuller, 8/Suffolk Regt'

Again, Steel and Hart do not have any anecdotes for the 24th Division, whose 'left-hand brigades, after passing through Shrewsbury Forest, found themselves dragged down by the same problems as the 30th Division. The difficult terrain and vigorous German opposition caused them to become detached from their creeping barrage and they too stalled in front of the German second line.'


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