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Western Front tactics in 1917


Mat McLachlan
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The problems with counter-battery fire are, in part, explained by the difficulties encountered by the RFC:

'The weather was most hopelessly dud. The clouds were at 800 so we had to fly at 700. This was almost suicidal as a machine is a very big and easy target. However, as we were the contact patrol flight we had to go up and try to do something. I left the aerodrome at 05.30 and scraped over houses and trees, etc. until I got to our guns. I could hear and occasionally see the shells... However, nothing hit us until we got over the line and here in 8 minutes we got 30 holes through the machine from machine guns. A bullet went through the petrol tank. How we got back I don't know, it seemed the longest journey I have ever made but eventually we landed safely.

This afternoon it has been raining, so we've had nothing to do. It is an awful shame the weather is so bad, as given fine weather we could have done much better work and chased the Hun for miles.

Lt Walthew, 4 Squadron, RFC.'

Robert

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... 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.
Chris, it is interesting that the Earl of Stanhope suggests that 30th Division was not Gough's choice either. More importantly, I find it hard to think how any division could have done well. The terrain was simply awful, even if the ground had not been muddy. The forests contributed to the loss of direction, and helped the German defences.

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 July

I have some thoughts on this. When I get back, I will post the relevant section from the Earl of Stanhope's memoirs, as well as further insights into why there was a seeming lack of attention to the high ground.

Robert

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Chris, before going into events after 31st July, I just want to conclude with this fascinating comment from the Earl of Stanhope about Gough and his approach prior to 31st July:

"Of General Gough I have already written, I fear more than once, and will only now say that his conferences were well conducted, businesslike and usually ended in definite decisions (though this was not always the case), and that his plans prior to a battle were carefully thought out and only finally adopted after full and frank discussions with his Corp Commanders [Jacobs in the case of II Corps]. It was curious that I, who in 1916, was so strongly in favour of Sir Herbert Plumer and hostile to the introduction of the Reserve Army under General Gough, should find myself in 1917 hotly defending General Gough in face of General Plumer's Second Army Staff."

I will also attempt a synopsis of the material posted to date, re the buildup to and execution of the attack on the high ground, 31st July - after our trip to Venice and Florence ;) .

Robert

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Thank you for this Robert. Good to get some contemporary views. They add valuable insights to the subject.

Enjoy your trip - both wonderful cities. I look forward to gaining an insight of how the priority of effort slipped to the north. There was a reason and I would be interested in learning what it was.

Cheers

Chris

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  • 2 weeks later...

Chris, I have been thinking through the material gathered to date. On 31 July, there was clearly a major problem with the attack on the highest ground of the ridge, ie the area under II Corp's responsibility. According to a II Corp Staff Officer, the corps had the most artillery allocated to it compared with any other corps previously. Additional infantry were made available, with a second division (18th) supporting 30th Division on the day of the attack. I had started out thinking that the relative failure (II Corps still made a significant advance) was due to II Corps not being given due attention. This seems not to have been the case. Other factors were at work:

  1. Weather prevented adequate counter-battery work on the massed German artillery
  2. Infantry had to attack across very very difficult terrain, which meant that the barrage was lost
  3. Attacking across a ridge meant that ground-based FOOs had difficulty adjusting the barrage after it had gone out of sight
  4. Once the barrage was lost, the infantry were vulnerable to the German MGs and counter-attacks, especially as the British were operating on reverse slopes

I find it very difficult to think how any British infantry division/s could have done better in the circumstances - they would have been up against the same infantry-stopping problem of unrestrained (seemingly) enemy artillery and (after crossing the first German trench line) unsuppressed enemy MGs operating in the most advantageous position, namely on a reverse slope.

Robert

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This most erudite discussion has been going on for 8 months now - longer than the actual planning for 3rd Ypres maybe! I am beginning to wonder if there`s a chance of missing the wood for the trees, a little too much attention to detail? The fog and uncertainties of war would surely throw all these minutely laid plans to waste and the staff would be back to seat of the pants control within days? I have myself been criticized in the past (and rightly) for thinking that meticulous plans can be made and followed. Aren`t broader brush strokes indicated? Having said that, I congratulate you gents on your knowledge of the campaign. Phil B

PS Ref posts 113 & 114!

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Phil, your point is well made. The discussion has been based, in part, on an analysis of Gough's involvement in, and culpability for, any decisions that may have contributed to the lesser successes of II Corps. This analysis must be balanced against the uncertainties of war. Was enough done to mitigate the most obvious of these uncertainties? Broadly speaking, Chris and I have been debating two sides of the coin. One view is that Gough could have done more to have ensured greater success on the ridge. The alternative view is that Gough did more but that the uncertainty of war, most notably the problems with the weather and therefore counter-battery fire control, nullified what was done. Could Gough have done even more? This is another direction of travel, and Chris' question about why the failures post 31 July will feed directly into it, IMHO.

8 months - gosh, doesn't time fly... We haven't spent more time than the original planners, yet. Still another 10 months to go, at least :)

Robert

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Just a reminder of posts 113 & 114:-

Phil B:- Like probably many members, I`ve been watching the gestation of this thread with interest and, I have to admit, wondering recently where it`s going. But I think I see now. It`s going to be an attempt to answer the original question - How could 3rd Ypres have been better planned and executed? Just one thing, gents. When you arrive at your final definitive plan, will you put it to us in a brief simple precis form? The details you can add at your leisure, but the impact of the new plan will be lost on me if it`s long, complicated and packed with detail. I`m quite looking forward to it! Phil B

Robert Dunlop

Major-General

Thanks, Phil. An excellent reminder. It will be really important to produce such an output. Writing concise reports was a skill that was drummed into Staff Officers. Hopefully we can come close to that standard.

Robert

Still looking forward to it! :)

Beware though. Too good a job and we may request a similar job on the Somme!

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  • 2 weeks later...

Chris, apologies that I have not been able to follow-up with the additional material. I am travelling again until the last week of November and this inevitably will impose a further delay. Meanwhile, I have been reading some of the material around First Ypres. Obviously a different time and different direction of attack, with respect to the German efforts to capture the Gheluvelt-Passchendaele Ridge. It is very interesting to note, however, the huge difficulties faced by the Germans as they tried to press on after capturing Zandvoorde from the BEF. The wooded areas that were to pose such huge problems to II Corps also enabled the thinly spread BEF to more than hold their own.

Robert

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Hi Robert,

No rush. I shall be away in Tasmania for the next couple weeks.

The high ground was always going to be a difficult task if only because of the importance of the position and the German's reluctance to give it up. My point in this particular part of the debate is why the main effort was not continued along the ridge after 31 July? GHQ saw this as the vital ground and the priority of effort yet Gough focussed his subsequent assaults on the lower spurs to the north. Accepting as we have done, that the push along the ridge was vital to te success of the battle and that it would have to have been supported by attacks on the lower spurs to the north so as to avoid a narrow salient, I question why Gough paid little attention to main ridge after 31 July. This is essentially the same area that Plumer assaulted during Menin Road, Polygon Wood and Broodeseinde.

Cheers

Chris

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Chris, work or holiday?

The key to success/failure relates primarily (but not solely) to artillery - numbers of, calibres of, tasking of, observation for. I want to explore the post 31 July use of artillery in this sector in more detail.

Robert

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QUOTE (Phil_B @ Oct 26 2007, 08:24 PM) <{POST_SNAPBACK}>
Just a reminder of posts 113 & 114:-

How could 3rd Ypres have been better planned and executed? When you arrive at your final definitive plan, will you put it to us in a brief simple precis form?

Phil,

I don't think we can definitively say how it could have been better planned or executed or produce a better definitive plan. Such an attempt is in the realm of speculation and smacks of pretension. The difficulties facing the attacker in a battle such as 3rd Ypres should not be underestimated. They were much greater than battles in the 19th century and battles that had flanks and allowed the freedom of manoeuvre. The Great War battles of 1917 were about breaking into and through a very powerful and deep defensive position in which each part of the defence could be anchored on neighbouring strongpoints and further unbroken lines of defence behind the first. The planning for them was very detailed and the execution influenced by so many variables across the battlefield, not the least being the very determined German response.

This particular discussion commenced when I queried "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 ... to Passchendaele rather than pushing out across the Ypres salient and its destroyed drainage system."

All I can do is give an overview of what we have concluded and offer some suggestions.

Our subsequent discussion revealed that, indeed, this was the intent of the original plan. That GHQ [Haig] intended that the main thrust should be along the main ridge with the lower spurs to the north being captured as well. Our consideration of the ground concluded that this was the best option and that they had to be careful not to pursue the lower ground south of the main ridge. Again their plan recognised this.

The planning and execution was given to Gough who preferred deep objectives rather than the shorter "bite and hold" tactics. In execution, the initial attack on 31 July was successful, particularly in the north although the advance along the high ground did not progress as far as planned. Following this, Gough concentrated his attacks in the north, ie the area of the lower spurs and low ground and IMO did not give sufficient priority to the main ridge despite Haig's suggestions to do so. Eventually Haig gave the task of securing the main ridge to Plumer who, using "bite and hold" tactics, advanced the line along the high ground short of Passchendaele in the three successful advances of Menin Road, Polygon Wood and Broodeseinde Then the heavy rains started and turned the battlefield into the quagmire with which it has become synonymous and in which conditions many people wrongly believe the whole battle was fought.

The real controversy is whether the battle should have been stopped at this point? There are arguments for both cases. To secure the final portion of the main ridge at Passchendaele denied the Germans their last position of observation over the salient and gave the British possession of the complete ridgeline that dominated the German rear areas. The British would need to secure it before mounting further operations to continue with the aim of turning the German northern flank and securing the channel ports along the Belgium coast. A delay until the next spring of capturing Passchendaele gave the Germans time to further strengthen the position. Against continuing with the assault was the realities of the ground conditions which were were appalling in the re-entrants and not much better on the high ground, the artillery bombardments would be ineffective in the soft ground and the infantry assaults would be much slower and more costly. This phase has coloured the popular view of the whole battle without regard for what occured earlier.

So we get back to Gough's pre-occupation with assaulting the lower spurs in August and early September.

Had Gough accorded the high ground the priority of effort after 31 July it is possible that Passchendaele would have been captured before the rains set in in early October. However, we have to factor in Gough's tactics and the efforts the Germans would have made to regain any ground lost in this vital area to both sides. Had Plumer or Rawlinson been given the task of fighting 3rd Ypres from the beginning the possibility of securing Passchendaele before the rains set in could have been a probability given their preference for the successful "bite and hold" tactics which the Germans found difficult to counter and which defeated their counter attacks.

The very basis of the criticism of Haig and the British attacks at 3rd Ypres is based on the appalling casualty figures. That is: the casualties were appalling therefore the planning, tactics and execution were poor. This is the basis of Les Carlyon's comment which kicked the thread off

This discussion has revealed that, at least in the case of the Australians, most of the casualties were not incurred in the actual attacks. Of the 34,300 Australian casualties at 3rd Ypres, roughly 17,500 were lost in activities other than the attacks. That is: 50% of the Australian casualties at 3rd Ypres were lost in defensive operations, holding the line or in minor supporting operations and raids. Indeed, in the four weeks after their last attack (12th/13th 0ct) the Australians lost nearly 8000 men. Of the 16,500 casualties suffered in the four actual attacks, the Australian data reveals that 30% of these were incurred in the day after the assault. Thus the casualties incurred during day 1 of the attacks (the assault, consolidation and repelling initial German counter attacks) were around 11,000 or 30% of the Australian total for 3rd Ypres. Could the ratio be similiar for the other nationalties? The only word of caution is that these figures apply to Plumer's tactics not Gough's. Nonetheless, the Australian data points to the conclusion that to criticise the planning and execution of the British attacks at 3rd Ypres simply on the total casualties incurred is a very simplistic approach that does not recognise the full range of causes for them.

In summary, the discussion so far suggests that:

- the overall concept of operations as planned by GHQ was the best option;

- Gough's execution deviated from this concept and became bogged down in the lower ground;

- when Plumer assumed responsibilty and resumed the original concept employing "bite and hold" tactics he was successful in advancing along the main ridge fairly rapidly;

- the commencement of heavy rain in Oct changed the dynamics of the terrain and stalled the operation;

- should it have been stopped at this point? There are cases for and against.

- the operation continued under unfavourable conditions until the high ground at Passchendaele was captured and this phase has coloured the popular view of the whole battle; and

- to criticise the British planning and execution of the attacks on the basis of the total casualties incurred is a simplistic and faulty approach.

In regard to execution, my only suggestion is that had Plumer retained control after Messines, based on his successes at 3rd Ypres, it is likely that the high ground around Passcehndaele could have been captured before the rains set in. Further, it is possible that in using the "bite and Hold" tactics from the start the ground might have been won with fewer casualties, but I doubt that it would have been a significant difference; casualties would still have been heavy because of the nature of the warfare being fought. Both of these suggestions are speculative of course and the results of an option retaining Plumer in control from the start will never be known.

I accept this does not meet your expectations, however, to suggest a better plan and better execution would, IMO, be pointless.

Cheers

Chris

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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.

Am I alone in finding this statement more than a little offensive?

I have read a number of books that prove historians can - just as any one else - commit terrible errors in explaining tactics and strategies, and moreover numb one's mind with a barrage shonky text! I have also read books by historians that are quite the opposite. Equally, I have read books of military history written by journalists that set out tactics, strategies and military thinking beautifully.

The quality of written history really comes down to the writer, his/her research ability and subsequent analysis, and whether or not they are willing to consider advice from experts in preparing their manuscript. It has nothing to do with their 9-5 job. For instance, here on this forum I've had the priviledge of chatting with some very clued-up individuals about various actions etc, and few of these people are professional historians.

My question for you Crunchy, then, is what, exactly, constitutes a quality military historian, heck even a run-of-the-mill one?

For the record, I liked Carlyon's Gallipoli far more than his Great War, but note that for both he sought advice from some pretty impressive minds on matters military.

Crunchy, your statement is bald and - at the same time - revealing.

Andy Macdonald

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Andy,

I apologise if I have offended you.

Im response to your question I have explained my position in post 231 which is reproduced below.

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 shall be away for the next two weeks so will be unable to respond to your reply until then.

Regards

Chris

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  • 2 weeks later...

Chris, given the importance of the artillery support, I tapped back into Farndale's account of Third Ypres. He provides some additional insights:

'...the problems facing the MGRA Fifth Army, Major-General Uniacke, were enormous. Air superiority was a basic essential, yet it had not been achieved when the artillery duel began in earnest on 12th June; indeed, it was not until the end of July that the British gained the mastery of the air. The British, too, were short of guns. Most batteries were below strength. General Uniacke issued his plan on 30th June. It was based on the following principles:

  • Priority was to protect the infantry while consolidating on their objectives.
  • Defensive batteries which could provide defensive fire were to be bombarded with gas from Zero-Day minus one to Zero-Day
  • The preliminary bombardment was to last nine days.
  • Counter-battery was to reach a climax on Zero minus four and Zero minus one days.
  • Enemy trenches were to be destroyed by Zero minus four days.
  • Roads must not be shelled, to ease the subsequent move forward of the guns.
  • All wire cutting was to be done by mortars and howitzers to conceal the strength of the field guns.
  • The creeping barrage, which was to include shrapnel, was to start as close as possible to the British trenches and was to move at 100 yards in four minutes. There was to be one 18-pounder per fifteen yards of front, and one heavy howitzer per fifty yards.
  • The protective barrage was to be placed 500 yards beyond each objective and was to search backward and forward.
  • Prompt zone calls were arranged to be called for by air.
  • Field batteries were to advance beyond no-man's land and heavy batteries into it.
  • Balloons were to be established well forward.
  • Counter-battery artillery was to be organised in double groups, each with its own air flight from the Corps Squadron.
'

Farndale goes on to note that the 'thirty-two artillery brigades [of divisional artillery] amounted to some 768 guns only! In addition, there were a further 2,400 guns, a further 400 batteries, a list too numerous to include here but consisting of the divisional batteries not otherwise employed, Army Field Brigades and medium heavy and super heavy batteries.'

'The artillery duel, which started on 12th June, was conducted by the guns already in action. The problem now was to move this additional mass of artillery into action.' Farndale illustrates the problem with an account from 110 Brigade RFA, where movement was only possible at night, positions had to be prepared in advance, and German shelling caused casualties.

With respect to the build-up in II Corps sector, Farndale writes:

'thirty-six siege and heavy batteries moved into the Dickebusch area [and] the [field gun] batteries lay behind the woods, packed wheel to wheel in some cases, between Zillebeke and Verbrandenmolen. Each of the four divisions of II Corps had nine extra artillery brigades in support, while the divisions of the other three corps had six. Thus, a division in II Corps had forty-four batteries or 264 field guns alone to support it.'

Again we see evidence of the additional artillery assets that were provided to II Corps, which was attacking the key strategic ground.

Robert

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Farndale also summarises why the concentrations of artillery in II Corps' sector did not achieve more.

'One snag was that, because of the weather (cloud base about 400 feet), aerial observation was impossible for British counter-battery fire. This enabled the Germans to maintain a heavy defensive barrage on Sanctuary and Chateau Woods, which also cut almost all cables and lines to the FOOs. Some pidgeons got through, but the only news from the assault was by runners who sometimes took hours to get back, if indeed they every did.

Virtually the only news that reached Corps headquarters from the attacking infantry came from the Gunners, and this was spasmodic. 164th Infantry Brigade reached its third objective before its divisional headquarters heard any news. The first news of the German counter-attack came from an FOO with 45th Infantry Brigade; this was at 1130 hours and reached Headquarters 15th Division at 1253 hours. By 1300 hours, drizzling rain settled in, blinding observation; the positions of the forward infantry became unclear, FOOs lost touch and control of the guns became extremely difficult.'

Farndale's examples in the last paragraph relate to units on the left of II Corps.

Robert

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Jack Sheldon has provided much deeper insights into the German perspective on this battle. In his book 'The German Army at Passchendaele', Jack has translated some accounts from German infantry and artillerymen in the II Corps area. The German infantry that were in their front line when the British pre-planned bombardment took place, took a terrible beating:

'...[the British artillery] pounded the German infantry, making their life intolerable and preventing them from sleeping. Casualties continued to mount and the few remaining dugouts were smashed or buried. The remnants of trenches and barbed wire obstacles were simply swept away and the infantry was left clinging on precariously in isolated pill boxes, mud- and water-filled shell holes; there to face grimly whatever dawn would bring.'

An infantry company commander from the 240th Reserve Infantry Regiment, which took over part of the front line in II Corps' sector at 0200 hours on 31 July, wrote:

'The position no longer had a barbed wire obstacle. There was almost nothing recognisable as a trench. All of the destruction caused by the week-long bombardment meant that there was no continuity within the company. As a result the sections were more or less isolated. The two reliable runners whom I despatched to battalion headquarters with the information never returned.'

Another infantry company commander from the same regiment sent out a recon patrol on receiving news that the British had occupied the old front line. 'At 5.00 am a terrible drum fire crashed down on the entire line. In expectation of an immediate attack, I called for artillery defensive fire and saw flares going up also on my left and right. Here there was only a weak response by the artillery and even this fire slackened off after about ten minutes.' Then the British assault troops arrived. Leutnant Peper goes on to describe the desparate defence, culminating in 'the order to cease fire' and the surrender of the 'eight of us still able to fight'.

This and other accounts of front line troops illustrate how the pre-planned bombardment, with its mixture of shrapnel, HE, and MG barrages, enabled II Corps to successfully assault many of the very forward German positions in the early hours of the attack. Success was not uniform, however. A third infantry commander noted that 'the heavy machine gun proved its worth constantly. Its crew behaved in an exemplary manner. It directed its fire wherever the British assault troops were most densely massed but, because of the fire, it had to change position frequently. The company defended its sector heroically and here the [british] attempt at a breakthrough fell apart.' The 7th Company continued to hold out thoughout the day, and the account illustrates that the British bombardment was not uniformly successful in suppressing German resistance.

As II Corps' barrage penetrated deeper into the German lines, it caught German counter-attack troops moving forward. Leutnant Faßhauer's company was ordered forward when the British had taken the Albrecht Stellung. The orders were to hold the Wilhelm Stellung, which was being subjected to both artillery and machine gun barrages. Faßhauer's company took some casualties and 'such was the weight of the artillery fire that to attempt to advance was out of the question for the time being.' The company took cover and, despite the casualties, remained an intact fighting force. Then 'a short-time after 12.00 pm the British lifted their fire to the rear. This was the yearned-for moment when we could get forward...' As the company advanced again, it came under fire from tanks and machine guns. Faßhauer's account, however, illustrates the significance of the wooded terrain because 'nevertheless the company pushed on until it arrived at the southern corner of the wooded area and deployed to the north.' Faßhauer then describes how the British outposts were knocked out and, with the support of German ground attack aircraft, the line was stabilised with additional reinforcements.

It should be noted that the survival of German strongpoints and the successful counter-attacks can be attributed in large part to the fact that the British artillery fire, though severe, was not deliberately aimed in this area. Once the barrages passed over the German defenders, they were able to restore a significant degree of tactical freedom. As one account notes, 'at about 2.00 pm the enemy renewed the assault against our strong point... but these attacks too were halted by a combination of small arms and artillery fire.' Thus, as the day wore on, the Germans defenders in II Corps were able to benefit from artillery support, whereas their British counterparts lost theirs.

Taken in combination with the British anecdotes quoted earlier in this thread, it is possible to see very clearly why the initial British II Corps assault succeeded, and why it then stumbled and was beaten back in many places (though not to the original jumping off point).

Robert

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Unfortunately, there seems to be little information about the experiences of German artillerymen in the Gheluvelt area. Jack mentions a field artillery battery near Westhoek that had been silent during the build-up to 31st July. The guns were 'tucked away in dense hedgerows'. When the British barrage opened up, 'within seconds we had manned the guns and began to fire the first defensive fire mission but, before it was even complete, the Tommies brought us under fire'. Two of the guns and an ammunition dump were hit. The same author then noted 'it was a great sight to see the advance of the Eingreif divisions during the morning of 31 July. ...the entire terrain from the rear areas forward was filled with columns of marching infantry and fresh batteries going into position.'

Despite the heavy British barrages, there is an account of an ammunition column being able to get shells forward in the Zandvoorde area. This was possible because the column was able to take shelter from the various barrages until they had passed over.

In these two paragraphs we see the difference between observed and indirect fire. The first account almost certainly illustrates what happened when a battery was observed and subjected to counter-battery fire. The instant and accurate retaliation by the British gunners is so characteristic of observed fire. The latter account shows the difference when a heavy barrage follows a pre-set pattern, and is not capable of correction to account for targets of opportunity. The impact of pre-set barrages was reduced as they got further away from the start line, though this comment should not be taken to mean that the longer distance barrages were ineffective.

Robert

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On 1st August 1917, the British Chief of Staff, Lt-Gen Kiggell, issued the following GHQ Instructions:

'

  1. The results of the attack made yesterday by the French First Army and the British Second and Fifth Armies are highly satisfactory. Important positions of great strength have been captured and very heavy casualties have been inflicted on the enemy, who has already been compelled to throw a large proportion of his available reserves into the fight.
  2. Armies will consolidate the positions gained and make ready to continue the infantry advance, in accordance with the general plan of the operations already communicated, as soon as the necessary artillery preparation has been carried out.
  3. The objectives of the next infantry advance will be arranged by the G.O.C. Fifth Army in direct communication with the GOC French First Army, the arrangements proposed being reported to the advanced G.H.Q. in due course.
  4. In addition to its primary task of continuing to assist the Fifth Army by all means in its power, and especially by vigorous counter-battery action against all hostile guns within range which can be used against the right flank of the main advance, the Second Army will endeavour to maintain the impression of an intended advance to capture Lille.

On the same day, Haig wrote in his diary:

'Gough held meeting of his Corps Commanders last night after seeing me. The II Corps propose to take the rest of the Black Line tomorrow. A small operation, but today being wet, may delay matters.

In the afternoon I motored to HQ of Corps in the Fifth Army as follows:

II Corps. General Jacob explained the action of yesterday in detail. His position is a good one on the ridge. His advance was stopped by hidden machine guns in concrete emplacements. Owing to dull weather these could not be located by photographs. Two German maps have luckily been captured, giving the exact locations. They can now be easily destroyed - by a 15 inch howitzer is necessary, as the emplacements are strongly built of cement. Jaoob is quite confident of being able to capture and hold the ridge at his next attempt. The losses of his divisions were very small...

At Fifth Army HQ I saw General Uniacke. He thinks artillery situation very satisfactory, but must have 2 days of good observation before the next step forward is attempted.'

Robert

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Gough recorded the meeting on 31st July:

'In the evening of 31st July, at 8.45, I had a conference with my four Corps Commanders and we sat down to consider the position. It was eventually decided that we must make several adjustments before we could be in a position to attack with the whole Army again.

It was settled that on the 2nd August the II Corps was to complete the capture of the black line, parts of which were still in possession of the enemy. On the 4th, the II, XIX and the right of the XVIII Corps were to complete the capture of the third objective (the green line).

We arranged to make preparations to carry out the attacks on these dates, but it was recognised that bad weather might cause a postponement.'

Andy Simpson does not document this meeting in his book 'Directing Operations'.

There is no mention of this or subsequent meetings in Earl Stanhope's memoirs. He merely notes:

'The Germans now realised the vital nature of the ground along the ridge east of Hooge on either side of the Menin Road and concentrated a terrific artillery fire on this area. They continuously put down a triple barrage behind the front in this sector, causing the relief of troops or the reinforcement of this part of the line to a matter of extreme difficulty and heavy cost. The difficulty of an advance was greatly intensified by the weather, torrents of rain descending daily and making the ground almost impassable.'

According to the British Official History, 'on the 2nd August, the operations ordered had been postponed. On the 4th the rain ceased, and on the following day, although the weather remained stormy and unsettled, with no sun or drying wind, and more rain forecast, Fift Army headquarters fixed the 9th for the II Corps operation against Gheluvelt Plateau, and the 13th for the resumption of the main offensive.'

Gough confirmed that 'in view of the persistent rain, orders were issued late at night on the 1st August modifying all our future plans, and again on the 3rd August our orders had to be cancelled and the dates of future attacks postponed.

The right of the Army not being so far advanced as the left, orders were issued aiming at bringing the II Corps forward to the black line, and for some adjustment on the fronts of the two centre corps, so as to get the whole Army into a more favourable position for a further organised advance, which was not postponed until 16th August.

It was particularly necessary to get the II Corps forward because it stood on the high ground. To swing our left forward and pivot on our right would have been unsound, if not impracticable, with the German observation and artillery overlooking and enfilading our line.

Such were the orders issued in view of the unprecedented wet weather, and the Army as a whole was to make its second attack, not with three or four days as orignally anticipated, but only after waiting sixteen days. Meanwhile all our counter-battery work and the bombardment of strong points was also made most difficult, if not impracticable, by our being largely deprived of the use of our eyes owing to the bad weather interfering with flying and the capacity of the Air Service for observation.'

Robert

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On 1st August, BGGS Davidson issued the 'Memorandum on the Situation on the II Corps Front by G.H.Q. (Operations)'. The mere writing of this memorandum underlined the emphasis placed by GHQ on the high ground. It read thus:

'1. The next objective is their original Black Line [original Second Objective]. The difficulties of this operation are:

  • The corps has at present a ragged front line which has to be adjusted.
  • One division at least (ie the 8th) is being relieved. Probably the 30th and 24th Divisions will be ordered to attack again. They will certainly be ordered to do so if the attack has to take place in a very short time.
  • The ground will be heavy for several days after the rain stops.
  • A good many scattered concrete machine-gun emplacements in the vicinity of Inverness Copse must be engaged with carefully observed fire.

2. Favourable circumstances in connection with the attack are as follows:

  • The objective is a limited one.
  • We have now got full and detailed information as to the position of machine-gun emplacements, etc, in the objective, and have secured in many places direct observation, whereas hitherto no direct observation on this line has been possible.
  • The whole artillery of the corps can concentrate on the preparation of this objective. (Hitherto the same guns have had to prepare three objectives simultaneously.)

3. The reasons for attacking as early as possible are:

  • All further operations on the Fifth Army front are held up until this attack has been successfully carried out.
  • The enemy will be gaining time to strengthen his rear defences.
  • Our hold on Westhoek will be precarious until we have advanced to the Black Line, and this is the most important tactical point on the Army front at the present moment. In addition there is always a probability of a German counter-attack on a large scale on the whole of II Corps front.

We know from experience, however, that in these subsidiary operations hurried preparations and the use of part-worn troops are generally the cause of failure, and that failure involves a waste of valuable time and personnel.

In this particular case we want to make absolutely certain of the artillery preparation, which will require very careful control and accurate shooting and two or more days good flying weather prior to the attack.'

To underline the importance of the ridge, Haig held a meeting with Gough on 2nd August:

'At 10 am I saw Gough and Malcolm (his MGGS) with Kiggell. I showed him on my relief map the importance of the Broodeseinde-Passchendaele ridge, and gave it as my opinion that his main effort must be devoted to capturing that. Not until it was in our possession could he hope to advance his centre. He quite agreed.

I also told him to have patience, and not put in his infantry attack until after 2 or 3 days fine weather, to enable our guns to get the upper hand and to dry the ground.'

Simpson indicates that GHQ 'issued a new set of tactical notes, based around the stiffening of German resistance, the further an attack was pressed, which Fifth Army passed on to its corps for comment on 7th August'.

Earl Stanhope, Staff Officer in II Corps, was clear that GHQ played an increased role driving operations in August:

'Several small attacks were made by the 30th Division which proved abortive, GHQ being worse than General Gough in ordering attacks on a narrow front which met a concentrated artillery fire and, as usually happened in such cases, proved costly failures.'

Robert

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Before discussing the 'several small attacks... which proved abortive' in more detail, it is worth recapping on the post 31 July thinking. It appears that all commanders, from Haig down to Jacobs, recognised the importance of II Corps' ongoing role in capturing more of the ridge. Artillery was considered key to achieving this. Firstly, through counter-battery fire. Second, at least from Davidson's perspective, the destruction (not neutralization) of the pillboxes in the heavily wooded areas on the reverse slopes of the ridge. Lastly, and implicit in the accounts that I have quoted, apart from Uniacke's principles, was the need for the protective barrages during assaults.

Throughout the weeks of August, it is clear that the Germans retained a significant level of operational freedom on the ridge, even though they had lost the highest ground in II Corps' (and neighbours') assault. High volumes of counter-preparatory fire were concentrated on the British troops and their supply routes. Artillery were likewise subjected to significant counter-battery fire. Most British accounts that I have read note that the German counter-battery work was not very systematic, but there was a lot of it. Given that the British guns were still densely packed, relatively speaking, in the salient, then significant damage and casualties were taken. These observations confirm that the British artillery was not dominating the Germans in the most strategically important sector. Why not?

In analysing this question, it is important to remind ourselves that II Corps still had significantly more artillery than the other corps. It might be that II Corps needed even more guns, in absolute terms. Rather than focus on this option, I would like to address the reasons why the existing preponderance of artillery did not achieve more. These reasons were important because unless they were addressed, it was highly likely that more guns would not have made any difference.

Observation was fundamental, especially for counter-battery work. For the first days in August, the weather 'was bad, observation poor...' [Farndale]. I don't have any accounts from RFC airmen for this period, and I don't have any sources or accounts about captive balloons. In theory, the latter should have been just as 'blind' during periods of low cloud cover and rain.

Counter-battery work was carried out by the heavy and super-heavy guns and howitzers. I don't have many detailed anecdotal accounts from gunners in such units at Third Ypres. Behrend's account 'As from Kemmel Hill' is one such. He wrote:

'The main role of heavy artillery during that summer of 1917 was counter-battery work, that is to say the neutralizing and slow destruction of the opposing heavy artillery, and it was this invisible and unending duel between giants that the batteries of our Group were largely engaged during my weeks as its Adjutant. Yet "invisible" is not entirely correct, because it was always fascinating to study and compare the "before" and "after" air photographs faithfully taken and distributed by our co-operation squadron of the Royal Flying Corps, and I was often astonished by the recovery powers of many an enemy battery, which should have been, and indeed apparently was, obliterated by the photographically-spectacular effects of a concentrated shoot.

For that kind of shoot rarely meant less than a hundred rounds per gun from a battery which consisted of six 6-inch or 8-inch guns [which were howitzers in Behrend's batteries]. But every gunner knows that the shell which scores a direct hit on a gun or its detachment is as rare as the golf ball which finds its hole in one, and all too often the battery which had been our target was quickly on its feet again, firing away as actively as before. Seemingly all we had done was to silence it for a few hours, and, if a battery which had been engaged once or twice before, to increase the already fantastic number of shell craters surrounding its position.'

Behrend goes on to point out 'this game could be played in reverse. The first thing to do, if your own battery happened to be at the receiving end, was to get into action again, and as soon as possible. Indeed a battery carrying out a set task was expected to keep on firing, even if under fire itself. Thus a triangular drama could, and often did, develop if British battery A, while conducting a shoot on German battery B, was engaged out of the blue by German battery C. Provided battery C could be located quickly enough by means of sound-rangers or by an observer in a kite-balloon or aeroplane or from ground observation post, the counter-battery department of Corps Heavies usually had either a battery up its sleeve or one which could be switched from some less pressing task to join in the party.'

Behrend's insights are very important. His batteries were engaged in trying to destroy German batteries through the destructive power of HE. The chances of actually hitting a gun were low, and it was only a direct hit that could destroy enemy guns. Anything other than a direct hit meant temporary suppression of the battery at best. Such an approach required enormous numbers of shells. Here we strike a second problem.

Behrend again: '[after 31st July] our batteries had moved forward too; they were now firing from the mud on either side of the Potijze Road, and within a mile of our [new] headquarters. Owing to the shape and flatness of the Salient they were visisble to thousands of German eyes, and only the number of batteries in the same plight saved each individual one from total destruction. Because of the mud and the shell creaters and the constant shelling it was always difficult to them supplied with ammunition; for the same reasons it was equally difficult for them to take care of it once they got it. Indeed the mud was nearly as formidable an enemy as the Germans.' Ammunition resupply was a significant problem.

Robert

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This discussion has revealed that, at least in the case of the Australians, most of the casualties were not incurred in the actual attacks. Of the 34,300 Australian casualties at 3rd Ypres, roughly 17,500 were lost in activities other than the attacks. That is: 50% of the Australian casualties at 3rd Ypres were lost in defensive operations, holding the line or in minor supporting operations and raids. Indeed, in the four weeks after their last attack (12th/13th 0ct) the Australians lost nearly 8000 men. Of the 16,500 casualties suffered in the four actual attacks, the Australian data reveals that 30% of these were incurred in the day after the assault.

Cheers

Chris

Is it possible that those statistics are quite misleading? Those "incurred the day after an attack" may have been those not reported till the day after. And the high level of casualties on non-attack days was surely a result of the front and support lines being packed with troops who wouldn`t normally have been there - they were there only because attacks were taking place about that time?

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Phil,

You are quite at liberty to draw your own conclusions, however, I am not attempting to mislead anyone as you have inferred. While I don't accept your criticism that the results are "quite misleading" I readily accept that casualty figures are not precise tools. In fact I was quite surprised when I went through the figures initially and redid them to satisfy myself.

The discussion actually related to Carlyon's claim that the "bite and hold tactics" employed during the successful attacks at Menin Road, Polygon Wood and Broodeseinde were poor because the Australians sustained 38,000 casualties (his figure) at 3rd Ypres. I am satisfied that his assertion is shallow based on the analysis I have conducted. This related each week's casualties during the battle, which are listed in the Australian Medical OH, to the operations conducted by the Australian divisions. Using the two day casualty figures which you rightly say could include casualties lost in the attack itself and which are the casualties the Medical OH attributes to each of these battles, the losses in these three attacks represent 38% of the total Australian losses at 3rd Ypres. (13,000 out of a total of 34,000 according the Medical OH). However, these figures include casualties sustained in holding ground after it was captured. Thus 62% of the Australian casualties were incurred in activities other than these three attacks.

Carlyon's criticism is concerned with the tactics employed to capture the objectives. Irrespective of what tactics are used to capture objectives, casualties will be sustained during the subsequent German counter attacks and simply holding that ground under artillery fire in the period following. The success of "bite and hold" at 3rd Ypres was that in most instances the Germans were unable to recapture the ground taken, whereas with Gough's deeper objective tactics the Germans were able to recapture some of the lost ground, which meant it had to be assaulted again incurring additional casualties.

However, let's consider your broader view by taking the casualties for the period 16 Sep to 6 Oct, using the figures for the weeks ending 22nd Sep, 29th Sep and 6th Oct. This period covers the three attacks on 20 Sep (Menin Road), 26 Sep (Polygon Wood) and 4 Oct (Broodeseinde). The total casualties of the divisions participating in each of the attacks for that whole period is 17,600; which represent just over 50% of the total Australian casualties at 3rd Ypres. However, these casualties include those sustained in the days before the attacks, during the actual attacks and while holding the line in the period after the attack; the difference between these and the two day figures used by the Medical OH is about 4,600. Even taking this broader view, just under 50% of the total Australian casualties at 3rd Ypres were incurred in activities not associated with the three battles or the "bite and hold" tactics employed in them.

But if we are to include these broader figures how can we criticize the tactics used to capture the ground by including casualties incurred prior to the first attack and in holding the captured ground in the intervening period between the attacks? I don't believe we can accept Carlyon's criticism that the "bite and hold" tactics were poor based on the total Australian casualties for 3rd Ypres. Whichever way we cut the figures, the basis of Carlyon's criticism is shallow.

I am interested in reading the sources that support your view that "the high level of casualties on non-attack days was surely a result of the front and support lines being packed with troops who wouldn`t normally have been there ".

cheers

Chris

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Phil,

You are quite at liberty to draw your own conclusions, however, I am not attempting to mislead anyone as you have inferred.

I am interested in reading the sources that support your view that "the high level of casualties on non-attack days was surely a result of the front and support lines being packed with troops who wouldn`t normally have been there ".

cheers

Chris

There was no inference that you attempted to mislead - merely that the figures might be viewed a different way. It`s a suggestion. That`s all.

As an example of "next day casualties" one may look at 11 E Lancs. Reported as died, 106 on 1/7/16, 108 on 2/7/16. Yet, as I`ve been told by more than one survivor, the trenches were almost deserted on day 2.

The source you ask for is spread through books I`ve read. (I don`t keep notes documenting page numbers for each fact I read. Do most members?). The reasoning goes like this. A large scale offensive is under way. Therefore large numbers of troops must be in or near the front. The Germans will probably know, or suspect they`re there. Therefore they will shell likely gathering places. Therefore casualties will be higher. It`s simplistic reasoning, I agree, and I`ll be happy for the flaws to be demonstrated! :)

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