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Western Front tactics in 1917


Mat McLachlan
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The following extract is from the War Diary of 303 Siege Battery RGA, which was entitled 'With a Siege Battery in France':

'On 31st July the attack was launched. A gain of a few thousand yards was the net result on our front, and as far as we were concerned proved to be very useful. Being still in range of such targets as we were required to fire on, we did not follow up, and reaped the advantage of being less subject to enemy shelling, as the German artillery had necessarily to be drawn further back.

During this battle we had only one casualty; Gnr. Lambert, who formed one of the Forward Observation Officer's party, failed to return, and was later reported wounded.

In the early days of August we had repeatedly to respond to SOS calls; on the 3rd we expended nearly 400 rounds on these targets alone. Our weary and jaded gun teams were never too tired to respond to these calls with alacrity.

Preparations were made for a more advanced position, a new one being selected NE of the village of St Jean. Digging parties were sent forward and did much work under difficult conditions. They were very speedily spotted by the enemy, and constantly subjected to bursts of fire.

Reinforcements arrived from base [but] we were, however, much below strength and we were further reduced by a "premature" occurring on our No 3 gun on the 6th August. The piece was completely wrecked, and the following day our No 2 gun was hit by a gas shell, which broke the trail; this left us with two [6" howitzers] in action [from what was meant to be a 6 gun battery].'

Robert

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As the above quote illustrates, there were significant problems getting the guns repositioned. The advance of II Corps, albeit less than other corps to the north, was still far enough to require many of the guns to be moved nearer the new line, especially the field guns. Gunner Heraty's experience was quoted by Steel and Hart:

'We were not struggling through the shell holes and the black mud that stuck to us like glue, until we reached a point near to where our first line trenches used to be before the attack opened out and our officer decided that our new gun position was to be at this spot. Each gun place was marked off, and it was now hard graft with spades and entrenching tools, filling sandbags, with tunics and shirts off and the rain coming down like hell, and a thick mist covering the ground like a November morning. We commenced to build a double row of sandbags to form a gunpit and gave a certain amount of protection from shell fire, which we were getting plenty of at the time being. We could see the sappers and engineers laying duckboards and plank roads along the shell shattered roads and fields.'

The muddy conditions also tended to make gun platforms unstable.

As mentioned, ammunition resupply became more problematic. Driver Luther's experience was also quoted in Steel and Hart:

'Every night, we collected our 18-pounder shells and used our horses with packs over their saddles. Each pack had eight pockets, four each side. We sat straddle-leg over the riding horse with shells between our legs and led the off-horse. The Engineers or someone else had laid heavy planks in an attempt to form a road. As soon as we left the planks we tried to pick our way between the shell holes, the whole vista resembling nothing more than a pepper pot. The off-horse would hold back or make a leap forward, often dragging us off our rider-horses, both horse and rider were stuck in the shell hole, with the flash of guns forming our only light. This became impossible. Each rider took 16 shells on his two horses but was lucky to land with half that amount. It was soon discovered that no man could manage two horses and in future it was one man to one horse. Very often we made two journeys each, taking the whole night. The guns must be fed.'

Robert

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...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.
Behrend noted the relatively limited effectiveness of attempts to destroy enemy batteries with HE. Temporarily neutralise, yes. Destroy complelely, very difficult. I mentioned previously that British artillerymen frequently note that German counter-battery fire was relatively ineffective. There are examples where British batteries were caught in a maelstrom of shells. In one case, the rate and nature of the explosions indicated to one British officer that at least three German batteries had engaged them simultaneously. All of the British guns were destroyed, but within a day they had some replacements. I suspect that British observations potentially mirrored their German counterparts, at least in the Gheluvelt area. Losses of equipment, losses of personnel but overall the firepower was still maintained. It was not just the infantry that were caught up in a battle of attrition!

It should be noted that the British used gas shells in counter-battery work too.

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.
The pillboxes were marked on the captured German map. The fact that it took the capture of the map to know where they were located strongly suggests that the pillboxes could not be observed directly or on aerial photography. In any event, the approach to taking them out mirrors the approach taken to the destruction of enemy artillery - systematic bombardment with high explosive. Given the difficulties of hitting a battery, which covered more ground, it is not difficult to appreciate that same problem might pertain to pillboxes as well. I have no information about what guns were used to fire on pillboxes, nor on what means were available to check if all known pillboxes were destroyed. The next infantry attack would tell the story.

Which brings us to the third issue, the barrages supporting infantry assaults. Just one theoretical point at this stage. We have talked about the difficulties of attacking down a reverse slope. I have created the following picture to illustrate the problem:

post-1473-1196205953.jpg

I took a map of the ridge, drew a line across from Zillebeke to Gheluvelt, and then drew the contour profile. The horizontal blue bracket highlights the reverse slope, with the British positions being on the left side of this bracket. The dotted blue lines represent the trajectories of shells fired from British field guns. In theory, it could be very difficult for field guns to provide adequate artillery cover on the reverse slope. Not so the howitzers, which lobbed shells over the ridge and onto the reverse slope without any problem, except perhaps the problem of observing what they achieved. Occupation of the high ground did afford FOO sites to the British but, as the Master of Belhaven illustrated, observation was not uniformly good and some areas were not easily visible to artillery observers.

Robert

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Just to conclude on the buildup for the next major attack in August, here is the British Official History (BOH) account:

'The preparations for the proposed operations were hampered, and their prospect of success spoilt, by the undiminished strength of the German artillery concentration on and behind Gheluvelt plateau. This mass of guns continued to harass, by day and by night, the 8,000 yard frontage and the back areas of II and XIX Corps between Stirling Castle and St Julien, whilst those of the XVIII and XIV Corps northwards from St Julien were left in comparative quiet. The counter-batteries of the Fifth Army, on the other hand, continued to spread their fire over the whole Army frontage of 12,000 yards in preparation for the renewed general offensive. In addition to the disadvantage of this dispersal of artillery power, to the counter-batteries there was the further handicap of having to work on old and incorrect registrations, for the periods of good visibility were too few to check by air reconnaissance the shifting of German batteries to any of their three or four alternative emplacements. As a result, the German artillery concentration opposite the II Corps remained unmastered. From the evening of the 31st July onwards it pounded the new battery emplacements, so that their construction and occupation became a long and costly task, which was not completed until the 8th August [two days before the next assault went in]. Artillery casualties were severe both in men and in guns, and as early as the 4th August many batteries were reduced to half strength; and some brigades had to be reorganized from four into two batteries. The recurring wastage of artillery fire-power, due to the German counter-battery work, was a severe handicap to the artillery programme.'

The account goes on to describe the difficult conditions imposed by the mud, both in terms of living coniditions for many of the gunners and also the problems in resupply of ammunition.

The BOH draws attention to the 'dispersal of artillery power'. In essence, according to the BOH the heavy guns were doing this:

post-1473-1196311352.jpg

instead of this:

post-1473-1196311379.jpg

In fact, it is not quite that simple. From the material posted above, we know that some heavies remained in place but others were moved forward. As the BOH pointed out, and we have seen illustrated in anecdotal accounts, the moves were difficult and probably took those guns out of the picture for longer than would have been the case in drier conditions. Much, much more important, however, is the recurring theme of the problems with observing counter-battery fire. The question remains, however - would the German artillery on and behind Gheluvelt plateau been controlled by focusing more heavy guns on this area?

Robert

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The value of the reverse slope is illustrated by this comment from Oberleutnant Brügelmann, a German field artillery regimental commander:

'The very worst hours of the six week tour [opposite II Corps], which we had endured under constant fire by day and night, were those that led up to the relief in the evening [of the 6th August]. Time passed. It went dark, but the relieving guns had still not arrived. Instead the British fired concentration after concentration [of artillery shells]: most low trajectory shells [? from field guns] which smashed violently into the hill behind the battery. What luck we had not deployed there! Finally there was a pause in the firing and the [relieving] guns got through.' [Jack Sheldon: The German Army at Passchendaele].

The same commander also noted just prior to being relieved: 'Suddenly there was a great crash and shed collapsed like a house of cards. Surely there must have been an absolute bloodbath? But a miracle had occurred. This miracle only came about because the good old British had to use such poor ammunition. The shell landed almost vertically [howitzer shell], pierced the shed roof and floor, missing everyone before exploding in the soft ground. A spray of filth and splinters of wood were blown out sideways, but no further damage was done'.

This account doesn't describe 'poor ammunition', in that the shell exploded. It does, however, illustrate the effect of the soft ground in reducing the effectiveness of HE shells - a recurrent theme for both sides in Third Ypres. It futher illustrates why counter-battery fire with HE would be reduced, and does not bode well for the effectivenes of the counter-pillbox programme of fire. In truth, the latter programme had to rely on direct hits, given that the pillboxes were immensely strong.

Robert

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After several postponements, the next major attack went in on 10th August. II Corps attacked with 18th Division on the right and 25th Division on the left. In preparation for the attack, the Master of Belhaven wrote on 9th August:

'I rode up before lunch and spent the whole afternoon and evening working out the barrage tables. It is a simple scheme with only seven lifts, and was not much trouble. Since dinner we have been very heavily shelled by a 5.9 howitzer. He has been dropping them regularly every minute for the last three-quarters of an hour just behind my No 5 gun. The result is that my hand is rather shaky. I find that when I am being really heavily shelled in an exposed place my pulse goes up from its normal seventy-five to over a hundred a minute. I have just asked for help and the heavies have started. If they are lucky, and engage the right battery, it often stops the hostile shelling; if not, it generally makes it worse.' The Master of Belhaven's brigade comprised field guns, which suggests that means that they were at least able to plan for a barrage on the reverse slope.

Despite all the difficulties in getting guns forward, 'on the 8th both Inverness Copse and Glencourse Wood were shelled with 3,000 rounds from heavy and medium howitzers, and the bombardment was continued on the 9th, the first fine day of the month'. [bOH] This programme of fire was no doubt aimed at destroying the pillboxes that Davidson alluded to, amongst other targets.

Continuing with the Master of Belhaven, his diary entry on 10th August notes: 'the Hun evidently knew of our attack, as he shelled the whole country continuously all night and right up to zero this morning (4.35 am)'. McCarthy suggests that this was because the Germans observed the build-up for the attack during the night: 'The 7th Queen's were to form a defensive flank along the southern edge of Inverness Copse. At 1.30 am, in bright sunlight, as they moved into their assault positions, the Germans spotted them halted by a fresh line of white posts and caused considerable losses before zero hour.'

Jack Sheldon has shown that the Germans were forewarned of this and other attacks. Offizierstellvertreter Alt recorded 'Finally we were stood to on the night of 8 or 9 August and moved forward [near Westhoek].' The early warning came by a variety of means, including telephone intercepts, capture and interrogation of prisoners, and direct observation. Reserve Leutnant Michalk observed from an OP 'situated about three kilometres behind the front line, one kilometer southeast of Zonnebeke and right next to the track leading south from Broodseinde. The observation post was ideal. To our front was Ypres laid out like a landscape model and it provided views over all operational activity almost from Langemark to Wijtschaete. There were a reasonable selection of telephones there... but inevitably the links were cut whenever the need for them was greatest. In addition radio equipment was available (transmitter only). This worked superbly... I was allocated two cavalrymen as assistant observers.

The weather improved on 7 August and the British increased their activities immediately. Enemy artillery fire took on the characteristic of planned preparatory bombardment. The ground began to dry out and become easier to traverse. The fragmentation effect of exploding shells was greater. Columns of Tommies could be seen advancing along all the approach routes, even in broad daylight. Visibility was poor once more up until the afternoon of 9 August when the skies cleared and there was extremely heavy shelling towards evening.

During the night 9/10 August, extremely heavy enemy fire came down along the entire length of the Flanders front' [ibid]. In the early morning of 10 August, just after the British attack got underway, Michalk was hit by a splinter from 'a high explosive shell made of the finest steel (which we called a Razzer)' [ibid].

Jack notes that 'probing patrols were sent forward by the British army and some prisoners [who were captured from those patrols] fell into the hands of the defenders. Their interrogation confirmed that an attack was imminent.'

Robert

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Bloody hell. Staff College goes online! Good drills chaps...great thread.

Rgds

Tim D

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The BOH reported that 'the attack of II Corps met with fair success, reaching the objective line on the left, including Westhoek village, but failing to hold it on the right. Although it was seen that many of the strongpoints, particularly those at the south-west and north-west corners of Inverness Copse were still intact, the thinly held German forward zone, eight hundred yards in depth, was overrun by the assault groups which, at 4.35 am, followed the barrage. The ground was difficult to cross. Water-filled shell-craters abounded and in Glencourse Wood the broken tree trunks lay on black, slimy mud; but the Germans offered little resistance, and many came forward to surrender.' In fact, Jack's book records 'numerous heroic acts as isolated groups of defenders sought to hold the attack, despite being surrounded.'

On the right flank of the attack, it was a different story. The 7/Queen's Battalion had already suffered heavy losses in the evening when hit by counter-preparatory fire. After the initial advance, the weakened, virtually leaderless companies were 'threatened with envelopment' and 'fell back through the northern sector of the [inverness] copse. followed closely by the Germans who re-occupied the western edge, including the machine-gun nest at the north-west corner. Renewed efforts to advance were in vain.' 55th Brigade fell back to its starting line. Almost certainly the weakened British companies came up against stronger numbers of German defenders who had survived the bombardment, probably through the aid of the undamaged pillboxes and other fortified positions.

On the extreme left flank, 'the attack by 74 Brigade of the British 25th Division began at 6.00 am, but the defensive fire was so well placed that the attack came to a standstill between the railway embankment and Villa Hanebeek and the machine guns of 1st Battalion Infantry Regiment 84 were able to engage an enormous array of targets as the British infantry flooded back to the rear. The British attack enjoyed rather more success to the south, where the right flank of the Reserve Infantry Regiment 90, held by exhausted and seriously weakened 5th and 6th Companies, was penetrated and the companies of 2nd Battalion Reserve Infantry Regiment 90 were rolled up' [from The German Army at Passchendaele'].

The British 74th and 54th Brigades successfully captured Westhoek and the associated high ground overlooking the Hannebeek valley, and entered Glencourse Wood. Supported by a protective barrage, as described by the Master of Belhaven, the British wrested control of this dominant terrain feature and achieved their limited objectives, except on the right - a successful 'Bite'. Could they 'Hold', as the German counter-attack plans quickly swung into action? The right flank clearly succumbed immediately, but what about the elsewhere? The answer will have to wait. Off to Rotterdam for work, so won't be back until Saturday.

To be resumed...

Robert

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This map illustrates the achievements of British 25th and 18th Divisions, II Corps, on 10 August:

post-1473-1196517021.jpg

I have emphasized Hannebeek in blue, which lies in a valley.

Robert

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The BOH records that 'soon after 6 am a German barrage, formed by field guns and heavy machine guns, was laid along the British starting line between Stirling Castle and Westhoek, which boxed in the assaulting battalions and cut them off from reinforcements and supplies; and shortly afterwards the immediate local counter-attacks by the German support battalions were launched.' Minenwerfer also contributed to the box barrage, as noted Reserve Leutnant Milchalk in Jack Sheldon's book:

'Then we began observing the front with the naked eye. Just before 6 am red flares of our infantry started flying up and a hellish din began as all the guns on both sides poured out death and destruction. Mortar bombs rose in the air like great glowing grapes; it all combined to produce a magical scene. We had to shout to make ourselves heard (in the OP), even when we were right next to one another.'

Jack Sheldon has provided several details of the German counter-attacks. Musketier Bär (Reserve Infantry Regiment 27) wrote: 'Forward we trudged through a hail of iron, pursued by bullets from the numerous British aircraft.' When his unit reached the now front line, they 'were in a murderous storm of shells and machine gun fire. Our losses were very heavy, but we pressed on despite it to the Hanebeek, which had been transformed into a swampy sea.' He noted that 'the British tried everything to force us back, because we formed the German front line at this point. This included a concentration of shrapnel fire, which exploded directly over the craters. This was a difficult period of time. It cost us much blood, but we did not yield.'

Bär's observations confirm that the British field guns were able to put down a shrapnel barrage on the far side of the reverse slope.

Musketier Müller, who was in a sister company in the same regiment, also describes moving forward until they were stopped by artillery fire. He noted the number of "duds".

Jack commented that 'the weight of the British fire was such that the German counter-attack ground to a halt in the boggy ground, without even having crossed the Hanebeek. It was decided, therefore, that no further attempt would be made until there had been a substantial period of artillery preparation. At 6.30 pm... the attack was relaunched.' Bär was involved. His company crossed the stream wading 'up to our chests in water. We were greeted by a hail of bullets from British machine guns and took casualties as a result. Although we were reduced to a small group, the British escaped to the rear'. Perhaps he was referring to a forward outpost. No significant British retirement occurred at this time.

Troch, a machine-gunner managed to get forward to the new German front line, where he found 'the surroundings were thoroughly dismal. But we had to be careful because the enemy position was not far off... every time some of our comrades attempted to approach our blockhouse, they came under extremely heavy machine gun fire.' Hereto, the British artillery had a major effect, with large explosions rocking the blockhouse that Troch was sheltering in.

Another German counter-attack went in at 9.40 pm but 'it was impossible to make any impression on the British troops. The Albrecht Stellung was lost.' [sheldon] The British held on and consolidated the gains. Jack noted that the official German Army Communiqué reported 'evasively and inaccurately', suggesting that the British had been thrown back.

On 10th August, II Corps was able to 'Bite and Hold'.

Robert

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With respect to the artillery support, it is important to note that the opening British barrage landed 'fifty metres to the rear' of the Germans in the front line. Subsequently, the artillery was able to attack the far side of the Hanebeek valley but it was 'machine-gun' fire that stopped attackers who crossed the valley. These observations may reflect the difficulty of bombarding the reverse slope, though the latter point would be consistent with artillery not being used too close to their own front line positions.

Robert

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Jacobs, GOC II Corps, was concerned about the failure of the attack on the right flank. He initially ordered a follow-up attack on the evening of the 10th but this was postponed and then cancelled 24 hours later.

The BOH deemed that II Corps' operation was a failure. Haig noted in his diary for the 10th:

'The II Corps attacked this morning on a 2 mile front near the Menin Road with the object of advancing their front over the ridge in some places, and to gain points of observation in others. All objectives were gained except 'Inverness Copse'. Here our attack was held up by a strong point which the division had arranged to deal with instead by withdrawing our front line and bombarding it with artilery. The attack was most satisfactory on the whole, and observation being good, our guns killed vast numbers of the Enemy when forming up for counter-attacks. Six of them were attempted but all failed! We captured 2 officers and 225 other ranks. Westhoek, and the adjoining ridge are now completely in our hands, and our troops are established in Glencourse Wood.'

Gough wrote: 'On account of the rain and the awful mud the II Corps did not attack again on the 6th, but on the 10th August, when, after heavy fighting, it cleared the numerous defended houses and strong points along the ridge on its immediate front, known as Westhoek.

The enemy command was determined to hold the high ground on this front, and for that purpose has reinforced its garrison considerably. The Germans realised that merely passive defence was not sufficient. They therefore threw their troops forward to constant counter-attacks immediately we had gained any new position.

The II Corps had now gained some very important ground, for it obtained excellent observation on the German positions and at the same time it deprived the enemy of the last direct observation over Ypres.'

The last point is not quite true I suspect.

Planning continued for the next major British offensive. Before looking at the Battle of Langemarck, which was fought on the 16th August, it is worth noting that the British successes on 10th August occurred despite not dominating the German guns around Gheluvelt. The key failure on the right related to the survival of key strong points in Inverness Copse - some of the strong points that could not be observed but were targeted according to the locations marked on the captured map.

Robert

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In the lead up to 16th August, Lt-General Jacob sought a postponement of the offensive that had been timed to go on the 14th August. One of Jacob's divisional commanders, Major-General Henneker, wrote a memo to the II Corps commander on 12th August. Henneker pointed out the grave danger posed to his division by the now extreme right flank of the projected attack. Henneker's concern was based on the problems experienced by his division on 31st July, when enfilade fire from Glencourse and Nonne Bosschen Woods caused 'the failure and heavy losses suffered... on 31st July'. The 8th Division's history records that Henneker 'urged, in vain, that the attack of the 56th Division on the higher ground be delivered shortly before the 8th Division's attack, and should be supported by a special concentration of artillery.'

The BOH records that 'the II Corps artillery was approximately the same strength as that which has supported the assault on the 10th: the creeping barrage, lifting 100 yards every 5 minutes was provided by 180 18-pdr guns on the corps front; standing barrages by 72 4.5" howitzers and 36 18-pdr guns, were laid on targets in and beyond the area to be occupied; and the 8 machine-gun companies of the two divisions were grouped to fire overhead on two barrage lines, one on the objective and another east of it, through the north-eastern corner of Polygon Wood to south-west of Zonnebeke village.'

On 13th August, the Master of Belhaven mentions an influx of replacements into his artillery brigade. 'I have had to entirely redistribute the men in the six subsections, as I have so many men that the battery was simply a mass of half-trained gunners.' The guns were used to for harassing fire operations, as well as SOS shoots. On 15th August, 'I have to fire 1,000 rounds today with my remaining five guns. We are carrying out what is known as "harassing fire" on the Boche approaches [to the front line] and dug-outs in rear.'

On the 16th August, 'another battle. I only got the barrage tables at 7 o'clock last night, and finished working them out by 11 o'clock. Just then we got the notification of zero, which was 4.45 am. It was simply luck if the thing could be completed, as, had we had gas, like every other night, I don't see how I could possibly have got the writing done in a gas-helmet. It was luck we finished early as at 2 o'clock we were heavily shelled with 5.9's right into the battery.'

Despite the German counter-battery fire, the battery went into action 'barraging since 5 o'clock this morning without stopping.' The battery was bombed by German aircraft [a reminder that aerial dominance was not achieved by the British] and came under fire with gas shells during the day.

Robert

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This map shows the objectives for II Corps' attack (dotted red line) on 16 August, 1917:

post-1473-1196573786.jpg

I have included an inset bottom right. It shows the profile of the ridge along the length of the purple line.

The highest contour of the ridge line is illustrated in green.

Note that 53 Brigade was attached to 56th Division for the purpose of this attack.

Robert

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On the extreme right flank, 53rd Brigade was attacking with two battalions (7/Bedfords and 4/London) that were provided from other brigades. The battalions of 53rd Brigade could not attack 'owing to severe losses in holding the front of the 18th Division from 10th-12th August'. Here we see the major impact of not controlling the German artillery - Chris, this fits with your observation on Australian casualties. Furthermore, once the attack got underway, 'a barrage of high explosive shell from German batteries to the south-east, from the direction of Zandvoorde, fell among the leading companies of the two assaulting battalions, causing delay and heavy casualties' [bOH].

At this point, it should be noted that 'although the weather and air situation was good, only one spotter aircraft was in the air' [Farndale].

53rd Brigade's contribution to the attack completely fell apart when 'the survivors were then brought to a halt by intense machine-gun fire from Inverness Copse, particularly from the intact pillbox at the north-western corner, known to contain three machine guns with a wide field of fire to front and flanks, and from Fitzclarence Farm across the open plateau' [bOH].

Here again the artillery failed. 'A special bombardment of the pillbox by heavy artillery, ordred for two hours from 5 pm to 7 pm on the previous evening, had not taken place owing to a misunderstanding, and the preparatory shelling by 4.5" howitzers had been ineffective' [bOH]. Not an auspicious start!

Robert

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Fitzclarence Farm can be see on the map above. It is just beside the horizontal line of "4" in "14". On the contour profile, it would have been on the flat plateau between Glencourse Wood and Inverness Copse.

On a more mundane matter, duty calls and I will be travelling again for the next week. I will continue a detailed analysis of II Corps' attack when I get back, including information from the other battalion war diaries, as well as 8th Division.

Robert

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The 2nd London Battalion went in next to 53rd Brigade's abortive attack. From their War Diary:

2/London Regiment (169 Brigade)

14th August

The relief was a very tedious and harassing one, heavy hostile shelling and the condition of the ground making progress very slow. Relief was completed by 4.30 am the Battalion having suffered several casualties.

15th August

Hostile shelling continued all day, with heavy barrages at intervals.

At 9 pm, Companies commenced to take up their assembly positions for the attack amidst hostile shelling. At 12 midnight Battalion Headquarters moved to Battalion Battle Headquarters in JARGON SWITCH.

16th August

Battalion was in Assembly position by 2 am, having suffered heavy casualties.

At Zero (4.45 am) the attack began, everything going well despite the confusion of the assembling and the terrible condition of the ground.

The attack proceeded very well, the barrage being excellent, the first and second objectives, the blue and red lines (see attached Map), being taken without much opposition.

In the POLYGONEVELD, the enemy's machine guns held up the advance, and at the same time hostile machine guns from both rear flanks began to play havoc with the advancing troops, and both flanks being unsupported, owing to the battalions on the flanks not getting forward, the battalion was forced to withdraw through heavy machine gun fire. The casualties were very heavy.

The remnants of the Battalion and the QWR, one company of whom formed the mopping up party were rallied in GLENCOURSE Wood and reorganized in JARGON TRENCH.

From this account, the supporting barrage was excellent but the advance was then undone by enfilade MG fire, no doubt in part because of the failure of 53rd Brigade. The 9th London Battalion was involved but their War Diary is brief:

9/London Regiment (169 Brigade)

16th August

In spite of big progress at the outset under cover of a terrific creeping barrage, the 169th Infantry Brigade was compelled to withdraw to the original front line. The casualties in the Bn were severe.

Some interesting insights from the Brigade's MG Company:

Brigade MG Company (169 Brigade)

16th August

4.45 am - Zero Hour - Work accomplished by sections was as follows:-

Section 1 - 2 guns with 1/2 London Rgt only able to advance as far as Strong Point J.14.d.3.2. 2 guns with 1/5 London Regt forced to retire to TUNNEL.

Section 2 - 3 guns in reserve in TUNNEL ready to proceed to POLYGONE WOOD if possible. 1 gun brought down

enemy aeroplane at 10 am in neighbourhood of Coy HQ.

Section 3 - Barrage fire from positions ranging from J.13.c.45.40 to J.13.c.45.80. Targets for first barrage J.13.d.5.1. to J.20.b.5.4. Targets for second barrage J.21.a.0.9. to J.20.b.85.45. Clearance of crest tested by Tangent sight and found sufficient for safety of troops there. During the firing an Officer of the Company reported bullets going well over and giving Infantry great confidence. Rounds fired... 11,500.

Section 4 - 1 gun at Strong Point put out of action by MG fire, but replaced later by 1 gun of No 1 Section.

Robert

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To the north of 169th Brigade was their sister brigade, the 167th:

8/Middlesex Regiment (167 Brigade)

15th August

CO reported great difficulty in getting men into position, owing to heavy fire resulting from German SOS being sent up.

16th August

4.45 am - Zero hours - Battalion attacked in three waves, objective being Green Line. B Coy went first, followed by C and A. D Coy remaining in reserve. One Coy of 3rd Ldns acted as moppers up. Diffculty was found in keeping touch with 2nd Ldns on R. Boggy ground forcing them to R and ourselves to L.

5.30 - B/C Coys reported they were held up at Nonne Bosschen and a Trench Mortar sent up to assist.

5.54 - Reserve Coy (D) was ordered up on the R with a MG in order to fill gap between us and 2nd Ldns. This order was not received.

6.53 - 7 prisoners brought in.

6.55 - A Coy report they cannot get on owing to MG fire, that troops on R falling back.

8.20 - Capt B... reports his position on forward slope, cannot move as being heavily shelled and suggests digging in.

9.05 - MG was sent out to cover R flank, never arrived at position.

9.30 Parties of men of various regiments began to come back, these were stopped and used to reinforce the 8th.

10.00 - Owing to flanks being exposed the 8th had to fall back on position about J 8 b 3.3, with posts in front. Touch was obtained with 1st and 3rd Ldn Regts on our L.

12 midday - About a dozen hostile aeroplanes flew over our lines, some very low, firing on us with MGs.

1 pm - Our lines were heavily shelled, mainly with 5.9's, causing many casualties, Bn HQ being hit. This shelling was maintained with intensity till 3 pm.

4 pm - Capt W... saw enemy advancing and asked for barrage along HANNEBEKE, which was effective.

6 pm - Owing to troops on both flanks withdrawing, our line was withdrawn to about 400 yds in front of original jumping off place.

A couple of observations. The state of the ground caused significant problems. The depth of the advance suggest that the British artillery barrage was adequate in the beginning. German artillery fire was significant in stopping the forward movement, while MG fire from the flanks caused the attack to fall back. British SOS fire was able to break up one German counter-attack.

The Brigade MG Company War Diary recorded their contribution:

Brigade MG Company (167 Brigade)

16th August

At Zero Hour, 4.45 am Attack on Green Line commenced. At first good progress was made on the right, but was finally held up at N end of NONNE BOSSCHEN by mud and MG fire. Guns with forward troops on right could not get into action owing to being unable to get forward on accoung of bad state of ground. Two guns with 1st Londons on left got well forward and covered the advance from J.8.b.1.6. ...these guns did excellent work and found many targets on the opposite side of the Valley at ranges from 600' to 1500'. One of these guns was destroyed by shell fire and the greater part of the team became casualties. The other gun remained in position until about 5 pm when the infantry retired. This gun remained in position covering their retirement and then withdrew. The guns in rear covered the advance by overhead fire. At all periods the greatest difficult was experienced in getting SAA to the guns owing to the heavy shell fire and bad ground. The carriers attached from Battalion did excellent work in this respect. The barrage guns maintained a steady fire until 9 am when they came under the orders of BGC 167th Bde and remained in reserve.

12.45 pm - orders issued for [4 guns] to instal themselves in suitable positions on forward slopes of WESTHOEK RIDGE to deal with counter attacks. Also 4 guns to fall back and establish themselves on forward slopes of BELLEWARDE RIDGE in reserve position to cover any attack developing from direction of GLENCOURSE WOOD.

8 pm - Shelling still very heavy.

Robert

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Turning now to the British 8th Division, which has a fine divisional history:

'"Zero" hour on the 16th was fixed for 4.45 am. The attacking battalions of the 25th Brigade were the 2/Royal Berkshire, with their right on the Westhoek-Zonnebeke road in touch with 56th Division and the 1/Royal Irish Rifles. The 2/Lincolnshire were holding the Black line prior to the assault and had suffered heavily from shell-fire during the previous night, on the occasion of a German counter-attack against the adjoining 167th Infantry Brigade.

The attack was again provided with powerful artillery support, six brigades of field artillery, organized in three groups of two brigades each under the general command of Brig-General Lloyd, being allotted to the 8th Division's front. Ninety 18-pounders were detailed to form the creeping barrage, and thirty-six 4.5 inch howitzers and eighteen 18-pounders to form the standing barrage. The machine gun companies were grouped to fire on two barrage lines.

Punctually at 4.45 am the artillery barrage fell. It came down with admirable intensity and precision and the attacking battalions, moving forward in splendid fashion close behind it, made good progress all along the line of the division. The ground West of Hanebeek was occupied without difficulty. The 2/West Yorkshires found two German machine guns in Hanebeek Wood still hot from firing, with their detachments laying about near them killed or wounded by our barrage.

Meanwhile, the German "pill-boxes" and strong points at Sans Souci, in Hanebeek Wood and near the railway embankment, were being scientifically reduced by the troops detailed for that purpose. The front waves of the attack had swept over these points, leaving them to the "moppers-up," who dealt with them with smoke bombs and mills grenades as only trained experts could do. Clouds of smoke, obscuring the landscape, soon began to pour from the interior of these isolated concrete forts, till the survivors of their garrisons were smoked out and compelled to surrender.

The protective barrage put down by the German artillery fell at about two minutes after "zero" on the crest and western slopes of Westhoek Ridge. It therefore missed our support battalions... So far, everything was going well.'

Robert

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'The first check came at about 5.05 am on the front of 2/Middlesex, whose left company, having outstripped the troops of the adjoining brigade of the 16th Division (to the north) found itself exposed to enfilade machine-gun fire from the railway embankment and from German strong points to the North of it. The approach of the 48th Infantry Brigade towards Potsdam Redoubt eased the situation temporarily and enabled the left of the Middlesex to resume its advance; but, having reached a line running due South from the railway at a point approximately opposite Potsdam, its progress was again held up by the same cause. There seems, indeed, litte doubt that few, if any, of the British troops North of the railway were able to pass East of Potsdam, with the result that the German garrisons there were left free to command the situation south of the railway with machine guns posted in the Redoubt and on the higher ground beyond it.

This first check, due to factors beyond the control of the division, found its parallel, in yet more serious circumstances, on the right flank of the division. The 56th Division and the 18th Brigade on its right were forced to acknowledge, after many gallant efforts to get forward, that the task of clearing the wooded sector north of the Menin road was beyond them. Local defences, most formidable in themselves, were reinforced not only by machine-gun fire from Inverness Copse, but also by a powerful concentration of artillery from the South-East, and provided a barrier which proved unbreakable. The tanks [all] stuck fast. Terribly handicapped as they were, parties of the 56th Division infantry reached the western and north-west outskirts of Polygon Wood, but they were far too small in force to withstand the German counter-attacks.

It soon became clear to the officers of the 2/Royal Berkshire on the spot that no protection for their flank could be looked for from the troops to the south of them. One company [was detailed] to guard [the] right flank and the other two companies continued the attack as soon as our barrage lifted. Though impeded by heavy enfilade fire from German machine guns in Nonne Bosschen and Polygon Woods, the Berkshire succeeded in capturing the greater part of Iron Cross Redoubt. On their left, the 1/Royal Irish Rifles and 2/West Yorkshire had naturally been less immediately affected by the failure of the right of the II Corps and, after passing through Hanebeek Wood, had swept forward up the ridge. Consolidation was at once begun, and covering parties were pushed forward down the farther wide of the ridge, some even getting as far as the next ridge overlooking Zonebeke.'

8th Division had now pushed forward into a salient 'a full 1,000 yards in front of the divisions on either side of it.' Now the German counter-attacks began to kick in. 'The enemy's first counter-attacks were dealt with successfully. A number of frontal counter-attacks, delivered in greater strength, were driven off as the earlier attacks had been; but more serious trouble came from the flanks, and came quickly.'

Jack Sheldon provides several German perspectives, including this account from Leutnant Bromm, 84th Infantry Regiment:

'The British [attacked] on the morning of 16 August. Because the troops holding the forward positions had suffered heavily, all available regimental reserves were ordered forward. Two approach routes were available. One of them, once it had cleared the first few houses in Zonebeke, ran along the railway embankment, but this area was under particularly heavy British shell fire, so it was advisable instead to take a route straight through Zonebeke, and then to remain in the cover of the railway embankment. We set off, therefore in single file through Zonebeke.

At the Rumpelkammer... we were directed to move forward, to link up with companies there so as to re-establish a continuous line, then to advance on the British attackers. During the hours that followed we were involved in a permanent fire fight. When, as a result of a counter-stroke mounted by the Reserve Infantry Regiment 90, the British were flooding to the rear in large numbers, we engaged them from our position off on the flank with rifle and machine gun fire, causing them considerable casualties.'

Robert

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What had happened to the British artillery support? Having paved the way for the advance, the British artillery should have been helping to protect against the rapidly growing pressure now being applied on three sides of 8th Division's salient.

The 8th Division's history records:

'at about 9.30 am the enemy launched along the whole front of the division a [further] series of powerful and determined counter-attacks in which he employed large numbers of fresh troops, brought up in buses from the direction of Passchendaele. The masses of low cloud which had rendered the night so dark and made the forming up of our troops for the assault so difficult, now impeded our aeroplanes in their work of indicating targets to our guns. Though the de-bussing of the German reinforcement could be clearly seen by our forward troops, the thickness of the weather made it impossible for ground artillery observers to discern or answer the "S.O.S." signals which the infantry sent up. Deprived of the protection of their atillery, exhausted and thinned in numbers by a difficult advance and by five hours of continuous fighting under heavy flanking fire, the men were unable to hold their ground against the assault of the enemy's counter-attack divisions. Our front was driven in and there was a general retirement.'

A further example of the problems with calling-in the British artillery occurred at '2.45 pm [when] the 2/Royal Berkshire reported that the Germans could be seen to be reinforcing strongly on the right, in evident preparation for a counter-attack. A green Verey light (the "S.O.S." signal) was fired to summon the assistance of the artillery; but in the mist and rain it passed unnoticed and the enemy was enabled to assemble in large numbers without artillery molestation.'

This counter-attack pressed the last remaining forward troops back to the Westhoek Ridge, where 'the line of the 25th Brigade was once more steady when the climax of the German reaction came. During the afternoon further German reinforcements had been brought up and were collected and formed up, apparently, in the valley beyond Anzac Ridge. These were now seen advancing in a series of lines over the crest of the ridge and down its western slopes, bidding fair by their very numbers to drive back further still the exhausted and depleted battalions opposed to them and perhaps to take Westhoek Ridge itself.'

Leutnant Bromm recalled 'by 4.00 pm the weather was clearing and our positions began to be engaged by an increasing amount of enemy artillery fire. There were several men killed... At this point our reserves, who had been left out of the battle in the morning, came forward. As far as the eye could see, away to the left and right and emerging over the railway embankment, as one line of infantrymen after another. The enemy had also spotted these approaching reinforcements and went to work at them with artillery and aircraft.'

The 8th Division's history records: 'At this moment the massed batteries of the Divisional Machine-gun companies, situated on the western slopes of the Westhoek Ridge, saw and seized their opportunity. As the dense waves of German infantry surged down the open slopes towards the Hanebeek, the machine guns opened a furious barrage over the heads of our own infantry. The Artillery F.O.O.'s also saw their chance, and a few minutes later the artillery joined in. It was a perfect bit of work. The counter-attack hesitated, halted, and then melted away.'

Robert

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With respect to the failure of II Corps on 16th August, two things stand out:

1. The initial pre-planned barrages were strong and effective, except on the far right flank. The British artillery was unable to protect the successful advances, however, due to the weather impairing observation until the late afternoon. The 'Bite' was not too far, but the 'Hold' proved impossible in the absence of British artillery support.

2. The flanks caused severe problems. Inverness Copse and the high ridge were not taken on the right flank. This paved the way for counter-attacks against the remaining right flank of II Corps. On the left flank, the railway embankment proved a major problem, offering protection to MGs and riflemen taking II Corps' left flank in enfilade.

Robert

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Gough's review of the day's fighting is interesting, given that only XIV Corps capture of Langemarck (which, interestingly, gave the battle its name) 'was completely successful':

'The attack on the 16th was successful along most of the front, but the II Corps, which had to meet not only greater difficulties of ground, but a more concentrated artillery fire than that which the XIV and XVIII Corps on the left were encountering, was not able to gain all it had intended, strong counter-attacks driving back parts of the line and holding up others. During this day the Germans made no less than six determined counter-attacks upon the II Corps. They were opposing our advance with resolution and vigour along the main ridge.

The attack was not made on nearly so grand a scale as that of the 31st July, and it aimed at much more limited objectives, but considering the appalling state of the ground, the captures from the enemy reflected immense credit on the great spirit of the troops involved.'

Next day, Haig met with Jacobs, GOC II Corps:

'The 8th Division he said did splendidly, and so did the 56th. With a little luck the success would have been greater: as it was, a certain amount of important ground was taken. The Enemy was able however to mass a concentric artillery fire on his front of attack which was small. He now intends to advance by smaller attacks e.g. 2 battalions to take Inverness Copse. Then get Nonne Bosschen Wood and so on until the right flank is strongly established so as to admit of a fresh advance along the ridge in conjunction with a general attack on a wide front.

The cause of the failure to advance on the right centre of the attack of the Fifth Army is due, I think, to Commanders being in too great a hurry! Three more days should have been allowed in which if fine the artillery would have dominated the Enemy's artillery, and destroyed the concrete defences! After Gough has got at the facts more fully, I have arranged to talk the matter over with him.'

Next day (18th August), Haig made another interesting entry in his diary:

'Trenchard reported on the work of the Flying Corps. He considers that he has enough machines to keep the battle going until October. But how different would our position be now if the programme which I put forward (for new aircraft production) last October had been complied with! We were then at the height of our success in the air: the Enemy was at his lowest. It was to be expected that the Enemy would put forward a large effort and build many new planes. This he has done, and hence our difficulties in the air.'

The lack of air dominance has been alluded to in several previous quotes.

Robert

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As an aside, it is interesting to note the parallels with the opening day of the Battle of the Somme. In the past, attention has frequently been drawn to the failure of the British counter-battery fire north of the successful British attack on Montauban. II Corps' experience in the Battle of Langemarck, where it was subject to the concentration of German counter-preparatory fire, puts the counter-battery argument of 1st August 1916 into its proper perspective, IMHO. One year later, we note the ability of most of British II Corps to get forward under the cover of an effective barrage, both standing and creeping, despite the almost unrestrained German counter-preparatory fire. The BOH notes that the German barrage significantly reduced the British resupply efforts, notably with food and SAA, but it did not stop the attack going in. While the British barrage was very effective so long as the flanks were able to get forward, there were problems with German strong points that were not neutralized, either before or during the attack. Fitzclarence Farm was but one of many examples. Attempts at destroying pillboxes and other strong points with pinpoint hits from howitzer shells were not effective, only partly due to the soft ground reducing the effects of HE.

There is a second interesting analogy with the Battle of the Somme, namely in the attempts to capture problematic woods. Delville and High Woods spring immediately to mind, not least because they illustrate the same tactical problems as Inverness Copse and, to a lesser extent, Glencourse Wood. All woods presented problems, but these examples are particularly problematic because they lay at the apex of the British advances, and they were located on or near the top of a ridge line. Their locations meant that in each case the Germans could bring concentric fire to bear on the woods if the British captured them, and the Germans could mount counter-attacks from relatively protected forming up areas on reverse slopes. It was just such a tactical problem that Jacobs now addressed himself too.

Robert

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Before turning to the details of II Corps' next attack, it is important to reflect on the outcomes of the post-Battle of Langemarck analysis carried out by Gough:

'The state of the ground was by this time frightful. The labour of bringing up supplies and ammunition, of moving or firing the guns, which had often sunk up to their axles, was a fearful strain on the officers and men, even during the daily task of maintening the battlefront. When it came to the advance of the infantry for an attack, across the water-logged shell-holes, movement was so slow and so fatiguing that only the shortest advances could be contemplated. In consequence I informed the Commander-in-Chief that tactical success was not possible, or would be too costly, under such conditions, and advised that the attack should now be abandoned.

I had many talks with Haig during these days and repeated this opinion frequently, but he told me that the attack must be continued. His reasons were valid. He was looking at the broad picture of the whole theatre of war. He saw the possibilities of a German victory, a defeat of the whole Allied cause. There was only one Army in the field in a position to prevent this disaster, and that was the British Army in France. On it fell this heavy burden.'

Haig does not record any such conversations, which does not mean they did not take place. His diary entry of 19th August does support his desire to continue engaging the Germans. On this date there was a high level meeting to discuss how to maintain the numbers of British troops necessary to keep the offensive going.

There is also an interesting diary entry on the 20th August with respect to the weather:

'Trenchard reported on work of Flying Corps. The recent strong west wind has prevented our damaged machines from being able to get back to our lines, and so our losses have been heavier in consequence.

Birch reported that our artillery fire had done well during last 2 days. A marked decrease in hostile artillery fire was noticed in consequence.'

The BOH also noted that 'both the 17th and 18th August were fine, with a drying breeze.'

On the 20th August, there was the successful, and oft-mentioned, attack by tanks on the strong points near St Julien, at Ivor Maxse's instigation. Less well known was the attack on the 22nd August by the 43rd Brigade of 14th Division, which had taken over from 56th Division on II Corps' crucial frontage - the high ground of the ridge line. McCarthy summarises the attack as follows (although he lists the date as the 18th August):

'43 Brigade attacked with the 6th Somerset Light Infantry and the 6th Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry. The Somersets advanced through Inverness Copse following the barrage. The Cornwalls, crossing the plateau, were soon held up by machine-gun fire from Fitzclarence Farm and an L-shaped farm 200 yards north of it. They were counter-attacked and forced to fall back to half way through the copse, but, with the help of two tanks coming along the Menin Road, they held on and were supported during the day. They sustained another three German counter-attacks through the afternoon.'

Sadly, I do not have detailed War Diaries or other anecdotal accounts from these battalions. If anyone is able to supply more details for these attacks, I would be most grateful. The BOH does add some further details:

'The 6/Somerset L.I. followed the barrage through the copse in a masterly manner, taking 130 prisoners; but the 6/Cornwall L.I., on the open plateau to the north, was soon held up by heavy machine-gun fire from the strongpoint in Fitzclarence Farm... The Somerset, with thinned ranks and their left flank exposed, were counter-attacked almost at once from three sides, and had to fall back to a line half-way through the copse, where two tanks coming along the Menin Road gave support. The two tanks were ditched near the Menin road about this time, and the other two, farther north, finding themselves unsupported by the Cornwall L.I., returned to base. This line [in the copse], gradually strengthened by the remainder of the brigade, was held against three counter-attacks in the afternoon; at 7 pm, indeed, a message from the Somerset claimed that with two fresh battalions the eastern edge of the copse could be reached and held. This message, however, crossed a 9 pm order from II Corps headquarters, that the line reached was to be consolidated, whilst the left flank, the Cornwall L.I., with the help of four tanks, was to capture both Fitzclarence Farm and the L-shaped farm the next morning at 4 am. Heavy rain fell during the night, and three of the tanks were ditched on the way up; so the infantry attack did not take place; but the fourth tank, which arrived late, gave valuable help in repelling a renewed German attack at 6.50 am along the northern side of the copse.'

Robert

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