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Western Front tactics in 1917


Mat McLachlan
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Here is a map of the attack on 18th August. Ignore the trench markings as they date from a later period. The approximate British front line is marked with the dotted red line. The 60 metre contour is marked with the dashed brown line. Fitzclarence Farm and the L-shaped farm are labelled. The exposed nature of the British salient into Inverness Copse is clearly evident.

post-1473-1197200207.jpg

Robert

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From the BOH:

'Early on the 24th the fight for Inverness Copse flared up afresh. About 4 am an intense German barrage fell on the copse and north of it as far as Glencourse Wood; but it did little damage. Half an hour later German infantry attacked.'

A footnote mentions: 'The 67th Regiment (34th Division) stood approximately opposite the 43rd Brigade; the 32nd Division, an Eingreifdivision, with its leading (177th) regiment east of Becelaere. By the night of the 23rd all 3 battalions of the 67th Regiment had moved up to reinforce the forward zone. To lead the deliberate counter-attack planned for the daybreak on the 24th, a battalion of the 177th Regiment was sent up, in addition to a company of the 4th Assault Battalion, a specially trained formation of Sturmtrupps under the direct orders of the Army Commander. "Regt. No. 67" states that the barrage formed by the combined artillery of the three divisions fell short, causing heavy casualties, and broke up the assault. It adds that eleven counter-attacks were delivered to re-occupy the copse during these three days, but does not give the casualties.'

The BOH continues: ' South of Glencourse Wood parties of bombers and others, with portable flame-throwers, broke into the Cornwall's defence, and the battalion fell back to the starting-line of the 22nd. In Inverness Copse the assault had less cohesion and although groups of the defenders fell back in places to the western edge, the lost ground was quickly retaken. The line half-way through the copse could probably have been held all day; but the exact situation of the front line, owing to the withdrawal of the Cornwall on the left, was not clear to the supporting artillery, and a steady shelling of the western part of the copse was maintained throughout the morning. Several urgent messages were sent back to lengthen the range; but all telephone communication had been cut and it was nearly 2 pm before the artillery fire died down. By that hour the holding infantry, exhausted after three days and nights of great strain, had withdrawn from the copse, and on the cessation of the shelling the German re-occupied the western edge, except for the north-west corner. On hearing the news of the withdrawal, Major-General Couper, GOC 14th Division, placed two battalions of his reserve brigade at the disposal of Br-General Wood, GOC 43rd Brigade, who intended to use them for a counter-attack to regain the copse, believing the Germans would be disorganized; but an alarmist report, that the Stirling Castle ridge had been lost, delayed the issue of the order until it was too late in the day for action.

The loss of Inverness Copse [apart from the north-west corner] ended the third fruitless and costly effort to gain ground on Gheluvelt plateau since the Pilckem Ridge battle on the 31st July. The Germans still held the waist of the plateau between the sources of the Bassevillebeek and the Hanebeek, and the greater part of it was still available for their artillery observers, and for batteries which could sweep the lower ground on either flank with observed artillery fire. On 19th August the Fifth Army Intelligence Summary gave the following estimate of the German artillery array on the Army front: in the Zandvoorde-Gheluvelt-Zonnebeke area, 88 batteries (238 guns); Zonnebeke and Poelcappelle, 50 batteries (132 guns); between Poelcappelle and Houthulst Forest (inclusive), 62 batteries (188 guns).

The news of failure, which had reached G.H.Q. in the course of the afternoon, was a great disappointment to Sir Douglas Haig, and he came to the conclusion that the principal role must be transferred from the Fifth to the Second Army.'

Robert

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Gough's loss of overall command was not the only change. Earl Stanhope, GSO 2 II Corps, wrote in his diary:

'The weather now began to improve and the ground to dry up, and we had hopes that, now that the authorities realised the necessity of making an attack on a much wider front that we might succeed in making a really substantial advance. It was rumoured that the Australians would take over our sector and as they always fought under their own Corps Staff, it meant that II Corps would hand over the sector to the Australian Corps. We were finally relieved on the 2nd September.'

Robert

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Gough's view of this change is interesting:

'It was now evident that if we were to clear the ridge and get possession of all the high ground, it was essential to extend considerably the front of II Corps. It was too narrow to hope for a successful advance, taking into consideration the concentration of German guns against it.

It was essential that the Second Army on the right should push forward and so draw off a considerable proportion of the enemy's artillery fire. I put these conclusions to G.H.Q., and in consequence General Kiggell, the Chief of the Staff, came over to Cassell, and there a small conference was held with myself and Plumer and our senior Staff Officers to discuss the proposition.

Plumer at first did not like the suggestion and demurred, saying that he had been in the salient for two years and "he had no intention of pushing himself into another". Kiggell, although a profound military student, did not possess the personality which was necessary to overcome the scruples and objections of Army Commanders, and had the matter referred to Sir Douglas Haig, who had been called away.

The latter saw the cogency of the arguments I had put forward, and it was decided that the Second Army should now play a more active role. Orders were issued extending the front of battle as far as Zandvoorde, involving an increase of front of about 3000 yards, and including Gheluvelt and Zandvoorde as objects of the attack.'

Robert

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Haig's diary does not address the details. Charteris provides an interesting snippet in his diary for August 22:

'For the time being, operations here are at an end. For one thing, the weather has broken. ...for a third [thing], we are going to shift the weight of our attack and use the Second Army as well as the Fifth Army.'

Plumer left no written record. Tim Harington, Plumer's Chief of Staff Second Army, casts little extra light on Gough's claim:

'As the delays [in mounting a major attack in late August due to the weather] had enabled the enemy to concentrate his forces and bring up reserves, Sir D. Haig decided to wait and prepare another formal offensive, and he extended his front of attack on the right to include another 3,000 yards. The main share in the attack was now allotted to the Second Army, which took over the right corps sector of the Fifth, where the Australian Corps had replaced the II.' (Plumer of Messines).

Robert

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Charteris listed three reasons why operations were reduced in scale 'for the time being' in mid- to late-August 1917. Two are listed above. The other (second) reason dates back to an earlier entry in Charteris' diary, as early as August 3:

'Three things are now perfectly clear:

1. The Germans deliberately evacuated their front lines, except for sentry groups, and were only prepared to offer resistance at the Stutz-Punkt (sic) line.

2. The divisions in the front were organised in groups of two regiments in the defence line and one regiment for immediate counter-attack. In each group of divisions one or more divisions were held back and specially trained for counter-attacks. This is precisely what we anticipated (see I.A./31733a).

3. The front line is relieved by the counter-attack divisions.'

On 16th August, Charteris wrote:

'We attacked at dawn. I was up with the Corps HQ. We did fairly well on the left, but failed elsewhere. Got back late in the evening... then back to the office at 11 pm to write a report on the German methods in this battle, which have changed greatly...'

Charteris finished his report on 18th August: 'for D.H. on German tactics in recent fighting. The principal changes are: no attempt made to hold a line of trenches; defence organized in strong points and immediate counter-attacks, first by regiments in immediate support, and second, within twelve hours by a reserve division. Artillery rely for protection on a number of alternative sites.'

Thus when Charteris wrote about operations being at an end 'for the time being', he noted the second reason was 'a new system of attack to meet the altered German system of defence has to be perfected'.

Robert

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It is often said that the British did not learn as quickly as the Germans. Indeed, Third Ypres is widely regarded as the archetypal example of the lack of flexibility and lack of imagination of the British High Command. As noted above, however, Charteris and his team rapidly picked up on the latest iteration of the German defensive tactics.

Even before Charteris had published his second review on the 18th August, General Plumer (in contrast to Gough's inference) had published 'Remarks on G.H.Q. Memorandum dated 7th August, 1917, on the best method of meeting the latest system of defence adopted by the enemy' on 12th August:

'Your [G.H.Q.'s] O.B./2089 dated 7th August, 1917.

The tactical notes forwarded with the above letter raise the question as to the best method of meeting the latest system of defence adopted by the enemy so as to carry out our offensive, and maintain positions gained, with the greatest loss to them and the least to ourselves, especially in the early stages of the operation.

The tactics of the enemy when meeting an offensive are to no longer to rely on lines of trenches or clearly defined localities, but

a. to have as their first system of defence a few troops with machine guns scattered about in shell holes, and other well-concealed places.

b. to have at hand small bodies of picked troops ready to deliver local counter-attacks whenever opportunities offer, and

c. to have in close reserve formations amounting to a division in different sectors of their defence for counter-attacks of an organized character.

To successfully overcome these we must have:

a. A thoroughly effective method of "mopping up" by the advanced troops.

b. Small supports and reserves sufficient and near enough to deal with local attacks.

c. Reserves capable of not only beating off an organized counter-attack but of crushing it.

And for all these phases the dispositions should be such as to ensure the effective use of rifle, machine gun and artillery fire.

Each section of the defence must naturally be dealt with according to the character of the ground, but speaking generally the first advance can certainly be a longer one than has been customary hitherto, supported as it will be by the full density of artillery and machine-gun barrages and with no organized line of resistance to overcome; but on the other hand the halt after the first advance must be longer than formerly to admit of the whole area which has been traversed being thoroughly cleared, and of the advance certainly of machine guns and possibly of field artillery.

The second advance, i.e., after the first halt, must be shorter than the first and should be carried out by different troops to those engaged on the first. If any field guns have moved forward (as they certainly should if possible), the artillery barrage will be somewhat thinner and the machine-gun barrages probably less also. No "front line" opposition is likely to be met with, but there will probably be "strongpoints" and defended localities, and local counter-attacks may be expected, and small supports or reserves must be in readiness and machine guns carefully disposed to deal with these and time allowed for this.

The halt after the second advance must also be a prolonged one, and might advantageously be on an irregular rather than on a regular line, the field artillery barrage being advanced well beyond it and sweeping backwards and forwards to some considerable depth. It will gradually become thinner as more guns more forward.

During the first two advances the heavy artillery would be engaged almost entirely and continuously on counter-battery work as being of primary importance to the progress of the infantry.

The third advance should be even shorter than the second and should be aimed at reaching positions (not necessarily a connected line) where an organized counter-attack can be met by fresh infantry, machine-gun and field and heavy artillery fire, and will be final objective of the day's operations.

The dispositions to carry out an offensive on these lines successfully must involve considerable depth, and taking the division as the unit, would mean an attack on a brigade front only, each of the three brigades having the task of one advance assigned to it.

In support of each division there should be another division ready to crush organized counter-attacks and to take the place of the leading division before physical exhaustion of their infantry sets in.

The length of each advance and the duration of each halt (apart from the characteristics of the ground to be traversed) must be calculated on:

i. the distance beyond our starting point to which field and heavy artillery and machine-gun support can be given and the time required to bring forward guns so as to make it really effective in dealing with counter-attacks.

ii. the time required by the infantry to deal with the opposition between each halt.

iii. the time required to have sufficient reserves ready to deal with counter-attacks.

iv. the physical powers of the infantry to carry out the tasks assigned to them.

The physical capability of the infantry depends undoubtedly not so much on the distance traversed as on the intensity of the hostile fire to which they are subjected and the length of time the nervous strain lasts, and in operations on a larger scale this strain is sure to be greater on some sections than on others. It follows, I think, that unless it be accepted that the general advance must be governed by the progress made where the opposition is heaviest, an irregular wave rather than a regular line must be expected at the close of the day's operations and there seems very little, if any, disadvantage in this.

If an attack is to be carried out in depth as indicated it is obvious that either the extent of the whole front must be considerably curtailed or the number of troops employed greatly increased if an advance in a continuous line, as has hitherto been done, is to be attempted.

I think that under the conditions of the enemy's defences which obtain now, this [advance in a continuous line] is no longer necessary, and that considerable gaps might be left between divisions or corps. The enemy has deliberately substituted flexibility for rigidity in his defence, and I think the response should be a corresponding flexibility in our attack. Gaps left deliberately would naturally be localities which offered the least advantage to the enemy, and which could be adequately protected by artillery and machine-gun fire. The enemy would be confronted with the alternatives of attempting to interpose between our formations under unfavourable conditions, or of counter-attacking positions where we could be in considerable strength to meet them.

The foregoing remarks represent my personal views, but corps and divisional commanders have been consulted, and in view of their own experiences they are, I think, in general agreement with them.

HERBERT PLUMER

General

Commanding Second Army'

Robert

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Plumer's remarks appear, on first glance, to suggest that he originated the notion of 'Bite and Hold'. The operational concept is often attributed to him. Attacking in multiple waves, with pauses for consolidation and with support from artillery and machine gun barrages at the limits of the advance, feature prominently in his remarks. But these tactics were not unique, as has been illustrated above.

Plumer's insight was much more profound. It does Plumer an injustice to attribute 'Bite and Hold' tactics to him (leaving aside the injustice it does to others who helped develop and execute this style of attack). Plumer's great contribution, with respect to Third Ypres, was two-fold. Firstly, he articulated the need for flexibility in the attack and the avoidance of the continuous line of advance. Secondly, he put in the time and effort to make sure this happened.

Robert

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I have already quoted material on Gough's command style. By the time of Third Ypres, he was regarded as consultative. Simpson offers the following insights into Plumer's style:

'The minutes of the 27th August conference indicate Plumer was proceeding very much in his usual style - thorough and consultative. The only difference of note from the earlier attacks [under Gough's command] were that more emphasis was placed on training and on resting the artillery than before [which is evident in many of the anecdotal accounts]. But essentially, corps again developed their plans in line with a rough framework provided by Army. In addition, less formal discussions were taking place, leading Harrington to write a note to Davidson to accompany the Second Army proposal [for the next major attack], asking for II Corps to be pulled out of the line and replaced by I ANZAC and X Corps.

More consultation took place over the timing of practice barrages, including that of the machine-gun barrage, the duration of which was left entirely to corps commanders. A striking example of learning from earlier mistakes arose regarding the timing of zero, with both corps and Army carrying out visibility tests in order to determine when it should be set. Also raised at the Army conference of 15th September was the availability of both wireless- and gun-carrying tanks, with I ANZAC and X Corps being authorised to call upon their services.' [from: Directing Operations]

Robert

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I am going to continue examining the timeline of Third Ypres. It will be informative to look at Plumer's plan, and the execution thereof. On 28th August, G.H.Q. had directed Second Army to take over the Fifth Army front as far north as the Ypres-Roulers railway and gain possession of Gheluvelt plateau. Plumer and Harington responded immediately. On 1st September, they issued 'Second Army Operation Order No. 4':

"1. The task allotted to the Second Army is the capture of the southern portion of the Passchendaele Ridge from Broodseinde southwards to Hollebeke, including Polderhoek and Tower Hamlets Ridges at an early date in order to facilitate the further advance and at the same time protect the right flank of the Fifth Army."

This Operation Order also notes that the "principles on which the Artillery Plan are to based have already been issued to corps." I will quote this plan in full. Before doing so, here is a graphical representation of Plumer's plan, as outlined on 1st September:

post-1473-1197801379.jpg

The solid red line represents the British front line before the attack on 31st July. The round dotted red line is the front line at the end of August, with the small foothold retained in Inverness Copse. The square dotted red line is Plumer's proposed final objective for the attack planned for later in September (which became known as the Battle of Menin Road). Just for illustration purposes, lest anyone think that Plumer's advance was significantly shorter than Gough's, I have added a round dotted blue line, which represents the objectives for the attack on 16th August (the Battle of Langemarck).

Robert

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'Second Army Instruction of the 29th August, 1917

General Principles on which the Artillery Plan will be Drawn

Preliminary Bombardment

1. To break down obstacles which are impassable for infantry, but in doing so create as few new obstacles as possible. To bombard strongpoints.

2. To isolate from the rear the enemy's batteries and front systems so that he cannot bring up ammunition or replace guns and cannot bring up food or stores without suffering serious loss. To keep him short of food. To reduce his morale.

3. To teach the enemy to lie at the bottom of his shell holes or dug-outs whenever any barrages are going on. After one barrage has passed over him he must always expect others. In doing this, cause as many casualties as possible to reduce his morale. This will be affected by working a succession of dense creeping barrages of every available nature of gun and howitzer over the whole area to a depth of 2,000 yards beyond the last objective.

4. To carry out observed destructive shoots on hostile batteries from now on. As soon as batteries are isolated, vide 2 above, to begin intense counter-battery work.

Attack

5. The attack will be made behind 5 barrages which will cover a depth of about 1,000 yards.

6. Immediately prior to and during the attack all known hostile enemy battery positions will be neutralised.

Protective Measures after gaining the Objective

7. Barrages to a depth of about 800 yards will be prepared beforehand which can be put down when the enemy counter-attacks, and arrangements will be made for all or any portions of these barrages to creep forward so as to embrace the whole of the enemy's reserves.

Additions of the 14th September, 1917

[Points 1 through 4 deal with the allotment and distribution of artillery ammunition]

Counter-Battery Work

5. From now on the hostile batteries will be systematically destroyed by observed fire from the air or ground.

6. For 7 days prior to the attack day intense counter-battery work and isolating fire will be carried on. Every means of observation will be used to its utmost capacity and concentration shoots should be carried out when means of observation are not available.

7. The hostile batteries will be neutralized with gas shell (if weather conditions are suitable for their employment) for the four hours immediately preceding zero hour on the day of the attack. If weather conditions are not suitable for use of gas shell, H.E. or shrapnel will be substituted.

The hostile batteries will be neutralized with gas shell (if the weather permits) in a similar manner from 2 am to 6 am on C Day, ie for the four hours immediately preceding the second preparatory barrage on the whole Army front. HE or shrapnel will be substituted if weather conditions are unsuitable for gas shell.

8. Preparatory barrages and any necessary bombardment will be carried out during the five days preceding the attack.

9. Isolating fire will be carried out by day and night throughout the whole period. The approaches to the front systems and the hostile batteries will be closed by two tiers of fire.

The field artillery and machine guns will deal with the area up to a range of 6,000 yards from their battery positions, the 60-pdrs and 6-inch guns supplemented if necessary by some 6" howitzers will keep all approaches beyond the hostile batteries under fire. As a rule the ammunition allotted for isolating fire will be expended two-thirds by night and one-third by day, but when the weather is such that the air service cannot keep the approaches under observation the amount fired by day must be increased. Arrangments will be made by Second Army for crossing the fire of adjacent corps on such back approaches as can be enfiladed by this means.

10. On the first day of the bombardment communication trenches will be blocked by knocking in a length of about 10 yards; places which are under observation from OPs should be selected for this purpose when possible.

11. Wire which is known to exist will be cut early in the bombardment.

12. Known machine-gun emplacements and strongpoints will be bombarded by the heavy artillery using delay action fuses.

13. Telephone exchanges will be destroyed.

14. The morale of the enemy will be reduced by frequently passing a succession of barrages over his shell hole system and dug-outs instead of by the bombardment of trenches.

15. All known hostile OPs should be destroyed not later than two days before the day of attack.

16. Gas shell should used against the hostile battery positions and on shell holes, dug-outs and localities which are believed to be occupied when atmospheric conditions are favourable. They should also sometimes be used in the last portion of a barrage. Gas shell should always by preceded by HE, the proportion of gas shell being gradually increased.

The Attack

17. The infantry will advance under an 18-pdr barrage which will be preceded by at least 4 other barrages. If considered desirable the 18-pdr and 4.5" howitzer barrage and the machine gun barrage can be combined and readjusted to form 2 mixed barrages. If greater depth is required the several barrages may be as much as 300yds apart instead of 200 yds. From the moment the attack commences every battery position believed to be occupied will be neutralised. As many planes as are available and can be employed without jamming should be used for sending down zone calls throughout the day.

18. The rate of fire of 18-pdr guns for the first two minutes will be increased to four rounds per gun per minute: during the pauses in the advance it will be one round per gun per minute. The barrages will be thickened by smoke shell if necessary.

19. In cases where high ground with 2,000 yards of the objective has considerable command over the ground that the creeping barrages will traverse such as Zandvoorde Ridge, it may be necessary to keep this high ground under fire, withdrawing the necessary guns from the barrages.

20. The field artillery should be so allotted to barrages that about one third can be withdrawn at any moment without making a gap in the barrage, to deal with LL and GF calls and fleeting opportunities. The same system should be adopted in the heavy artillery with 60-pdr guns and 6-inch howitzers.

21. Protective barrages in depth will be prepared beforehand. In addition to a barrage along the whole front, more concentrated barrages should be arranged to put down on certain areas over which a counter-attack may be expected.

Fuses

22. The proportion in which fuse No. 106 will be supplied is 50 per cent of No. 106 and 50 per cent delay for all 6-inch howitzers, 8-inch howitzers and 9.2 inch howitzers. As few No. 106 as possible should be used for C.B. work and in bombardment in order that as many as possible may be available for barrages.

23. With the 18-pdr 50 per cent of the ammunition will be HE, the fuses for which will be 25 per cent with delay and 75 per cent without delay.

Liaison

24. Field artillery and infantry

A senior officer of the field artillery supporting it should live with the headquarters of each attacking infantry brigade. Field artillery liaison officers should also be attached to headquarters of each assaulting battalion.

Heavy artillery and division commanders

A heavy artillery officer not below the rank of major from the Bombardment Group which is covering the divisional front should live at divisional headquarters with a direct telephone line to the Bombardment Group and through this Group to the Counter-Battery Office.

Heavy artillery with RFC

A senior officer of the heavy artillery should live with the corps RFC squadron.

Resting Personnel

25. Very careful arrangements must be made to give the personnel of batteries sufficient rest thoughout the operation.

Protection of Ammunition

26. The protection of ammunition from weather is most important.

27. Acknowledge.

C. H. Harington

Major-General

M.G.G.S., Second Army'

Robert

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Harington's 'general principles' lay great store on counter-battery fire, but then so did Uniacke's. Harington also wanted to cut off supplies to the German batteries as well. It is hard to know if the proposed use of gas to 'neutralize' the German batteries, as opposed to the use of HE to destroy them, was a significant shift in policy from the build-up to 31st July. The weather was clearly an important factor in ensuring the successful use of gas, as it was in the observation of CB fire. As we have seen, August's weather was hardly conducive to the latter.

As with Plumer's proposal for the next offensive, there is a more subtle but significant potential effect on German counter-preparatory fire arising from the width of the attack. This factor was especially important with respect to the vital high ground. This next map illustrates what happened when Fifth Army attacked along the highest part of the ridge. The right wing was totally exposed to converging artillery fire, just as occurred with High Wood for example:

post-1473-1197830023.jpg

With Plumer's attack, the British were going to attack down the entire southern side of the ridge, as well as progress towards and into Polygon Wood to the north-east. This map illustrates how the Germans might have to spread their artillery fire to cope with this:

post-1473-1197830156.jpg

Of course, this analysis assumes that the Germans would choose to do this, rather than focus on one major point such as the very highest ground around Inverness Copse and Glencourse Wood. The new right flank, stretching from Hollebeke to Inverness Copse, was a major threat to the German artillery in the area of Zonnebeke, as well as the Gheluvelt plateau. It was a fair bet that the above assumption might come to pass.

Robert

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In Harrington's documents, he makes reference to shell holes, for example in points 3 and 16 above. At the same time, Haig commented in his diary:

'Tuesday 28th August

Trenchard reported the work of Flying Corps. Our photographs now show distinctly the 'shell holes' which the enemy has turned into a position. The paths made by the men walking in rear of those occupied, first caught our attention. After a most careful examination of the photo, it would seem that the system of defence was exactly on lines directed in General Sixt von Armin's [GOC, German IVth Army, Ypres Salient] pamphlet on "The Construction of Defensive Positions" viz. advanced posts, lines of defence, Support lines etc. Now that we know where the Enemy is holding out, it will be more easy to bombard him out of the 'shell hole' position, than from his concrete dugouts!'

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A retrograde step in time. The following diary extracts are taken from this source:

http://greatwarfiction.wordpress.com/2007/...daele/#more-496

Gunner Hamilton obviously served in a heavy battery that was engaged in counter-battery work in the lead up to 31st July. His account, which I have shortened, illustrates a number of things, most notably the difficulties in carrying out observed shoots:

"Friday 6 July. At Mont Rouge again. Exceedingly warm. We are near Voormezeele, I understand.

Saturday 7 July. A great amount of artillery fire from our side last night. Very warm day. Ross and I spent day working out displacements and concentrations for new gun positions. German aircraft are exceedingly busy and very daring in this quarter: our superiority is not at all marked as far as we can see. Our position is a very advanced one.

Sun 8 July. Artillery fire seemed continuous during the night. Clearing obstructions in way of seeing the A.P. Rainy and dull. Our dug-out is in Middlesex Trench (No 1 the Willows).

Mon 9 July. Germans sent over many shells in this part last night and throughout the night. Today for some time we were troubled with splinters from shells dropping in front of us. Much activity on part of our field artillery this evening. Heavy artillery did not take part.

Tues 10 July. Tree-felling: fairly big tree removed from A.P.line. Germans sending over many shells in our area: there is no apparent shortage of shells. Visited “Moated Grange” farm which is just a few hundred yards away from Middlesex Lane. There are various Observation Posts & Machine Gun emplacements to be seen. One is an iron cage just at the top of a wall of a building; another was up a chimney. The best O.P. however is an iron tree (hollow): the tree it displaced was close at hand, but was cut down. To give the iron tree a touch of reality the limbs of trees were laid on the ground close by as if they had been shattered from the iron one. The latter deceived one at a distance of 30 yds for the outer part was wrinkled like the bark of a tree, and some green material easily mistaken for ivy seemed to be growing upon it. A little ladder leads up to the peepholes and a seat was comfortably placed for the observer.

I heard a good ghost story today. There is a ruined house near our position. In it there was a machine gun emplacement.

Wed 11 July. In B.C. first making preparations to start operations once more.

Thurs 12 July. I took angles from the four guns to “Night Aiming Point” and “Fog Aiming Point”. Much aerial activity today. Special aircraft sentries have been posted: they were able to report two German machines brought down. There was considerable scrapping in the air last night and also tonight. The Germans have squadrons known as “red devils” names no doubt from the ruddy appearance of the machine. These machines are particularly good good: fast, quick to manoeuvre. Our air sentries tell me our machines are quite as good. Today we had the most unusual experience of a shell from our own artillery, behind us, dropping a shell just in front of our battery. It seemed to be of large calibre and made an immense hole.

Friday 13 July. Into action today. Registered No 3 &4 guns on Houthem Church. We are in a very advanced position 3500 yds from our front line, and there are batteries of heavy artillery even further forward.

Sat 14 July. Extremely warm in the afternoon. No shooting today. Guns 1 & 2 are expected in position tonight.

Sun 15 July. Thunder and rain during the night. Germans seem to pay a great attention to our roads and ammunition columns at night. The result is that we who are near roads or railways for the sake of getting shells easily are frequently in the vicinity of fire during the night.

Mon 16 July. Registered Nos 1 & 2 guns. Fine weather: aerial activity - saw one of our planes brought down: fine evening. Germans firing shrapnel at balloons behind us: 1st shot high: 2nd shot also high: 3rd low: 4th to right: and balloonist thought it time to shift.

Tues 17 July. Aeroplane shot. Photograph shows that the area at Voorstratt which we were on had already been heavily shelled. Suddenly tonight our field guns began to bark. We mounted the parapet. It could not be an S.O.S. call as it was one which did not require the assistance of our heavy artillery. Perhaps we were making a raid. I like the weird sound of field artillery, the sharp crack omitted. it is something in the nature of a moan, or an exaggerated coughing wind. The ridge in front was outlined in flame.

Wed 18 July. Rain early morning: dull forenoon and again at night. Concentration. Aeroplane target found impossible under prevailing conditions.

Thurs 19 July. Some aeroplane counter-battery shoot found impossible. Attempt to do it by visual observation failed.

Friday 2o July. Poor visibility. Aeroplane shoot impossible: a great deal of clerical work in connection with S.O.S. Targets: a great many gas shells of new description with smell like garlic or mustard scattered over the whole area during the night.

Sat 21 July. Enemy artillery very active. Shells fall in our position, no doubt not originally intended for us.

Sunday 22 July. A great deal of artillery activity on both sides during the night. Often we cannot get sleep because of this. Again, we are often so tired and sleepy that we sleep through heavy bombardment. A greta many shells fell in and around our position today. Aeroplabne shoot successfully carried out today.

Mon 23 July. Visibility poor and aeroplane shoot impossible. Enemy shelling roads in vicinity. Gas shells.

Tues 24 July. A quiet day from the enemy. Visibility not good enough for us to do good work.

Wed 25 July. Concentrations all day in rain on enemy batteries. Couter-battery shoot with aeroplane observation in evening. Shelling on and near our position at frequent intervals during the day. We lost two directors (instruments) by shell-fire.

Thurs 26 July. Six concentrations on batteries: a programme which we went twice over.

Fri 27th July. We spent a most awful day today. We were heavily shelled all afternoon, and it became so severe that we had to clear out of the B.C. post. Shells were falling all around.

Sat 28 July. Aeroplane shoot: counter-battery: my first target. Airmen informed us we had an O.K. on two of the gunpits on which we were firing. Today I had the honour of preparing the Barrage Target for our forthcoming offensive and to prepare the Barrage Map.

Sun 29th July. Barrage map completed. Wet day and uncomfortable.

Mon 30th July. Concentrations on hostile batteries but not a heavy day’s work. Heavy shelling of our position with “big stuff” began at 6 o’c and lasted for about two hours (in the evening). The men returned too soon from under cover because of preparations for the morrow and brought about the saddest night we have had in the Battery. Would to God this business was over. Rather than risk being alone in case of gas shell attack I did not go to Middlesex Lane. 3 killed, 2 died of wounds, 3 wounded."

The following map illustrates where Hamilton's battery was located (start of dotted red arrow) and where it was aiming (tip of arrow):

post-1473-1198323701.jpg

Robert

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Here is some more material from before 31st July. This time from the Australian Official History, as it relates the Australian artillery and focusing on II Corps' sector:

'The great bombardment at Ypres began on July 15th. On the Fifth Army's front the British guns stood thicker than ever before, one to every 6 yards as against one to every 7 at Messines.

Although the British artillery in the salient eventually dominated the German, which it outnumbered by two - if not three - to one, much of it had to fire from almost naked positions on the Ypres flats, and its sufferings were, in general, beyond any in its previous experience. It so happened that this was the area into which part of the Australian artillery was brought. Leaving the Somme on July 8th and 9th, the artilleries (now two brigades each) of the 1st, 2nd, and 5th Australian Divisions after a week's march reached the bleak village of Dickenbusch, three miles south-west of Ypres. In the muddy fields around this cluster of poor cottages they placed their wagon lines. But the batteries marched out almost immediately under the orders of several of the Fifth Army's southern divisions, to which their brigades had been allotted, and to which their heavy and medium trench mortar batteries had already gone. [1st and 2nd Australian Field Artillery Brigades were assigned to II Corps' sector].

From the moment when the batteries of the 1st Division moved to their gun-pits near Zillebeke, it became evident that they were confronted by experiences more severe than any they had met. One of the main differences between the conditions of "Third Ypres" and those previously experienced on the Somme was that, whereas at the Somme the German artillery fire lay perhaps more heavily on the forward area, at Ypres it thrashed the roads, bivouacs, and battery positions for miles back. It was no longer blinded by the complete suppression of its airmen. The British airmen were usually able to drive most of their opponents from the vital sectors during certain vital hours, but on numerous occasions during this battle the German air force, though its tactics were less daring, held the upper hand.

The III Bavarian Corps, facing the British II Corps, had its artillery so organised as to be able to concentrate a "crash" bombardment on any point opposite the key position - the southern end of the main semicircular ridge - for which if was responsible. ...the Bavarian official history states that this organisation was employed:

on several occasions during the preliminary duels to knock out or drive back the British batteries which had crossed the Yser Canal and venture forward to the neighbourhood of Zillebeke.

The impact of these bombardments on the 1st Australian Division's batteries was described by a British artillery officer at the time:

We were next to the Anzacs, splendid fellows. I remember looking back - we knew where they were, of course, south of Zillebeke Lake, and we were just north - and seeing the Bosche fairly pounding it in there; and all the time the Anzac guns kept firing away, and we wondered how they could do it - how on earth they weren't blown to blazes. Right in the thick of it you would see them firing every time. Then we moved up and we came alongside some of them again further up, and I was telling one of them what we saw and how splendid we thought it was; and he said "Do you know, we were looking across at your chaps north of the lake and thinking just the same thing about them!"

But this activity was only maintained at the cost of casualties such as Australian artillery had never before suffered, even in Noreuil valley.

In spite of this punishment the 1st Division's artillery carried out in full its elaborate programme of bombardment. With the exception of the 4th Battery, which early had four guns put out of action, each battery fired on most days 300 rounds about "Stirling Castle" and about "Inverness Copse" and "Glencourse Wood" in the [German] second line... On the 25th an aeroplane tried to register the batteries on their barrage lines, but heavy rain prevented this, and the group's wireless station was also damaged by shell-fire.

On the 28th, after several postponements, the counter-battery bombardment began. For three days and nights the howitzers, heavy and light, pounded the known German batteries.

Many who watched have described that opening barrage [at zero hour on 31st July], and the responding German flares - probably the most wonderful display of fireworks ever seen. The brigades of the 1st Division (supporting the 30th Division) advanced at the hour laid down, 6 am. Major Byrne now led the column, 4th, 5th, 6th, 3rd, 1st, 2nd, 102nd Batteries, in that order, across the battlefield. Pack-horses, seven pairs for each gun, followed the battery limbers, so that each piece would have 108 rounds on going into action. The whole battlefield was sprinkled with bodies of infantry moving up for later stages of the attack, prisoners trailing back, while above, under a low ceiling of dull cloud, aeroplanes wheeled so thickly that the pilots had constantly to avoid collision.

The front of the battle should then have been a mile and a half ahead, but machine-gun bullets were whistling about, coming from the south-east, and as the batteries diverged to take up their stations, the depression was bombarded in a manner which suggested that they had been seen. Under this fire the batteries took up their positions. At 8.37 the 4th reported itself ready to shoot. At 9 its telephone was connected, and six other batteries were connecting theirs. A German airman immediately bombed them without effect. During the day the two brigades had 16 officers and 137 men hit.

The troops for the second phase could make little headway, and thus since 9.20 the barrage, steadily moving ahead, had been a mere waste of ammunition. Important intermediate positions - "Clapham Junction" and "Stirling Castle" - on the heights a mile ahead of the guns were indeed held, but the batteries were much too far forward for useful employment. At 4 o'clock rain, which all day had been threatening, began to fall steadily, and at 5 came the orders from the 30th Division to withdraw the breech-blocks and sights, and bring back the men for a night's rest, leaving the guns ready to support any further advance ordered in the future.'

Robert

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Jumping ahead again, it is interesting to review the details of the Australian plans for capturing the high ground. From the AOH:

'The first consideration that presented itself to Generals Birdwood and White, in applying these principles [laid out by Plumer and Harington] in a plan for seizing the ridge, was that the advance along the ridge involved two separate tasks, first, that of thrusting back the enemy in front, and, second, that of holding the right flank which, unlike the left could not be covered by a general advance of the line there. White calculated that the flank protection of the ground gained by I Anzac at each blow would require the special attention of one division, and in the preliminary plan drawn up on August 28th he therefore recommended that the task should be separated, I Anzac concentrating its strength upon the advance, and the protection of the right flank being made the special taks of the next (X) corps.'

As to the depth of the Anzac advance, it is interesting to note that 'after seeking the advice of Lieutenant-General Jacob of the II Corps, whose troops had fought over the ground, Birdwood on September 4th recommended that the Second Army's first step should be the seizure of the heights as far as the near edge of Polygon Wood, together with the Veldhoek Spur on the south and Anzac Spur on the north. The subsequent capture of the two next important lengths of the main ridge as far as Broodseinde would require two more steps.'

Robert

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

Rgds

Tim D

Tim,

Yes it appears to have done so. But I am not sure what the point is now(1), I thought it was commentary on our perceptions of Les Carlyon's point of view in his book The Great War.

Robert,

Without trying to be facetious or rude, what is it you are trying to tell me as a reader with the exceptionally detailed posts (which I love reading and I do love your highly illustrative maps)? I just seem to have lost track of what your hypothesis / arguement / point-of-view is.

Chris

(1) Though I do know where to go now to read about Third Ypres online!

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Hi Chris. I don't interpret your comments as facetious or rude. It is great to have the feedback. Mat began the thread by noting the publication of Carlyon's book, and then posing a question about the contrast between Gough's approach in July/August 1917 versus Plumer's approach for the remainder of the campaign. Mat noted Carylon's point that neither approach seemed justified. I have not really focused on this issue specifically. Jack offered a German perspective on this quite early on, and the subsequent postings have begun to cast some light on why von Kuhl judged Third Ypres as he did.

Chris (aka Crunchy) raised some key questions about Gough's approach, especially around the attack on the high ground. It has often been said that Gough paid insufficient attention to this terrain feature of vital strategic significance. Hence the failure to gain more ground on the ridge, and the need to hand over to Plumer. Having explored in some detail the tactical and operational issues that needed to be considered in capturing the ridge, the thread is now focused on the degree to which these issues were addressed in practice. Once I have finished posting on the details of the Anzac attack on the ridge in the Battle of the Menin Road, I will provide a complete summary. I think the details of the attack are needed because they cast light on the contrast/comparison with II Corps efforts. Nearly there.

Robert

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Earlier on in this 'series', I raised the possibility that it would not have been possible to squeeze more infantry into the attack on the high ground. Bean makes the following observation in the AOH, which also throws additional light on the planning process:

'To make certain of achieving the main task, Birdwood and White recommended, not only that the first step should made in stages of 800, 400-500, and 200-300 yards respectively, but that the corps front should be narrowed to 2,000 yards (1,000 for each division at the jumping-off line, extending to 1,250 at the objective). To allow this, the Fifth Army was asked to extend its front for 800 yards south of the Ypres-Roulers railway. In conference on August 30th Haig pointed out that (to quote a report of the meeting)

the operations of the Second Army for the capture of Polygon Wood Ridge were of vital importance, and the principle must be accepted that every chance of success should be given to these operations by allowing other considerations to give way as necessary.

Gough agreed to extend his flank as desired. The result of these and other measures was that the I Anzac and X Corps were enabled to attack with five divisions a sector 1,000 yards less extensive than that attacked by the II Corps on July 31st with three.'

Robert

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Now the artillery support:

'The Fifth Army, which would attack on the lower ground to the north, arranged for a preparatory bombardment lasting twenty-four hours, but the Second Army proposed to prepare for the main operation with a seven days' bombardment in every way as thorough as that which had preluded the Fifth Army's stroke of July 31st, and supported by an even denser concentration of artillery. I Anzac was given 9 brigades of field artillery (216 guns) and 46 1/2 siege or heavy batteries (208 guns) - a concentration slightly denser than a gun to 5 yards - and the X Corps was given a gun to 5 1/2 yards. Through considerations of ammunition-supply, however, G.H.Q. shortened the preliminary bombardment (except as to counter-battery fire) to five days.'

In a footnote, Bean mentions 'Plumer had a gun to every 5.2 yards of offensive front, as against Gough's 1 to 6 yards on July 31, his heavy guns stood 1 to 11.8 yards as against 1 to 18 on July 31, but his field artillery amounted to 1 to 12.6 yards as against 1 to 11.7. His artillery staff proposed to deal with 550 German gun-positions in 7 days' counter-battery work. He was given, for his active front, 1,295 guns of which 575 were heavy... (he had asked for 547...)'

Robert

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Plumer banned any small attacks to 'straighten the line', etc. This meant that major infantry actions died right down in the early part of September, though as Jack Sheldon points out:

'There might not have been any major operations in the early days of September, but locally opposing units manoeuvred for positions and took advantage of the period of dry weather to improve their positions in the muddy shell holes which made up the forward battle area, to dominate No Man's Land as far as possible and to continue to snatch prisoners.'

The British artillery was not quiet. 'The preparation included every day two practices of the great attack-barrage, these practice barrages lasting not for a mere ten or twenty minutes each, as in previous battles, but for anything from half-an-hour up to an hour and forty minutes. They would begin sometimes from the enemy's forward area and sweep backwards, sometimes from his back area and sweep forwards. At other times the field-artillery barrages would sweep forwards and those of the heavy artillery backwards until they met, when the combined storm would advance again. The barrage always ended by a jump back to its starting line, or to some area in which the enemy's garrison might have emerged from its shelter.' The "training" of the German defenders had begun.

'Suppression of all known German batteries was ordered to begin as soon as the Second Army took charge, and during the bombardment the artillery would endeavour to destroy every known pillbox, machine-gun position, observation-post, and telephone exchange.' In a footnote, Bean comments 'these might be destroyed by the direct hit of an 8-inch or larger shell. Only a comparatively small proportion was ever actually destroyed.' [AOH]

Bean goes on to describe in some detail the huge efforts in creating new track ways, light railways, etc. The assault troops trained thoroughly, and the Australians were kept out of the line for as long as possible.

For the German defenders, rising sickness rates did present a problem in some units, as Jack illustrated with a Report on the Fighting Ability of Reserve Infantry Regiment 19 dated 4 September 1917 - 'There has been a reduction of the fighting ability of the troops as a result of the numerous gastro-intestinal illnesses, which have, without exception, affected every man stationed in the trenches.' Around the middle of September, rotation of many German units took place, and on 19th September 'command of Group Ypres passed from III Bavarian Army Corps to the Guard Corps.' [sheldon]

These command changes corresponded to the fact that 'on September 15th the main bombardment began, and the tension immediately increased. The Germans hit back with spiteful barrages on Westhoek and just in rear of the main crest and behind the spurs. Under cover of the second British practice barrage, on the afternoon of September 15th, a raiding party of the 7th London Regiment (47th Division) rushed the ruins of a farm [not Fitzclarence Farm or the L-shaped farm] between Glencourse Wood and Inverness Copse, capturing 36 prisoners and a machine-gun, and so cleared away a German post inconveniently close to the intended forming up ground for the attack.' [AOH]

From the German perspective, the opening of the main bombardment was immediately evident. Reserve Leutnant Metzing wrote:

'From 15 September onwards there was a great deal of fire from heavy calibre guns (up to 280 mm) on all the positions within the battle area. The [area of our machine gun posts] received on average 500-600 shells per day, but there were no direct hits. During the 19 September this was widened to include bombardment with gas and flame [?thermite; ??Livens projector attacks) and firing continued throughout the night.' [sheldon]

At the higher command level, 'the diary of the Crown Prince Rupprecht shows that he and his staff were puzzled by the lull in the first fortnight of September. "The Flanders fight seems actually to have ended," he noted on the 12th. "We can consider pulling out several divisions." His chief-of-staff, von Kuhl, records that, while it was hard to believe that the "stubborn British" had given up the attack, reports came in which pointed to their having decided to switch to another sector [?related to the actions of the Canadians at Lens]. Consequently, when the Second British Army's [main] bombardment began, on September 15, Prince Rupprecht notes that it was "probably only for demonstration." On the 18th he infers that the heavy bombardment on the main ridge probably means that the British intend to secure the Zonnebeke terrace before winter sets in. The historian of the 60th I.R., which held the line in front of Zonnebeke, declares that, in spite of warnings from its brigade, guns were on September 18 transferred from the Ypres sector to meet a British offensive expected elsewhere on the army front. According to a note in Prince Rupprecht's diary, he actually supposed the Australian divisions to be in course of transfer to Egypt.

The German front-line troops, on the other hand, and the responsible staffs, as high, apparently, as that of the Fourth Army, were by September 17 convinced that an attack at Ypres was imminent. September 20th seems to have been indicated by a spy and by prisoners as the probable date, but the British practice of laying down varying barrages at different hours and places, followed by no attack, had its intended effect - to befog the Germans as to the hour of the real attack. They also expected that it would be preceded by an intense bombardment lasting, possibly, for several hours.' [AOH]

An Australian MG officer was captured in the early hours of September 20, and his operation order was incorporated into a report "that about two Australian divisions are to attack on either side of the Ypres-Menin road and about one kilometre south of the Ypres-Roulers railway. The date of the attack not definitely ascertained, but apparently for today. The [German] 121st Division now at once informed its artillery of the captured order, and directed it to lay "annihilation" fire on its front. A general warning was sent out by wireless. Headquarters of the Ypres Group hurriedly telephoned to all its other line divisions, and ordered out the counter-attack divisions. The Wytschaete Group was informed and took similar action. The 121st Division afterwards reported that its artillery had methodically bombarded all enemy approaches, rear lines, battery nests, and strong-points, and had dealt with "lively movement" seen in and just behind the Australian line. The historian of its divisional artillery says that at 5.30 "annihilation fire" was laid on the assembly points for the impending attack.

This historian of the 60th I.R. is justified in saying that the discovery was too late for the taking of "effective artillery counter-measures". At the same time it enabled the counter-attack forces to be warned; so that if ever Ludendorff's system of defence by counter-attack was to have a fair trial, it should have had one this day.' [AOH]

Robert

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Hi Chris (Green Acorn),

Robert is getting us to think about this battle in much greater depth than many of us have done before, by providing us with detailed commentary from participants of the battle that is not present in the "secondary" histories. In these "secondary" histories we tend to get the historian's take on his/her perusal of the sources and, as we have discussed earlier, generally made with insufficient understanding of the difficulties and complexities of conducting military operations. Robert's posts give us a much better understanding of these complexities and difficulties against which to judge both the historians' analysis and our own opinions.

Initially the thread addressed Carlyon's analysis of the tactics of Menin Road, Polygon Wood and Broodeseinde and I believe we have shown that his analysis is flawed and based on a shallow understanding of the issue.

We also questioned whether a better approach would have been to make the "Centre of Gravity" of the attack along the main ridge and discovered that this was indeed the intent of Haig and GHQ and their subsequent advice to Gough after 31 July.

I then suggested that Gough did not pay enough attention to securing the main ridge after 31 July. We now find that I may have been too harsh on Gough. Robert, through the participants' accounts, has demonstrated to me that Gough made some effort to secure the high ground after 31 July.

So why was it that Gough failed and Plumer succeeded? Part of the answer lies in the weather. I had not realised the extent of the rainfall in August until reading the participants' accounts posted by Robert. I then did further research and found it was almost double the average rainfall for August. This reduced the effectiveness of artillery and made attacks by the infantry more difficult. It also appears that Haig advised Gough to "be patient and wait until the ground dried out" before mounting further attacks. Gough ignored this advice and continued to attack despite the sodden ground.

Robert's latest posts indicate there are other factors pointing to why Plumer was more successful, such as a greater density of infantry in the attacks and less ambitious objectives.

I have found the participants' accounts and other sources Robert has brough to our notice very instructive and thought provoking.

Cheers

Chris

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Robert, are you assuming in these discussions that the Passchendaele Ridge was a proper strategic aim for the offensive? Or is that a separate issue? My current reading indicates that it was correct only if perceived as a jumping off line for a further offensive.

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Phil, I haven't made any assumption about the 'properness' of the strategic aim. It could be argued, and has frequently been, that the primary strategic aim was to advance into Belgium and, at the very least, free the Belgian coast. This would have nullified the U-boats and other surface ships from operating out of the Belgian harbours. Seen from this perspective, then it was, as you say, vital that the high ground was captured in order to launch an attack deeper into Belgium. Simply capturing the high ground would not have been enough to force the Germans to evacuate the coast, as evidenced by the contingency plan that the Germans put in place lest they lost the heights.

Some, such as Prior and Wilson, argue that the aim of advancing into Belgium was a fantasy. According to their interpretation, Haig was so caught up in the cavalry notion of a breakout that he had lost all touch with reality. There were, however, higher level strategic aims driving the choice for Passchendaele Ridge. Of immediate importance was taking the pressure off the French Army after the Chemin des Dames offensive. Coupled to this was the need to maintain the initiative on the Western Front. I am unclear as to how much the previous strategic aim of taking pressure off Russia was still considered important.

Preventing the Germans from exploiting the situation with the French Army meant that the British had to fully engage the German Army. For this to succeed, the British had to attack somewhere that would draw the appropriate response from the Germans. To this end, Third Ypres succeeded, as we have read. Enormous quantities of men and resources were diverted to counter the British offensive, so much so that the Germans were unable to consider anything else as Jack pointed out.

As I have said before, my strong belief is that the British Army was never going to gain operational freedom until the German Army was ground down to the point where it could not react in the way that it did at Third Ypres. This principle was not unique to the Great War. Haig understood this. Third Ypres was part of a process to achieve this aim. It represented a titanic struggle in which both sides sought to dominate the other. It revealed that even if there was a numeric advantage in artillery, for example, it was not possible with the technologies of the day to totally dominate and suppress the enemy. But the ultimate outcome, the 'wearing down' of the German Army, this was THE strategic aim.

Robert

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