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Western Front tactics in 1917

Mat McLachlan

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During the lull between major attacks, the British and Australians monitored where the German counter-preparatory barrages were falling. These analyses enabled the attack formations to be form up outside the zones of heaviest fire, especially on the ridge itself.

As noted above, the Germans were forewarned of the Australian attack. 'The German barrage was already falling when the Anzac lines moved forward, and it merely intensified for twenty-five minutes, and then suddenly died down, possibly through the tremendous fire of the British counter-batteries. Part of the Australian force had already suffered heavily [3rd Machine Gun Company lost half of its strength]. Along the whole Anzac front this shelling, combined with the eagerness of the troops, had one marked result - to cause the rear lines to press forward in order to clear the barrage area. As their own barrage advanced but slowly, they quickly caught up the lines ahead. The barrage was the densest that had yet covered Australian troops. "Excellent - the best ever put up," "as near perfect as possible", "magnificent in accuracy and volume," were descriptions applied to it afterwards by Australian officers.

The Germans seemed to have been dazed by the bombardment, and, although some were in almost every pillbox, in comparatively few cases did the Australians, arriving with the barrage, find them preparing to resist. Some even came out to meet their captors, waving white handkerchiefs or bandages. The actual fighting took the shape of a number of little combats to suppress the small quota - particularly machine-gunners - that did resist.'

All along the ridge the assault troops kept pace with the slow-moving barrage. The Red Line was quickly reached 'between 5.57 and 6.9 am' and consolidation commenced. Forty-five minutes later, the barrage returned in front of the infantry and the next advance was made. All resistance was overcome and 'between 7.30 and 7.45, still in exact accordance with the step-by-step programme, the second objective was reached on the Australian Front. The second line was consolidated and for two hours the barrage searched across the German rear areas.

The AOH notes 'in the [Australian] 2nd Division it was at this stage that the battalions for the final advance were brought up from Westhoek. The advanced troops, looking back, watched this movement with admiration. The German barrage had to be passed through. Since 6.19 it had lain along the Hannebeek, German observers in Polygon Wood and at Broodseinde having quickly recognised the 2nd Division's penetration. But this barrage was only a shallow curtain, and, after watching the shell-bursts from Westhoek Ridge, many section commanders were able to detect gaps in it, and lead their sections through them.

At the same time, on and behind the objectives already captured, the mobile machine guns - 32 in each division - and Stokes mortars were being placed in position; and in addition to the infantry's trenches, parties of the field companies were beginning to dig a system of redoubts...

The one objective of all this preparation was to meet the awaited counter-attack. To obtain early news of it, German prisoners were taken to forward centres for interrogation, and by 7 am Captain Wertheim, intelligence officer of the 2nd Division, learned from one of them that the counter-attack division for that sector lay at Moorslede and Waterdamhoek, and would probably come up in omnibuses and debouch about 9 or 10 am from the north of Polygon Wood. This news was sent out to both the artillery and infantry. All day one of the many aeroplanes over the corps front line had the special duty of looking for signs of a counter-attack, and an airman reported that at 8.30 he had seen one in preparation south of Zonnebeke - that is close to the junction of I Anzac and V Corps. The 18th Battalion at "Anzac" came into possession of a belated German order through the arrival of a messenger dog, which raced up from Zonnebeke. This was obviously an order from the 7th R.I.R. to its forward commander (K.T.K) to throw in his reserves from the Wilhelm Line in order to recapture the "crater-line". According to the history of the 60th I.R. (the next regiment to the north), such a counter-attack had already been made by two of its companies against the Scots on the Australian left and had been shattered.

At 9.53 the long pause ended. The barrage came down in front of the Blue Line. The advance to the Green Line occupied in most parts only a few minutes. On the extreme left, the [Australian] 17th [battalion] dug in with the 18th, who were already in position. A flight of eight German aeroplanes, which managed to break through the screen maintained all day by the British flying corps, fired with machine-guns on these troops, but without much effect, and then passed on to attack the artillery, also with slight results. A greater annoyance was the fire of the German artillery, directed upon the 28th and 17th as soon as they began to dig in on the Anzac Spur. The troops, however, avoided this by moving slightly forward. Farther back the German barrage was by this time heavy along the Hannebeek, but here, too, the company commanders of both the 20th and 25th Battalions avoided it by moving forward and settling into shell-holes well up the rear slope of Anzac Spur.

At 11.25, a map dropped by the contact airman at the 1st Divisional Headquarters showed the flares lighted by troops all along the final objective, and in parts well ahead of it. In the centre of the X Corps the 41st Division's left brigade, which had had to fight so heavily for its second objective, had failed to secure part of the third on Tower Hamlets Spur. At all essential points, however, success was complete.'

Now for the counter-attacks...


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The following quotes come from Jack's book. Firstly, Leutnant Vonalt from 60 I.R.:

'We doubled forward; the companies receiving their orders at the regimental command post. My platoon advanced on the railway embankment to the right of Zonnebeke and soon we had no contact to our right or left. The whole area was drenched with gas and visibility was down to less than thirty metres. The British realised we were counter-attacking and brought down appalling drum-fire on use. Only able to move in short bounds, we made slow progress forward, then it became impossible. We remained lying in cover, crawling about in an attempt to avoid the worst of the fire.'

And from Unteroffizier Schmidt, 10th Company Bavarian Ersatz Infantry Regiment 28:

'On 20 September 10th Coy was located in the Wilhelm Stellung. Already the previous day we had had the feeling that something was in the air and, by 8 am we received a report from battalion that the British had attacked and had seized our front line. Our company commander despatched 1 Platoon forward to reinforce the forward positions. [They] had only got four hundred metres, before being forced to seek cover in a small pillbox. 2 and 3 Platoons deployed left and right of the [Menin] road. Together with other members of 2 Platoon I took cover in a ruined house, whose timbers and ruined walls offered some protection from view and splinters.

Towards 9 am, British soldiers, advancing from Herenthage Park onto a small rise, were so clearly silhouetted that every one of the defenders was able to draw a bead on them. Unfortunately, we were not supported by our machine-gun. When the British could not get forward [?mistaken understanding of why the British halted], an aircraft flew very low, directing artillery fire which then intensified. At that the British fired smoke bombs [the signal that the bombardment was on the move again] and smoked off the entire area. At first we thought it was gas.

We could no longer see to shoot then, suddenly, emerging out of the smoke, were swarms of British soldiers with fixed bayonets. For us it was all over.'

Behind the Bavarian Ersatz Infantry Division was the 16th Bavarian Infantry Division, 'located... forward of Oosthoek and Terhand in the Eingreif role. In accordance with contingency plan Näher heran [Get Closer], its regiments were brought to readiness at 5.15 am. At 9 am on 20 September, Bavarian Infantry Regiment 11 was ordered forward to conduct battalion counter-strokes against the Polygon Wood - Herenthage Chateau sector to eject the enemy from the Wilhelm Stellung and to restore the old front line and so provide some relief for the hard-pressed Bavarian Ersatz Infantry Division. H Hour for the first of these operations was to be 11.30 am and the battalions set off immediately. None of them achieved a thing. Arriving level with Polygon Wood, the companies of 3rd Battalion were torn apart by the British defensive barrage. Having suffered appalling casualties, the survivors took cover wherever it could be found. The advance of the 1st and 2nd Battalions to the start line came to a shuddering, bloody halt during the afternoon near Polderhoek, where the remnants of the companies attempted to shelter from the torrent of shell fire in scattered craters.' [sheldon]

Meanwhile, the Australian intelligence branch was continuing to uncover information about prospective counter-attacks. Around 2 pm, they 'received from prisoners a further warning that, on the 1st Division's front, the counter-attack would assemble at Cameron Covert and in the folds north and south of Reutelbeek. Shortly after 2 pm Germans began to appear again. From the Butte infantry continued to dribble, as in the forenoon, towards the cemetery at the upper end of "Albania Valley." About the same time from Zonnebeke southwards, across the front of the 2nd Australian Division, there marched towards Molenaarelsthoek a column of infantry with either one or two batteries of artillery. South of the main ridge another force was obviously concentrating on either side of the Reutelbeek valley. With reference to the northern side of the ridge, at 2.40 pm, an observer of the 2nd Divisional Artillery reported: "Huns dribbling across from mound to cemetery in threes and fours." The message added that the enemy appeared likely to counter-attack from the cemetery and the "Tokio Spur". The 2nd Division's artillery at once turned upon the spur and Albania Valley. No organised action could persist under the storm. A few minutes later some movement was reported there, but the observer telegraphed that this seemed "more confusion than anything else". The concentrations in the Reutelbeek valley, reported by Australian and British troops on that side of the ridge, were similarly shelled, Stokes mortars of the 2nd Australian Light Trench Mortar Battery assisting.' [AOH]


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Now to examine the object of the British counter-battery fire: the German artillery. First, to the AOH:

'It is now known that the German artillery was uncertain of the position [of the British and Dominion assault troops]. Moreover, its batteries, many of which at the end of the attack were within 800-1,700 yards of the Australian infantry, suffered heavy loss. This was the worst day for the 241st F.A.R. in the Flanders battle. It lost 6 officers and 54 men, and had 10 guns put out of action. The 8th and 9th Batteries of the 241st F.A.R., not far behind the mound in Polygon Wood, might have brought direct fire on the 1st Australian Division's advance, but they lost all their guns through the British bombardment. The 4th, in front of Broodseinde Ridge, had two guns put out of action, but was able to hit one of the I Anzac wireless tanks in the old No Man's Land at Glencourse Wood. This artillery was reinforced by a number of batteries of the counter-attack division (236th). One of these (4/7th F.A.R.) managed to advance along the main ridge to a position near Molenaarelsthoek.'

Not all artillery was knocked out of course: 'The field artillery of the 121st Division is said to have expended this day 40,000 shells.

The Australian infantry was not greatly harassed by this bombardment; the records show that it was the German heavy artillery that inflicted loss. Its fire was severe in the back area...

About 6 pm... the German shelling [on the forward positions] also became severe, both the 19th Battalion's strong-points on the left being blown up. Most of the line, however, escaped [damage]...' [AOH]

Quite apart from the direct damage inflicted on some batteries, the unexpected breadth and depth of the attack had the expected effect. Jack Sheldon mentions that 'the infantry had no monopoly on confusion on that day, as the experience of Field Artillery Regiment 7 shows. It had been tasked to provide fire support for a counter-attack in the Broodseinde area, but in a classic case of order, counter-order and disorder, the battalion was scattered and its commander spent the next twenty four hours trying to regain control.

Hauptmann Blank [wrote:]

"Initially two of my light howitzer batteries were moved forward from the assembly area and subordinated to another group (Westhoek). A little while later the last of my batteries was called forward under the command of Infantry Regiment 458... I was ordered to take command once more of all the batteries and to form my own group. As far as possible we avoided heavy and super-heavy calibre fire...

Enemy aircraft were operating quite blatantly over our lines and far to the rear. Descending to fifty or even twenty metres, they machine gunned everything. Eventually, by between 3 pm and 4 pm we found ourselves in the forward area. The sun was shining and the visibility very good. I expected to come across two of my batteries... but I found only one."'


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Just one more interesting point. I previously mentioned the increased number of divisions that took on the ridge. There is a fascinating post-script, as mentioned in the AOH:

'It had been intended to bring up the reserve brigades (1st and 6th) to take over the Red Line. But shortly before noon, General Birdwood, being warned by a British airman that the Australian front appeared to be already crowded, countermanded this movement, for which orders had just been issued, and pressed the divisional commanders to get their troops more thinly distributed in depth.'

To round off the description from an Australian perspective, 'about 6 pm Germans were seen creeping forward in Albania Valley, and at 6.02 the S.O.S signal was sent up on Anzac Ridge. This unmistakable signal instantly brought down the barrage which, on the 2nd Division's front, lasted forty minutes. The troops were delighted with these quick responses, the machine-guns opening in a few seconds, and the artillery within half-a-minute. The machine-gun barrage greatly increased their confidence.'

From the German perspective, Jack noted that 'making the most of the outcome of the day's fighting, Group Ypres published an Order of the Day on 23 September. It is plain that either the subtlety of the use by the British army of "bite and hold" tactics on a massive scale was lost on the defending commander, or he chose to ignore its significance.

The army group followed this up with a somewhat anodyne version of events, which contrived to gloss over the failures of the day completely and to imply that the day had proceeded for the defence in much the same way as the major battles of August.

Army Group Crown Prince Rupprecht Daily Report 20 September 1917

Under the command of General Sixt von Armin, the fighting troops of Fourth Army have successfully negotiated the first day of the third battle in Flanders. True to the massive artillery effort made by the British during the past few days, the concentration of enemy fighting power peaked today along a twelve kilometre front. After a battle of changing fortunes, the enemy succeeded in penetrating up to one kilometre of our defensive zone and temporarily up to the outskirts of Passchendaele. Our counter-attacks drove them back to the west of Passchendaele. Just as during the earlier battles in Flanders, our commanders and troops performed to the highest standard.


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Now for the long-awaited summary (first draft, pending review by Chris and others). This can be divided into two parts: the planning of Third Ypres; and the execution of the plan.

The Third Ypres campaign required the capture of the ridge that runs north-east via Gheluvelt to Passchendaele. Had this been achieved before the onset of winter, then the aim was to attack into Belgium. This phase would have been linked to a seaborne landing on the Belgian coast. Both operations would have been directed at capturing the German naval bases on the coast, from which U-boats and other surface raiders were operating.

In the event, the British attacks reached Passchendaele and occupied most of the ridge. The extent of the advance between July 31st and November is illustrated in the following map. The initial British line is in dotted red, the final line in solid red:


In the above map, the dotted purple line represents an alternative to what actually happened. It is a literal transposition of what actually took place, only to the south. Instead of the ridge being on the right flank of the British attack, the alternative suggests that the ridge is the centre of the attack. The proposed shift in the central axis of the attack reflects the critical importance of the ridge itself. This was the high ground, which meant it would be the most crucial ground to occupy because it would overlook the lower ground. Conversely, it would be the most difficult to take, because the Germans would not want to give up the high ground and because of the nature of the terrain on the ridge. The ridge was not uniform in shape. It consisted of a series of folds and undulations, dotted with the shattered remnants of woods interspersed with bogs and small lakes.

The proposed axis of attack was analysed in detail. Attention focused on the flanks, as the German-held territory on the flanks would pose a major threat to the attack. At this point it should be noted that a very narrow attack, focusing only on the ridge, was ruled out because of the dangers from the flanks. The relevant map was posted here:


The dangers of attacking on such a narrow front are illustrated here, with the next post in the sequence illustrating why a wider frontage was needed:


The proposed alternative advance encompassed an area south of the ridge, as bounded by the triangle Messines-Gheluvelt-Comines. This area was examined in detail. Agreement was reached that the area could not extend south of the Lys River, towards Tourcoing. An advance astride a major river would be fraught with serious difficulties, literally splitting the attacking force into two separate forces and thereby weakening the attack. The area between the ridge and the Lys River posed several major problems:

1. The advance would be across the floor of the Lys River valley. Directly in the path of the attack lay the Ypres-Comines Canal, a potentially significant barrier that would seriously disrupt any attempt to go beyond it. Photographs of the canal were referenced in this post:


2. Zandevoorde sits on high ground that overlooks the base of the ridge and the valley. Any attempt to advance along the valley without capturing Zandevoorde and the low ground to the north-east exposed the attacking troops to enfilade artillery fire, as illustrated on this map:


3. The German defences around Comines and Wervicq, i.e. south of the Lys River, would have enfiladed the British attack from the south. Some references to photographs of the dangers lurking to the south were included in this post:


The key question was whether the very serious disadvantages would be outweighed by the advantage of stretching the boundary of the attack on the ridge so far to the south. FWIIW, I think not. The Ypres-Comines Canal was such a significant barrier that any attempt to advance across it would be fraught with huge dangers, especially from the exposed flank along the Lys River. Even if a crossing were successful, resupply across the canal would be a constant problem. In the event, a limited attack was made down the slopes of the Messines Ridge towards the Ypres-Comines Canal on July 31st. This sector of the attack was meant to simulate a threat on Lille, and it did serve the purpose of widening the frontage of the attack on the ridge on that first day.


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Turning now to the British right flank. Three major issues were considered with respect to the proposed alernative:

1. Enfilade of the British right flank by German forces to the north. These forces fell into two main threats. The first was in Houthulst Forest, which is illustrated on the map above. This formed an ideal fire base for German artillery. The second threat was posed by another interesting aspect of the terrain. While the main line of the Gheluvelt-Passchendaele Ridge curved to the north-east and then north, several smaller ridge lines fell away perpendicular to the main ridge. One example was Pilckem Ridge, after which the opening day's battle was named. Behind each of the these parallel ridges lay valleys that could shelter German artillery. If these valleys were not neutralised, German artillery was free to enfilade the forward zone of the British advance. The following map illustrates the finger-like projections illustrating the rib-like ridges running off the backbone of the main ridge. The threat from German artillery in the Steenbeek Valley is illustrated by the purple arrow:


2. Enfilade of the British right flank from the Passchendaele area, which was illustrated in the map here:


3. If the southern portion of the proposed attack was no longer an option, then the overall width of the remainder of the proposed attack was significantly narrowed. This is illustrated in the following map, which suggests that the advance off the ridge might be further than was actually achieved. Even this assumption does not significantly affect the attack frontage:


The analysis of an alternative attack along the ridge raised several key tactical issues that had to be considered by the Staff Officers involved in planning Third Ypres. The problem was not a simple one. Given the serious issues on the southern flank of the attack, then taking the ridge was going to pose a major challenge, given that any advance along the ridge would form the southern flank.

Many commentators have noted that Gough concentrated too much on the 'centre' and left flank of his attacks, underplaying the significance of the ridge. The actual planning and execution of the assault on the ridge was considered in detail from a variety of perspectives. These will be summarised next.


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Now to the actual planning and execution of Third Ypres. This discussion specifically focused on General Gough, whose handling of the attacks on July 31st and throughout August 1917 has been much criticised in the literature. These criticisms have centred on three issues:

  1. The attempt to break-through and break-out of the German defences on day one of the attack. This criticism is frequently linked to the accusation of Haig meddling in the setting of objectives. The objectives for the first day of the Somme are also included in this accusation. The discussion did not specifically address this issue but it is abundantly clear that while there were distant objectives for the campaign as a whole, and that there was contigency planning for the possibility of a total German collapse on day one, the detailed specific objectives on 31st July were very local.
  2. Leaving aside the first point, Gough set local objectives that were too far. This decision is contrasted with Plumer's 'Bite and Hold' operations that followed.
  3. Failure to focus on the capture of the ridge, particularly the suppression of German artillery on Gheluvelt plateau.

To explore the 2nd and 3rd criticisms in more detail, the discussion zeroed in on II Corps, which had the primary responsibility for attacking along the ridge. Multiple sources were used. The tactical issues presented by the ridge did not go unnoticed by Gough's opponents. German perspectives were incorporated into the discussion, thanks especially to Jack's work on the German Army at Passchendaele. Thanks also to Mart, who provided the detailed maps and other materials from the relevant official histories. These perspectives presented a unique opportunity to analyse the opening weeks of the Battle of Third Ypres.

Eventually, as a result of information from the recently published diaries of the Earl of Stanhope who was a senior Staff Officer in II Corps, it became apparent that Gough had paid attention to the problem of the ridge. II Corps had more artillery and more infantry allocated to it in preparation for the 31st July. Andy Simpson's book also demonstrated that, even if Gough had not come to this awareness himself, his consultative style in planning for Third Ypres would have exposed the concerns of General Jacobs, GOC II Corps.

Gough did something else that was important for the successes of 31st July. He, alongside GHQ, ensured that a broad frontage was attacked. As to the objectives being too far, apart from some minor exceptions only II Corps attack on the ridge failed to advance to the furthest objective. Even so, II Corps still managed to achieve an advance that, in distance covered, matched the advance of Plumer's attack in the Battle of the Menin Road. They almost captured all of the highest part of the ridge, but failed to gain the plateau between Glencourse Wood and Inverness Copse.

That II Corps did not achieve all its objectives is often attributed to the relatively poor quality of the British units involved, and to the inability to control the German artillery. As noted above, this latter point is often held to be an example of Gough's failure to focus sufficiently on the ridge. Detailed analysis has revealed some interesting facts. We know that II Corps had more artillery attached that have ever been the case before. In the weeks leading up to Third Ypres, much attention was paid to counter-battery work. The weather, however, played a major role in negating this work. The German batteries on and around the Gheluvelt plateau were not within direct observation from ground-based FOOs. Aerial observation was severely hampered by the weather, especially the low cloud. The rain-soaked ground reduced the effectiveness of heavy shells, and the wind / rain meant that gas shells were less effective too.

When the weather was not such a problem, we find another factor playing a role in diminishing the British efforts - the German air force. Unlike the Somme, the British did not have total aerial dominance in the early phase of Third Ypres.

What is even more interesting is that at no point in the time period under consideration, i.e. right up until the end of 20th September, was the German artillery ever subdued. Yet there were many British successes, including the impressive breadth of advances that took place on 31st July. Even the 'failures' of August reveal significant gains in many instances, the main problem being the ability to hold onto those gains against frequent, well-drilled German counter-attacks. Where the counter-attacks were successful, we find that the British troops had gained ground under dense, well-planned creeping barrages, only to be left stranded because there was no co-ordination with the artillery. Here again, the weather played a factor preventing the observation aircraft from detecting the counter-attacks forming up and directing the artillery appropriately, or preventing the ground-based FOOs from seeing the British S.O.S. flares. What a difference the clear weather made on 20th September!

This analysis has suggested that while counter-battery fire is important, it is not THE determining factor in enabling infantry assaults to succeed. The protection of a well-timed, well-coordinated creeping barrage was vital. Where this was lost, as on 31st July by units of II Corps attempting to get forward along the ridge, then any advance would grind to a premature halt under a hail of machine gun bullets, typically from positions firing in enfilade. Just as important was the protective and SOS barrages once objectives were reached. If these did not materalise, then the British troops were too vulnerable to the flanking counter-attacks. When protective barrages were possible, German counter-attacks were virtually impossible.

Most interesting of all, to me at least, was the British reaction to the German defensive strategy. Within days, Charteris had mapped out precisely what the Germans were doing. Immediately, GHQ set about countering this. Plumer's document illustrates how the attacking skills acquired during the Somme and Arras offensives were further refined. The fact that Plumer produced this document early in August is very significant, IMHO. Not because it illustrates that Plumer and Harington were necessarily more astute than Gough but because there seems to have been a palpable shift towards Second Army taking up the focus on the ridge well before the end of August. This struck me most forceably when I read of the Australian artillery being put into position to support II Corps long before I Anzac took over. It makes sense of Gough being instructed to keep up the pressure on the ridge, even though II Corps was very vulnerable without the direct support of Second Army on its right. Despite II Corps being vulnerable, it did well given the circumstances. There is no doubt, as discussed throughout this thread, that one army needed to be responsible for the whole of the ridge. Given that there was little operational freedom on the southern side of the ridge, with no possibility of an extensive flank attack, it remained important to negate the northern flank. It makes perfect sense that Gough should have maintained control of this area of operations. It is possible to argue how far the left flank should have been extended, but there is no doubt that the capture of Passchendaele could not have succeeded without the continued efforts of Fifth Army and General Anthoine's French forces on the far left.

Finally, there is the success of General Plumer's attack on the ridge. The improved weather helped. There is no doubt that Plumer benefitted from what had gone before. In a general sense, he was able to pick up on and analyse the German defensive tactics, while Gough focused on the ongoing operational issues. More specifically, I Anzac was able to benefit directly from II Corps. There is very clear evidence that General Jacobs was consulted about the objectives for the ridge, and the Australians made full use of this information in their planning. Furthermore, Plumer gained significantly from the high tempo of operations that Gough maintained in August. The further advances, such as the capture of Westhoek and the small corner of Inverness Copse, were of minor importance compared with the overall impact on the German command. As soon as Plumer stopped all significant operations, apart from the constant 'practice' barrages, the major difference in tempo dislocated German planning. This difference was only apparent and, more importantly, had impact because of the previous month of high tempo operations. The scale of Plumer's offensive was the more dramatic, and played a significant role in minimising the effect of the German batteries. The weather meant the counter-attacks were quickly spotted and dealt with, but it is significant to see the additional lessons that had been learned, such as the need for intelligence officers getting precise details about how and where the counter-attacks would form up.

Within the period of July through September 20th 1917, we have glimpsed the massive struggle that took place between the British and French on the one hand, and the Germans on the other. The ridge was the immediate focus, but the whole confrontation symbolised something far more significant. In the preceding years, both sides had built up huge resources of artillery, ammunition, etc, as well as the accumulated experiences of three years of war. For the moment, the French Army was mainly a defensive force, though it made a very significant attacking contribution to Third Ypres. Britain and Germany were locked together, wrestling with each other - each side trying to leverage its knowledge and material resources to overcome the other, trying to counter each reaction of the other, both trying to overcome the limitations of the weather and the terrain. To all the men and women who fought in this extraordinary campaign (including my Grandfather), may they never be forgotten, and may they rest in peace.

I want to conclude by acknowledging my debt to Chris, whose insights and questions have acted as a constant motivation for this quest. It has been a pleasure, and I have learned so much as a result. I have never felt comfortable with most contemporary analyses of the planning and execution of the Third Ypres campaign. I hope that this journey has raised awareness amongst others as well. It is only one more step in gaining a deeper and clearer understanding of what happened, and why.


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Not because it illustrates that Plumer and Harington were necessarily more astute than Gough...
Just to illustrate this point, here is a report published by Uniacke, Gough's GOC Royal Artillery, Fifth Army, on 25th August 1917:


  1. As far as can be gathered, the comparative failure of many attacks at present is caused by one of two causes, viz:

    a. The hostile counter attack delivered shortly after the objective is gained, causing our Infantry to fall back.

    b. M.G. fire during the advance from one objective to another and while consolidating on preliminary objectives causing our Infantry to check, allow the barrage to run away from them, thus losing all its protective value. The first cause can be remedied by improvement in Infantry training. As regards the latter cause, a modification in our present Artillery methods may enable us to deal with the matter.

  2. As far as this Army is concerned there appear to be two essential differences between last year and this year.

    a. The enemy's M.Gs. have been increased since last year but probably not in much greater proportion than the Artillery which on our part is available to deal with them, provided we recognise the principle that obliteration of trench lines is of minor importance as compared to anti-machine gun work.

    b. M.Gs. are no longer kept chiefly in deep dugouts with only a proportion in shell holes. The deep dugouts we met with last year were chiefly in the various trench line objectives, and the capture of these objectives stopped the bulk of the M.G. fire at once.

    This year the dugouts are shallow and small; hence the M.Gs. can be brought out very much more quickly and the team is not impeded by the Infantry of the trench garrison trying to get out at the same time. The M.G. shelters are moreover, chequered all over the country side.

  3. These shelters are so small and so numerous that it takes up much time and an enormous expenditure of ammunition for them all to be destroyed. In some cases they are so strongly constructed that with the means at our disposal it is extremely doubtful if we can destroy them at all. The shell craters created round them all probably in practice counterbalance the value of the few actually destroyed.

  4. Troops suffer from M.G. fire for two causes:

    a. Failure to keep so close up to the barrage that the enemy machine gunners can be shot or bayonetted before they can get their gun into action.

    b. M.Gs. placed in depth behind our attack barrage, and firing through the barrage, often from a flank.

  5. Failures have undoubtedly occurred from both causes during the recent battle—from the first cause partly owing to the fact that the whole country has been so shot to pieces that it is extremely difficult to keep any sort of formation over the cratered ground, especially so when the shell holes are filled with water.

    It must be realised that this year the attacking Infantry must keep even closer to the barrage than last year, since it now takes less time for the hostile M.G. to get into action after our barrage has lifted off it.

    Troops who are not prepared to suffer a certain proportion of casualties from our own barrage incur the gravest risk of being decimated by machine gun fire.

    The first cause then is again a matter of Infantry training.

  6. To turn to the second cause, a great point has been made this year of counter battery work, and rightly so; but without relaxing in any way whatsoever the vigour and determination with which this work is carried out during the preparatory period it is possible that a waste of power takes place during the actual period of attack.

    Our universal experience in past and present battles has been that the hostile artillery may be dangerous when

    a. Troops are forming up, if the intention to attack is discovered by the enemy.

    b. Possibly during a long halt on a subsidiary objective if the enemy has time to find out where our own and his Infantry are.

    c. When we have reached and settled down on our final objective.

    The occasions when he has been dangerous during the progress of the actual attack are exceedingly rare, particularly if such attack is on a large scale. Incidentally, on these occasions, it will generally be found that the C.B. work during the preparatory period has been ineffective.

  7. The M.G. however, is exactly the opposite. It is dangerous only during the advance and during the preliminary stages of consolidation.

  8. Therefore, from about zero plus 15 minutes onwards until such time as our troops have established themselves finally, it would appear that a large proportion of the counter battery guns and a certain number of the howitzers should now be put into the barrage in order to give it both strength as well as depth. Our barrages at present are deep, but the more advanced portions are apt to be weak.

  9. These counter battery guns will return to counter battery work as soon as the Infantry have reached and established themselves on the final objective.

    It will probably be advisable to bring them temporarily back in this manner during the final stages of a long halt on a subsidiary objective. This can be worked out on a time table if found necessary. A forward counter battery O.P. should be established wherever possible.

    This O.P. should be sited where the subsidiary objective can be seen, and the Officer in charge, specially selected for the purpose, be made responsible for reporting at once if the hostile shelling on the subsidiary objective in his opinion was sufficient to warrant the withdrawal of the counter battery guns back to C.B. work. This will be a difficult matter owing to it being often very hard at times to distinguish between the enemy's shell and our own, and consequently the officer in charge should be selected for his general reliability.

  10. The attack barrage will then be organised in depth in four zones, which for descriptive purposes may be called:

    No. 1 The main creeping barrage.

    No. 2 The "Combing" barrage.

    No. 3 The "Neutralizing" barrage.

    No. 4 The "Standing" barrage.

  11. The "Creeping" barrage will follow normal lines as at present and consist of the major proportion of the 18-pounders.

  12. The "Combing" barrage will consist as at present of the 4.5" Howitzers and a portion of the 18-pdrs. be placed as at present in advance of the "Creeping" barrage, and while dwelling on strong points working up communication trenches etc., be at the same time organised in depth.

    The fire should not follow an even cadence and should not lift in regular lines, but be so manipulated that a hostile machine gunner is unable to realize that a lift has taken place and the last shell of the barrage has passed over him.

  13. The "Neutralizing" barrage will similarly be organised in depth (from 500 to 1,000 yards), will consist of the 6" Howitzer with non-delay fuzes and the larger proportion of the available 60-pdr guns, and will search the ground behind the "combing" barrage. This fire will similarly be irregular. Its main object will be to search out and neutralize all distant machine guns that may be placed to fire through our "creeping" barrage once the advance has begun.

    Special attention must be paid to localities from which flanking machine gun fire can be brought to bear over our front of attack.

    All the three foregoing barrages will roll back according to a time table, the main principle being that there should always be searching fire up to 2,000 yards in front of our advancing Infantry.

  14. The "Standing" barrage will be to search out for and break up any formed bodies of enemy troops held back for immediate counter attack.

    With this object it will from its commencement be placed well back beyond the final objective and come down on all valleys, ravines, woods, hutments, etc., in fact all areas or localities likely to shelter formed bodies. A close study of the map and of the enemy's general dispositions will be necessary in order to place this barrage correctly.

    Pin point shooting is unnecessary and persistent and continuous shelling of any one spot (except in case of it being desired to deny the use of some particular route) is useless as the enemy merely avoids that spot—the fire should "search" and "sweep" definite areas.

  15. The barrages should search all ground whether seen or unseen as an indirect M.G. barrage may be nearly as dangerous as an aimed one.

  16. If, as appears to be the case, the enemy put their machine gun fire just this side of our creeping barrage it may be advisable to make No. 1 (Creeping) barrage into a double one with one-third of the 18-pdrs. 200 yards in front of the other two-thirds. This with a view to inducing the enemy to mistake the front one for the real one close behind which the Infantry are advancing.

  17. Each operation must, of course, be treated on its merits and a varying distribution of guns to the different barrages and also of the depth of the barrages be made in each case according to local circumstances and the accuracy and extent of the information available as to the enemy's dispositions.

(sd) H. UNIACKE, Major General

G.O.C, R.A., Fifth Army

25th August, 1917"

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An excellent summary. It is I who owe you the debt.

You have highlighted the wisdom of Sir Michael Howard's plea to study military history in width, in depth and in context in order to find out "what really" happened" as opposed to myth-making, which he described as " ... the creation of an image of the past, through careful selection and interpretation, in order to create or sustain certain emotions and beliefs." The Great War has suffered a great deal of myth-making sown in the fertile soil of the emotional aftermath of such horrendous losses. Your contributions, from a wide range of sources, have brought new perspectives to this battle that one rarely sees in historians accounts. I, for one, have a much better understanding of the issues confronting those who participated than I did when we set out on this journey. You have done a great service to the participants of 3rd Ypres - and to those who are willing to find out "what really happened".

Warm regards


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  • 3 weeks later...

A couple of interesting addendums. The first relates to the significance of Houthulst Forest on the British left flank. The New Zealand Division's artillery had moved forward 'south of St Julien and east of the Steenbeek' to support the attack on 4th October. The guns were lined up behind a rise. "There was not much hostile fire directed on to battery positions and casualties during the day were not heavy in either brigade. Most of the casualties were caused by a solitary high velocity gun, which fired from the direction of Houthulst Forest, and directly enfiladed the long line of batteries. Every shot literally raked the position, and the shooting afforded a sufficiently convincing demonstration of true enfilading fire. A good many casualties were suffered, several guns were knocked out, and one or two batteries were temporarily put out of action. The gun fortunately ceased fire towards evening."

In this instance, the state of the ground came to the New Zealanders' aid. "The gunners had reason to be rather thankful that the ground on which they fought was so yielding, for the high velocity shells, hurtling in with frightful rapidity, plunged deep into the mud before exploding, and thus were robbed of most of their effectiveness. Had these shells been detonating on hard ground they would have annihilated the whole line of batteries."

From Byrne's 'New Zealand Artillery in the Field 1914-18', republished by Naval and Military Press.


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The second relates to the experiences of Lord Moyne, a Staff Officer in the 25th Division who played an active part in the attack on 10 August. Sorry that I missed this earlier.

'Owing to the impossibility of keeping communication, the General decided that I was to go up to our Advanced Report Centre for the attack. Accordingly at 3 am I went up to an old German concrete pill box which we had decided on for our Forward Brigade Headquarters. It was right up on the Bellewaarde Road commanding a view forward to the Westhoek Ridge on which was our Brigade objective, and also back to Brigade Headquarters at Birr crossroads. A British shell had fortunately knocked a great chunk of concrete off the western side and made a slit which proved invaluable for visual signalling when the atmospheric conditions were suitable. I was hardly ever in communication either with the Battalions in front or Brigade Headquarters behind, and most of the time I was only able to communicate with either of them by runner.

At 4.25 pm the Brigade advanced to attack under a heavy barrage. In the first five minutes we took hundreds of prisoners and quickly got to our objective. As soon as we had done so, however, the Boche began a most stubborn fight to regain the ground and I spent the whole day trying to get quick information of his counter-attacks so as to be able to get the Artillery on his concentrations. During the day our pill box and indeed the whole of Bellewaarde Ridge was subject to a very heavy bombardment. Early in the afternoon for a few minutes the ladder line or power buzzer (I can't remember which) got connections with Brigade Headquarters. A message arrived asking me to prepare guides to take forward mules with ammunition, rations and water which were on their way up. I answered that they must be stopped as a heavy barrage had just been put down and the ground was impassable. It was too late - they had started already. Soon afterwards the Transport Officer in charge of the mules arrived, having left them about a half mile back... when a big shell burst and knocked us all over. The Transport Officer had an eye out and one knee all smashed up, the Signalling Officer fragments in his shoulder and hand, and I escaped altogether.

Just at this moment an SOS went up from in front and I had fearful difficulty in getting it through as visual [signalling] was quite impossible due to smoke and dust. I sent two runners to stop the mules and then had to face the horrible problem of getting ammunition forward with no mules or men to carry it. For a few moments the ladder line held and I arranged for an officer back at Brigade Headquarters to get 200 Lewis gun drums and more ammunition up by tonight by 250 men who were being lent to us from another Brigade to carry up rations. By now the dugout was like the black hole of Calcutta and while I went out to find out where the dumped ammunition, etc really was, someone put a pool of blood all over my papers.

When things had quieted I got the wounded out by some stretcher bearers... and was then in a better position to cope with the incessant problems of communication. We couldn't use visual forward as we were in full view of the Boche and each time we showed our flash he put shells right on to us, sending earth in through the slit and knocking out all our candles. Just when shells were landing the observers couldn't see the SOS rockets, and this in our case at least caused delay which might have been disastrous. Sometimes one got a definite target - enemy massing in wood by Hanebeek for counter-attack - and in several cases we knocked them to pieces with Artillery before they could come on. In one case delay was very lucky as two Battalions collected in a wood before the [british] Battalion threatened could get through to me, and I to the Artillery liaison officer. When at last they did open, we learnt from prisoners that the Battalions had been absolutely annihilated, being by that time all assembled in quite a small area.'

More to come...


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Early in the afternoon for a few minutes the ladder line or power buzzer (I can't remember which) got connections with Brigade Headquarters.

Power buzzer = Fullerphone? Ladder line = ?

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The Great War Forum, with this thread, has been treated to some of the best research, interpretation, discussion and analysis I have ever seen.

Congratulations to the posters.


There has to be a book in this. ;)

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I've been reading this thread with much interest, but I'm decidedly uneasy with its overall tone and feel that, perhaps, a little balance is needed. My unease stems chiefly from what I see as a plethora of highly detailed tactical/operational analysis being posted (in itself, obviously, conducted with spoonfuls of hindsight and highly selective in its context) leading to an overall impression of; given the strategic necessities and the almost insurmountable operational difficulties, the British Generals, all in all, in 1917 did a pretty good job.

It seems to me that this approach falls into the same trap the "ee-aw" brigade are accused of falling into i.e. by focusing on the technical details and writing-off the human effect of the subsequent horrendous losses as only warranting a brief mention in statistical form, this swings the "pendulum of myth" too far to the opposite side of its arc. On one hand, as this thread seems to be, only seeing the maps and the plans of the chief players, and on the other, as per the "ee-aw" brigade, only seeing the losses. These two Great War "sides" are much like Nazism and Stalinism, both, on the face of it, diametrically opposed, but in practice, they become the same; both are dictatorial, authoritarian regimes, relying on rationally argued myth to maintain a power base, and gladly and swiftly punishing those who don't go along with the party line.

I'm on record in this forum as being neither an out-and-out revisionist nor a member of the ee-aw brigade and I take this stance because it seems to me that both extremes are instigators and perpetuators of myth. As a certain Lt-Col (Temp) Montgomery (later Viscount Montgomery of Alamein) put it, in a letter to his brother, Donald, after seeing the Canadians assaulting Passchendaele Ridge, ' they were 'magnificent', but they (the Generals) forget that the whole art of war is to gain your objective with as little loss as possible'.

I know that Monty actually fought a battle of attrition himself, in Normandy to draw in the German army and allow the Americans to break out on the right flank, but I can't help feeling his perceptions when observing the Canadians at 3rd Ypres have a lot of validity.

My question is this, given the strategic necessities and the almost insurmountable operational difficulties of the western front, did anyone at the time come up with rational alternative tactics, or, perhaps more importantly, have any professional soldiers, or the plethora of armchair Generals that continue to pop up, since the Armistice, come up with any rational alternatives? (Has anyone bothered to leave the entrenched positions of the "revisionist faithful" or the "ee-aw brigade" - perhaps that wouldn't boost any reputations or sell books?)

Cheers - salesie.

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'At about 9.30 pm things got quieter and having eaten nothing but one small slice of bread and butter since 2 am (which I had got from the signallers) I felt it was time to get some food. Fortunately the Brigade Intelligence Officer who lived nearby was able to provide me with [food]. It was a great relief to get out of the signal dugout where I had sat all day except for short excursions out to parties of wounded or captured Boche, from whom in my sadly inefficient German I tried to obtain information as to available local reserves and probabilities of counter-attack. I found that one of the Battalions holding the line opposite us had been relieved only the previous night and by means of a captured confidential map showing the local German trench and encampment names was able to send back a good deal of information about Battalions within a few miles of our bit of line. The signal dugout (an old Boche one on top of the ridge which was captured on the 30th) was marvellously resistant to shell fire. It was so packed, however, with runners and operators that one couldn't move one's elbows without jostling the checkers next whom I sat and there was nowhere to put the papers which came in on one like flakes in a snow storm except on one's knee, when they were continually slipping on to the muddy floor. One also had great difficulty owing to breakdown of other means of communication and casualties in keeping enough runners to take messages. I got a message late at night to go at dawn and see Battalion Commanders, then to return and report the position to our General. I couldn't start for an hour after that, however, as our right centre battalion began blinking, 'SOS, SOS, SOS' on its visual. Brigade visual proved to have been knocked out, and no other means being at that moment available, I had to send a runner back. Meanwhile I was flashing forward 'Are you OK?' and getting back only 'SOS, SOS, SOS'. Finally, seeing there was only moderate Artillery fire bursting on our line, I felt I must find out what had happened and went up to the newly captured ground near our two right Battalion Headquarters from which I could look down on the ground held by the Boche. They weren't attacking us at all but I saw them going up, a few men at a time by rushes, and collecting just on our right, where the next Division had been held up the previous day. I therefore stopped the guns on our SOS lines and went back to Brigade Headquarters whence Bethell [GOC 74th Brigade 1916-18] got through to Division and got the place dealt with by artillery.

I was quite sorry to get in as the Headquarters dugout was absolutely suffocating. Deep below the ground down about thirty muddy steps there wasn't a breath of air. The office where I worked with the Staff Captain had only room for one tiny table on which about six other people kept sticking down their papers on top of mine, so that we all got very irritable and the General's temper quite unbearable. His voice had completely gone as a result of the continual drip of water from the roof and the fact that for four days our feet had been wet continually owing to the impossibility of keeping the water down by pumping. As by this time we had got five other Battalions lent to us and as Bethell was continually moving companies backwards and forwards and sideways it became a nightmare to know where they were all were. All the time more and more orders in from Division 'ref my GS so and so (which one couldn't find under a minute or two) - so and so is cancelled, etc.' On top of it people continually coming in to ask questions and crowding us so that one couldn't move. None of us had more than two or three hours sleep in the 24 for the previous five days and our heads were like wool.

Somehow, however, I managed to work out some relief orders with the Brigade Major and COs of another Brigade and on the morning of the 12th we were finally moved out after a most anxious night wondering how many units would lose their way in the darkness. As it was we managed to get everybody out except half a company whose relief lost its way and who had to remain until the following night.'

The above is a vivid and powerful description of the command and control issues in August 1917, as seen from the perspective of a brigade Staff Officer. It is interesting to see the impact of the standing German bombardments on the ridge from a C&C perspective. Lord Moyne was awarded the DSO for his efforts over the two days.


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I've been reading this thread with much interest, but I'm decidedly uneasy with its overall tone and feel that, perhaps, a little balance is needed. My unease stems chiefly from what I see as a plethora of highly detailed tactical/operational analysis being posted (in itself, obviously, conducted with spoonfuls of hindsight and highly selective in its context) leading to an overall impression of; given the strategic necessities and the almost insurmountable operational difficulties, the British Generals, all in all, in 1917 did a pretty good job.
salesie, thank you for raising these issues. It should be noted that this discussion has not been about British Generals, overall, in 1917. We have addressed a very very specific issue, namely the planning and execution of the first phase of the Battle of Third Ypres, up to and including the Battle of Menin Road. Nothing can or should be inferred beyond this very limited perspective.

It seems to me that this approach falls into the same trap the "ee-aw" brigade are accused of falling into i.e. by focusing on the technical details and writing-off the human effect of the subsequent horrendous losses as only warranting a brief mention in statistical form, this swings the "pendulum of myth" too far to the opposite side of its arc.
Again, it is important to note that this discussion had a very specific focus, and should not be linked to the issue of 'horrendous losses', unless you are referring to the losses that occurred in the July 31 to September 16 timeframe. On a personal note, I do not 'write-off' the personal effects - my Grandfather fought in Third Ypres and he gave me a deep insight into what it was like [please be assured that there is no sense of anger or negative emotion in my reply to your point, which I quite understand]. My analyses are based on this awareness, but I am concerned that we too easily point at the Generals and don't go further into the issues.

As a certain Lt-Col (Temp) Montgomery (later Viscount Montgomery of Alamein) put it, in a letter to his brother, Donald, after seeing the Canadians assaulting Passchendaele Ridge, ' they were 'magnificent', but they (the Generals) forget that the whole art of war is to gain your objective with as little loss as possible'.
Yes, it is interesting to compare this view as a less senior officer with his performance in overall command. In the above quote, Montgomery was looking at the 'objective' from the perspective of a single action within a major battle within a major campaign. Did he have the same view, I wonder, of El Alamein, or Caen, or the entire campaign in northern Europe post the D-Day landings, or the Second World War as a whole? How might Monty be perceived today if the Russians had not absorbed the major brunt of losses in reducing the German War Machine to the level that was faced on the beaches of Normandy and the aftermath? I digress.

You raise the point about alternatives. Yes, several were raised during the course of the war. The Dardanelles and Salonika campaigns reflected one type of alternative. Another was the 'keep striking at different places in quick succession' approach, which is often ascribed to Foch. Wait until the Americans arrive was another strategy (and, by inference, let them take the next big hit).

I think the most usual contemporary view is that there should have been smaller bites with longer holds. Lose a few men in the bite, then severely punish the Germans when they try to bite back. Then go somewhere else, preferably weak, and bite again. The early Monty view if you will. There are arguments for and against this view, which have been raised elsewhere.


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Robert, my post was made in the context of the thread's title, "Western Front tactics in 1917, Les Carlyon's unusual view" and was an attempt to point out that by focusing on very specific issues then context is inevitably lost, and thus overall impressions can be wildly skewed. Which you seem to agree with when you mention, "Nothing can or should be inferred beyond this very limited perspective." So, if my last post caused confusion, I apologise.

My views on this are summed up by what I said in another thread i.e. "Even at school, I thought the perceived logic of the "Lions led by Donkeys" theme to be flawed. After all, the BEF did beat the most powerful army in the world at the time in a fair fight, especially at 1st Ypres when the German army was fought to a standstill at a time when the material and numerical advantage was skewed greatly in Germany's favour, so a strong case could be made to show that the British professional soldier of WW1 must have been superior to his enemy in almost every way. So, in this sense, how could they be donkeys?

As I've grown older and read more, I still believe the basic logic of my first paragraph to be sound, but I can now see how the description donkey could sometimes be appropriately applied. Take Haig for instance, I don't believe he was a donkey all the time but sometimes how else could he be described? And, I don't believe he was a Wellington at any stage of his career, but sometimes he did show himself to be more than a good and capable commander.

As with most things of this sort, the truth almost certainly falls halfway between the two extremes of the "revisionist faithful" and the ee-aw brigade. (Jesus, I sound like a Liberal Democrat)."

However, back to the theme of the thread's title. It seems to me that Les Carlyon's view was too easily dismissed partially because "being a journalist and not a historian then he couldn't possibly understand", then it seemed to be implied that he based his view on the "myths stemming from the fertile ground of emotion" - as if emotion is intrinsically bad? No man or woman, and thus no commander is void of emotion, and therefore emotion, in whatever form it manifests itself in any individual, must logically play a role in that individual commander's plans no matter how well hidden (unless of course that individual is completely amoral).

It is well known that Haig formed his "one continuous battle" doctrine pre-war, and that he was one of the very few who believed the war would be far from short and one of attrition, therefore I believe that much of what happened from July 1916 onwards, and especially in 1917, was almost a self-fulfilling consequence of Haig's own doctrine, indeed in my opinion his final despatch, as well as some of his actions prior and during 3rd Ypres, confirm this view.

My main point is that Carlyon's view is not just valid but is just as important as the maps and tactics of the chief players. It is my contention, that to "relegate" losses to the role of barely mentioned statistics when considering any aspect of WW1, no matter how narrow the point under discussion, is to miss the whole point of the Great War and its place in the British psyche - without those horrendous losses would it in fact be known as WW1, would anyone, other than a few historians, bother with such intense study of these events, and, to be frank, would anyone really care whether Haig & co were donkeys or not?

Haig achieved fame for eventually leading a victorious BEF, but his name became immortalised for achieving this "victory" with losses on a scale never experienced before. How can losses be separated from events and still give a "true" picture? How can anyone draw effective conclusions without asking was it worth it given the human cost? My answer to this last question is yes, it probably was worth it, but only bloody just!

Cheers - salesie.

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salesie, no problem. We are agreed that the detailed quotes and narrow focus of the majority of this thread have only touched on a small part of the original question.

You mentioned that 'it is well known that Haig formed his "one continuous battle" doctrine pre-war...' Having read several of Haig's pre-war materials, I would suggest rephrasing this. 'It is oft-quoted that...' It is not at all clear to me that such a doctrine was held by Haig before the war, despite what is often said about the content of the Field Service Regulations.

I can assure you that Carylon's comment, with respect to the detailed analysis of part of 1917, was not 'easily dismissed'. It took a lot of work to illustrate that the issues are much more complex than Carylon's analysis suggests. I hope that this thread has raised sufficient doubt in one area of orthodoxy that others will feel comfortable to review other aspects of 1917 in more detail as well.

Germany and France suffered far more losses, proportionately, in the war. All major combatants suffered major losses. This points to the fact that there is something inherent in the process of total war that causes 'horrendous losses'. If that is true, then no matter what strategy or tactics are used, the losses mount. Each side adapts to the new strategies and tactics of the other in a constant game of chase the leader. Eventually, one side cannot tolerate it any further. This was the pre-war insight of von Moltke the Elder, von Schlieffen, von Moltke the Younger, Haig, Kitchener... the list goes on. To suggest that one particular general, or that one or more types of strategy were markedly worse in producing horrendous losses in war, or that another general and type of strategy would have been significantly better, is to miss the more fundamental point.

With respect to Carlyon, the point was made that he did not come from a military background, and has not experienced the enormous complexity involved in high command, especially in the midst of an ongoing operation. I hope that the details quoted have provided a deeper glimpse into this process, albeit still very limited. In the future, we must dig deeper into issues than has been the case in the past. Not just because the German perpsective is becoming more and more widely known, though this has been a huge step forward and has put many previously stated positions into doubt. We must not be content with the current state of knowledge.


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Fair enough, Robert, I'll rephrase: Haig formed his "four-phase battle theory" pre-war whilst in India, and referred to these "4 phases" in his view that the war should be seen as "one long continuous battle" (consisting of those 4 phases) in his final despatch.

I'm certain he held this view pre-war e.g. from Charteris, Field-Marshall Earl Haig, page 110:

At the Council of War on August 5th [1914] he had pointed out that since Great Britain and Germany were fighting for their existence the war would inevitably be a prolonged struggle, and would require the development of the full force of the British Empire to achieve success. The Battle of the Aisne, which enabled him to gauge the fighting qualities of the German troops, confirmed his belief that man-power would ultimately decide the war, and he directed his staff to begin the study of the man-power which the German nation could effectively employ in the field...these studies of German army man-power commenced during these early months at I Corps headquarters, and were developed at each successive stage of Haig's progress in the war, and he rarely allowed more than a day or two to pass without himself inquiring into the developments of this investigation.

I would have some doubts that both Moltkes held this view, and would strongly argue that Von Schlieffen never did (in my opinion his plan was based on fighting a replay of the last war with France,1870-1, then quickly on to Russia, and not fighting the next war with its modern weapons and socio-economic/political interactions).

However, there is no dispute from my me that total war produces horrendous losses, and that no particular general or any particular strategy in WW1 was any different to another, on either side (apart from minor differences, a la Plumer) - my point about Haig and what seemed an almost self-fulfilling consequence of his own doctrine, was not to single out Haig out as a butcher, but to make the very point you make i.e. it doesn't matter whether a general had foreseen the inevitable consequences of total war or not (as Haig did), he is inevitably locked into the loop.

But I must contest your implication that as Carlyon does not come from a military background, and has not experienced the enormous complexity involved in high command, especially in the midst of an ongoing operation, then it's perhaps OK to dismiss his views (easily or not). How many authors, from either side of the revisionist/ee-aw divide, have any thing like this kind of experience? How many members of this forum have experienced high command in the midst of an ongoing operation? If they haven't, are their opinions de-valued or even worthless?

Cheers - salesie.

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But I must contest your implication that as Carlyon does not come from a military background, and has not experienced the enormous complexity involved in high command, especially in the midst of an ongoing operation, then it's perhaps OK to dismiss his views (easily or not). How many authors, from either side of the revisionist/ee-aw divide, have any thing like this kind of experience? How many members of this forum have experienced high command in the midst of an ongoing operation? If they haven't, are their opinions de-valued or even worthless?
salesie, I will focus on these questions first. In essence, you have drawn the conclusion that lack of command experience in an author or contributor leads to their contributions being at best devalued, at worst being regarded as worthless. I would respectfully suggest an alternative explanation, at least for my part.

I do not accept Carlyon's perpsective as being complete, or being the only way to view the options in 1917. This is not the same as saying that his views are dismissed.

The same is true of other contributors' views to this Forum. I am only too acutely aware of the deficiencies in my own views, based as they are on a woefully inadequate knowledge of what actually happened. The more I read, the more I realise there is to read. As for Forum members who have experienced high command in real-life, they will have a modern perspective on the issues, albeit better informed by their experiences.

I am not content to accept current or past commentaries at face-value. This does not mean that I do not respect the authors. Nor do I expect everyone (indeed anyone) to accept my opinions. Actually, it is only by constantly debating these issues that we get closer to something like a more complete understanding, irrespective of how this understanding is translated into views about war, generals, etc. What I have tried to do is concentrate on providing information from identified sources. Then others are able to process it for themselves and come to their own conclusions.


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The pre-war four-phase battle theory has to be separated from the post-war four-phase analysis of the war as a whole. The pre-war concepts were accepted by, indeed were promulgated by, many military thinkers, both military and civilian. In all previous wars, with the American Civil War being the most protracted of the 'modern' wars, there had been a series of battles, interspersed with periods of relative inactivity. Furthermore, there were vast spaces between armies, not the continuous trench lines as the only type of warfare nor the constant day-to-day confrontation that occurred in the static warfare phases of the Great War.

Prior to this situation arising on the Western Front, everyone appeared to see the war evolving as a series of battles, albeit on a very large scale - much larger than had ever been the case before. Each battle in the series, however, would have had the characteristics of making contact, manoeuvring into position, engaging the enemy until all of his reserves were committed, and then producing the decisive blow, typically from one or other of the flanks. Thus, the four-phase battle theory could have been applied to each of a series of relatively disconnected (in space and time) battles, as per the American Civil War.

When the Great War started, Haig appears to have expected that it would consist of a series of battles occurring over a long period of time. More significantly, Haig, like Kitchener, did not believe that a single large annihilation battle, where one side totally destroyed the other within a matter of days or weeks, was the most likely outcome, although both planned to ensure that the BEF was not the subject of such an outcome. IMHO, the pre-war concept of a long-drawn out war was quite different from the post-war analysis. Both were valid, given the available facts at the time. But there was a distinct difference, as dictated by the reality of years of static seige warfare, as compared with the concept of years of mobile battles interspersed with some sieges of specific locations.


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salesie, with respect to the Moltkes and von Schlieffen, I would suggest reading the following:

'After Clausewitz: German Military Thinkers Before the Great War' by Echevarria (ISBN: 0700610745)

'Von Schlieffen's Military Writings' by Foley (ISBN: 0145408628)

'German Strategy and the Path to Verdun: Eric Falkenhayn and the Development of Attrition, 1870-1916' by Foley (ISBN: 0521841933)

These authors outline the depth of debate that took place in German circles after the Franco-Prussian War, and the Wars of Unification. In summary, I would respectfully suggest that the intent of the von Schlieffen Plan should not be regarded as a complete description of von Schlieffen's, or von Moltke the Younger's, understanding of the consequences of total war - der Volkskrieg.

As to the influence of these debates on British military thinking, including Haig's, then it is important to be aware of two things. First, the constant stream of translated books and pamphlets (both French and German), including such titles as:

'The Nation in Arms', translated from von der Goltz's book

'The Development of Strategical Science in the 19th Century' translated from von Caemmerer's book

to name but two that appeared in the Pall Mall Military Series for example.

Second, it was well recognised that Germany would likely be the major enemy in the next war. Numerous British officers, including Haig, learned to read German, read German primary sources, visited Germany and attended on their General Staff and manoevres. Haig's pre-war thinking includes multiple references that illustrate how there was cross-fertilization of ideas and concepts. Two other examples that spring to mind include General Maurice and Julian Grenfell. The latter is interesting because as a junior officer in the cavalry he visited Germany to learn German and gain first-hand experience of the German military to enable him to pass the Staff College examinations. I have a growing collection of books written by British Staff Officers, many of whom relate their learning German and pursuing studies of German sources.


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Robert, I drew the conclusion that you regarded Carlyon's view as being de-valued because he's non-military - otherwise why would you mention his lack of command experience at all?

I certainly don't regard a lack of military experience as being detrimental - as you know from another thread, the book by a certain Mr Bloch published around 1900 foretold, with almost supernatural accuracy, the way the next great war would be fought. Mr Bloch, a Jewish banker from Warsaw, with no military experience at all, out-thought the overwhelming majority of the professional army staff throughout the world - it would seem, in this instance at least, that a lack of military command experience is a distinct advantage?

As for Haig's one continuous battle/four phase battle theory, I would be extremely reluctant to accept any argument that says any significant difference existed pre and post-war. Remember what I posted earlier, Haig told Charteris to commence intelligence studies about total German man-power as early as 1914 (on the Aisne), after Haig's assessment of the fighting qualities of the German soldier confirmed his belief that this war would be decided by man-power.

Charteris also tells us that Haig rarely let a day or two go by without making enquiries about these studies. If he expected a long series of battles, and his 4 phases applied to each individual battle, then total German manpower assessments would be meaningless this early in the war. Why would a Corps Commander be so concerned about an enemy's total man-power situation - at this stage of the war, and at Corps level, why would he instruct his own intelligence chief to commence such a study, why not let his own intelligence staff concentrate solely on the order of battle that faced his own Corps? Surely, the order of battle being much more important if applying the 4 phases to individual battles? If not an unusual thing for a Corps Commander to do why would Charteris mention it?

Haig may have tweaked his theory during the course of the war but there's plenty of evidence to show that very little changed from pre to post-war in his thinking about the length of the war and its attritional nature - by May/June 1917 there's ample evidence to show he believed he was in phase 3 and moving towards phase 4. But, on the Aisne as early as 1914 he became certain that man-power would decide the outcome and that meant attrition.

Cheers - salesie.

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In summary, I would respectfully suggest that the intent of the von Schlieffen Plan should not be regarded as a complete description of von Schlieffen's, or von Moltke the Younger's, understanding of the consequences of total war - der Volkskrieg.


Robert, are you saying that Von Schlieffen truly understood the consequences of total war but didn't bother applying this understanding in his master plan?

Cheers - salesie.

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Hi Salesie,

It was I who made the comment about Carlyon so it is appropriate that I reply to you on that point. You comments centre on my initial post and if I could have my time over again I would have expressed it differently – it is too bald a statement. For that I apologise. I never intended to nor do I easily dismiss Carlyon’s work – it is a very fine book, which I acknowledged earlier. I, however, do question the validity of his analysis and it has nothing to do with him being a journalist.

While I readily accept his view that they were costly battles, I do not accept his analysis that the tactics employed at the Battles of Menin Road, Polygon Wood and Broodseinde were poor because of the casualties incurred - and that was the point my criticism. I feel it falls into the horrendous casualties school of thought and reflects a lack of knowledge of the difficulties facing the attacking forces and what actually contributed to the casualties. Nor, IMO, does it reflect an understanding of the complexities of the military operations involved.

Part of the thread sought to explain why I disagreed with him, rather than simply dismissing him.

In post #5

I highlighted some of the incidents that contributed to the casualties sustained by the Australians in those three battles that had little to do with the tactics employed.

Carlyon seems to ignore the fact that the German policy was to launch counter-attacks in order to recover the lost ground. These also contributed the losses the Australians sustained, so whatever tactics were employed, a good portion of the casualties would have occurred due to counter attacks.

At Post 199 I remarked “Carlyon is right to say these attacks were costly but were they too costly as he claims? … What other tactics would have delivered the gains achieved for considerably less casualties. Carlyon offers no alternative, can any one else?” If he is so ready to condemn the "bite and hold" tactics, why doesn't he offer an alternative? As the thread initiator wrote " If massed advances with distant objectives were a mistake, and well-planned but limited advances were also the wrong way to go, I'm not quite sure what Carlyon would like to have seen happen."

At post 199 I wrote “Carlyon says the losses incurred at Menin Road were the same as those incurred at Fromelles over the same period, with the only difference being Menin Road succeeded and thus the tactics were not much better. He neglects to say that Fromelles involved one division, while Menin Road involved two divisions against much stronger German defences sited in depth over a wider frontage or that the actual losses were half of those in the same period of Fromelles.” The last point was poorly expressed; in clarification the 5500 casualties sustained at Fromelles occurred over a 12 hour period while the 4200 sustained at Menin Road were a two day casualty figure, of which around 2800 were sustained in the first 24 hours. This is hardly an accurate analysis on Carlyon’s part. I don’t believe it is a valid judgment – it is a distortion of the facts available to him. An examination of the casualties detailed in the Australian Medical Official History show that Carlyon's figures for 3rd Ypres are inflated and that the casualties sustained at Menin Road and Fromelles were not the same.

Be critical by all means, but if an historian seeks to analyse events it ought to be based on a balanced consideration of the all the issues involved, a sound understanding of subject matter and accurate comment – not on a misrepresentation of facts and a single causal effect. All I ask is that they research in breadth and depth, try to fully understand the context and complexities associated with the subject they are writing about and apply that research as honestly, eruditely and as impartially as they can - to do otherwise is render a disservice to their readers.

The discussion on Carlyon was only a very small part of the thread and only I commented on him. By far the greater part of the discussion was about other matters quite disassociated from the Carlyon and arose from my comment “I can't offer a better solution regarding tactics at this time. … Operationally, however, the choice of the salient has to be questioned. I have wondered whether or not, after the success at Messines, the centre of gravity of the attack could have been made NE along the ridge running from Messines through Gheluvelt to Passchendaele rather than pushing out across the Ypres salient and its destroyed drainage system. It's just a thought at this stage and one needs to understand the implications and factors of such an approach before making a judgement.”

The vast majority of the initial posts sought to look at an alternative approach to 3rd Ypres from the operational level, not from a tactical perspective. Having looked at the information available to us at the operational level, we ascertained that this was actually the intent of GHQ from the beginning of the battle. Thus from an operational level I, for one, could not come up with a better option, other than offering an alternative first phase for the attack at post # 197

At this point I questioned why Gough had not given priority to the key ground on the ridge after 31 July. In the remainder of the thread Robert drew on sources from participants to demonstrate to me the difficulties actually incurred in securing the high ground during the battle itself and to show that Gough had in fact given priority to that area in his attack on 10 August and included it in his broader attack on 16 August. Robert's contributions ought not be dismissed with disdain, they provide a valuable insight into aspects of the battle that we rarely see. They made me re-consider my questions on Gough, although that doesn't mean I now think his approach was correct.

I don’t recall either of us saying in the thread that the Generals did a pretty good job in 1917 – that seems to be the impression that you have drawn from the discussion. We have simply discussed a number of issues in an attempt to better understand a particular aspect of 3rd Ypres. To link the main thrust of the thread to my criticism of Carlyon misrepresents the discussion that occurred.

It seems to me that Les Carlyon's view was too easily dismissed partially because "being a journalist and not a historian then he couldn't possibly understand", then it seemed to be implied that he based his view on the "myths stemming from the fertile ground of emotion" - as if emotion is intrinsically bad?

I believe you have distorted my comments by attempting to link the two when there is no basis to do so. The initial comment was made in post #2 in Feb 2007, nor did I say that "being a journalist and not a historian then he couldn't possibly understand" - they are your words not mine. The second was at post # 335 eleven months later. My actual comment was “The Great War has suffered a great deal of myth-making sown in the fertile soil of the emotional aftermath of such horrendous losses.” . Nor did it suggest that emotion is intrinsically bad – again they are your words not mine. There is no link between the two, nor was one intended. The discussion had gone far beyond Carlyon at that point. There is no reference to Carlyon and nor can it be implied that he was the target of my comment. It was a general comment.

By all means contest what I have written but please don’t attribute to me views that I have not made.

I think if we were to speak face-to-face we would find that we have a reasonably similar view of Haig and his Generals – points of difference rather than an opposed view. There are areas where I think the criticism of them is too harsh and others where I think they deserve to be held directly accountable for the losses incurred - as I have said I think Haig's decision to continue 3rd Ypres after Broodseinde was wrong given the appalling conditions that existed when the October rains commenced.



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