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Western Front tactics in 1917


Mat McLachlan
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I drew the conclusion that you regarded Carlyon's view as being de-valued because he's non-military
Then it is excellent, salesie, that you took the time to publicly raise this concern.
otherwise why would you mention his lack of command experience at all?
As it happens, I did not raise this point, but I am very happy to speak to it. Just to reiterate, a non-military background does not negate Carylon's views. It simply means that one has to take this into consideration. The perspectives of someone like myself who has never been in the military, who has never faced action, who has never commanded anyone or anything on the field of battle, must perforce be limited.

I don't believe you are suggesting that Carlyon's views must be believed and never questioned because he has never served in the military. You appear to be expressing concerns that his views, irrespective of his background, have been challenged because his views, irrespective of his background, align with the perception that Third Ypres was a needless waste due, in large part, to incompetent generalship. This was not the basis of the debate that Chris and I launched, which focused on a very specific military problem - how best to attack the ridge compared with how this was carried out in the first weeks.

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.
I would urge caution in this interpretation, for two reasons:
  1. Bloch was not the only civilian to publish such material. Indeed, it would be interesting to know whether he was influenced by the likes of Delbrück for example.
  2. Successfully predicting one aspect of the consequences of total war, especially at the macro level, does not automatically bestow authenticity on other civilian writers who comment on completely different aspects.

Robert

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Are you saying that Von Schlieffen truly understood the consequences of total war but didn't bother applying this understanding in his master plan?
The opposite, salesie. It was precisley because he understood the consequences of total war that he tried to avoid them by applying this understanding to his master plan.

Robert

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Dare I say, one who has commanded men in battle, will understand the nuances of tactics, war, and its pressures, a great deal more than one who has never been in involved in battle. They will come at it from different perspectives.

This is not casting any doubt upon those who intelligently discuss and research in this thread, and who have never been in the hot seat, but only is mentioned, so that one does not mistake constructive criticism from some who have been on the firing end, as dismissive of what went before, or of current literature.

This thread has been a watershed, in that it has been discussed without any of those references so commonly attributed to the players of that era, (and which references have often had threads closed), and has also given insights into military planning and outcomes of the time.

Hats of to the people , especially Robert and Chris, who have made this thread, an absolute classic.

Cheers

Kim

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Hear hear Kim. This is one of the highlights of the whole Forum for depth of knowledge and informed debate. I have learned a great deal in these pages. Many thanks gentlemen.

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Gentlemen, firstly I would like to repeat what I said in post #343:

"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, without such casualty rates would anyone, other than a few historians, bother with such intense study of these events, and, to be frank, without such tragic cost in human terms 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 in this country 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!"

What I'm trying to say, gentlemen, is that I agree Carlyon's views lean far too much to the "ee-aw brigade's" perspective. But, also in my opinion, by concentrating on tactics and maps, and thus relegating losses to the role of barely mentioned statistics, you fall into the same trap as Carlyon i.e. you lean, whether intentionally or not, too far to the "revisionist faithful" extreme and could be accused of what the "ee-aw brigade" accuse the "donkeys" of doing; sitting in ivory towers, pawing over plans on your maps and losing sight of the human cost.

How can anyone, even after detailed examination of tactics, draw effective conclusions without asking, in their final analysis, was it worth it given the human cost? If we don't examine history to assess the potential human cost to us of repeating past events then why do we do it?

Cheers - salesie.

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I'm not sure what you mean by ' similar ' studies. Every frontline company sent in a sit rep twice a day and this was collated at battalon level and so on up through the hierarchy to GHQ. This was the basis for the twice yearly despatches published by the Gazette.

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But the foregoing posts are not just the equivalent of sitreps, which simply say what the state of things is at the time. They`re examining possible outcomes - tactics/strategy for the continuation of the battle.

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I wasn't sure what you were asking. Senior officers seem to have presented ' papers ' either on request or as a suggestion with regard to various schemes. They also put up papers analysing actions. Whether these were retained or where they ended up, I do not know.

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Why should WW1 stand out in body counts? Has not history repeated itself over and over. Horrendous losses in WW1? War has caused horrendous losses through time.

How many did Genghis Khan account for? Was he a brilliant leader or a madman?

WW2? 6 million of one race alone, let alone all those who took up arms.

Vietnam?

Different wars, but the losses, were they justifiable? Were they expected? Were they taken into contention, when battles or offensives, were planned?

Vietnam was a war that no-one wants to remember. Why?

Because the ones in charge did not worry about body bags? The VC used methods and tactics that caused the most harm with minimum firepower? They made fools of modern warfare? The offensive by the Yanks was burn and destroy, no matter who or what?

Some nations who fought, prepared their soldiers, on lessons learnt in other wars. They had studied, and taken on board, the lessons of the past. Others came from a different point of view, one that firepower and numbers had to win, losses of a high number were to be expected.

We know the outcome of Vietnam.

When planning an offensive, surely the nature of the environment must play a huge part in the body count.

What the question is, is the nature of the environment, worth the battle.?

And if that battle is not fought, will it result in a deficit for your side?

Planning, resources, intelligence, terrain, communications, all play their part, and if one small minor part goes astray, what for the body count then?

Yes, WW1 stands out, but look to other wars in context. Man has not learnt.

The environment, and the terrain of the battlefield, has always been a huge factor in determining the outcome of a battle, from the deserts of the Middle East to the jungles of the Pacific.

Some soldiers, who become Generals, learn from history, and apply the lessons, others don't. But even then, that may not help the body count.

In war, who dares, wins; the body count does becomes a statistic.

Kim

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...by concentrating on tactics and maps, and thus relegating losses to the role of barely mentioned statistics, you fall into the same trap as Carlyon i.e. you lean, whether intentionally or not, too far to the "revisionist faithful" extreme and could be accused of what the "ee-aw brigade" accuse the "donkeys" of doing; sitting in ivory towers, pawing over plans on your maps and losing sight of the human cost.
salesie, by all means I can be accused of sitting in the equivalent of an ivory tower (if a swivel chair in a modest family home equates - your real point is that I have had no experience whatsoever of the horrors of war, and the horrors of Third Ypres in particular, which is totally true) and pawing over tactics and maps. I have the same superficial understanding of being there as everyone else on this Forum, having read (and quoted) the personal stories of countless men who were there. I did see the effect it had on my Grandfather, who fought there in the worst of the battles of Third Ypres. We are on the same level of understanding. Does that mean that I should not look at these issues in detail, as I have done? By that I mean that I should not have presented any of the information and maps in this thread. I don't think that is what you are saying. Are you suggesting that I should have added an appendix, or a constant message throughout "...and all of this was a tragic waste!"? Or is there something more fundamental here?

There is an orthodoxy about Third Ypres that runs something like... the conditions of the battlefield were absolutely horrendous -> the effects on the soldiers were absolutely horrendous -> the losses were absolutely horrendous -> the aims of the whole campaign were unrealistic -> the execution of those aims by General Gough (but not Plumer) were flawed -> Third Ypres is the worst example of what happened in the worst war in British history. Many people classify it as a failure. Others say it was not a 'military' failure but any 'success' was not worth the cost.

What the limited analysis suggested is that the British commanders, including Gough, appeared to be thinking carefully about what they were doing, and learning quickly. This threatens a significant piece of the orthodoxy. The analysis also showed that any attempt to take the ridge was extremely difficult, due in no small part to the skills of the enemy and the huge problems of trying to wage war against an enemy where there was no clear advantage in technology or tactics. This threatens another piece of the orthodoxy. Then the question arises - perhaps it would have been impossible to avoid Passchendaele, no matter where and when the Germans were engaged? And this problem was not an intrinsic problem to do with the poor generalship, but to do with the fundamental nature of modern war between two almost equally matched combatants, both of whom made mistakes but mostly fought each other with incredible determination and with all the skills and technologies they could muster. And the men suffered in the middle, as soldiers do in war.

I do not shirk from the criticism that I have no experience or deep understanding of the human suffering involved. I cannot change the suffering that occurred. In analysing the war in general, and Third Ypres in particular, I do not want to reach a conclusion that is based on a too limited understanding of what happened and why. It is too easy to say that the generals screwed up. It may be that the fundamental reason for the suffering was that war is hell. Whether it was conducted on the slopes of Passchendaele Ridge, or on the rolling farmlands of the Somme, or whereever, the brutal fight-to-the-finish was the same. There can be no escaping this. The conclusion is not that we needed better generals, we needed to avoid the need for war in the first place!

So what is the real concern posed by my analysis, salesie? Is it that if our generals were not as incompetent as we have been led to believe? That suffering of Third Ypres would somehow be diminished or negated? God forbid!! But we would lose easy scapegoats! And that brings us face-to-face with a very different truth.

How can anyone, even after detailed examination of tactics, draw effective conclusions without asking, in their final analysis, was it worth it given the human cost? If we don't examine history to assess the potential human cost to us of repeating past events then why do we do it?
Because we must get at the fundamental truths behind all of this. If our lesson is that Third Ypres was not worth it because of the ground, the drainage, the inability to face the reality of the weather forecast, the ability to mislead about the state of the German Army, then we run a serious risk of misinterpreting war in the present day. Then our conclusion might be that such a battle would be worth it if the terrain was drier, if the generals were articulate, if there were precision-guided munitions and other technologies that minimised our losses, if the major battle with the opposing regular army could be over in a few weeks, if...

Please note that these are points for debate. None of this implies any personal criticism whatsoever. I welcome any responses.

Robert

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Robert, if I've offended you, I apologise - my intention was not to offend.

Of course, you have a right to study and post whatever you like whenever you like (unless inflammatory and offensive); the men who fought believed that the preservation of basic freedoms such as this were the very reasons they were fighting and I would never dream of suggesting otherwise. But, I decided to word my last post in this way to drive home my main point - that I become just as uneasy when seeing tactical analysis after tactical analysis posted without any apparent attempt to address the human costs as I do when seeing the blatant hang ringing of the "ee-aw brigade". And being a Yorkshireman my bluntness itself can offend - and I can't always see why. There, that's the most explaining I've done since calling my mother-in-law an old bag whilst under the influence of lots of Guinness (a lot to answer for those Irish).

Now, back to 1917:

I happen to strongly suspect that Haig continued well beyond the point of diminishing returns with 3rd Ypres for valid strategic reasons, and that the tactics employed became secondary to these strategic considerations. I only have suspicions at the moment because more research is needed and there is the conundrum of Haig's relationship with the Director of Military Intelligence, Macdonogh, to overcome before I become convinced. This may also be tied to the reasons why Cambrai was lifted from a raid-in-force to a full-scale assault. In short, the main reason why in 1917 Haig continued well into the winter "closed season" with the major offensives that cost so many men their futures.

Unfortunately, I'm really busy at the moment and this may take some time to rationalise but when I get an itch I tend to keep scratching to the bone.

Cheers - salesie.

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Gentlemen, firstly I would like to repeat what I said in post #343:

"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. ... , also in my opinion, by concentrating on tactics and maps, and thus relegating losses to the role of barely mentioned statistics, you fall into the same trap as Carlyon

Salesie,

And as we have explained earlier, the thread was NOT concerned with tactics, it was a discussion of operational level options. I am not sure how one undertakes a meaningful discussion of this without referring to maps in order to explain and consider particular points that have been suggested.

Your comments about our neglect of casualties are disingenuous. They ignore that we did recognise the terrible losses and that one of the points raised was whether the operational approach we considered could have resulted in fewer casualties.

With regard to falling into the same trap as Carlyon. He offered no alternatives other than making a judgment based on a comparison of two battles that was inaccurate and a distortion of the information available to him. While we admitted we could not think of better tactics, we considered an alternative operation level approach and the discussion was based on the consideration of a great many issues and the views of several people who actually participated in the campaign.

Indeed, throughout your posts you have sought to distort what we have discussed and misrepresent what we have written in order to justify your opinion of the thread. We have made no judgment that " given the strategic necessities and the almost insurmountable operational difficulties,the British Generals, all in all, in 1917 did a pretty good job." . It an opinion you have sought to foist on us.

Cheers

Chris

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- my intention was not to offend.

Sorry Salesie but I don't think you are being completely honest or sincere with this statement. In a tone of assumed superiority and with language that could be read as disrespectful, you sought to denigrate a body of considered discussion and a good deal of excellent work undertaken by Robert. If that is not intending to offend, I don't know what is.

Not only that, you weren't truthful in representing our views, even to the extent of attributing statements to us that either: were actually your own quotes, a misrepresentation of what we said and, in Robert's case, attributing a comment to him that he never made. You tried to draw a direct sequential link between two posts eleven months apart at either end of a very long thread and in doing so completely misrepresented the comments made in both of them. Again, if this approach is not intended to offend, ...

I support plain talking but let us do so with due regard for other's contributions and opinions and a fair and accurate representation of the issues we are challenging them on.

Chris

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Hey, Chris, let's not get carried away here - I said earlier that Robert had every right to study whatever he wanted whenever he wanted and I meant it, but I also have the same rights. I formed an opinion based on what I saw as the overall tone of this thread and I voiced that opinion - my opinion has not really changed; I apologised if I caused offence not for the opinion itself.

Most have differing opinions on the same set of circumstances and if we make our own opinions public we run the risk of being criticised - it's called free speech, and I for one intend to continue exercising it - as I'm sure you do.

Cheers - salesie.

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Salesie,

I am not challenging your right to free speech or to express an opinion - I am simply expressing an opinion of several of the issues you have raised and the tone of the language you have used.

I agree - time to move on. We have expressed our respective views and whether we agree or not is irrelevant.

Cheers

Chris.

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Now that I have a few hours, I'll try to elaborate my thoughts on a point briefly covered earlier which both Robert and I appeared to agree on; that whatever the general in charge, whatever the tactics used, whatever the terrain etc. the casualties were always going to be horrendously high because of the very nature of modern total war.

In the very first post, this paragraph posed the original theme for the thread:

"I was a bit confused during his description of Third Ypres though. Carlyon basically said that the method of attack for 1916 (long advances after a static barrage) didn't work - no arguments there. But he then goes on to say that the tactics for Menin Road, Polygon Wood and Broodseinde Ridge in 1917 (limited advances behind a creeping barrage) were successful at taking ground but far too costly in terms of casualties. This is the first time I have heard this suggestion put forward (he implies that anyone who considers those 1917 battles as successful is plain wrong) but he doesn't suggest an alternative. 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. Apart from waiting for the Germans to die of old age, there wasn't much of an alternative in 1917.

Thoughts?

Mat"

No matter how hard I try, neither can I, in essence, see any real difference between the battles of 1916 & 1917. I understand the arguments of the learning curves of the chief players, of the differences between long advances after static barrages and the tactics of bite & hold behind creeping barrages, but what difference was there in the end result? None really, both resulted in the trading of relatively small gains of ground for high numbers of casualties.

It is my contention that whatever the tactics employed, whatever the operational considerations, both were, in essence, made completely irrelevant by the main strategic point of total war i.e.

"...the war of the future would not be a replay of the Napoleonic Wars or even of 1870-1, to be decided in a matter of hours or days in a single clash on some obscure field of which no one had ever heard...the array of fearsome modern weapons and the nature of modern society made such an outcome wishful thinking, since the armies would be unable to press their attacks to a conclusion. Instead... a prolonged and devastating struggle which would drag on through ponderous and pitiless years, years in which no ravishingly clever stratagem, or splendidly timed and executed manoeuvre, could ever yield the victory so earnestly sought. The next great war...would not be decided through the struggles of the fighting man, but its resolution would lie in the grim and indifferent hands of famine and social upheaval...

...the soldiers in the line would be more preoccupied with survival than with victory, driven to seek shelter in the belly of the cold earth from the storm of metal which would fill the air and accordingly, 'Everybody will be entrenched in the next war. It will be a war of entrenchments. The spade will be as indispensable to a soldier as his rifle,' with the unlooked-for consequence that the act of fighting would have little in common with the traditional, straightfor-ward contest over open ground in which the soldiers would measure their skill, their physical and moral superiority against each other in the time-honoured way..." (published in 1900).

"...Wars between great powers are only won quickly when there is a significant disparity between the opposing powers in society, weaponry, technique or, more rarely, commanding genius. In 1870-1 the decisive disparities lay in the facts that Prussia possessed a mass conscript army, a speedy mobilization and a modern General Staff, and Napoleon III did not. By 1914 everybody had taken urgent steps to ensure that they, too, possessed these attributes, and everybody was on a more or less equal footing.""

I believe that Haig understood this, and from it formed his pre-war "4 stage one continuos battle doctrine", and that he became totally convinced of its validity on the Aisne in 1914, otherwise, as I asked earlier, why would a Corps commander (at the time) divert valuable intelligence resources towards the study of TOTAL German army manpower, and continue when C-in-C with his own in-depth studies of German manpower, morale etc. when the war office was doing exactly this? Haig's theory, developed while he was in India, consisted of four necessary phases: 1. The manoeuvre for position; 2. The first clash of battle; 3. The wearing-out fight, of varying duration; 4. The eventual decisive blow.

In my opinion, Haig understood that until the collective will-to-win of the German army was broken that no victory was possible, no matter what the tactics employed no matter what the operational considerations - consequently, he realised the only way to destroy the collective German will-to-win was to conduct a virtually unrelenting war of attrition, that phase 3 was where the war would be won or lost. And, I believe that he was right in this belief (whether it was morally right or not is a different consideration).

There is evidence to show that he believed the end of phase 3 was near in the summer of 1917, largely based on highly over-optimistic reports on the state of the German army compiled by Charteris and contrary to the highly accurate reports from the war office. I also believe that Haig was somewhat obsessed by 1st Ypres and his belief that if the Germans had pushed just one more time they would have broken through - hence his making several statements in 1917 to the effect that we must not make the same mistake as the Germans did in 1914 in Flanders.

However, I digress a little from my main point. The military actions, in my opinion, were just one significant part in destroying the collective German will-to-win; also there was the naval blockade, the failure of the U-boat campaign, and the intelligence/propaganda war fought by British Military Intelligence, all of which combined to bring about a collapse of morale on the German home-front and having a dire knock-on effect on the German army in the field.

In my opinion, the reason why Carlyon, and as far as I can see anyone else, can't come up with any alternatives in 1917, is because there simply wasn’t any, no matter what was tried, given the omnipotent strategic considerations of total war, the end result would always be small gains in ground traded for high casualties (just as in 1916). No matter what was tried tactically/operationally the simple fact of the matter is until stage 4 was reached (and I don't believe that was reached until the summer of 1918) no victory was possible, but that the military pressure must be maintained in order to help bring about a collapse in the collective will-to-win of the German people/army; as I quoted earlier, "its resolution would lie in the grim and indifferent hands of famine and social upheaval...".

Cheers - salesie.

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salesie, thank you for your further comments. You have raised some very important points, and it will take a while to digest all of this and respond. Meanwhile, there is one thing to consider with respect to the difference between 1916 and 1917. If the British Army has stayed still with respect to tactics, proportion and numbers of heavy guns, etc, etc, then the loss ratio would have been much higher. Indeed, the whole war was a case of each side slightly leap-frogging the other in some aspect, gaining a slight advantage here, loosing a little there, and so on. Ultimately the advances negated each other and no side ever achieved a decisive advantage (ala development of an atomic bomb) over the other. The best way to understand this is to consider that the numbers of machine guns and quantity of artillery/shells increased hugely by war's end, compared with August 1914 - but the rate of losses did not increase substantially. Had one side elected to stay frozen in time, then the outcome might have been very different!

Robert

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Robert, I agree - and I'm not suggesting that Haig should have stayed frozen in time (nor in fact did he, although perhaps he was sometimes slow to change because of his understanding of the ultimate strategic consideration of total war), I'm suggesting that it was imperative he continued the BEF's aggressive approach in order to add strength to the other significant factors that combined to facilitate the collapse of the enemy's will-to-win that was so necessary in achieving ultimate victory. From the context that, firstly, it was his job to do so, and, secondly, once total war had been engaged, whether understanding its true meaning or not, victory had to be achieved. (As I said earlier the moral validity of this is a different discussion).

As you say, the casualty rate did not increase proportionally with material use and that is to be welcomed; but I would make the starting point of that particular graph July 1916 not August 1914. However, I can't see how that detracts from my main point that the omnipotent strategic point of total war made any tactical/operational considerations irrelevant - they learnt how to keep casualties down a bit (percentage wise), but in 1917 the end result was still trading relatively little ground gained for high casualties; proportionate or not they were still horrendous in their totality (and inevitable given the true nature of total war).

Cheers - salesie.

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In my opinion, the reason why Carlyon, and as far as I can see anyone else, can't come up with any alternatives in 1917, is because there simply wasn’t any, no matter what was tried.

Cheers - salesie.

Hello Salesie,

I have just switched on to this thread and realise what I have been missing.

I have enjoyed your contributions, delivered as usual with clarity and purpose.

Your point that there were no alternatives was seemingly shared by Robertson (The CIGS). In a message to Haig on the 27th Sept 1917 he admitted that ".....I stick to it ( the strategy and tactics being employed during Third Ypres) because I see nothing better, and because my instinct prompts me to stick to it, than because of any good argument by which I can support it."

Kind regards,

Harry

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salesie, I have been considering your points very carefully. The responses will be separated out, so please bear with me.

No matter how hard I try, neither can I, in essence, see any real difference between the battles of 1916 & 1917. I understand the arguments of the learning curves of the chief players, of the differences between long advances after static barrages and the tactics of bite & hold behind creeping barrages, but what difference was there in the end result? None really, both resulted in the trading of relatively small gains of ground for high numbers of casualties.
If you look at the specific outcomes that you have defined, rather than the means of achieving those outcomes, then your analysis is correct. Limited geographic gains and significant numbers of casualties. There were, however, huge differences in the methods used, both offensive and defensive. If one side had stood still, for example if Haig had assumed that the tactics of day one on the Somme were all that the British Army could deliver, and that increases in tanks, types of aircraft, numbers and types of guns/howitzers, numbers of automatic and close support weapons, small team tactics, etc, etc were not needed, then the outcomes in 1917 would have been fundamentally different. The whole British Army would have been lost because there was no way that the Germans were going to stay still!

Assuming that the rate of casualties was the same for the major battles in 1916 and 1917, then the massive increase in firepower, even in that time frame, was enough to make one realise that some pretty fundamental changes had taken place on the battlefields to ensure that the rate of casualties did not escalate to the same degree. In fact, the daily rate of British casualties went down in Third Ypres compared with earlier and later periods of the war! I don't recall the exact figures but I know Chris has these. IMHO, it is not correct to conclude, as Carlyon does, that because there was no apparent difference in the outcomes (which is not quite true) then there was no difference in the means. This does not do justice to the major strides that were taken and provides a too simplistic view of what happened during that two year period.

Robert

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Robert, as you know I've never fully agreed with Carlyon's conclusions, or fully with yours. I've stated several times that I believe, with respect, that both arguments fall into a similar trap i.e. too narrow a focus. Carlyon looks for the devil mainly in the casualty rates, you look for Lucifer mainly in the tactical/operational spheres - I contend that in fact the devil lies firmly in the ultimate and inviolate strategic meaning of total war.

Of course, both sides learnt - but that was from each others actions - there were extremely strong cause-and-effect forces at work, and, in my opinion, these forces would always be in equilibrium for some considerable time because, "By 1914 everybody had taken urgent steps to ensure that they, too, possessed these attributes, and everybody was on a more or less equal footing", and this balance would have been maintained for ever unless one side suffered a major deterioration in the factors that kept them in the total-war business as equal partners i.e. stage 4 could not be reached until stage 3, the wearing down phase, had run its full course. I believe that Haig understood this and is why the British military pressure was maintained at such a pitch, and, as I said earlier, he was right to maintain this pressure if victory were to be achieved - however, given the strong causal forces at work on both sides (both learnt from each other) then without outside factors, such as the naval blockade, America's intervention etc, any learning curve of the generals would only serve to prove the almost futile point of their "education" towards gaining ultimate victory.

In my opinion, no one single factor defeated Germany - though a significant factor, military action alone, no matter how much learning went on, no matter how "experienced" it became, could ever achieve total victory. In this context, I still can't see any meaningful difference between 1916 & 17 - the devil is neither in the detail of military tactics/operations nor in the casualty rates, and never will be in total-war because total-war itself is the devil of the matter.

Cheers - salesie.

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It is my contention that whatever the tactics employed, whatever the operational considerations, both were, in essence, made completely irrelevant by the main strategic point of total war...[snip]...In my opinion, Haig understood that until the collective will-to-win of the German army was broken that no victory was possible...
salesie, FWIIW I agree with the essence of this section of your comments. The only minor point that I would make is that although the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 was quick by comparison with the Great War, it took far longer than the Germans had expected, especially given the relatively rapid defeat of the French Imperial Army. This had a profound effect on German military thinking as the significance of der Volkskrieg (the People's War) became apparent. Von Moltke the Elder and Von der Goltz quickly understood the implications for future wars. Major debates were sparked off, which spilled over into the public press. On one 'side' were those members of the German General Staff who continued to press for die Niederwerfungsstrategie or die Vernichtungsstrategie - the strategy of rapid total destruction of the enemy in early decisive battle. This strategy now had to include the rapid and decisive crushing of any civilian tendency to resist. On the other 'side', a civilian academic by the name of Hans Delbrück persistently challenged this strategy. From 1878 onwards, he published on the concept of die Ermattungsstrategie - the strategy of attrition, based on his interpretation of the future of modern war which exactly parallels the material that you quoted. The debates continued throughout the late 19th and into the 20th Centuries. They flowed over into English publications and translations, several of which I have gathered up over the years in addition to many of the original German publications, partly through my interest in the development of military thinking in general prior to the war, partly through my specific interest in the development of the cavalry before the war.

no matter what the tactics employed no matter what the operational considerations - consequently, he realised the only way to destroy the collective German will-to-win was to conduct a virtually unrelenting war of attrition, that phase 3 was where the war would be won or lost. And, I believe that he was right in this belief (whether it was morally right or not is a different consideration).

In this section, I would respectfully submit that you have conflated two issues, and missed out a potentially important point. You are quite correct in noting that Haig realised that the war was likely to be long and extremely difficult. This was a strategic concept. The tactical and operational considerations were extremely important, however, in executing against this strategy. Haig was at the forefront of seeking new and better ways of executing the Allied strategy of ejecting the Germans from France and Belgium, and ultimately defeating them. In practice, the only likely way to achieve the former was to achieve the latter, the outcomes were inextricably linked. This did not stop Haig from also considering contigencies in case the German Army should collapse unexpectedly, either at some specific point on the battlefield as per the Battle of the Somme, or overall. It is difficult to grasp the idea that both concepts were held in juxtaposition - the need to destroy the German reserves and the morale of the army in the long-term versus the need to consider a possible local/general collapse at any time. This brings me to your next key point:

There is evidence to show that he believed the end of phase 3 was near in the summer of 1917, largely based on highly over-optimistic reports on the state of the German army compiled by Charteris and contrary to the highly accurate reports from the war office. I also believe that Haig was somewhat obsessed by 1st Ypres and his belief that if the Germans had pushed just one more time they would have broken through - hence his making several statements in 1917 to the effect that we must not make the same mistake as the Germans did in 1914 in Flanders.
The overwhelming body of evidence shows that, whatever Charteris may have written in some documents, Haig was not planning that the war would end in 1917. The pursuit of the campaign for Passchendale Ridge cannot be interpreted, IMHO, as being primarily driven by the idea that the Germans were on the brink of defeat, though contigencies were in place in the event that this happened. It is not even correct to say that the campaign reflected some mistaken belief that a breakthrough to the Belgian ports was likely, even though this contingency was also planned for.

In a previous post, you quoted a source that included the following quote from Harington, Plumer's Chief of Staff:

"Sir Douglas Haig warned us in a memorandum on 30th June [1917] shortly after Messines that the fundamental object of the operations was the defeat of the German Army and this could not be achieved in a single battle and that we must make preparations for 'very hard fighting lasting perhaps for weeks' and that we must arrange to deliver a series of organized attacks on a large scale and on broad frontages." [from Harington's book 'Plumer of Messines']

At first glance, this quote appears to endorse a view that 'the defeat of the German Army' would occur immediately after 'very hard fighting lasting perhaps for weeks'. But such a view is not supported by analysing the full context of Harington's quote. He immediately added:

"I can say without hesitation that my Chief, General Sir H. Plumer, welcomed and endorsed the plan."

Was this endorsement based on Plumer's understanding that Haig believed the German Army would be defeated in weeks? Not at all. The next sentence reads:

"He [Plumer] had known what it was to have his troops sitting day after day and winter after winter under the Messines-Wytschaete Ridge and in front of Ypres, with the enemy holding all the commanding ground. The capture of Broodseinde, Passchendaele, Westroosebeek, Staden was the only solution to the holding of the Ypres Salient and the Germans knew it only too well.

Some writers have been kind enough to describe the capture of the Messines Ridge as a life-saving operation as the casualties were only a fifth of what we feared and it certainly did put an end to an intolerable situation. At the same time I venture to think that if it had not been for the appalling conditions of weather and mud... the capture of the above-mentioned line would have taken us a long way on the road to final victory."

Note that Harington did not believe that 'capture of the above-mentioned line' would achieve 'final victory'. Haig had provided a strategic context, within the grand strategy formulated by the Entente. Plumer and Harington (as well as Gough) translated the strategy into their immediate Mission, the capture of the high ground. The Timing of that Mission involved 'weeks'. Had this Mission been fulfilled more quickly, there is no doubt in my mind that given the state of the French Army and the implications of the successful earlier completion of the Mission, namely that the German Army had performed less well than it did, then a new Mission would have been set that involved the next step towards the goal of capturing the German-held ports.

Harington went on to say:

"Just after our capture of the Broodseinde Ridge on 4th October, I reconnoitred the Bellevue position under the most appalling conditions prior to the attack of 12th October. It has been said that it was between the above dates that Sir Douglas Haig should have abandoned all further operations. On that I can make no criticism. I was not in a position to know the various factors that influenced him. I certainly never heard the question either raised or mentioned. Most of the conferences during that period of the Passchendaele fighting between August and November, of Sir Douglas Haig and his Army Commanders (Generals Plumer and Gough) were held actually in my own office over my own map. One writer has stated that my Chief was always opposed to the Passchendaele operations and urged Sir Douglas Haig to abandon them... [Plumer] knew well what the ridge would mean to his beloved troops and I am sure that once within grasp, as it was after his successful capture of the Broodseinde Ridge on 4th October, he never gave a thought to stopping and turning back. I am sure that all the Second Army Staff, who were priviledged with me to serve him, will support the statement, and also the fact that no one hated being sent to Italy and leaving the Ypres Salient, which he had held for so long, more than our Chief."

At this point I want to emphasize very strongly that I am not saying that your information about the content of Charteris' reports is wrong, or that your information about Macdonogh's reports is wrong. What I have attempted to show is that any discrepany between the two reports in favour of Macdonogh's more accurate prediction in the light of history is not evidence of a mistaken belief on Haig's part with respect to the goals and execution of Third Ypres.

Robert

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