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Remembered Today:

Western Front tactics in 1917


Mat McLachlan

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Phil,

One of the vulnerabilities of a salient is its flanks at the base of the salient. By anchoring the flank on a riverline you strengthen its defence, and reduce its vulnerability, by adding an obstacle to any attack against that flank. An opposed assault river crossing is a more complex and difficult operation to undertake.

Cheers

Chris

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Just to add to Chris' point, a river is very easy to defend with small rearguards. Thus, if you are pursuing an enemy 'at a run', they are very likely to hold you up at a river. The BEF experienced this during the First Battle of the Marne, although the German rearguards were spread too thinly to fully cover the Marne river for example. It is also significant that many of the major battles in the last days of the war, after the rupture of the Hindenburg line, were across rivers such as the Sambre.

Robert

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Having got my ducks in a row, I should like to return to some of the posts written earlier. From the outset I also want to stress that I mean absolutely no personal criticism when I say that some of the points made illustrate perfectly why it is that I and a few others are trying to place more information about the German army (in the broadest sense) at the disposal of everyone interested in Great War studies. The simple fact is that for decades the German case, for good or bad, has gone by default and, as a result, almost all the books and studies available to feed the debate are extraordinarily one-sided. Why this should be, I really do not know; it certainly does not apply to the Second World War.

Von Kuhl was writing in the late 1920s, but I do not accept that that invalidates his judgement about the significance of what the British army achieved in Flanders and equally I simply do not accept that the German army 'missed an opportunity' in late 1917. When I said that Third Ypres 'fixed' them in Flanders, I meant that it forced them to fight a campaign on ground not of their choosing. In other words they were drawn into a lengthy high-intensity battle which absorbed all the manpower, munitions and transport capacity which they had to spare (and, at times, more than they had to spare).

The German literature is packed with instances of what this meant in practice. Here follow a few selected examples. The list is by no means exhaustive. Oberst (later Generalmajor) Fritz von Lossberg parachuted in as chief of staff Fourth Army in the wake of Messines, describes at length in Meine Taetigkeit im Weltkriege 1914 - 1918 the efforts necessary to prepare to repel the forthcoming offensive and how the effort mortgaged everything else for the time it lasted.

The quantities of munitions consumed in the defensive battle were awesome. Crown Prince Rupprecht (army group commander) noted in his diary on 1 Aug 17, 'Yesterday the Fourth Army Artillery fired off the equivalent of 27 ammunition trainloads of shells.' This underlines the scale of the logisitic effort needed to support the defensive operations. Even if the ammunition and manpower could have been spirited up for a major offensive effort elsewhere, there simply was insufficient rolling stock or railway capacity to contemplate any such thing. On 5 Oct Fourth Army reported that it had fired off 30 trainloads on 4 Oct 17.

On 12 Aug 17, Rupprecht noted in his diary that a request by Second Army to launch an offensive near St Quentin with seven fresh divisions and an appropriate number of guns had to be turned down, 'General Ludendorff, who met General von Kuhl in Le Cateau today stated that it would not be possible to earmark that number of troops and stressed, rightly, that all offensive operations other than those absolutely necessary, must be curtailed.'

On 20 Aug 17, Rupprecht discussed the forthcoming six division attack near Riga with General Ludendorff. Ludendorff stated that in view of the recent events near Verdun (when the French captured Mort Homme), it would only be posible for the Riga attack to go ahead if Army Group Crown Prince Rupprecht could manage the Flanders battle from within its own resources. Rupprecht, despite his concern at the previous very high loss rates, agreed to do his best.

I will not labour the point. The fact is that The German army did not 'miss an opportunity' during Third Ypres. It was all it could do to hold what it had and to deploy a few divisions to Italy and near Riga.

Jack

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Hello Jack

Thank you for your posting.

In responding to your points, I believe that it would be useful to draw a distinction between the judgment of von Kuhl that you endorse and the premise upon which it is based.

In respect of the second limb, the diary entries that you have cited are quite telling. As per the entry of 20th August, the planned attack on Riga required Rupprecht’s assurance that the Army Group could manage the Flanders battle within its own resources. Although Riga did fall in September with little or no resistance, von Kuhl’s depiction that the Russian army had fallen completely out of the picture as a fighting force was clearly a product of hindsight rather than a contemporaneous judgment.

The same applies to the concerns that existed within the German High Command about the French success at Mort Homme which must have been compounded subsequently by their further success and use of innovative tactics at Malmaison in October. Contrary to von Kuhl’s comment, the French army was no longer in the critical condition that it had been in the aftermath of the failed Nivelles offensive.

I did not advance the proposition that Passchaendale was the ‘missed opportunity’ for the German army. I only suggested that was the inference that could be drawn from von Kuhl’s own blithe analysis.

In respect of the first limb, I do not dissent for one moment that Passchaendale drained the resources of the German army. The toll that was exacted on both parties was enormous. The lengthy quote from Luddendorf cited by Robert in one of his earlier posts confirms the same from the German perspective.

The issue remains was the German army capable of mounting a major offensive on the Western Front in 1917? In your own words Third Ypres forced it into a position where all it could do was to hold what it had. It is doubtful that the German Army possessed the resources to mount such an offensive until precisely the redeployment of the Divisions from the east had occurred for the final gamble of the 1918 Spring offensive.

That said, Passchaendale was either yet another battle of attrition or a vital, if costly, sacrifice to save the Entente. If it is the former then we come back to Phil’s balance sheet of costs weighed against gains. If it is the latter then the evidence and argument should be mustered to support the proposition.

I am inclined to the former rather than lending credence to von Kuhl’s hyperbole that ‘the sacrifices that the British made for the Entente were full justified’

Regards

Mel

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Chris, I have deleted the purple lines and extended the left flank of the proposed attack to lie west of Passchendaele. The superimposed squares should make it easier to identify how you might want this modified if I have not understood correctly.

post-1473-1171486126.jpg

Robert

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Chris, this next map assumes I have got the blue objective lines approximately right. It will only take a jiffy to correct them if not. Meanwhile, the approximate positions of the main German lines of defence are noted, though it should be recalled, as you know, that these 'lines' were not defended by lines of German defenders. In addition, I have added four red ellipses, labelled A, B, C and D. These represent key areas, the effects of which need to be understood in terms of the proposed battle plan.

post-1473-1171487288.jpg

A represents the region beyond the left flank of the British advance (the French were further over). Our attention should not be limited to the area encompassed by the ellipse but can encompass any issues that threaten that flank. For example, what influence would the Houthhulst Forest have on this flank?

B represents the area that would have to be captured by the British. What is this terrain like? Are there any key features that would favour the German defenders in retaining this area?

C represents the area that would remain in German hands. What role would the terrain play here? As with A, this last question should not be limited to the area covered by the ellipse but all of the terrain beyond this flank, particularly with respect to the location and operation of German artillery batteries on that flank.

The influence of D is probably not much different between what actually happened and what you are proposing.

I have visited these areas but have not studied them in detail. Unlike the Somme, where I have created terrain boards and walked quite a bit of the ground, it has not been possible to study the Salient as closely - yet. I would be very interested in any comments that our Belgian or other Pals could offer, especially those who live in this area and know the terrain well.

There are other operational issues that could be discussed but these can wait until you are comfortable with that the map represents the alternative plan. Even if the objective lines are not quite right, the 4 areas will still be roughly the same, and their significance will be unchanged.

Robert

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Robert,

These maps are excellent and they represent the option I have been thinking of. I do like your suggestion of anchoring the base of the right flank along the Lys as far as the kink in the river, such that the blue line runs from roughly where it cuts the Menin Road in Square 6D to where the red line at the bottom of oval C cuts the kink in the Lys. This would probably need more troops if we are to retain the blue line through Squares 2E to 1A.

Unfortunately I do not know the land south of the ridge at all so i would welcome the thoughts of others who do. I would also welcome comments on this option to analyse its feasibility.

Thanks again Robert, your maps provide an excellent basis for further debate and consideration of the option.

Regards

Chris

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Hello

I've been looking at Volume 13 of Der Weltkrieg, and have done 3 quick scans and one stich to assist the debate, because they show dispositions and lines. Vol 13 also has the fran***** type calander of where German units are.

I happy to put more effort into the scanning and stitching if forum members say what they want, and higher resoultion if required, to make them of much better quality. Also magnify them too, this is a taste to aid Robert as I don't think he has 13 or 14.

We will need a skilled german speaker to translate the legends.

Situation 30 July 1917

scan0009.jpg

31 July till 19 September 1917

3July-19Sept.jpg

Got Volume 14 too, if that is required, should I do a scan of both the contents and post - if so where Chris?

On a more personal note my grandfarther was involved in the attacks in Riga as a Stromtrooper and I had discusions about this, and his leave in Berlin (and Germany) in 1917. He said that the situation was near starvation all over Germany and that people were fed up, nothing to show from the defensive "victories". They also got ill after capturing stocks of mazipan, Riga being famous for it!

Scanner on Standby, is Master Jack warmed up too?

Regards

Mart

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Hello Jack,

Thank you for your reply.

I applaud the work you are doing to bring the German perspective of the Great War to those of us who don't speak German. It is long overdue. One of my interests has been the German Wars of Unification and the development of the German Army from 1850 -1918. Alas, I am restricted to reading those few English works on the subject so I look forward to you being very productive.

In my earlier post to you: while my comment can be read that the German's missed an opportunity, they weren't meant to convey that. Hence it was poorly expressed and my apologies. I was meaning that von Kuhl's comments, IMHO, smacked of trying to explain away a possible criticism that they had missed a lost opportunity. Like you, I don't think the Germans did miss an opportunity; they were fully commited and your comments about the impact Ypres had on them are well and truly accepted. Ypres did did hurt them badly, as I said earlier. Jack, I think we agree on the impact that 3rd Ypres had on the German Army.

However, I don't understand the logic of von Kuhl's statement about why the British had to fight on at Ypres until the onset of winter. Your view that the Germans

were drawn into a lengthy high-intensity battle which absorbed all the manpower, munitions and transport capacity which they had to spare (and, at times, more than they had to spare).
IMO is correct; but von Kuhl implies the opposite and further implies if the British had stopped their offensive earlier the Germans would have withdrawn troops from the east and attacked the Allies at a weak point. If 3rd Ypres had have been stopped when the battlefield turned to a quagmire (mid October - which is the earliest they did consider stopping) I suspect by that time the damage to the German Army had already been done. I am not convinced they would have been able to then take the initiative and mount a major offensive before winter set in. Hence my reason for questioning his statement.

Hope this clarifies the issue.

Regards

Chris

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Thanks Mart. Very helpful. I can make out some of the legend. The solid blue and red lines indicate the situation on the morning of 31st July. The dashed and dotted blue lines represent the approximate course of the German front line on the 15th and 16th August respectively (I think the numbers are right - the latter fits with the British offensive known as the Battle of Langemarck). The dashed green line is the approximate course of the main line of resistance at the end of the Battle of Flanders. I can't read the last one.

The second map illustrates a key issue that influenced the planning of Third Ypres, namely the German re-entrant between Ypres and Dixmuide, ie one of the factors to consider re area A.

I don't have volumes 13 and 14 - not many people do, so thank you very much for sharing this material. It would be great to have some higher quality scans, if that is not too much trouble. German artillery dispositions would be especially helpful. I know that the British perception of these played another role in their planning.

Robert

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Hello Mart,

Many thanks for this. The lie of the German defences is very important to analysing this option.

Regards

Chris

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This is why I read the forum.

Thank you all ... all of you ... This is history at it's best.

Had to jump in and echo Andy's vews. Class thread.

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Chris et al, this map is labelled Option 2. The second scenario of using the Lys River to define the far right flank is overlaid on the map that Mart kindly uploaded. I have noted a couple of key landmarks. The additional area of operational concern is now labelled 'E'.

post-1473-1171524801.jpg

Robert

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Steven Broomfield

I'm supposed to be going to work, but I've been sitting here transfixed fro 30 minutes reading this. As Andy and Andrew say - thanks. Classic work. :)

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Robert,

Excellent. let's go with that your last map (Hug the Lys). I have a full day tommorrow, so I will post some of the thoughts I had that led me to start thinking about this option over the weekend and we can then consider what other factors need to be considered.

Regards

chris

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Hi

I'm scanning 5 maps and other things, wait a little please.

Regards

Mart

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Chris, that would be great. I will start pulling together information from the original planning process, and piece together some pros and cons as well.

Mart, I am happy to wait a lot :D .

Robert

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Fine scholarship, gentlemen, and I am waiting (with baited breath) to read more

Once we have reached a natural conclusion; I would wish to explore another line.

If Haig allowed Plumer to attack from Messines northwards (rather than pass the baton to Gough and permit the attack from the Ypres area), could the objective of clearing the ridge have been achieved OR would such an action have been fatally open to counter attacks from the east?

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delta, we should try to include your question into the discussion now. It is a fundamental one that is just as pertinent for Chris' proposal.

Robert

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Hello

First scanned map, orginally done at 300 dpi, it's original size is 14.5 meg, will email orginal to those who know that there inbox can take it. Can yours Robert? So bits can be enlarged.

1917map531Julyto19SeptFinal.jpg

Regards

Mart

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delta, we should try to include your question into the discussion now. It is a fundamental one that is just as pertinent for Chris' proposal.

Robert - thank you :)

Stephen

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Hello

Two more scans, artillery dispositions, Flanders is the first one and the other (with two sets) for comparison.

First file orginal is 300 dpi and 6,9 meg, second 7.6 meg, as before pm if you would like the orginal.

Art1.jpg

Second needs redoing :angry:

Regards

Mart

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Mart, the quality of the scans is superb. The last part of the legend refers to the furthest line up to which the enemy could advance without endangering the Belgian coastal ports. Interesting to note that this line passes east of Roulers.

Robert

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Chris, I misplaced the Lys on my previous map. Thanks to Mart's latest version, I have been able to represent it more accurately. I have added the Ypres-Comines Canal and the towns on Comines and Menin, as well as Tourcoing. The general outline of the ridges has been transferred from the previous map too. I have altered the shape of the new salient - the precise shape does not matter too much at this stage. Area E has been relocated south of the Lys.

Apologies for the earlier mistake.

post-1473-1171577342.jpg

Robert

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If everyone is ok, I would like to go back and delete some of the previous pics. This will free up space on the server. We only need a couple of maps for this discussion.

Robert

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