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Western Front tactics in 1917


Mat McLachlan
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Perhaps guns per bayonet was a measure of how much artillery was required for an effective attacking force in the type of open warfare foreseen prior to the trench war. The guns per yard of enemy line would be a product of trench war. Would there have been statistics along these lines from the Russo-Japanese war?

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Today's excursion to the National Archives was troubling. It started well. I went through the war diaries of Fifth and Second Armies, as well as X Corps. Then it was time to check 30th Division. I was looking forward to this. During the earlier work in this thread, it was clear that 30th Division had experienced major problems in the 31st July attack. Details were very sketchy though. Now it seemed that there was an opportunity to gain deeper insights. But when I opened the box, the first sheaf of papers was in a thick folder marked "Proceedings of a Court of Enquiry Assembled at the Headquarters of 30th Division for the purpose of enquiring into the circumstances and responsibilities of commanders of units concerned: a. for the failure of the 30th Division to capture 'black line' on 31st July". It was a real shock. The thought of the commanders and other men of 30th Division being subjected to a court of enquiry after the traumas of 31st July...

To make it worse, I came across something else in the midst of the detailed evidence accumulated for the hearing. There were papers associated with a previous court of enquiry involving 30th Division in 1916. :(

Robert

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I hear you Robert, but one advantage for the historian is that, whatever the outcome of the enquiry, these events normally drew together, rather conveniently, all the relevant orders, assessments, battle logs, messages, marked maps and statements of surviving witnesses which were available at the time. I have found this to be most useful on more than one occasion when delviong into the archives at Munich, for example.

Jack

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Jack, you are absolutely right. The level of detail is incredible. There are the multiple personal anecdotes, but the most interesting aspect is the range of detailed operational orders, including policing of the battlefield and rear areas, salvaging, handling of prisoners, etc, etc. Most of these orders never survive in war diaries.

Robert

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Robert,

I agree with Jack. I think you have hit a potential gold mine.

I would very interested to hear what was concluded by the Court of Enquiry. You might recall I raised the issue of employing 30th Division on such a key task early on in the thread: being a division that had not recovered from its traumatic experience on the Somme and that GHQ recommended to Gough that it be replaced by a fresher division. Gough chose not to accept this advice.

One other thing that struck me is the different responses between 30th Division and the 1st and 2nd Australian Divisions later at Menin Road. All three were shelled in their Forming Up Place (FUP), 30th Division fell back to the shelter of its trenches: thus they fell well behind their creeping barrage as it moved forward and suffered badly from the German small arms fire once the barrage had passed beyond the first German defences. 1st and 2nd Australian Divisions at Menin Road, on being shelled in their FUP, moved further forward into no mans land, closing right up behind their barrage and maintained contact with it as the barrage moved forward.

To my mind this is a sign that 30th Division was still shaken from its experience at the Somme and was not battle hardened or a first rate Division at that time. Thus I question Gough's failure to heed the advice he was given. I still maintain that Gough ought not to have used 30th Division on such a vital task. I feel another better rated division at that time, such as the Guards Division, would have been a better choice with such a key task. The failure to do so indicates to me that Gough did not give sufficient attention to the resources needed to take the Gheluvelt Plateau.

I would be very interested to see the results of your study of these documents.

Cheers

Chris

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Hi Chris. Yes, I well remember your comments about 30th Division. It is one of the reasons why I have chased after the primary sources. There are more than 270 pages of content for review so the analysis is going to take a little while.

The alternative view is that there was not a quantum difference in performance between any two British divisions. Therefore, the relative failure of 30th Division (bearing in mind that they succeeded in making a significant advance, just not as far as set down in the subsequent objectives) may not reflect on 30th Division but on the defensive performance of the Germans in the context of the ridge.

Robert

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The alternative view is that there was not a quantum difference in performance between any two British divisions.

Hi Robert,

I am not sure on what basis the alternative view is based. GHQ were concerned enough about 30th Division's battle worthiness at that time to suggest to Gough that they not be used in the assault on 31 July. There are quantum differences in performance between divisions and units in the same national armies. This is reflected in a number of sources and my own experience confirms this. You know when you visit a very good unit and when you visit an average one - they have a distinct feel about them and this is reflected in their results on operations and exercises. The difference stems from the leadership, discipline and the quality and extent of training of the respective units/divisions, which is ultimately reflected in the unit's morale and performance. In 30th Division's case their traumatic experience at the Somme would also have played a part, especially if they had not been carefully and properly trained and had their battle confidence re-instilled in them.

I am not suggesting 30th Division was a poor division but the evidence to date suggests that they were not a first rate one at that time and there were concerns about their ability to undertake the vital task allotted to them. I am sure the strong German defences played a big part in them not achieving the Black Line. I also feel that falling behind their barrage played an equal part and this resulted from their response to being shelled in the FUP. I note your point that, in the end, they were able to advance some distance.

My issue is not with 30th Division who fought bravely and did as well as they could, but with Gough failing to heed the advice he was given not to use them and giving 30th Division a task people believed they were not yet ready to undertake; and one that was concerned with capturing key terrain. The point is: if Gough believed the Gueluvelt Plateau high ground was the vital area, why assign a division that was considered unfit for the task and especially having been advised against using it?

It will be interesting to see what the documents show us.

Cheers

Chris

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I am not sure on what basis the alternative view is based.
Chris, I quite understand, and agree with, your points about the differences between divisions. I don't have your practical experience but have seen the differences that you refer to in the literature. My use of 'quantum' was ill-defined. It was referring to the situation where an infantry attack comes up against significant resistance from either machine guns and/or artillery fire. In this circumstance, I am not convinced that first-rate infantry divisions were able to make significantly more progress than other divisions. Therein lies my alternative view.

It is clear that 30th Division made their first objective, the 'Blue Line'. Where they failed (and they were not alone in this) was in not reaching the second objective, the 'Black Line'. The distance of the latter was, of course, further than the 'Green' objective line set for I ANZAC Corps on 20th September, which was the furthest objective for I ANZAC.

Robert

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It was referring to the situation where an infantry attack comes up against significant resistance from either machine guns and/or artillery fire. In this circumstance, I am not convinced that first-rate infantry divisions were able to make significantly more progress than other divisions. Therein lies my alternative view.

Hi Robert,

Thank you for clarifying your point. You may well be correct but I am not sure it was as clear cut as that. We should assess the capability of the division as a whole. By that I mean not only the capability of the units and but also that of the various staffs and supporting arms within the division. They have to operate like well oiled machinery to be a really effective team. One of the activities 30th Division and I Anzac Corps had to undertake was a passage of lines whilst in contact with the enemy. A passage of lines involves the troops tasked with the second objective passing through the troops consolidating on the first objective. This is not always an easy task. It requires competence and good training/rehearsals to carry it off successfully with the minimum disruption AND that the first objective has been secured fully and properly AND, if I am not mistaken, in the case of Great War operations and artillery fire plans in the time planned. We might look at how 30th Division handled this.

I agree that the distance set for the Black line is an issue to be considered as well. This reflects Gough's preference for more distant objectives rather than the "bite and hold" approach which I think was a contributing factor for the failure. The answer of course will not lie with one factor alone; there will be several contributing factors.

Nor am I suggesting that a better division would have certainly reached the Black line, but the point remains that GHQ was concerned enough about 30th Division to recommend it not be used in the assault. That must tell us something about the division. Gough's refusal to heed that advice must also tell us something about the man. My deductions are that 30th Division was considered by GHQ of not being capable of successfully achieving the task set for it and that Gough was imprudent in not heeding the advice to replace them with a better division. Consequently, I question whether he really paid sufficient attention to the resources and tactics needed to secure the vital area?

From this I then ask if he was too "pre-occupied" or "focussed" (perhaps not the right words) on the bigger picture, ie on the campaign objectives, rather than breaking the operation down to its key phases and focussing on how they could be best achieved. I don't know and hopefully we might tease this out as more information becomes available.

Thus I am not so much focussing on 30th Division but trying to draw deductions from their employment that are related to the planning of the opening phases of the battle, and especially in regard to securing the ground of tactical importance (GTI).

Anyway, lets see what comes out of the documents. While they may lay the blame on 30th Division, I am inclined to think the root cause may lie at a higher level.

Cheers

Chris

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Chris, thank you for the additional comments. I agree with you that the performance of the division must be seen in a holistic way, encompassing training beforehand, planning, cooperation with artillery, etc. All of these issues appear to have been examined in the Court of Enquiry. All of that said, I know that you will agree that getting all of these things right did not guarantee success.

In all of my searches, I have not found any reference to GHQ's warning about 30th Division. Do you have any sources for this?

The objectives for 30th Division (and the other divisions on the ridge) were set as a series of "bite and hold" objectives. There was a very clear expectation, spelt out in red on the II Corps objective maps, that the Red Line was only to be considered if there was no or minimal opposition. As noted before, Sir Claud Jacob (GOC II Corps) was quite forceful in telling Gough that he (Jacob) would be responsible for setting how far the attack would attempt to go forward in his sector.

Robert

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All of that said, I know that you will agree that getting all of these things right did not guarantee success.

Hi Robert,

Yes, I agree.

I have not found any reference to GHQ's warning about 30th Division. Do you have any sources for this?

I don't have the source at hand. I think I read it in the British OH. I have a full schedule this week so I can't check it at the moment but will do so next week or so.

Cheers

Chris

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.....................

In all of my searches, I have not found any reference to GHQ's warning about 30th Division. Do you have any sources for this?

................

Robert

Chris is correct. It is mentioned in OH.

" The 30th Division ( Major Gen W. de L. Williams)had the most difficult task in the II Corps. The best available division was needed for the advance across the plateau. ............. A suggestion made by GHQ that a fresher division from the centre should replace the 30th Division was not, as time was short, carried into effect; but in compensation, a brigade of the 18th Division was allotted to it, to assist in the more distant objectives. "

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Thanks Chris and Tom. The BOH reference is clear but I am wondering what the statement was based on. Potentially, it is an example of a post hoc comment based on a submission made to the team who compiled the BOH. There are many such examples in the BOH, as we know. The method does not automatically negate the validity of the statement but I have not found any contemporaneous evidence. It would be helpful to know who provided the BOH editorial team with the statement, but I know this is not referenced in the BOH. The original, typically written, evidence supplied to the BOH may still exist.

The lack of contemporaneous evidence bothers me somewhat. It acts as a spur to continue the search. The evidence may still be there. It is not uncommon for such things to be missing from what has survived, and I have only covered some of the original sources. What troubles me about this issue, however, is that post hoc scapegoating was used in other circumstances where the true causes of failure lay in the unrecognised (at the time) performance of the Germans. The role of the BOH in perpetuating this problem was illustrated most forcibly by Wynne's articles and then book entitled "If Germany Attacks...". He was directly involved in the work on the BOHs, yet felt compelled to write a separate (and deeply unpopular) review of 'the other side of the hill'.

The search continues...

Robert

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...falling behind their barrage played an equal part and this resulted from their response to being shelled in the FUP.
Chris, so far there is no evidence for this being a problem with the first wave, whose target objective was the Blue Line. This comment is heavily caveated though. There are several hundred pages of evidence and I am going to study these in detail, plotting the movements and timings as presented in the evidence. The issue of the Manchesters struggling to exit the Tunnel and form up is interesting. They were in the second wave, heading for the Black Line. During practice, they were able to perform the manoeuvre in around 10 minutes, though 30 minutes had been left for this in the final timetable. On the day, the Special Company Royal Engineers fired off their thermite barrage (I had noted that this might have been used when interpreting one of Jack's translations) and then dived into the tunnel to get to the rear areas. This, coupled with the German counter-preparatory barrage, resulted in a severe delay in forming up.

Robert

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I had a look in the Bourne & Sheffield Diary and the only mention by Haig is a few days prior to the attack, " Jacobs is also most confident as to the result". 1st August, mention is made that black line was not reached, it is intended to be completed next day and II Corps losses had been small. At the time Plumer was given the command, end of August, there is a mention in the diary of a couple of divisions beng taken out of line. One under trained and one tired after 3 weeks in line. Neither are the 30th Div. If there was disquiet at GHQ, it does not seem to have been communicated to Haig.

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Yes, that was my impression too. The relevant quotes from S&B's version of the diary were included earlier on, but the thread is too long now. So thanks for re-raising these details.

Robert

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Sneaking off the stool while no-one was watching, I had a look at Haig's Despatches. There is no hint of criticism in them although 30th Div are mentioned, it is in a complimentary fashion.

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I went back to Earl Stanhope's memoirs too. He notes that it was Allenby who wanted rid of 30th Division, presumably as a result of something that happened during the Battle of Arras. The previous Court of Enquiry was held in 1916, after three companies of a battalion were cut-off during an attack, so pre-dating Arras. The court found that there was no evidence to support the allegation.

Robert

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I've had a look through the OH for Arras and can find nothing untoward re the 30th. They were replaced by a reserve division but so was another div at the same time. No special mention of them beyond their part in the battle.

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Hi Robert, Tom et al,

I was not my intention to turn this into a debate on 30th Division nor was I seeking to be critical of the division. All units/formations go through good and not so good periods.

Tom, thank you for chasing up the OH. Much appreciated.

Robert, you may be correct that it is simply a post hoc comment and until we find contemporary evidence to confirm it we won't know the validity of it. Nonetheless, the statement doesn't seem to me to have the tone of making 30th Division, or Gough, a scapegoat for not reaching the Black Line but more of an observation on the allocation of "troops to task". It was I who drew the deductions about Gough from it not the OH if that is troubling you. But I wouldn't write off the comment as insignificant and simply rely on the fact that the German defences were the main factor. They certainly played a significant part, but giving a division that may not have been considered one of the best the toughest job when better divisions were available is not a smart allocation of resources IMO. It is a bit like running your B or C Grade team on to play in the A Grade grand final.

I completely agree with you that the German defence must have a played a significant part in the result. In that regard I believe when considering any battle we must understand the actions of both sides; if one side lost then a significant contributing factor is what the other side did to win and vice versa. That is why those who simply seek to blame Haig or the British generals are demonstrating their ignorance of the subject of warfare; the actions of both sides give the complete picture. Allied with this, is that historians rarely, if ever, consider or give due regard to that ever present factor called the "friction of war", which also plays a part in why things go wrong or right. Seeing the whole picture from both sides is the key to understanding the factors that contributed to the result. IMO we of the British Commonwealth have never been good at that and are too interested in the "blame game".

I understand from Jack Sheldon that the Germans worked overtime on preparing their defences in the Ypres area after the British success at Messines. Perhaps Jack, or others, can enlighten us on this aspect of the battle as it is an important contribution to the debate?

Regards

Chris

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Chris, I am not at all concerned about the way you have raised the issue of 30th Division. You have made an extremely valid point about allocation of "troops to task", both now and earlier in the thread, and it is something that we must continue to pursue. My concern is about how 30th Division's performance was labelled at the time, not about how you perceive their performance. Of any contributor to GWF, you are well placed to understand the challenges that faced 30th Division on the battlefield. Although you have touched on Gough's decision-making, we have extended this to include II Corps as well.

As to the Court of Enquiry findings:

"The Court are of opinion that no responsibility for the failure of 30th Division [to reach the Black Line - my clarification, based on the original 'charge'] rests with the divisional commander.

The court are of opinion that no blame is ascribable to either of the commanders of the 21st or the 90th Infantry Brigades. Both commanders were hampered by bad communications. Proper efforts had been made to establish efficient communications but these had failed owing to enemy actions."

Several issues were raised by the Court, including the rate of advance of the barrage, the very early Zero hour when the light was bad, and the "heavy going and intricate nature of the country". These issues were circulated as lessons to be learned. I have seen the exact list published by Second Army soon afterwards, ie in August 1917 and before they took over responsibility for the ridge. Second Army's memo made no reference to the fact that the issues raised had come from the findings of a Court of Enquiry. There was no mention of 30th Division. Interestingly, one of the members of the Court was the Brigadier-General General Staff for I ANZAC Corps. He no doubt took the findings forward to his corps for consideration in their planning. There is indirect evidence for this.

While there are still several hundred pages of evidence to digest, this has been an interesting learning experience for me. It is clear that the process resulted in lessons that were addressed in September. I still worry about the effect that such a process might have on the individuals involved, and on the morale of the division as a whole. Especially as 30th Division had been through it once before, and there is a suggestion that Allenby was perceived as having made derogatory remarks about the division. Whether Allenby actually made such remarks has yet to be established. And we still need to discover the origin of the BOH comment.

Robert

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