Jump to content
The Great War (1914-1918) Forum

Western Front tactics in 1917


Mat McLachlan
 Share

Recommended Posts

Hello

Another Map

191720Septto13OctFinal.jpg

Robert thank you very much for your comments, much appreciated.

I'm happy for my earlier test posts to be deleted. Though I have some comments about operations around Riga, but they will have to wait, I'm holding back this thread.

Next map,

Regards

Mart

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Thanks Mart. I don't have permission to delete any of your posts, not that I would want to. I will use the Edit > Full Edit option on my posts, then insert a message indicating that the maps have been deleted, as well as a pointer to the later versions of the maps, then repost the message. The content remains - come to think of it, maybe the picture remains in the database even though the reference has been deleted. Hmmm.

Robert

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Hi Robert,

My are coming from photo bucket, but I think the story should be raw Vol 13 maps, and you excellent additions.

The earlier pictures sort of spoil it. I will amend later.

I might do a scan of the German attack at Riga, It looks like 1917 (which it is) but the Germans being in the Britsh position!

The art

Regards

Mart

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Fascinating stuff for someone with my limited knowledge. Thanks to all contributors. Please leave the earlier maps - a lot can be learnt from seeing your thought processes develop (like maths at school - it's not just the answer that counts)

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Chris, in analysing the alternative to what happened, we need to consider:

a. terrain factors that will influence the advance, both within and without the objective lines, especially on the flanks.

b. initial dispositions of the enemy, particularly artillery

c. dispositions and movements of infantry during the advance

d. deployment of artillery before and during the advance - specifically sufficient breadth and depth behind the lines to enable artillery to effectively engage the enemy within the zone of advance and, just as important, beyond the objective lines, especially on the flanks.

e. potential reactions of the enemy

f. logistical and supply issues

Please add to the list if necessary.

With respect to terrain factors, we are agreed that the line of ridges (Gheluvelt - Broodeseinde - Passchendaele) is absolutely crucial. The ridges afford a significant advantage to the enemy, who can observe and accurately call-down artillery fire from the high ground. Any attempt to advance either side of the ridge line without taking the ridge will fail IMHO. The problems experienced after the 31st July advance of Fifth Army bears this out but we do not need to use hindsight to verify this issue. Essentially, the issue then becomes: do we anchor the right flank on the ridge line, in which case the centre of gravity could be argued to be to the left and in the bowl; or do we centre on the ridge line and include the lower ground, perhaps as far as the Lys, on the right?

With respect to lower ground between the ridge line and Ypres, i.e. to the left of ridge line, you raised concerns about the treacherous nature of the ground, particularly the problems from the high water table and destruction of the drainage systems.

I am inclined to think pursuing the battle in the quagmire after Broodeseinde was a mistake...

There was an additional, and perhaps more significant factor, that you raised that should be emphasized, lest it get obscured by the quagmire issue. This is the issue of the direction of the attack:

It seems to me that at 3rd Ypres we were attacking out of a bowl and up onto the ridge from the sides of it whereas attacking astride the ridge may have been a better option.

The implication here is that it is less costly/easier/in some way/s more beneficial to attack a ridge line along its axis rather than towards its axis. This is illustrated below:

post-1473-1171612825.jpg

Please note that the lower red arrow is not strictly correct historically but I have left it in place to further emphasize your point, as I understand it.

Robert

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Sticking to the terrain issues raised by the ridges, the difficulties of attacking up a slope to a ridge line are well illustrated by the Battle of the Aisne in 1914. Please note that the key commanders did not need the Battle of the Aisne to 'teach' them this fact. It was well understand prior to the war. The Battle of the Aisne illustrates that you can rarely choose the ideal place to attack if the defender has already chosen well. In the latter phase of planning for Third Ypres, the problems with the Chemin des Dames offensive would have been apparent. It has already been noted that the plan to fix the right flank on the ridge line pre-dated Nivelle's offensive. Of further interest is that the Battle of Malmaison, which took place in October 1918, the French unlocked the Chemin des Dames by attacking one flank and then placing the rest of the ridge line in enfilade. This result supports Chris' idea, though the situation was not entirely analagous. The French positions to the left of the Chemin des Dames ridge meant that the length of the ridge could be threatened in enfilade. It is not so easy to see how this could be achieved in Third Ypres unless the base of the attack could be significantly widened, particularly towards the Lys. The key issue here is having enough room to get heavy artillery in place without compromising their security from the right flank. A more significant problem with the Chemin des Dames is the Ailette River, which lay immediately to the rear of the ridge. German resupply to the ridge and escape from it depended on this terrain feature, which would have threatened entrapment. There is no equivalent with respect to the ridge line near Ypres.

There are several streams coming off the ridge line, both left and right as you head towards Passchendaele. In the latter case, the streams flow towards the Lys. The streams flowing to the left are well known to anyone who has read about Third Ypres, the best known being the Steenbeeke. Between the streams lies a series of lower ridges that run, broadly speaking, in the direction of the red arrows in the diagram above. The implication is that, potentially, an advance along the ridge line will be hampered on the flanks by the need to capture the 'branch' ridges, and the soggy valleys inbetween, that lie perpendicular to the line of advance (ie the blue arrows in the diagram above).

I am very happy to be corrected on any of these points. These factors are crucial in planning the operation.

Robert

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Hello

The last map of this series, the first, but biggest, so I did it last.

191730JulFinal.jpg

Can I ask in the debate to come, that people use only information the planners had at the time.

Will be scanning other things in a bit related to this. Vol 13 also has good Cambria stuff, but lets do 3rd Ypres.

Any chance of Smithmaps contributing some of his great 3d images?

Regards

Mart

I know I did the scanning, but they've come out cracking!

They were also done in 1938......

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Ha

Me again

The movement booklet, yes I know its the full time period, but I did it all, because it wll be useful for other things.

scan0030.jpg

scan0031.jpg

scan0032.jpg

Regards

Mart

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Hello

Part 2 of movements between countires:

scan0039.jpg

scan0040.jpg

scan0042.jpg

Time for a beer,

Regards

Mart

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Chris, I have been reworking the map. This one uses a trench map that had colours to illustrate the contours. I have added a dark green outline to highlight the ridge. This map is much more helpful because it illustrates some of the key concerns with the area to be attacked on the proposed right flank. The shape of the German defensive lines suggested some terrain features may have contributed. I simply copied and overlaid the previous lines I had drawn and hey presto...

post-1473-1171735888.jpg

Robert

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Returning to the terrain issues. Area A, which lies to the north of the proposed left flank, poses some concerns. On the one hand, there is the low lying land that would be avoided by limiting the flank. On the other hand, the Houthulst Forest remains a major threat to the flank. It has the potential to provide cover to artillery. In the actual battle, the British and Dominion forces reached the edge of the forest but did not capture it. This would have been enough to negate its use by artillery most likely but I am uncertain whether it was actually used for this purpose at any time during the battle, given that the forest is on lower terrain. If it was not used, then the forest would be no more significant a factor in the proposed scenario. Attached is a map of the forest showing how large it was. Each square is 1000 yds wide.

post-1473-1171667362.jpg

The other issue is that Area A constitutes a shallow re-entrant, where the German line bulges slightly into the British and French line. The proposed line of the left flank makes the re-entrant more significant. Even so, I doubt it gives either side a greater advantage. Obviously, it is a salient from the German perspective but Houthulst Forest anchors their left flank very well and there is not a lot of room beyond Dixmuide on the right flank from which the Belgians or French guns can enfilade into the area from the north.

Robert

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Areas B and C, which lie between the right flank of the Gheluvelt Ridge and the Lys River, represent the areas into which the proposed attack would proceed, thereby shifting the centre of gravity of the attack to the ridge itself. Area B is the somewhat higher ground. Area C is at the lowest level, falling down the Lys river. I have a number of major concerns about these areas:

a. the nearer one gets to the river, the more the high water table presents a problem. It is quite possible the ground would get very churned up very quickly. This would mean that the advance across these areas, especially C, would be little different from the advance into the German re-entrant to the north, Area A.

b. the Ypres-Comines canal poses a significant challenge. I don't know what the state this part of the canal was in during 1917.

c. there is a railway line just to the north of the Lys river. Does the line sit on an embankment, in which case it is an ideal defensive feature on the British right flank? It could be enfiladed from the Messines area.

d. Comines, Wervicq and Menin pose significant threats to the British right flank.

e. the two areas of high ground around Zandvoorde and just south of the Menin Road are worrying. They will provide observation and defensive opportunities. The latter may cause a British advance that is parallel to the ridge line to split, funnelling the right side of the attack towards the Lys. The high ground will provide enfilade opportunities if the British attempt to attack towards the Lys, parallel to the Ypres-Comines canal.

f. any delays in the advance along the ridge line will expose the right side of the British advance to observation from the ridge.

Robert

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Here is a magnified image of the area around Comines, including the railway that appears to be on an embankment and the canal heading off to Ypres. The bulk of the village is south of the river.

post-1473-1171669448.jpg

Robert

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I don't propose to deal with Area D in any detail. This is the area east of Passchendaele. The effect of the terrain features, such as the high ground, would be the same in this new scenario as it was in the real thing.

Area E, which lies south of the Lys, has two areas of high ground quite close to Comines and Wervicq. These would pose a threat to the British right flank IMHO.

Robert

Link to comment
Share on other sites

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?

Delta,

I agree with Robert. Please include the exploration of your thoughts in this thread. I think we are talking about the same approach and i would be very interested in hearing your views.

regards

Chris

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Robert,

Many thanks. This map is excellent.

When we walked Menin Road and Polygon Wood last year I was struck by the high ground some distance to the right flank of the assaults. Also I understood that the Germans held this high ground, which first got me thinking about this option. Standing at Tyne Cot there was low ground between the Broodeseinde - Grafenstavel spur and Passchendaele with the crest of the ridge a kilometer or so to the right of Zonnebeck. Driving southeast along the crest of the ridge from Passchendaele, I gained the impression it ran from Passchendaele through (on your map above) the "en" in Gravenstafel, the "es" in Broodeseinde, the "go" in Polygon and through Gheluvelt. Admittedly we turned off the ridge to go to Zonnebeck so we didn't go any further south. Clearly my assumption was wrong.

From the map above the crest of the high ground ran through Polygon Wood and Broodeseinde directly to Passchendaele. This throws a different slant on my proposal but I still think it is worth examining. I have since found another map in Bean’s Volume IV p740 and on close inspection it seems to confirm your map. There also appear to be a number of significant spurs running roughly SE off the main ridge, which provide a series of objectives to the east of the ridge.

My reasoning behind considering this option was based on the following assumptions and issues at 3rd Ypres:

a. the ground of tactical importance was the main ridge;

b. the centre of gravity of the British offensive was west of the ridge, with the right flank resting along the ridge;

c. the high ground along the ridge and its spurs was drier than the boggy low ground across which the British had to advance in the northern half of the offensive;

d. in fighting for the ridgeline, generally, the assault was from the bowl of the salient up onto the ridge and in most instance were frontal attacks against the established German defence lines;

b. the German’s on the high ground could overlook the offensive;

c. the main ridge hid, from British observation, any German forces on the east side of it. This represented a threat to the right flank of the offensive if the German’s chose to mount a serious counter offensive against that flank of the salient as it progressed east, as opposed to a counter attack to recover lost ground;

d. the German front line from near Sanctuary Wood runs roughly NE to SW along the western edge of the ridge before swinging south. Thus in this portion of the line they were in enfilade to an attack directed NE along the ridge, the attack would generally be moving along the established German Line rather than attacking it frontally. The Albrecht Line, in rear of the front line also swings SW along the eastern edge of the ridge. Further north the Flandern I and the Artillery Protection Lines also run along the main ridge from roughly the area of Polygon Wood – Reutal – Becelaere to Gravenstafel – Passchendaele; and

e. the victory at Messiness placed the British line across the base of the main ridge and actually captured the southern half of the German front line that ran NE to SW;

If any of these assumptions and issues are wrong, please let me know.

Based in the above assumptions my initial thoughts were:

a. an attack with its centre of gravity from Messines along the main ridge would take the principal German lines mentioned above in enfilade as they progressed along the ridge. I note there are areas where the Albrecht and Wilhelm Lines run across the ridge but tackling these areas is no different from the frontal attacks that occurred at 3rd Ypres;

b. the breadth of the offensive would capture the spurs running to the east and west of the main ridgeline;

c. the bulk of the offensive would be on drier ground;

d. the ground to the east of the main ridge would be under British observation as they advanced NE. Thus the threat posed by the German’s mounting a counter offensive from that area against the right flank of the British salient would be removed; and

e. the threats from the areas to the north, east and south of the salient (Robert’s areas A, D and E) are much the same as at 3rd Ypres except, IMO, the threat from the south (E) is lessened as the German’s would not have the hidden ground to the SE of the ridge from which to mount a major counter offensive in this option.

That is as far as I got in my thinking. Now we need to test the validity of those thoughts and I would welcome views that challenge my reasoning.

In effect, my option is much the same as Delta's question as to what would have happened had Plumer been allowed to continue attacking north. Or put another way, if Messines had have been the first phase of 3rd Yrpes rather than a preliminary operation to it.

Regards

Chris

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Chris, I will keep working on the detail of the map. Any updates will not substantially change the map so I will overwrite the last copy rather than continue posting new versions with only minor touch-ups.

It is really helpful to hear about the details of your visit. It helps to know what you have seen already. I visited the battle sites where my Grandfather fought as part of the New Zealand Division. It was a very sobering, and cold, experience. I too have looked up towards the Passchendaele ridge. What an extraordinary feat of arms on the part of all who were involved! I have spent time on Messines ridge, around Ploegsteert Wood, and in the Lys valley but not as far north as Comines and Wervicq. Also Hooge, Hill 60 and other areas that lie on what was the British side of the ridge line. We are both aware of the limited scope of our visits, which is why we want more detail in planning such an operation. Intelligence Officers would be used to collate material about German dispositions on the local front. It would also have been important to talk with any commanders and/or Staff Officers who were familiar with the local area. Some colleagues would have fought in the area during the First Ypres campaign.

I totally agree with your comment about the main ridge being the 'ground of tactical importance'. Tim Harington, Plumer's Chief of Staff, made the following statement, which reinforces your point:

"The plan was quite clear. The capture of Messines Ridge had made it possible and it certainly appeared to us that the capture of the Passchendaele-Staden Ridge would give us the jumping off ground from which to prepare for the further advance.

It was, I understand, all important at that time to draw pressure from the main French Army. This plan was certain to achieve that result. Sir Douglas Haig warned us in a memorandum on 30th June shortly after Messines that the fundamental object of the operations was the defeat of the German Army and that 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.

I can say without any hesitation that my Chief, General Sir H. Plumer, welcomed and endorsed the plan. He had known what it was to have his troops sitting day after 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, Westroosebeem, 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 Messines Ridge as a life-saving operation as the casualties were only a fifth of what we feared and it certainly 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, which I shall refer to later, the capture of the above-mentioned line would have taken us a long way on the road to final victory. In all the painful and bitter criticisms which I have read charging our great commanders with not having abandoned our plans on account of weather and mud, I have not met one who has been bold enough to suggest a line on which we 'could' have remained for the coming winter. Lines on maps are very easy things to draw. Lines on the ground where troops live under the muzzles of enemy rifle, machine and gun fire are very hard to find. I am not writing without personal knowledge of the actual conditions both of the weather and of the ground at that time. 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 which influenced him. I certainly never heard the question 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 and also that he is reported to have written a letter opposing or throwing cold water on the whole operations. [Plumer] knew well what that 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."

Could the high ground have been captured in another way? This is the question that challenges us now.

Robert

Link to comment
Share on other sites

In posts 45 and 60, on the maps, there are symbols in blue which look like two triangles vertically point to point. They are used to show Regimental HQ or something like that. For my own information, can anyone tell me their exact meaning? The one which interests me personally, is miles behind the lines on another map.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now
 Share

×
×
  • Create New...