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Western Front tactics in 1917


Mat McLachlan
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They are corps headquarters symbols. Fourth Army HQ is also shown. Conventionally they represent 'flags', with the base of the 'flagpole' indicating the actual HQ location.

Jack

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Thank you very much gents . I am much obliged. In case you are wondering, I have a map where that symbol occurs at a place called Phalempin. A few kilometres south of Lille. My GF is buried there in the Municipal Cemetery. Quite a distance from Loos/Auchy.

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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;
Chris, it is very significant, however, that such a counter offensive was never mounted. Perhaps the forming up of such a significant force would have been observed?

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.
I agree with your interpretation of how the proposed line of advance should have compromised the German Line. Again, I think it is significant that the German Line in this area did not give way as quickly during the historical attack. Any attempt by the British to get south of this area and then take the line in enfilade would have been hampered by the extension of the German lines to the Lys and by the Ypres-Comines canal.

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;
Yes, but the right wing posed real problems with decreased manoeuvreability on the lower ground, partly through the obstacle imposed by the Ypres-Comines canal and partly because of the exposed flank. It all depends on how you foresee the line of advance from this base.

Robert

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There are photographs (modern day) of the Ypres-Comines canal here:

http://documentation.met.wallonie.be/repor...3b/01_00020.jpg

http://documentation.met.wallonie.be/repor...3b/01_00024.jpg

http://documentation.met.wallonie.be/repor...3b/01_00026.jpg

The photos are taken from the Comines end of the canal. Note the pools of standing water lying on the ground to either side. I worry that this area would have become just as boggy as the area we are trying to avoid?

Robert

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Lurking on the fringes of the proposed British right flank are Comines:

 

(thanks for the photograph, Cnock), and Wervicq. The following web page has some excellent photographs of German bunkers near Wervicq, about half-way down the page (thanks, Regulus):

http://www.forumeerstewereldoorlog.nl/view...sc&start=50

On the same page, in post 764, there is a photograph of a German bunker in the open. In the background is the high ground of Zandvoorde, which is the hill to the SW of Gheluvelt in the latest map that I published. I imagine that the photograph is taken from the south, looking N or NE towards Zandvoorde. The ground appears quite firm in this area and at the time of year.

Some of these defensive positions, and the others in the locale, will have been known to the British. Even if they weren't known (such as the bunker near the church in Comines), the military planners would have considered these areas to be important dangers.

Robert

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Some more interesting pictures. Firstly, a couple of pictures showing the view from Messines. The first was taken at the time, the second is more recent:

http://www.ww1battlefields.co.uk/flanders/messines.html (see the photograph entitled 'Messines in ruins' about half way down the page)

http://www.macknortshs.qld.edu.au/ANZAC/messinesview.JPG

Next, some pictures of the Lys River. The first shows a bank of the river in Comines:

http://grenzen.150m.com/comines09.JPG

This picture was taken near Armentieres, which is south of the area of interest:

http://homepage.mac.com/oldtownman/images3/0535.JPEG

Not sure where this one was taken but it is a typical view:

http://grenzen.150m.com/grens94.JPG

And here is the historical significance of the Lys, with its fleurs in bloom:

http://www.baronage.co.uk/bpgif-02/leiebank.jpg

Robert

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Turning to artillery dispositions. The GHQ Intelligence Report of 20th July suggested the following distribution of German artillery, totalling approximately 1500 guns and howitzers. I have indicated the approximate positions of the main concentrations of German heavy artillery, ie around Zandvoorde, Gheluvelt and nearby Becelaere. The British heavy batteries were set back behind Ypres, as indicated.

Robert

post-1473-1171792701.jpg

(Updated 18 February 2007)

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Robert,

Your mastery of the sources of information is amazing. I have trouble keeping up with you. I will seek to discuss each of the points you have raised from post 32 on.

Before doing that, I believe the tactics at 3rd Ypres of “bite and hold” were successful and this is what I envisage in this option. The battle must be fought in phases with achievable objectives. We don’t need to attack along the whole frontage at once. I also am assuming that the Battle of Messines is the first phase of our option and that we would not wait until 31 July to begin the next phase of the offensive.

Area A to the north of the salient. Your points are valid although I note that it remained in German hands during 3rd Ypres, thus our scenario is similar to that which occurred. It is lower ground than the British advanced across during the actual battle and thus is likely to be boggy. Has anyone seen this area? Nonetheless, we do need to consider the threat it poses to the northern flank and plan accordingly. The French on the left flank could be encouraged to undertake an attack that protects our flank up to the ground immediately west of the forest. Also could the French heavy guns provide counter battery fire in that area? We also need to ensure we have sufficient forces within our salient to protect that flank. All of this takes resources of course.

Area’s B and C. I agree with your points. Area B doesn’t worry me at this stage, but Area C is a major concern, particularly having seen your photos of this area. We need to consider our approach here. Do we need to go all the way to river bank? Also the direction of our attack south of the ridge might be directed SE rather than due east. This poses problems at the junction of an attack going NE but they are not insurmountable.

I wasn’t aware of the canal in this area but I think it can be used to our advantage. Any advance SE from the Ridge, supported by an attack east towards the canal would place the Germans in the northern sector between the British front line and the canal in a difficult position. Thus the second phase of the offensive might straighten out the line between the ridge and the canal and capture the German 2nd line south of the canal.

The high ground around Zandvoorde could be one of the objectives of another phase of the offensive which I see attacking roughly east – SE, from the straightened line mentioned above, on a frontage from north of the ridge to the canal capturing the German second line and, if possible, the high ground at Zandvoorde as well. South of the canal a supporting operation could pinch out the higher ground that dominates any defence the Germans may wish to sustain west of the canal. I suspect they might withdraw to the east bank of the canal.

The next phase might then seek to capture the St – Julien - Polygon Wood – Gheluvelt area. The Menin Ridge ESE of Gheluvelt then becomes an objective in another phase of the offensive.

Area D. I agree with your point and we must therefore treat it as it was during the actual offensive.

Area E poses a similar threat to the southern flank that Area A does to the north with the difference that the River Lys constitutes an obstacle to German forces south of the river. Thus we need to think carefully about how we approach the ground north of the river and what can be done to counter any threat from the south. Is area E within gun range of the British forces south of the river? An ESE approach towards the river would drive the German defence down towards the low boggy ground. We may not need to go all the way to the river, just secure the ground that dominates the northern bank of the river.

With regard to your comments at Post 79, your first point is valid, however, the fact that a German offensive was not mounted from the hidden ground east of the ridge shouldn’t negate it as a factor to consider in the planning of the offensive. The ground west of Zandvoorde may have been overlooked by the ground won in the Battle of Messines but east of the Zandvoorde high ground would provide good artillery positions to fire into the salient created at 3rd Ypres. I think I have covered your second and third points in my discussion of the proposed second phase of our option above (noting we are considering Messines was the first phase).

Your map at post 87 is very useful. My immediate reaction is that our option actually threatens the German heavy artillery positions, once the Zanvoorde high ground is captured and then when the Gheluvelt – Polygon Wood high ground is taken. I am not sure if the German heavy guns were pulled back during 3rd Ypres but they certainly would be under this option.

Regards

Chris

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Before doing that, I believe the tactics at 3rd Ypres of “bite and hold” were successful and this is what I envisage in this option. The battle must be fought in phases with achievable objectives. We don’t need to attack along the whole frontage at once.
Chris, I need to be sure I understand what you are suggesting here. The concept of phases with acheiveable objectives is clear, and I agree. My understanding of the "bite and hold" operations, however, is that they succeeded because the whole frontage was attacked at once. It wasn't just the limited depth that was important. If you are suggesting smaller scale, intermediate operations, such as the initial capture and consolidation of the area west of the Ypres-Commines canal in Area B, then this will increase the risk of failure and result in heavy casualties. This option seems akin to some of the 'minor' operations during the Somme campaign. This is not to say the option should not be pursued, but it does mean, IMHO, that the potential outcome has to be very very significant to justify the effort and the expense. I will return to this issue anon.

I also am assuming that the Battle of Messines is the first phase of our option and that we would not wait until 31 July to begin the next phase of the offensive.
We need to test this assumption. A major problem was that the vast numbers of artillery, both heavy- and field-, had to be moved into new positions more suited to the forthcoming attack. It was not sufficient to simply turn them to face the new point of attack. Most of the guns and howitzers had to be located on lower ground. There were serious problems in creating stable gun platforms, partly because the preparatory work was observed and therefore came under attack but also because of the nature of the ground. This work fell under the responsibility of General P G Grant, who was the Chief Engineer of the Fifth Army. Anecdotal reports emphasize the work that the field gunners themselves had to do (as illustrated in 'The Master of Belhaven' for example). The British Official History noted:

'As German observers overlooked the entire Salient back for over seven miles, and their batteries were firing concentrically into it at observed targets day and night, the preparations were more harassed than those of any previous British offensive. The additional gun platforms crowded into the area, had to be especially constructed to meet the conditions of the Flanders clay, and as natural cover was scarce the work had to be done by night, and camoflagued before daylight. The platforms were built of stout timbers, anchored to layers of timber bolted and notched together, and in the case of the heavier guns were very elaborate. Concrete was tried; but the foundations were liable to crack owing to the lack of time for the material to set: quick-setting cement was in its infancy.'

Two things should be noted:

a. the preparations for Third Ypres followed on not just from the Battle of Messines but also the prolonged Battle of Arras.

b. the increased German harassment was not, IMHO, just related to the advantages that the Germans enjoyed with observation but also because they had no other major offensive to distract their counter-preparatory fire.

Robert

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The artillery map has just been updated to show the approximate disposition of the British field guns. I am attaching a map that shows the areas noted as A,B,C and D. Hopefully this will make the discussion easier to follow.

I have to go out now [oh do I have to??] - will resume when I get back.

Robert

post-1473-1171792922.jpg

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I need to be sure I understand what you are suggesting here. The concept of phases with acheiveable objectives is clear, and I agree. My understanding of the "bite and hold" operations, however, is that they succeeded because the whole frontage was attacked at once. It wasn't just the limited depth that was important. If you are suggesting smaller scale, intermediate operations, such as the initial capture and consolidation of the area west of the Ypres-Commines canal in Area B, then this will increase the risk of failure and result in heavy casualties. This option seems akin to some of the 'minor' operations during the Somme campaign.

Robert,

My understanding of the "minor" operations on the Somme is that largely they were hastily arranged and poorly coordinated attacks. I also understand that the success of "bite and hold" is that the limited objectives allowed the attacking troops to consolidate on the captured terrain with pre-planned DF's that enabled them to defeat the German counter attacks seeking to regain the lost ground. I see all attacks being properly planned, coordinated and prepared and with sufficient artillery assets to support them. There would be a pause between each "battle" while the necessary arrangements were made.

In the initial phase mentioned above I see an advance made on a four to five mile front with the left flank immediately north of where the Menin Road cuts the British front line on your map at post 66 to the southern point of the British line west of the canal on the same map. The depth of the assault in the north would be limited sufficient to capture the German front line, say out as far as the isolated green wood just south of the Menin Road, and to secure the flank of deeper attacks from the easten edge and south of the ridge. South of the ridge the attacks would seek to straighten out the line from where it curves SW so that the new line runs roughly S to the point on the German second line east of the "Yp" and then along the German Second line to the canal. West of the canal the attack would seek the capture the German second line. At the Battles of Menin Road, Polygon Wood and Broodeseinde the depth of penetration was 1200, 1000 and 2000 yards respectively and in this proposal the German second line is within these distances south of the ridge.

We need to test this assumption. A major problem was that the vast numbers of artillery, both heavy- and field-, had to be moved into new positions more suited to the forthcoming attack. It was not sufficient to simply turn them to face the new point of attack.

I agree. However, in this option the artillery would move forward rather than being relocated north to support 3rd Ypres. The amount of work required for this is agreed. The new gun positions west of the Messine Ridge would be hidden from German ground observation. I agree the Germans would seek to disrupt these preparations as they did at 3rd Ypres but that is part of the "friction" of war.

Can you blue line this initial phase?

Regards

Chris

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Kim, is there anything that would make the discussion more understandable? Some of the terms for example, would it be helpful to use less of the military jargon? Are the diagrams helpful?

Robert

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My understanding of the "minor" operations on the Somme is that largely they were hastily arranged and poorly coordinated attacks. I also understand that the success of "bite and hold" is that the limited objectives allowed the attacking troops to consolidate on the captured terrain with pre-planned DF's that enabled them to defeat the German counter attacks seeking to regain the lost ground. I see all attacks being properly planned, coordinated and prepared and with sufficient artillery assets to support them. There would be a pause between each "battle" while the necessary arrangements were made.
Chris, your point about hastily arranged and poorly coordinated attacks is really important. I agree with your description of carefully planning and coordinating each phase. My point is slightly different. What if there was a more fundamental reason why the smaller attacks failed on the Somme? What if the hasty arrangements and poor coordination were only masking something else?

Can you blue line this initial phase?
Already working on it ;) .

Robert

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Robert,

Thankyou for your concern.

I am afraid that it would take me a couple of weeks of study to catch up on the forces involved and the plans and histories of the people involved. I am getting the gist of it, I understand the wording, but the deeper knowledge is missing. The reworking of the maps is great.

I am getting drawn deeper so looks like I will have to study up, then reread this thread. Hopefully it will make more sense then.

But it is a fascinating read.

Cheers

Kim

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Chris, I have expanded the area under consideration and overlaid a 'Blue' line. In addition, the grid is back. Hopefully this will make it easier for you to amend my first guess. Once you have got an initial 'Blue' line that you are happy with (I appreciate that you may want to revise it but, as you can see, this is not a problem as we go forward), then I will provide some expanded views of the area. This should enable you to see the detailed terrain features, plus we can overlay the known strongpoints, etc.

Robert

post-1473-1171804652.jpg

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Area A to the north of the salient. ... we do need to consider the threat it poses to the northern flank and plan accordingly. The French on the left flank could be encouraged to undertake an attack that protects our flank up to the ground immediately west of the forest. Also could the French heavy guns provide counter battery fire in that area?
Chris, in the original battle, part of this area was occupied by the Franco-British forces, as far as the edge of Houthulst Forest. The fact that the forest wasn't taken and the British/Dominion forces managed to reach Passchendaele suggests that the forest was not such a big threat. We cannot assume that and, as you say, must plan accordingly.

XIV Corps reached the edge of the forest on 12th October, so late on in the whole campaign. The British Official History noted that on the 9th October:

'Apart from a local counter-attack during the afternoon from the south-western corner of Houthulst Forest against the Faidherbe crossroads, which was repulsed by 1/Coldstream Guards, the Germans made no great effort to recover the lost ground south of the forest. The forest itself was a German defended locality of great artificial strength, with numerous pillboxes and machine-gun emplacements concealed within it, and its defences were kept garrisoned by all available man-power.'

These comments suggest that Houthulst Forest was of great value defensively, as you would expect, but not as a centre for major counter-offensives. My guess is that the area was not really suitable for positioning significant quantities of heavy artillery, which would have posed the main threat to the proposed left flank.

The involvement of the French is an interesting issue. They are an important consideration in developing your battleplan. There is no doubt that they would provide artillery support for the far left flank. Doughty noted that after Pétain took over from Nivelle:

'Though the French had initially planned on having only one corps with two divisions participate, Pétain told Haig he would contribute two corps with six divisions and pass the Nieuport sector to the British for the duration of the operation. He wanted the British, however, to return control of Nieuport once the operation ended.'

The severe unrest in the French army did have some effect on their involvement:

'As promised, the French also participated in the Flanders offensive. Beginning on July 7 the French moved First Army into position north of Ypres... Commanded by General Françoise Anthoine, the army consisted of two corps and had 260 light, 298 heavy, and 76 long-range heavy artillery pieces, plus 300 accompanying guns. It was supposed to cover the left flank of the British Fifth Army, which would make the main attack. Haig expected artillery preparation to begin on July 15 and the infantry to attack ten days later, but for a variety of reasons, including Anthoine's request for a delay, he had to postpone the infantry assault until July 31. Concerned about the morale of his soldiers, Anthoine wanted to prepare the attack thoroughly and do everything possible to give his infantry a good chance of success.'

This is at least one example where a British unit felt it had to urge the French on their flank to not fall back and leave them exposed. This did not happen on the first day. Such accounts should always be treated with caution - it does sound good in a British war diary or regimental history, but may not reflect the reasoning behind what actually happened, or even what happened. Nevertheless, there was a risk in trying to get French infantry to operate in relative isolation further north of the British left flank. I think the French artillery would have cooperated whichever way.

Robert

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Area D. I agree with your point and we must therefore treat it as it was during the actual offensive.
Chris, the one thing we need to take into account is that the left flank of the proposed attack will be more exposed to enfilade fire from Area D. For anyone who is not familiar with the concept of enfilade fire, I have attached a diagram to illustrate. In essence, it means firing along the length of a line from the side, rather than perpendicular to the front line. Artillery firing in this way is much more effective. A relatively small number of guns can do more harm because even if the gunners do not the distance right, the shells will still land on the enemy. Also, shells tend to spread their lethal effects in a forwards direction, more so than sideways.

Robert

post-1473-1171809335.jpg

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Chris, in analysing the alternative to what happened, we need to consider:
Chris, if General Haig were to drop on this "HQ" to review the new plan, here is what we could all expect (taken from Powell's book 'Plumer: The Soldiers General', p. 185):

"Previously, on 20 May, Haig had drawn up some notes for the guidance of Second Army in the coming battle [of Messines in 1917]. They were extremely detailed. After a number of paragraphs of a general nature, Haig posed a large variety of questions to Plumer's corps commanders, examples of which were:

Have you got the enemy's batteries accurately located?

Are changes of position occurring, and, if so, in what manner? For example, is the enemy occupying alternative positions near vacated ones; is he re-occupying his old ones after a certain lapse of time,

or do you see a general tendency to move his batteries back?

Have you discovered any new positions in course of construction, and are they being camoflagued as they are being made...?

Have your Intelligence and Artillery Reconnaisance Officers detailed information as to where he is placing his machine guns, etc?

How do you propose forming up the troops for the attack...?

Have you a detailed plan for stopping the bridges over the River Lys or Canal d'Ypres, as the case may be...?

Are your infantry trained to deal with low-flying hostile aeroplanes by Lewis Gun and rifle fire?

Are you satisfied with the Inter-Corps and Inter-Division barrages are all co-ordinated and that, as far as possible, they meet with the views of Divisional Commanders?

Have you arranged your barrage in depth from the moment of the assault onwards?

What is your plan for destroying the wire?

Have you considered the number of guns that it will be necessary for you to allocate to counter-battery at zero?

The specific questions that followed for each of Plumer's corps were even more detailed: a minute cross-examination on how they were to capture specific objectives such as Messines and Wytschaete; how the river Douve and the Steenbeek were to be crossed; were the various counter-battery groups adequate and their positioning satisfactory?

And so on for pages. For three full days, between 22 and 24 May, Haig visited the headquarters of the corps and divisions planning for Messines, working his way through the list and checking the plans of the various generals."

Are we still up for it?? :unsure:

Robert

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