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Remembered Today:

Western Front tactics in 1917


Mat McLachlan
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Robert,

Many thanks. A slight adjustment to the Blue Line in the north. My initial thoughts had the line running from just above the top blue dot down in Square 1B to the front edge of the little green wood in square 2C, then S to the blue dot at the top of square 4D. However, looking at the maps again, what do you think of extending this phase north to include from where the German Front Line crossesthe spur due north of the grey depiction of Ypres to run SW to the point where the black line running S from the "n" in Julien cuts the German Second Line, trhen include the German Second Line S to join up with the Blue Line at the bottom of Square 1D and then continue S as you have depicted on the map? Do we have the artillery resources to effectively support such a broad advance? This was my main concern. If we don't then I would see the initial phase as described from Square 1B to the south, then in subsequent phases shifting the weight of the advance north such that the right flank of the offensive rests in Square 5C. Resources are the limiting factor.

Regards

Chris

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Chris, here is the new map. I have readjusted the Blue line and added a second Turquoise line (not very realistic I know but hey - oops, what was that I heard about a visit from the C-in-C :) ), which I hope portrays what you described. If so, then I can transpose the lines onto the historical battlemap and check the length of the front being attacked. This will help evaluate whether the field artillery resources will be sufficient.

Robert

post-1473-1171841654.jpg

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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?

Robert,

Good point and certainly worth looking into. Many of these hastily arranged attacks were repulsed which leads me to think that they lacked adequate artillery preparation on the key points of the German defensive line. I understand that in other attacks the ground taken was lost to German counter attack which indicates two things: inadequate consolidation on the objective by the attacking forces through lack of sufficient men which in turn resulted from heavy casualties; and lack of adequate artillery DF's to support the consolidation. For other readers who may not be across some of the military terms, DF's are pre-planned artillery fire ahead of the troops holding a line - they normally cover possible enemy FUP's (Forming Up Place's from which an assault is launched) and on likely assault approaches. In the Great War the term SOS fire was also used.

There was also the difficulty of getting reserves forward in time and I think this resulted from hasty preparations and a lack of proper coordination as much as the state of the ground.

Any other thoughts?

Regards

Chris

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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.

Robert,

Very important point. A similar situation could occur on the right flank. We have to be careful how we progress the flanks. Counter battery fire needs to be effective and we might have to "flatten" out the base of the flanks.

Nonetheless, it is going to happen at some point along the line and we would need to ensure that counter battery fire onto positions that can acheive enfilade fire is properly planned and the appropraite resources are allocated to this task.

Regards

Chris

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Are we still up for it?? :unsure:

Robert.

:D Within reason - yes. Remember we are looking at the feasibility of the concept in this thread rather than the detailed tactics. Nonetheless your post raises important issues that needed to be addressed.

It shows the complexity of the problem, the detail the planning went to and the difficulties commanders had to address in mounting an offensive against strong defensive positions. This in turn belies the superficial comments about the incompetence of British generals one often sees and Carlyon's dismissive analysis on the tactics employed at 3rd Ypres.

Many of the questions posed above we cannot answer here but they would be issues raised and considered during the planning process. A few comments on some of them:

Have you got the enemy's batteries accurately located?

Absolutely essential for an effective counter battery fire plan. The techniques for acquiring this information were first being developed during the Great War and included sound ranging, flash spotting, air photo intrepretation and air photography gridded to maps. By this stage of the war I think the British commanders understood the importance of discovering the positions of the German batteries, allocating sufficient resources to them and withholding the counter battery fire so as to catch as many of the German guns in the discovered positions immediately prior to the assault. Too early and the enemy moves his surviving guns to new positions or replaces the lost guns with new batteries in new positions.

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?

Again, essential factors in determining the objectives to be set, the artillery fire plan and the tactics to be employed in the assault.

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

Spacing of the assault waves is important to ensure the succeeding waves with deeper objectives do not become entangled with the leading waves in the fight for the initial German defences. The leading waves need to be close to the barrage so as to minimise the distance to be crossed to reach the initial defences once the barrage lifts to deeper targets. Spacing and grouping between troops in a wave is needed to reduce the number of casualties from specific MG positions.

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

Again another important consideration. In our option the bridges over the Lys become a significant factor. We need to ensure we establish strong defensive posts to cover bridges and the exits from them, reserves placed to support those defences quickly and the bridges and their immediate exits become SOS DF's. The defence of the bridges would need to be allotted a separate commander charged with defending the left flank of the offensive. We need to ensure he has the resources to undertake his mission.

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?

This, as I understand it, was a major failing at the Somme, particularly during the "minor" attacks and also between Gough and Rawlinson once their two Armies were involved in the battle. Inter -unit coordination is a must and we would have liaison officers from each adjoining Division working in the others' HQ to ensure all details are covered. This would include artillery, engineer, infantry and other staff liaison officers so that the details of what is being discussed are fully understood and properly communicated.

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

I would expect this to be a given - it's absolutely essential to ensure the leading waves are protected from the depth defences whilst fighting through the initial defences and to break up any German counter attack preparations.

What is your plan for destroying the wire?

You mentioned in other threads that shrapnel was the most effective artillery round at cutting wire. I would add to this the use of "pipe pushers" or as we know them now "bangalore torpedoes" being employed to clear uncut wire on the night preceeding the assault. For other readers, these are metal tubes filled with explosives that are pushed into the wire and when fired are extremely effective in clearing a barbed wire entanglement to ground level for a width of about 15 to 20 metres. They can be connected end on end to give a pipe the length to penetrate the depth of the wire. They are employed by combat engineers and infantry assault pioneers.

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

This is the vexed question of available resources. Hence my query above about the frontage of the initial phase. It is a matter of ensuring that the attack can be effectively supported by the resources available to the commander.

Regards

Chris

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Chris, the Reichsarchiv volume 'Flandern 1917' indicates that the Germans did use Houthulst Forest as a firebase. It talks about a 'a wild concert of German batteries' firing out of the forest, which itself appeared 'bewitched' (verhext). The British and French obviously targetted the forest, with the author noting that, under the counter-battery fire, the forest became ever more insane. All the batteries lay within the zone of the British barrage fire for several hours.

Robert

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Both lines are pefect.
Chris, great. I will now work on some enlargements of the area on the ridge itself. This is the most difficult area for an advance, as evidenced by the real thing. We will need to spend time analysing the terrain issues in more detail.

Your answers for 'the Chief' give a nice overview. Your reference to some of the problems with the Somme battle is important. Haig's approach is consistent with his trying to find a way of ensuring that all of his commanders and their Staff Officers were thinking about more issues in a coherent way and thereby planning better.

Robert

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In testing the feasibility of our option we should also draw some conclusions from the actual Battle of 3rd Ypres that can be applied to the feasibility test. I am thinking along the the lines of such things as:

a. the German counter attacks sought to regain the ground just lost rather than drawing the British into a salient and mounting a major counter offensive against the flanks of the salient. These counter attacks were defeated by the bite and hold tactics the British used. Therefore, at the tactical level we can assume that the German counter attacks are unlikely to succeed. Further, unless we present a deep and narrow salient, we can't assume the Germans would mount a major counter offensive against the flanks.

b. we should apply the German artillery tactics used in the actual battle to the feasibility test.

c. the higher ground along the main range and on the spurs was drier than that in the valleys and the centre of gravity of our attack is on the high ground. Therefore, can we use tanks to support the infantry going forward along the main ridge? Clearly we cannot use them on the flanks or in areas where the assault passes over boggy valleys.

d. any difficulties and setbacks experienced during attacks over the low ground should be applied to the flanks of our option particularly where the attacks pass over the same ground.

e. the time it took the British to prepare each phase up to and including the Battle of Broodeseinde should be applied to the pause times between each phase of our option.

f. the depth of phase lines (the depth of the objectives for each British attack ) used at 3rd Ypres should apply to this option. We cannot apply different tactics and depths. We are considering the option of a different centre of gravity, not the tactics employed.

g. the ground in the valleys turned to a quagmire after the success on the 4th October and we must assume the same in our option.

There may be others but I can't think of any at the moment.

Regards

Chris

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I will now work on some enlargements of the area on the ridge itself. This is the most difficult area for an advance, as evidenced by the real thing. We will need to spend time analysing the terrain issues in more detail.

Robert,

This will be the real test of whether the option is feasible.

Regards

Chris

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Chris, I will give some further thought to the feasibility tests you have described. We need to reference what was known, or not known, before the battle as far as possible. This should not prevent other scenarios being analysed as well.

Robert

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Like probably many members, I`ve been watching the gestation of this thread with interest and, I have to admit, wondering recently where it`s going. But I think I see now. It`s going to be an attempt to answer the original question - How could 3rd Ypres have been better planned and executed? Just one thing, gents. When you arrive at your final definitive plan, will you put it to us in a brief simple precis form? The details you can add at your leisure, but the impact of the new plan will be lost on me if it`s long, complicated and packed with detail. I`m quite looking forward to it! :) Phil B

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Thanks, Phil. An excellent reminder. It will be really important to produce such an output. Writing concise reports was a skill that was drummed into Staff Officers. Hopefully we can come close to that standard. I hope that the current process illustrates some of the debates that took place around conference tables, messes, side-rooms in HQs, etc during the production of the draft plans. As you have reminded us, the hard part is yet to come - it was Disraeli who said 'I have made this [letter] longer, because I have not had the time to make it shorter'. :D

Robert

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Phil,

I agree with your point wholeheartedly. We have to outline the concept of operations phase by phase and assess the main points of each without getting down too much into the tactical detail, or the main thrust of the thread will be lost. We are not planning the battle in the detail that would have been undertaken at 3rd Ypres - we seek to assess its feasibility by considering key issues

Robert,

What say we start considering the two options of the first phase as depicted by the blue and turquoise lines and draw principal conclusions from them:

a. Do we have the resources to advance across the whole frontage or must we limit it to the blue line?

b. Are the objectives achievable using bite and hold tactics, they seem to be in accord with what was achieved at 3rd Ypres,

c. Where do we place the heavy guns so that they can support the battle across the frontage without many moves?

c. What are the likely German reactions given their tactics at 3rd Ypres and how do they impact on the phase?

d. Does the terrain of the main ridge make an advance along it easier or more difficult and if so why?

f . Is the phase a feasible?

From this we should be able to make an overview assessment of its possible success and then we can move onto the next phase line and consider it in the same manner.

What do you think?

Regards

Chris

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Perhaps one other question - do our lines of communications (railways ect) permit an assault from the south?

I think this question would apply to either an assault "northwards" up the ridge line OR northeast with the Allied right flank on the Lys.

Having raised both orginal questions, I am how sure how practicable it is to bring in a standard gauge rail-line into the rear areas to the south of Messines? I know I am now in danger of being considered a hostile witness but the question must be asked.

S

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a. the German counter attacks sought to regain the ground just lost rather than drawing the British into a salient and mounting a major counter offensive against the flanks of the salient. These counter attacks were defeated by the bite and hold tactics the British used. Therefore, at the tactical level we can assume that the German counter attacks are unlikely to succeed. Further, unless we present a deep and narrow salient, we can't assume the Germans would mount a major counter offensive against the flanks.
Chris, the German concept of immediate counterattack was based, as you know, on the need to strike an enemy attack when it was most vulnerable, ie when the enemy had reached the limit of the attack and losses/exhaustion/general chaos of battle had rendered them vulnerable. It was this form of counterattack that 'bite and hold' dealt with very effectively. The attacking soldiers did not have to go too far, and the artillery could still cover beyond their front, just as you described in a previous post.

The deliberate counter-offensive was quite a different proposition. Pinching off a salient as big as Ypres was a quantum step from what happened at Cambrai. Even there, the German attack against the British left flank failed. An alternative approach was to mount a major counter-offensive somewhere else. The Somme was a classic example vis-a-vis Verdun. From the perspective of planning for Third Ypres, the latter option can be discounted. Not because it could not happen that the Germans might attack elsewhere but because planning for this would not be the responsibility of the Third Ypres planners. What then in respect of a potential counter-offensive against the advances at Third Ypres?

Firstly, what steps could be taken to minimise the possibility? A wide-frontage high tempo attack, or series of attacks, was important. The aim was to keep sucking German reserves into bolstering the existing defences, leaving none available to be used for a counter-offensive. The same applied to the artillery, which was needed to ensure success. Keep the artillery tied up with beating off the Entente attacks and replacing losses. It was also very important to ensure that the flanks were anchored on terrain features that severely hampered a counter-offensive. The Lys River was an example of a physical barrier, whereby German troops would be slowed in getting across it. An alternative would have been to deny the Germans any area where they could take the time to get the troops organized and then advance. Not occupying the flat ground in Areas B & C would have this effect. Taking the Messines example, it was impossible for the Germans to form up for any counterattacks against the new British front line.

Robert

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Robert

I checked the War in the Air, I think this map is of value, although for the earlier battle, it shows the airfields avalaible for counter battery fire.

scan0049.jpg

Regards

Mart

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What do you think?
Chris, I agree. We will need to examine some of the tactical issues in detail, but not the whole thing. Really, it boils down to what are the implications of advancing into Areas B +/- C (currently, C is not looking too promising but B remains the key to this thread) versus anchoring the left flank on the ridge.

There is no question in my mind that attacking into Area B will limit the extent of the attack on the left flank. This is precisely why you have raised the alternative, to get away from the bogs on the historical left flank. I think the Blue and Turquoise line might be doable but it needs more analysis first. Artillery should be ok. The question for me is whether the infantry involvement would have to be stepped up to such an extent that it would compromise the follow-up attacks. I doubt it but we are loosing the direct involvement of the French on the left flank.

Robert

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I checked the War in the Air, I think this map is of value, although for the earlier battle...
Mart, this is great. Even though it is for the Battle of Messines, the map shows how far the British had to range in order to nullify the German artillery, especially on the flanks. Really helpful! Thanks very much.

Robert

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Many of these hastily arranged attacks were repulsed which leads me to think that they lacked adequate artillery preparation on the key points of the German defensive line.
Chris, I agree with all of your points. There is, however, the problem that even if artillery had been more carefully planned, and reserves were at hand, the limited frontage attacks were compromised by their narrowness. Consider Delville Wood for example. There was logic in trying to take it before launching the next major offensive. Even with a well executed attack, however, the result was to expose the successful attackers to a massive concentrated bombardment from the concentrically-placed German artillery batteries. I don't want to side-track too much but the issue of smaller scale attacks is relevant to our discussion.

Robert

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the limited frontage attacks were compromised by their narrowness. Consider Delville Wood for example. There was logic in trying to take it before launching the next major offensive. Even with a well executed attack, however, the result was to expose the successful attackers to a massive concentrated bombardment from the concentrically-placed German artillery batteries. I don't want to side-track too much but the issue of smaller scale attacks is relevant to our discussion.

Robert,

Fair point. I had not envisaged attacks on such a narrow front. We need to maintain the balance between a wide frontage and sufficient troops to achieve success.

Regarding the French. As we side slip to the south, cannot the French do the same and maintain contact with the left flank of our offensive?

Regards

Chris

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Chris, General Anthoine has noted, via our Liaison Officer, that he could take over more of the line. This will take significant time, and he regrets that this will reduce the number of divisions that he can assign to support the attack. The Liaison Officer has mentioned, as an aside, that there was some irritation in the General Anthoine's HQ. Several Staff Officers commented adversely on the fact that they were being asked to attack across the low ground on the British left flank.

The good news is that Plumer has confirmed that elements of Second Army, including II Anzac Corps, are available to support the advance on the right flank. Adequate artillery support will be possible without the need to realign existing artillery assets.

Tanks can operate in support of the attack on the ridge.

Robert

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Certainly tanks can operate, as they did in June 1917, and provide supply to fighting units. The ground on the ridge should provide better going than down in the avlleys, but how much they can assist will be depend on the damage to the ground resulting from the preparatory artillery bombardments.

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I had not envisaged attacks on such a narrow front.
Chris, understood. The problem is, however, that the proposed attack falls into three sectors: the ridge, the right flank below the ridge, and the left flank below the ridge. The ridge is, as we have agreed, the key. It separates the two flanks. Given that the right flank is echeloned back so far (bent back towards Warneton/Wytschaete), then I think the Germans can concentrate all of their defensive efforts on the ridge, particularly their artillery. The British right flank poses no threat, IMHO, and the left flank can be covered from Area C. Even if the left flank is not contained, the Schwerpunkt (point of concentrated effort, in this case defensive) has to be the ridge.

The new map is taking a little while. I have finished the contours, key villages, woods and roads. The British jumping off line is now more accurately mapped as well. I want to add ridge lines, ie dotted lines that follow the (guesstimated) lines between the highest contours, which may help in identifying areas of dead ground and reverse slopes. Hopefully, this should be finished this evening.

Robert

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