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

Remembered Today:

Western Front tactics in 1917


Mat McLachlan
 Share

Recommended Posts

Hello

I recall a map being made at Corps or Headquarters level that showed where tanks could go, and it was sent upwards, who sent it back saying "far too small an area when tanks can go, please amend with more area where tanks can go".

I think it was on show at the Zoonebeke museum.

Any one got a copy of this map?

Regards

Mart

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Chris, here is the map with the relevant area on the ridge enlarged. I have overlaid the lines proposed for phase 1. There are some dotted orange lines that illustrate sub-ridge lines if you will, ie ridge lines on the ridge.

Robert

post-1473-1172003219.jpg

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Chris, I have the details of the planning for the tanks. Unfortunately, our Internet connection is down at home so I will have to upload at a later date. Three Tank Brigades were assigned, with 72 tanks per brigade. Thirty-six tanks were held back in 5th Army reserves.

Robert

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Hi Robert,

I spent some hours in the War Memorial research centre today looking over maps of Ypres. Found a very good geographic map of the whole Ypres area in one of the map volumes on 1915 of the British OH. It covers a large area well beyond the ground covered at 3rd Ypres and our option and provides an excellent overview of the battlefield and beyond.

From it one can see some of the thinking behind the approach taken to 3rd Ypres. The ridge winds roughly E and NE from Hill 60 to Noordhemhoek, from there it runs N through Broodeseinde to Nieuwemolen, then NE to Passchendaele, then N through Westroosebeke. It describes a great arc around Ypres along the S, SE and E. Clearly the intent was to capture the crest of this arc, from near Hill 60 to at least as far as Passchendaele, which was the highest point on the ridge.

To follow the crest line, as in our option, means changing the direction of the main thrust at various points along the ridge and ensuring we keep the base of the salient wide enough. By attacking as they did at 3rd Ypres the general direction of the attack was E and dropping off the flank along the crest as it was reached. This makes sense, although to keep the salient wide enough at the base they had to attack over the lower ground in the northern half of the salient. However, this meant the offensive was generally up out of the bowl onto the ridge, and the attacks became narrower the closer they got to Passchendaele.

I noted a couple of other points:

a. . a map of one of the earlier plans included the use of tanks across the main ridge in the area Hill 60 – Glencourse Wood.

b. on 12th October the right (southern) flank of the 3rd Australian Division attacked NE astride the road along the ridge and entered Passchendaele, but had to fall back due to the left flank being caught up in the quagmire in the lower ground to the north.

c. the Canadians also attacked along the ridgelines to get to Passchendaele as the valleys were waterlogged.

d. the E end of the salient along the final line (12th Nov) was rather narrow, with the line facing north in the area of the Houthulst Forest.

I think in our option we have to ensure the base of the salient is wide enough but accept that it will narrow the further NE along the ridge we advance. I don’t think we need to or have enough resources to rest our right (southern) flank along the Lys River itself, but in the Canal - Zandvoorde area we can advance SE to a point where we provide a wide buffer between the German line and the ridge itself and overlook the low ground to the river. The question is do we include that high ground SE of Ghulevelt and E of Zandvoorde in our southern flank?

Although the ground on which tanks can be employed is limited to the high ground along the ridge we should employ them in that area to help the infantry forward through the German defences in that area.

It would seem that the salient you came up with on the grided map at post 30 is about right but move the northern flank to run from roughly the centre of C2 to just north of the left hand corner of A1 to flatten out where the new line joins the old front (Red) line. We should do the same with the southern base.

Your grided map at post 103 provides my proposal for the initial phase and I want to use tanks to support the infantry on the high ground of the ridge in the southern half of C1, all of C2 and the northern half of C3. I propose we attack to secure the Blue line frontage up to the Blue dot on the top LH corner of C2 and then run the objective back on a shallow angle to where the Red line turns from N to WNW above square B1. The intent is to advance along the high ground and straighten out the line south of the ridge. Once this line is consolidated, the next phase is to advance out to the Turquoise line.

OK jump in everyone and point out where you think the plan is wrong. This is the only way we are going to test it.

Regards

Chris

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I think in our option we have to ensure the base of the salient is wide enough but accept that it will narrow the further NE along the ridge we advance. I don’t think we need to or have enough resources to rest our right (southern) flank along the Lys River itself, but in the Canal - Zandvoorde area we can advance SE to a point where we provide a wide buffer between the German line and the ridge itself and overlook the low ground to the river. The question is do we include that high ground SE of Ghulevelt and E of Zandvoorde in our southern flank?
Chris, I agree with your comment about the base of the salient. The problem is defining what is the base. If the right flank extends below the ridge and onto the Lys valley, then the really serious problem is ensuring that it is not echeloned back so far as to simply soak up resources without making any tactical contribution. Looking at it from the German commander's perspective, I would be really pleased if troops got pushed down onto the lower ground. It would take some time before they threatened the Zandvoorde high ground directly, and then the threat would only be to the front. It would be extremely difficult, and very very costly, to try and work round the right side (looking at it from the British perspective) of the Zandvoorde 'hill'. Thus the British advance along the ridge would always be in the shape of an inverted V, with the apex pointing along the ridge, or a 7, where the left flank kept up but the right flank continued to lag behind. The right flank would not prevent the German commander from using the ground behind Zandvoorde and Gheluvelt for mounting counterattacks - something which Jack will no doubt bring out in his forthcoming book.

Robert

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Hello. Robert the War in the Air map.

Sorry had to redo it twice, its got some very interesting narative on artillery spotting for 3rd Ypres accompying the map, about the learning and tactics.

Scan and post, or scan and email?

If recall there was a special concrete artillery tower at Zonnebeke.

Regards

Mart

Chris do you require any of the maps emailing, if so pm list with email address.

msp1-1.jpg

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Hello

Medical General History Volume 3, situation map.

Regards

Mart

scan0070.jpg

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Hello

Some more from Vol 3 General Medical History.

Regards

Mart

scan0071.jpg

scan0072.jpg

scan0073.jpg

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Robert,

I agree with your points and as we go further E we need to keep this in mind. Seems there are no comments on the first two phases so I will move onto the 3rd phase line.

Using the map at post 103 from the south take the line from bottom blue dot in C7 NNE to the canal at C6.5 then NE to the Zandvoorde high ground and taking in the village itself, then N to capture the spur with the pink dots along it through the western edge of Polygon Wood and capturing the spur to the NW of the wood (above D1). Continue NW along that spur to the area of the pink dot west of the D on the printed map, then across to the pink dot in the German second line SW of the "S" in St and then across to the second pink dot in the German front line in the corner of the map square.

Again, I would like to use tanks to help the infantry forward along the high ground.

The question is do we do it in one attack or break it into two with one going forward in the southern sector followed by the northern sector. If we have enough artillery to ensure effective coverage and counter battery fire across the front I would prefer one step, but if not then we should break it into two attacks.

From this line forward it starts to get interesting as to how we progress the advance.

Regards

Chris

Link to comment
Share on other sites

From 'The Tank Corps', written by Major C Williams-Ellis and A Williams-Ellis:

"The Reconnaissance side had also been busy during the weeks of preparation.

To facilitate the movement of Tanks over the battlefield a new system was made use of, by which a list of compass bearings from well defined points to a number of features in the enemy's territory was prepared, thus enabling direction to be picked up.

The Reconnaissance Officer's methods of observation did not differ from those they had employed at Arras.

They used artillery OPs, they flew over enemy lines, a 'supply of prisoners' for special examination was allotted to them, they talked to refugees, they observed, made and annotated maps [i recognise this one :) ], and drew many panoramas, and made detailed raised maps in plasticine.

By early July they had collected a great mass of information that was not only vitally important to the Tank Corps, but also of great use to the other arms.

Tanks were everywhere to be auxilliary, and were to be employed to deal with strong points and for 'mopping up' behind the infantry.

There was, however, one great improvement in the method of using them.

They were to be used in definite waves. That is to say, supposing thirty-six Tanks were to be employed on a sector where the Germans had established the usual three lines of defence, twelve Tanks would start at zero and be used to take the first objective. Meanwhile, the second wave would have been advancing, and as soon as the first objective had been taken, the second wave would pass through the first wave and on to the second objective. The third party of twelve would advance in the same way - a wave to each objective.

The method did not, as a matter of fact, have a good trial on this occasion, for, in the first place, the Tanks' first objective was only the infantry second objective; and the enemy did not employ his usual method of three set lines at all.

Altogether three Brigades of Tanks were to be employed with the 5th Army. Tank Brigade Commanders were to keep in touch with Corps Commanders, Tank Battalions were to act with Divisions, Tank Companies (12 fighting tanks) with Brigades, and individual tanks with Battalions.

The three Brigades were to be distributed as follows:-

a. 2nd Corps (consisting of 24th, 30th, 18th, 8th and 25th Divisions). - 2nd Tank Brigade (A and B Battalions). 72 tanks to be allotted as follows: 1st objective - 16; 2nd objective - 24; 3rd objective - 24. The remainder to be held in reserve. The main objective was to be Broodseinde Ridge. The ground is this area was broken by swamps and woods; only three approaches were possible for Tanks, and these formed dangerous defiles.

b. 19th Corps (consisting of 15th, 55th, 16th, and 36th Divisions). - 3rd Tank Brigade (C and F Battalions). 72 tanks to be allotted as follows: 1st objective - 24; 2nd objective - 24; reserve - 24. The remainder to be held in reserve. The main objective was to be a section of the Gheluvelt-Langemarck line. On the 19th Corps front the valley of Steenbeek was in a terrible condition, innumerable shell-holes and pools of water existed, the drainage of the Steenbeek having been seriously affected by the shelling.

c. 18th Corps (consisting of 39th, 51st, 11th, and 48th Divisions). - 1st Tank Brigade (D and G Battalions). 36 tanks to be allotted as follows: 1st objective - 12; 2nd objective - 12; 3rd objective - 12. They were to seize the crossings of the Steenbeek and establish posts beyond it.

Thirty-six Tanks belonging to 1st Brigade were held in Army Reserve.

Zero was fixed for 3.30 am on July 31."

Robert

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Seems there are no comments on the first two phases so I will move onto the 3rd phase line.
Chris, silence doesn't meant consent :D . Seriously, I am still examining the issues around the first phase, particularly the neutralization of the German advantage around Zandvoorde and Gheluvelt. I want to work on the map a little, just to illustrate the concerns. With any luck, I should be able to reproduce the terrain in this area too. It is possible that I could get a terrain board set up on the weekend - good enough to photograph but no promises.

Again, I would like to use tanks to help the infantry forward along the high ground.

The big problem with the high ground on the ridge is that it is covered in the remnants of woods and copses. Experience at High Wood in 1916 illustrated that these will be no go areas for tanks. This means tanks will get funnelled into naturally-occurring kill zones, though it will depend on the disposition of the German artillery and trench mortars whether they can take advantage of this.

Robert

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I want to work on the map a little, just to illustrate the concerns.
Chris, I have tried to illustrate the importance of the ground around Zanvoorde and Gheluvelt. This map illustrates three things:

1. the zone of observation from Zanvoorde hill across the exposed British right flank

2. forming up areas and/or locations for artillery

3. potential valleys up which counterattacking troops or reinforcements may pass, with purple arrows illustrating possible routes. The dotted arrow is most likely to be under British observation.

Robert

post-1473-1172182847.jpg

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Chris, here are some options for counter-preparatory artillery fire. I have added the area around Becelaere as well. This is hidden from direct British observation and could (did?) accommodate German heavy artillery. The large arrows illustrate potential lanes of enfilade fire, much of which could be directed from Zandvoorde or the ridge lines.

Robert

post-1473-1172183462.jpg

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Chris, in this map I have drawn in some approximate lines of observation in red. These are my guesstimates as to where the British would have to reach in order to gain direct observation over the German artillery and hidden forming-up areas.

Robert

post-1473-1172183816.jpg

Link to comment
Share on other sites

In the last map, it is very hard to estimate where the British would have to get to, ie how far from the apex of the red 'triangle', or put it another way, how far down the ridge they would have to come, in order to gain direct observation of the area behind Zandvoorde.

Robert

Link to comment
Share on other sites

1. the zone of observation from Zanvoorde hill across the exposed British right flank
Chris, this area is so exposed that it just invites the Germans to chew up British defenders. It is a natural killing ground, flanked by the ridge line on the left. I can't see any advantage in pressing forward significantly into this area. By all means maintain a threat, which will force the Germans to maintain some defensive resource in the area. But occupying this lower ground does not offer a stable base for operations along the ridge IMHO. The British could not base artillery in this area at all, even if Zandvoorde fell, given the high ground just south of Comines. The area would be constantly exposed to harassing fire from south of the Lys (I wouldn't use resources near Zandvoorde and Gheluvelt unless absolutely necessary, as these should stay focussed on destroying the British effort along the ridge). I just cannot see the British pushing any distance along this zone, even as far as Zandvoorde, without sustaining serious losses from the exposed right flank. I cannot convince myself that an attack into this zone (Area B.) provides any benefit and could just waste men unnecessarily.

Robert

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Chris, depending on what your thoughts are re the above issues, I wonder if the time has arrived to fast-forward the first day's attack - July 31, 1917. I am happy to provide a precis of what happened to the units that were involved, starting with NZ Division down by Warneton (next to the Lys), up to the attack near Hooge.

Robert

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Robert,

Thank you for your observations. I agree the woods are a problem and their use would need to be carefully planned as occurred in the actual battle. We may not be able to employ them.

Regarding the maps of the artillery enfilade fire and counter attack areas - I agree, however, are these that much different from the situation at the 3rd Ypres?

Regarding artillery; at some point in either option (ours and 3rd Ypres) we are going to get enfilade artillery fire along the line and looking at your map they appear to be similar to the those that would have been experienced at 3rd Ypres.

The northern most counter attack you have portrayed actually occurred immediately prior to Polygon Wood and is the one 5th Australian Division had to help repel. I don't know how the ground slopes south of the ridge but it would seem that our blue line actually makes the southern counter attack area more difficult for the Germans than in the actual battle.

Assuming the Zandvoorde high ground does provide good observation as you have portrayed, then the objective line is on a forward slope This has two implications: firstly,artillery fire can be directed onto the line and its communication trenches much more accurately and your points about chewing up casualties is well taken, secondly it makes preparations for the next phase more difficult although not impossible. We have to decide whether it actually rules this option out

Do we hold the objective line further back on the crest in phase 1 and then go for the Zandvoorde high ground in one bound or do we accept the difficulties and include Zandvoorde in phase 2? The only way we can gain observation over the ground beyond the Zandvoorde is to capture that feature itself and I am concerned that may be too great a distance to do it in one bound from the crestline of the ridge. I am inclined to agree with you about pulling back from Area B at this stage. If we stick to seizing the ground as far as the crest of the ridge, which is what they did at 3rd Ypres, then this option may not be feasible. Thus we may have answered our original question as to whether this option was feasible.

However there may be another way to tackle the problem; I will give it some more thought.

Yes, let's fast forward phase 1 based on what actually happened.

Regards

Chris

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Chris, I don't imagine that the counter-preparatory fire plans would have been different between historical 3rd Ypres and the new scenario. It must be emphasized that I am basing my observations on an analysis of the terrain and my understanding of how artillery was used, not on any knowledge of what the German defenders actually did. The thing that jumps out is that the natural curve of the ridge from Hollebeke around to Passchendaele provides a series of areas that aid the German defense of the ridge. These are all based in Area B. Given that the British right flank would constantly be echeloned back, then unless there was a delay in the attack along the ridge to allow the right flank to catch up and then move past into order to become perpendicular to the main axis of the ridge, the only way to negate the key locations is coming over the ridge from the left or moving along the ridge. Either way, it is vital to gain direct observation of these areas. Attacking along Area B will not achieve this. It looks more and more as though this part of the scenario is not doable.

The only other point to make about Area B is that logistical resupply in this area will get harder and harder as the attack progresses. In all other respects, the logistics support for this scenario is going to be unchanged from the original. We raised it as one of the things that needed consideration. In summary, for Area B, it will be difficult. Otherwise, I don't see any difference.

As for the extension of the plan to include phases 2 & 3, I don't feel strongly. It is good to have some general concepts laid out but, as you know, we are going to have to revise any plan as things start rolling. Even this plan will not survive contact with the enemy ;) .

I will start work on the precis, and the terrain board.

Robert

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Robert,

I have had another look at the ground and the point you raise about Zandvoorde overlooking Area B. Two of my concerns have been based around the need to ensure a relatively wide base to counter, firstly any nipping off of the salient at the base (ie avoid a narrow salient) and secondly to avoid the area within the salient becoming an artillery trap (ie being pounded by German guns from three sides as occurred at Pozieres and Moquet Farm).

As far as the artillery trap is concerned, I am not as worried about that as before. While we can expect the Germans to retaliate with artillery, the general area of this salient is very much bigger than that at Pozieres and Moquet Farm and they do not have unlimited supplies of ammunition .

Turning to the first point, as long as we take the high ground and advance sufficiently down the southern slopes to positions that enable us to have reasonable fields of fire but avoid being overlooked by Zandvoorde I think we can still advance along the ridge and maintain a degree of security along the southern flank. The attack on 31 July advanced down from the main ridge towards Zandvoorde in the area of Klien Zillebeke to a depth of around 800 m from the map I am looking at. They seem to be on higher ground than or at least ground of equal height to the Zandvoorde feature.

The highest point of the ridge appears to be the general area Stirling Castle – Clapham Junction and the ground runs out to the Gheluvelt Plateau to the SE from this point. It is the ground of tactical importance in this phase. This high ground was to be captured on 31 July, but difficulties were experienced here, and only part of it was captured. The main effort at 3rd Ypres then seems to have been made further north over the next three weeks. The September attacks captured the remainder of this high ground and pushed forward across the Gheluvelt Plateau to the SE; the right flank pushed out a few hundred yards towards Zandvoorde. Thus can we assume that this area was not overlooked by the Zandvoorde feature? I think we can.

In reading further about why the Stirling Castle- Clapham Junction high ground was not taken on 31 July, it transpires that part of this area was given to 30th Division to capture. This division had suffered dreadfully at the Somme, had not recovered from that experience and GHQ had preferred to substitute it with another division. Their concern was borne out in the initial stages of the attack. While 30 Div captured their objective, they were late in setting off and so lost the protective effect of the barrage and had to be reinforced by battalions that had been tasked to pass through them and capture the second objective. If this high ground is important then why give its capture to a division GHQ had concerns with? The selection of troops is an important planning issue and if there are doubts about one formation's suitability then their use has to be considered carefully.

What our option is starting to look like is similar ground but a different emphasis on the right flank than occurred at 3rd Ypres.

Regards

Chris

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Attacking along Area B will not achieve this. It looks more and more as though this part of the scenario is not doable.

Robert

Robert,

Looks like we were working on the problem at the same time. Can you clarify what you mean by advancing along Area B? If you mean advancing along the length of the oval of Area B from W to E, then I wholeheartedly agree with you. My approach was predicated on advancing roughly E towards the canal in the area the W of the canal only. E of the canal it was intended to advance SE into Area B from the higher ground to the lower. This might be part of a preliminary operation in order to get the line of advance along the ridge square onto the ridge in the area W of Stirling Castle or as I proposed earlier as an integral part of a broader advance.

It is looking as though a preliminary operation might be the way to go.

As you quite rightly say, planning is adjusted as each problem is considered, so I don't have any worries with that.

Regards

Chris

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Two of my concerns have been based around the need to ensure a relatively wide base to counter, firstly any nipping off of the salient at the base (ie avoid a narrow salient) and secondly to avoid the area within the salient becoming an artillery trap (ie being pounded by German guns from three sides as occurred at Pozieres and Moquet Farm).
Chris, you were quite right to raise the issue. It is fundamental to the planning process. On the first point, I agree with your analysis. Possession of the ridge line, coupled with the high ground around Warneton, means that any attempt by the Germans to attack the base of the British right flank is utterly doomed. Any German attack across the open ground in front of Zandevoorde would be taken in enfilade from Messines ridge and would be resisted frontally from the higher ground on the ridge.

As far as the artillery trap is concerned, I am not as worried about that as before. While we can expect the Germans to retaliate with artillery, the general area of this salient is very much bigger than that at Pozieres and Moquet Farm and they do not have unlimited supplies of ammunition .
This comes back to an issue we discussed before. I could not agree more strongly with your comments about the examples of Pozieres and Moquet Farm. I had used the example of Delville Wood too. The primary problem with these attacks was not poor planning, as in poor coordination of artillery and infantry (which is not to excuse this problem). It was the problem of narrow attacks that could be dominated on three sides by enemy artillery. Furthermore, even if the attacks were successful, they could not provide the British with the leverage to nullify the German artillery on the three sides. Gheluvelt-Broodeseinde-Passchendaele ridge is different. Get along the ridge and the significant defensive advantages are sequentially nullified. But don't use narrow frontage attacks - keep the frontage as wide as possible.

The highest point of the ridge appears to be the general area Stirling Castle – Clapham Junction and the ground runs out to the Gheluvelt Plateau to the SE from this point. It is the ground of tactical importance in this phase. This high ground was to be captured on 31 July, but difficulties were experienced here, and only part of it was captured. The main effort at 3rd Ypres then seems to have been made further north over the next three weeks. The September attacks captured the remainder of this high ground and pushed forward across the Gheluvelt Plateau to the SE; the right flank pushed out a few hundred yards towards Zandvoorde. Thus can we assume that this area was not overlooked by the Zandvoorde feature? I think we can.
I agree. The attacks to the north may still have a bearing but I want to come back to this.

Robert

Link to comment
Share on other sites

In reading further about why the Stirling Castle- Clapham Junction high ground was not taken on 31 July, it transpires that part of this area was given to 30th Division to capture. This division had suffered dreadfully at the Somme, had not recovered from that experience and GHQ had preferred to substitute it with another division. Their concern was borne out in the initial stages of the attack. While 30 Div captured their objective, they were late in setting off and so lost the protective effect of the barrage and had to be reinforced by battalions that had been tasked to pass through them and capture the second objective. If this high ground is important then why give its capture to a division GHQ had concerns with? The selection of troops is an important planning issue and if there are doubts about one formation's suitability then their use has to be considered carefully.
Chris, as I read your analysis, my first reaction was - what were the Germans doing so successfully? It is always my first instinct when I read of the poor performance of a British unit, rather than what were the deficiencies in the unit. Please, no criticism intended whatsoever. The ridgeline has to be the German Schwerpunkt ('point of maximum effort' for a loose translation) - it just has to be because it is so so important. I bet every effort was being focused on countering what the British were doing. I wouldn't mind betting that pretty much any British division would have struck the same problem. Anyway, let's revisit this later.

Robert

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Thanks for the clarification on Area B. It looks like we are aligned on this. It has been very interesting working through the pros and cons. I hope this process has given others some insights into how such decisions might have been made. I would only add, and I am sure you would agree, that we cannot do full justice to the planning efforts that went into Third Ypres.

Robert

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...