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

Western Front tactics in 1917


Mat McLachlan
 Share

Recommended Posts

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,

I fully agree. The magnitude of the issues to be addressed and the effort that went into the planning for 3rd Ypres were enormous. We are playing around the edges at the outline concept stage.

Regards

Chris

Link to comment
Share on other sites

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.

Robert,

I agree with your point about the German resistance. The source of the analysis of the 30th Division was from John Keegan. The ridge line was critical to the British offensive as well and our option sees it as the British Schwerpunkt,, hence we need to ensure this area is resourced accordingly. I'm not sure it was considered as such for the 31st July attacks.

Regards

Chris

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Chris, I managed to get some contours made today. Here are some photos. The British start line for 31 July 1917 is marked with line of small stands. Each stand measures 3/4 x 3/4 inches, and represents the approximate frontage of an infantry company. The figures on the stands are 2mm high. Each contour represents 10 metres height difference. I placed some 'villages' and a representation of Stirling Castle. These are labelled. FWIIW, there are some tank stands as well, with Mk IVs. At only 3mm tall, it is not surprising that they are a little blurry :).

The first photograph is looking north along the British frontline:

post-1473-1172340627.jpg

Robert

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Chris, now that we have agreed to anchor the British right on the ridge, it is important to push the left flank over as far as possible. Partly to maintain a wide attack frontage for the reasons we discussed earlier. It is also important because we need to think how the artillery can have enough space to deploy for the next phases. The artillery must be widely distributed to minimise casualties from counter-battery fire.

Robert

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Robert,

This is an outstanding effort which brings the issue to life. I am truly amazed and humbled by the work you have done in illustrating this thread in such a way we can visualize what we are proposing. It certainly has made it easier to discuss and this adds an even greater level of 'picturing' the terrain. I am sure those who are still reading this thread will join me in thanking you. Superb work Robert.

At this stage I am thinking a preliminary operation on the right to square the direction of advance along the ridge might be the first step, so as to allow the attack on the ground of tactical importance to be taken from the SW. We will need to consider the pros and cons of this, but lets wait until you have finished the model before we debate this.

Again, many thanks for a truly amazing contribution to this thread.

Cheers

Chris

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Thanks All. The terrain model reemphasizes the huge area of the battlefield.

I have to travel over the next few days so postings will be limited. Hopefully, it will be possible to post the summary of what actually happened on July 31st, from the perspective of the British, Dominion and French forces. I will leave the German perspective to Jack ;) - hopefully this thread will further whet appetites for his forthcoming book.

Robert

Link to comment
Share on other sites

This thread has been an absolute delight to follow and - echoing the earlier views of others - is what makes this forum so great. I admire the knowledge possessed by some of you and it puts to shame my own knowledge of the Great War battles which isn't that bad! I only wish I could contribute more meaninfully!

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Stuart,

I am certain that you can make a meaningful contribution to this thread and I suspect that you have a greater knowledge of the Great War than me. What little knowledge I do have is mainly concerned with the Australian participation. My interest in 3rd Ypres was kindled only last year with preparation for a visit to the battlefield and then seeing the ground itself. I am learning a lot more by participating in this discussion with Robert, who has an amazing depth of knowledge, and it is forcing me to undertake further research on the subject.

Please join us in this discussion - the more views and questions we get on the subject the better the outcome. I'm surprised that very few Forum members have joined in.

Cheers

Chris

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Robert and Delta,

I have tried to research the actual planning details within the limited resources available to us here in Australia in an effort to ascertain the thinking behind the concept of operations adopted for 3rd Ypres as opposed to what we are discussing in this thread. It has revealed some interesting information. Essentially my proposed concept of making the main thrust along the ridgeline is hardly new and it reinforces Delta’s query if Haig had left the main assault to Plumer rather than passing the baton to Gough.

I don’t have access to the primary sources for the planning for the battle but the British OH contains a synopsis that is relevant to our discussion.

According to the OH,GHQ's initial offensive was on a fifteen mile front from Frelinghiem (three miles N of Warneton) on the right flank to the Yser inundations N of Steenstraat on the left flank. The attack in the S (Plumer’s 2nd Army) was to create the impression of an attack on the Warneton Line itself and threaten Lille with the aim of holding the German reserves there. Gough’s 5th Army and the French 1st Army were to overrun the Gheluvelt Plateau and Pilkem Ridge. The tactics were to employ a series of step-by-step attacks.

In subsequent operations 5th Army was to advance NE along the high ground of the main Ypres Ridge through Gheluvelt – Becelare – Broodseinde – Moorslede to gain the line Thouvant – Coukelaere on its way to Bruges. (OH p125)

The first day’s objective was limited to the capture of the German 2nd line, an advance of about one mile. A pause of two days before continuing would allow the guns to be got forward and allow capture and consolidation of the greater part of the Gheluvelt Plateau.

Gough felt the plan did not appear to provide for the speedy progress, which he had understood, was required from verbal instructions given to him by Haig. So instead of confining his operations to a short fixed advance he was in favour of going as far as he could. (OH p127) Thus Gough extended the first day's objective another mile to include the German third line and "without any settled pause an exploitation objective of another mile to a fourth objective at Broodseinde with the left flank along the Gravenstafel Spur to Gravenstafel and Langemark". He planned to use the troops who captured the first objective to capture the exploitation line. (OH p127)

Brig Gen Davidson, Head of Operations Branch at GHQ, criticized Gough’s plan in, what Bean calls, a well thought through memorandum. Davidson recommended strictly limited objectives on the lines of the original GHQ plan. He advised a succession of deliberate objectives limited to a depth of one mile, the artillery destructive force in this lesser zone would be more destructive and “it had been proved that fresh troops with adequate artillery could advance without undue loss or disorganisation”. Under Gough’s plan the 5th Army line would be ragged and German counter attacks would be more successful. Davidson also felt “the British might be justified in taking risks [through deeper objectives] but only on proof that the German’s were generally – and not merely locally – demoralized” after a succession of limited blows.

Two conferences were held on 6th and 16th June to discuss the plan. According to the OH, although Haig had doubts about the distant objectives given for the first day, he allowed Gough’s concept to go ahead because, according to the OH, he felt it sound to let a general conduct operations in his own way and he believed there had been a missed chance by the limited objectives at Messines. Haig did, however, remind Gough that the main battle would be fought on the high ground W of Gheluvelt. (OH p128-129) According to Prior and Wilson, in Passchendaele: the untold story Haig's diary made it abundantly clear that he was not prepared to accept lesser objectives than Gough proposed. What Haig did note was Gough's failure to pay due attention to the area on the right of his attack which seemed to [Haig] to be fundamental to the whole undertaking.(P&W Passchendaele p77)

In reading the subsequent pages of the actual battle it appears that Gough lost sight of this both in allocating resources to the capture of the high ground and the emphasis of subsequent attacks.

The OH also raises the issue of 30th Division. “30th Division had the most difficult task. The best available division was needed for the advance across the plateau … 30th Division had not yet recovered from losses in the Somme and Arras battles. GHQ recommended a fresher division should replace the 30th.” (OH p153) It was delayed in getting forward due to a German barrage (according to the OH and Keegan the troops fell back to their assembly dugouts) and consequently the leading battalions were unable to catch up with the British barrage and lost its protective cover which had consequences on the objectives actually captured.

In planning to capture the Gheluvelt Plateau for the 10th August the OH mentions the concentration of German artillery behind Gheluvelt and the need to reduce them, however this was not achieved because "5th Army continued to spread their fire over the whole Army frontage" and poor weather limited air reconnaissance from plotting the new German gun positions as they changed; “as a result the German concentration of artillery remained unmasked”. Gough’s subsequent successes seem to be focussed in the northern half of the salient.

On 24th August “As a result of firmer control of operations adopted by Haig, effect was given to the original advice that the main effort should be fought on and for the Gheluvelt Plateau.” (OH p237)

Plumer was given the task and the “fullest possible weight of 2nd Army was to be massed against the Plateau … by a succession of assaults or steps with extremely limited objectives." He intended to capture the plateau by four separate steps with an interval of six days between each step. The distance between each step was to be governed by the need to meet the strong German counter attacks with fresh infantry supported by effective artillery barrages. Plumer also reduced the frontage of his main effort – four divisions on a four thousand yard frontage. In essence he doubled the size of the force to take half the frontage and the density of artillery was four times as great as that on 31st July. “The keynote of the 2nd Army plan was the systematic concentration of fire on definite targets such as strong points, battery positions and counter attack formations.” (OH p240).

Using these tactics Plumer was successful at Menin Road, Polygon Wood and Broodseinde as previously discussed, moving the line forward in three well planned and executed steps with relatively fewer casualties. These, apparantly, are the tactics Carlyon criticises based on the casualties incurred.

Haig’s decision to allow Gough have his own way in the beginning and accept the deeper objectives, Gough's allocation of resources to secure the ground of tactical importance and the difference in his tactics and Plumer’s may be the answer as to why the battle developed as it did and why the high ground was not taken earlier in the offensive. What has been answered is that GHQ actually intended that the centre of gravity of the offensive was to have been to secure the high ground near Gheluvelt and then advance NE along the main Passchendaele Ridge. My proposal differs only slightly from this, make the main effort NE from the gains achieved as a result of Messines.

Why the main effort to secure the Gheluvelt Plateau at the beginning didn’t occur seems to lie in Gough’s execution of the plan and Haig's failure to exert his own requirements on Gough. Thus Delt'a question is the relevant one.

Regards

Chris

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Chris, Davidson's memo was very well crafted. I have Gough's book 'Fifth Army' with me. If I get a chance, I will post his responses to the issues that were raised. I also have quotes from British Staff Officers who came in contact with Fifth Army Staff at this time. They make for interesting reading too.

The German counter-preparatory barrage was very significant and points to the fact that it may have been very difficult for any division. It reflects the significance of the ridge to the German plans, whereas Gough's plans were not as focussed.

When I get a better Internet connection, I will post some more material, plus the summary.

Robert

Link to comment
Share on other sites

The German counter-preparatory barrage was very significant and points to the fact that it may have been very difficult for any division. It reflects the significance of the ridge to the German plans, whereas Gough's plans were not as focussed.

Robert,

This may be so. Conversely, if Gough had treated the ridge as his "Schwerpunkt" and had allocated appropriate resources, including the necessary counter battery fire, the result may have been different. Gough seems to have learnt little from his experience at the Somme in 1916 and at Bullecourt in April -May 1917. On the other hand, Rawlinson and Plumer seem to have agreed on the value of the limited objective approach during the planning of the battle.

I look forward to reading Davidson's memo, Gough's reply and the other observations. I envy your access to the British primary sources.

Regards

Chris

Link to comment
Share on other sites

In reading #164, I am struck by Haig's apparently less than thorough reveiw of Gough's plan for the battle for the Gheluvelt platform; espcially when it is compared with the extremely thorough manner in which he reviewed Plumer's preparations for Messines.

Haig was no fool; the manner in which he tested Plumer's plan both at HQ and formation level was most thorough and ensured that all areas of uncertainty were exposed. That he did not appear to do the same for Gough says much about his view that "the Old Man" required watching.

I was unaware of the two conferences (6th and 16th Jun); this would appear to show that Haig had decided from the very start that there was to be no attempt to fight in a north-easterly direction (ie from the Messines ridge towards Gehlevelt) but that an attack centred on the Menin road was the only option. That he did not change his mind after Plumer's success must have been based on bases which I am unable to fathom. It could be that the lines of communications into the southern sector could not provide the volumes of materiel required to fight the battle; i.e. he was limited by the requirement to use the Poperinge / Ypres axis.

Having read the earlier posts, especially the excellent maps, and having walked the ground around Zandvoorde/Ghelevelt area, I believe that (if the logistics tail could have sustained the assault from the Messines area) an assault supported by tanks could have been successful IF the ground was not too badly damaged by artillery fire. I agree that there was a threat to the British right flank but at least the attack would have struck the Germans in the flank; rather than attacking directly into the beaten zones of the German machine guns in the bunkers in the low ground across which the assault was made.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

In reading #164, I am struck by Haig's apparently less than through reveiw of Gough's plan for the battle for the Ghelvelt platfor; espcially when it is compared with the extremely through manner in which he reviewed Plumer's preparations for Messines.

I also find it very hard to understand Haig's attitude to Plumer. It is not explained by assuming that Haig would have been aware as the war progressed, that if he was to be replaced, it would quite possibly be by Plumer. He expressed , more than once, a warm regard for Plumer's abilities.

His attitude to Gough is another puzzle. I think that Haig may have given him more chances than he should have because of his regard for his brother. I would not hope to argue that position very convincingly. To me, Gough stands out as the one General who should have been degommed long before he was and I have no convincing argument as to why that should be. That said, I think he was a fall-guy in 1918.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

That said, I think he was a fall-guy in 1918.

The older I get, the more I look for hidden agendas. Apologies if this is unworthy, but is it just, just possible that a battle could be set up with a built in fallguy in case things went pear shaped? :ph34r: Phil B

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Phil - probably but I don't think so in this case. Much as I admire the skill of the Germans in setting up the Kaiserlacht, I am not sure that its aims included the sacking of Gough.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Phil - probably but I don't think so in this case. Much as I admire the skill of the Germans in setting up the Kaiserlacht, I am not sure that its aims incluied the sacking of Gough.

Good! As long as you can also assure me that the same applies to the setting up of the Allied defence. :unsure: Phil B

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Ah, I see - so are you suggesting that the location and weakness of Gough's Army, and its juncture with the French forces, was specifically planned by the Alled staff to tempt the German High Command to attack in that area?

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Not suggesting, delta - wondering if such things are possible? It`s an attitude I`ve probably transferred from politics where a planned fallguy in a plan would not cause surprise. And since high level strategy is, to a certain degree, political..... ;) Phil B

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Hi Phil B, truthergw, and Delta

Interesting posts, but I thought that this thread had deveolped into thinking and discussing through what were the other options "on the ground", based upon infromation know to the parties at the time, to allow us all then to see if other stratagies could have been followed, or been more sucessful.

I am aware that the High Commands interactions can influence some of these, but in the spirit of Roberts and Chris's (and others) dialogue could you please return to the spirit of the thread and follow/explain through the implications of the High Command's realtionships, and fall guy senarios, to the actually activities on the ground, so we can see the implications on the ground.

Did it mean for example 1) less or more resources, 2) did it mean that liasion with the French could have been different, 3) was some intelligence held back? etc, and therefore the tactical implications were XXXX.

Or should another thread be started examing the evidence and implications of the high commands relationships and hence how it developed during the war, to the positive or detriment of the Allied or German ability to prosecute the war to their respective goals.

Regards

Mart

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Yes, MartH, a slight diversion from the topic. Except, of course, that a fallguy might have been built into the 3rd Ypres planning! I have no evidence for it happening, but that doesn`t, of course, mean it didn`t. It`s a general question that should really be elsewhere. Unless it happened in 1917! Or the events of 1917 caused it to happen in 1918! Oh dear.... :( Phil B

Link to comment
Share on other sites

It could be that the lines of communications into the southern sector could not provide the volumes of materiel required to fight the battle; i.e. he was limited by the requirement to use the Poperinge / Ypres axis.

Having read the earlier posts, especially the excellent maps, and having walked the ground around Zandvoorde/Ghelevelt area, I believe that (if the logistics tail could have sustained the assault from the Messines area) an assault supported by tanks could have been successful IF the ground was not too badly damaged by artillery fire. I agree that there was a threat to the British right flank but at least the attack would have struck the Germans in the flank; rather than attacking directly into the beaten zones of the German machine guns in the bunkers in the low ground across which the assault was made.

Delta,

Your point about logistic support is important. Ypres was a communication node, although being under German observation and shellfire would have limited its use severely, particularly in the early stages of the battle.

I support your view about the direction of the initial attack from the Messines area. I'm not all that concerned about threats to the right flank. A preliminary operation would be needed to square the line of advance to the ridgeline and this would involve pushing forward to the E in the area S of the canal and SE from the Sthn portion of the British held ridegline. Furthermore supporting attacks on the flank of the main assault along the ridgeline would provide some protection as occurred at Menin Road and Polygon Wood. There are other means as wel,l such as the use of smoke and artillery DF's.

Cheers

Chris

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...