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Western Front tactics in 1917


Mat McLachlan
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Robert and Chris

This is just a brief note to say that I have followed this debate from its beginning and I am impressed by the depth of knowledge possessed by both of you. While I have neither the knowledge nor the skill to make a comment about the subject matter, it still allows me ot express my appreciation and admiration.

The exercise itself illustrates the point that as smart as we are with the advantage of 20/20 hindsight vision, when presented with this scenario, it would appear that we might have dabbled at the edges but not altered the big picture. It actually is good in dealing with the old chestnuts of "lions led by donkeys" or "butchers and bunglers". The majority of the commanders were highly skilled and intelligent men trying hard to cope with a new situation - none had led a Corps in action - and so they were learning on the job. The thing I see is that as time goes on they get much better at prosecuting the war than the Germans who had the jump on them by many years.

Both of you have contributed to presenting a balanced view of the situation of Generalship at the trenches on the Western Front. Thanks very much for that.

Cheers

Bill

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Thank you for your kind words Bill.

Be assured it is Robert who has the great depth of knowledge. He has actually brought the discussion to life with his anotated maps, primary sources, questions and his terrain model. He has made me really think through what was initially just a thought based on an incorrect understanding of the ground in question.

I too feel we have come down to the situation where we are now discussing where the main emphasis of the offensive ought to have been made from the beginning. What would have happened if, as Delta points out, the task had have been given to Plumer, or indeed Rawlinson who was an advocate of the limited objectives approach, and the GHQ plan had been followed? We will never know but if we apply Plumer's tactics from Messines to the main ridge for the 31 July we might get an idea.

It has been good fun too. I hope others have gained as much value from the thread as I have.

Cheers

Chris

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Thanks Bill. It is going to get harder for me to post to this thread. I am about to go on holiday in New Zealand until the end of March. It won't be possible to take as many books with me as I would like :( . Meanwhile, I will try and post as much additional material as I can, starting with the following quotes from Gough. These quotes come from his book 'Fifth Army', which was written after the war:

'The plans for the Battle of Passchendaele (as it was sometimes called) were most thoroughly studied. A memorandum drawn up by Major General J.H. Davidson at GHQ dealt with our operations and was submitted to me. It recognised the fact that a properly-organised attack on such a front as we could operate on could penetrate the enemy's front to a mile or so, but that after that the attack would be completely held up. Further advance could only be gained by a second deliberate and organised attack, to be followed by others of the same nature. I agreed in the main with these conclusions, and we all realised that, given such a front as that on which we were attacking, a deep penetration of the enemy's position could only be achieved by a succession of organised attacks, and that we must recognise that several days must elapse between each of these.

Sir William Robertson visited me about this time and I told him that I did not look for a "break-through" nor for a rapid and spectacular success, but I envisaged a series of carefully organised and prepared attacks, only gaining ground step-by-step, and that it would be a month (given fine weather), or perhaps two, before we were masters of the Passchendaele-Staden Ridge. At the time he saw the soundness of this forecast.

It soon began to appear that the Germans were strengthening their front in Belgium in order to offer effective opposition. Their artillery fire increased in intensity, and their Air Service was so largely reinforced that it outnumbered ours... and generally adopted bolder and more offensive tactics than we had previously experienced.

It was perhaps unfortunate that the Second Army's attack on Messines was not delayed and made simultaneously with ours on 31st July, but necessity was our master. Haig had not enough guns, divisions or ammunition to carry out these attacks at the same moment. As it was, therefore, the Battle of Messines served to attract the attention of the Germans to the northern section of the front, and brought a considerable concentration of German troops against the Fifth Army.

New German divisions were pushed into the front from 10th June onwards, and fresh counter-attack division placed ready. Four fighting groups were organised under the Fourth Army (Sixt von Arnim):

North Group. Marine Corps, on the coast.

Dixmude Group. XIV Corps (4 divisions and 1 1/2 counter-attack divisions)

Ypres Group. III Bavarian Corps (3 divisions and 2 counter-attack divisions)

Wytschaete Group. IV Corps (5 divisions and 3 counter-attack divisions)

A considerable increase of German strength therefore took place on our front, which was in accordance with Haig's strategical idea of compelling the Germans to concentrate against the British, rather than to attack the weakened and temporarily demoralised French Army.'

Robert

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Gough continues:

'The plan of attack was settled and the 31st July finally decided upon as the date. The first day's attack was organised in three stages, which were marked on the map by a blue, a black and a green line. The average distance of the first stage, to the blue line, was 1000 yards; the second stage, to the black line, averaged another 1000 yards; and the third stage, to the green line, was about 1500 yards in the centre and on our right, and 1000 yards on our left.

At a conference some weeks before the battle, Haig and his Chief of Staff - Kiggell - met Plumer and myself. We discussed the question of the objective for the first day's attack - in fact, whether we should try to go through, or confine ourselves to a more regular and systematic series of attacks, each with a limited objective. Plumer was of the opinion that after so much preparation we should be allowed to go "all out", but I was firmly of the opinion that the methodical advance and the limited objective was the sound policy. Haig eventually supported Plumer, and it was decided in consequence that we were to aim at the green line. I think that the more cautious approach would have paid us better; this took into consideration the great strain on the troops, and we should have been better advised had we been content with gaining and establishing ourselves on the black line only.'

At this point, I will add the following additional quote, which describes Gough's appreciation of what happened on the ridge on day one:

'The Fifth Army attacked at ten minutes to four in the morning. The II Corps, although it was attacking along the high ridge, encountered very muddy going which seriously impeded its men. It is curious to find such a situation, but many of us can recall many hilltops which, owing to layers of clay, are more boggy and marshy than the valleys.

This was the case here, and throughout the whole battle the troops on the extreme right met with more difficulties from the mud than those on the left, great as they were over there. The II Corps was never able to use Tanks, which were very often usefully employed by the other corps further to the left, although they were operating in the bottoms of the valleys. Moreover, the German Command had the tactical ability to recognise the vital importance of holding the high ground, and had in consequence strengthened its troops there very considerably and concentrated a terrific artillery fire on this part of the battlefield.'

Robert

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It should be noted that Gough received his orders from Haig to 'carry out the northern operations' on May 13th, 1917.

'The directions I received for my new task were as follows:

"for the capture of the Passchendaele-Staden Ridge and the railway Roulers-Thorout.

The object of these operations will be to facilitate a landing between the Yser River and Ostend, and in combination with a force so landed, to gain possession of the Belgian coast.

The front of your attack will extend from Observatory Ridge to (probably) Noordschoote.

The right of your attack should move on the high ground through Gheluvelt, Becelaere, Broodseinde, and Moorslede. As your advance progresses, this high ground will be taken over from you by Second Army, which will then be charged with safe-guarding your right flank and rear against attack from the south.

Your left flank should be directed to the south of Houthulst Forest.

In combination with your advance it is intended to arrange for an offensive along the coast from Nieuport, if possible by British troops. It is also hoped that the Belgians may carry out an offensive from Dixmude.

The Field-Marshal Commanding-in-Chief wishes you to study the various artillery and other problems connected with these northern operations, and it is open to you to consult with Sir Herbert Plumer and his Staff and to visit the area of the operations.'

Gough moved to La Lovie Chateau, near Poperinghe, on 1 June. He held his first conferences with Corps Commanders on June 6 and 7:

'The details of the operations which lay before us were considered, and a slight change in the plan [proposed by Haig above] was made; it was proposed to pivot on the left flank with the French, while the right flank advanced along the Passchendaele Ridge. This would eventually bring our general direction northwards to clear the Houthulst Forest, and Roulers would thus cease to be an objective for the Fifth Army. This plan had some similarity to the operations carried out in the Battle of the Somme, when we first captured Pozières and then pushed northwards against Thiepval. But this similarity would only exist if we were able to carry our right well forward to Passchendaele, as we had done in the Battle of the Somme to Pozières and Courcelette.'

Robert

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Chris McCarthy has provided the most useful synopsis of events throughout the Passchendaele campaign. It is published in his book 'Passchendaele: The Day-by-day Account'. As per military convention, the events are described from the right of the British attack to the left.

Second Army was on the right. Three corps participated in the attack: II ANZAC; IX Corps; and X Corps. The New Zealand Division was furthest right. Their attack took place next to the Lys River. Elements of 1 NZ Brigade pushed toward, but did not reach, Warneton. This attack followed on a series of raids and attacks which had been going on before July 31st. The Germans launched at least four counter-attacks, one of which recaptured an estaminet on Warenton Road and the rest were repelled or 'dealt with by artillery and small-arms fire'. The advance was not more than 1,000 yds at most.

3rd Australian Division attacked a series of fortified shell holes and then proceeded up to the wire of the Warneton Line. A German counter-attack recaptured a key point known as the Windmill, which the Australians then took back. The advance was around 1,500 yds.

In IX Corps, 37th and 19th Divisions attacked down the slope towards the Lys river valley. At the juncture with 3rd Australian Division, the 37th Division only advanced about 300 yards, leaving the Australians' left flank uncovered for some distance. On the left, 37th Division advanced around 1500 yds but the line was pushed back slightly by a German counter-attack. 19th Division advanced 1500 yds and then sustained two German counter-attacks, one of which recaptured Rifle Farm on the right flank. The left flank of 19th Division almost reached Hollebeke.

In X Corps, 41st Division attacked either side of the Ypres-Comines Canal. They followed the line of the canal, just as you had suggested Chris. The axis of this attack was from SW to NE, ie at 45 degrees to the attacks described above and parallel to the ridge line. Hollebeke was captured and the total advance was around 1500 yds. 41st Division formed the left flank of the Second Army.

Basically, Chris, Second Army's attack followed the general line of attack that you drew for British right flank, though the distance gained was less. The advance of 1500 yds or so was according to plan.

In Fifth Army were II Corps, XIX Corps, XVIII Corps, and XIV Corps.

In II Corps, 24th Division formed the right flank. Their job was to create a defensive flank, bending back the line towards the north again. On the right, at the junction with Second Army, the attack conformed with the 1500 yd advance by 41st Division. On the left, the final objective was 2000 yds from the jump off points, ie through and out the far side of Shrewsbury Forest. Fighting proved difficult in the forest but the attack was severely affected by enfilade fire from the left flank, most notably from Dumbarton Wood and and from pillboxes at Lower Star Post. The left flank had to fall back, ending up about 1000 yards forward, ie about half of what was expected. This meant the new line ran due North, instead of angled forward to the NNE.

30th Division, supported by 18th Division, commenced an attack on a diverging front. The right flank was expected to advance 2,700 yards, while the furthest objectives on the left flank included Polygon Wood, some 5,000 yards away. The frontage of the attack started at 1500 yards but would have increased to 4,000 yards had the furthest objectives been reached. 21st Brigade 'was held up in the assembly dug-outs by enemy shell-fire and they just missed [the British creeping] barrage'. Sanctuary Wood caused the units to get muddled and when the advance attempted to get beyond the wood, it was severely affected by enfilade MG fire. 18th Division ended up supporting the final line reached by 30th Division, which ran due North and was around 1500 yards from the starting point.

8th Division mananged to push forward, capturing Chateau Wood and almost capturing Westhoek. On their left flank, the advance went on for 2000 yards. On the right, the flank had to be refused right back to the junction with 30th/18th Divisions.

In XIX Corps, 15th and 55th Divisions reached their final objectives, which meant advances of 2,500 to 3,000 yards.

In XVIII Corps, 39th Division managed only 2,500 yards on their right flank, stopping short of St Julien. The village had been captured with aid of tanks but heavy German counter-attacks forced a withdrawal back to the Steenbeek. 51st Division reached the Steenbeek, their final objective, which was an advance of 3500 yards.

In XIV Corps, 38th Division advanced to the Steenbeek, some 3,500 yards. Guards Division formed the extreme left of the British attack. They advanced at least 4,500 yards to the Steenbeek on their right flank, which was beyond their final objectives. The left flank was bent back to conform with the French right flank, representing an advance of around 3,500 yards.

Pilckem Ridge, the first of the ridges running off from the Gheluvelt Ridge, now lay in Entente hands. The battle was named after Pilckem Ridge.

Given all the problems with the French Army after the Nivelle offensive, they performed really well on the British left flank. Their contribution to the attack must be acknowledged, both with respect to the artillery and the infantry attacks.

Robert

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In summary, the British attacks formed three contrasting zones of attack. On the right, the advance of Second Army was around 1500 yards, down the slopes of ridges towards the Lys River valley floor and up to the German line. Artillery coverage enabled counter-attacks to be beaten off.

On the high ground of the main ridge, the narrow frontage attack was expected to diverge like a fan. The woods, German strong points, and German counter-preparatory fire were additional factors that meant the final line ran due North, instead of perpendicular to the main line of the ridge. The advances were stopped at around 1,500 yards, a long way short of the final objective.

To the north, the British attack went up and over the Pilckem Ridge, stopping in the valley on the far side at the bank of the Steenbeek. The advances were in the order of 3,500 yards or so.

Robert

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Robert,

Thank you for the summary of the attacks on 31st July.

A few of things stand out:

• 2nd Army had limited objectives of 1000 to 1500 yards and were successful;

• 5th Army (Gough) continued to persist with deep objectives of 2000 to 5000 yds and had fewer successes in achieving their set objectives;

• 30th Division had a tough assignment not only to secure the ground of tactical importance (GTI) but also had to do so with a diverging (fanning out) attack, which is not easy an easy operation; and

• The available artillery was supporting an attack over a 15 mile frontage.

One of our earlier options was to make the right flank the first phase of the offensive following on from the success at Messines. This was for two reasons:

• Ensure sufficient resources, particularly artillery, were available to support the attack including masking the flanks of the attack; and

• Attack south of the highest ground to square the subsequent line of attack so that the main push against the GTI advanced along the ridge, not as a diverging attack. Divergence would still have occurred but it would have occurred further south and in the area supporting the right flank of the subsequent attack. This flank protection would push the line out a little further and hence the fanning effect would not have been as great and could have been supported properly without having the added task of fighting through the main defences to secure the GTI.

This thread has answered my initial query about using the main ridge as the centre of gravity of the attack. It seems to me that this was the approach intended by GHQ but why it wasn’t executed as the main focus of the offensive, was due to Gough’s execution of the concept.

Our concept is much the same as that intended with perhaps a shift of the battlefield to the south, but not by much

I am inclined to think that if Plumer had been left in charge of the planning for the offensive, with Gough providing a flank protection role much as the French did, the initial assaults on the high ground may have been more successful.

Regards

Chris

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Mat,

I think it useful to remember that Les Carlyon is a journalist, not a historian. He lacks a real understanding of military tactics and development. Hence his inability to provide an alternative.

It's also useful to remember that most historians are neither journalists nor writers, and their work reflects that. There are, however, a very small number of exceptions.

Andy M

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I am inclined to think that if Plumer had been left in charge of the planning for the offensive, with Gough providing a flank protection role much as the French did, the initial assaults on the high ground may have been more successful.

I must admit that, prior to the evolution of this thread, I would have agreed with you.

However, I am now beginning to think that even the staff of 2nd Div could not have completed this task successfully, unless there were the Lines of Communications in place to alllow it, the staff were given the opportunity to plan the event as a two stage affair and they had sufficient horsepower (in staff manpower) to carry it out. Now I'm not so sure

So........... Thanks to everyone who has contributed to what, for me, has been a fascinating learning experience

Stephen :)

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Stephen,

Why do you think the lines of communication could not support the centre of gravity up the main ridge? They would have been pretty much the same lines of communication used to support Messines and 2nd Army's attacks on 31st July, plus those used to support 5th Army's attacks.

Regards

Chris

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Chris - I'll come back to you once I have a (good enough) map to illustrate my argument

Stephen ;)

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Sorry to take so long (I still can't find a decent map) but here goes.

I do not have access to the original staff papers but, from all I have read, Plumer's plans on clearing the northern part of the ridge seem to have been the same as Gough; i.e. an assault from the West rather than by fighting his way Northwards in the manner we are discussing. As a result, the bulk of the LofC for the Salient went through Pop and thence ontowards Ypres (i.e. from the West).

Whilst Second Army did have some double line railway track and extensive tramways to the south west, (see Map 4 of Ian Passingham's Pillars of Fire for a useful line diagram) these appear to be designed to support the right flank of the attack on the Messines Ridge, rather than any subsequent operations.

The LofC through Pop could clearly meet the demands for artillery ammunition, fired westward from the areas of Ypes itself, thereby providing the desired right-angle of supporting fire rarely avaiable to commanders (Maxse's assault on Thiepval in Sep 1916 being a rare example). However support to the advancing troops, clearing the ridge line itself, would best come from the south-west. Regrettably I do not have access to the details of those south rail lines, in order to be able to work out possible trafficability - however, I would judge that they would not support the level of troops we have been discussing.

Clearly, with time and effort, the southwest LofC could have been expanded. The approach routes from the South West are somewhat less than flat (Hill 63 and the ground to its northwest being somewhat bumpy) but Plumers's sappers and the railway construction troops could have improved the route to the approproaite level. I am also sure that, with the support of Fifth Army, they could have sustained two "expanded" LofC. However, and here were go back to my initial point, this did not appear to be in Plumers mind.

Stephen

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I do not have access to the original staff papers but, from all I have read, Plumer's plans on clearing the northern part of the ridge seem to have been the same as Gough; i.e. an assault from the West rather than by fighting his way Northwards in the manner we are discussing.

Stephen,

True, however, do you think this was because Plumer's plans had to conform with Gough's since he (Gough)had the responsibility for the main part of the offensive and Plumer played a supporting role to protect the right flank of the main assault?

Regards

Chris

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Possibly or it may have been that the "perceived wisdom" was that the assualt from Ieper was the only option

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Stephen,

Don't think so. It may have been the best option from Gough's perspective, but there is never only one option. I am inclined to think Plumer was conforming with Gough's plan.

It was not a particularly good idea to have the boundary between two Armies as close the GTI as it was at the beginning of the offensive; it basically placed the GTI on Gough's right flank and may have skewed his approach to planning the offensive.

Maybe Robert can throw some light on the subject when he returns from the Land of the Long White Cloud.

Regards

Chris

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  • 2 weeks later...

Hi Chris and Stephen. I think I have recovered from the jet lag but please forgive any spelling mistakes :) . The thinking behind Gough's plan was quoted in the last paragraph of this post:

 

It is interesting that he refers to the tactics he used on the Somme. The turning movement via Pozieres and Courcelette was designed to outflank Thiepval. It almost seems as though Gough has resurrected what he regarded as the very successful strategy, substituting Houthulst Forest for Thiepval. Thus, the Passchendaele Ridge seems a means to an end, rather than the primary objective. In proposing this option, Gough has forgotten a very important factor that enabled his previous success. Fourth Army. Rawlinson was operating on Gough's right flank on the Somme. This reduced the pressure that would otherwise have probably stopped Gough. Chris, these observations agree with your concern that Gough's inadequate attention on the ridge.

Sadly, none of Plumer's letters and other personal documents survived him. He ensured that they were destroyed on his death. 'Tim' Harington's biography of Plumer casts some light. I have previously quoted Harington's remarks that Plumer desparately wanted to take the ridge. For several years, he had seen his infantrymen suffer from being on the downslope and under constant observation. Plumer therefore had a strong personal reason for taking the ridge, unlike Gough.

It should be noted that Haig had always intended for Plumer to take over the attacks on the ridge, once Fifth Army had established the initial advance.

As for the direction of the attack on the ridge, I think this was primarily determined by the lie of the land, which was the same for both generals. When you look at the German defensive lines (Albrecht, Wilhelm, and Flandern I), they run north-south, ie at 45 degrees to the direction of the ridge. It is quite possible that the direction reflects the angle of the highest ridge protecting Gheluvelt plateau from direct observation. The British had to attack from east to west, IMHO, at least until the area between Gheluvelt and Becelaere was neutralized. Plumer recognised this but his most significant contribution was not so much in the direction of the attack but in limiting its extent, both in terms of width and depth. His description of the German defensive tactics and his proposals for countering these, as presented to Haig on 12th August 1917, were absolutely masterful.

I don't think the lines of supply were significant in determing the direction of the attack, though your comments on this were very interesting and helpful, Stephen. The lines of supply may have had an effect of the timing between attacks, if there were delays in getting ammunition to the key artillery positions that were attacking the Germans on the plateau and towards Zandvoorde. The bigger problem, however, was the sheer difficulty of getting new, more forward positions for the field guns in particular.

There is a further consideration. In any attack, the flanks always tend to lag behind. If this is not planned anyway, ie by refusing the flank, then it is forced on the attacker by the ability of the defender to concentrate more firepower against the units on the flank. It is this characteristic of flanks that makes Gough's plan seem even more inappropriate.

Finally, when Plumer was asked to take over from Gough, Haig recommended that Zandvoorde should be taken. Plumer refused. This is in keeping with the concerns we discussed about attacking Zandvoorde.

Robert

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Robert Dunlop said:
...previously quoted Harington's remarks that Plumer desparately wanted to take the ridge. For several years, he had seen his infantrymen suffer from being on the downslope and under constant observation. Plumer therefore had a strong personal reason for taking the ridge, unlike Gough.

The quote is in this post:

 

Robert

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Guest beechie
It should be noted that Gough received his orders from Haig to 'carry out the northern operations' on May In combination with your advance it is intended to arrange for an offensive along the coast from Nieuport, if possible by British troops. It is also hoped that the Belgians may carry out an offensive from Dixmude.

Robert

There does not appear to be any extensive details in the British Official Histories of Begian participation in Third Ypres. Can anyone provide those details?

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Good question, Beechie. I am not aware of any significant contribution. It may be, however, that artillery units were involved in harassing the Germans opposite, I just don't know. No doubt our Belgian Pals will have more details.

Robert

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Robert,

Good to see you back. Thank you for the additional information and comment.

I have been looking over the OH and German maps, plus a contoured map of the whole area.

It is quite possible that the direction reflects the angle of the highest ridge protecting Gheluvelt plateau from direct observation. The British had to attack from east to west, IMHO, at least until the area between Gheluvelt and Becelaere was neutralized.

It certainly looks that way, however, can I put some observations and suggestions up for consideration?

The Front Line. By the end of Messines (14th June) the British occupied all of the high ground of the Wytschaete – Messines ridge with the front line on the eastern slopes well towards the canal. They also occupied the main ridge running roughly NE along a line through the right angled bend in the canal to the W corner of Shewsbury Forest and the front line was on the immediate southern slope of the ridge. From the W edge of Shewsbury Forest the line ran roughly N to a point just W of Hooge .

The Ground. The highest part of the ridge between this line and Passchendaele is the ground from a point that is immediately N of Shewsbury Forest and E of Observation Ridge and it runs on a line NE through Stirling Castle - Clapham Junction - Glencorse Wood. This is the ground of tactical importance (GTI) in the first phase of 3rd Ypres. Thus the key ground for the assault is the ground from the bend in the canal – Shewsbury Wood - Stirling Castle - Clapham Junction – Glencorse Wood - Westhoek. By the way, the Zandvoorde height to the S is about 20m lower than the main ridge and while it offers good observation of the southern slopes, an OP there could not see onto the ridge – the main ridge overlooks it. It is also quite an isolated little hill.

The Boundary. The boundary between 2nd and 5th Armies was located 500m S of Shewsbury Forest. Thus the GTI was on the extreme right flank of Gough’s area of operations and responsibility for the key ground was split between two commanders. This is not a good place to put a boundary and IMO it appears to have skewed Gough’s focus on the ground to be taken in the subsequent battle. After the 31st July Gough tended to expend most of his effort N of the main ridge until Plumer took over in mid September for the Battle of the Menin Road and, subsequently, Polygon Wood and Broodseinde. (They did a similar thing at Fromelles by placing the boundary between 5th Aust and 61st Brit Divisions through the Sugarloaf strongpoint, such that neither Division had the responsibility for taking the one point in the German line that could enfilade both Divisions’ attacks). IMO, the GTI has to be the primary focus for the attack, and GHQ had the same view, however, the position of the boundary minimised its importance given the length of the 5th Army front and the attraction of the lower spurs around St Julien - Langemark. This boundary fanned out the right flank of 5th Army’s attack with 2nd Army merely conforming to it; the main part of 2nd Army’s assault played the role of holding the enemy’s attention W of the canal with a limited attack that simply advanced the line further down the slope.

An Alternate Boundary. By placing the inter-army boundary along the Ypres – Roulers railway all of the key ground comes under the planning of one army commander and is the main focus of his attack. There is no ground between the British line W of Messines and E of the canal that is significant or can divert attention away from the key ground – it simply slopes down to a tributary of the Lys. There are no alluring lower spurs to take. This boundary also parallels the main ridge, which lies 1000m to the S of the railway, rather than cutting across the ridge and, consequently, helps square up the general approach of the attack to the line of the ridge.

An Alternate 1st Phase. The main focus being a limited attack along a line S of the Ypres- Roulers railway to the bend in the canal with a maximum advance of 1600 yards in the centre to secure a line S of the railway - Clapham Junction - along the Menin Road - Shewsbury Wood then back to the canal. It would be supported by a limited advance of no more than 500 yards from the front line E of the canal/W of Messines to secure the line Hollebeck – Wambeke so as to hold the German’s attention in this area. 5th Army to make a small limited advance immediately N of the railway to protect the northern flank of the main attack. This would place the British line astride the high ground on the GTI and square on to the line of the main ridge. It would also allow for a far heavier weight and density of artillery to support the main attack (5th Army's supporting attack being on a very short frontage) and give the priority of effort and centre of gravity to securing the key ground.

Subsequent Phases The second phase would be another limited attack along the line of the main ridge to capture the Westhoek – Glencorse Wood line, with 5th Army making a similar attack along its front to secure a line through Pilkem Ridge. The subsequent priority of effort being NE along the main ridge to the line taken at the Polygon Wood attack with 5th Army conforming with similar attacks on the left to take the line through Langemark. Then sidestep the main thrust as happened for the Broodseinde battle. That is, the sbsequent phases are much the same as the actual battles of the Menin Road, Polygon Wood and Broodseinde. From this line continue along the ridge to Passchendaele with 5th Army pushing forward on the left.

Conclusion I suspect that had the key ground been included in 2nd Army’s area and had Plumer been given the responsibility for the main attack, we may have seen a similar approach taken to the offensive. Under Plumer I feel sure we would have had a better result than that which occurred by giving the responsibility to Gough.

This approach, and with Plumer given the responsibility for the main ridge from the beginning, the offensive may have started at an earlier date, rather than the six weeks delay between the end of Messines and the 31st July. It may also have precluded the time lost in August -early September that Gough spent attacking in the St Julien - Langemark area. This, in turn, might have brought the line to Passchendaele before the heavy rains set in. Using the bite and hold tactics that Plumer advocated we may have seen Polygon Wood and Broodseinde taken in the period late August - mid September.

Of course, this is all speculation, but a tantalizing thought nonetheless.

The main thrust of the German counter attacks would have been in this area as well and the fighting for Menin Road, Polygon Wood and Broodseinde might have been harder than actually occured - although as discussed earlier the Germans did not have an answer for the bite and hold tactics and expended their effort on counter attacks that were beaten off.

What do you think?

Regards

Chris

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  • 2 weeks later...
I've just finished reading 'The Great War' by Les Carlyon. ... But he then goes on to say that the tactics for Menin Road, Polygon Wood and Broodseinde Risge in 1917 (limited advances behind a creeping barrage) were successful at taking ground but far too costly in terms of casualties.

This thread started with Carlyon’s view that the casualties suffered by the Australians at Menin Road, Polygon Wood and Broodseinde as being too costly for the successes gained. He gives the Australian casualties for these three battles as 5000, 5400 and 6432 respectively and 38,000 for whole of 3rd Ypres.

This, IMO, this is a rather superficial assessment partly for the reasons given in post 5 above and partly because I can’t see how the German defences could have been overcome with light casualties; as most of the critics seem to think was possible against a first class enemy who was strongly entrenched in depth. It becomes even more interesting when one studies the Australian casualties for the battles and the total for 3rd Ypres.

I have just tracked down the official casualties in Vol II of the Australian Medical OH. This lists the casualties for the day of and the day following the attack for each of the three battles as:

1. Menin Road - p 205, Sep 20/21 (the attack was on 20 Sep) – 1061 KIA/DOW and 3169 wounded and gassed – total for the two days of 4230 in two divisions;

2. Polygon Wood - p 213, Sep 26/27 (the attack was on 26 Sep) – 913 KIA/DOW and 2646 wounded – total for two days of 3559 in two divisions; and

3. Broodseinde - p 225, Oct 4/5 (the attack was on 4 Oct) -1321 killed and 4172 wounded – total for two days of 5493 in three divisions.

Total for the three attacks, including the day after each attack, is 3295 KIA/DOW and 9987 WIA/gassed for a total of 13,300 as against Carlyon’s 16,800.

Interestingly, p217 of Vol II of the Medical OH gives the casualties for the day of the Polygon Wood attack (26 Sep) as 614 KIA/DOW and 2042 wounded for a total of 2636. This indicates that the losses in the actual assault were somewhat less than those previously quoted above and that, presumably, there were another 300 killed and 600 wounded on the 27 Sep when purely defensive tasks were being undertaken. It could be expected that a similar ratio existed for the Menin Road and Broodseinde attacks. Using this ratio as a rough guide it would seem that the total casualties for the three attacks were in the order of 10,000, including the defensive fighting for the day once the objectives had been taken.

Carlyon is right to say these attacks were costly but were they too costly as he claims? They represent the losses in seven divisional attacks plus the casualties suffered in the German counter attacks and bombardments that would have followed for the 46 hours after the objectives were secured.

If we are to judge the effectiveness of the bite and hold tactics purely on casualties as Carlyon suggests, then they seem to be rather effective given the strength of the opposition faced and the resources available to the attacking troops. What other tactics would have delivered the gains achieved for considerably less casualties. Carlyon offers no alternative, can any one else?

Carlyon says the losses incurred at Menin Road were the same as those incurred at Fromelles over the same period, with the only difference being Menin Road succeeded and thus the tactics were not much better. He neglects to say that Fromelles involved one division, while Menin Road involved two divisions against much stronger German defences sited in depth over a wider frontage or that the actual losses were half of those in the same period of Fromelles.

An analysis of the total Australian losses at 3rd Ypres produced a surprise, at least to me. Total Australian casualties of all types, including POW, for the period 16 Sep to 10 Nov were 34,342 of whom 9171 were KIA/DOW/DGP and 24,553 wounded and gassed (table at p245). If 13,300 were lost in the three attacks discussed above, how were the remaining 21,000 lost?

Of these we need to subtract the casualties for the attack on 12 Oct (Passchendaele) which was undertaken in appalling conditions and was a disaster. These are given as 968 killed and 2469 wounded for the 3rd Division for the two days 12th/13th Oct, (p236) giving a total 16,719 for the four main attacks the Australians participated in at 3rd Ypres.

This leaves roughly 17,500 lost in activities other than the four major attacks. This can only mean that over 50% of the Australian casualties at 3rd Ypres were lost in defensive operations, holding the line or in minor supporting operations and raids. Indeed, in the four weeks after the last attack (12th /13th 0ct) the Australians lost nearly 8000 men, of whom 2700 were gas casualties, in holding the line to the south of the Canadians. (table at p 245)

So when we speak of the appalling casualties at 3rd Ypres, which we are right to do so, and use them to criticise the tactics used, we might also look closely at how these casualties were sustained.

regards

Chris

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Chris

Thanks for (and congratualtions on) this very well-researched and thoughtful piece and for having the courage to dip into the knotty and hugely controversial area of casualties. Passchendaele suffers more than most battles from inflated casualty figures, usually deployed to back up the particular hobby horse of the author in question.

Jack

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Chris

Thanks for (and congratualtions on) this very well-researched and thoughtful piece and for having the courage to dip into the knotty and hugely controversial area of casualties. Passchendaele suffers more than most battles from inflated casualty figures, usually deployed to back up the particular hobby horse of the author in question.

Jack

As you can see I am a NEWBE here

I have only just started to research Ypres Salient and can only applaud the depth of your detailed knowledge.

However as a NEWBE perhaps I have approached the action from an entirely different and probably incorrect angle.

What I cannot really accept and it appears to be the driving force for the start of this campaign is THE FRENCH MUTINY.

Not the mutiny itself but the denial of any German knowledge of it.

I just cant swallow this.They MUST have known of a mutiny on the supposed scale or certainly had an inkling which SURELY would have been confirmed.

So why no action??

Were they afraid of taking action and the revolt spreading to their own ranks.

Please excuse my ignorance of the many threads on here and if this subject has been discussed elsewhere shove me off in its direction

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