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Western Front tactics in 1917


Mat McLachlan
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Here is a quote from Crown Prince Wilhelm, who was responsible for the Army Group that defended the Chemin des Dames Ridge in 1917:

'We submitted to Main Headquarters the suggestion that the [defensive] victory gained should be exploited by a counter-attack, which promised to have a far-reaching moral effect on the French Army and nation. Unfortunately, however, Main Headquarters lacked the necessary forces, as, firstly, in the East, in spite of the Russian revolution, releases of troops from that area had still to be awaited; secondly, because the front opposing the English, whose attacking power had not yet broken, required strong support from the reserves available.

The greatness of the defensive victory achieved, and its consequences to the French plans of operations, could not be observed with the finality that is possible to-day. It had to be assumed that a second decisive effort on the part of the English and French would soon follow.'

The French Army did not cease to function. The line was held along its full length. There was no evidence of collapse at this most important interface between the two forces. Later, the French launched several offensives, the most famous of which is the Battle of Malmaison, which forced the Germans to abandon the Chemin des Dames.

Robert

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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?

Chris, you have raised several interesting issues. You are quite right that someone had to take responsibility for the GTI. It should not have been beyond Gough to make his right flank the key focus. Afterall, it would have been the mirror-image of Plumer focusing on what was his extreme left flank. So I think the difference lay not in the whether the GTI should be encompassed by one or the other Army flank, but in the commanders involved.

Which brings us to your next key point. How the attack across/along the ridge should have been conducted. I have no problem at all with your proposal of more limited bite and hold advances. There are two issues that arise:

Firstly, you suggest increasing the artillery support by decreasing the width of the attack on Fifth Army's front. I think there might have been a serious problem trying to fit more field guns into the area behind the main attack across the GTI. Furthermore, the density of field guns would not have been the big issue, given that their range was more limited and your suggestion of a more limited advance would have kept the British within their protective envelope. The heavy and superheavy artillery were more important, given their more significant role in counter-battery work. It should have been possible to increase the proportion of these guns and howitzers that focused on the German guns defending the ridge. I'm not sure that it would have necessitated a decrease in the width of the attack, which would worry me given that Houthulst Forest was a key area for the German defenses that would threaten the left flank. Reducing the width of the attack also negates the additional effect that the French lent to the attack.

Second, and more important, was the difficulties that the British would still have run into on the reverse slope of the high point of the ridge. The Germans were masters of exploiting the reverse slope in defence. The principle of this form of defence was to let the enemy come over the ridge and down the reverse slope. The attacking artillery was significanly restricted in its ability to support the infantry, who tended to become isolated and vulnerable to counter-attack. While the Germans struggled increasingly to combat the bite and hold tactics of Plumer, this was not the case initially. As Jack's book is likely to show, the British suffered very serious setbacks in their early attempts to push down the reverse slope. It is quite possible that smaller scale attacks would have suffered the same problem, unless the British artillery really mastered the German artillery - which comes back to your original point.

Your comments about Zandvoorde are correct. It is lower. You see this in the contour model that I made. I noted its importance with respect to:

1. The ability to overlook the ground at the base of the ridge, down to the Lys River.

2. The ability to overlook the reverse slope of the main ridge, which is where the German counter-attack efforts were made.

3. Cover for artillery that would have located behind the hill.

Robert

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Chris, further to my points above, the key to overcoming the effects of the reverse slope in support of bite and hold attacks would have been for:

1. The British artillery observers to gain clear and unobstructed views over the reverse slope. The problem was compounded by the presence of the ex-forests on the reverse slope.

2. The British artillery to be capable of providing a heavy, accurate set of barrages that could walk ahead of the attacking infantry in any 'bites' on the reverse slope. This was not easy for the 18 pounders firing over the ridge, so the light howitzers and some of their heavy counterparts would have had to play a more significant role. The problem for the field guns was one reason why the reverse slope was an advantage to the defender, until such time as the attacker had got far enough along that the 18 pounders could come into play again.

3. Total domination of the German heavy and superheavy guns and howitzers. This was something that Plumer and Harington were really strong on. Their proposals for continuing the offensive placed great significance on achieving this domination.

Robert

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Hello Robert,

I agree that it should not have been beyond Gough to make the right flank his focus, and while it looks like a mirror image of Plumer focussing on what was his extreme left flank, I think the proposed change of boundary places a greater focus on the vital ground.

For Gough, while the GTI was within his boundary, the vital ground (as I have described it above) was split between two Army commanders and his portion of it was the right hand 2500 -3000 yards of a main attack that was mounted on a frontage of 12,000yards. The other 9500 yards included spurs running off the main ridge, which become objectives of varying tactical significance that clearly attracted Gough’s attention and main efforts on 31 July and throughout August.

By moving the boundary to the railway, all of the vital ground is the responsibility of one Army commander and while it is on the left of Plumer’s line there is a difference. Plumer’s area is divided into two discrete areas: first, the frontage between the railway and the canal which is the vital ground and the main focus of the attack, and second, the frontage west of the canal which is ground that simply slopes down to a tributary of the Lys and thus was a diversionary attack with very limited objectives none of which were tactically significant. Thus Plumer is not diverted from the vital ground by alluring spurs running off the main ridge west of the canal, the focus of tactical significance is squarely on the vital ground and the GTI.

I am not as concerned about the Houthulst Forest in the first attack to capture the GTI. IMO it is not a threat to the left flank of 5th Army, which has a small role to play on a frontage of perhaps 750 yards N of the railway (in my proposal) at this stage of the battle. The Germans have to come a long way from the forest to attack the British at this stage . After this initial attack, 5th Army attacks on its whole frontage as occurred during the battle and then the forest increasing becomes a possible threat as the 5th Army line approaches it. However, this is something that has to be considered in the planning of subsequent operations, rather than dominating the focus of our objectives, which is the main ridgeline. In the event it never materialised as a counter attack route by the Germans. In my proposal 5th Army’s operations are designed to protect the left flank of 2nd Army, which has the task of taking the main ridge all the way to Passchendaele - the boundary being adjusted as they go foward.

I think the artillery density and concentration on the GTI could have been increased by decreasing the width of the initial attack simply by the fact of reducing the number of targets. Some of 5th Army’s guns could have fired in support of the attack on the GTI. When Plumer took over in September, his attack at Menin Road was marked by a much heavier concentration of artillery than occurred on the GTI on 31 July. It was absolutely vital to give the infantry attacking the vital ground the strongest artillery support possible against strong points and limiting the German counter barrage fire.

Your points about the reverse slope positions are valid. They are difficult to take once the infantry crests the ridgeline, particularly if the artillery FO cannot direct gunfire onto the enemy positions. However, the British had secured some of the reverse slope in the Battle of Messines and thus could direct artillery onto the German reverse slope positions in the area of the initial attack I have proposed. The RFC also flew air OP flights. I think a greater concentration of artillery, carefully selected divisions and limited objectives would have been more successful than Gough’s deeper objectives on 31 July. Nonetheless, I take your point about the difficulties the 18 pdr had dealing with the initial portions of reverse slope defences and I agree with the points you make about the use of artillery to overcome reverse slope positions.

We agree on Zanvoorde and the conclusions you draw. This is what occurred in the actual battle but I don’t think it invalidates my initial proposal.

I think we have come to the point of this thread where we agree that the ground chosen to fight 3rd Ypres could not have been improved on and in fact GHQ identified the main ridge as the centre of gravity for the attacks. IMO Gough’s execution of the task skewed the centre of gravity to the left and centre of his frontage, rather than directing his main effort to secure the high ground as GHQ envisaged. It wasn’t until Plumer was given the task that this occurred and with tactics that were very successful. Had Plumer been given the primary task from the beginning and Gough been allotted the task of protecting 2nd Army’s left flank, the battle may have secured Passchendaele before the heavy rain set in, in October, and we may have had less casualties overall.

Regards

Chris

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The final para is a superb summary of th thread; thanks to you both, Robert and Chris, for leading us on such a fascinating journey

Stephen

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Thanks, Chris. In response to your post, I want to raise a couple of issues.

Had Plumer been given the primary task from the beginning and Gough been allotted the task of protecting 2nd Army’s left flank, the battle may have secured Passchendaele before the heavy rain set in, in October, and we may have had less casualties overall.
I have a concern about this. If you take Plumer's historical performance and compare with Gough's, I totally agree. But there are problems with such a comparison. The most important is that Plumer carried on from where Gough left off. What if the problems that beset Gough's second round of largely unsuccessful attacks were the problems of attacking down a reverse slope, and not the problems of Gough's leadership and decisions? Then Plumer would have hit the same issues, suffered similar setbacks, and been replaced. I raise this concern for two reasons.

First, the platform that Plumer inherited was based on a broad attack supported by the French. Might a narrower frontage attack have attracted more artillery counter-preparatory fire from the Germans, given that there was less need to counter the breadth of the original attack? This is my point about Houthulst Forest - please regard this locale as an abstraction for the general problem of an unengaged German right.

Second, the problems of observation from the highest sub-ridge need further investigation. There are some accounts from FOOs. I will look these out again. Suffice to suggest that simply possessing the high ground did not guarantee full coverage of the reverse slope.

Robert

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Hi Robert,

Thank for your comments.

I am making my assessment of Plumer based on his approach to Messines. My understanding of that battle is that he advocated bite and hold to take the main ridge and not to extend too far beyond the crest. He reluctantly agreed to the exploitation in the second phase of that operation under pressure from GHQ. The first phase (his initial plan of bite and hold) succeeded brillaintly, albeit with the assistance of the mines. The exploitation, which he had reluctantly agreed to, was less successful and resulted in great difficulties when the second phase troops attempted to move down the slopes to the east of the ridge. His approach to Menin Road was much the same as his approach to the first phase at Messines.

I am not convinced, at this stage, that Gough's problems were simply associated with attacking down reverse slope positions. I think that particular problem was exacerbated by his deeper objectives approach. IMO Gough seems not to have learned a great deal from his experience at the Somme and Bullecourt.

The main thrust of my proposal is to attack along the ridgeline, not down the slopes on the southern side to any great extent, which is what occurred when Gough attacked up and over the ridge. It is why I have advocated squaring up the line of the attack to the main ridgeline in the first phase. Any attacks along the southern slopes of the ridge are to protect the right flank of the main assault. I agree it is not a simple task, but few tactical situations are easy and the planning has to make provisions for anticipated problems.

I think Plumer had a different approach to Gough, which was demonstrated at Messines, and he was more aware of the difficulties facing his attacking infantry.

Regarding to your concerns about fronatges and German artillery. My initial phase is on a broader frontage than the attack at Messines, taking into account the diversionary attacks west of the canal, and thus would be exposed to the same level - or less - of counter preparatory and counter barrage fire as occurred at Messines. I don’t see why it should be subjected to heavier German artillery fire. Furthermore, Gough’s subsequent attacks after 31 July were made on narrower frontages than my initial phase, so again I am having difficulty with accepting that the German artillery presents a greater concern in my initial phase.

The position of the German artillery on the flanks is no different to that which occurred at 3rd Ypres. After my initial phase, my proposal reverts to a greater frontage than Gough’s attacks in August and is roughly on the same frontages as those at Menin Road, Polygon Wood and Broodseinde. Nonetheless, I bow to your knowledge of the use of artillery in this battle.

I agree that simply possessing the high ground does not guarantee full coverage of the reverse slope but it was not my intention to continue attacking down the reverse slopes into the low ground but to retain a protective line higher up along the southern slopes of main ridge.

Regards

Chris

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The main thrust of my proposal is to attack along the ridgeline, not down the slopes on the southern side to any great extent, which is what occurred when Gough attacked up and over the ridge. It is why I have advocated squaring up the line of the attack to the main ridgeline in the first phase. Any attacks along the southern slopes of the ridge are to protect the right flank of the main assault.
Chris, I understand exactly. The following picture shows the area that I am referring to. It is the ground that lies behind the ridge line highlighted in red dots. The reverse slope is illustrated in a transparent light red, and includes ground that forms the Gheluvelt Plateau. I totally agree that the more southern slopes down to the valley floor are not relevant, and this was not behind the thinking in my reply.

post-1473-1177101967.jpg

The Germans fought stubbornly, and very well, to prevent further extensions of the initial British attack onto the plateau. It is this area that most concerns me. British artillery could not easily enfilade this area, especially the heavies and superheavies, because the guns could not be brought forward to the limit of the British advance on the Pilckem Ridge in order to fire laterally onto the plateau. Therefore, the trajectory of most guns supporting the British advance along the plateau had to be over the ridge line that is dotted red. Hence the problem with dead ground beyond that ridge.

I am making my assessment of Plumer based on his approach to Messines. My understanding of that battle is that he advocated bite and hold to take the main ridge and not to extend too far beyond the crest. He reluctantly agreed to the exploitation in the second phase of that operation under pressure from GHQ. The first phase (his initial plan of bite and hold) succeeded brillaintly, albeit with the assistance of the mines. The exploitation, which he had reluctantly agreed to, was less successful and resulted in great difficulties when the second phase troops attempted to move down the slopes to the east of the ridge. His approach to Menin Road was much the same as his approach to the first phase at Messines.

This is helpful, as I did not consider Messines. My concern about this comparison is that there were major differences between Messines and the Gheluvelt Plateau. From the terrain perspective, the Germans were much more exposed once the British and Dominion forces crossed the Messines ridgeline. The converse was also true. When the attack stopped to consolidate just past the crest, many casualties resulted from men being exposed on the reverse slope. It was, however, possible for artillery to move forward much more easily because they were protected by the ridge and because the ground was much firmer. More significantly, the German defensive strategy was very different. Basically, the German defenders were too far forward, and the counter-attack divisions were too far back. Once the latter tried to come forward, they were very exposed. This was quite different with the early defensive pattern in Third Ypres.

Robert

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I am not convinced, at this stage, that Gough's problems were simply associated with attacking down reverse slope positions. I think that particular problem was exacerbated by his deeper objectives approach. IMO Gough seems not to have learned a great deal from his experience at the Somme and Bullecourt.
Chris, the problem of taking reverse slope positions, particularly when chosen and supervised by von Lossberg, should not be under-estimated. I know that you are aware of the difficulties that this situation imposes, but it is interesting to note how few British authors have presented adequate reviews of this issue. Wynne comes to mind ('If Germany Attacks...') and it has been great to see the contributions from Ralph Whitehead initially and now Jack Sheldon, who have both illustrated these issues very well. Deeper objectives and relatively less artillery support were certainly asking for trouble. I still have concerns about more limited objectives, even with more artillery, partly because it might still have been very difficult to use the artillery to fullest effect until the British were further on. I am in complete agreement that if anyone was going to pull it off, it would have been Plumer not Gough. But it might have been more of a struggle - perhaps the second half of Messines was a problem not because it was an attack too far on day one but because it was an attack on a reverse slope? And we must keep in mind that Gough's attacks did have an effect on the Germans, even the failed attacks. This will have helped Plumer.

...again I am having difficulty with accepting that the German artillery presents a greater concern in my initial phase.
It hinges on whether the Germans could have shifted more resource to protect the plateau. You have considered the issue in your revised proposal, and this is important. If you had more detailed intelligence about German artillery positions, then I know you would take this new information into account.

Fascinating issues. Great debate. Thanks. I will continue to follow-up on anecdotal reports from artillery observation officers who operated on the ridge around the time of Gough's abortive attacks.

Robert

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Robert,

Your point about the diffrences between Messines and the Gheluvelt Plateau regarding terrain and the German defensive approaches are well made. Your model illustrates the terrain problem perfectly. I agree that the capture of the GTI under my "Plumer/ square up proposal" would not be an easy feat, hence my preference to provide additional resources and a greater weight of fire in the squaring up operation and in taking the GTI.

I agree with the difficulties you highlight with the British artillery firing onto the reverse slope immediately beyond the crest. There is going to be a strip of "dead ground" immediately south of the crest. Are the British heavies behind the Messines Ridge (ie W and SW of the Gheluvelt Plateau) within range of the reverse slope postions on the southern slopes? If they are, they are likely to be in a better position to engage the German positions in this area with the fall of shot being parallel to the crest of the ridge. Alternatively, can guns behind the Hill 60 area provide a similar enfilade fire?

I was unaware of the differences in the German defence schemes at Messines and on the Gheluvelt Plateau. The points you make are well accepted. The attack to take the GTI was going to be a difficult fight under any circumstances. I guess my point is, that it was better to take this high ground as a priority, with additional resources and a greater weight of fire, than to expend the effort around St Julien that Gough did during August. Althgough I accept your view this very hard fighting in August did have an impact on the Germans and that it helped Plumer at Menin Road and beyond. Under my proposal the centre of gravity of the German counter attacks in August would have been switched to the GTI rather than against the ground lost further north, as happened, and this would have made it a bitter fight. My only query is how effective would these counter attacks have been against a limited objective approach early on in the battle?

Jack and Ralph, can we have your views on this proposal from the German perspective?

Your points on why Messines was successful are very interesting and make a lot of sense. You are quite right, the ground east of the Messines Ridge provides perfect reverse slope positions with long fields of fire up to the crest of the ridge. It is an aspect that I hadn't given due consideration to. I think this further supports Plumer's reluctance to take on the second exploitation phase immediately after the crest of the ridge was taken and the need for adequate preparation before doing so. I am inclined to think that the lack of success was due to both factors: too deep an objective and the reverse slope position in the second phase. Plumer's attacks further down the slopes on 31 July were generally successful, which indicates that had they consolidated on the ridge and made the exploitation phase a distinct attack with detailed planning and artillery preparation, they would have been more successful in achieving the objectives.

I think whichever proposal was adopted, 3rd Ypres was going to be a long hard fight. The Germans were a first class enemy in very strong positions with good fields of fire and the range and rate of fire of the weapons of the day favoured the defence. This was the situation along most of the Western Front.

I agree, these are fascinating issues and they highlight the difficulties the British faced.

Many thanks for bringing the debate to life with your models and maps. They have been a real asset to the discussion.

Looking forward to hearing from you - and Jack and Ralph,

regards

Chris

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Crunchy said:
I agree that the capture of the GTI under my "Plumer/ square up proposal" would not be an easy feat, hence my preference to provide additional resources and a greater weight of fire in the squaring up operation and in taking the GTI.

I agree with the difficulties you highlight with the British artillery firing onto the reverse slope immediately beyond the crest. There is going to be a strip of "dead ground" immediately south of the crest. Are the British heavies behind the Messines Ridge (ie W and SW of the Gheluvelt Plateau) within range of the reverse slope postions on the southern slopes? If they are, they are likely to be in a better position to engage the German positions in this area with the fall of shot being parallel to the crest of the ridge. Alternatively, can guns behind the Hill 60 area provide a similar enfilade fire?

Chris, the point you are illustrating here is the vital importance of analyzing how you can achieve artillery fire superiority in the area of importance. Refering back to this map:

 

it is important to note the location of the all-important heavy guns. The howitzers would, of course, have little problem in getting over the ridge. Their role would have been vital. Diverting more towards the Gheluvelt plateau was one of Plumer's key steps after taking over from Gough. The field guns are more difficult. The suggestion of Hill 60 and surrounds would need investigating thoroughly. Once again, this is such an important aspect of the plan that you would want to talk to key people in the know during the planning process, even visit if possible. A major problem, as I understand it, was that field guns could not be crowded together too much. The ground didn't allow for this, and dispersion was an important way of reducing the effects of converging German counter-battery fire.

The other interesting dilemma is the trade-off between width of attack and concentration of artillery fire, something we have touched on before. Certainly, the British had to take Pilckem Ridge for example, in order to prevent German artillery on the far side from being able to enfilade the left flank of an attack on the Gheluvelt Ridge. To take Pilckem Ridge effectively and efficiently, you need to divert German artillery on its left... and so on. I want to give this some more thought. Much harder to model the geography in the scale that I have used before - the model just gets too big for the living room :-). What I have done in the past is to make several photocopies of the excellent contour maps in the British Official History on thicker paper/card, then cut around the contours and glue together. I did this for the Somme - it makes it so much easier to understand the terrain issues. Obviously it is possible to get software that does this now, but the process of physically cutting the contours forces you to take in all the details.

Robert

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Chris, the point you are illustrating here is the vital importance of analyzing how you can achieve artillery fire superiority in the area of importance.

Robert,

Absolutely. That and the converse of the problem - how do we minimise the German counter artillery fires? I shall be interested in your artillery considerations - there is no simple solution to the problem and as you say, it is trade off between two evils.

I shall be away over the next week.

Cheers

Chris

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  • 2 weeks later...

I have just been reading Robin Neillands's The Great War Generals on the Western Front 1914-18 and found the following statement attributed to Gough concerning 3rd Ypres: 'It was a mistake not to entrust the operation to Plumer, who had been on that front for more than two years, instead of bringing me over on to a bit of ground with which I had practically no aquaintance'.

Neillands goes on to say: "While that is honest and generous, it is not the whole story, for in fact the greatest problem came when Gough altered Haig's original plan. The objectives of that plan have been listed, but Gough was supposed to make the main thrust of his attack on the high ground, through Gheluvelt, Broodseinde and Moorslede, ground which would then be taken over by Second Army. That Army would then, in effect, protect Gough's right flank and rear while Fifth Army pushed north, having also been directed to avoid entanglement in the Houthust Forest, which lay north-west of Passchendaele. Gough resolved to change all that, stating that he had decided not to push directly north but to pivot his army on his left flank, taking in the Houthulst Forest and letting only his right wing sweep along the Passchendaele Ridge. This, Gough added, removed Roulers as an objective for Fifth Army. It also amounted to a major change in the plan, and was a direct contradiction of ... Haig's orders. Haig had the Roulers rail junction ... as a prime target for Fifth Army, but it was essential to sweep up to the Passchendaele Ridge in force, since otherwise none of the other objectives would be attainable' [Emphasis is the authors]

Neillands continues: 'Haig met Gough on 28 June, "urging the importance of the right flank. The main battle will be fought for the ridge and our plans must be made accordingly. I impressed on Gough the importance of the ridge in question [the Passchendaele Ridge] and that the advance north should be limited until the right flank has been secured" . In the event Gough ignored this urging, but Haig also fell short of his duty. ... Haig should have 'ordered' him to place the weight of his attack on the right flank. ... The final result ... was that the Passchendaele offensive, instead of being a strong thrust northwards along the ridge to secure vital and obvious objectives, was changed to a wheeling movement to the north and east."

If Neillands is correct, it not only confirms the thrust of the discussion we have been having; it also shows Gough and Haig in a poorer light than we judged them. Haig for not insisiting that the main effort effort be made against the vital ground and Gough for ignoring the obvious advantage of that ground despite it being pointed out to him and for failing to carry out the task he had been given.

If Gough felt there were good reasons to alter the objective, it was his responsibility to convince Haig and get the operation goal changed but to simply ignore the task he had been given and change the plan is quite unacceptable. If he could not convince Haig to change the objective he had two courses open to him: resign or plan and carry out an attack to achieve the objective he had been given. It was not his perogative to determine a different operation goal and plan accordingly. It seems that Gough's attraction to the lower ground and lack of effort to secure the vital ground was intentional, which I find extraordinary.

What are others' views on the accuracy of Neillands's claims and the actions of Haig and Gough if they are correct?

Regards

Chris

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Hi Chris. Neilland's information is consistent with what we have published in this thread already. It looks as if he has used the same sources, not surprisingly. You have drawn attention to the Neilland's conclusions - namely that Gough should have done as he was told, and that Haig should have ensured that Gough did what Haig thought Gough should do (phew, I hope I got that right). In responding to Neilland's claims, two separate issues need to be considered:

1. What 'right' did an Army Commander, with overall operational responsibility for the forthcoming battle, have to dictate how the battle should be fought? In other words, was the role of the operational commander to do what he was told, with respect to the operational goal? Chris, please check that I have understood this point correctly. I don't think you were saying Gough should have been a mindless puppet of Haig, in that he should have had the freedom to plan how the operational goal was fulfilled.

I don't know what the strict military interpretation was in respect of an operational commander changing the operational goal without permission. It is unclear to me that Gough transgressed in this way. I have limited information about the goals that were set by GHQ. The information comes from GHQ Memoranda published from November 1915 through to Davidson's memorandum of 29th June 1917. These documents do not clearly state what Gough's operational goals were. Gough described the details of his orders dated 13th May, 1917, in his book 'Fifth Army':

"The operations were 'for the capture of the Passchendaele-Staden Ridge and the railway Roulers-Thorout'.

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 the Second Army, which will then be charged with safeguarding your right flank and rear against attack from the south.

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

Gough's Chief of Staff, Major-General Malcolm, issued Fifth Army Instructions for the Offensive of the 31st July, 1917 four days before the battle commenced. These instructions to corps commanders stated "The Green Line is to be the main objective of the day's operations". The Green Line extended to Polygon Wood, Tower Hamlets, and the southern edge of Shrewsbury Forest - in other words, along the Passchendaele-Staden Ridge.

With regards to Gough changing the operational goals, as described by him, the answer has to be 'not guilty' I believe.

2. Was the Army Commander's interpretation 'right' about how to fulfill the operational requirements, and how could the C-in-C make that assessment?

This is a much more difficult set of questions. The problem is not just confined to a military context. GHQ was sufficiently worried about how Gough was going to implement that operational goals that there were meetings and even the memorandum from Davidson, which is quite an extraordinary document. Gough's reply addressed the questions raised by Davidson, and you can catch glimpses of thinly-disguised irritation, even anger in the reply. Gough stated, in essence, that his plan would work. He gave the rationale for this assertion, and noted that his corps commanders had been involved in the detailed planning:

"The operations for the capture of Passchendaele-Staden Ridge [as ordered by GHQ] envisaged by me [responsible for the implementation], and put I trust clearly before my corps commanders, do in truth constitute a succession of organized attacks at short intervals."

By way of conclusion, Gough added this seemingly innocuous but IMHO highly-barbed comment:

"In reference... to the great importance of rapidity, even though our attacks are of an organized nature, I would refer to the suggestion put forward by the D.L.R. for training special troops for laying light railways. I think the provision of these troops may be of incalculable value, and the men employed on this work for a few weeks during these operations may be the equivalent of 3 to 6 times their numbers brought up to fight later."

In other words, "you do your job, and I will do mine..."

No doubt significant time and effort was spent in carefully crafting the response. This next point is supposition on my part. The mention of the corps commanders in the Gough's response is likely to be highly significant. I know that Haig or his Staff visited Plumer's corps and divisional commanders before Messines. Similarly, with the Somme too. It was a very important way of evaluating the 'rightness' of an operational commander's plans. I don't recall seeing any evidence of this before the Battle of Pilckem Ridge, but I bet it happened. Odds on, Gough was saying:

"...and you have talked at length with my commanders and you know that they support the plan..."

So now we come down to the heart of the dilemma:

The operational commander, and his subordinates, say that the plan can work. The C-in-C has doubts, has expressed those doubts, and has received reassurances about those doubts. But the C-in-C remains doubtful. There is no clear evidence that the plan will fail. What next? Well, the C-in-C could keep arguing the case, but this is likely to be counter-productive. The C-in-C could override the plan and order it to be changed. But the consequences of this approach, when there is no clear evidence prior to the event, are very significant, and undermine the whole approach to higher-level operational planning as I understand it.

I can't think of any examples where this type of issue came to a head in the British Army. From a slightly different perspective, where some lower-level commanders invoked a higher political level to overrule a perceived faulty plan, it is worth considering what happened in the lead-up to Nivelle's offensive in 1917. Spears' book "Prelude to Victory" is an extremely powerful account of the huge problems that resulted from disagreements about a proposed plan.

In summary, Neilland has posed some interesting questions, but the real challenges lay in a much deeper, much more complex set of issues IMHO. This is one of the areas that I am very interested in, amongst other things :lol: I look forward to your further thoughts, and the contributions of other Forum Members.

Robert

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1. What 'right' did an Army Commander, with overall operational responsibility for the forthcoming battle, have to dictate how the battle should be fought? In other words, was the role of the operational commander to do what he was told, with respect to the operational goal? Chris, please check that I have understood this point correctly. I don't think you were saying Gough should have been a mindless puppet of Haig, in that he should have had the freedom to plan how the operational goal was fulfilled.

I don't know what the strict military interpretation was in respect of an operational commander changing the operational goal without permission. It is unclear to me that Gough transgressed in this way. With regards to Gough changing the operational goals, as described by him, the answer has to be 'not guilty' I believe.

Hi Robert,

Your interpretation is correct, however I’m afraid I disagree regarding the verdict on Gough

In the context of this battle the C-in-C sets the objectives to be achieved and gives guidance on the important factors affecting the achievement of those objectives including instructions on the key terrain to be taken. The C-in-C has the strategic focus and the objectives given to the Army Commander fit into the overall strategic plan and the goals the C-in-C wishes to achieve, bearing in mind this battle is the first phase of a broader strategy from which other operations will flow. The Army Commander then has the responsibility for developing a plan to achieve the objectives set for him and he has a certain amount of flexibility in how to go about the task at the tactical and operational levels.

If during the planning, the Army Commander believes the objectives are wrong or, he feels something of importance has been overlooked by GHQ, he discusses that with the C-in-C. Between them they should agree on the fundamentals: the revised objectives, if the Army Commander's point of view is accepted, and the important terrain that needs to be taken. If the C-in-C does not agree with changing the objective, the Army Commander has the responsibility of ensuring the objectives laid down are those around which his planning proceeds and for which he fights the battle. What he should not do, is to ignore the C-in-C's instructions and determine a new objective, particularly if that objective does nothing to further subsequent operations at the strategic level. In this case Gough is executing the first part of a broader strategic plan and what he does impacts on subsequent operations being successful or not.

In the end, it is the C-in-C who has the overall responsibility for the success of the operation and the achievement of the strategic goal. Thus he has responsibility for determining what is and is not to be achieved. What Gough appears to have done in this instance is to change his operational objectives without considering the impact on the overall strategic goal. That is, he is focussed on this battle without consideration for those operations that will flow from it. You cannot have Army Commanders deciding they will do their own thing and blatantly ignoring the objectives and instructions they have been given. His first objective/instruction was to secure the high ground and his ultimate goal was to capture the Roulers rail junction. He failed to give his first objective the priority of effort it deserved and ruled out the goal of capturing Roulers in his overall plan. IMO he is guilty and deserves to be censured for his actions.

More to follow in the next post.

Cheers

Chris

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Gough's Chief of Staff, Major-General Malcolm, issued Fifth Army Instructions for the Offensive of the 31st July, 1917 four days before the battle commenced. These instructions to corps commanders stated "The Green Line is to be the main objective of the day's operations". The Green Line extended to Polygon Wood, Tower Hamlets, and the southern edge of Shrewsbury Forest - in other words, along the Passchendaele-Staden Ridge.

With regards to Gough changing the operational goals, as described by him, the answer has to be 'not guilty' I believe.

Hi Robert,

To address this second issue. The Green line extended across the whole of Fifth Army's front of which "Polygon Wood, Tower Hamlets, and the southern edge of Shrewsbury Forest - in other words, along the Passchendaele-Staden Ridge" was only a part of the objectives Gough set down for his surbordinates. Putting it in the orders as an objective is one thing, ensuring it is the main focus of the Army's attack is another thing altogether. Haig stressed that securing this area was Gough's prinicipal task in the initial stages of the battle. History shows that Gough did not give it the priority of effort he had been instructed to. Among other things we have already discussed, this is evidenced by Gough alloting 30th Division to the vital ground, a division that had not recovered from its battering on the Somme and which GHQ suggested he replace, advice which he ignored. After 31 July his subsequent priority of effort was on the centre and left of his front, ie the lower spurs, despite him not securing the vital ground he had been told to capture. IMO he is gulity.

Cheers

Chris

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2. Was the Army Commander's interpretation 'right' about how to fulfill the operational requirements, and how could the C-in-C make that assessment?

This is a much more difficult set of questions.

Hi Robert,

The issue in the case of Gough at 3rd Ypres is not about the Army' Commander's 'right' about how to fulfill the operational requirements, it is about actually fulfilling them. The operational requirements (objectives) were set by Haig. What the Army Commander is responsible for is developing a plan that best achieves those objectives. What Gough appears to have done was to ignore the operational requirements set him and defined a different set of objectives, thereby planning and conducting his own battle without any regard for Haig's strategic objectives and the subsequent operations that would flow from achieving them.

Cheers

Chris

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So now we come down to the heart of the dilemma:

The operational commander, and his subordinates, say that the plan can work. The C-in-C has doubts, has expressed those doubts, and has received reassurances about those doubts. But the C-in-C remains doubtful. There is no clear evidence that the plan will fail. What next? Well, the C-in-C could keep arguing the case, but this is likely to be counter-productive. The C-in-C could override the plan and order it to be changed. But the consequences of this approach, when there is no clear evidence prior to the event, are very significant, and undermine the whole approach to higher-level operational planning as I understand it.

Hi Robert,

It seems to me that the issue in this instance was not about whether the plan would work, but whether the plan actually met the operational objectives that Gough had been given. This appears to have been the crux of the discussions between Haig and Gough on 28 June. Clearly, Haig was not convinced that Gough's plan would achieve the operational requirements he had been set. Thus he had every right to question it and make his views strongly felt. This is not so much an example of telling Gough how to meet the operational objectives but of a C-in-C clarifying what the priority objectives were and ensuring that the planning was focussed on achieving them.

In this instance Gough had two options: to do his best to ensure the C-in-C's objectives were achieved or to resign. Haig had two options if Gough persisted in ignoring Haig's instructions: sack Gough or give the task to Plumer.

Cheers

Chris

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Gents

I would like to say that I agree with what you both say.

I would prefer to be able to honestly say that I understand it.

The main thing I can't understand about this campaign, is why it was undertaken in the period in which the American Army was being accumulated. It almost seems if Haig decided to sell off his old stocks of troops so that he could re-stock with Americans.

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Hello Moyhu,

Welcome to the forum and this discussion.

You raise an interesting issue - whether the Allies should have waited until the full force of the Americans was available. I very much doubt that this would have been acceptable politically, particularly for the French Government. The war had been going for nearly three years and the French Government wanted the Germans evicted from French soil. The Americans entered the war in April and it would be at least another year before their newly raised forces would be available for combat operations. Even then, while they had numbers and enthusiasm they lacked experience and even as late as September 1918 this inexperience was evident in the attack on the Hindenburg Line near Bony - Bellicourt.

The war was a severe drain of the economies of all participants and the various Governments did not want it to continue dragging on and placing an even greater burden on their economies. It was in everyone's interests to bring it to a successful closure as early as possible. With the failure of the Nivelle offensive, Lloyd George attended a conference in Paris in May 1917 and pressed upon the French the need to persist with the offensive. He is reputed to have said 'We must go on hitting and hitting with all our might'. Thus there was political pressure to continue the offensive before the Americans arrived in force. The choice of the area of Ypres was strategically sound as discussed earlier in the thread - it was the one area along the whole Western front where there was the possibility of turning the German flank.

Prior to 3rd Ypres opening, the British had had two successful offensives - Arras, which included Vimy Ridge, in April 1917 and Messines as a prelude to 3rd Ypres in June 1917. There was every expectation that 3rd Ypres would also be successful and, indeed, in the centre and on the left flank of Gough's attack on 31st July the British were very successful. Thus I doubt that we can say that Haig was simply selling off his old stocks of troops so he could re-stock with Americans. I doubt that there were any British generals as callous as that.

Some people seem to be fixated on the casualties, which were horrendous, without trying to understand the conundrum that faced the participants on both sides. The losses were not one-sided and Haig wasn't the only general who lost enormous numbers of men - the French, Germans , Austrians and Russians all had terrible losses in the face of highly accurate, rapid firing small arms and artillery that had evolved over the 50 years prior to the war. This transformation of small arms and artillery had an enormous impact on the battlefield and revolutionised tactics. This was further compounded by the enormous numbers of troops the major powers could put into the field, which meant that on the Western Front frontal attacks were the only option. All armies were trying to find an answer to overcome the very strong power of a defence that had no flanks and achieve a major breakthrough. It wasn't an easy task.

Regards

Chris

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Hi Chris. Looks like this one will run a little longer ;) . I particularly liked your reminder that the C-in-C's role included providing direction, as well as setting the operational objectives. Turning to the other points you raised:

It seems to me that the issue in this instance was not about whether the plan would work, but whether the plan actually met the operational objectives that Gough had been given.
With respect to the quote above, are these not the same thing? If the plan worked, then it would met the operational objectives. Put another way, if the plan did not meet the operational objectives then it did not work. I have regarded these as inextricably linked. Thus, if Gough had set out a plan based on different objectives, then even if this plan had achieved his objectives, it would not, in my opinion, have 'worked'. I think we agree on this?

I also agree that Gough was executing the first part of a broader strategic plan, one objective of which was the capture of Passchendaele-Staden Ridge. The direction of the right wing was specified: "The right of your attack should move on the high ground through Gheluvelt, Becelaere, Broodseinde, and Moorslede" It was equally clear, according to Davidson's memorandum, that GHQ did not expect that the objective would be achieved on July 31st. Indeed, the whole crux of Davidson's case was that the objective should achieved in a series of short advances, with intact artillery cover to tackle the inevitable German counter-attacks. The details of the 'bite-and-hold' approach advocated by Davidson would not be consistent with taking any of the named villages (Gheluvelt, Becelaere, Broodseinde, and Moorslede) on July 31 - they were all too far along the ridge.

One question is whether Gough changed the operational objectives in specifying the Green Line as the objective for July 31. I would say no. An attack with limited objectives that included the highest ground on the ridge, as well as Polygon Wood to Shrewsbury would seem entirely consistent with progress towards the final objective via the named villages. Gough argued this very point. Furthermore, Haig noted in his diary of 31 July:

"Fighting on our right had been most severe. This I had expected. Our divisions had made good progress and were on top of the ridge which the Menin Road crosses, but had not advanced sufficiently eastwards to have observation into the valleys beyond. ...This is a fine day's work."

But this quote jumps the gun somewhat. The most interesting part of this discussion lies in understanding how a C-in-C can judge whether an Army Commander's plan is capable of succeeding. Thus, we need to step back in time again to before the attack is launched.

This appears to have been the crux of the discussions between Haig and Gough on 28 June. Clearly, Haig was not convinced that Gough's plan would achieve the operational requirements he had been set. Thus he had every right to question it and make his views strongly felt. This is not so much an example of telling Gough how to meet the operational objectives but of a C-in-C clarifying what the priority objectives were and ensuring that the planning was focussed on achieving them.

I think this is a somewhat different issue, but it is the crux of our discussions IMHO. Did Gough allocate the appropriate level of resources, in the right way, to achieve the optimal results on the Ridge? Given that Gough could not take the whole ridge, or even the named villages. This is tantamount to saying that even although Gough did not change the immediate stated objectives, by not allocating sufficient heavy artillery and other resources to the task of nullifying the German artillery defending the ridge Gough was in effect changing the objectives. To date, I have found no evidence that Gough explicitly changed the operational objectives during the course of his time in charge.

Andy Simpson's book "Directing Operations: British Corps Command on the Western Front 1914-18" contains several details about the process of planning the attack. These illustrate the more inclusive nature of the meetings between Gough and his corps commanders. The importance of liaison with 2nd Army is noted, with descriptions of the work of Captain Ross and Major Grant who operated as liaison officers on the 31st July. Their work was hampered, of course, by the German artillery response. Sadly, there is very little information about the thinking behind, and planning for the counter-battery work at corps level. Simpson notes "II Corp's counter battery work had not been anything like good enough. Counter-battery work is not dealt with in any detail in this chapter since it operated in much the same way as at Messines, though it was hampered much more than in June by the weather and the lie of the land."

The chapter on Messines includes the following description:

'By then, one important difference from earlier attacks which had arisen was than "The Army will shortly co-ordinate the objectives of the different Corps taking part in the offensive and the times at which they are to be reached and the Corps will then lay down the objectives and barrage times for the Corps front." From this, it appears that Army was not so much prescriptively setting the exact action of the artillery, as its timetable, on the understanding that corps would follow whatever artillery principles had been laid down. Indeed, to ensure that all went according to plan, Army sent two staff officers round its corps, each day from 31st May, to glean information on the progress made in wire cutting, destruction and counter-battery work.'

Simpson does mention one instance where Haig made his intentions known during the planning process. On 30th June, Fifth Army had issued a memorandum that included "the possibility of, after 36 hours' fighting, the Holy Grail of open warfare being attained. However, it also stated that 'This is a result which we can hardly hope to attain until the enemy has been beaten in two or three heavy battles'. ...In addition, this memorandum is notable for Douglas Haig's pencilled comments upon it, to the effect that the Passchendaele-Staden Ridge must be the objective of the offensive, not simply the defeat of the German forces in front of Fifth Army".

In this instance Gough had two options: to do his best to ensure the C-in-C's objectives were achieved or to resign. Haig had two options if Gough persisted in ignoring Haig's instructions: sack Gough or give the task to Plumer.
I believe Gough did try on July 31st to ensure the C-in-C's objectives were achieved. Gough and his corps commanders were signed up to a plan that they believed would deliver an advance onto the highest ground of the ridge. This was achieved, though the more ambitious advance down the far slope did not suceed on the day due, in large part but not solely, to inadequate counter-battery measures. Even if we had access to Fifth Army's Artillery Plan, and those plans derived from it, most particularly II Corps' plan, we would still be faced with the problem of knowing whether these plans were sufficient for the task. With hindsight, we know that the outcome of the plans was not sufficient. But does that mean the plans were wrong, or the execution was faulty in some way? Estimating success of counter-battery work ahead of the actual attack was very difficult, as Third Ypres emphasized. Given that many enemy batteries remained silent prior to the attack, and that enemy batteries set up multiple sites and moved between these, then it was a difficult problem to know if CB fire had been adequate in the leadup phase. The crucial day, however, was the day of the actual attack. Whatever enemy batteries were left after the preparatory phase had to be targetted as quickly as possible. Direct observation was not possible for the area of tactical importance, so it all depended on aerial observation. The weather conditions on 31st July appear to have been sub-optimal, to say the least, for aerial observation. Perhaps the weather conditions also played a role in nullifying gas bombardments, which did not rely so heavily on precise targetting but did rely on relatively calm wind conditions.

Robert

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The main thing I can't understand about this campaign, is why it was undertaken in the period in which the American Army was being accumulated.
Hi Moyhu. I would echo Chris' welcome. In addition to the points that he has made, you might like to consider reading "Pyrrhic Victory" by Robert Doughty. It will give you an excellent insight into the general situation at the time, and a good perspective on the French experience of the war leading up to July 1917, compared with Britain's contribution.

Robert

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Hi Robert,

Very interesting comments. Well, we may as well cover all points. ;) I have learned a great deal from this discussion, particularly the thinking that went behind the battle.

With respect to the quote above, are these not the same thing? If the plan worked, then it would met the operational objectives. Put another way, if the plan did not meet the operational objectives then it did not work. I have regarded these as inextricably linked. Thus, if Gough had set out a plan based on different objectives, then even if this plan had achieved his objectives, it would not, in my opinion, have 'worked'. I think we agree on this?

Mmmmm. We agree on the specific point you make. In the context of Gough and his commanders saying their plan 'worked' , however, may be stretching the anology too far. They may have been saying that their plan 'worked' because it would achieve their objectives rather than Haig's. In laying down the operational and strategic objectives the C-in-C also spells out his concept of operations (ie how he envisages the campaign will be conducted in broad terms, which includes priorities of effort, key ground to be taken and the sequence in which it will be taken.) as clear guidance to his surbordinate commanders on which to base their detailed planning on how they will execute the concept. It also enables their planning can take account of what other formations will be doing on the flanks. IMO Gough appears to have disregarded Haig's concept of operations and inserted his own - ie the wheeling operation to the noth and east, including the Houlthust Forest and deleting Roulers as the ultimate objective - and I can't reconcile this with good generalship.

The details of the 'bite-and-hold' approach advocated by Davidson would not be consistent with taking any of the named villages (Gheluvelt, Becelaere, Broodseinde, and Moorslede) on July 31 - they were all too far along the ridge.

One question is whether Gough changed the operational objectives in specifying the Green Line as the objective for July 31. I would say no. An attack with limited objectives that included the highest ground on the ridge, as well as Polygon Wood to Shrewsbury would seem entirely consistent with progress towards the final objective via the named villages. Gough argued this very point. Furthermore, Haig noted in his diary of 31 July:

The most interesting part of this discussion lies in understanding how a C-in-C can judge whether an Army Commander's plan is capable of succeeding. Thus, we need to step back in time again to before the attack is launched.

I agree that the ridge could not be taken in the first day and hence Davidson's memorandum outlining the best approach through short advances with intact artillery. My point is that the evidence seems to be that Gough did not accord this area the priority it deserved. He may have included it in his Green Line objectives but it was not the principal focus of his plan, which was borne out by the thrust of his attacks in the centre and on the low ground to the left throughout August. Having the objective in the plan does not necessarily mean Gough's plan and focus accorded with Haig's concept of operations; which required the priority of effort be made to secure the high ground. After 31 July Gough made little real attempt to secure these objectives and it had to wait until Plumer was brought in to do the job.

On your second point above, any C-in-C worth his salt should be capable of ascertaining whether a subordinate's plan is capable of succeeding in achieving the C-in-C's objectives. It is part and parcel of his responsibilities and if he is unable to do so he shouldn't be in the job. Haig obviuosly had doubts about Gough's plan being able to do so and thus spoke with him over the matter at length.

I will address your last point seperately.

cheers

Chris

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I believe Gough did try on July 31st to ensure the C-in-C's objectives were achieved. Gough and his corps commanders were signed up to a plan that they believed would deliver an advance onto the highest ground of the ridge. This was achieved, though the more ambitious advance down the far slope did not suceed on the day due, in large part but not solely, to inadequate counter-battery measures. Even if we had access to Fifth Army's Artillery Plan, and those plans derived from it, most particularly II Corps' plan, we would still be faced with the problem of knowing whether these plans were sufficient for the task. With hindsight, we know that the outcome of the plans was not sufficient. But does that mean the plans were wrong, or the execution was faulty in some way? Estimating success of counter-battery work ahead of the actual attack was very difficult, as Third Ypres emphasized. Given that many enemy batteries remained silent prior to the attack, and that enemy batteries set up multiple sites and moved between these, then it was a difficult problem to know if CB fire had been adequate in the leadup phase. The crucial day, however, was the day of the actual attack. Whatever enemy batteries were left after the preparatory phase had to be targetted as quickly as possible. Direct observation was not possible for the area of tactical importance, so it all depended on aerial observation. The weather conditions on 31st July appear to have been sub-optimal, to say the least, for aerial observation. Perhaps the weather conditions also played a role in nullifying gas bombardments, which did not rely so heavily on precise targetting but did rely on relatively calm wind conditions.

Hi Robert,

I agree with the points you make about the reasons why the objectives on the high ground were not achieved on 31st July. I would add that Gough ought to have taken Davidson's advice on short advances backed by intact artillery rather than going for a much longer advance on the first day. You might recall in an earlier post I raised the issue that it seemed to me that insufficient resources had been allocated to the vital ground - this was always going to be the toughest nut to crack - and that I felt this, coupled with over ambitious objectives, was instrumental in the failure on this part of the field. Neillands's work throws new light on the matter and is a plausible explanation of why this occurred. My point is that if Gough was in accord with and supported Haig's concept of operations he should have continued making this area his priority of effort in August, rather than further north. His subsequent actions indicate to me that his concept of operations was not in accord with his C-in-C's.

I am still of the opinion that had the boundary been adjusted and the task given to Plumer we would have had a better outcome.

I will be out of action for the next couple of weeks - having an operation on my right hand tomorrow - so I will be unable to reply until I have use of it again. So if you don't get any responses to your further posts, I am not ignoring you.

Cheers

Chris

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