If Ye Break Faith

This blog is dedicated to the promotion of educating about the Canadian experience of World War One. To discover who we are as a nation in the 21st Century, we must understand our past.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

In the Trenches II

I'd like to thank everyone who took the time to read Monday's post regarding Captain Bath.  I imagine that the published version of the book will contain chapters formatted in much the same way.  As that chapter was included in my book proposal to a literary agency, publication might not be a far reaching goal.  All of your support and belief in this project enabled me to put a great amount of effort in telling his story.  I hope I've done him, and all those stories yet to be told, justice.

There's been no return yet on my submission, though it is still early to expect any yet.  As soon as I hear news (positive thinking here, please) you all will be the first to know.  I have, though, picked up a few new followers on my twitter feed, and would like to acknowledge them here:  TVOntarioThe Imperial War Museum, and Ken Reynolds who has an excellent blog on the 38th Battalion, CEF found here.  I welcome them as warmly as I welcome all those who read and enjoy my work.

Now, I've delayed it long enough, but a promise is a promise and I here now follow through with the second part of my essay on the reasons behind the stalemate on the Western Front.  As always, the project requires support to push forward, both in feedback and contributions.  Support can be made can be made through  the PayPal "Donate" button in the right hand column, at IndieGoGo, by joining the Facebook Page,  by following the twitter feed or this blog itself.  Comments and questions can be directed here.

In my last segment it was discussed why the Western Front solidified as it did.  For a refresher, here is the first half.  So the question remains, why did these lines not move?  First, contrary to the general idea, the Front was quite fluid.  Looking at maps that delineate the basic layout of the trench lines over the course of the war, it seems as though they are more static than dynamic but what is usually failed to take into account is the size of the landmass the Front occupied.  It really is a question of scale.  Nevertheless, though it shifted in one direction or the next during the war, neither side effected a breakthrough.  The question then is still a why.  With regards the Allies, their lines of communication, and thereby the means to resupply and reinforce were closer to hand.  Any rupture made by the Germans was only a day or two at most away from being plugged by fresh troops from behind the line.  Not only that, but the Germans didn't put too much offensive action against the Allies in the first place, especially after limited probes in the first half of 1915.  The concentrated effort at Verdun in 1916 and the all or nothing "Hail Mary" of the Kaiser's Battle in the spring of 1918 are the two major exceptions.  While the 1918 Spring Offensives were designed with a break between the French and British lines in mind, Verdun actually stands out as the one battle in which atrrition of the enemy was the primary goal.  In the words of Field Marshal Erich von Falkenhayn the Imperial German Army was to "Bleed the French White."  

Germany was for most of the war fighting on two fronts.  In France and Belgium, they had the advantage of being on captured ground, which meant that they could site defensive works to suit them best, and it would be up to the Allies to dislodge them.  Since they had "first pick" of ground, as it were, and didn't foresee going on a grand offensive until Russia in the east could be sent packing (effected by spring 1918) they used topographical features and resources such as poured concrete to strengthen the gains they had made in the west.  This of course made any prospect of a direct attack a difficult venture to say the least.   Normally, in attacking prepared positions, the aggressive force would want to move towards the flank as opposed to taking it head on.  Problem being, of course, that there were effectively
 no flanks to move for.  Next best thing then is to attack the enemy line where it is weakest, either where one unit's area ends and another begins, or where the ground itself isn't suited for defense.  The inherit problem with this is that since the Germans had the ability to build strong, interlinked entrenchments with many lines in depth, assaults had to be well planned and aggressively mounted.  Due to the inexperienced nature of the British New Armies (raised in 1914) and the French Army, though much larger was made up of conscripts with limited field experience, such efforts were not possible to any great degree of success until well into the second year of the war. 

Even at that point, where great gains could be made, by 1917 the Germans had completed the Hindenburg Line, a masterworks of concrete fortifications, wire and pillboxes with well sighted artillery and preregistered kill zones.  So once the allies learned their trade well enough to effect a breakthrough, they now faced a more insurmountable obstacle.  By the fall of 1918 the beginnings of such a break were being realised, but by that time Germany was exhausted, it's ability to continue the war non-existent and thence set forward to negotiate the Armistice.

So, what of Canada in all of this?  Our country went through a tremendous learning curve with trench warfare, beginning with 2nd Ypres in 1915.  By the time two years had passed, the experiences on the front coupled with taking on board British doctrine that existed prior to the war but difficult to execute with uninitiated civilians turned soldiers enabled our Divisions to successfully assault and capture Vimy Ridge.  Throughout the war, our infantry gained high reputations for the aggressive nature of mounting patrols into enemy trenches, crucial for intelligence gathering.  Our engineers were looked upon as experts in mining, that is digging under the enemy trenches in an effort to place explosives.  The Canadian artillery made first good use of new techniques of flash spotting and sound ranging to locate enemy guns.  The only successful cavalry actions of note in the war included the charge of the Fort Garry Horse at Cambrai in 1917.  Overall, we displayed what has become endemic to our national personality of taking an adverse situation and overcoming it in our own particular way.  Something to be proud of, for certain.

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