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.


Monday, 9 April 2012

The Six P's

There's a lot of buzz afoot with regards to the 95th anniversary of the Battle of Arras.  One event I'm very excited about is Oxford University's World War One Centenary Project examination of the battle, which will include real time tweets of the battle's events, with contribution and participation from the public greatly encouraged.  Find this Twitter feed here; the tweets will begin as the battle did on the 9th of April.

With these events in mind, I thought I should put a piece together about the importance of this battle and the lead up to it.  The merits and failures on both sides of the fighting are worthy of examination for what they teach us about the conduct of the war from that point forward, and revel truisms of warfare in general.

The Battle of Arras was fought in an effort to fix German forces locally, preventing them from shifting troops further south to meet the French in the upcoming "Nivelle Offensive."  The difficulty was that the Germans had recently made strategic adjustments of which the most game changing was a tactical withdrawal.  This is a risky undertaking in general, with the great possibility of failure.  If the enemy becomes aware of rearward movement, a hasty offensive could catch troops in the open between positions and annihilate them.

It is a question of morale, as well.  Turning back and ceding ground hard fought for could sponsor a defeatist attitude.  These questions were presented to General Robert E Lee at a crucial point during the opening phases of the Battle of Gettysburg.  The thought of retreating from a field on which he had not been defeated, even if it were to a highly defensible position would have so damaged the fighting spirit of the Army of Northern Virginia, Lee didn't seriously consider the option valid and committed to attacking where he was. (McPherson, 655)

The hindsight of history can allow us to speculate upon decisions made in retrospect.  Lee's failure at Gettysburg, and conversely Ludendorff's successful move to the Hindenburg Line as well as the initial Allied successes during the first five days of Arras can all be summed up by tautology.  Perhaps the one quickest to mind would be along the lines of "fail to plan...", though I'm more partial to one I learned in the army known as "the Six P's."  Spelled out it's "Prior Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance", and it is a lack of this which dictated both Allied and Central Powers' policy towards the Western Front in 1917, and its inclusion on both ends would seethe tactics and approach which would entirely change the way the war would be fought.

General Erich Ludendorff
In the opening months of 1917 it became more evident to German High command that their army, and by extension their entire war effort, was in crisis.  Continuing to fight on two fronts and costly campaigns in 1916 had stretched manpower to the limit.  The effective blockade of Germany's sea routes by the Royal Navy continued to deny essential materiel and shortages for both the military and the home front were beginning to become acute.

On the Western Front, German forces of roughly two and a half million men organised into 134 divisions faced combined Allied forces 175 divisions strong, numbering nearly four million men.(Meyer 493)  Perhaps the only thing Germany had in 1917 in any abundance was land captured from France and Belgium in 1914 and held since.  The luxury was that a properly executed withdrawal would still see them on foreign soil, causing those who wished to liberate it to throw themselves against their defensive works.

This is where the six P's comes in.  Ludendorff had long known the Western Front as it was in 1916 would soon become untenable.  The army hadn't the strength to mount any offensives in the upcoming year, necessitating a doctrine of strong defence.  When he and Hindenburg took joint command of German forces, replacing von Falkenhayn, Ludendorff took the opportunity to initiate his grand scheme.  Not only would his men move back to well  prepared positions, the move itself would shorten the line his diminished resources would hold.  The line shortening also allowed him to reorganize the compliment of his divisions and change the doctrine of not only how these new lines would be held, but also how these lines would look.

"The creation of the new line would also enable Ludendorff to install, from scratch, the kind of physical infrastructure needed for a new kind of defence.  Under his new approach, there was no longer to be a German front line in the traditional sense.  The now-customary continuous line was replaced by small, mutually supportive steel-and-concrete camouflaged blockhouses laid out in a checkerboard pattern and manned by machine gun crews."(Meyer 493-4)  These constructions were fronted by vast ditches as a countermeasure for tanks and several tens of yards of wire obstacles.  These structures would absorb the initial brunt of an attack, but were to be abandoned prior to being overwhelmed.  The line to be moved back to under pressure was a true trench line, but lightly held.  The majority of reserves were units particularly trained for rapid counterattacks.  Before the enemy could consolidate any gains, these "storm troops" would push them out when the attacking forces were at their most vulnerable.  Ludendorff had astutely observed the overall situation and put forward a suitable strategy which remained flexible to contingency.  His new method of holding lines under attack became known as "elastic defence."

General Edmund Allenby
Due to these shifts and a grand French offensive planned for April, Haig had his overall situation dictated to him.  Ostensibly under French command, the British commander was relegated to mounting diversionary attacks to keep pressure off of the French flank.  With a mind to mount his own offensive later in the year on his preferred ground of Flanders, he assigned the supporting role in the "Nivelle Offensive" only to Third Army, under General Allenby with attachments (Canadian Corps) from First Army at the outset.

The British army was at a very crucial point itself.  1916 had been a costly year for them.  While there were greater reserves of  available manpower due to the vastness of empire, the logistics of putting them into the filed were complex as a result of distance.  This is also providing that troops would be sent to meet the main enemy on the major front and not disbursed to side campaigns in Italy, Africa, the Balkans or Palestine.  What men they did have on the Western Front had been through their baptism of fire and were implementing lessons learned; new soldiers just joining had the benefit of learning from those who had been on the front and training cycles were beginning to reflect the combat style two and a half years of trench warfare had created.

The German lines beyond the village of Arras were a tempting target.  The right hand edge of the Hindenburg Line abutted the river Scarpe two miles east of the town.  If the unchanged German lines north of the Scarpe could be broken, it might have been possible to turn the flank of the new German defensive line.

This would be the main British effort, undertaken by VII, VI, and XVII Corps of Third Army.  First Army's responsibility would be to commit a corps to attacking and holding Vimy Ridge.  This feature was so dominating that should the Germans retain control of it, they would be able to bring fire down over the Arras battlefield and possibly stall Third Army's attack.  Both Allenby and General Byng commanding the Canadian Corps had luxury of time to prepare their forces for the initial assault.  In this, their prior planning forestalled poor performance.

The offensives of 1916 were the benchmarks of what not to do.  It was now proven that high explosive artillery shells and not shrapnel were most effective against wire and hardpoints, and now that the munitions shortages were being made good, the commanding generals would have adequate support of big guns.  The gunners themselves had improved their trade with both new tools and techniques.  Sound ranging and flash spotting counter-battery fire was estimated to reduce German artillery assets by 80%.  Not the least factor in this was a new type of shell:  "the new British gas shell was most effective in paralysing the defending artillery, for it not only compelled the gun crews to keep on their gas masks for hours at a time, but by killing off the horses like flies prevented ammunition being brought up."(Liddell Hart 319)  The fire plan preceding the attack and for when the assault began were complex mixes of varying types of barrage, accounting for terrain and opposition, completely geared towards supporting and protecting the infantry.

The method by which the attack would be made involved restructuring how the infantry operated.  The base of tactical structure devolved from the company to the platoon level.  Organised into four specialized sections of Lewis gun, rifle grenade, riflemen and bombers (grenadiers) this new platoon type was capable
of bringing mobile firepower to the enemy.  Detachment from the next level of command enabled these units to operate with more independence and initiative; this structure would prove more than capable of isolating and reducing the fearsome bunkers of the Hindenburg line.

There was also time to school the troops in tactics which had been abandoned for convenience.   No longer would straight lines of men move forward en masse; platoons were taught to use "fire and movement" to pin the enemy down with indirect fire (via the Lewis gun and rifle-grenadiers) and encroach their lines an a leap-frog fashion.

Nothing had been left to chance save one glaring error.  Allenby had chosen the village of Arras itself as an assembly area for reserves.  The routes in and out of the area were narrow.  Congestion in Arras and the bottleneck at the forward edge prevented timely and effective deployment of supplemental forces to carry the attack.

The great care in planning the Arras battle was responsible for limited but unprecedented gains in the opening phases.  Not having a practical contingency for follow up actions reduced the situation to stalemate within a month of battle.

What both the German and Allied doctrinal changes of 1917 proved was that the commanders had taken account of failure, discarded what didn't work and endeavoured to improve on what did.  By no means was this evolution complete by the spring of 1917, but the way in which the war was to be fought (and won) saw its genesis in a little known attack historically overshadowed by the larger French effort, its failure and the fallout which nearly ended France's contribution.

"If Ye Break Faith" is an initiative to inspire the study of our collective history of the Great War.  We can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.  Any comments or questions, requests or suggestions can be posted here.

Sources:

Holmes, Richard, "The Western Front" BBC Books, 1999

Liddell Hart, Basil, "History of the First World War" Pan Books, 1979

McPherson, James "Battle Cry of Freedom"  Oxford University Press 1988

Meyer, G.J., "A World Undone"  Delta Books 2007


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