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.


Friday, 7 August 2015

To the Green Fields Beyond

The Purpose of the Battle of the Somme Part II: Execution

At 0720 hrs, 1st July, 1916, an underground gallery sited beneath the German line and packed with 20 tons of ammonal[1] was detonated.  Ten minutes before zero-hour, Hawthorn Mine, as it was known, devastated the land on which it was buried; creating a shockwave felt for miles, the debris flung upward returning as heavy clods of earthen rain.  For all the noise and bother, detonating the mine did more to alert the Germans of the coming attack than being an aid to it.  Overall, artillery preparation had been poor.  Only at the southern end of the planned line of advance, where the British and French met had there been any significant reduction of German defenses.  French artillery in the area operated differently from the British and had a greater availability to (and understanding the employment of) high explosive shells.

Regardless of what lay ahead- shattered trenches or intact works- the men were going.  They were as ready as they could be, well, as they were ever going to be.  For a great many, this preparation was grossly deficient as well.  What followed has become legendary, a slaughter of 60,000 men for no result.  Military historian Major Gordon Corrigan puts it succinctly: “The Somme is often cited as an example of naïve bravery pitted against hopeless odds, coupled with stubborn pursuit of goals that were, quickly obvious as being incapable of achievement.”[2] However, Corrigan was expressing the common sentiment so that he could illustrate how fact refutes perception.

There can be no denying the terrible loss experienced by the British on 1st July.  One third of the day’s casualties were fatal, and many of the wounded would never return to active duty.  The Germans were still in possession of their defensive line, for the most part, so any Allied gains can be easily overlooked.  In actuality, what gains had been made, though diminished in afterthought by objective failures gaining precedence, were proof that adequate training, preparation and resources could be sufficient against a fortified trench system. 

North to south, from Beaumont-Hamel to La Boiselle very little, if anything was
gained on July 1st.  Between La Boiselle and Fricourt a tiny crescent of ground had been won.  From, but not including Fricourt to the boundary with the French just north of the River Somme better progress had been made, in some places (particularly around Montauban) up to two and a half kilometers.  Only in this area, a third of the entire length of the frontage of attack were the first day’s objectives met. None of the villages within the first day’s objectives had been taken.  This was especially worrying at Fricourt which jutted out in between the small limit of advance on the left and the lightly deeper and wider gains on the right, creating a miniature salient containing the built-up area of Fricourt at its peak and a dense wood immediately west of the village.

For the 29th Division, attacking at the northern end of the line, around Beaumont Hamel, “The casualties were severe.  They numbered 5,000.  The loss of officers…was disproportionately heavy.”[3] Some battalions in the 29th lost upwards of eighty percent of their effective strength; the loss of leadership a critical blow to maintaining fighting capability.

Sir John Keegan, the much admired historian, assigns much of the blame to the failures of the first day to deficiencies in artillery preparation.  By and large, he is not incorrect.  What gains were made had been mostly in the area where the French artillery had been active in support of the line where they and the British abutted.  Keegan gives something away in his inaccurate description of shrapnel shells.  He opines that the ground into which these shells were fired absorbed the impact and thus negated effectiveness reveals a military ignorance.  Shrapnel is
designed to air-burst, scattering its steel shot in a wide pattern.  If shrapnel was meant to impact detonate, it would have severely diminished its intended use- as an anti-personnel weapon.  The reason why shrapnel failed to cut German wire, as was the intent, is that the wire, being tensile, could absorb blasts of shrapnel and retain its strength. 

I raise this point not to castigate Sir John, put to illustrate that he doesn’t completely comprehend the subject matter he is describing and as such any conclusions he may draw will have at least a shadow of ignorance attached to it.  Reading Keegan for historical poignancy requires, at times, to cut through the treacle of his sentimentality and bias towards the British and a blind eye to his technical ignorance.  He is correct that the New Army formations had not been adequately trained- but doesn’t seem to understand what regular standards, particularly battlecraft were in 1916.  The Regular Army of the pre-war years was proficient in the type of “fire and movement” Keegan notes as being newly developed and of French origin. In personal conversation, I have more than once heard these so-called “new-tactics” (which are illustrated in the 1909 Field Service Manual) as having provenance with other nationalities, particularly Canadians and Australians, so Keegan is not alone in this oversight.  These things do call into question conclusions made upon misunderstood fact. 

It certainly can’t be said that thirty percent of objectives taken would be considered adequate against losses and failures.  Some minds will then point to the apparent futility of continuing operations at the Somme. The core of this argument is whether the battle was meant to be the war winning breakthrough, an attritional battle or first one and then the other when that failed to materialise.  “This setback”, of the first day, according to Sir Basil Liddell Hart, “negatived the original idea of a ‘breakthrough’ to Bapaume and Cambrai, and Haig for a time fell back on the attrition method- of limited advances aimed to wear down the German strength.”[4]

Haig’s overall plan for his army’s part in the 1916 offensives had to consider the factors of what was occurring elsewhere, particularly where the Germans were operating offensively.  His stated objectives, reproduced in the collection of his despatches, for the combined Anglo-French offensives of 1916 were:

I.              To relieve the pressure on Verdun

II.            To assist our Allies in the other theatres of war by stopping any further transfer of German troops from the Western Front

III.          To wear down the strength of the forces opposed to us[5]

That breakthrough isn’t mentioned leaves opinion open to believe Haig wanted an attritional battle.  For many, believing that the Somme was supposed to create the sought after breakthrough, the subsequent months of repeated attack must seem either foolish or stubborn.  However, as the battle’s main objective was to wear down Germany’s ability to resist-urgently in light of a similar strategy affected by the Germans against the French at Verdun.  The extension of thought is along the lines of Niall Ferguson’s notion of “when the breakthrough failed to materialise, all resorted to the arguments of attrition.”[6]

It is a fair shock to see Haig’s first reference to 1st July contain the observation “the success” of the opening day “came as a surprise to the enemy and caused confusion and disorganisation in his ranks.”[7] seems a trifle generous of an assessment, or even willingly obtuse.   Haig’s despatches, if taken at face value seem at least a little separate from reality to the point of near delusion at times.  It would be, however, prejudicial to make assessments of his character based upon these writings.  The field Marshal submitted these despatches as progress reports to his employer, the government.  Not being made redundant involved putting all events in the best light possible.  That the despatches were concurrently published in newspapers also influenced Haig to write with a positive spin, to keep public opinion of the war likewise positive.  It would be a pity to think that Haig’s reputation for being out of touch, emotionally cool and heartlessly calculating may have basis in his own words which were not meant to be anything approaching expository.  Brigadier Sir Richard Holmes makes his assessment clear that Haig’s envisioned purpose for the Somme battle is at best unclear.  “The evidence suggests that he hoped to break through the German lines.”[8] The disagreement on the nature of the attack between Rawlinson of 4th Army and his C-in-C Haig wasn’t as polar as attrition v. breakthrough but along the lines of what was achievable in regards the limit of the first day’s planned advance.

Haig wanted the result of any offensive he undertook to be an exploitable
breakthrough of the German lines, as this would be war winning.  This was no less true at the Somme, at least in the opening phases.  What is overlooked is that this breakthrough wasn’t the goal of the first day’s fighting.  Projected plans for the exploitation- to which infantry and cavalry would be tasked- used the German second line, which was an objective subsequent to the first day’s advance as the start point.

In any event, wearing the enemy down would be by its nature, crucial to attempting to push through the deadlock and bring the war back to mobile operations.  Given that most of the first day’s objectives were not met and thus creating an uneven line in danger of being over-extended, reliance of piecemeal attacks up and down the frontage to shore up the lines would be necessary before a general advance could be resumed.  In this period, all efforts would be made to wear the enemy down, either physically or morally, so, yes, attrition, but only with a conclusive mind towards transitioning from a wearing out process to the breakthrough which might win the war.



[1] Firstworldwar.com
[2]  Corrigan, Gordon “Mud, Blood and Poppycock” Cassel Military Paperbacks, 2004 pg. 249
[3] Gillian, Stair “The Story of the 29th Division: A Record of Gallant Deeds” Thomas Nelson and Sons, Ltd. 1925 pg. 82
[4] Liddell Hart, Basil “History of the First World War” Pan Books, 1972, pg 209
[5] Boraston, JH (ed.) “Sir Douglas Haig’s Despatches (December 1915-April 1919) JM Dent & Sons 1919 pg. 20
[6] Ferguson, Niall “The Pity of War: Explaining World War I” Basic Books, 1999 pg. 293
[7] Boraston, JH (ed.) ibid. pg. 23
[8] Holmes, Richard “Britain at War” Hylas Publishing, 2004 pg. 268

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

SPECIAL POST: “To You From Failing Hands”

“I don’t believe this all happened by chance or by luck.  I believe these medals were meant to find their way home, back to Private Lickers’ people.”
                                       
 - Mr. G Lickers; great-grandnephew of Pte D A Lickers










It is an extreme pleasure to bring to you a very special installment of If Ye Break Faith.  Over the course of several months, I’ve had the privilege to work on a tremendous project, and today’s post will tell the story of how this all developed to its happy conclusion in a ceremony held in Brantford Ontario on the 27th of July.

It began, simply enough in February, with a post on a Facebook group for Canadian Forces service members.  Two medals from WWI had been passed to Ralph, a Canadian Army sergeant.  His parents had come upon them many years prior when cleaning out a rental property they managed.  With Ralph’s connection to the military, his parents thought he might have an interest in them.  The question Ralph posed was to ask opinion as to what would be best done with them.  Overwhelmingly, almost to the point of unanimity, the response was that living relatives be sought and the medals returned to the families of the recipients.

One problem was that Ralph didn’t quite know where to begin.  I offered some suggestions, and helped clarify a point of historic fact.  Somehow, that was sufficient to place me in the role of coordinating these efforts.  Thankfully, it turned out that my inquiries to determine lineage landed with some very dedicated and competent individuals- professionals and enthusiasts alike- which made the search much easier than had I struck out on my own. 

The first medal in question was a Victory Medal originally issued to David Andrew Lickers, a member of the Six Nations reserve in Brantford.  While the search to find a living relative got underway, I had opportunity to study his service records.

History may better remember the giants- of politics, arts, science and war- but the story of humanity is within the deeds and achievements of any individual, regardless the breadth of their impact or influence.  David’s story is much like that.  Looking into his military records, it is very plain that he did not see much of the war, but he had seen enough.

Three brothers, Joseph, David and William all joined the same battalion, the 98th. Joseph went first, in November of 1915, followed by William in December and David that January.  The 98th, after arriving in England in July 1916 was broken up for reinforcements.  A draft of these men, including David and William arrived in France to be assigned to the 58th Battalion in September.

Their first major action would be just days away, in an attack on a German defensive line at the Somme code named “REGINA TRENCH.”  It was a costly engagement.  The 58th’s War Diary notes: “In crossing ‘no-mans-land…Coy. ‘D’ and…Coy. ‘C’ suffered considerably from machine gun fire and had many casualties.”[1] On reaching the trench, it was found that artillery had failed to cut the wire; and many of the battalion’s casualties were caused by direct fire as they attempted to find gaps in the obstacle. Some parts of the enemy trench were gained and were held for about half an hour before being forced back by a devastating counter attack.  Lt Col H A Genet, CO of the 58th noted in his report, “No praise can be too high for the splendid manner in which the men fought and continued to fight until the situation was hopeless.”[2]

For the 8th of October, 1916, the 58th Battalion’s casualties are listed as 30 killed, 144 wounded and 111 missing.  William was among the dead.  While nothing recorded gives us a certainty of events, it is entirely likely that David was close by and perhaps even within sight of William when he was killed.  There is no denying the coincidental timing of William’s death and that for eight days after the battle, David was missing.  He returned to his unit on the 16th of October, there being no indication of where he was or what he had been doing for those missing days.  Sometimes, it is what the records don’t say which can tell us much.  Whatever reasons David may have given for his absence, they were sufficient for him to not have been charged with being Absent With Out Leave.  He didn’t stay out of trouble, though.

David was sentenced, on the 31st of October to 14 days’ Field Punishment #1, a harsh form of extra duty in which the soldier could be held in restraints or tied to a fixed object for hours at a time.  His crime was drunkenness.  In that, David was not at all different than many soldiers, young men away from home introduced to vice, except that he got caught.  At this remove of one hundred years, it is suppositional to put a motive to David’s crime, but I don’t think it is too far a stretch to say that William’s death may have had something to do with it.

Before he could serve his sentence in full, David went back into the line with his battalion.  While under fire on the 3rd of November, David was “Burried(sic) by a shell and hit on (the) head by (a) sandbag.” He remained unconscious for three weeks, with paralysis on the left side of his body.  He was sent to convalesce in England, his continuing symptoms being “’epileptiford seizures’, as many as four or five a day….very nervous at times, is easily excited.  Sleeps poorly, wakes up with sudden starts and troublesome dreams.”[3] After some months of hospitalisation, David was invalided back to Canada for “further medical treatment.”  In early 1918 his condition was re-assessed and David was found to be “physically unfit” for further military service.

On the 18th of February, 1918, at Exhibition Camp in Toronto, David was discharged from the army.  His character and conduct marked as “good” despite his transgressions.  It is at this point that David fades into history like so many others who came home from war and went on into private life.  I fell it is fitting that we’re paying tribute to an ordinary man.  Posterity may better remember the giants; but history is truly made by ordinary people.

(For more detail on Canada’s First Nations in WWI, please see my post “Warrior Spirit”)

Instrumental in the search for David’s family connection was the Woodland Cultural Centre.  The Centre’s staff made inquiries of their own and with their resources.  After a number of weeks, a great-grandnephew was located, contacted and appraised of the developing story; and agreed to participate.  From there, planning began for a ceremony to re-invest the medal with the Woodland Centre graciously offering themselves as the venue.  The ceremony itself, which took place on the afternoon of Monday 27th July was a genuine and heart-felt reunion of the past to the present. 


Mr. Glenn Lickers, David’s great-grandnephew shared his sentiments, saying “While the focus is on the medals of Private David Lickers coming home, we really are honouring and paying tribute to the memory of Private David Lickers in the presence of his family, his community and his brother and sister veterans.”  Mr. Lickers concluded by ceding his ancestor’s medal to the Woodland Cultural Centre Museum.  “Now that the medals are home they will serve as a legacy of Private David Lickers and his service in WWI.  It is a legacy that needs to be shared with his community, his people and all Canadians.”

I feel that this may just be a drop in the bucket.  Already, efforts are underway to trace the family of the recipient of the other medal in Ralph’s possession; that of Pte H G Mutford of Newfoundland.  Thanks to very good media coverage of Monday’s event, hopefully others will be inspired to put a similar context to discovered military artefacts.





[1] War Diary Entry, 58th Bn CEF, 08 October 1916; Lt Col HA Genet, DSO
[2] War Diary Entry, cont’d
[3] Army Form MFB 227 “Medical History of an Invalid” 26 November 1917, Capt. GF Sykes, CAMC

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Into the Valley of Death

The Purpose of the Battle of the Somme: Part I- Preparation

The study of history can be a tricky thing indeed.  In the pursuit of establishing meaning of past events, very often the subjectivity of human observation (either at point of origin or in reflection after the fact) can either spin or skew time gone by-sometimes inadvertently- to a significance more important to the observer than that which is being observed.  This is particularly true if the event itself has superlative qualities.

A stark example would be the Battle of the Somme in 1916.  Of superlatives, it
has a rather good share; the opening day remains the bloodiest in British military history, it was the largest body of men committed to a battle by the British up to that point and (one of) the longest battles fought.  By that, the course of the battle saw day after day of ever increasing tonnage of artillery shells fired, longer and larger undermining operations, mileage of railway track laid, among much else.  Much could-and has- been written reflecting the Somme’s stature of one of history’s great battles.

That the prevailing view is that since it accomplished little as the war would continue for two years after the battle’s conclusion, there is added a futility to its memory.  One can rightly ask why such a sacrifice of lives and resources was required if no significant gains had been made.  At this far remove, the temptation to apply moral thought is all but unavoidable.  Even historians disagree on this question.

One of the major points of contention is what the British hoped to achieve by fighting at the Somme.  This issue feeds into any analysis of the battle, and putting stock in one theory over another thus influences conclusive thought.  Central to this is whether the battle was meant to be the “Big Push” that would crack the Western Front wide open, bringing the conflict back to maneuver warfare; or that the Somme was intended as an attritional battle, to wear down German manpower, resources and hopefully, the will to carry on fighting.  It is true that neither of those goals were realised.

An irony is that critics of the battle, whether in one camp or another tend to see the Somme as a futile and blind waste of lives for no resolution.  Determining the true intent of British commanders at the Somme may be in some way helpful to better understanding it.

The battle was conceived as part of a multi-lateral Allied offensive to be mounted in the late spring of 1916.  A conference in December 1915 between British, French, Italian and Russian generals agreed in principle to a simultaneous effort on their respective fronts.  No supreme command was established so the armies of the different nations would largely be operating independently towards a common goal.  This left the door open for army commanders to cooperate with each other at their own discretion with mixed results.  Surprisingly, the conference took little consideration that their opponents were devising their own hopefully decisive offensive strategies.  The Allied pinion was that the Germans were content to remain on the defensive- to hold the ground in Belgium and France where they were.  This was a great miscalculation and a large oversight in contingent planning.

In the Eastern and Southern Fronts, “the Russian army would carry out a double-pronged attack”[1] against Germany in the north and Austro-Hungary in the south.  “Italy would strike…with a view to penetrating deep inside Austria.”[2] The British and French intended to make a combined attack in an area where their forces met along the Western Front, an area which straddled the River Somme.  The majority of British forces had so far been operational along the Yser area.  There was a familiarity to it from long exposure which would be lost in moving south to the Somme.  The British Commander-in-Chief, General Sir Douglas Haig actually favoured designing an offensive at Yser, but was persuaded by the French and his political masters that a combined effort in the same area would be more prudent.  The Somme, as a battlefield “offered an immensely long front of attack on which twenty divisions could assault side by side.”[3] Within this move was the usual difficulty of occupying positions which had once been held by the French.  Transitioning isolated points of resistance, as was the French habit of defensive war, to a proper trench line would necessitate a good deal of labour in the months running up to the battle.

Such a large undertaking as the general offensives of 1916 were to be required a
great deal of preparation.  “The whole first half of 1916 was devoted to building up great masses of armaments, to bringing forward the green new armies that Kitchener had recruited in 1914, lo literally laying the groundwork.”[4]  Haig describes in his despatches the effort placed in building and improving roads and rail lines, dwelling particularly on the ingenuity by which a complex water system was installed to keep the front in good supply.  Some 120 miles of pipe were laid for this alone.  If nothing else, these preparations are a remarkable human achievement.  Never before had had such a percentage of the general population worked towards a common goal.  The organisation and management, both of individual projects and the entire enterprise as a whole is staggering to contemplate.  No less so were the German preparations of their defensive lines.  Knowing that the French and British outnumbered them, they constructed trenches, bunkers and strongpoints with ample use of concrete and steel- “the infrastructure they had put in place was a marvel of engineering.”[5] The Germans had, in “nearly two years’ preparation…spared no pains to render these defenses impregnable.”[6]

In the immense amount of work required to prepare for a general offensive, Haig notes “Much of this preparatory work had to be done under very trying conditions….in addition to fighting and…maintaining existing defences.”[7] To say nothing, perhaps, as to how all this would interfere with training an army which was little better than amateur.  For Haig, “a very large proportion of the officers and men under my command were still far from being fully trained, and the longer the attack could be deferred the more efficient they would become.”[8]  Nearly two thirds of the 143 battalions were of the “New Army,” war raised volunteers with no prior military experience and at this point without any exposure to battle.  “At least three divisions (the 30th, 32nd and 34th) which were to attack…came to the Western Front in a state of training which must be described as quite deficient.”[9] All told, there were 18 divisions on the Somme, 12 of which made up Fourth Army, commanded by General Sir Henry Rawlinson.  One of those divisions was a recent arrival on the Western Front, but as they had come by way of the Gallipoli campaign, had a great deal of practical exposure.

 This was the 29th Division, containing a good combination of Regular Army and Territorial battalions.  Even with the 29th being a rather experienced division that experience in the Dardanelles had caused a serious deficiency in trained junior officers.  “The loss at the Dardanelles of 1,100 officers resulted in the cadres being filled by officers of no previous war experience.”[10] It is reasonable to extrapolate that the same must have been true among all other veteran divisions.  Planning, in light of the inexperience of those taking the field was “of stark simplicity for the infantry.”[11]  In consideration of the situation at large, particularly the ability of the French and Italians to hold out against a focused Central Powers offensive, Haig makes it plain that the British attack “be launched whenever the general situation required it with as great a force as I might then be able to make available.”[12] As this proposed start was contingent on things happening elsewhere and beyond British influence, Haig’s promise could well mean he be called into action sooner or with less resources than would be ideal.

It is this deficiency of experience which is often given as reasoning to the lack of success of the battle, particularly reflecting the first day.  Commonly, it is viewed as the naïve being pushed into a situation for which they were not prepared by uncaring and inconsiderate commanders.  It should be kept in mind that not only were many of the soldiers of the British Army in 1916 new and untried, or like the 29th, experienced but at a cost, but so were the heads of this army.  Haig had succeeded Sir John French as Commander-in-Chief in December of 1915.  Haig was elevated to a level of command over more troops than any British officer before him.  At the same time, General Sir William Robertson had ascended to the role of Chief of the Imperial general Staff.  Though of great experience gained from a long career which he began as an ordinary private, Robertson also was assuming a role with the same largess as Haig.  If review of the past chooses to regard the inexperience of those on the front lines as mitigation of the results, the same process must be applied to their leadership.

The lack of combat readiness on the part of the infantry would be, it was hoped,
made up for by an overwhelming artillery fire plan.  “At the Somme, the British had about forty thousand men working for about a week to fire thirty thousand tons of shells into the German lines, into an area thirty thousand yards wide and about one thousand yards deep….Every thousand square yards…got an average of thirty shells fired into it, for a total of around two million shells.”[13] This was not without its difficulties either.  Limitations of effective range meant that the concentration of fire would be placed on the German front line, leaving the secondary support lines nearly untouched.  “The British infantry were, therefore, being asked to commit themselves to an offensive of which the outcome, even if completely successful, would leave the Germans still largely in possession of a second and completely independent system of fortification untouched by the attack.”[14] What this does indicate is that while breakthrough may have been the intent of the battle, it certainly wasn’t the hoped for outcome of the first phase of the battle.  The prospect of German defense in depth remaining a factor was allayed in the belief that the artillery could destroy the first line prior to the infantry assault.  The infantry would move forward to occupy these decimated positions; with little expected resistance, and hold them while preparations were made to duplicate these results on the second line.  In the event, “the extent of artillery damage turned out to be astonishingly limited.”[15] An estimated third of all the shells fired in the preparatory bombardment were faulty, and there were far more shrapnel shells available than high explosive.  Shrapnel shells are particularly anti-personnel in nature and are not suited to the task of eliminating wire obstacles or reducing entrenchments.  There just wasn’t enough high explosive shells such a task would require.  Of those high explosive shells that were used, many were not powerful enough to penetrate the deep defenses and bunkers where the Germans were sheltering.

Often cited are the various assurances on the ease of the coming attack due to the ferocity of the bombardment.  “Brigadier General Gordon of the 8th Infantry Brigade…told his men that they could ‘slope arms, light up your pipes and cigarettes and march all the way to Pozières before meeting any live Germans.”[16]  The modern observer might tend to view this as evidence of bungling and ignorance amongst the highest levels of command.  It might not be as clear as that.  Quite simply it was understood that “no bombardment, however heavy, could eliminate every last defender concealed over a large area.”[17]  As many of the men who were to make the attack were new to war, the notion that the assault would be a walk-over may have been used as a placatory measure to lessen “stage fright.”  As the idea is obviously over-optimistic and should it have occurred, unprecedented, it is unlikely that any veteran units if told these things would have put any stock in it.


What was being faced, then, is the prospect of a battle to be fought by undertrained soldiers led by untried commanders after a lengthy but ineffectual artillery preparation. Asking what could be expected of men in such conditions might practically provide an answer to whether the Battle of the Somme was intended to be a war-winning breakthrough or a lengthy attritional battle.

The answer is that it was never entirely one or the other.


[1] Gilbert, Martin, “The Battle of the Somme”, McClelland & Stewart 2006 pg. 11
[2] Gilbert, Martin, ibid.
[3] Keegan, John, “The Face of Battle”, The Viking Press, 1976 pg. 206
[4] Meyer, GJ, “A World Undone: The Story of the Great War 1914-1919”, Delta Books, 2006 pg. 435
[5] Meyer, GJ, ibid. pg. 439
[6] Boraston, JH (ed.) “Sir Douglas Haig’s Despatches (December 1915-April 1919)”, JM Dent & Sons, 1919 pg. 22
[7] Boraston, JH (ed.), ibid. pg. 21
[8] Boraston, JH (ed.), ibid. pg. 19
[9] Keegan, John, ibid. pg. 222
[10] Gillian, Stair, “The Story of the 29th Division: A Record of Gallant Deeds”, Thomas Nelson and Sons, Ltd., 1925 pg. 78
[11] Keegan, John, ibid. pg. 225
[12] Boraston, JH (ed.), ibid. pg. 20
[13] Stroud, Carsten, “Iron Bravo: Hearts, Minds and Sergeants in the US Army”, Bantam Books, 1995 pg. 144
[14] Keegan, John, ibid. pg. 215
[15] Meyer, GJ, ibid. pg. 444
[16] Holmes, Richard, “Britain at War”, Hylas Publishing, 2004 pg. 276
[17] Philpott, William, “Bloody Victory: The Sacrifice on the Somme”, Abacus, 2009 pg. 149

Friday, 19 June 2015

Adapt Improvise and Overcome

By 1918, for the infantry, things had changed.  The preceding years of costly
battles for marginal gains had pushed new ideas and new weapons to the front lines.  Officers who had seen the worst of the fighting were able to give input on what might be required.  Mainly, a typical infantry company as it was in 1914/15 did not have sufficient firepower to “wind the firefight”, the initiation of fire and movement-the core of infantry battle tactics.  Lacking this ability made it extremely difficult to get within closing distance.

Much more intricate planning was to be put into offensive operations.  As we have seen in Part II, even a small scale operation of a trench raid was heavily planned.  Lt Col Odlum’s Operations Order for the Petite Douve Raid runs five pages in length giving exacting detail on each man’s role in the operation.  The artillery had learned a great deal in the interceding years as well; but more importantly, there was much better coordination and cooperation between arms.  While still not reliably able to fire to order, artillery units could range, locate and destroy enemy batteries, supress particular areas with gas, and walk a wall of fire and iron just ahead of the advance.  Mobility though, was still a setback.

The Germans had also incorporated doctrinal shifts, and this in itself would need to be addressed.  In the spring of 1918, the Germans had launched a last-ditch general offensive in the west.  Supplemented by troops lately moved from the east after Russia’s capitulation and begun before the Americans could take to the field in force, the “Kaiser’s Battle” had stretched, but not broken the Allied lines.  Materially exhausted, by summer, the Germans retained a defensive stance where they had penetrated; prepared to fall back on the well-constructed Hindenburg Line of concrete machine gun bunkers, jungles of barbed wire and anti-tank ditches.

As formidable as it was, the Hindenburg Line amounted to not much more than a shock absorber.  By design, the forward defenses would slow down and break up the momentum of any attack into fractured and isolated units.  These then could be easily overwhelmed by local reserves, beyond the reach of supportive Allied artillery, but well within the range of their own guns.  Overall, the Hindenburg Line “proved far too formidable for the humble term trench warfare to remain appropriate….This was defensive warfare raised to a new plane.  It appeared invulnerable.”[1] Allied planners were compelled by what they faced to develop strategy to compete.  If an attack devolved into a collection of isolated skirmishes, attention had to be given to tactical awareness and leadership at the lowest levels of organisation.  Maps were more widely issued, scale models of objectives called “sand tables” were built with painstaking accuracy for troops to study when out of the lines.  More attention was paid to training overall, the development of the Labour Corps in 1917 relieved the infantry of most of the chores they had to undertake while not in trenches which had been done in lieu of training.

The Allied counter-offensive, begun in August, was aimed at re-taking lost strategic ground, break the Hindenburg Line and put the Germans to the chase in the open ground beyond.  That it was successful is why this campaign became known as the “Hundred Days”; as it was still driving the enemy back by November.  Strategy from the top down dictated the time-table more so than reverses in the field.  Each objective would be a miniature battle of its own, with not only large headquarters, at Corps level, but companies, platoons and even sections having been briefed on their role-and crucially, the role of higher formations.

Infantry platoons had become better armed.  Introduction of effective hand grenades and especially the Lewis light machine gun gave a comparative level of firepower against well-defended positions. The tactics developed around these weapons- more a modification of existing notions than anything entirely new had been proven successful; at least in a limited way, in the offensives of 1917.  What is noteworthy is that despite these adjustments and improvements, the 1909 Field Service Regulations-the infantry’s instruction manual- was still not only being used as the definitive resource, but was still very much relevant.  In fact, much of this century old manual would be understood on a practical level by a modern day infantryman.  This draws the conclusion that while situations and technology may change- and had best be adapted to- the role of the infantry is immutable.

Perhaps it would be best to examine the effectiveness of these changes by making a comparative study of two actions with similar objectives- one from early in the war and the other closer to the end.  In the first part of this series, “To Close With and Destroy the Enemy”, the hasty counter-attack of the 10th and 16th Battalions at Kitchener’s Wood in April of 1915 was looked at.

Despite the Canadians at Kitchener’s Wood making their objective, the oversights and inexperience of these men made this attack more costly than perhaps it needed to be.  When the bombastic Lt Col Boyle, CO of the 10th Battalion was mortally wounded, there was the loss of one of the few men who knew the battle plan, and the remaining officers and men failed to consolidate the ground they had taken.  This made it all the easier for the Germans to force them back in a counter attack of their own.  Strict adherence to orders trumped initiative, leaving German troops in possession of Oblong Farm, where they were able to effectively fire upon the Canadians’ flank.  Again, gaining one’s objectives cannot alone be the benchmark of a successful attack- as the ultimate proof of success is to be able to hold the ground taken from the enemy.

Kitchener’s Wood and Bourlon Wood were both dense copses requiring clearing
to protect vulnerable flanks, but any other similarities were incidental.  Bourlon Wood sheltered well prepared and solidly built defenses designed to prevent the Allies from approaching Cambrai from the south-west.  Months had gone into its construction, as opposed to the few hours of preparation at Kitchener’s Wood.  The approach to Bourlon Wood was a much greater distance than at Kitchener’s Wood, with quite a lot in the way to getting there.  Not the least of these was the dominating leading edge of the Hindenburg Line.  But before they could even get in the fight, the Canadians would have to cross the Canal Du Nord.

This was an artificial commercial waterway of grand proportions, in which “a frontal assault offered little but the prospect of disaster.  The canal itself was nearly 100 meters wide, and on each side a further 400 meters was flooded swampland….the ground for several thousand meters on both banks was completely open and dominated by strong German positions on the heights on the far side.”[2]  Fortunately, the war had interrupted the canal’s construction, and a 4km length had been dug but remained unflooded.  This would give the Canadians ample protection to begin their advance, but it meant that leading units would have to maneuver obliquely after crossing to press the initial objectives. 

The operation had been conceived with an eye to a new tactical development known as “Bite and Hold”.  Initial objectives-in this case the securing of a bridgehead across the canal- would be the responsibility of units in the van.  Subsequent objectives, including Bourlon Wood were to be taken by fresh battalions moving through positions consolidated by preceding outfits. A major factor in the Canadians’ favour had much to do with improved co-ordination between the infantry, artillery and engineers.  “The key to the Corps’ victory was its barrage, but the depth of the planned advance meant that most of the final objectives were out of reach of the guns.”[3] Infantry outpacing its own artillery had been a constant difficulty throughout the war, and a major factor in the ability to “win the firefight.”  A greater reliance was needed on all elements of the army working together.  Infantry would be unable to continue its advance without supporting artillery, which in turn was reliant upon combat engineers to help move their heavy, horse-drawn guns and limbers across the canal and the rough battlefield beyond.

Canadian sappers did quick work- “With one bridge completed, the first guns were across the canal at 8:40 am,” this after  a 0520 H-hour, followed by “(f)our more pre-fabricated bridges were in place within four hours, with three larger bridges available for bigger guns by 6 pm.”[4]

According to Professor Tim Cook, “the battle hinged on the capture of Bourlon Wood….The heights of the wood towered over the battlefield.”[5] German defences were well dug in and fortified, the woods offering natural concealment.  Canadian Artillery had blanketed Bourlon Wood with gas shells.  At this point in the war, the use of gas was fairly ubiquitous, but precautions in defense against chemical weapons meant that casualties from its effects were marginal.  Its main purpose was to prevent reinforcement from beyond the wood, and force those defending within to operate in physically limiting gas masks.  Gas was also employed with the design to cull draft horses upon which the artillery was reliant.  Overall, the preparation for the assault by use of gas held the Germans where they were; making it that much easier for the infantry to locate and close in on their positions.

One of the battalions assigned to take Bourlon Wood, the 102nd, exemplifies the confidence, comprehension and instigation of the developments undertaken since 1915.  Very early in their part of the battle, some seven hours from the 0520 start at the canal, a lucky hit from German artillery effectively decapitated the battalion.  The war Diary reports “HQ (E.17.c.8.5) were struck by a shell about noon, killing Lieut. SG Moore, the Signalling Officer and 3 Runners from other units and seriously wounding Lieut-Col F Lister, DSO MC and Capt SH Okell, MC, the adjutant.

“Lieut CH Packman filled the breach temporarily and notified the GOC (General Officer Commanding) who promptly appointed Lieut Col Thompson, DSO…to take command of the 102 Battalion as well as the 75th Battalion.”[6] Junior officers, of companies and platoons well forward of Battalion HQ probably weren’t aware of this potential disaster.  Each knew what his sub-units’ task was and pursued these objectives regardless of developments elsewhere.

Fighting in a wooded area is particularly tough.  Dense woods reduce visibility and make it easy for units to become separated and lost.  Preparation beforehand-by use of maps and models- ameliorated this; confident leadership making up for any deficiencies.  Lieutenant Graham Lyall, in his part of the attack provides an outstanding example of this.  He first led his platoon on a flanking move against an enemy strongpoint that was holding against the lead attacking company.  Lyall and his men overwhelmed the Germans, taking 13 prisoners, a field gun and four machine guns, and allowing the advance to continue.  “Later, his platoon, now much reduced by casualties, was held up by machine guns at the southern end of Bourlon Wood….(Lyall) rushed the position single handed and
killed the officer in charge.”[7] Here he took an additional 45 prisoners and another 5 machine guns.  Gathering his remaining men, Lyall pushed onto his final objective, taking it and yet another 47 prisoners.  “(H)e consolidated his position and thus protected the remainder of the company.”[8]

At a cost to the battalion of 6 officers, 44 other ranks killed, 8 officers and 151 other ranks wounded, the woods were cleared by the time third Brigade was prepared to pass through on the next phase of attack.  “The success was great and in addition to the strategically important ground taken, we captured 257 prisoners, 15 guns and 18 machine guns and inflicted heavy casualties.”[9]
In one day, the Canadian Corps had advanced almost half-way to the final objective of Cambrai.  Hasty German reinforcements moved to defend the town would make the next phase of the operation much more difficult than the startling success of 27 September.  However, employing skills, weapons, tactics and leadership not present in the early stages of the war are what can account for the opening phase being as well executed as it was.

Lt Lyall was placed in command of his company and would continue to lead from the front; taking yet more prisoners and guns the following day.  For his part in the battle over the 27th-28th September, he was awarded the Victoria Cross.  Lyall would die of a heart attack in Egypt in 1942, while serving as a Lt Colonel in the Royal Army Ordinance Corps.




[1] Meyer, G.J., "A World Undone"  Delta Books 2007 pg 495
[2] Marteinson, John, “We Stand on Guard, An Illustrated History of the Canadian Army”, Ovale Publications, 1992 pg 200
[3] Cook, Tim, “Shock Troops, Canadians Fighting the Great War 1917-1918”, Penguin Canada, 2008, pg 512
[4] Cook, Tim, ibid. pg 517
[5] Cook, Tim, ibid. pg 521
[6] 102nd Battalion CEF War Diary, Appendix “H”: “Narrative of Operations from 27 September to 2 October 1918” courtesy Library and Archives Canada
[7] Supplement to the London Gazette, 14 December 1918, pg 14775
[8] London Gazette, ibid.
[9] 102nd Battalion CEF War Diary, Appendix “H”