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, 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”

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