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, 3 April 2017

Instructions for the Offensive

“The front of attack on the Arras side
was to include the Vimy Ridge, possession
of which I considered necessary to secure the
 left flank.”-Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig

Well before dawn on 29 March 1917, two small raids put out by the 3rd Canadian Infantry Brigade made the final rush to their entry points in the German front line.  Their task was straightforward, to “obtain identification…kill Germans and lower the enemy’s moral.”[1]  What they found was the wire mostly cut by prior artillery fire, and loose, tangled bales of concertina thrown almost absently over the parapet as an expedient fix.  Trenches were deep and dry, but incompletely constructed- in some cases very poorly so.  Morale, for the most part, seemed absent.  The Germans “appeared to lack organisation and control.  There was no attempt made to counter-attack from the support line.”[2]  All of this was very reassuring, considering what was not long in the offing.

The time had come for the men of the Canadian Corps to screw their courage to the sticking place.  In this case, the metaphor holds truth- as Lady Macbeth intended it to mean that after all the careful preparation to ensure their plotting would succeed, only a lack of courage to see it through could cause it to fail. 

Vimy was “a low mountain ridge which the Germans had made, as they had supposed, impregnable by its heavy defences.”[3]  Its imposing stature and situation directly opposite the lines now occupied by the four divisions of the Canadian Corps left little doubt that taking this dominant feature would fall to them.  Until late March 1917, this task, if given any thought by the rank and file, could only be imagined in the abstract.  That comfort was due to be dispersed.  The thing was set.  The final acts of preparation were playing out; orders had been issued.

“The Canadian Corps has been ordered to take the Vimy Ridge in conjunction with a larger operation by the Third Army.”[4]

This in itself was a component of the largest coordinated effort on the Western Front thus far.  “In the spring,” Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig would write about his plans for 1917, “as soon as the Allied Armies were ready to commence operations, my first efforts were to be directed against the enemy’s troops occupying the salient between the Scarpe and the Ancre.”[5]

At the very periphery of this operational area, along the south bank of the Scarpe River, Vimy Ridge held a dominant vantage, allowing the Germans remarkable observation along Haig’s proposed axis of advance.  Capturing the Ridge as one of the primary objectives in the opening of the spring campaign was vital so as to deny this asset to the enemy.  In turn, possessing the Ridge  would confer that advantage to Allied forces; the field of observation in the opposite direction- towards German rear areas- was just as impressive.  Such was the importance of this high ground that Haig believed while it may be possible for German forces elsewhere in the salient to effect a withdrawal in order to consolidate on more defensible ground, there would be no such movement from Vimy.  This well suited the Commander-in-Chief.  The enemy “would almost be certain to fight for this ridge, and, as my object was to deal him a blow which would force him to use up reserves, it was important that he should not evade my attack.”[6]

That being the case, it was critical for those forces assigned to the objective to be prepared for a hard fight.  The four divisions of the Corps had a desirable mix of combat experience and fresh troops.  For months leading up to the offensive, units had been reinforced to full strength, their time spent out of the line dedicated to an intense program of work-up training.  While in the trenches, constant patrols and raids had made a survey of the immediate area, an assessment of the enemy’s capabilities and had leant just that much more to the proficiency of the troops and the officers who would lead them.

While the precise day on which the operation would begin had yet to be revealed at the divisional level, with the instructions now issued, each of the Canadian Divisions had their tasks made clear.

The battleground facing the Corps had been divided into sections “dictated by the German zones of defence, the objectives for each indicated by a coloured line on a map.”[7]  In order, these were the Black, Red, Blue and Brown Lines.  Clear and limited objectives specifically assigned to sub-units was going to be key to success.  “The operation will be carried out in four phases,” orders stated, “the first two phases, which are completed by the capture of the RED Line, being carried out by Brigades in the front line, the second two phases, which are completed by the capture of the BROWN Line being carried out by Brigades in the second line.”[8] 

Attacking units would “leap-frog” through each other.  Lead battalions of the lead brigades would take and hold the first objective, the Black Line which those brigade’s follow-up battalions would pass through to secure the Red Line.  This process would then be repeated in turn with battalions of the second line brigades gaining the Blue and finally the Brown Line.  Support troops carrying wire, ammunition, tools and other supplies along with stretcher bearers were allocated to each successive line- to aid the wounded and consolidate new ground against counter-attack.  “A strict time-table governed each stage of the advance….They were allowed 35 minutes to gain the Black Line.”[9]  With each line reached, a pause was arranged for the infantry to reorganise and for the artillery to shift fire to their next targets.  In a rapid, coordinated thrust, all four lines were to be in Canadian hands and fully consolidated by Zero plus 5 hours.

Ground to be taken would be well primed by an intense artillery schedule.  Much of the poor condition of German trenches observed by the raid of 3rd Bde. On 29 March was credit due to this active preparation.  Corps Artillery was currently firing its “Phase I” programme.  This was a “general increase of activity gradually intensifying as the subsequent period approaches.”[10]  Starting at three weeks before “Zero” and being overtaken six days before that by “Phase II”, the main goals of this initial phase were trench destruction, wire cutting, destruction of enemy artillery positions and harassing fire on “all known approaches and communications.”  Efforts would be confined for this period to targets within the first two objective lines, “to minimize the chances of disclosing intentions.”  In fact, to further obscure the scale of the coming attack, during Phase I no more than half of available artillery would be active.  Guns were being concentrated into a remarkable density with an average of one medium gun for every 15 yards and one heavy piece for every 48 yards of a frontage measuring 6,700 yards. 

Some of these guns were still being brought into position and vast stores of ammunition were being stockpiled in anticipation of the next phase; a dedicated bombardment of unprecedented intensity.

Likewise, soon the troops would begin to move forward to their jumping-off points along the line of departure.  Clearly, it is hardly possible to know what was on their minds, or if many of them were even quite aware of what they were a part, or how history would come to view what they had set out to accomplish.  Time had come, to screw their courage to the sticking place as “along the entire length of the mighty Ridge, Canadian men-at-arms were lying there in the drizzling dark, waiting for the moment when they would make the first concerted attack of the war as a Corps, the four divisions side by side.”[11]

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[1] 3rd Canadian Infantry Brigade “Operations Order No. 138”, War Diary March 1917, Appendix No. 35
[2] 3rd Canadian Infantry Brigade Memorandum to 1st Canadian Division re: “Minor Operation March 29 1917” War Diary, March 1917 App No. 37
[3] Miller, R.F., “A Short Story of the 37th Battalion” Public Address, 1944, pg. 4
[4] 2nd Canadian Division “Instructions for the Offensive” War Diary, March, 1917, Appendix 676
[5] Boraston, JH, Lt Col. (ed.) “Sir Douglas Haig’s Despatches: December 1915-April 1919” JM Dent & Sons, 1919 pg. 81
[6] Boraston, ibid. pg. 82
[7] Nicholson, GWL, Col. “Canadian Expeditionary Force 1914-1919: Official History of the Canadian Army in the First World War” Queen’s Printer 1962, pg. 247
[8] 2nd Canadian Division ibid.
[9] Nicholson, ibid.
[10] Canadian Corps “Artillery Instructions for the Capture of Vimy Ridge” Section 2: “Phase I” Canadian Corps Artillery War Diary March 1917
[11] Beattie, Kim “48th Highlanders of Canada 1891-1928”, Toronto, 1932 pg. 217

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