Greenhill books have published a revised edition of Durnford Slater’s 1953 memoir Commando: Memoirs of a Fighting Commando in World War Two. This edition includes a new foreword by Neil Barber.
In June 1940 Captain John Durnford Slater RA was adjutant of a training regiment. His CO wrote such a supportive letter that Durnford Slater was appointed commanding officer of the first Army Commando to be formed – No 3 Commando. His memoir covers the formation, training and actions of No 3 Commando, from Guernsey in 1940 through the Lofoten Islands, Vaagso, Dieppe and Sicily, and of his commando brigade in Italy. He tells his story of his own experiences as a D Day planner and deputy commander of the divisional sized commando force in North West Europe.
Commando is the first-hand account by one of the men who created the commando concept and led them in battle. Commandos have copied by armies and navies world-wide as commandos or rangers, the US knock off. It is also a study in leadership and command by a great fighting commander. It also includes delightful elements of what can be described as unofficial history – those stories that get left out of more guardedly written works, because of the reputational risk. Durford Slater’s men played hard and there are some escapades that would hit the front pages of the tabloids . Durnford Slater’s willingness to share these tales with his readers may also account for why he retired as a substantive major.
Appointed on 28th June 1940 Durnford Slater was given a fortnight to recruit and form No 3 Commando. After pillaging Southern Command for officers, these were sent to recruit volunteers for their own troops. By 5th July his unit was in existence with thirty-five officers and five hundred men. Their first operation took place ten days later. He and his officers seem to have been left alone to develop raiding techniques and a training regime that has been copied world-wide. It is hard to see how a comparable capability could be developed without a multi-million consultancy engagement. In 1940 a buckshee captain went off with the authority of the Deputy CIGS. The British Army seems have been ambivalent about Commandos, allowing the Royal Marines to own the concept. Durnford Slater’s work provides some explanations about why they may have been resented.
This work has much to offer anyone studying leadership and command. Durnford Slater sought intelligence, initiative and a sense of humour in his officers, perhaps recognising that sense of humour is the seventh core value of the Army. Every officer joined his unit as a subaltern, and every soldier as a private. He turned down Simon Fraser, Lord Lovat who would not relinquish his captain’s rank. His approach to paperwork and discipline will strike a chord with many readers.
One glorious aspect of the memoir are the tales from the margins of military history, The punch-ups with Irish navvies and Royal Marines, the plot to blow up the German embassy in Dublin, booze ups in enemy territory, and the staged visits for VIPs to patrol no man’s land in Normandy against a controlled enemy. It turns over a corner of the rug under which much history is swept.
I can’t remember reading Commando before. Its one I wish I had read much earlier.
The book has 211 pages, and thirty-six black and white photographs. There are seven clear sketch maps to illustrate Commando operations.
The 2020 edition has a RRP of £13.99, though you will not need to pay that to obtain it online, and the 1953 edition can be obtained for around £3.00
The battle of Le Quesnoy on 4th November 1918 was the last battle fought by the New Zealand expeditionary force. It is commemorated in New Zealand and France as a successful operation in which the New Zealanders advanced ten miles, captured 2,000 prisoners and 60 field guns and liberated the fortified town of Le Quesnoy (pronounced Ken-Wah by its residents). In a dramatic climax to the operation New Zealander soldiers stormed the ancient ramparts with scaling ladders.
British media coverage of the lead up to the centenary of the Armistice of November 1918 is dominated by stories of the sadness of soldiers who died shortly before the end of the War. Yet this misses a key point. Had these soldiers not fought with determination to the end, the war might not have ended when it did. Until July 1918 most people on the allied side thought the war would continue until at least 1919. After the battles of July and August an increasing number of soldiers, from Foch and Haig down, thought victory might be possible in 1918. The efforts of the New Zealanders at Le Quesnoy deserves commemoration as much as the death of, say, Wilfred Owen, and other soldiers who fought on.
New Zealand military historian, and sometime Christopher Pugsley had written a new book about this action. Le Quesnoy, New Zealand’s Last Battle 1918, Oratia ISBN: 978-0-947506-49-0 As might be expected of an ex infantry officer and Sandhurst Lecturer, it is very well written account of this important engagement. It is impeccably sourced from the New Zealand perspective, reconciling inconsistencies in the official accounts and flavoured with personal stories from veterans. The book includes a chapter on the organisation and character of the New Zealand Division. It is well illustrated with clear maps and diagrams.
Last Friday the OP visited a remarkable show at the Lion and Unicorn Theatre in Gaisford Street London NW5. It was a one man show by Jonathan Douglas, MBE a veteran actor and radio journalist, best known as a radio host in Hong Kong. This was a series of monologues exploring the last 24 hours of life of Lieutenant Colonel Wilfreth Elstob VC, DSO MC who died, aged 29, in the heroic defence of Manchester Hill on 21st March 1918. It was great to see a play written about a real soldier from the First World War who wasn’t a war poet. Elstob himself was an interesting man, whose character, motivation and deeds offers a different view of the men who fought and died in the Great War.
Why Elstob? The 16th Manchesters were one of dozens of battalions that faced the onslaught of the German kaiserschlacht, the action for which “Journey’s End” is a theatrical prologue. Elstob was one of ten men awarded the Victoria Cross for actions on the 21st March, and one of some four hundred and fifty recipients of that award on the western Front.
‘Wilfreth Elstob joined the Manchester Regiment as a private soldier in 1914; ‘a burly former schoolmaster.’ He was quickly commission into the 16th battalion (1st City Pals) and a captain and acting company commander on their successful assault on the first day of the Somme. 1st of July when the battalion stormed the German lines at Montauban. In October 1916 he took comm and of the battalion. He commanded his battalion through the 1917 battles at Arras and Passcendaele, and temporarily a whole brigade Elstob was a gallant popular, efficient and effective commander. His comrades cared enough about his posthumous reputation to collect the information and lobby for him to be awarded the Victoria Cross after the war ended.
Richard Holmes singled out the action on Manchester Hill as the focus for the Kaiserschlacht part of the 1918 episode of ‘The Western Front.’ Holmes used a couple of quotes from Elstob. As the band turning back to camp after the battalion marched to Manchester Hill Elstob remarked. “Those are the only men who will get out of this alive”; About the quarry. “Here is battalion HQ: Here we fight and here we die.” Was this a fatalistic reflection of the mood of the time? Were these sentences evidence that Elstob was close to cracking? After all, either of these phrases deserve a listing in the Army Rumour SErvice’s list of “Phrases you would rather not hear”
Its a brave attempt to get inside the mind of a hero and charismativc leader. Jonathan Douglas’ interpretation of Elstob’s mind is thought provoking. Douglas had done a good job of researching the details of his subject’s service. References to places such as Montauban and Trones Wood reflect diligent research, beyond the expectations of typical Camden Fringe goers. The dialogue reflects the known comments about Elstob’s character.
Sure, Douglas is not Au fait with the details of military life. It was “stand to” rather than “reveille” in the trenches themselves and a singing competition is more plausible in camp than in the quarry. However, the result is a characterization of a complex character, a far cry from the caricature often portrayed. This is more ambitious than another version of RC Sherrif’s Stanhope.
Douglas had gone well beyond the call of duty and made a reconnaissance of the quarry on Manchester Hill. He bypassed the metal gates to break in across the barbed wire and worked his way through the tangled undergrowth to take a picture of the site where Elstob and his comrades may still lie.
I could not find a review or a website, but if anyone wants to contact Jonathan Douglas, the OP has contact details.
There is a small interpretation centre at the entrance to the German cemetery at Langemarck. One of the slides shows Langemarck church as a heap of rubble – with an doorway suggesting at some dug out complex in in the crypt. It’s a striking image to compare with the rebuilt church.
Sure, anything in the “strip of murdered nature” that was the battlefields of the Western Front was going to end up as rubble. But there are RGA War Diaries that record their target as “Langemarck Church” not a strong point in the church, or the village but the church itself. It was repeatedly targeted along with targets such as “trenches u.16.d.76.23- u 16 d.54.14 and “wire u 16 a.52,05 – u16 a.15.16” So why was the church such a popular target?
A week or so ago I was carrying out some research for a guided family history tour to the battlefields of where their relative Bombardier Griffiths had served in 324 Heavy battery RGA. The battery’s war diaries were available, but the diary for March 1918, the month he died , was missing. Furthermore, there was evidence that suggested that Bombardier Griffiths did not join 324 battery until january 1918.
However, the diaries were very legible and full, recording the details of each shoot, including rounds fired and the target.
324 Heavy Battery was formed from 1916 conscripts and deployed to France in May 1917 equipped with four 6″ 26 cwt Howitzers. After a few weeks on the quiet sector of Bois Grenier the battery moved to Woesten, north of Ieper on 14th July 1917. From there it took part in the preliminary bombardment for the 31 St July , then stepping forwards to Elverdinge. The first day of 3rd Ypres 31st July, was successful on Pilckem Ridge, with the British line moving forward roughly along the Steenbeek south west of Langemarck.
A first world war artillery piece aimed at a target some 6km away was probably going to miss with its first round, even if the target had been plotted on a surveyed trench map. The position of the guns and the direction in which they are recorded as pointing may not be particularly accurate. Changes in the wind speed and direction will change the trajectory. An observer with communications to the guns could adjust the fire of the guns until the rounds from the guns were landing in the target area. Of course, by this the enemy will have worked out what was going to happen next and take cover.
A further problem was that the guns in a battery would not all have the same characteristics. Guns may be manufactured to different standards and might have different wear in the barrel. The WD entry for 5th August records that between 2pm and 2.30 pm 324 battery fired 30 rounds unobserved at Langemarck Church as ordered in Operation Order No 23. After this, someone,at Periscope House, probably Major William Orpen Sikottowe Sanders, the battery commander decided to calibrate the guns using the church. Firing ten rounds and watching one hit the church with others plus and minus, the unit could apply a correction for each gun. (Though ten rounds might be few to base a statistically reliable.
It wasn’t always possible to see targets clearly. Pilckem ridge isn’t much higher than the surrounding ground and it would have been quite difficult to pick out specific targets from the ground. Furthermore, the landscape was devastated, with buildings and trees leveled and landmarks obliterated.
One technique which could help is to use a “Witness Point” This was a point some distance from a target, but accurately located in relation to it, which could be ranged without losing surprise against the target and the correction applied to data for the target. If the correction to hit the church was “left a bit and add a bit”, the same correction could ensure that targets in the same area picked off a map could be hit first time.
The entry for 7th August shows that between 3.30 and 6.30pm 324 battery fired a total of 24rounds at Langemarck Church as a Witness Point. Their next shoot 7.30pm to 8.30 an unobserved concentration on trenches straddling the Langemarck-Poelcapelle road was unobserved, but could be expected to be reasonably accurate, as might the shoot at 9pm. a response to a call for the SOS.
The targets on the 8th August were east and west of the German positions which ran through the north end of the German Cemetery at Langemarck, as evidenced by the three bunkers.
The search for the part an individual soldier played turns up some surprising detail about how the battle was fought and the reason why Langemarck Church was shelled. It also explain the rationale that supports the old military axiom to never deploy at an obvious terrain feature. Landmarks are shelled because they are landmarks .
I cannot recommend too highly John Kiszely’s book: Anatomy of a Campaign: The British Fiasco in Norway, 1940. This is a great book that anyone interested in modern strategy and military affairs will find interesting. It also casts a contrasting light on the popular view of 1940 influenced by films about Dunkirk and Churchll.
On Tuesday, at RUSI, he received the Duke of Wellington Award for the best military history work of the year. This is a military history, but with a specific purpose. The work was inspired by his time at the Higher Command and Staff College for a study of a campaign as a whole, and that the Norway Campaign which ended in a defeat might offer more lessons than a success. In his book he dissects the campaign from policy decisions in cabinet through to the events on the ground and on the waves.
It should be a valuable case study for anyone with an interest in business or political strategy. While written for the general reader, John Kiszely explores causality and the interplay between the personalities and institutional cultures of the organisations that took part.
For anyone with an interest in the events of 1940, it adds sharp critical insight to the state of Britain’s armed forces and leadership. This pulls no patriotic punches. The frank admission that companies of Guardsmen ran away must have been painful to document. The book is an essential sobering complement to the sometimes public smugness about 1940 Dunkirk and Churchill.
It is a cautionary tale about military intervention and compulsory reading for anyone advocating that something must be done about some international crisis. It is well written without labouring points or underlining obvious lessons, there is much that is familiar from recent history. A divided cabinet. Public opinion demanding action. Institutions barely fit for purpose. It is also an object lesson about the longer view. The OP asked how much damage did the occupation of Norway do in the long term to the allied cause. The answer was probably very little: indeed, the German naval losses may have saved Britain from the Germans attempting an invasion the same year.
Its published by Cambridge University Press £28.00
The main focus for commemoration in 2018 will be the centenary of the Armistice on 11th November. If you take your history from Blackadder, Sebastian Faulks, or even the Royal British Legion or Commonwealth War Graves Commission, you might be forgiven for thinking that Passchendale was the climax of the First World War and that the fighting ended in the vicinity of the same lines of trenches fought over since the end of 1914.
What do the official commemorative websites say happened in 1918?
As of 2 February 2018, the Commonwealth War Grave Commission lacks any pages for 1918 in the Western Front campaign pages, which end at Cambrai. Nor does the British Government First World War Commemoration website make any reference to any events of 1918 before the Armistice. The Royal British Legion seems to have lost interest in the Centenary too. It’s focus for the year is to celebrate the 90th anniversary of its own Great Pilgrimage in Ieper, a location peripheral to the events of 1918. It offers a “100 days” option, alongside one to visit the battlefields of 1914-17, suggesting Loos and Mons as destinations. It looks self indulgent, if not neglectful for the Royal British Legion, as custodians of national Remembrance to organise an event celebrating 90 years of battlefield pilgrimages at a peripheral location that competes with the commemoration of the anniversary of the battle of Amiens.
If you want to see the impact of official amnesia of 1918, read the coverage of centenary events in the media. The printed The Times report of the centenary of the sinking of the SS Tuscania on 5th February, in with the loss of over 200 American servicemen merely as “shortly before the end of the First World War.” This misses the point that the Americans men were on their way to fight the decisive battle. T he Daily Mail use the same language in their coverage of the airmen who wore slippers to face von Richthofen. The implication is that the war of 1918 is more of the same old trenches until November, and ignores entirely the intense air war that would kill von Richtofen and many of the other leading aces in the meantime.
1918 – the year that Challenges Preconceptions
But this overlooks the dramatic events of 1918 itself. These do not sit comfortably with the popular stereotype of the Western Front. And that is one reason why the events of that year and the actions of those who fought deserves special recognition
1918 wasn’t about waves of Tommies going over the top in a vain attempt to break through lines of trenches. Instead, the battles of 1918 started with the Germans on the attack. Nor was it a tale of mud, blood, barbed wire and trench foot. Much of the fighting took place in open country and some distance from the battle fields of Passchendaele and Loos. The year contained some of the lowest points in British military history – and some of the highest.
It’s a pity that the events of 1918 have not attracted more support from the institutions that have led the commemorations of the First World War. It is shameful for their events to be bundled together as merely the overture to the centenary of the Armistice.
1. The German Spring offensives were among the biggest and bloodiest battles in history
The Russian revolution and armistice ended Germans’s Eastern Front. For the first half of 1918, until the Americans arrived in force, the Germans would have superior numbers on the Western Front. Between March and May 1918 they stuck the British and then the French with a series of hammer blows. A combination of infiltration tactics, clever use of artillery and broke the stalemate of the trenches. These battles were the most intensely fought and bloodiest of the Western Front, if not in history. The casualties were very high.
Between 21st March and 5th April the British Army lost 160,000 casualties, an average of over 10,000 casualties a day, compared to some 2,700 casualties per day for the Somme and Passchendaele. The opening day, 21st March 1918, was the second worst day in British military history, costing 35,000 casualties.
Between 9th -30th April the next German attacks, in Flanders cost the British a further 80,000 casualties. Again, a higher rate of casualties than endured by the British Army in the offensives between 1915-1917. In May , a further attack on British Troops sent to a “quiet sector” cost the British a further 27,000 casualties in nine days. Between 21st March and 6th June the British lost some 260,000 casualties, higher losses than in Flanders in 1917. Between March and July 1918 the German Army lost nearly 1,000,000 casualties. This is a story worth as much dedicated attention as Passchendaele, Loos and Cambrai
2. The July and August battles on the Marne and the Somme were the turning point of the first World War
Between 15 July and 7th August six French armies, with American, British and Italian Army Corps, halted and turned back the last great German offensive. This was followed by the British led offensive at Amiens on 8th August – the black day of the German army.
From this time the Germans were on the back foot and under continuous pressure from the allies. The last 100 days of the war cost the British 360,000 casualties. About one quarter of the strength of the BEF. Only the 1916 battle of the Somme cost more.
3 The feats of arms of the British Forces of 1918 were one of the high points in British Military history
It isn’t fashionable to praise the First World War as an allied victory; or to admire its generals. But there is much merit in the performance of British and commonwealth armed forces on the Western Front in 1918.
The retreat from Mons by the BEF in 1914 is famous, but the fighting retreats of March and April 1918 were fought by an amateur citizen army which fought a series of continuous engagements instead of two battles and a series of skirmishes. According to the Official History the retreats of 1918 were a greater achievement.
Turning defeat into victory is a remarkable achievement. The BEF of 1918 lost twice as many casualties as the BEF in 1940, but then turned around and beat the Germans. The experience was unique and unlike the trench warfare that preceded it.
The British army of 1918 won the war. In the last 100 days it took almost as many prisoners as other allied armies put together. Its tactics were closer to 1940 than 1914. Its leaders, castigated as “butchers and bunglers” turned out to be good effective experienced commanders. The leadership and tactics in 1918 are hard to fault. At the end of the First World War the Britain’s Armed Forces were at a peak. They had mastered modern mechanised warfare. The Royal Air Force was the worlds largest, and only independent, air force, and had mastered most of the elements of air power. These were remarkable achievements for a citizen army.
4. The experience of 1918 was unique and deserves the same recognition extended to the Somme and Paschendaele.
There are qualitative differences in the solders’ experience, and in how we perceive them and the losses they suffered. The battles of 1916 were fought by citizen armies largely new to the fray and with a sense that they would deliver the big push that would end the war. There was a false dawn in 1917 with Vimy Ridge and Arras, but by Passchendaele the British and commonwealth armies had lost their sense of optimism. Their losses in retrospect have been seen as an almost biblical sacrifice. “what passing bell tolls for those who die like cattle?” -” I died in Hell men called it “Passchendaele.” The late Bob Bushaway wrote a perceptive paper on this elevation of the war dead from the casualties of war to sacrifices for mankind. Passchedaele epitomes loss and futility that is perhaps the mostly widely popular narrative of the First World War. That the war continued for another decisive year is an inconvenience for this interpretation, doubly so as British soldiers return to undertake operations in the national interest and end as victors not sacrifices. It is easy to understand the temptation to lose interest after Passchendaele.
But that does not do justice to the story of the men who fought in 1918. The last hundred days was an unrelenting battle. Those who fought did not know that the war would end imminently. Many in authority thought it would continue to 1919 or 1920. Some of the soldiers’ letters refer to the thought that they had the Germans on the run and would try to finish them off before winter weather gave the Germans a respite. One striking feature of the graves of the men who fell in 1918 is the proportion with at least one decoration. These men had already done their bit but were determined to finish the job. Their knowing sacrifice deserves some focused reflection.
Places to evoke memories of 1918
Battlefields are places of historic memory. Yes, they inform the visitor about how the micro-terrain influenced events, and the sights, sounds and smell of the landscape. They are also powerful symbols evoking memories and emotions. They have a deep cultural significance as places of sacrifice, reinforced by memorials and ceremony. The places dedicated to the sacrifices of 1916 and 1917 won’ t serve the memories of 1918. It is hard to think about successful open warfare at Amiens while standing at the Menin Gate, literally on the road to the mud of Passchendaele.
In 1918 the fighting crossed the 1916 battlefields twice. But the 1918 battlefield covered a much wider area. To interpret the battle the visitor should explore the area around St Quentin. West of that town were the British lines that formed the setting for the play Journey’s End and the German onslaught in March. In late September the British with Australian and American troops forced their way across the Hindenburg line a few miles north of St Quentin. Peronne, ten miles to the west was the site of British rear-guard fighting in March and a great feat of arms by the Australian Corps in August. It also has a fine museum, the Péronne Museum of the Historial de la Grande Guerre, overlooked by many visitors to the 1916 battlefields. The graves dating from March and August 1918 are evidence of the fighting that took place across the old battlefield. The memorial to the Fifth Army missing of 1918 is in the Pozieres war cemetery on the road from Pozieres to la Boiselle – often ignored by visitors. The fighting extended west of Albert to Villers Bretonneaux outside Amiens, the site of Australian feats of arms and their national memorial in France. The graves of many British soldiers in Villers Bretonneaux is ample evidence of the part played by British troops in the area, which is also the location of the first battle between tanks.
There is no single memorial to the battle of Amiens. The paths of British and Commonwealth troops east can best be evidenced by the graves dated August 1918. The formidable Hindenburg line lay east of the March 1918 Allied lines. You can find remains of German defences and memorials to the battle that forced this line.
The second German offensive was in Flanders, in the area between Armentieres and La Bassee, stretching West as far as Hazebrouck and Mount Kemmel. Start with the Portuguese cemetery just south of the Indian Army memorial at Neuve Chapelle. Under equipped and under-trained the Portuguese defenders of this quiet sector were some of the unfortunate victims of the Germans Georgette offensive. The 55th Division memorial at Givenchy commemorates the gallant stand by the territorial soldiers from West Lancashire holding the flank of the German breakthrough. The German Alpine corps took Mont Kemmel, south west of Ieper, which then fought over by British and French troops for the next three months. Mount Kemmel is an overlooked battle. The French war cemetery with 5,000 graves testifies to the ferocity of the fighting. The US memorial at Vierstraat Kemmel is a reminder of the 60,000 American soldiers who served in the area in August 1918. On 27th September Ieper was the starting point for the last act in the Salient. A single day was all that was needed to capture the whole of Passchendaele Ridge. The fighting that followed half-way to Brussels was hard enough for several VCs to be awarded and for Brigadier Freyburg to be awarded two bars to his DSO. The Americans captured Oudenarde, and their Flanders Fields cemetery at Waregem has those that fell.
Arras to Le Cateau and Mons
Thousands of people visit the impressive memorial and preserved battlefield of Vimy Ridge, captured by the Canadian corps in 1917. Far, far fewer follow the story of the Canadian and British troops that advanced from Arras to Cambrai, Mons and Le Cateau. This was no triumphal parade. The memorial to the missing at Vis-en-Artois was the site of a bloody set back at the end of August, while at Iwuy in October the Germans counterattacked with tanks, throwing the British back.
British troops were also deployed to the Aisne area North East of Paris. In May an army corps of some 80,000 battered in the earlier German attacks was sent to a quiet sector to recover and integrate reinforcements. Unfortunately for them they were in the path of the next German offensive. The experiences of Captain Ulick Bernard Burke of the Devonshire Regiment were recorded and the digitised recording is held by the Imperial War Museum available . From 11 minutes into reel 17 he describes the last stand of the battalion.
Further east, in July two divisions, some 35,000 soldiers fought under French command near Rheims, supported by American tanks and Italian artillery in the second battle of the Marne. From Paris eastwards the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) played a major role in halting the Germans and turning them back. The AEF battlefields of the Aisne-Marne, Champagne, Meuse-Argonne and St Mihel are well preserved and interpreted. If you are interested in visiting these, check out americanvictory.com
There is far more to the fighting in 1918 than the 100 days as a prelude to the Armistice. It is a shame that there is so little public awareness or interest in public education by the bodies that should take the lead.
If you are interested in visiting the battlefields of 1918 contact email@example.com
One army has been almost completely absent from any mention in the commemorations of this weekend’s centenary of the start of the 3rd Battle of Ypres. This army is the French 1st Army which also took part in the battle. Although the operation was led by the British, it was an allied operation With 135,000 men and over 1000 guns the French Army that took part was larger than the Australian, Canadian or New Zealander contingents that fought. Yet their role and sacrifices have been ignored.
The French First Army’s deployment on the British left was a commitment to the alliance, despite the strikes and mutinies afflicting their army after the failure of the Nivelle offensive April 1917. Their tactics were designed around using artillery fire to destroy and neutralise defences and seizing limited objectives to minimise infantry casualties. The tactics used on 31st July were the first use of those methods that Petain would use to rebuild the confidence of the French Army.
The two divisions of the 1st Army attacked on a 4 km frontage. Particular attention was paid to artillery support. The artillery included 60 batteries of 75mm guns, 240 pieces, 277 pieces of trench artillery – mortars, 164 heavy howitzers, 148 long ranged guns (105- 240mm) for counter battery fire and 64 heavy guns (305mm,320mm and 370mm) to smash concrete bunkers. This artillery train was supported by aircraft detachments for heavy artillery and counter battery fire, bomber, and reconnaissance squadrons and the elite Cigognes fighter squadron.
The French were faced with the problem of assaulting across the Yser canal against defences based on concrete bunkers. The French thought the concrete bunkers were less of a tactical challenge than the deep shelters capable of protecting entire platoons the Germans dug is drier country. The assaulting troops were preceded by a creeping barrage of shrapnel 150m ahead of the infantry.
On the 31st July the French First Army was tasked with protecting the Northern flanks of the British 5th Army. They succeeded in this mission, advancing 2500 metres, almost as far as the Guards division to their right. The French took part in several attacks in concert with the British , until the end of October.
The French had advanced some 10 km, capturing 1,500 prisoners. Their casualties were low, 1,625 killed or missing and 6901 wounded or taken prisoner. These are very light compared to those suffered by British formations, and raise some questions about British tactics.
The French army of Flanders was deployed to support the British led operation “as a matter of honour.” It is a shame that their gesture has not be remembered a century later.
Earlier this month I had the pleasure of being the historian guide for the US National World War 2 Museum “Band of Brothers Tour”. They are partners of the Liberation Route Europe. I accompanied the group to Aldbourne in Wiltshire, where the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment were billeted in 1943-44. The Aldbourne Heritage society were splendid hosts.
Travelers were curious about the reaction of villagers to the influx of American soldiers doubling the population. One of the overwhelming thoughts must have been reminders to them of their own menfolk, doing their bit for the war effort far from home.
The names on the memorial plate in the church provide evidence of the war service of villagers. Most of those who served came back, and the memorial is merely a fragment of the part that Aldbourne played in the war. By the time that Easy Company arrived in Aldbourne many men were serving in one of the armed forces, and eight people from Aldbourne had already died.
At 00.45 hours on 17 Jan 1941 the unescorted M V Zealandic was hit underneath the forward mast by one torpedo from U-106 about 230 miles west-northwest of Rockall. The ship stopped for a short time, sent distress signals and then continued. The ship sank slowly after being hit amidships by more two torpedoes at 00.59 and 01.27 hours. The Germans observed how the crew abandoned ship in three lifeboats, but they were never seen again. The master, 64 crew members, two gunners and six passengers were lost. The passengers included 31 year old Wing Commander D. P. Lascelles RAF, and his wife Diana Trelawny,who lived on the Green, Aldbourne. Wing Commander Lascelles’ younger brother Flying Officer John Richard Hasting, had been lost over the Atlantic three month earlier, aged 20.
Two others died at sea before 1943. 17 year old Desmond Trevor Wooton was serving as a Boy 1st Class in the Royal Navy on 24th May 1941 aboard H.M.S. Hood when it was sunk by the German battleship Bismarck in the Denmark Straits between Iceland and Greenland. He was the youngest of the village war dead.
Commander Arthur Jelfs Cubison, (D.S.C. and Bar) RN was a naval hero. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC) as the Gunnery officer of the 770 ton destroyer HMS Tigress, when the Tigress and three other small craft gave chase to a German-Turkish squadron including the 22,500 ton battle cruiser Yavuz Sultan Selim (Ex German SMS Goeben) and 4,500 ton cruiser Midilli (Ex German SMS Breslau). Cubison showed marked ability, quickly straddling and hitting an enemy destroyer. Between the wars his career included service on river gun boats in Iraq during the Arab Rebellion in 1924 and ended with his retirement in 1934, after 21 years in the Royal Navy. At the outbreak of war, he re-joined the Navy and served at HMS Vernon, the Navy’s torpedo and mine recovery school. He took part in the evacuation from Dunkirk and was awarded a bar to his DSC. In 1942 he was the Captain of the 835 ton minesweeper HMS Niger. In fog on 5 July 1942, with visibility of less than a mile, he mistook an iceberg for Iceland’s North Western Cape and led six merchant ships of the Murmansk to Reykjavík convoy QP 13 into Northern Barrage minefield SN72 laid one month earlier at the entrance to the Denmark Strait. Every ship detonated British mines. 46 civilian crew and 9 Naval Armed Guards died aboard the American Liberty ship John Randolph, and the freighters Hefron and Massmar. There were only eight survivors of the 127 men aboard Niger. Only one freighter could be salvaged. An expensive accident and a tragedy for mariners who had survived the Arctic passage to Russia.
Four airmen died before Easy Company arrived. Corporal Leonard John Barnes died in the UK on 12th June 1942, aged 26, and is buried in Aldbourne Churchard.
There is also a private headstone to Pilot Officer George Roxberry Bland, of 234 Squadron RAF who died on 16th April 1942, age 20, but his body was never found. His was one of two Spitfire aircraft from, 234 Squadron RAF probably shot down by German fighters as cover to an air sea rescue patrol off Cherbourg. Sergeant Robert Herbert Charles Crook of 45 Squadron RAF was lost on 18th April 1941 over the Western Desert. He has no known grave and is commemorated on the El Alamein Memorial in Egypt.
Sergeant Ronald Charles Barrett, 21, was the wireless operator of Lancaster Mk 1 R5573 ZN-B of 106 Squadron RAF, returning from a raid by 287 bombers on the city of Cologne when it was shot down at 01.53 on 9th July 1943, by a German night fighter over the Ardennes. He is buried in Heverlee War Cemetery near Louvin Belgium. There is a memorial in the Ardennes village of Harze to the crew of the aircraft. Two other Lancaster bombers were lost by 106 Squadron on the night of 8/9 July. One was flown by 1st Lieutenant Eugene Leon Rosner USAAF, from Wilkes-Barre Pennsylvania who had initially served with the RCAF before transferring to the USAAC in early July. This was the first mission in which Rosner flew in
USAAC uniform. Rosner is buried in the Normandy American Cemetery in Plot A Row 3 Grave 38, above Omaha Beach.
During the period that Easy Company were billeted in Aldbourne before D-Day, three more men from Aldbourne would die. 35-year-old Captain Dermot Horace Thomas Hanbury, Royal Engineers died in India in January. Lieutenant Thomas Martin Francis Lowinsky of 1st Battalion Scots Guards died 16th February 1944, age 22, at the height of the fighting at Anzio, Italy. Sapper William Robert May, of 42 Field Company, Royal Engineers also died in the battle for Rome, on 1st June 1944, and is buried in Cassino War cemetery. He left a widow, Florence, in Aldbourne.
Easy Company’s campaign is entwined with the fate of Aldbourne’s war dead through the remainder of the North West Europe Campaign. Sapper Derek Thomas Brind died in Normandy on 24th August 1944, aged 24, and is buried in the Bayeux War Cemetery. Lieutenant Colonel
Thomas Irwin Bishell, DSO TD commanded the 94th (Dorset and Hampshire Yeomanry) Field Regiment Royal Artillery throughout the Normandy campaign. Born in 1899 he was a veteran of the First World War. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) for his inspirational leadership during the tough fighting south west of Caen during the first two weeks of July 1944. He met all emergencies with calm and resolute action and set an example of devotion to duty $rand contempt for danger. His regiment was part of the divisional artillery of the 43rd Wessex
Division which played an important role in Operation Market Garden. He was killed by a shell splinter on 1st October a dozen miles from where Easy Company made their attack on the same day. “Every single man in the regiment had the greatest confidence and admiration for him, and whenever he visited the gun position during lulls in the battle he always had a cheery word and smile for everyone.” Bishell is buried in Arnhem Oosterbeek War Cemetery.
Not far very far away, across the German border is the Commonwealth Reichswald War cemetery, which contains the graves of many RAF airmen, including that of Flight Sergeant Kingsley Osbern George Nugent, the Navigator of a twin engine Mosquito fighter bomber downed on 26th November 1944. He is buried alongside the Bahamian pilot, flying in the 305th (Polish) Squadron, an illustration of the patchwork of nationalities in the RAF. Easy Company’s route to Berchtesgarten passed within ten miles of the War Cemetery at Durnbach where Sergeant/Air Gunner Bernard Conrad Ricketts of 170 Squadron, Royal Air Force is buried after his Lancaster bomber was shot down in the last RAF raid on Nuremburg, Bavaria.
The last Aldbourne fatal casualty of the war was Flight Lieutenant Guy Richard Brown, DFC RAF who died, aged 24, on 6th September 1945, three weeks after the Japanese surrender and is buried in Heliopolis War Cemetery, Cairo, Egypt. Brown was awarded the DFC for his service in 50 operational missions over Egypt and Libya leading to the capture of Tripoli. After then he seems to have flown for a electronic countermeasures unit in Britain against Germany. At the time of his death he was serving in an air ferry unit. The bus shelter was built as a memorial to him.
There is another name on the village war memorial, Sergeant Ernest Wakefield Royal Engineers. This name cannot be linked to any name in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission database. Village memorials were erected by the local parish and we may never know anything more about this man.
Of the seventeen names on the memorial, seven have no known grave. Their relatives would have received a message that their loved ones were missing, and that it was possible that they would be found or had been taken prisoner. Much later there would be a letter stating that their status was “missing presumed killed.” It must have been hard to hope that it was all in error, and that one day they would come home.
The Band of Brothers of Easy Company 506 PIR fully illustrates the experience of every and any American soldier in the liberation of Europe. Aldbourne is a village which can represent every and any English village. While every village has its own unique history and Aldbourne seems to have been the home of a higher proportion of officers than many, the war service of its villagers covers all three services, across the globe. The fortunes of war took many of them into contact with American servicemen in general and several of them even cross the paths of Easy Company. They all did their bit.
Robert Nivelle had a spectacular career trajectory. A meteoric rise from commanding an artillery Regiment in 1914 to command an Army at Verdun was followed by his appointment in late 1916 to command the French armies of the North and North East, over the heads of many more senior commanders. He fall was equally spectacular as his offensive in April 1917 failed to achieve the predicted gains, but instead cost 200,000 casualties. The story of the battle itself is here .
Nivelle was a man for whom the Peter Principle, that “Managers rise to the level of their incompetence,” might have been created. Historians and soldiers find much to criticise in Nivelle’s performance as de facto Allied supreme commander on the western front. But there is also much to admire about his performance that brought him to notice.
For a start, Nivelle was an outstanding field commander. He had already distinguished himself during the August battles. On the Marne on 6th September 1914 part of the 63e division de réserve broke and fled while attacking towards the village of Vincy . Nivelle’s 5e régiment d’artillerie de campagne was outside Puiseux close by, on a ridge behind the retreating troops. Nivelle saved the day. Rather than fall back, he took half his regiment and galloped forwards, through the retreating troops and unlimbered his guns among the French skirmish line. Their rapid fire stopped the Germans. This action alone made Nivelle a bit special as a horse gunner. Many actions of this era involving manoeuvre by horse drawn artillery ended badly for the gunners. Nivelle got away with something that ended badly for Colonel Long at Colenso and managed to avoid the fate of the British gunners at Le Cateau and Nery.
Promoted to command an infantry brigade, he did well in an otherwise failed attack north of Soissons above Crouy. His brigade, closely supported by artillery managed to reach the sites. Promotion to command the 61st Division Nivelle mounted a model operation in June 1915, the battle of Quennevieres. This introduced the form of the operations mounted at Verdun at the end of 1916 and of the Aisne in April 1917. This was based on a sudden and violent attack, supported by overwhelming artillery, followed by a lateral and forward exploitation. A rising star, he was promoted to command the 3 Army Corps in December 1915. Nivelle followed Petain to Verdun as part of his Second Army, and took over the tactical command at Verdun from Petain. It was Nivelle, not Petain who adopted the phrase “They shall not pass.” Nivelle’s aggression, optimism and tactical skill won praise. The recapture of Forts Vaux and Douamont in 1916 made him a national hero.
Nivelle was an innovative artilleryman. It is probably that the fire support he arranged for his brigade’s attack on 15th January 1915 was the first use of the barrage roulant – the creeping barrage. (1) He encouraged the scientist Hoffman to develop sound ranging. Australian Laurence Bragg would further improve on these for the technology use by the British. He also supported the development of the tank, which in France took the form of self-propelled artillery.
Nivelle’s tactical methods had many similarities with the practises that emerged in other armies, combining artillery fire with infantry movement. However, he was an exponent of the operational idea of the breakthrough battle with the aim of the destruction of the enemy army. His emphasis on lateral and forward exploitation has something in common with Liddle Hart’s influential “Expanding Torrent” ideas, and the tactics used by the Germans in 1918, and 1940. What else is lateral exploitation other than “Aufrollen?” Under his command the French introduced more weapons at platoon level, including light machine guns and a light cannon – which might also serve as a anti-tank gun. This is along similar lines to the German all as assault groups that penetrated allied positions in 1918. His ideas were consistent with the pre-war doctrine based on offensive spirit. These contrasted with the pessimistic views of Petain who advocated a long game based on firepowers. Petain’s catch phrase was,” we will get them in the end.” While Petain’s emphasis on doing what was possible was proven right by events, at the time there were many who thought that the Allies could not win by remaining purely in the defensive. Even if correct for France of 1917, it flew in the face of the principles of war. Nor was, “waiting for the Americans” a strategy palatable to the politicians, the media or a patriot public.
After Nivelle’s dismissal his ideas became discredited and Petain’s methodical, “bite and hold” battle for limited objectives became the basis for French tactics for the remainder of the First World War, and their thinking after that conflict and leading to 1940. These is part of a pattern of French defeat. The pre -1914 doctrine based on offensive spirit and élan was finally discredited on the Chemin des Dames in 1917. Petain’s cautious techniques led to an army ill prepared for the German Blitzkrieg.
France might have been much better served if they had not thrown out the baby, of Nivelle’s ideas with the bath-water of his strategic command. Nivelle’s ideas were on the on the right lines for the mechanised age. A French army that tempered an appreciation of firepower with an offensive orientation might have put up a better fight in 1940.
Anyone interested in visiting these battlefields, or a talk on about them contact the OP at firstname.lastname@example.org
Gunnertours is organising a battlefield tour to the Western Front in November. Details here
1 Rolland Denis Nivelle: L’Inconnu du Chemin des Dames Imago (2012)
The OP spent last weekend on a Battlefield tour with the British Commission for Military History to the battlefields of the Allied Spring Offensive of 1917. Travelling with a bunch of military historians is more of a master class seminar than a battlefield tour. The historians leading on different aspects included Tim Gale on French Tanks, Tony Cowan and Jack Sheldon on the Germans in Spring 1917, Michael Orr on Bullecourt,(and Gavrelle), Andy Simpson on Arras, Robin Brodhurst on Monchy-le-Preux and Gordon Corrigan on the Canadians. The OP’s contribution was to defend the reputation of Robert Nivelle and the odd matters artillery in the absence of a more distinguished Gunner historian .
– Was there any real learning curve in the Allies in 1917?
– Was there any way that the Nivelle Offensive could have been successful?
– Did the Germans really have a consistent “elastic defence doctrine”
– What were the Russian Brigades doing on the Western Front?
BTW did you know that the lethal strain of Influenza that killed more than 45 million in 1918-19 first mutated in the British military hospitals in Etaples.
Military history, Battlefield heritage and Touring