Tag Archives: Battlefield Guide

British Commission for Military History Battlefield Tour to the battlefields of the Spring Offensive 1917

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 .

Interesting topics.

– 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.

The Nivelle Offensive: Second Battle of the Aisne (16 April – 9 May 1917)

16th April 1917  marks the centenary of one of the most important battles of then First Wold War.   Overshadowed in British public consciousness by the Somme and Passchendaele, the battles of spring 1917 are better remembered in Canada and Australia. The battle of Arras was part of an Anglo French offensive.  The aim was to break through the German lines using proven techniques for combining artillery and infantry learned from the Somme and Verdun. The British and French started with high hopes, but the offensive cost 350,000 casualties in six weeks, without demonstrable results. Subsequently the French Army mutinied  – or rather went on strike.

By late 1916 the French government had become dissatisfied witch their generalissimo  Marchal Joffre , the savior of the Marne.  Joffre for the last three years Joffre had had advocated a concerted attack by the allied armies.  This had cost  France two million casualties.  The French sought a new commander in choice and selected a relatively junior officer – Robert Nivelle.  Nivelle had distinguished himself in command of an artillery regiment, infantry brigade, division, corps and then army over two years. He was the hero of Verdun  who had recaptured Fort Douamont and Fort Vaux.

Nivelle thought he had solved the problem of attacking trench lines.  He offered a solution that would end he war in one stroke and defeat the Germans on the western front, with minimum casualties. An idea that offered to make the omelette without breaking eggs was timely and attractive.  However, not all were convinced.  A new War minister Painlevé appointed in March 1917 was deeply skeptical of a plan that looked too good to be true.  Many senior military officers, including of Nivelle’s subordinates and former superiors, pointed out that the plan could not deliver the promised benefits, ignored practical difficulties and would cost far more than projected.   However, Painlevé could not obtain enough consensus to call of the idea in  the face of popular and media support for an ideas that appeared to allow France to  have their cake and eat it.  It is a story with a modern relevance.

The following text has been taken from the entry in the British Army Guide to the Battlefields of the First World War  published in 2014.

Principal Forces Engaged

French

French  Commander-in-Chief General Robert Georges Nivelle

Reserve Group of Armies (Micheler)
Fifth Army (Mazel)
Sixth Army (Mangin)
Tenth Army (Duchene)
French Central Group of Armies (Petain)
Fourth Army (Antoine)
83 Divisions. 1,200,000 men 4800 artillery pieces, 1000 aircraft 150 tanks

 

German

German Commander-in-Chief  Crown Prince Wilhelm of Germany and Prussia

Crown Prince Group of Armies
First Army (F v Below)
Third Army (Rothmaler)
Seventh Army (Boehn)
55 Divisions 700,000 men, 2430 artillery pieces, 640 aircraft.

Context

French: Attempted breakthrough North of the Aisne River following the success of the Arras offensive starting 9th April.

German: Defensive action using the tactical principles developed following the Somme.

Casualties

French C. 185,000 including 4,000 prisoners
German C. 160,000, including 23,400 prisoners

Consequences

The French army mutinied. Petain was appointed to restore order and confidence. The French Army undertook no further offensive operations until July 1918. The Germans obtained the objective sought from the battle of Verdun. They had an opportunity to beat Russia, Italy and Britain in turn before the US mobilised.

Introduction

At the end of 1916 the French and British governments, found the advice of Haig and Petain that the war could not be won quickly or without further heavy casualties unpalatable. French General Robert Nivelle, a hero of Verdun, claimed that the Germans were exhausted. A violent surprise blow would rupture the German lines and achieve a decisive breakthrough in 48 hours. The allied governments appointed Nivelle as supreme commander, subordinating the BEF to the French temporarily. The British would strike near Arras and on the Somme to draw the German reserves. The French Army would attack north on the Aisne with a surprise attack using massed tanks and artillery. In February the Germans withdrew from the 1916 Somme battlefield to a shorter fortified position; the Hindenburg line. This disrupted allied plans and released German troops.

The Ground

The E-W limestone ridge between the Aisne and Ailette is known as the Chemin des Dames and has been of tactical significance since ancient times. Both Caesar and Napoleon fought battles in the area. Further South East the front lines stretched into the Champagne plain East of Rheims where the Moronvilliers Hills dominated observation. The River Aisne was an obstacle to movement, as was the damage caused by the bombardment.

Deployment

The German positions had been occupied since September 1914, strengthened using the “Caunes” (underground quarries), and improved by extensive tunnelling. Their deployment was based on the “Conduct of the Defensive Battle” (Dec 1916). Instead of fighting the main defensive battle in the front line, the main fight was to take place behind the front line, out of view and out of range of enemy field artillery.
North of the Aisne, at the centre of the main effort of the attack the Germans outpost line was along the Chemin des Dames Ridge while their main position was in the Ailette valley on the reverse slope. The Germans kept a proportion of their troops back to counter attack.
The French planned to attack on a 65 km (40 mile) frontage North of Rheims, with a subsidiary attack east of Rheims, between Prunay and Aubérive, along the Moronvilliers Hills. On the Chemin des Dames the French deployed an artillery piece every 20 metres. The French infantry were expected to follow a creeping barrage which advanced at 100m per minute. The Fifth Army would attack on the Western half of the Chemin des Dames, with the colonial Corps attacking from the West. The Sixth army would attack the right hand side and NE across the plain North of Rheims. The phase lines anticipated an advance of 10km on the 1st day. The anticipated breach would be exploited by a fresh army and 128 tanks. The following day the 4th Army would attack in Champagne. The French placed particular faith in the élan of their African troops, which formed two of the assault corps in Mangin’s 6th Army, which was also reinforced by British heavy artillery. Three brigades of post revolutionary Russians attached to the 5th Army voted to take part in the attack.
Many senior commanders had misgivings and only relented after Nivelle promised to cancel the operation after 48 hours unless a breakthrough had been achieved. Nivelle’s optimism and promise of success spread among the French troops who appear to have approached the battle with confidence.
French security was lax. The offensive was discussed in the media. German raiders captured operations orders. The two week long preparatory bombardment eliminated any residual uncertainty. The Germans reinforced the sector, doubling the number of divisions and batteries.

French Troops attacking on the Chemin-des-Dames 1917

The Battle

The Preliminary Bombardment 2-15 April 1917. The preparatory bombardment was hampered by the weather and the aggressive German fighter force, which hampered the French use of aircraft to direct fire against reverse slope positions. Despite the number of French artillery pieces, the German positions were too deep and extensive for the bombardment to be effective. By the eve of the attack the wire had not been consistently cut and the level of devastation were visibly less than that seen on the Somme and Verdun battlefields. The majority of Germans waited underground.
16th April 1917 H Hour was 06.30. The weather was cold wet and very windy and the infantry froze waiting for the assault. Far from advancing at a rate 100m per minutes deep into the German positions, the French struggled to get beyond the German first line in the face of machine gun and artillery fire. The barrage advanced uselessly away from the infantry. The Germans counter attacked, and in some places reappeared from shelters and tunnels behind the attackers. H Hour for the 1st colonial corps, due to attack on the extreme left had been delayed by three hours to minimise the risks of friendly fire from the anticipated breakthroughs the south and the Western faces of the Chemin des Dames position. The Senegalese managed to capture the Mont de Singes with the support of British Artillery, but were forced to withdraw.
The Fifth army had more success. In the Juvincourt sector where the attack was supported by tanks, the French penetrated to the German second line.. The 14 ton Schneider tanks were restricted by their poor cross country performance to a narrow line of advance and came under concentrated artillery fire. Most tanks were knocked out or broke down before they reached the German lines.
17th April – 15 May 1917 . The Sixth army was to capture the remainder of the Chemin des Dames and cover the success of the Fifth army. The appalling wet weather persisted overnight and prevented artillery preparation. Further attacks were called off while the French hung on to their gains. The Fourth army in Petain’s army group attacked, penetrating the German line to a depth of 500m-2.5km. These gains were developed methodically, seizing the crests of the Moronvilliers hills. The Germans launched costly counterattacks to try to recover them.
Despite Nivelle’s earlier promise, he pressed for the operation to continue with limited tactical objectives. The Tenth army was deployed to seize commanding features on the Chemin des Dames. On the 18th the Germans pulled back from the Chemin des Dames, losing heavily during this movement. the French continued to make small gains during the rest of April and into May.
By this time Nivelle had lost the confidence of the government and his subordinates. Petain was appointed, initially as Nivelle’s Chief of Staff on 26th April and then in his place as GoC on 15th May.

The Constellation de la Douleur – a tribute to the ‘Senegalese’ Infantrymen

The Mutinies

The first mutinies began on the 4th May peaking a few weeks later and continued with diminishing levels until January 1918. Despite individual acts of insubordination, these were effectively strikes, with units refusing to take part in offensive operations. Petain took measures to suppress the mutiny, imposing discipline and arresting ring leaders. 48 mutineers were executed. He also addressed grievances and improved the administration of soldiers, such as regular leave and improving the quality of food. He then initiated a series of minor attacks to restore the French army’s confidence. The French Army was in no condition to take the offensive for the remainder of 1917. The Germans do not seem to have been aware of the French Mutinies.

German Cemetery Cerny-en-Laonnais

Commentary

At Verdun Nivelle enjoyed adequate and successful artillery support, surprise and limited attainable local objectives. None of these featured on the Aisne. Nivelle offered British and French politicians a solution which was politically acceptable rather than militarily achievable.
As “Application of force” (1985) concludes, “the attack demonstrates what may happen when soldiers already jaded by two and half years of war, are buoyed up with promises of a cheap and quick victory only to have their hopes dashed and their morale shattered by an unexpectedly bloody reverse. The aftermath shows how firm and understanding leadership can repair the damage to an army’s spirit.”
In pure material terms the battle might be considered a moderately successful attrition battle. French losses were heavy, but no worse than in 1915. They gained more ground and, according to official figures inflicted proportionally heavier German losses a higher proportion of prisoners than for the first month of the Somme.
The Nivelle offensive achieved for the Germans everything they had hoped for their attacks on Verdun the year before. As a result the Germans had the time to impose their terms on Russia and the opportunity to force Italy and Britain out of the war

Figure 1 :-German Cemetery Cerny-en-Laonnois
Figure 2:- Memorial to the African Soldiers Killed in 1917

The Battlefield Today

Much of the Chemin des Dames was designated as devastated land and turned over to forestry, preserving the trenches, bunkers and munitions. There are interpretation panels and monuments in many of the key locations. The battlefield is largely the same ground as the British Aisne battlefields of 1914 and 1918.
The Cave au Dragons museum is an underground battlefield and offers interpretation and local guides.
There are several memorials on the Chmein des Dames road commemorating different French units, including the Senegalese and the Basques.
The destroyed village of Craonne has a symbolic significance, as the subject of the bitter anti war song the “Chanson de Craonne”, banned in France until 1974.
The evocative adjacent French and German cemeteries at Cerny-en-Laonnois, on the crest of the Chein Des Dames, on what would have been the German front line. They contain the graves of 7,526 Germans 5,150 French and 54 Russian soldiers

Further Reading

• Doughty, R. A., Pyrrhic Victory: French Strategy and Operations in the Great War, 2008
• Buffetaut, Y., The 1917 Spring Offensives: Arras, Vimy, le Chemin des Dames, 1997
• Clayton, A, Paths of Glory: The French Army 1914-18 Cassell Military, 2003
• HMSO Army Field Manual Vol1 The Fundamentals Part 1 Application of Force,1985

To find out more about why Nivelle was promoted, check out this post In Defence of Robert Nivelle

If you are interested in visiting this battlefield, contact Frank at frank@frankbaldwin.co.uk

BOOK REVIEW – THE WESTERN FRONT : LANDSCAPE, TOURISM AND HERITAGE DR STEPHEN MILES

Of all the books published about the First World War in the last few years, Dr Miles’ book is probably the most important for the Battlefields Trust. It one of the few books that covers the subject matter of the Trust – preservation, interpretation and presentation, and their value in economic and cultural terms.

Dr Miles covers the history of battlefield visits, the status of the battlefields and nature and motivation of battlefield visitors and addresses some of the issues that have arisen.  He starts with history of battlefield tourism to the western front and analyses the tourist experience. He uses the concepts of “dark tourism”, the multi-disciplinary academic approach to tourism to sites of death; including battlefields.

This is an academic book, but very accessible and stimulating to anyone with an interest in battlefield tourism.  The analysis of the economic benefits of battlefield tourism supports the case for preserving and developing battlefields as heritage tourism destinations. Unfortunately, the charts are not clearly labelled or referenced within the text.  There are thought provoking chapters on topics such as the morality of battlefield travel and the etiquette of visiting battlefields and cemeteries.

There are some shortcomings in the work. There is little reference to the value of battlefield landscape rather than monuments or the remains of trenches.  Professor William Philpott once referred to the landscape as important in three ways. Firstly, the micro-terrain that influenced   the course of events; the dips and hollows that may have determined that some men died and others survived. Secondly, the landscape enables the visitor to experience sounds and sights familiar to the combatants. The beet fields of Flanders evoke 1914 while the visitor to the Somme in July can see the flora and fauna that Sassoon describes. Thirdly, and perhaps most important, the landscape has a mythical significance as hallowed ground sanctified by the blood of the fallen. Monuments are erected in recognition of the sacred significance of the ground, a process which continues.

There could have been more of the educational value of battlefield heritage.  Pioneer tour operators, guides and guidebook authors Tony and Valmai Holt talked of battlefield travel as being a mixture of information, entertainment and education. Education is also the primary purpose of the thousands of visits by school and university students and soldiers under training. The desire for education or enlightenment is one way to distinguish between the respectful pilgrim and the sensation seeking tourist.  Other dark tourism studies have commented on the way that visits to historic thanatourism sites result in the visitor reflecting on their own mortality.

Visits to the Western Front as the setting to facilitate thought about war and society at a deeper level than the idea that peace is better than war.  The well informed or well guided visitor should be aware that the British memorials were not erected to glorify war, but to glorify the sacrifice of a generation who were thought to die in a “war end war.” Over the last fifteen years around 100,000 British servicemen and women under training have visited the battlefields to reflect on the core values of the army and their own role -and mortality.  The Irish Peace memorial at Mesen is mentioned, but not for the battlefield setting of Mesen as the base for projects to communities across the sectarian divide.

Over the last two decades, perhaps half a million to a million school and college students studying C20th History will have explored battlefields which bear the scars of two world wars.  The Western Front is not just a reminder of the cost of war, but also the choice between war and an unsatisfactory or unjust peace. It is perhaps standing on the battlefields that the European Union makes most sense – a point emphasised by French Western Front sites; such as the museum at Meaux, with its 1914 room labelled “Disunited Europe” and the EU, French and German flags over Fort Douamont.  This message pointedly ignored by the British media and politicians in the Brexit debate, which seem very keen not to mention the war.  I wonder if one consequence of visiting the western front might have predisposed young Britons to see the European Project more favourably than their grandparents and voted in greater numbers to remain in the EU referendum of 2016

Of course, the observations in the preceding critical paragraphs were stimulated by reading his work. Were Dr Miles to have expanded his work to deal with these themes it would have been a much larger work and he might still be writing it!

This is an important and thought provoking book which should be read by anyone with a serious interest in battlefield heritage and tourism.  Frank Baldwin

The Overlooked Remembrance – the British Army Learns Lessons from the Somme

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The view from the sights of a German machine over the Lancashire Fusiliers exit from the Sunken Road at Beaumont Hamel. (Photo: LCpl Rich Howman. Crown Copyright)
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Mine explosion at the Hawthorn redoubt. The German machine gunners had ten minutes to occupy a position to the left of the explosion
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A line of twenty-first century soldiers climbing Hawthorn ridge blend into the iconic silhouette from the Great War. (Photo and copyright: Frank Baldwin.)

This November is the centenary of the end of the battle of the Somme, one of the battles selected to commemorate the First World War by the UK Government. One of the most impressive acts of Remembrance has been overlooked by the media and the public.  On 10th November on BBC Radio 4 General Tim Cross, reminded listeners that one reason for Remembrance is to learn the lessons of the past. One of the eternal, if pessimistic, truths is how rarely people learn from history. So it ought to be news when the armed forces actually do try to see what lessons can be learned from the past.  That is what the British Army did in mid September, entirely unremarked and ignored by the media.  This is a pity. Not only is is comforting to know that the sacrifices were not ignored, but many of the lessons uncovered ought to be considered by the politicians who set defence policy and the public who elect them.

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Group photograph on the old French front line at Frise with the river Somme in the background. (Photo: LCpl Rich Howman. Crown Copyright)
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German historian Lieutenant Colonel Dr Mattias Strohn from the War Studies Department Sandhurst, author of The Somme Companion. (Photo Frank Baldwin)

The Army’s Operation Reflect Staff Ride Somme 2016 spent two weeks exploring the story of the battle of the Somme and learn the lessons for the current day. This was not a battlefield tour or a pilgrimage, but a serious professional study of the battle as a case study of the British Army in a war against a “first class peer enemy”, coalition warfare, development of tactics and technology, men in battle and supporting the army. It is very apposite to prepare for the worst, given the uncertainties of the current international situational politics.

This was a consultancy exercise involving some 200 Lieutenant Colonels, Majors and Warrant Officers mainly from the British Army, but with representatives from the French ,German, Commonwealth and US Armed forces, the RAF and the Civilian MOD. It was supported by battlefield historians from the British Commission for Military History, including the “OP” , and input from French and German historians.

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Syndicate discussion on the site of the Schwaben redoubt. (Photo: LCpl Rich Howman. Crown Copyright)
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At Rancourt German Cemetery this senior German general read out the words of “Wild Geese Rushing.” (To find out more about this song  read about Walter Flex and his wild Geese follow this link  )(Photo: LCpl Rich Howman. Crown Copyright)

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Senior British French and Germans Generals lay wreaths at the Thiepval memorial. (Photo: LCpl Rich Howman. Crown Copyright)

The OP was struck by the fresh perspective from French and German historians. Even now much British military history written about the Somme ignores the French. The first book in English that sought to give anything like a fair balance between the British and French contribution to the battle was William Philpott’s “Bloody Victory” published as recently as 2010. The set text for the exercise was Dr Matthias Strohn’s “Somme Companion,” published for the exercise and featuring contributions from some of the historians taking part.

It was interesting to see the First Day of the Somme from the Belvedere de Frise, taken by the French 6th Army with only a fraction of the casualties suffered by the British further north, and to explore why this was. Few Britons, even professional historians are familiar with the capture of Bouchavesnes by the French in September 1916. Yet this high point of French endeavour on the Somme was the context for the first use of tanks by the British a few miles North West and a few days later.

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Group Photograph outside the marie at Albert. (Photo: LCpl Rich Howman. Crown Copyright)

This wasn’t just an intellectual exercise. The best part of a day was spent in acts of commemoration and Remembrance at the German cemetery at Rancourt and the Anglo French memorial at Thiepval led by senior British French and German general officers.

It was a pity and a surprise that there has been no media coverage of this huge exercise in remembrance and reflection. The public ought to know that our military institutions have committed serious time and effort to try to learn lessons from the past – real institutional Remembrance.

Frank Baldwin is a battlefield historian, a member of the British Commission for Military History and member of the Guild of Battlefield Guides. www.frankbaldwin.co.uk  

They Shall Not Pass! “On Ne Passe Pas’”

“On ne passe pas’” (They shall not pass!) emerged from the battle of Verdun as watchwords of French. This phrase, widely attributed to General Phillip Petain has been used as a rallying cry for France since then, and an inspiration for subsequent defiance by, among others, Spanish Republicans, south American revolutionaries and the Russian Feminist group Pussy Riot. But like many national symbols and iconic events, much of the story is myth, factoid rather than fact. But the story behind the myth does reveal something about the battle of Verdun and the men who coined the catch phrase.

WWOne12Verdun was one of the major battles of the First World War, costing the French and the Germans about a quarter of a million casualties each. The battles of Verdun and the Somme, linked inextricably, dominated the Western Front in 1916. The Germans intended to break the French Army by forcing it to fight a battle of attrition under unfavourable circumstances. The battle was launched with heavy artillery support on 22nd February 1916. Catching the French ill prepared, the offensive was initially successful, inflicting heavy casualties on the French and their forces in disarray, crowned by the capture of Fort Douamont on the 25th February.

General Henri Phillipe Petain
General Henri Phillipe Petain

The same day, General Petain, commander of the Second Army, was ordered to take charge of the Verdun sector. He was chosen purely because his army was in reserve and available. Petain was an infantryman with an undistinguished pre war career only enlivened by his rejection of the pre war orthodoxy that willpower and aggression could overcome modern weapons. As an instructor at the Ecole de Guerre he preached the heresy that “firepower kills,” with the logical implication that a well organised defence would stop the Attaque à outrance (attack to excess). His rise to army command in the first eighteen months of the war had confirmed the need to “separate the real from the imaginary and the possible from impossible.”i An address to a decimated regiment illustrates this.

You went into the assault singing the Marseillaise; It was magnificent. But next time you will not need to sing the Marseillaise. There will be a sufficient number of guns to ensure your attack’s success.

Petain's "On Les Aura" as a propaganda poster
Petain’s “On Les Aura” as a propaganda poster

The measures Petain took to defend Verdun were based on firepower and belief that there were no short cuts to victory. He centralised control of the artillery and massed defensive fires where it could be most effective. He organised administration and logistics and arranged for a systematic and early replacement of formations committed to Verdun, known as the “Noria” (bucket chain) or “tourniquet” (turnstile).

Joan of Arc the inspiration for Petain;s Courage, on les auras”
Petains Catch phrase “Courage, on les auras” was a reference to Joan of Arcs words at Orleans. “Our enemies, even if they hung in the clouds, we shall get them! And we will drive them out of France!”

On 10th April Petain issued an order of the day which ended with the phrase “Courage, on les auras” (Take heart, we’ll get them.) This was meant to stick in the memory as a catch phrase. It was a allusion to the words of Joan of Arc at Orleans. “Nos ennemis, fussent-ils pendu aux nuages, nous les aurons! Et nous les bouterons hors de France!” (Our enemies, even if they hung in the clouds, we shall get them! And we will drive them out of France!) They were a reminder of the need for patience a war that could only be won by only fighting winnable battles but might take a long time.
Petain’s realistic, pessimistic approach to value counter attacks, did him no favours with Joffre, the French commander in chief or with the politicians. On 27th April Petain was promoted to Commander of the Central Region, and replaced as commander of the 2nd Army, by General Robert Nivelle who was more to Joffre’s taste.
Gervais-Courtellemont_Robert_Nivelle_1916_001Like Petain a mere colonel in 1914, Nivelle’s career had a meteoric trajectory. A heroic action at the Marne was followed by successful command of a brigade, divisional and corps. A whole hearted believed of the ideas of de Gradnmaison, Nivelle believed that success in battle was based on the will to win and that flawed leadership (but not his) led to “defaillance”, (weakness or breakdown). However, artilleryman Nivelle was also aware of the necessity of good infantry artillery co-operation. He was probably responsible for the most important technical development that enabled attacks to succeed, the barrage roulant – the creeping barrage.

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Target areas for Phosgene bombardment 323 June 1916

On 23 June 1916 the Germans planned a major attack by their elite mountain corps. This would be preceded by “Green Cross”, chemical artillery shells containing Phosgene, a new very lethal choking agent, which the Germans thought might penetrate French gas masks.

On ne passe pas'” They shall not pass! 2nd Army Order of the Day 23 June 1916
2nd Army Order of the Day 23 June 1916

The phosgene barrage caused consternation and 1,800 casualties, mainly among French gunners.  By the end of the day German infantry penetrated the furthest they ever achieved towards Verdun. Nivelle issued an order of the day that included the words “Vous ne les laisserez passer, mon camadares” (“You will do not let them pass”

Verdun Right bank 23 June 1916

Crisis at the battle of Verdun 23 June 1916. The solid blue line shows the French line before the attack. The dashed line shows the furthest extent of the German advance and the blue crosses the positions restored by the French by 2nd July

This wasn’t an original phrase. It had been circulating among the troops for some time, but there is no evidence that Petain used the phrase himself It was an appeal drawing on ‘cran’ (guts) very much Nivelle’s style . However this was out of character for Petain whose command style was based on promises of artillery support and avoided appeals for flesh to face material or attempt the physically impossible.
On_Ne_Passe_Pas_1918The crisis passed and the very next day, the preliminary barrage started on the battle of the Somme. From this moment Verdun became a secondary sector. However, throughout the remainder of 1916 Nivelle, occasionally constrained by Petain conducted a series of counter attacks which cumulated in the dramatic recapture of the Fort Douemont on 24th October. On that day the French troops advancing under a creeping barrage recaptured the ground that it had taken the Germans months to capture.

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Monument to the village of Fleury close to the German attack on 23 June

At the end of 1916, the French government had lost confidence in Joffre, their commander in chief, held responsible for the neglect of the defences of Verdun and the disappointing results of the Somme offensive. On the 27th December 1916 Joffre was promoted to Marshall and removed from command, to be replaces by Nivelle, who promised a decisive victory if allowed to use his tactics on larger scale. The failure of the Nivelle Offensive in May 1917 and the subsequent mutinies led to Nivelle’s fall and replacement by Petain. Nivelle was largely forgotten and Verdun became, in the public mind synonymous with Petain.

Pussy Riot wearing "they shall not pass" chic.
Pussy Rioter: “they shall not pass” chic.

In the meantime he catch phrase “On ne passe pas” , to use an anachronism, went viral. It joined “Old Contemptables” “In Flanders Fields” and “over the top” evoking aspects of the war. The call for the spirit to over come material odds made it attractive for the underdog and even chic.

The difference catch phrases of Petain and Nivelle illustrate different approaches to the battle of Verdun. They were also present in the British high command. The logic of Petain’s approach leads to the “bite and hold “ school identified with Rawlinson and Plumer, while Nivelle’s appeal to strength of will has much in common with the “Harroshing” of Haig and Gough. Indeed, Haig’s “Backs to the wall” order of the day in April 1918 is very similar to Nivelle’s appeal on 23 June.

If you ever need to use this article to settle a bet, donations are always welcomed by the battlefields Trust, a UK Charity dedicated to preservation, interpretation and presentation of battlefield heritage. Battlefields Trust Just Giving

There is a lot to see at Verdun, where far more of the battlefield was abandoned after the war.  Far fewer Britons visit Verdun, know as much about this battle or even its connection to the battle of the Somme.  If you are interested in visiting the battlefield of Verdun or other battlefields of the Western Front contact me.

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Where Were the Current Day RA Regiments and Batteries on the First Day of the Somme?

Somme map first day affiliationsThe Battle of the Somme was the largest, most bloody battle fought by the British Army. The popular image in Britain is of waves of foot soldiers going over the top into a hail of shells and bullets. But whether they succeeded often depended on how well the Gunners had breached then barbed wire, damaged defences, neutralised enemy batteries and neutralised enemy in the path of the infantry, and whether the infantry used the barrage.The Somme was an artillery battle, the first of its scale waged by the Royal Regiment. The artillery plan for the 1st of July assault was the first army wide artillery instruction. Within common principles and guidelines each corps developed its own fire plan.  In one sense the First Day of the Somme was a very big experiment with each Corps trying out a different technique for supporting the infantry.

The verdict was clear by the end of the day and the tactics used by the XV and XIII Corps, of heavy counter battery fire and a creeping barrage  became the norm for future attacks.

The majority of the BEF’s troops were “Kitchener’s” New Army Volunteers, raised for the duration of the war.However, many of the regular and territorial units which fired in the opening barrage and on the first day of the Somme are still part of the Royal Artillery.

VII CORPS

The northern most corps, VII Corps of the 3rd Army was made by two Territorial Divisions, the 46th (North Midlands) and the 56th (London). 210 (Staffordshire ) Battery can be considered the descendants of the CCXXXI (231)and CCXXXII (232) (II and III North Midlands Brigades) recruited from Staffordshire

Somme Artillery Territorial Army British QF 4.7 inch Gun on 1900 Mk I "Woolwich" carriage, Western Front, World War I.
This picture shows a QF 4.7″ gun on the III Corps front later in July 1916. The Territorial Heavy Batteries were each armed for four of these obsolescent guns, retained in service because of the shortage of modern long ranged artillery. AWM)

265 (Home Counties) battery might consider themselves associated with the territorial artillery brigades of the 56th (London) Division at Gommecourt. The Home Counties Territorials also formed the 1/1 (Kent) Heavy Battery with four 4.7” Guns, part of the 48th Heavy Artillery group supporting the VIIth Corps at Gommecourt, as was the 1/1 Lowland Heavy battery, raised from the recruiting area of 207 (City of Glasgow ) Battery.

VIII CORPS

The VIIIth Corps, was the Northernmost army corps in the Fourth Army. One of its infantry divisions, the “Incomparable 29th Division” formed from regular units serving across the world. This division fought in Gallipoli and in all of the major battles on the Western front from the Somme onwards. The part of the battlefield over which the 29th Division advanced is includes the preserved battlefield of Newfoundland Park, one of the most visited and photographed. One regiment and four current day batteries have antecedents which served with the 29th Division on the First Day of the Somme.

18 Pdr Gun battle pozieres ridge Somme 1916
This photograph taken after the first day shows an 18 pounder gun, its crew stripped to the waist in the sunshine, firing a barrage from the Carnoy Valley south east of Montauban. This was the equipment used by the field batteries that have survived to modern times.

The XVII Field Brigade is still part of the Gunners, being renumbered 19 Regiment after the Second World War. One of XVII Field Brigade’s batteries, numbered 13 Battery in 1916 is still part of 19th Regiment, having been renumbered as 28 battery in 1947. According to the fire plan, this battery fired the artillery support for the doomed attack across Newfoundland Park.

B and L Battery RHA also were part of the 29th Division and fought on the first day of the Somme. XV Brigade RHA was formed from RHA units, but was equipped with the 18 pounder field gun and carried out the same function as a divisional field artillery battery. B Battery sent an OP party forward to support the capture of the Hawthorn ridge crater caused by the much photographed mine.

10 Battery RFA, now 25/170 (Imjin) HQ Battery of 12 Regiment served in 147 Field Brigade, also part of the 29 Divisional artillery group.

The heavy artillery of the VIII corps included 1/1 Highland Heavy Battery, part of 1st heavy Artillery group raised from the recruiting area of 212 (Highland) Battery, and 1/1 Welsh Heavy Battery, raised in Carnarvon. Both territorial batteries were equipped with four 4.7” guns.

X CORPS

British 6inch 30cwt Howitzer Breech Open
The South African war vintage BL 6 inch 30 cwt Howitzer equipped several batteries for the Somme, including 17 Siege Battery.

To the right of VIII Corps was X Corps, which attacked the dominating ground around the village of Theipval. None of the field batteries of its new army and territorial had survived to the current day.

However, 17 Siege Battery RGA, the

BL 6-inch howitzer and a four wheel drive tractor
BL 6-inch howitzer and a four wheel drive tractor

recently disbanded 52 (Niagra) Battery was part of 40 Heavy Artillery Group which was the Northern Group supporting X Corps. The battery was equipped with four 30 cwt 6” Howitzers and fired on targets in the sector attacked by the 36th Ulster Division and commemorated by the Ulster Tower memorial.

III CORPS

The III Corps attacked either side of La Boiselle on the Albert-Bapaume road. This was the point of main effort of the Fourth Army. North of the road, the 8th Regular Infantry Division attacked towards the village of Orvilliers. Its artillery group included V Brigade RHA, now 5 Regiment, and XLV Brigade RFA renumbered as 14 Regiment in 1947.

60 Pdr Guns Somme  IWM Q8651
This photograph of a 60 pounder Gun is from 1918 rather than 1916. 90 Siege Battery, the antecedents of 38 Battery, were equipped with four of these long ranged guns.

As with XV RHA, V RHA Brigade, was equipped as a field brigade, there being a greater need for field rather than horse artillery in trench warfare. V Brigade RHA’s batteries included was O and Z batteries RHA.

XLV Field Brigade, which became 14 Regiment and three of its batteries have also survived. 1 Battery as “The Blazers”, 3 Battery RFA as 13 (Martinique) Battery and 5 battery as 5 (Gibraltar 1779–83) Battery. This divisions attack just north of the Albert Bapaume road towards Orvilliers also failed with heavy casualties

The Heavy Artillery of III Corps included:-

1 Siege Battery equipped with four 6” howitzers, part of 27th heavy Artillery group. This became 73 battery, now part of 4/73 (Sphinx) Battery.

90 Heavy Battery RGA, equipped with four 60 pounder guns. part of 22 Heavy Artillery Group became the current day 38 (Seringapatam) Battery.

1/1 London (Woolwich) Heavy battery was part of 34 Heavy Artillery Group RGA, equipped with four 4.7” guns.

XV CORPS

Q 1490 6inchHowitzerPozieresSeptember1916
Man hanclings a BL 6 inch 26 cwt howitzer near Pozieres 1916.

XV Corps was to the right of III Corps. One of its two assaulting infantry divisions was the regular 7th Infantry Division. The artillery group included XXXV (35) Brigade RFA, which still survives as 29 Commando Regiment, as does one of its batteries 12 Battery RFA, now 8 Alma Commando Battery as do F and T Battery RHA which served as part of XIV brigade RHA. The attacks by the 7th Infantry division were among the most successful of the day, due in part to the innovative creeping barrage fired by the artillery of the corps.

1/2 Lancashire Heavy Battery, based in Sefton Barracks Liverpool, in the current day 208 battery recruiting area was part of the 18th Heavy Artillery Group equipped with four 4.7” Guns

XIII CORPS

The attacks by the two New Army Divisions of XIIIth Corps were the most successful of the day.

60pdrLeTransloyOct1916
Heavy Work. manhandling the 60 pounder on the Somme 1916

115 Heavy Battery RGA, the current day 18 (Quebec 1759) Battery was also equipped with four 60 pounder guns as part of 29th heavy Artillery Group in support of the XIII Corps. This was the right hand British Corps in the attack on the 1st day of the Somme. Their counter battery fire was particularly effective, supported by additional French heavy guns and a factor in the breakthrough in the XIII Corps sector.

1/1 Lancashire Heavy Battery was part of 29 Heavy Artillery group supporting XIII Corps, This too was raised in Sefton Road, Liverpool.

The story on each Corps sector is different.  There are the personal accounts of the men who served the guns. And there is the story of how the Army developed the techniques learned at a painful cost to turn the Somme into the “Muddy Grave of the German army.” 

If you would like to visit these places and see what the Gunners did on the Somme, there are still places available on the Somme Centenary Gunner Tour. 

Napoleon at his best: Austria 1805 and 1809

omhs 4Napoleon-Austerlitz-Baron-PascalThe Battle of Waterloo is probably the most famous battle of the Napoleonic wars. But if you want to understand why Napoleon was so powerful you need to visit somewhere else. Within a couple of hours of Vienna you can find Austerlitz and Wagram; two of Napoleon’s key battles.

Austerlitz is regarded my many as seen as his masterpiece and genius for War. Wagram was Napoleon’s last decisive victory. These battles, four and a half years and 90 years apart marked the high points of Napoleon’s military career.

Vienna tourNapoleon fought two campaigns in Austria as Emperor of France. The 1805 campaign led to the decisive battle of Austerlitz 2nd December 1805 near Brno. This was a remarkable battle in which Napoleon beat superior numbers of Austrian and Russian troops. It is the single battle which demonstrated his genius and the superiority of the Grande Armee over the outmoded continental armies. It was also the setting for some chapters in Tolstoy’s War and Peace.

05Four years later Napoleon again campaigned in the Danube valley. This time the Austrians were better prepared and prevented the French from crossing the river Danube. When Napoleon launched a river crossing, the Archduke Charles inflicted Napoleon’s first defeat at the battle of Aspern-Essling in May 1809 but prevailed over the Austrian Army at the battle of Wagram in July 1809. Wagram is a little overlooked. It was the second largest battle in the Napoleonic wars over a three hundred thousand combatants fought.

Each of these campaigns was the cumulation of a series of actions in the Danube Valley. In 1805 the Russians turned and defeated a French column at the battle of Durnstein and the action described by Tolstoy as Schoengraben. In 1809 there were battles at Ablesberg and Znaim as well as Bratislava.

Image8There is a lot to see at these battlefields. Austellitz is well preserved and it is easy to see how the ground influenced the course of the battle. There is a lot to see at Wagram too. Despite being subsumed into the suburbs of Vienna there is a lot to see at Aspern and Esseling

Vienna is a good base for Lower Austria and the Danube valley, with Brno in the Czech Republic right next to Austerlitz. There are cheap flights to both destinations.

The Military history museum in Vienna is well worth visiting. The whole area has good food and drink.

Gunner Tours 2016 Programme

The biggest commemorative battlefield event in 2016 will be the Centenary of the Battle of the Somme. Our tour commemorates the start of the battle, which was the opening barrage  24 June.  We are also offering a proven Normandy and West Front tour that tells the Gunner side of these

The Somme Centenary, 23-26 June 2015 £469

Somme_centenaryThe Battle of the Somme began on 24 June 1916 – known as U Day. It was a dull day, low cloud and heavy rain, following thunderstorms the day before.It is a myth, showing much misunderstanding of a First World War battle, to believe it began with the infantry attack on 1 July.

Picture 1 shrapnel_for_one Divisonal attack
This wall is built from 7,000 shrapnel shell cases fired by 18-pounder field guns. This is how many shells were fired in support of a single division in an attack in August 1916.

The Battle of the Somme is an iconic event in British memory of the First World War. But the Gunner side of the story tends to be overlooked. The Gunner Tout top the battlefield will visit places ignored by many visitors and tell stories not often told. This is the story of the Royal Artillery in the Somme battles of 1916.

The main public interest in the battle is the staggering losses suffered by the volunteers of Kitchener’s Army on the first day. As one “Two years in the making. Ten minutes in the destroying. That was our history.”- the description of one Pals battalion.

Picture 2 753px-Hawthorn_Ridge_mine_1_July_1916
This mine explosion, captured on film was followed up by an infantry attack supported by B Battery RHA, who lost two men from the FOO party whose job it was to lay line across no mans land on 1st July 1916.

The Gunners don’t come out too well from the short version of the battle of the Somme. The largest ever concentration of British Artillery firing the largest ever barrage was supposed to cut the barbed wire in front of the German trenches, destroy German bunkers, defences and guns and keep the Germans heads down while the infantry advanced. But, over about eight out of thirteen miles of the front line attacked this did not happen, resulting in tragedy. We will show you why, and something of the efforts and sacrifices made by the Gunners to deliver the impossible,.

Picture 3 Haig_map extract
A section of a map showing the gun positions. The 15“ BL Guns are shown as green squares.

The tour has been based on research inspired by a project started by the late Will Townsend. It is based on research from original documents in the National Archives, Firepower Archives, the Historial de la Grande Guerre Château de Péronne and RUSI. We have brought together anecdotes and stories from a wide range of published and unpublished accounts by and about Gunners. We will have fire plans drawn by the future Field Marshall Lord AlanBrooke.

Picture 4 BL15InchHowitzerAndShell
Around half of the shells from these 15 “ guns did not go off, but even dud one ton projectile would collapse a German dugout.

We will look at the French and German artillery too. Few Britons are aware of how closely the British and French artillery worked. Nor is the German experience well known- even thought the most enduring German memory of the Somme was probably how their trenches were stamped into the ground by the British guns.

We are going to travel the week before the national commemoration because that is when the battle started for the Gunners, and we will have a better opportunity to get around the battlefield.

The tour is four days and three nights and for more information follow this link.

D Day Beaches and Landing Sites, 2-5 September 2015 £389
dday_and landing grounds

A visit over a long weekend to the D Day beaches and landing sites. There is a gunner story on each beach and landing site. We will see the strength of the German defences and see where and how the Gunners helped to overcome them. We will explore the stories of the Gunners who took part, the planners, commanders and soldiers, heroes, poets and those who fell.
£389 per person sharing single supplement £75
Details Here

BEF Western Front 10-14 November 2016 £469

BEF Western frontFive days and four nights, covering the sites of the major battles of the British Expeditionary Force from Mons in 1914 to victory in 1918 over Remembrance day 11 November.
£469 per person sharing single supplement £110
Details here

Introduction to Battlefield Guiding City Lit Summer School Course 2014 12 July & 3 Aug 2014

The 2014 City Lit Summer School Introduction to Battlefield Guiding Course lasts for two days (12 July & 3 Aug)  and is an introduction to the theory and practice of battlefield guiding. It is based on the competences of the Guild of Battlefield Guides validation programme, combining knowledge of military history, presentation skills and the duty of customer care. It is a taster for anyone seeking to lead walks or tours and wishing to plan a personal development programme.  The course takes place at CityLit, Keeley St, Covent Garden, London WC2B 4BA

flodden diagram with psychology
The picture is just to illustrate the problem, and is no reflection of this particular guide’s excellent communication skills!
 What is the course about?

The course is an introduction to the skills of battlefield guiding. It is aimed it people considering developing their skills either as a volunteer or a professional or for a professional tour guide seeking to extend their expertise to cover battlefields. The course is based on the competences of the International Guild of Battlefield Guide.(GBG) the trade body which assesses and awards its Badge to guides which demonstrate their competence through the Guild Validation programme. The course is intended to give students a start in developing the skills and competences to become battlefield guide.

What topics will we cover?

We will cover the following:-

  • An introduction to battlefield guiding
  • The GBG Badge competences and validation scheme
  • Knowledge
  • Presentation skills
  • Duty of Care
  • Legal obligations
  • Working as a guide
  • Developing a personal learning programme towards the Guild Badge.

By the end of this course you should be able to:

  • Identify the obligations on the guide in providing a battlefield tour.
  • State the key competences of the Guild of Battlefields’ validation programme and the standards of competences needed.
  • Carry out your own simple self assessment of personal training needs.
  • Plan you own personal development programme towards achieving the standards expected of a competent guide.
What level is the course and do I need any particular skills?

The course is set at the level of an intelligent lay-person with an interest in military history. Participants will need to have a general knowledge of military history.

How will I be taught, and will there be any work outside the class?

The instruction will be in the form of tutor presentations, class and group discussions, and interactive exercises. There will be homework and a practical assignment between the first and second day. Participants will be expected to prepare and deliver short presentations.

How much will it cost?

Full fee: £92 
Senior fee: £60 
Concession: £31

For an explanation of these fees check the Citylit Fee Information

How can I enrol for the course?

You can enrol for the course book a place in the following ways:-

  • Online via this page  (or print and post the enrolment form)
  • Over the telephone 020 7831 7831
Comments from Past Students

“Excellent Course”

“Could not be improved”

“Practical focus, linked to personal opportunities and encouraged further study and involvement”

“ A good balance of relevant subjects”

“The content was wider and in greater depth than I had expected”

“ I learned a hell of a lot”

While the learning outcomes were set at an introductory level, the course reported the following  outcomes.

ADDITIONAL LEARNING OUTCOMES % Agreement
  • Self confidence
80%
  • Confidence in learning
70%
  • More able to participate in a group
50%
  • More able to contribute to society
30%
  • New Skills and Knowledge
90%
  • ability to progress to the next step
90%
  • Increased intellectual/creative fulfilment
90%
  • Will it enable you to gain work
100%
  • Increased voluntary work
90%