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.
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
“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.
Verdun 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.
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.
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).
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. Like 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.
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.
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”
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. The 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.
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.
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.
The 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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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 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
The attacks by the two New Army Divisions of XIIIth Corps were the most successful of the day.
115Heavy 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.
The first day of the Somme is best known for 57,000 casualties suffered by the British Army; the largest in a single day, and the event that supports the idea of British generals as “Butchers and Bunglers.” Yet, paradoxically, it was concern for safety which led to disastrously high casualties and failure of most of the attacks.
ir Henry Rawlinson, commander of the Fourth Army. His initial plan for a methodical advance was rejected.
The battle of the Somme originated from a decision taken in December 1915, that the Entente powers, Britain, France, Italy and Russia would all launch an attack as soon as possible in 1916. The Somme was selected as the site of the Anglo French offensive because it was the junction between the two armies. It was originally envisaged that the French Army would take the lead. However, the German offensive at Verdun, started in February 1916 cost the French and Germans armies over 200,000 casualties each. By June 1916 not only would the British have to take the lead at the Somme, offensive but the bear This had two consequences, there were fewer French troops available which meant that the British would have to take the lead. Furthermore, the attack of the Somme was imperative to take pressure from the French at Verdun.
The British Army had limited experience of offensive battles, and had never planned an operation of the scale of the battle of the Somme. In March 1915 the British had launched a successful breach into the German lines at Neuve Chapelle, supported by a concentrated barrage by the artillery of the British Expeditionary Force. During other attacks in 1915 a shortage of artillery ammunition had prevented the British from repeating this level of fire support. However, by 1916 British industry had geared up to supply the vastly expanded British Expeditionary force swelled by millions of volunteers who Kitchener’s New Army recruited in 1914-15.
The largest ever British Army would be supported by the huge quantity of artillery pieces, 1072 light and 442 medium and heavy guns
GHQ issued no special instruction on the co-operation of infantry and artillery as, in the words of the official history, this main feature of the theory of the assault was well understood. In summary, towards the the close of the bombardment, shortly before Zero, the artillery would put down an intense barrage on the enemy front trenches; at Zero this would be lifted and dropped on the next trench, from which it would be lifted at a fixed time. Before each lift, the infantry under cover of the barrage was to creep to within as close assaulting distance as the barrage permitted. This was around 100 yards from the enemy’s front parapet and the infantry was to assault as soon as the barrage lifted.”
It was impressed on all, at conferences by both Haig and Rawlinson that “nothing could exist at the conclusion of the bombardment in the area covered by it.” Owing to this optimism, the problem of evicting the Germans from the labyrinth of trenches was seen just as one of assault only. It was not seen as a race for the parapet between the attackers across no man’s land against the defenders in the their dug outs. Instead it was seen as something that could be done at leisure.
Not everyone shared this assumption. “Some Regimental officers suggested that the infantry might creep even nearer to the barrage, as was done later on and in at least one instance on the 1st of July. Forty yards was suggested instead of a hundred but it did not receive official approval. (1)
The race to the parapet was the essence of attacking a trench. It can be envisaged as a rather deadly form of ‘rock-paper-scissors’. The defenders can either be in their dugouts or manning the trenches. The attackers can either send artillery rounds or infantrymen. Defenders lining trenches would slaughter attacking infantry but were vulnerable to artillery fire. Defenders would be reasonably safe in their dugouts, but could do nothing if the attackers were waiting at the top of the dugout steps. The key was for the assaulting infantry to be so close to the artillery barrage that the defenders had no time to react.
The shrapnel shells from the British 18 Pdr Field gun were highly directional, and ejected forwards, like the blast from a shotgun. In the Boer war the British found that infantry could advance to within 50 yards with some safety. Japanese troops had also used these tactics in the Russo-Japanese War, as had the French in their costly 1915 offensive in Champagne. The “dapper and charismatic” artilleryman Robert Nivelle had developed a creeping barrage (le barrage roulant) 80-100m ahead of the leading infantry. (2)
The trouble with this tactic was that it had a fatal cost. Artillery rounds do not all land in the same place, but are scattered in a cigar shaped pattern, through variation in the propellant and further dispersed by variations in the wind and of temperature and human error in laying the piece. So “getting close to the barrage” inevitably meant “in a place likely to be struck by shrapnel from a shell that fell shorter than most”. Indeed the rule of thumb, later in the war, was that unless the infantry were taking casualties from their own artillery fire, then they were not close enough.
So the commanders faced a dilemma. The men lost to artillery fire would usually be far lower than the casualties suffered from the machine guns of alert defenders. However, if the artillery preparation was going to leave the defenders unable to resist then would it be right to expose the infantry to friendly fire casualties?
To make matters worse, the gunners firing the barrage were mostly Kitchener’s Army men. Their gunners, technicians and officers had limited training and experience, and were using ammunition and guns produced by newly expanded or hired suppliers. It might have been sensible to apply nn extra safety margin. The plans for the 1st July seem to bear this out.
The fire plan for the first day of the Somme specified an artillery barrage that would lift from the German front line trenches at zero hour, even though the distance between the British and German Trenches was much wider – from 200-800 metres across most of the assault frontage. Some British units left their trenches before zero hour, and worked their way as close as possible to the German trenches. Where they did, the British succeeded in capturing the German front lines; the Ulstermen at the Schwaben redoubt, the Highland Light infantry at the Leipzig redoubt and the 30th Division near Maricourt. Elsewhere, success was more illusive and on much of the front the assaulting infantry faced fully manned trenches.
The excessive safety distance between the starting barrage and the infantry wasn’t the only reason that casualties were so heavy and the gains so slight on the 1st July. There needed to be enough breaches in the German wire. Where the wire was intact, the advance stopped. It helped if the defenders were crushed in their dugouts or demoralised by the barrage. There were more, and heavier guns, and the dug outs were less deep south of the Albert-Bapaume. The Germans had to be prevented from bringing down their own defensive barrage preventing movement across no mans land. There were fewer German guns south of the Albert Bapaume Road, and the British could call on the more numerous French heavy guns for counter battery .
The worst losses and least success was on the frontage of the VIIIth corps where a “safety factor” played a grotesque part in the tragedy that unfolded. A number of a mines had been dug under the German trenches. Almost all were scheduled to be detonated at 07.28, on the 1st July, two minutes before zero hour. This would allow two minutes for the debris to fall before the British infantry assaulted the crater. One of these was under the Hawthorn redoubt near the village of Beaumont Hamel. The commander of VIII Corps, Lieutenant General Sir Aylmer Hunter-Weston wanted this to be fired some hours before the attack, so that the redoubt could be occupied before the assault, but sufficiently in advance that any general alarm would have died down by zero hour. This was vetoed by more senior commanders, but as a compromise the mine would be fired at 07.20, ten minutes before Zero.
This allowed for a plan to occupy the crater early, but it required the heavy artillery bombardment of the redoubt and adjacent trenches to lift during the assault. However, instead of fire lifting only from the immediate area, all of the VIII Corps heavy artillery was ordered to lift at 7:20 a.m. and the field artillery to lift at 7:25 a.m. A light Shrapnel barrage fired by the divisional field artillery, was to continue on the front trench until zero hour but in the 29th Division sector, half of the guns were to lift three minutes early.
This allowed the German defenders ten minutes notice of the impending assault and condemned the infantry from three divisions to heavy casualties and failure across the breadth of their front. It did not matter how well the wire had been cut or whether the infantry crept out into no man’s land. One of the attacking battalions lost all its officers before zero hour.
So why did the seemingly responsible commanders, who were professional experienced soldiers, get this decision so wrong?
One simplistic, but popular explanation is that the commanders were incompetent “butchers and bunglers”iii. Professor Norman Dixon in the Psychology of Military Incompetence (4) argued that there was something about military training which led to poor decision making. Indeed, the performance of General Sir Aylmer Hunter Weston is hard to describe as anything less than incompetent. “Hunter-Bunter” was a strange man with a command style reminiscent of that of the monstrous Blackadder creation General Sir Anthony Cecil Hogmanay Melchett. The disastrous decision to lift fire early across the VIII Corps front was very much in keeping with his micro-management and idiosyncratic decision-making. He had a history of over compensating for the risks of friendly fire in Gallipoli. He was found out on the first day on the Somme. Afterwards, although he retained his command, he was never entrusted with command in an offensive and only employed on quiet sectors. Could he have been removed earlier? To be fair to Rawlinson and Haig, Hunter-Weston was new to the Western Front. He had commanded the 29th Division and then the VIII Corps at Cape Helles in Gallipoli and arrived with his corps as an experienced commander and a reputation of relatively competent performance.
Elsewhere in the BEF the disastrous decision about fire plan timings resulted from agreements between groups of people, commanders and subordinates and their staffs.
In the first instance, the senior commanders were not looking at this problem. The correspondence between Rawlinson and Haig shows a focus on the problems of exploiting success. In earlier battles such as Loos and Neuve Chapelle the British infantry had taken the German first line wherever they had adequate artillery support.
The plan for the Somme was a bad compromise. Rawlinson, commander of the fourth army, put forward a plan for a phased advance, initially taking just the first German line, which he and his staff thought was within the capabilities of the resources available. Haig did not think this was ambitious enough. He rejected the plans and insisted that an attempt should be made to breach both the front line and the second line to ensure that any opportunity for a breakthrough was not missed.
On this occasion Haig was able to impose his will on Rawlinson, despite reservations about the artillery being spread too thin made by the newly appointed artillery adviser at GHQ, General Birch. Birch and Rawlinson, having expressed their opinions in private, then issued orders and expressed their confidence in them.
As the Official History notes, not everybody assumed that the enemy would be flattened by the preparatory barrage. There seems to have been sufficient internal criticism for Rawlinson to include the following in the Fourth Army tactical notes;
“it must be remembered that all criticism by subordinates of their superiors, and of orders received from superior authority, will in the end recoil on the heads of the critics and undermine their authority with those below them.” (5)
This was hardly the atmosphere in which to challenge the fundamentals of the plan. The late, great professor Richard Holmes remarked in the episode on the Battle of the Somme in the Western Front BBC series that the generals of the first world war were stronger in physical than moral courage.
It should be said that the BEF was very quick to learn and the next major attack, on the 14th July, less than two weeks after the first day, was conducted with a much greater concentration of artillery fire and with the infantry following a creeping barrage.
There is a modern relevance of the battle of the Somme. This was a major high profile project into which much had been invested and expected. The resources available weren’t enough to deliver the hoped for results. At the heart of the plan were flaws that, could have been spotted and rectified but were not. The plan required subordinates to achieve “stretch targets”, “do more with less”, and “sell the party line” within an organisational culture that inhibited internal criticism.
The safety margin dilemma occurs frequently across all walks of life. If anything, the compensation culture makes it harder to choose to take risks. It is very hard to imagine the modern British Army willingly encroach on safety distances even if was the only way to win a battle.
We may not face machine guns and un-cut wire, but we often make important business and other decisions against a back ground of pressure from peers and superiors to agree to deliver uncertain commitments as part of a team effort. Many of us are under pressure to support decisions that have been made and face severe personal and career sanctions for whistle blowing. What is it that we can do to be more effective both as leaders in these situations and followers?
If you would like to visit the Somme and see the story of the artillery on the Somme join Gunner Tours on the Somme Centenary tour. email@example.com
The centenary of the battle of the Somme, which took place between June-and November 1916, has a special significance in Gunner history. This was the largest battle fought by the British army, costing 400,000 casualties. While public interest in the battle centres on the infantry who went 'over the top' on the first of July, the Gunner battle started a week earlier with the opening bombardment by the largest number of guns assembled.The Somme was essentially an artillery battle, with the guns the only weapons capable of clearing wire, destroying and neutralising defences and artillery. This was an awesome responsibility, and the success or failure of the infantry was down to the effectiveness of the fire plan. The story of how the Royal Artillery learned during the campaign is one of successful innovation, and a matter of pride to Gunners.It is also a human story. We will see where Gunner staff work made a difference; where Gunners went over the top with the infantry and where . Gunners worked to the point of exhaustion in the service of the guns.This tour will tell this story at the places where this largest artillery battle took place 100 years after the opening barrage was fired.
(1) Brigadier-General Sir James E. Edmonds; Military Operations: France and Belgium, 1916, Volume I: Sir Douglas Haig’s Command to the 1st July: Battle of the Somme,, 1932
(2) Strong P and Marble S, Artillery in the Great War
(3) John Laffin;s polemic “Butchers and Bunglers of World War one” is the publication which is most associated with the term.
(4) Dixon N F, On The Psychology Of Military Incompetence, Basic Books, 1976
The 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.
Napoleon 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.
Four 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.
There 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.
100 years ago this autumn a visit to the lavatory by a Gunner Subaltern led to a breakthrough in military science. Archimedes had his inspiration sitting in the bath. Lieutenant William Lawrence Bragg, while sitting on the lavatory .
In 1915 William Lawrence Bragg was a 25 year old subaltern borne in Adelaide Australia. He had joined the Territorial Army while a Cambridge under graduate. when war broke out was a Second Lieutenant in the Leicestershire RHA. He was a brilliant mathematician and physicist who discovered in 1912 what is known as Bragg’s law of X-ray diffraction; the basis for the determination of crystal structure. In September 1915 he was awarded the 1915 Nobel Prize for Science, jointly with his father, William Henry Bragg. He is still the youngest ever recipient of the prize.
In 1915 Bragg was working on a key problem facing the artillery on the Western front. How to locate enemy artillery. One of the most promising technologies was to use the sound of the gun. But it was not easy to pick out the sound of the gun firing from the shock wave of the shell breaking the sound barrier, the crack from the thump. Nor did they know how much of the energy generated by a gun firing was transmitted as low-frequency sounds, too low to be audible.
The breakthrough came when Bragg was in the lavatory in his billet in Flanders. This was a a small room, with a door, but no window. When the door was shut, the only connection to the outside world was the pipe leading from under his toilet seat. There was a British six-inch gun about 400 metres away. When it fired, his bare bottom was actually lifted off the toilet seat by the inaudible infra-sound energy, even though he could often hear nothing at all. So now he knew there was enormous energy in the inaudible infra-sound.
It took a second eureka moment to solve the problem. Corporal W S Tucker, another physicist in Bragg’s team was accommodated in a tar paper hut. There were a couple of holes near his bed space. He noticed that even on a day with no wind or sound, annoying puffs of air would blow onto his face. He and Bragg compared notes and they deduced that these were the result of low frequency sound from artillery. He made a detector out of a wooden ammunition box, which became known as the Tucker microphone.
This led to the development of microphones to record the inaudible frequencies making it possible to develop sound ranging as a way to locate enemy guns to within 50metres. The same technology, applied in a slightly different way made it possible to measure the the muzzle velocity of individual guns, which made it easier to predict fire. Together these technique was used to devastating effect from 1917 onwards. For example at Cambrai 20 November 1917 a barrage of 1000 guns fired a predicted fire plan and hitting enemy guns located by sound alone. Bragg shared the results of his work with his father. Bragg senior was working for the Admiralty on acoustic detection and the result was ASDIC, an echo locating system to detect submerged submarines.
Bragg ended the war with an OBE, MC and three mentions in dispatches. He went on to have a very distinguished scientific career, including the announcement of the discovery of DNA. Bragg is probably the only serving soldier to receive the Nobel prize for Science.
In July this year a group of soldiers from from the 2nd Battalion the Royal Anglian Regiment conducted a battlefield study in Normandy following the actions of their antecedent Regiments. The purpose of the exercises was to undertake a Battlefield Study over four days in Normandy with the aim of enhancing the conceptual training of Officers WOs and NCOs of an infantry battalion with regard to the conduct of operations of a light role battalion in conventional war, operating in conjunction with other forces. Around 25 officers and NCOs took part, preparing pre tour briefings and syndicate exercises for work on each stand.
The Normandy battlefield offers a good basis for battlefield studies, drawing on the wide range of military operations undertaken by the British Army in different phases of war. Following the story of the County regiments which were merged to form the Royal Anglian Regiment was an opportunity to personalise the Normandy campaign. Each of the companies of the current battalion is associated with one of the antecedents; the Royal Lincolnshire Regiment, Royal Leicestershire Regiments Northamtonshire and Bedfordshire & Hertfordshire Regiments. Soldiers from each of these regiments took part in the Normandy campaign, which offered an opportunity to explore different infantry roles in a major war.
1st Battalion Royal Lincolnshire. Parent formation: 8th infantry Brigade of 3rd Infantry division, landed on D Day and took part in the 3rd Infantry divisions battles for Caen .
4th Battalion Royal Lincolnshire Regiment. 146 Brigade of 49 infantry Division. Landed on 13th June, D+7 and took part in the battles south of Bayeux The division was transferred to the 1st Corps on East of Caen and fought in the breakout from Normandy, the advance to the Seine and the capture of le Havre.
1st Battalion the Royal Leicestershire Regiment: 147 Brigade of 49 infantry division. This battalion was not originally scheduled to serve in Normandy. It replaced the 6th Battalion the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment disbanded at the end of June 1944. It fought in the 49th Divisions battles during the breakout from Normandy and afterwards.
2nd Battalion the Hertfordshire Regiment joined 9 Beach Group, and the commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel J.R. Harper, was appointed overall commander. The Infantry battalions which served as beach Sub Area troops are not as well known as the assault infantry. Despite Harper’s hope that it would be redeployed as infantry upon the completion of this task, it was disbanded on 17 August and the soldiers dispatched in replacement drafts to other units.
No formed battalions of the Northamptonshire Regiment took part in the Normandy campaign, but individual officers and soldiers did.
STRONG POINT COD – SWORD BEACH
The 2nd Battalion the Royal Lincolnshire Regiment landed on Sword beach on D Day.
Five hours earlier Major R H Barber of the Northamptonshire Regiment had led D Company of the 2nd Battalion the East Yorkshire Regiment, one of the assault waves on Sword beach. A veteran of the North West Frontier, he was also a falconer and had published a bibliography of Falconry. He was killed by a mortar bomb which struck his Company head quarters and is buried in Hermanville War Cemetery.
VER SUR MER
On the morning of 6 June 1944 the 2nd Hertfordshires landed in the fourth wave on King Sector of Gold Beach, through which two brigades of the 50th Division would come ashore. This unit landed on D Day at Ver-sur-Mer and provided local security, command and control and labour for unloading ships on King Sector of Gold Beach. It was involved in fighting throughout D Day and it cleared bypassed
positions in the hamlet of Vaux that had been harassing movement on the beach, the assault being supported by one of the group’s Bofors guns. In the following days the battalion assisted the Royal Engineers in clearing land mines and moving supplies off the beach. A memorial to the regiment stands near the point at which they landed. Even though the British had built a prefabricated Mulberry harbour at Arromanches, about half of all stores landed on the Normandy beach head was landed on the open beaches
OP MARTLET TESSEL WOOD AND RAURAY
Operation Martlet was the first major action for the 4th Lincolns. This was a Divisional attack to clear the Rauray feature. This was an area of high ground which dominated the Western Flank of the attack planned by VIII Corps, called Operation Epsom to the East of The bloody battles between the 49th Division and some of the toughest German Army and SS Panzer formations led to the destruction of much German armour and the 49th Division squiring the nickname of “Butcher Bears.” It is possible to trace the story of these actions over the rural landscape, which although not marked by many memorials, remains identifiable. The Ruray ridge is a place to look at the British army on the defensive against an armoured opponent. Although the 1st Tyneside Scottish bore the brunt of the German attack, 4th Lincolns were engaged to their west.
Operation Charnwood 7-8th July 1944, the capture of Caen was 2nd Lincolns first major action. It was a three divisional attack supported by massive firepower, including the first use of heavy bombers for tactical bombing. The 2nd Lincolns were at the extreme left of the line. Their attack was made with minimal artillery support and over ground exposed to fire from across the Orne canal on their own left. The capture of Herouville was a tough fight which cost the 2nd Lincolns around 200 casualites. The CWGC records 50 members of 2nd Lincolns killed between 8-12 July, many of whom are buried in plot II of Ranville Commonwealth War Cemetery. The Herouville
area is not as heavily developed as other suburbs of Caen and it is still possible to follow the action on the ground and walk the assault route. There is an excellent account of this action written by a descendent of a veteran who took part in the action. http://www.angelfire.com/scary/richi/charnwood/2.pdf
Operation Goodwood 18-20 July 1944 was an attack by three armoured divisions supported by artillery and aircraft in a southerly direction East of Caen. Three infantry divisions carried out subsidiary operations in support of op Goodwood. The 3rd Infantry Division’s role was to attack towards Traon to protect the Eastern flank of the armoured advance. 2nd Lincoln’s was deployed in Banneville. The dry ground had been so badly churned up by bombing that it was difficult to dig slit trenches. The battalion endured bombardment from mortars which cost it ten officers and 200 other rank casualties in 72 hours. One of the best places to contemplate this operation is the War Cemetery at Bannevile en Campagne, which is not far from “Black Orchard”. After this action 3rd Infantry Division were redeployed to the Western flank of the British Second Army, but 2nd Lincoln’s do not seem to have been involved in further heavy fighting in Normandy.
The Normandy battles offer an opportunity to explore the role of leadership in units undergoing the strains of battle. The unit that the 1st Leicesters replaced,6th Duke of Wellingtons, had disintegrated under the pressure of heavy casualties. The respective roles of officers and warrant and non-commissioned officers under these circumstances makes for an interesting discussion topic.
In mid August the 49th Division, and with it the 4th Lincolns and 1st Leicesters were on the left flank of the 1st Canadian Army offensives along the Caen to Falaise road which formed the northern jaws of the Falaise Pocket. The Germans which the Lincolns and Leicesters faced were conducting an orderly withdrawal towards the Seine and sought to impose delay on each river line. Several of the villages remember the these units as their liberators. In the past groups of veterans have been feted in Conteville, Poussy la Campagne, Billy, Airan and Chicheboville. There is a memorial to 4th Lincolns in the village of Airan. The acting CO Major Stokes was killed by a stray shell on the 13th August. His death was particularly mourned as an ex-city counsellor and pre war TA soldier. The advance to the Seine is an episode which has been overshadowed by the capture of Paris. Yet the river crossings of the Vie and Touques were no picnic. On the 19-20th August the 4th Lincolns struggled to cross the Vie and on the 23 Aug river Touques was only crossed as divisonal crossing with heavy casualties for 1st Leicesters.
The 49th Division had a further operation in Normandy, the capture of Le Havre in Upper Normandy. The advance to the Seine is a chance to examine the operations of the British Army in the Advance to combat and obstacle crossing.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission database lists 338 men of the antecedent Regiments of 2 Royal Anglian Regiment who died between 6th June and 31st August 1944 and are buried or commemorated in France or the UK. In the Normandy campaign there were 3.5 wounded for each dead, so the total casualties suffered by the four battalions serving in the campaign and individual soldiers attached to other units would have been around 1,200..
The casualties were not evenly distributed between the Regiments. 248 of the dead were from the Lincolns, 54 from the Leicesters, 27 from The Beds and Herts and 9 from the Northamptonshires.
Two battalions of the Lincolnshire Regiment served in Normandy, one from D Day. The CWGC records list 123 of the dead from 2nd Battalion which landed on D Day and 118 from the 4th,,which landed a week later. The Leicesters which landed in July, lost all but eight of their war dead in August, after the break out had started.
Although no units of the Northamptonshire Regiment served in Normandy, six officers and two private soldiers are buried or commemorated in Normandy. Two of the officers were killed as Commanders with other infantry units. Two of the officers and two of the privates died as Army Commandos and one officer with 8 Para.
These figures are not entirely consistent. The CWGC records do not always include the correct unit and may have excluded soldiers from other cap-badges who became casualties while serving with one of these units, such as Lt James Richardson a Canadian Officer Loaned to the 2nd Lincolns, who died of his wounds on the 9th July. However they give an indication of the scale of losses.
CASUALTIES AND THE REALITIES OF WAR FOR AN INFANTRY BATTALION IN NORMANDY
Dividing 1,200 casualties/338 dead by the 88 day duration of the campaign gives an average of 13-14 casualties per day of which, around 4 would be fatal, a loss of around a section plus per day. However the casualties did not occur at a steady rate. 42 men died on the 8th July, almost all lost in the 2nd Battalion’s attack on Herouville, and a further 21 were lost on 20th July in Op Goodwood. 24 men of the 1st Leicesters were killed on the 23 August, in the assault crossing of the River Torques, a largely forgotten engagement and under visited battlefield, while Op Martlet cost 4th Lincolns 15 dead on 25th June. Multiplying these numbers by the number of wounded would mean that these units would have lost between 60 and 160 men, between one and two companies on these days.
Most of the losses would have been suffered from the 360 riflemen in the rifle companies in each battalion. The total losses of 1,200 approximate to the number of riflemen in the rifle companies of the four battalions which served in the campaign and are more than the three which served as infantry. Perhaps this is why the Normandy campaign was such a good place to study leadership within an infantry battalion in war.
In addition to the story of these units the itinerary also included a study of the battle for the Hillman position captured by the 1st Suffolks, antecedents of 1st Battalions’s Vikings rather than the Poachers of the 2nd battalion. We also included lunch stops in Arromanches and Pegasus bridge, which offered museums and shops to explore.
A CUSTOMISED BATTLEFIELD STUDY FOR ANY CAP BADGE?
This battlefield study followed the fortunes of the antecedents of one cap badge. There was plenty to see and talk about, and much that was unique to this tour. The same kind of tour could be probably be undertaken for almost any British army unit with WW2 antecedents.
To find out more about planning staff rides and battlefield studies contact Frank@Baldwinbattlefieldtours.com
Two dramatic episodes from 1914 have been the centre of commemorations for the Royal Artillery. E Battery were supporting the cavalry screen ahead of the BEF when they fired the famous first shot on 22nd August 1914. The role of L battery in the “Affair at Néry” on 1st September 1914 has caught media and public attention ever since 1914. The German surprise attack on the 2nd British Cavalry brigade was beaten off with heroic acts rewarded by three Vcs and two MMs to the men of L Battery, and led to the award of the Honour Title of “Néry”. These events have tended to overshadow the other actions undertaken by E and L battery during the First World War, and by other batteries of the current 1st Regiment RHA.(1)
The current batteries are A Battery (The Chestnut Troop), B, E, L (Nery) and O Battery (The Rocket Troop) . Their 1914 home stations and wartime deployment are summarised in the following table.
Station in 1914
Indian Bde RHA then XVIth Bde RHA 4 Cav Div/Army troops
XVth Bde RHA 29 Div
1 Cav Div then 3 Bde RHA – 2 Cav Div.
1 Cav Div then XVth Bde RHA
Vth Brigade RHA 8 Div then Army troops
Each Battery was commanded by a Major with a battery captain, and three subaltern section commanders. Two Subsections formed a Section and in a six gun battery these would be designated as Left, Centre and Right Sections. A Subsection consisted of a single gun and limber drawn by six horses (with three drivers), eight gunners (riding on the limber or mounted on their own horses), and an ammunition wagon also drawn by six horses (with three drivers).
RHA batteries were armed with the 13 Pdr Gun. The 13 Pdr fired a 13 lb shrapnel shell to a range of 5,900 yd (5,400 m). The 18 Pdr, which equipped the Field Artillery fired a projectile weighing nearly 50% heavier and for which an HE shell was in service by October 1914. It also out-ranged the 13 Pdr and had a range of 6,525 yd (5,966 m) and 7,800 yd (7,100m) with the trail dug in. During the course of the war all but E Battery were re-equipped with 18 Pdr.
The introduction of the dial sight had made it possible to operate in an indirect role. However the flat trajectory of the 13 Pdr and the limited signal equipment tended to restrict indirect fire to situations where the battery commander could position the guns behind cover and act as the observer from a position where he could see the guns and the target. There were no established forward observer parties, but as trench warfare developed and telephones and wire became more widely available, an observation post might be deployed at some distance from the battery or a liaison team sent to the infantry.
Although indirect fire techniques were known and practised, the RHA went to war with equipment better suited to operating in the direct role. The 13 Pdr had a flat trajectory and it would be difficult to find good indirect gun positions in broken country such as the industrial landscape of Mons. The only ammunition provided for the 13 Pdr was shrapnel, which is very effective against troops in the open, but almost useless against troops behind cover.
The part the Horse Artillery played in the opening months was not far removed from pre war expectations. British Cavalrymen were equipped with the same SMLE rifle as the infantry and marksmanship training, which gave them an edge of the carbine equipped Germans in dismounted action. However, it was the battery of 13 Pounders supporting each brigade which contained the major part of its fire power, and guns which would inflict the majority of casualties in the Fist World War..
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) records 233 men as serving in one of the batteries.(2) Given WW1 norms of two wounded for each dead, this would imply around 700 casualties during the war. The establishment of a 1914 RHA Battery was five officers and 200 other ranks, giving 1,025 for the five current batteries. This gives a conservative estimate of a fatality rate of just under 23% of the establishment across all batteries. The casualties were not evenly distributed. L Battery’s 78 fatalities implies a figure of killed and wounded well in excess of the battery establishment of 205. Nor was 1914 the year in which L Battery suffered its highest casualties.
Current 1 RHA Batteries Fatalities 1914-1921
(Note that these figures are an indicative minimum. The CWGC database does not always identify the unit in which a soldier served. . )
Even before Néry, the fortunes of war placed L Battery in a position to play a significant role in the battles of Elouges on the 24th and Le Cateau on the 26th. On each occasion they brought down fire on German troops attempting to outflank the army. Even without Néry curtailing their participation in the campaign, L Battery were one of the most actively engaged RHA Batteries.
The fighting in the early months of the First World War was very different to other campaigns on the Western Front, or even other campaigns of the war. The pattern of warfare was closer in some ways to that of the previous century. The battles were of short duration with one side disengaging. Mons, Le Cateau, Elouges and Néry can be identified by a single day. At Le Cateau the British Army even deployed anachronistically on an open plain with the guns drawn up in the front line as if it were 1815. It was not until the battle of the Aisne that both sides became aware of the power that C20th weapons gave to the defence. After the trench lines developed between September and November 1914 the character of the war changed to become one continuous engagement. There would be no more individual battle days as bloody as Nery, but a trickle of casualties throughout the four years of the war, with some days bloodier than others.
In November 1914 O Battery arrived on the Western Front as part of the Vth Brigade RHA in the 8th Infantry Division’s artillery. . In 1915 The Chestnut Troop joined them on the Western Front as part of I Indian Brigade, Royal Horse Artillery. They both took part in the battles in the Neuve Chapelle area 1914-15.
The rebuilt L Battery joined B battery in the XVth RHA Brigade as part of the divisional artillery of the 29th Division in 1915. This division was formed from regular army garrisons around the world and first deployed in the Gallipoli campaign. It would become known as the “Indomitable” 29th and would take part in more attacks than any other formation. There is no specific monument in Gallipoli for the artillery of the 29th Division. However, one of the first fatalities suffered by the reconstituted L battery was Bombardier Darbyshire, who only relinquished the layers seat of F Sub at Néry after his ears and nose bled from concussion. He was killed on 12th July 1915 and is buried in Lancashire Landing Cemetery at Cape Helles, along with nine other horse gunners from B and L Battery. A further seventeen are buried or commemorated elsewhere in Turkey, Egypt and Malta.
After the evacuation from Gallipoli the 29th Division was brought back to the Western front, in time for the big push on the Somme. The Divisional symbol of the red triangle can be seen at Newfoundland Park, and tin triangles can be seen on the packs of the soldiers from the divisions filmed on the First Day of the Somme. At 07.30 on the 1st July the 2nd Royal Fusiliers and 16th Battalion the Middlesex Regiment stormed the crater formed by the detonation of the Hawthorn mine. 2 Lt Grant-Suttie and a party of telephonists from B Battery advanced with the CO of 16th Middlesex into the mine crater, but were forced to withdraw, with Bdr Port wounded, and Bdr Brockett and Driver Indge missing. Brockett’s body was found and he lies in Hawthorn Ridge Cemetery No.1, Auchonvillers. Indge’s was never identified but might be one of the 68 unidentified graves in this cemetery. He is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing.
O battery also took part in the battle of the Somme supporting the operations of the 8th Division on its disastrous first day, and in October in the battle of Le Transloy. Three O battery soldiers are buried on the Somme. The lower number of fatalities in 1916 than in 1917 and 1918 might be attributed to the weakness of the German counter battery artillery in the Somme. Nor were any of the batteries placed in situations were they were exposed to small arms or direct fire. There were very few occasions in 1916 where sufficient ground had been gained to justify moving the guns forward. No German counter attacks threatened the guns.
1917 was the bloodiest year for the 1st RHA Batteries, and can be attributed to the three major British offensives in that year. The 29th Division (B & L ) and V Brigade RHA (O Bty) took part in all three offensives. E Battery in two and Chestnut Troop in one.
The five week long Arras offensive 9 April – 16th May 1917 was one of the most intense the BEF endured. The daily casualty rate over the course of the battle was higher than any other BEF offensive. The initial attack was very successful, largely due to improvements in artillery technology and tactics,. German batteries were located by sound ranging and flash spotting, improved fuses increased lethality and enabled wire to be cut more easily. Aerial observation techniques and creeping barrages made it easier for the infantry to assault. In 1917 O Battery’s Vth RHA Brigade became an army artillery brigade and used to support whatever part of the line needed additional artillery support. On 9th April they supported the attack on Vimy Ridge by the Canadian Corps.
When attacks were successful artillery would need to be redeployed forwards if the infantry were not to advance beyond artillery range. On 24 April B and L Batteries followed up an infantry advance into a valley just North of the Wancourt Tower. As soon as the success signal was given the guns galloped forwards. According to the infantry the advance of the guns was a magnificent and inspiring sight, carried out with great dash and skill.(3) Unfortunately a German counter attack drove the infantry off the ridge, leaving L and B Battery in the open within rifle and machine gun range of German troops. The operations on the Arras front between April and June 1917 cost the XVth Bde RHA 49 killed, (including the BC and another officer from B Battery and six other officers) 74 wounded (including officers from each of B and L officers) and a further 13 men evacuated with shell shock.
The 29th Division was used as an assault division twice in the 3rd Battle of Ypres, fought in a muddy artillery landscape. The artillery destroyed the drainage along with the buildings and vegetation. On 16th August the 29th division assaulted the Langemark area alongside the 20th Division which included the late Harry Patch and his pals. Seven weeks later 29 Division attacked again on 4th October towards Poelcappelle. The main memorial to this attack is the memorial to Private Fred Dancocks of the 4th Worcesters who was awarded the VC for his gallantry capturing a bunker near Namur crossing on the old Ypres-Staden railway line, which is now a footpath.
The 3rd Battle of Ypres was an artillery battle. The Germans held the ring of low hills around Ypres. As the allies advanced it was hard to find solid ground for gun positions around the muddy shell holes. Solid platforms might be constructed from wood or even boxes of rations. These made it easier for the German counter battery fire. During the campaign B, L and O battery would have spent a lot of time in their gas masks. The Germans unleashed a new horror on the battlefield during this battle, drenching gun positions with persistent blister agent – Mustard Gas.
After the 3rd Battle of Ypres petered out in the muddy ruins of Passchendaele the 29th Division was picked to reinforce the 3rd Army’s attack at Cambrai. This battle was a test for new technology and tactics. Instead of a lengthy preliminary bombardment, the battle of Cambrai would use 400 tanks and a short intense fire plan based on predicted targets. The fire plan was as innovative as the massed use of tanks. All of the batteries of the current 1 RHA took part in this battle. The initial attack, on 20th November created a breach in one of the stronger sector of the Hindenberg line, capturing as much ground in fifteen hours as in five months in the Ypres Salient. The Germans too had a tactical surprise in store. On 30th November they too launched an attack under a heavy predicted barrage, in their case led by storm troops which infiltrated into and then broke through British infantry on the salient caused by the British success. This advance threatened the army artillery massed behind the British infantry, with some Germans within 40 yards of the guns. L Battery was order to act the rearguard to allow the army artillery to escape. They and a mixed force of infantry and artillerymen inflicted around 150 casualties on the Germans before withdrawing. The eight L Battery soldiers commemorated on the Cambrai memorial are evidence of the cost of this operation. The official history includes praise for L Battery, a rare mention of an individual battery.(4)
Cambrai would be a good battle for a 1st RHA commemoration. This the one battle in the war in which each battery served. It allows for a focus on the tactical and technical innovation which has characterised the professional ethos of the Royal Regiment.
At the beginning of 1918, the Germans had a chance to win the First World War before the American Army took the field in strength. The Germans redeployed troops released from the Eastern Front by the collapse of Imperial Russia. After three years of allied attempts to break the stalemate of the Western Front, the German offensives from 21th March initiated a eight months of mobile warfare. Between March and June the Germans achieved a series of breakthroughs and forced the allies back.
All of the Batteries were involved in these battles. The Cavalry divisions were deployed to plug gaps in the line. The majority of Chestnut Troop’s war dead are buried or commemorated on the Somme battlefields of 1918. There is an account in the History of the Royal Artillery on the Western Front of how the observed fire from E and two other RHA Batteries held a German advance on the 22nd March for a whole day. (5) The BC of O Battery was given 600 infantrymen back from leave, eight lewis guns from No3 Kite Balloon Company to fill a gap in the line. (6)
These battles are rarely the subject of battlefield studies. They are as significant as defensive battles as Mons or Le Cateau, but much larger. These are the only major defensive battles fought by the British Army that approach the scale of the operations on the Eastern Front in WW2.
The tide turned in August with the dramatic breakthrough at Amiens which repeated the techniques demonstrated at Cambrai, but on a larger scale. 450 tanks supported by a surprise predicted barrage by just under 1,500 guns and 800 aircraft broke through and destroyed a German army in what was the “Black day” for the German army. Chestnut Troop, E and O Battery took part in these operations.
After Cambrai the 29th Division was redeployed to the Ypres sector and fought in the defensive battle of the Lys and in the counter attacks in the summer On the 27th September 1918 B & L batteries, with the other batteries of 15 Bde RHA came into action outside the Menin Gate in Ypres.(7) The following morning they fired a creeping barrage in support of the 29th Division attack which recaptured the ground ceded in April capturing the village of Gheluveldt by the end of the day. L and B Batteries were deployed forwards to Gheluveldt on the 30th September, and supported the attacks over the River Lys in October.
1919 and Afterwards
The Armistice did not mean demobilisation. The CWGC records war dead until 1921 as the regular army was deployed to respond to the messy aftermath of the War. The CWGC records the deaths of Lance Naik Batu Khan of Chestnut Troop in St. Sever Cemetery Extension, Rouen (23 Dec 1918) and Driver Noor Mohammed of B Battery in Haidar Pasha Cemetery in Turkey (30 Jan 1920), and serve as a reminder of the British Army as an Imperial force and the Regular Army’s relationship with the Indian Sub continent.
The history of 1st RHA’s batteries on the First World War is that of the Western Front, its batteries were ubiquitous, “quo fas et gloria decunt”. Their actions took place among some of the familiar land marks of the Western front. Their battles tell the story of the development of technology and tactics during the wear and the part that the Gunners. Anyone taking a professional interest in the develo-pment of artillery on the battlefield would be remiss if they restricted their interest to the 1914 battles.
These were also actions in which at least 233 men lost their lives and perhaps 500 wounded. One of the key themes of commemoration is Remembrance, which should include understanding what these men did and why. The Centenary is an opportunity to visit the graves, memorials and the places where these men fought and fell. Of course, we celebrate the achievements of the Bradbury, Dorrell and Nelson at Nery, worthy of the highest award for gallantry that Britain can bestow. It is proper that L Battery remembers these men and the others that were lost at Nery. But the Centerary ought to be the time to find out about some of the other men who served the guns and remember them. Were the eight members of L Battery who fell on 30th November at Cambrai necessarily less brave? Were any of the men who fell any less mourned?
While many people are familiar with the battles and battlefields of the Western Front, far fewer have explored them from the Gunner’s point of view. The actions by the 1 RHA batteries are ideal topics for battlefield studies, conveniently located from the UK. The Centenary of the First World War is an ideal opportunity to undertake low level battlefield studies.
For more information on planning battlefield studies ands staff rides contact Gunner Tours www.gunnertours.com
 This article is based on a talk given to the Officers of the 1st Regiment Royal Horse Artillery on 8th April 2014.
 www.CWGC.org These are minimum numbers. The CWGC also lists RHA as “15 Brigade RHA,” which may include soldiers who might or might not be members of B or L Battery. They might have been members of Y Battery, the Warwickshire TA RHA Battery or the Brigade Ammunition Train.
 Farndale The Royal Regiment of Artillery on the Western Front
 Esmond, J E. Military Operations France and Belgium 1917, The Battle of Cambrai CH XV HMSO 1934
 War Diary D Battery RHA quoted in Farndale The Royal Regiment of Artillery on nthe Western Front
 Esmond, J E. Military Operations France and Belgium 1918, the German March Offensive and its preliminaries, CH XV HMSO 1934
 WO/95-2291 15 Bde RHA War Diary Entry September 1918
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