Tag Archives: France

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

The Napoleonic era Hero who Treated the Wounded on the Somme

Vincent_Eyre (1)When war broke out between France and the German states in August 1870 , the 59 year old retired  Major General Sir Vincent Eyre KCSI, CB  happened to be in France.  This was the first war to take place in North West Europe since Waterloo over half a century earlier. Since Waterloo much had changed. Telegraphs and newspapers brought home to the public the suffering of the wounded. Florence Nightingale had revolutionised nursing. The Geneva Convention of 1864 had provided for the neutrality of the medical personnel of armed forces, the humane treatment of the wounded, the neutrality of civilians who voluntarily assisted them and the Red Cross Society.

PD_204_-_SAINT-QUENTIN_-_Les_Prussiens_sur_la_Grand'Place_en_1871
Saint-Quentin under German Occupation 1871
treatment locations supported from Amiens
Locations of casualties treated by the British National Society forward base at Amiens covering the battlefields of Picardy 1870-71

Sir Vincent Eyre and Lady Eyre, in the name of the English Red Cross Society formed a committee in Bolougne and raised a British volunteer ambulance service. It provided hospitals, field ambulances medical staff and vehicles to collect and treat the wounded on battlefields across Northern France including many places familiar to the soldiers of the Great War such as Amiens Villers-Brettonoux, Bapaume, Peronne and St Quentin, the Somme battlefields of 1870-1871. These were led by British military officer and nurses trained by Florence Nightingale. The British brought their Indian experience and some staff including the Pharsee wife of the surgeon at St Quentin. including some By their medical services were treating 15,000- 20,000 patients a month.(1)  Eyre’s report is in The report on the operations of the British National  Society for air to the Sick and Wounded in War.

Bapaume-tableau-Faidherbe
The battle of Bapaume 1870 was one of the few french victories of the war. There is a monument to this battle on the Bapaume Arras road.

Vincent Eyre was born in 1811, in then Napoleonic era, four years before Waterloo. The son of a captain and educated at Norwich Grammar School. Eyre entered the Military Academy at Addiscombe when about fifteen, and passed out into the artillery of the company on 12 Dec. 1828.  He was gazetted to the Bengal establishment, and landed in Calcutta 21 May 1829. After eight years he was promoted to be first lieutenant, and appointed to the horse artillery of the Company.

The Remnants of an Army 1879 Elizabeth Butler (Lady Butler) 1846-1933 Presented by Sir Henry Tate 1897 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N01553
The Remnants of an Army 1879 Elizabeth Butler (Lady Butler) 1846-1933 Presented by Sir Henry Tate 1897 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N01553  A few other stragglers and the hostages survived, but 16,500 soldiers and civilians died durign the retreat from Kabul

In 1839 Eyre was appointed commissary of ordnance to the Kabul field force and present during the 1841 rising. Eyre was in command of two guns sent out with a sally from Kabul and severely wounded. During the retreat from Kabul Eyre, still suffering from his wound, and his wife and child were surrendered as hostages. They were lucky. The dozen or so hostages were the only survivors out of some 4,500 soldiers and 12,000 civilians in retreat the column that withdrew from Kabul, and freed from being sold as slaves to the Uzbeks by a dramatic rescue.

Fifteen years later, in July 1857 Major Eyre was moving his company of the Bengal Artillery from Calcutta up into Oudh. Being the wet season of the year, when the river level was high, the gunners and their guns were usually conveyed up the river Ganges by river steamer, while the drivers and horses marched by road. While en route, Eyre heard that three Native Infantry regiments had mutinied and had attacked and besieged the civilian population at the small town of Arrah. (Now Ara)

rel
The relief of Arrah by Modern artist David Rowlands. http://www.davidrowlands.co.uk/gallery/gal_detail.asp?varPaintCode=096

Eyre disembarked his men and guns, collected a party of HM’s 5th Fusiliers and set off for Arrah. His own horses not having arrived, he commandeered local bullocks to draw his two 9-pounder guns and one 24-pounder howitzer. His ammunition was carried in country carts. After a march of over 40 miles, he encountered an enemy force of more than 10,000 trained soldiers barring his way at Bibigunge. On the morning of 2nd August he immediately led his small body of around 225 troops into the attack, carefully supported by the fire of his guns. Two attempts by the mutineers to rush the guns were broken with salvoes of case shot. After an hour’s fighting, the skirmishers of the 5th Fusiliers turned the enemy’s right flank. The gunners poured case and shrapnel into their front, and a bayonet charge by the Fusiliers won the day. This battle raised the siege of Arrah. Eyre’s exploits were recognised by the award of the battery honour title of 58th (Eyres) Battery Royal Artillery.
Fyre played a distinguished part in the relief of Lucknow and quelling the Indian Mutiny. After the rebellion he was promoted to Colonel and retired in ill health as a Major General in 1863. His first wife died in 1851 and in 1860 he married his cousin.

18705
Lithograph of Mrs Eyre, based on a sketch drawn by Vincent Eyre of his wife Emily while they were held captive in Afghanistan. Emily died in 1851.

Eyre was a talented artist. Whilst in captivity he made sketches of the captives which were smuggled out of Afghanistan and published. You can see some of the images here.

The 1870-71 Campaign in Picardy was the Sir Vincent Eyre’s last campaign. In 18180 he contracted a spinal disease and died the following year in Southern France.  On 2nd August every year 58 (Eyres) Battery Royal Artillery remember Eyre and commemorate the relief of Arrah  on their battery day. http://www.theraa.co.uk/history/battery-days

If you want to visit the sites of the 1870-71 battles or associated with the Royal Artillery contact Gunner Tours

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Notes

1. RUSI Journal:  Lecture by Surgeon Major F J Mouet,  A visit to the Battlefields and Ambulances of Northern France Friday 21st April 1871

14th July – the Battle of Bazentin Ridge

XIICorps_Trace_LREveryone has heard of the first day of the Somme, famously the day on which the British Army suffered its highest casualties on a single day. Fourteen days later the British Army made its next big push. Demonstrating that occasionally lessons are learned and learned quickly, the plan was a bit different from on the 1st of July.

There wasn’t quite as many guns or ammunition as there was on the first day, but all of it was concentrated ion the German defences along Bazentin ridge and the German guns behind it. One the 1st of July there was one gun to every 20 yards of front – spread over two defensive lines and the preparation lasted for a week, firing 1.5 million shells . On the 14th there was one gun for every 6 yards and the preparation lasted for 48 hours, firing just under half a million rounds.

2nd_Indian_Cav_Div
The Deccan Horse photographed on the Somme 1916. I wonder if any of the limbers on the road are from N Battery?

H Hour was 03.25 at dawn. The infantry of five divisions moved out into no mans land at night, and guided by mine tape deployed quietly a few hundred yards from the German front line. It was a great success and about three miles of German trenches were taken and a gap wide enough to launch cavalry – supported by a battery of horse artillery that still exists as N battery the Eagle Troop. However, by the time the cavalry was in action the Germans had blocked the gap.

N Battery RHA came into action just short of the wire protection the 14 July German Front line
N Battery RHA came into action just short of the wire protection the 14 July German Front line

Artillery deployment in the First World War looked a bit like this. Starting from 2’14” in this video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R0X7CfNBsq4

The map is the hand drawn trace for the XIII Corps fireplan for the attack on 14th July. Delville Wood is on the right hand side just below the number 12. The wood above the number 10 is High Wood. The poet and author Robert Graves was wounded in this attack at the churchyard in the village of Bazentin-le-Petit to the left of the number 9.

German_trench_Delville_Wood_September_1916
An abandoned German trench in much shelled Delville Wood taken September 1916 (Warwick Brooke – This is photograph Q 4267 from the collections of the Imperial War Museum)

The area between Delville and High woods was the focus for fighting for the next two months. It was calculated that seven shells a second landed on Delville Wood at times.

 

 

 

Two of the casualties on that day was Lieutenant Colonel Dudley George Blois DSO Commander of 84th Brigade RFA and his Trumpeter.  They were riding forwards to recconoitre new positions for 84th Field Brigade of 18th Division and caught by shellfire.  Blois  a descendent of the royal house of Blois, is commemorated in Blythburgh Church in Suffolk.

If you are interested in visiting any of these battlefields and hearing the Gunner side of the story contact Gunner Tours.gunner tours logo white on brown

 

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.

sketch13 verdun O 1st greencross_22-23June
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.

Monument_-_Fleury_devant_Douaumont_-_Detruit_en_1916_-_Version_juin_2007
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. 

Health and Safety and the First Day of the Somme

 

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.

Somme map first day
Attacks on the British Sector of the Somme

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.

rawlinson
Sir Henry Rawlinson, commander of the Fourth Army. His initial plan for a methodical advance was rejected.

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.”

Douglas_Haig
General Douglas Haig. He applied pressure to spread the artillery very thinly

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)

rock-paper-scissors
The race for the parapet: lethal game of rock-paper-scissors

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.

Shrapnel Barrage
Infantry could advance close behind the directional shrapnel barrage.

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)

HE splinters
Shell splinters for HE shells could fly hundreds of yards laterally, making it dangerous for friendly troops to approach closer than 200 metres.

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?

Artillery Dispositions 26th June 1916 behind Newfoundland Park
British (and some French) Artillery positions behind 29th Division of VIII Corps at Beaumont Hamel

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 Artillery Keyusing 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.

Beaumont Hamerl 1916 NAM 59353
Artillery Bombardment Beaumont Hamel Somme 1916

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 .

By F. A. Swaine - http://www.archive.org/details/cu31924088057223, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2494174
Lieutenant General Sir Aylmer Hunter-Weston By F. A. Swaine – http://www.archive.org/details/cu31924088057223, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2494174

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.

2015-06-23 18.52.16_wire cxutting
Barrage map for 29th Division at Beaumont Hamel showing wire cutting tasks for 18 pdr batteries (blue) and trench mortars (brown) and preparation targets for 4.5″ Howitzers (yellow)

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.

2015-06-23 18.52.30_barrage map 2
Barrage map for 29th Division Artillery showing the sections of front line trench and final lines for each battery.

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?

shrapnel shells_LR
7,000 shrapnel shells, enough for a divisional creeping barrage

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.

secondwave
The Second Wave: Colonel Walford’s Impression of an attack on the Somme, following the barrage shown on the left

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.

By F. A. Swaine - http://www.archive.org/details/cu31924088057223, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2494174
Hawthorn Redoubt mine. By F. A. Swaine – http://www.archive.org/details/cu31924088057223, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2494174

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)

60
The battlefield today. Part of the 29th Division sector in Newfoundland Park.  The barrage on the German trenches at the far side of the patk was provided by 13 battery of  XVII Field Brigade, which is still in the Royal Artillery as part of 28/143(Tombs Troop) Battery an AS 90 battery in 19 Regiment.

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.

Major-general_James_Frederick_Noel_Birch,_Cb_Art.IWMART1784
Major General J F N Birch CB, Haig’s senior Gunner argued that the artillery was spread too thin

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. info@gunnertours.com

Somme_centenary


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.

 Notes:

(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

(5) Fourth Army Tactical Notes

Vive L’Entrepreneur!

409px-David_-_Napoleon_crossing_the_Alps_-_Malmaison1If Entrepreneurs are leaders willing to take risks and exercise initiative, taking advantage of market opportunities by planning, organizing, and employing resources, often by innovating new or improving existing products, then Napoleon Bonaparte had these qualities in bucket loads. Bonaparte was born to an inconsequential Italian family in Corsica, but rose to make himself master of most of Europe. He was the ultimate executive chairman.
.
jean-lc3a9on_gc3a9rc3b4me_003Napoleon’s rise offers a lot of inspiration for the ambitious. He certainly took advantage of opportunity, turning the chaos of revolutionary France to his personal advantage, risking his life, as well as political and personal fortunes. He was someone who got things done and left a lasting mark. He made lasting changes to much of Europe’s legal systems and administration. He also left advice in his military maxims: “those who would aspire to become a great captain should study the great captains of history”. Napoleon’s domain was the military and political rather than business worlds. However, there is a lot to be learned from his working methods, leadership style and career.

In a world without telephones or electronic messages, he managed, indeed micromanaged most of Europe from the detailed information he carried in his carriage which doubled as an office. His management style is a case study in personal productivity, decision making, executive selection and delegation. His mastery of public relations and leadership was literally legendary; the Napoleonic Legend is quite a legend. He appealed to soldiers and civilians, political and financial backers, and, according to the Duke of Wellington his appearance on the battlefield was worth forty thousand men. We may all like to think that our personal presence makes a difference to those around us, but Napoleon was someone whose influence was acknowledged by his enemies.

Detail from the Coronation of Napoleon by Louis David

Napoleon’s career offers the kind of parables that illustrate some of the challenges faced by entrepreneurs. He had no exit strategy. By 1811 he had achieved almost everything he might have reasonably wanted for himself and his family. He ruled Europe and his family were on half a dozen thrones. He had a son and the foundations of a dynasty that might have dominated Europe if not the world. But he could not stop, and no one could stop him. As a self made man, he saw no need for governance. At his coronation he took the imperial crown from the Pope’s hands to crown himself. There were no constraints on his ultimately self destructive path.

His dynasty faced many of the problems facing businesses set up with family and circles of friends. Few of his family had any aptitude for leadership and management. Some of his early loyal friends were promoted beyond their competence. There was no easy way to bring outside talent into Napoleon’s management team.

La_Bataille_du_Pont_d'ArcoleNapoleon’s immediate subordinates, the Marshals, his “management team” are interesting. They were gallant soldiers and talented commanders, most of whom could never have risen to positions of power before the French Revolution. Under Napoleon’s direction they were a formidable team, but struggled when given independent roles. Was this because Napoleon was very good at coaxing a team performance from mediocre subordinates? Or, did his working methods stifle independent thought?

If you want to read more:-

Andrew Roberts recent biography “Napoleon the Great” is very sympathetic to Napolean.

Charles Esdaile’s Napoleon’s Wars: An International History, 1803-1815 is much less so.

Napoleon’s Military Maxims are here http://www.military-info.com/freebies/maximsn.htm

logo brownIf you would like to visit some places to visit associated with Napoleon

Paris was Napoleon’s Imperial Capital, and much in the city which marks his legacy, including his tomb in les Invalides.

The battlefield of Waterloo is the site of Napoleon’s final defeat and a good place to contemplate not merely the man but his place in public memory.

The battlefields of Austerlitz and Wagram near Brno and Vienna are places to consider Napoleon at the height of his powers.

Contact us at Business Battlefields

Shades of Private Ryan – Britain’s “Bedford Boys”

I recently took a group of businessmen on a visit to the battlefields of the western front.  One of them, Richard Whittemore, told me a fascinating story.  His great-grandfather was one of six brothers who served in the First World War.  Three of them died and are buried in France.   A fourth is commemorated on the Helles Memorial  in Gallipoli.

 Private 6710 Whittemore Sidney JPM 6 Nov 1914

Sydney Whittemore was a regular soldier who served in the 1st Battalion of the Bedfordshire Regiment. This unit fought at Mons Le Cateau and the battles of the Marne and Aisne before deploying to Ypres. He died on 7th Nov 1914. The battalion had recently deployed to the trenches East of Ypres. According to the war diary, “Enemy broke through line held by Regt about 200 yards to our left, carrying next Regt & some of our men with them. Our supports were moved to left… & assisted in driving enemy back. Qr. Mr.Sergt. Byford [4893 Thomas William BYFORD, DCM] (awarded Distinguished C. Medal) collected about 40 men & captured trench held by 21 Germans, killing or capturing all. Pte. Falla [8095 William FALLA, DCM] (awarded Distinguished C. Medal) ran on in advance, & getting on left of trench enfiladed enemy whilst remainder were rushing the trench. Our casualties about 7 officers & 140 other ranks killed wounded 7 missing. It is likely that Sidney Whittemore was fatally wounded, as he is buried in Bedford House Cemetery, several miles west.

Lieutenant Frederick Whittemore MC

hill60may1915 Frederick Whittemore was a hero. He joined the army, aged 18 in 1896 in the Bedfordshire Regiment. He served in the Boer War as a soldier. There isn’t a His By 1914 he was Company Sergeant Major in the 2nd Battalion the Bedfordshire Regiment in South Africa. On 17th October he was commissioned in the field to replace the officers that had been lost up to that point. 2 Lt Whittemore was wounded on the 29th October 1914 in the first battle of Ypres. On his recovery he joined the 1st battalion and served with distinction in the heroic defence of hill 60. As the sniper Officer he was credited with accounting for over 50 of the attacking Germans, but was wounded again with as bayonet. His actions resulted in the award of the Military Cross in December 1915.

whittemorefj“Following twenty years of service in the regiment and having served through two wars, Lieutenant Whittemore, MC, was mortally wounded during a night patrol on 29 March 1916. His comrades tried desperately to recover his body, but despite several attempts, were unable to reach it. As a result, Lieutenant Whittemore is remembered on the Arras Memorial to the missing. “

It was soldiers like Frederick and Sydney Whittemore who epitomised the “Old Contemptibles” of the BEF.

13657 Private Whittemore G W 9th Bn Sherwood Foresters (Notts and Derby Regiment).

George Whittemore was a member of one of the first Kitchener Battalion of the Nottinghamshire and Derby Regiment which formed in Derby in 1914. It sailed for Gallipoli and landed at Suvla bay in August 1915. He was killed on 15th October 1915 but has no known grave and ius commeorated on the Helles memorial.

G/14877 Private Whittemore F A, (MM and bar) 7th battalion Royal Sussex Regiment

7 R Sussex WhittemoreFrederick Arthur Whittemore served in the 7th battalion The Royal Sussex Regiment died on 26th August 1918 aged 21. This gallant young soldier was killed in an attack on the Carnoy- Montebaun spur, almost on the 1st July 1916 front line. The attack in which he was killed seems to have been casually organised and as fatal to the assaulting infantry as any on the 1st July. as any on the as those ill supported as any in 1916. The total advances was planned to be three miles. There was “some difficulty calculating the barrage, as the position of the leading troops of 35 Brigade was not known and it was not possible to arrange for the barrage to conform with the barrage of the 58th Division, (the other formation attacking.) . Divisional orders were not ready until 11 pm, and did not reach the commander of 36 Brigade until after midnight and 2 AM before he could collect his battalion commanders to issue verbal orders for a 4 AM attack, and there were three miles to march to reach the start point. Further delay took place in consequence of the late arrival of the pack mules with reserve small arms ammunition , and of shelling which forced the battalions to leave the road and march across wire and trenches on a compass bearing, the latter part of the way in single file.

EPSON scanner imageThus the 7th Royal Sussex (and 5th Royal Berkshire) were unable to reach the starting line in time to move off before 4.30 and 4.45 am respectively, and lost the barrage, which in any case dropped too too far ahead, nearly 1500 yards, to be of any use. Both came under machine gun fire. The Royal Sussex were held up in the valley in front of their first objective. The Germans spotted a gap between the two battalions and counter attacked, threatening part of the R Sussex near some old mine craters, (from the pre July 1916 front line). The fight went on all day until the neighbouring formation on the left captured a key village behind the German right at around 4.30 pm. (2) The CWGC records list 24 soldiers from 7th Royal Sussex who died between 26 and 28th August 1918. Three of these men, like Frederick Whittemore were recipients of the Military Medal.

19833 Private Whittemore C Bedfordshire Regiment

whittemore 4th Beds

19833 Private C Whittemore of the 4th Battalion the Bedfordshire Regiment died , aged 23 on the 27th August 1918 and is buried in the AIF burial Ground Flees. He probably died in one of the two attacks made by 190 brigade on Thilloy.4 Bedfords 27 Aug 1918

There is a report on this action here. ttp://www.bedfordregiment.org.uk/4thbn/4thbtn1918appendices.html

He may have served alongside Charles Laughton.

http://www.huntscycles.co.uk/C%20L%201%20Home%20Page.htm

Richard’s grandfather survived the war. The medal cards list a Whittemore in the Bedfordshire Regiment, awarded the Mons star who survived the war. The family tradition is that he was a machine gunner, and suffered such severe shell shock that he spent the rest of his life in mental institutions. His family maintained a fiction that he had run off to India and married someone there. In fact he was incarcerated in a local mental hospital a few miles from where his children were growing up. He died and is buried in an unmarked grave.

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This was the result of some internet work and I am not sure exactly what the family relationships were.  However there seem to have been a lot of casualties, and medals awarded to a relatively small number of brothers or cousins.

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Gunner Tours Public Tour Programme 2015

 

Gunner Tours have launched the 2015 public tour programme. They tell the story of the key battles with a focus on the role that the artillery played, and the stories of those who served the guns. Around 25% of the British Army of the First World War served in the Royal Field, Garrison or Horse Artillery, and a similar proportion in the Second World War.

First World War

The First World War was an artillery war. Success and failure was largely determined by how artillery was used and how well the guns were served.

  • Somme and Arras 19-22 June 2015 A loSomme_Arrasng weekend of four days
    and three nights to two of the largest battles of the First World War. The 1916 battle of the Somme was the largest and most costly battle fought by the British Army. The Arras battles of April-May 1917 were the most intense of the war. This area was also where the war on the western front was decided in the open warfare of 1918. £319

  • Verdun, Somme and Ypres 10-14 August 2015. Five days and Verdun_somme-arras_10-14_Aug_LRfour nights. We will visit three of the most important battlefields on the Western Front, and look at the British French and German gunners. The battle for Verdun in 1916 was the first of the huge battles of attrition. The Somme offensive of 1916 was designed to relieve the pressure on the French army at Verdun. The battles for the Ypres salient were the longest and bloodiest battles fought in Belgium. £379

  • Wipers” 11-14 September 2015 Four days and three nights. TheWipers 11-14 sep 2015 Belgium city known as Ieper in Flemish and Ypres in French was known to British soldiers as “Wipers.” It was the main seat of British Army’s operations in Belgium from October 1914 to the end of the First World War, and a focus for Remembrance since then. Our tour will look at the artillery side of the story and of the gunners who served and suffered there. £319

  • BEF Western front NovBEF Western Front 9-13 November 2015 Five days and four nights, covering the sites of the major battles of the British Expeditionary Force from Mons in 1914 to victory in 1918. £349

Second World War 

Gunner Tours is offering two tours to Normandy, based on the specialist knowledge and expertise of our chief guide Frank Baldwin who has written about the role of artillery on D Day and in the Normandy campaign as well as providing the written guide to the D Day Beaches for the Royal Artillery for the 70th Anniversary of D Day.dday & normandy 6-10july

  • D Day and the Battle for Normandy 6-10 July 2015 This is five
    days and four nights expedition to the D Day sites and some of the battles inland. £359

  • D Day Beaches and Landing Sites 2-5 October 2015, A visit overdday_and landing grounds a long weekend to the D Day beaches and Landing sites. There is a gunner story on each beach and landing site. £329

For details on each tour click the link in the date or check the details on the Gunner Tours website

 TO BOOK A PLACE ON  THESE TOURS CALL 01943 433457