Last Friday the OP visited a remarkable show at the Lion and Unicorn Theatre in Gaisford Street London NW5. It was a one man show by Jonathan Douglas, MBE a veteran actor and radio journalist, best known as a radio host in Hong Kong. This was a series of monologues exploring the last 24 hours of life of Lieutenant Colonel Wilfreth Elstob VC, DSO MC who died, aged 29, in the heroic defence of Manchester Hill on 21st March 1918. It was great to see a play written about a real soldier from the First World War who wasn’t a war poet. Elstob himself was an interesting man, whose character, motivation and deeds offers a different view of the men who fought and died in the Great War.
Why Elstob? The 16th Manchesters were one of dozens of battalions that faced the onslaught of the German kaiserschlacht, the action for which “Journey’s End” is a theatrical prologue. Elstob was one of ten men awarded the Victoria Cross for actions on the 21st March, and one of some four hundred and fifty recipients of that award on the western Front.
‘Wilfreth Elstob joined the Manchester Regiment as a private soldier in 1914; ‘a burly former schoolmaster.’ He was quickly commission into the 16th battalion (1st City Pals) and a captain and acting company commander on their successful assault on the first day of the Somme. 1st of July when the battalion stormed the German lines at Montauban. In October 1916 he took comm and of the battalion. He commanded his battalion through the 1917 battles at Arras and Passcendaele, and temporarily a whole brigade Elstob was a gallant popular, efficient and effective commander. His comrades cared enough about his posthumous reputation to collect the information and lobby for him to be awarded the Victoria Cross after the war ended.
Richard Holmes singled out the action on Manchester Hill as the focus for the Kaiserschlacht part of the 1918 episode of ‘The Western Front.’ Holmes used a couple of quotes from Elstob. As the band turning back to camp after the battalion marched to Manchester Hill Elstob remarked. “Those are the only men who will get out of this alive”; About the quarry. “Here is battalion HQ: Here we fight and here we die.” Was this a fatalistic reflection of the mood of the time? Were these sentences evidence that Elstob was close to cracking? After all, either of these phrases deserve a listing in the Army Rumour SErvice’s list of “Phrases you would rather not hear”
Its a brave attempt to get inside the mind of a hero and charismativc leader. Jonathan Douglas’ interpretation of Elstob’s mind is thought provoking. Douglas had done a good job of researching the details of his subject’s service. References to places such as Montauban and Trones Wood reflect diligent research, beyond the expectations of typical Camden Fringe goers. The dialogue reflects the known comments about Elstob’s character.
Sure, Douglas is not Au fait with the details of military life. It was “stand to” rather than “reveille” in the trenches themselves and a singing competition is more plausible in camp than in the quarry. However, the result is a characterization of a complex character, a far cry from the caricature often portrayed. This is more ambitious than another version of RC Sherrif’s Stanhope.
Douglas had gone well beyond the call of duty and made a reconnaissance of the quarry on Manchester Hill. He bypassed the metal gates to break in across the barbed wire and worked his way through the tangled undergrowth to take a picture of the site where Elstob and his comrades may still lie.
I could not find a review or a website, but if anyone wants to contact Jonathan Douglas, the OP has contact details.
The main focus for commemoration in 2018 will be the centenary of the Armistice on 11th November. If you take your history from Blackadder, Sebastian Faulks, or even the Royal British Legion or Commonwealth War Graves Commission, you might be forgiven for thinking that Passchendale was the climax of the First World War and that the fighting ended in the vicinity of the same lines of trenches fought over since the end of 1914.
What do the official commemorative websites say happened in 1918?
As of 2 February 2018, the Commonwealth War Grave Commission lacks any pages for 1918 in the Western Front campaign pages, which end at Cambrai. Nor does the British Government First World War Commemoration website make any reference to any events of 1918 before the Armistice. The Royal British Legion seems to have lost interest in the Centenary too. It’s focus for the year is to celebrate the 90th anniversary of its own Great Pilgrimage in Ieper, a location peripheral to the events of 1918. It offers a “100 days” option, alongside one to visit the battlefields of 1914-17, suggesting Loos and Mons as destinations. It looks self indulgent, if not neglectful for the Royal British Legion, as custodians of national Remembrance to organise an event celebrating 90 years of battlefield pilgrimages at a peripheral location that competes with the commemoration of the anniversary of the battle of Amiens.
If you want to see the impact of official amnesia of 1918, read the coverage of centenary events in the media. The printed The Times report of the centenary of the sinking of the SS Tuscania on 5th February, in with the loss of over 200 American servicemen merely as “shortly before the end of the First World War.” This misses the point that the Americans men were on their way to fight the decisive battle. T he Daily Mail use the same language in their coverage of the airmen who wore slippers to face von Richthofen. The implication is that the war of 1918 is more of the same old trenches until November, and ignores entirely the intense air war that would kill von Richtofen and many of the other leading aces in the meantime.
1918 – the year that Challenges Preconceptions
But this overlooks the dramatic events of 1918 itself. These do not sit comfortably with the popular stereotype of the Western Front. And that is one reason why the events of that year and the actions of those who fought deserves special recognition
1918 wasn’t about waves of Tommies going over the top in a vain attempt to break through lines of trenches. Instead, the battles of 1918 started with the Germans on the attack. Nor was it a tale of mud, blood, barbed wire and trench foot. Much of the fighting took place in open country and some distance from the battle fields of Passchendaele and Loos. The year contained some of the lowest points in British military history – and some of the highest.
It’s a pity that the events of 1918 have not attracted more support from the institutions that have led the commemorations of the First World War. It is shameful for their events to be bundled together as merely the overture to the centenary of the Armistice.
1. The German Spring offensives were among the biggest and bloodiest battles in history
The Russian revolution and armistice ended Germans’s Eastern Front. For the first half of 1918, until the Americans arrived in force, the Germans would have superior numbers on the Western Front. Between March and May 1918 they stuck the British and then the French with a series of hammer blows. A combination of infiltration tactics, clever use of artillery and broke the stalemate of the trenches. These battles were the most intensely fought and bloodiest of the Western Front, if not in history. The casualties were very high.
Between 21st March and 5th April the British Army lost 160,000 casualties, an average of over 10,000 casualties a day, compared to some 2,700 casualties per day for the Somme and Passchendaele. The opening day, 21st March 1918, was the second worst day in British military history, costing 35,000 casualties.
Between 9th -30th April the next German attacks, in Flanders cost the British a further 80,000 casualties. Again, a higher rate of casualties than endured by the British Army in the offensives between 1915-1917. In May , a further attack on British Troops sent to a “quiet sector” cost the British a further 27,000 casualties in nine days. Between 21st March and 6th June the British lost some 260,000 casualties, higher losses than in Flanders in 1917. Between March and July 1918 the German Army lost nearly 1,000,000 casualties. This is a story worth as much dedicated attention as Passchendaele, Loos and Cambrai
2. The July and August battles on the Marne and the Somme were the turning point of the first World War
Between 15 July and 7th August six French armies, with American, British and Italian Army Corps, halted and turned back the last great German offensive. This was followed by the British led offensive at Amiens on 8th August – the black day of the German army.
From this time the Germans were on the back foot and under continuous pressure from the allies. The last 100 days of the war cost the British 360,000 casualties. About one quarter of the strength of the BEF. Only the 1916 battle of the Somme cost more.
3 The feats of arms of the British Forces of 1918 were one of the high points in British Military history
It isn’t fashionable to praise the First World War as an allied victory; or to admire its generals. But there is much merit in the performance of British and commonwealth armed forces on the Western Front in 1918.
The retreat from Mons by the BEF in 1914 is famous, but the fighting retreats of March and April 1918 were fought by an amateur citizen army which fought a series of continuous engagements instead of two battles and a series of skirmishes. According to the Official History the retreats of 1918 were a greater achievement.
Turning defeat into victory is a remarkable achievement. The BEF of 1918 lost twice as many casualties as the BEF in 1940, but then turned around and beat the Germans. The experience was unique and unlike the trench warfare that preceded it.
The British army of 1918 won the war. In the last 100 days it took almost as many prisoners as other allied armies put together. Its tactics were closer to 1940 than 1914. Its leaders, castigated as “butchers and bunglers” turned out to be good effective experienced commanders. The leadership and tactics in 1918 are hard to fault. At the end of the First World War the Britain’s Armed Forces were at a peak. They had mastered modern mechanised warfare. The Royal Air Force was the worlds largest, and only independent, air force, and had mastered most of the elements of air power. These were remarkable achievements for a citizen army.
4. The experience of 1918 was unique and deserves the same recognition extended to the Somme and Paschendaele.
There are qualitative differences in the solders’ experience, and in how we perceive them and the losses they suffered. The battles of 1916 were fought by citizen armies largely new to the fray and with a sense that they would deliver the big push that would end the war. There was a false dawn in 1917 with Vimy Ridge and Arras, but by Passchendaele the British and commonwealth armies had lost their sense of optimism. Their losses in retrospect have been seen as an almost biblical sacrifice. “what passing bell tolls for those who die like cattle?” -” I died in Hell men called it “Passchendaele.” The late Bob Bushaway wrote a perceptive paper on this elevation of the war dead from the casualties of war to sacrifices for mankind. Passchedaele epitomes loss and futility that is perhaps the mostly widely popular narrative of the First World War. That the war continued for another decisive year is an inconvenience for this interpretation, doubly so as British soldiers return to undertake operations in the national interest and end as victors not sacrifices. It is easy to understand the temptation to lose interest after Passchendaele.
But that does not do justice to the story of the men who fought in 1918. The last hundred days was an unrelenting battle. Those who fought did not know that the war would end imminently. Many in authority thought it would continue to 1919 or 1920. Some of the soldiers’ letters refer to the thought that they had the Germans on the run and would try to finish them off before winter weather gave the Germans a respite. One striking feature of the graves of the men who fell in 1918 is the proportion with at least one decoration. These men had already done their bit but were determined to finish the job. Their knowing sacrifice deserves some focused reflection.
Places to evoke memories of 1918
Battlefields are places of historic memory. Yes, they inform the visitor about how the micro-terrain influenced events, and the sights, sounds and smell of the landscape. They are also powerful symbols evoking memories and emotions. They have a deep cultural significance as places of sacrifice, reinforced by memorials and ceremony. The places dedicated to the sacrifices of 1916 and 1917 won’ t serve the memories of 1918. It is hard to think about successful open warfare at Amiens while standing at the Menin Gate, literally on the road to the mud of Passchendaele.
In 1918 the fighting crossed the 1916 battlefields twice. But the 1918 battlefield covered a much wider area. To interpret the battle the visitor should explore the area around St Quentin. West of that town were the British lines that formed the setting for the play Journey’s End and the German onslaught in March. In late September the British with Australian and American troops forced their way across the Hindenburg line a few miles north of St Quentin. Peronne, ten miles to the west was the site of British rear-guard fighting in March and a great feat of arms by the Australian Corps in August. It also has a fine museum, the Péronne Museum of the Historial de la Grande Guerre, overlooked by many visitors to the 1916 battlefields. The graves dating from March and August 1918 are evidence of the fighting that took place across the old battlefield. The memorial to the Fifth Army missing of 1918 is in the Pozieres war cemetery on the road from Pozieres to la Boiselle – often ignored by visitors. The fighting extended west of Albert to Villers Bretonneaux outside Amiens, the site of Australian feats of arms and their national memorial in France. The graves of many British soldiers in Villers Bretonneaux is ample evidence of the part played by British troops in the area, which is also the location of the first battle between tanks.
There is no single memorial to the battle of Amiens. The paths of British and Commonwealth troops east can best be evidenced by the graves dated August 1918. The formidable Hindenburg line lay east of the March 1918 Allied lines. You can find remains of German defences and memorials to the battle that forced this line.
The second German offensive was in Flanders, in the area between Armentieres and La Bassee, stretching West as far as Hazebrouck and Mount Kemmel. Start with the Portuguese cemetery just south of the Indian Army memorial at Neuve Chapelle. Under equipped and under-trained the Portuguese defenders of this quiet sector were some of the unfortunate victims of the Germans Georgette offensive. The 55th Division memorial at Givenchy commemorates the gallant stand by the territorial soldiers from West Lancashire holding the flank of the German breakthrough. The German Alpine corps took Mont Kemmel, south west of Ieper, which then fought over by British and French troops for the next three months. Mount Kemmel is an overlooked battle. The French war cemetery with 5,000 graves testifies to the ferocity of the fighting. The US memorial at Vierstraat Kemmel is a reminder of the 60,000 American soldiers who served in the area in August 1918. On 27th September Ieper was the starting point for the last act in the Salient. A single day was all that was needed to capture the whole of Passchendaele Ridge. The fighting that followed half-way to Brussels was hard enough for several VCs to be awarded and for Brigadier Freyburg to be awarded two bars to his DSO. The Americans captured Oudenarde, and their Flanders Fields cemetery at Waregem has those that fell.
Arras to Le Cateau and Mons
Thousands of people visit the impressive memorial and preserved battlefield of Vimy Ridge, captured by the Canadian corps in 1917. Far, far fewer follow the story of the Canadian and British troops that advanced from Arras to Cambrai, Mons and Le Cateau. This was no triumphal parade. The memorial to the missing at Vis-en-Artois was the site of a bloody set back at the end of August, while at Iwuy in October the Germans counterattacked with tanks, throwing the British back.
British troops were also deployed to the Aisne area North East of Paris. In May an army corps of some 80,000 battered in the earlier German attacks was sent to a quiet sector to recover and integrate reinforcements. Unfortunately for them they were in the path of the next German offensive. The experiences of Captain Ulick Bernard Burke of the Devonshire Regiment were recorded and the digitised recording is held by the Imperial War Museum available . From 11 minutes into reel 17 he describes the last stand of the battalion.
Further east, in July two divisions, some 35,000 soldiers fought under French command near Rheims, supported by American tanks and Italian artillery in the second battle of the Marne. From Paris eastwards the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) played a major role in halting the Germans and turning them back. The AEF battlefields of the Aisne-Marne, Champagne, Meuse-Argonne and St Mihel are well preserved and interpreted. If you are interested in visiting these, check out americanvictory.com
There is far more to the fighting in 1918 than the 100 days as a prelude to the Armistice. It is a shame that there is so little public awareness or interest in public education by the bodies that should take the lead.
If you are interested in visiting the battlefields of 1918 contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Earlier this month I had the pleasure of being the historian guide for the US National World War 2 Museum “Band of Brothers Tour”. They are partners of the Liberation Route Europe. I accompanied the group to Aldbourne in Wiltshire, where the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment were billeted in 1943-44. The Aldbourne Heritage society were splendid hosts.
Travelers were curious about the reaction of villagers to the influx of American soldiers doubling the population. One of the overwhelming thoughts must have been reminders to them of their own menfolk, doing their bit for the war effort far from home.
The names on the memorial plate in the church provide evidence of the war service of villagers. Most of those who served came back, and the memorial is merely a fragment of the part that Aldbourne played in the war. By the time that Easy Company arrived in Aldbourne many men were serving in one of the armed forces, and eight people from Aldbourne had already died.
At 00.45 hours on 17 Jan 1941 the unescorted M V Zealandic was hit underneath the forward mast by one torpedo from U-106 about 230 miles west-northwest of Rockall. The ship stopped for a short time, sent distress signals and then continued. The ship sank slowly after being hit amidships by more two torpedoes at 00.59 and 01.27 hours. The Germans observed how the crew abandoned ship in three lifeboats, but they were never seen again. The master, 64 crew members, two gunners and six passengers were lost. The passengers included 31 year old Wing Commander D. P. Lascelles RAF, and his wife Diana Trelawny,who lived on the Green, Aldbourne. Wing Commander Lascelles’ younger brother Flying Officer John Richard Hasting, had been lost over the Atlantic three month earlier, aged 20.
Two others died at sea before 1943. 17 year old Desmond Trevor Wooton was serving as a Boy 1st Class in the Royal Navy on 24th May 1941 aboard H.M.S. Hood when it was sunk by the German battleship Bismarck in the Denmark Straits between Iceland and Greenland. He was the youngest of the village war dead.
Commander Arthur Jelfs Cubison, (D.S.C. and Bar) RN was a naval hero. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC) as the Gunnery officer of the 770 ton destroyer HMS Tigress, when the Tigress and three other small craft gave chase to a German-Turkish squadron including the 22,500 ton battle cruiser Yavuz Sultan Selim (Ex German SMS Goeben) and 4,500 ton cruiser Midilli (Ex German SMS Breslau). Cubison showed marked ability, quickly straddling and hitting an enemy destroyer. Between the wars his career included service on river gun boats in Iraq during the Arab Rebellion in 1924 and ended with his retirement in 1934, after 21 years in the Royal Navy. At the outbreak of war, he re-joined the Navy and served at HMS Vernon, the Navy’s torpedo and mine recovery school. He took part in the evacuation from Dunkirk and was awarded a bar to his DSC. In 1942 he was the Captain of the 835 ton minesweeper HMS Niger. In fog on 5 July 1942, with visibility of less than a mile, he mistook an iceberg for Iceland’s North Western Cape and led six merchant ships of the Murmansk to Reykjavík convoy QP 13 into Northern Barrage minefield SN72 laid one month earlier at the entrance to the Denmark Strait. Every ship detonated British mines. 46 civilian crew and 9 Naval Armed Guards died aboard the American Liberty ship John Randolph, and the freighters Hefron and Massmar. There were only eight survivors of the 127 men aboard Niger. Only one freighter could be salvaged. An expensive accident and a tragedy for mariners who had survived the Arctic passage to Russia.
Four airmen died before Easy Company arrived. Corporal Leonard John Barnes died in the UK on 12th June 1942, aged 26, and is buried in Aldbourne Churchard.
There is also a private headstone to Pilot Officer George Roxberry Bland, of 234 Squadron RAF who died on 16th April 1942, age 20, but his body was never found. His was one of two Spitfire aircraft from, 234 Squadron RAF probably shot down by German fighters as cover to an air sea rescue patrol off Cherbourg. Sergeant Robert Herbert Charles Crook of 45 Squadron RAF was lost on 18th April 1941 over the Western Desert. He has no known grave and is commemorated on the El Alamein Memorial in Egypt.
Sergeant Ronald Charles Barrett, 21, was the wireless operator of Lancaster Mk 1 R5573 ZN-B of 106 Squadron RAF, returning from a raid by 287 bombers on the city of Cologne when it was shot down at 01.53 on 9th July 1943, by a German night fighter over the Ardennes. He is buried in Heverlee War Cemetery near Louvin Belgium. There is a memorial in the Ardennes village of Harze to the crew of the aircraft. Two other Lancaster bombers were lost by 106 Squadron on the night of 8/9 July. One was flown by 1st Lieutenant Eugene Leon Rosner USAAF, from Wilkes-Barre Pennsylvania who had initially served with the RCAF before transferring to the USAAC in early July. This was the first mission in which Rosner flew in
USAAC uniform. Rosner is buried in the Normandy American Cemetery in Plot A Row 3 Grave 38, above Omaha Beach.
During the period that Easy Company were billeted in Aldbourne before D-Day, three more men from Aldbourne would die. 35-year-old Captain Dermot Horace Thomas Hanbury, Royal Engineers died in India in January. Lieutenant Thomas Martin Francis Lowinsky of 1st Battalion Scots Guards died 16th February 1944, age 22, at the height of the fighting at Anzio, Italy. Sapper William Robert May, of 42 Field Company, Royal Engineers also died in the battle for Rome, on 1st June 1944, and is buried in Cassino War cemetery. He left a widow, Florence, in Aldbourne.
Easy Company’s campaign is entwined with the fate of Aldbourne’s war dead through the remainder of the North West Europe Campaign. Sapper Derek Thomas Brind died in Normandy on 24th August 1944, aged 24, and is buried in the Bayeux War Cemetery. Lieutenant Colonel
Thomas Irwin Bishell, DSO TD commanded the 94th (Dorset and Hampshire Yeomanry) Field Regiment Royal Artillery throughout the Normandy campaign. Born in 1899 he was a veteran of the First World War. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) for his inspirational leadership during the tough fighting south west of Caen during the first two weeks of July 1944. He met all emergencies with calm and resolute action and set an example of devotion to duty $rand contempt for danger. His regiment was part of the divisional artillery of the 43rd Wessex
Division which played an important role in Operation Market Garden. He was killed by a shell splinter on 1st October a dozen miles from where Easy Company made their attack on the same day. “Every single man in the regiment had the greatest confidence and admiration for him, and whenever he visited the gun position during lulls in the battle he always had a cheery word and smile for everyone.” Bishell is buried in Arnhem Oosterbeek War Cemetery.
Not far very far away, across the German border is the Commonwealth Reichswald War cemetery, which contains the graves of many RAF airmen, including that of Flight Sergeant Kingsley Osbern George Nugent, the Navigator of a twin engine Mosquito fighter bomber downed on 26th November 1944. He is buried alongside the Bahamian pilot, flying in the 305th (Polish) Squadron, an illustration of the patchwork of nationalities in the RAF. Easy Company’s route to Berchtesgarten passed within ten miles of the War Cemetery at Durnbach where Sergeant/Air Gunner Bernard Conrad Ricketts of 170 Squadron, Royal Air Force is buried after his Lancaster bomber was shot down in the last RAF raid on Nuremburg, Bavaria.
The last Aldbourne fatal casualty of the war was Flight Lieutenant Guy Richard Brown, DFC RAF who died, aged 24, on 6th September 1945, three weeks after the Japanese surrender and is buried in Heliopolis War Cemetery, Cairo, Egypt. Brown was awarded the DFC for his service in 50 operational missions over Egypt and Libya leading to the capture of Tripoli. After then he seems to have flown for a electronic countermeasures unit in Britain against Germany. At the time of his death he was serving in an air ferry unit. The bus shelter was built as a memorial to him.
There is another name on the village war memorial, Sergeant Ernest Wakefield Royal Engineers. This name cannot be linked to any name in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission database. Village memorials were erected by the local parish and we may never know anything more about this man.
Of the seventeen names on the memorial, seven have no known grave. Their relatives would have received a message that their loved ones were missing, and that it was possible that they would be found or had been taken prisoner. Much later there would be a letter stating that their status was “missing presumed killed.” It must have been hard to hope that it was all in error, and that one day they would come home.
The Band of Brothers of Easy Company 506 PIR fully illustrates the experience of every and any American soldier in the liberation of Europe. Aldbourne is a village which can represent every and any English village. While every village has its own unique history and Aldbourne seems to have been the home of a higher proportion of officers than many, the war service of its villagers covers all three services, across the globe. The fortunes of war took many of them into contact with American servicemen in general and several of them even cross the paths of Easy Company. They all did their bit.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
French C. 185,000 including 4,000 prisoners
German C. 160,000, including 23,400 prisoners
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.
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 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.
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.
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 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.
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
• 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
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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
1. RUSI Journal: Lecture by Surgeon Major F J Mouet, A visit to the Battlefields and Ambulances of Northern France Friday 21st April 1871
Everyone 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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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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.
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
(5) Fourth Army Tactical Notes
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