One army has been almost completely absent from any mention in the commemorations of this week=end’s centenary of the start of the 3rd Battle of Ypres. This army is the French 1st Army which also took part in the battle. Although the operation was led by the British, it was an allied operation With 135,000 men and over 1000 guns the French Army that took part was larger than the Australian, Canadian or New Zealander contingents that fought. Yet their role and sacrifices have been ignored.
The French First Army’s deployment on the British left was a commitment to the alliance, despite the strikes and mutinies afflicting their army after the failure of the Nivelle offensive April 1917. Their tactics were designed around using artillery fire to destroy and neutralise defences and seizing limited objectives to minimise infantry casualties. The tactics used on 31st July were the first use of those methods that Petain would use to rebuild the confidence of the French Army.
The two divisions of the 1st Army attacked on a 4 km frontage. Particular attention was paid to artillery support. The artillery included 60 batteries of 75mm guns, 240 pieces, 277 pieces of trench artillery – mortars, 164 heavy howitzers, 148 long ranged guns (105- 240mm) for counter battery fire and 64 heavy guns (305mm,320mm and 370mm) to smash concrete bunkers. This artillery train was supported by aircraft detachments for heavy artillery and counter battery fire, bomber, and reconnaissance squadrons and the elite Cigognes fighter squadron.
The French were faced with the problem of assaulting across the Yser canal against defences based on concrete bunkers. The French thought the concrete bunkers were less of a tactical challenge than the deep shelters capable of protecting entire platoons the Germans dug is drier country. The assaulting troops were preceded by a creeping barrage of shrapnel 150m ahead of the infantry.
On the 31st July the French First Army was tasked with protecting the Northern flanks of the British 5th Army. They succeeded in this mission, advancing 2500 metres, almost as far as the Guards division to their right. The French took part in several attacks in concert with the British , until the end of October.
The French had advanced some 10 km, capturing 1,500 prisoners. Their casualties were low, 1,625 killed or missing and 6901 wounded or taken prisoner. These are very light compared to those suffered by British formations, and raise some questions about British tactics.
The French army of Flanders was deployed to support the British led operation “as a matter of honour.” It is a shame that their gesture has not be remembered a century later.
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
This November is the centenary of the end of the battle of the Somme, one of the battles selected to commemorate the First World War by the UK Government. One of the most impressive acts of Remembrance has been overlooked by the media and the public. On 10th November on BBC Radio 4 General Tim Cross, reminded listeners that one reason for Remembrance is to learn the lessons of the past. One of the eternal, if pessimistic, truths is how rarely people learn from history. So it ought to be news when the armed forces actually do try to see what lessons can be learned from the past. That is what the British Army did in mid September, entirely unremarked and ignored by the media. This is a pity. Not only is is comforting to know that the sacrifices were not ignored, but many of the lessons uncovered ought to be considered by the politicians who set defence policy and the public who elect them.
The Army’s Operation Reflect Staff Ride Somme 2016 spent two weeks exploring the story of the battle of the Somme and learn the lessons for the current day. This was not a battlefield tour or a pilgrimage, but a serious professional study of the battle as a case study of the British Army in a war against a “first class peer enemy”, coalition warfare, development of tactics and technology, men in battle and supporting the army. It is very apposite to prepare for the worst, given the uncertainties of the current international situational politics.
This was a consultancy exercise involving some 200 Lieutenant Colonels, Majors and Warrant Officers mainly from the British Army, but with representatives from the French ,German, Commonwealth and US Armed forces, the RAF and the Civilian MOD. It was supported by battlefield historians from the British Commission for Military History, including the “OP” , and input from French and German historians.
The OP was struck by the fresh perspective from French and German historians. Even now much British military history written about the Somme ignores the French. The first book in English that sought to give anything like a fair balance between the British and French contribution to the battle was William Philpott’s “Bloody Victory” published as recently as 2010. The set text for the exercise was Dr Matthias Strohn’s “Somme Companion,” published for the exercise and featuring contributions from some of the historians taking part.
It was interesting to see the First Day of the Somme from the Belvedere de Frise, taken by the French 6th Army with only a fraction of the casualties suffered by the British further north, and to explore why this was. Few Britons, even professional historians are familiar with the capture of Bouchavesnes by the French in September 1916. Yet this high point of French endeavour on the Somme was the context for the first use of tanks by the British a few miles North West and a few days later.
This wasn’t just an intellectual exercise. The best part of a day was spent in acts of commemoration and Remembrance at the German cemetery at Rancourt and the Anglo French memorial at Thiepval led by senior British French and German general officers.
It was a pity and a surprise that there has been no media coverage of this huge exercise in remembrance and reflection. The public ought to know that our military institutions have committed serious time and effort to try to learn lessons from the past – real institutional Remembrance.
Frank Baldwin is a battlefield historian, a member of the British Commission for Military History and member of the Guild of Battlefield Guides. www.frankbaldwin.co.uk
“On ne passe pas’” (They shall not pass!) emerged from the battle of Verdun as watchwords of French. This phrase, widely attributed to General Phillip Petain has been used as a rallying cry for France since then, and an inspiration for subsequent defiance by, among others, Spanish Republicans, south American revolutionaries and the Russian Feminist group Pussy Riot. But like many national symbols and iconic events, much of the story is myth, factoid rather than fact. But the story behind the myth does reveal something about the battle of Verdun and the men who coined the catch phrase.
Verdun was one of the major battles of the First World War, costing the French and the Germans about a quarter of a million casualties each. The battles of Verdun and the Somme, linked inextricably, dominated the Western Front in 1916. The Germans intended to break the French Army by forcing it to fight a battle of attrition under unfavourable circumstances. The battle was launched with heavy artillery support on 22nd February 1916. Catching the French ill prepared, the offensive was initially successful, inflicting heavy casualties on the French and their forces in disarray, crowned by the capture of Fort Douamont on the 25th February.
The same day, General Petain, commander of the Second Army, was ordered to take charge of the Verdun sector. He was chosen purely because his army was in reserve and available. Petain was an infantryman with an undistinguished pre war career only enlivened by his rejection of the pre war orthodoxy that willpower and aggression could overcome modern weapons. As an instructor at the Ecole de Guerre he preached the heresy that “firepower kills,” with the logical implication that a well organised defence would stop the Attaque à outrance (attack to excess). His rise to army command in the first eighteen months of the war had confirmed the need to “separate the real from the imaginary and the possible from impossible.”i An address to a decimated regiment illustrates this.
You went into the assault singing the Marseillaise; It was magnificent. But next time you will not need to sing the Marseillaise. There will be a sufficient number of guns to ensure your attack’s success.
The measures Petain took to defend Verdun were based on firepower and belief that there were no short cuts to victory. He centralised control of the artillery and massed defensive fires where it could be most effective. He organised administration and logistics and arranged for a systematic and early replacement of formations committed to Verdun, known as the “Noria” (bucket chain) or “tourniquet” (turnstile).
On 10th April Petain issued an order of the day which ended with the phrase “Courage, on les auras” (Take heart, we’ll get them.) This was meant to stick in the memory as a catch phrase. It was a allusion to the words of Joan of Arc at Orleans. “Nos ennemis, fussent-ils pendu aux nuages, nous les aurons! Et nous les bouterons hors de France!” (Our enemies, even if they hung in the clouds, we shall get them! And we will drive them out of France!) They were a reminder of the need for patience a war that could only be won by only fighting winnable battles but might take a long time.
Petain’s realistic, pessimistic approach to value counter attacks, did him no favours with Joffre, the French commander in chief or with the politicians. On 27th April Petain was promoted to Commander of the Central Region, and replaced as commander of the 2nd Army, by General Robert Nivelle who was more to Joffre’s taste. Like Petain a mere colonel in 1914, Nivelle’s career had a meteoric trajectory. A heroic action at the Marne was followed by successful command of a brigade, divisional and corps. A whole hearted believed of the ideas of de Gradnmaison, Nivelle believed that success in battle was based on the will to win and that flawed leadership (but not his) led to “defaillance”, (weakness or breakdown). However, artilleryman Nivelle was also aware of the necessity of good infantry artillery co-operation. He was probably responsible for the most important technical development that enabled attacks to succeed, the barrage roulant – the creeping barrage.
On 23 June 1916 the Germans planned a major attack by their elite mountain corps. This would be preceded by “Green Cross”, chemical artillery shells containing Phosgene, a new very lethal choking agent, which the Germans thought might penetrate French gas masks.
The phosgene barrage caused consternation and 1,800 casualties, mainly among French gunners. By the end of the day German infantry penetrated the furthest they ever achieved towards Verdun. Nivelle issued an order of the day that included the words “Vous ne les laisserez passer, mon camadares” (“You will do not let them pass”
Crisis at the battle of Verdun 23 June 1916. The solid blue line shows the French line before the attack. The dashed line shows the furthest extent of the German advance and the blue crosses the positions restored by the French by 2nd July
This wasn’t an original phrase. It had been circulating among the troops for some time, but there is no evidence that Petain used the phrase himself It was an appeal drawing on ‘cran’ (guts) very much Nivelle’s style . However this was out of character for Petain whose command style was based on promises of artillery support and avoided appeals for flesh to face material or attempt the physically impossible. The crisis passed and the very next day, the preliminary barrage started on the battle of the Somme. From this moment Verdun became a secondary sector. However, throughout the remainder of 1916 Nivelle, occasionally constrained by Petain conducted a series of counter attacks which cumulated in the dramatic recapture of the Fort Douemont on 24th October. On that day the French troops advancing under a creeping barrage recaptured the ground that it had taken the Germans months to capture.
At the end of 1916, the French government had lost confidence in Joffre, their commander in chief, held responsible for the neglect of the defences of Verdun and the disappointing results of the Somme offensive. On the 27th December 1916 Joffre was promoted to Marshall and removed from command, to be replaces by Nivelle, who promised a decisive victory if allowed to use his tactics on larger scale. The failure of the Nivelle Offensive in May 1917 and the subsequent mutinies led to Nivelle’s fall and replacement by Petain. Nivelle was largely forgotten and Verdun became, in the public mind synonymous with Petain.
In the meantime he catch phrase “On ne passe pas” , to use an anachronism, went viral. It joined “Old Contemptables” “In Flanders Fields” and “over the top” evoking aspects of the war. The call for the spirit to over come material odds made it attractive for the underdog and even chic.
The difference catch phrases of Petain and Nivelle illustrate different approaches to the battle of Verdun. They were also present in the British high command. The logic of Petain’s approach leads to the “bite and hold “ school identified with Rawlinson and Plumer, while Nivelle’s appeal to strength of will has much in common with the “Harroshing” of Haig and Gough. Indeed, Haig’s “Backs to the wall” order of the day in April 1918 is very similar to Nivelle’s appeal on 23 June.
If you ever need to use this article to settle a bet, donations are always welcomed by the battlefields Trust, a UK Charity dedicated to preservation, interpretation and presentation of battlefield heritage. Battlefields Trust Just Giving
There is a lot to see at Verdun, where far more of the battlefield was abandoned after the war. Far fewer Britons visit Verdun, know as much about this battle or even its connection to the battle of the Somme. If you are interested in visiting the battlefield of Verdun or other battlefields of the Western Front contact me.
The first day of the Somme is best known for 57,000 casualties suffered by the British Army; the largest in a single day, and the event that supports the idea of British generals as “Butchers and Bunglers.” Yet, paradoxically, it was concern for safety which led to disastrously high casualties and failure of most of the attacks.
ir Henry Rawlinson, commander of the Fourth Army. His initial plan for a methodical advance was rejected.
The battle of the Somme originated from a decision taken in December 1915, that the Entente powers, Britain, France, Italy and Russia would all launch an attack as soon as possible in 1916. The Somme was selected as the site of the Anglo French offensive because it was the junction between the two armies. It was originally envisaged that the French Army would take the lead. However, the German offensive at Verdun, started in February 1916 cost the French and Germans armies over 200,000 casualties each. By June 1916 not only would the British have to take the lead at the Somme, offensive but the bear This had two consequences, there were fewer French troops available which meant that the British would have to take the lead. Furthermore, the attack of the Somme was imperative to take pressure from the French at Verdun.
The British Army had limited experience of offensive battles, and had never planned an operation of the scale of the battle of the Somme. In March 1915 the British had launched a successful breach into the German lines at Neuve Chapelle, supported by a concentrated barrage by the artillery of the British Expeditionary Force. During other attacks in 1915 a shortage of artillery ammunition had prevented the British from repeating this level of fire support. However, by 1916 British industry had geared up to supply the vastly expanded British Expeditionary force swelled by millions of volunteers who Kitchener’s New Army recruited in 1914-15.
The largest ever British Army would be supported by the huge quantity of artillery pieces, 1072 light and 442 medium and heavy guns
GHQ issued no special instruction on the co-operation of infantry and artillery as, in the words of the official history, this main feature of the theory of the assault was well understood. In summary, towards the the close of the bombardment, shortly before Zero, the artillery would put down an intense barrage on the enemy front trenches; at Zero this would be lifted and dropped on the next trench, from which it would be lifted at a fixed time. Before each lift, the infantry under cover of the barrage was to creep to within as close assaulting distance as the barrage permitted. This was around 100 yards from the enemy’s front parapet and the infantry was to assault as soon as the barrage lifted.”
It was impressed on all, at conferences by both Haig and Rawlinson that “nothing could exist at the conclusion of the bombardment in the area covered by it.” Owing to this optimism, the problem of evicting the Germans from the labyrinth of trenches was seen just as one of assault only. It was not seen as a race for the parapet between the attackers across no man’s land against the defenders in the their dug outs. Instead it was seen as something that could be done at leisure.
Not everyone shared this assumption. “Some Regimental officers suggested that the infantry might creep even nearer to the barrage, as was done later on and in at least one instance on the 1st of July. Forty yards was suggested instead of a hundred but it did not receive official approval. (1)
The race to the parapet was the essence of attacking a trench. It can be envisaged as a rather deadly form of ‘rock-paper-scissors’. The defenders can either be in their dugouts or manning the trenches. The attackers can either send artillery rounds or infantrymen. Defenders lining trenches would slaughter attacking infantry but were vulnerable to artillery fire. Defenders would be reasonably safe in their dugouts, but could do nothing if the attackers were waiting at the top of the dugout steps. The key was for the assaulting infantry to be so close to the artillery barrage that the defenders had no time to react.
The shrapnel shells from the British 18 Pdr Field gun were highly directional, and ejected forwards, like the blast from a shotgun. In the Boer war the British found that infantry could advance to within 50 yards with some safety. Japanese troops had also used these tactics in the Russo-Japanese War, as had the French in their costly 1915 offensive in Champagne. The “dapper and charismatic” artilleryman Robert Nivelle had developed a creeping barrage (le barrage roulant) 80-100m ahead of the leading infantry. (2)
The trouble with this tactic was that it had a fatal cost. Artillery rounds do not all land in the same place, but are scattered in a cigar shaped pattern, through variation in the propellant and further dispersed by variations in the wind and of temperature and human error in laying the piece. So “getting close to the barrage” inevitably meant “in a place likely to be struck by shrapnel from a shell that fell shorter than most”. Indeed the rule of thumb, later in the war, was that unless the infantry were taking casualties from their own artillery fire, then they were not close enough.
So the commanders faced a dilemma. The men lost to artillery fire would usually be far lower than the casualties suffered from the machine guns of alert defenders. However, if the artillery preparation was going to leave the defenders unable to resist then would it be right to expose the infantry to friendly fire casualties?
To make matters worse, the gunners firing the barrage were mostly Kitchener’s Army men. Their gunners, technicians and officers had limited training and experience, and were using ammunition and guns produced by newly expanded or hired suppliers. It might have been sensible to apply nn extra safety margin. The plans for the 1st July seem to bear this out.
The fire plan for the first day of the Somme specified an artillery barrage that would lift from the German front line trenches at zero hour, even though the distance between the British and German Trenches was much wider – from 200-800 metres across most of the assault frontage. Some British units left their trenches before zero hour, and worked their way as close as possible to the German trenches. Where they did, the British succeeded in capturing the German front lines; the Ulstermen at the Schwaben redoubt, the Highland Light infantry at the Leipzig redoubt and the 30th Division near Maricourt. Elsewhere, success was more illusive and on much of the front the assaulting infantry faced fully manned trenches.
The excessive safety distance between the starting barrage and the infantry wasn’t the only reason that casualties were so heavy and the gains so slight on the 1st July. There needed to be enough breaches in the German wire. Where the wire was intact, the advance stopped. It helped if the defenders were crushed in their dugouts or demoralised by the barrage. There were more, and heavier guns, and the dug outs were less deep south of the Albert-Bapaume. The Germans had to be prevented from bringing down their own defensive barrage preventing movement across no mans land. There were fewer German guns south of the Albert Bapaume Road, and the British could call on the more numerous French heavy guns for counter battery .
The worst losses and least success was on the frontage of the VIIIth corps where a “safety factor” played a grotesque part in the tragedy that unfolded. A number of a mines had been dug under the German trenches. Almost all were scheduled to be detonated at 07.28, on the 1st July, two minutes before zero hour. This would allow two minutes for the debris to fall before the British infantry assaulted the crater. One of these was under the Hawthorn redoubt near the village of Beaumont Hamel. The commander of VIII Corps, Lieutenant General Sir Aylmer Hunter-Weston wanted this to be fired some hours before the attack, so that the redoubt could be occupied before the assault, but sufficiently in advance that any general alarm would have died down by zero hour. This was vetoed by more senior commanders, but as a compromise the mine would be fired at 07.20, ten minutes before Zero.
This allowed for a plan to occupy the crater early, but it required the heavy artillery bombardment of the redoubt and adjacent trenches to lift during the assault. However, instead of fire lifting only from the immediate area, all of the VIII Corps heavy artillery was ordered to lift at 7:20 a.m. and the field artillery to lift at 7:25 a.m. A light Shrapnel barrage fired by the divisional field artillery, was to continue on the front trench until zero hour but in the 29th Division sector, half of the guns were to lift three minutes early.
This allowed the German defenders ten minutes notice of the impending assault and condemned the infantry from three divisions to heavy casualties and failure across the breadth of their front. It did not matter how well the wire had been cut or whether the infantry crept out into no man’s land. One of the attacking battalions lost all its officers before zero hour.
So why did the seemingly responsible commanders, who were professional experienced soldiers, get this decision so wrong?
One simplistic, but popular explanation is that the commanders were incompetent “butchers and bunglers”iii. Professor Norman Dixon in the Psychology of Military Incompetence (4) argued that there was something about military training which led to poor decision making. Indeed, the performance of General Sir Aylmer Hunter Weston is hard to describe as anything less than incompetent. “Hunter-Bunter” was a strange man with a command style reminiscent of that of the monstrous Blackadder creation General Sir Anthony Cecil Hogmanay Melchett. The disastrous decision to lift fire early across the VIII Corps front was very much in keeping with his micro-management and idiosyncratic decision-making. He had a history of over compensating for the risks of friendly fire in Gallipoli. He was found out on the first day on the Somme. Afterwards, although he retained his command, he was never entrusted with command in an offensive and only employed on quiet sectors. Could he have been removed earlier? To be fair to Rawlinson and Haig, Hunter-Weston was new to the Western Front. He had commanded the 29th Division and then the VIII Corps at Cape Helles in Gallipoli and arrived with his corps as an experienced commander and a reputation of relatively competent performance.
Elsewhere in the BEF the disastrous decision about fire plan timings resulted from agreements between groups of people, commanders and subordinates and their staffs.
In the first instance, the senior commanders were not looking at this problem. The correspondence between Rawlinson and Haig shows a focus on the problems of exploiting success. In earlier battles such as Loos and Neuve Chapelle the British infantry had taken the German first line wherever they had adequate artillery support.
The plan for the Somme was a bad compromise. Rawlinson, commander of the fourth army, put forward a plan for a phased advance, initially taking just the first German line, which he and his staff thought was within the capabilities of the resources available. Haig did not think this was ambitious enough. He rejected the plans and insisted that an attempt should be made to breach both the front line and the second line to ensure that any opportunity for a breakthrough was not missed.
On this occasion Haig was able to impose his will on Rawlinson, despite reservations about the artillery being spread too thin made by the newly appointed artillery adviser at GHQ, General Birch. Birch and Rawlinson, having expressed their opinions in private, then issued orders and expressed their confidence in them.
As the Official History notes, not everybody assumed that the enemy would be flattened by the preparatory barrage. There seems to have been sufficient internal criticism for Rawlinson to include the following in the Fourth Army tactical notes;
“it must be remembered that all criticism by subordinates of their superiors, and of orders received from superior authority, will in the end recoil on the heads of the critics and undermine their authority with those below them.” (5)
This was hardly the atmosphere in which to challenge the fundamentals of the plan. The late, great professor Richard Holmes remarked in the episode on the Battle of the Somme in the Western Front BBC series that the generals of the first world war were stronger in physical than moral courage.
It should be said that the BEF was very quick to learn and the next major attack, on the 14th July, less than two weeks after the first day, was conducted with a much greater concentration of artillery fire and with the infantry following a creeping barrage.
There is a modern relevance of the battle of the Somme. This was a major high profile project into which much had been invested and expected. The resources available weren’t enough to deliver the hoped for results. At the heart of the plan were flaws that, could have been spotted and rectified but were not. The plan required subordinates to achieve “stretch targets”, “do more with less”, and “sell the party line” within an organisational culture that inhibited internal criticism.
The safety margin dilemma occurs frequently across all walks of life. If anything, the compensation culture makes it harder to choose to take risks. It is very hard to imagine the modern British Army willingly encroach on safety distances even if was the only way to win a battle.
We may not face machine guns and un-cut wire, but we often make important business and other decisions against a back ground of pressure from peers and superiors to agree to deliver uncertain commitments as part of a team effort. Many of us are under pressure to support decisions that have been made and face severe personal and career sanctions for whistle blowing. What is it that we can do to be more effective both as leaders in these situations and followers?
If you would like to visit the Somme and see the story of the artillery on the Somme join Gunner Tours on the Somme Centenary tour. firstname.lastname@example.org
The centenary of the battle of the Somme, which took place between June-and November 1916, has a special significance in Gunner history. This was the largest battle fought by the British army, costing 400,000 casualties. While public interest in the battle centres on the infantry who went 'over the top' on the first of July, the Gunner battle started a week earlier with the opening bombardment by the largest number of guns assembled.The Somme was essentially an artillery battle, with the guns the only weapons capable of clearing wire, destroying and neutralising defences and artillery. This was an awesome responsibility, and the success or failure of the infantry was down to the effectiveness of the fire plan. The story of how the Royal Artillery learned during the campaign is one of successful innovation, and a matter of pride to Gunners.It is also a human story. We will see where Gunner staff work made a difference; where Gunners went over the top with the infantry and where . Gunners worked to the point of exhaustion in the service of the guns.This tour will tell this story at the places where this largest artillery battle took place 100 years after the opening barrage was fired.
(1) Brigadier-General Sir James E. Edmonds; Military Operations: France and Belgium, 1916, Volume I: Sir Douglas Haig’s Command to the 1st July: Battle of the Somme,, 1932
(2) Strong P and Marble S, Artillery in the Great War
(3) John Laffin;s polemic “Butchers and Bunglers of World War one” is the publication which is most associated with the term.
(4) Dixon N F, On The Psychology Of Military Incompetence, Basic Books, 1976
The biggest commemorative battlefield event in 2016 will be the Centenary of the Battle of the Somme. Our tour commemorates the start of the battle, which was the opening barrage 24 June. We are also offering a proven Normandy and West Front tour that tells the Gunner side of these
The Somme Centenary, 23-26 June 2015 £469
The Battle of the Somme began on 24 June 1916 – known as U Day. It was a dull day, low cloud and heavy rain, following thunderstorms the day before.It is a myth, showing much misunderstanding of a First World War battle, to believe it began with the infantry attack on 1 July.
The Battle of the Somme is an iconic event in British memory of the First World War. But the Gunner side of the story tends to be overlooked. The Gunner Tout top the battlefield will visit places ignored by many visitors and tell stories not often told. This is the story of the Royal Artillery in the Somme battles of 1916.
The main public interest in the battle is the staggering losses suffered by the volunteers of Kitchener’s Army on the first day. As one “Two years in the making. Ten minutes in the destroying. That was our history.”- the description of one Pals battalion.
The Gunners don’t come out too well from the short version of the battle of the Somme. The largest ever concentration of British Artillery firing the largest ever barrage was supposed to cut the barbed wire in front of the German trenches, destroy German bunkers, defences and guns and keep the Germans heads down while the infantry advanced. But, over about eight out of thirteen miles of the front line attacked this did not happen, resulting in tragedy. We will show you why, and something of the efforts and sacrifices made by the Gunners to deliver the impossible,.
The tour has been based on research inspired by a project started by the late Will Townsend. It is based on research from original documents in the National Archives, Firepower Archives, the Historial de la Grande Guerre Château de Péronne and RUSI. We have brought together anecdotes and stories from a wide range of published and unpublished accounts by and about Gunners. We will have fire plans drawn by the future Field Marshall Lord AlanBrooke.
We will look at the French and German artillery too. Few Britons are aware of how closely the British and French artillery worked. Nor is the German experience well known- even thought the most enduring German memory of the Somme was probably how their trenches were stamped into the ground by the British guns.
We are going to travel the week before the national commemoration because that is when the battle started for the Gunners, and we will have a better opportunity to get around the battlefield.
The tour is four days and three nights and for more information follow this link.
D Day Beaches and Landing Sites, 2-5 September 2015 £389
A visit over a long weekend to the D Day beaches and landing sites. There is a gunner story on each beach and landing site. We will see the strength of the German defences and see where and how the Gunners helped to overcome them. We will explore the stories of the Gunners who took part, the planners, commanders and soldiers, heroes, poets and those who fell.
£389 per person sharing single supplement £75
BEF Western Front 10-14 November 2016 £469
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 over Remembrance day 11 November.
£469 per person sharing single supplement £110
100 years ago this autumn a visit to the lavatory by a Gunner Subaltern led to a breakthrough in military science. Archimedes had his inspiration sitting in the bath. Lieutenant William Lawrence Bragg, while sitting on the lavatory .
In 1915 William Lawrence Bragg was a 25 year old subaltern borne in Adelaide Australia. He had joined the Territorial Army while a Cambridge under graduate. when war broke out was a Second Lieutenant in the Leicestershire RHA. He was a brilliant mathematician and physicist who discovered in 1912 what is known as Bragg’s law of X-ray diffraction; the basis for the determination of crystal structure. In September 1915 he was awarded the 1915 Nobel Prize for Science, jointly with his father, William Henry Bragg. He is still the youngest ever recipient of the prize.
In 1915 Bragg was working on a key problem facing the artillery on the Western front. How to locate enemy artillery. One of the most promising technologies was to use the sound of the gun. But it was not easy to pick out the sound of the gun firing from the shock wave of the shell breaking the sound barrier, the crack from the thump. Nor did they know how much of the energy generated by a gun firing was transmitted as low-frequency sounds, too low to be audible.
The breakthrough came when Bragg was in the lavatory in his billet in Flanders. This was a a small room, with a door, but no window. When the door was shut, the only connection to the outside world was the pipe leading from under his toilet seat. There was a British six-inch gun about 400 metres away. When it fired, his bare bottom was actually lifted off the toilet seat by the inaudible infra-sound energy, even though he could often hear nothing at all. So now he knew there was enormous energy in the inaudible infra-sound.
It took a second eureka moment to solve the problem. Corporal W S Tucker, another physicist in Bragg’s team was accommodated in a tar paper hut. There were a couple of holes near his bed space. He noticed that even on a day with no wind or sound, annoying puffs of air would blow onto his face. He and Bragg compared notes and they deduced that these were the result of low frequency sound from artillery. He made a detector out of a wooden ammunition box, which became known as the Tucker microphone.
This led to the development of microphones to record the inaudible frequencies making it possible to develop sound ranging as a way to locate enemy guns to within 50metres. The same technology, applied in a slightly different way made it possible to measure the the muzzle velocity of individual guns, which made it easier to predict fire. Together these technique was used to devastating effect from 1917 onwards. For example at Cambrai 20 November 1917 a barrage of 1000 guns fired a predicted fire plan and hitting enemy guns located by sound alone. Bragg shared the results of his work with his father. Bragg senior was working for the Admiralty on acoustic detection and the result was ASDIC, an echo locating system to detect submerged submarines.
Bragg ended the war with an OBE, MC and three mentions in dispatches. He went on to have a very distinguished scientific career, including the announcement of the discovery of DNA. Bragg is probably the only serving soldier to receive the Nobel prize for Science.
This photograph in the National Army Museum Collection shows the men of the 1/5th Hampshire Howitzer battery in Mesopotamia, modern Iraq in 1915. It was a Territorial unit, with many men from the Isle of Wight. Around half of the battery and three other batteries from the Regular Xth Field Brigade which served alongside them, would die during the war. This November is the centenary of the fateful events which lead to these units being doomed to suffer some of the highest proportional losses of any Gunner units losses in the Great War.
The 1915 campaign in Mesopotamia is over-shadowed by the Gallipoli expedition. After the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire joined the war on the side of Central Powers the British send a small expeditionary force “Indian force D” based on the 6th (Poona) Indian Infantry Division to secure the oil refinery at Abadan, important for fuel oil for the Royal Navy. In addition to the 1/5th Hampshire Howitzer battery, the artillery included the Xth Brigade Royal Field Artillery, (63,76 and 83 batteries) The 1st Indian Mountain Brigade, 23rd and 30th Batteries), a Territorial Army unit and S Battery RHA
The Mesopotamian campaign started well and by April 1915 had secured its limited objectives. After landing at Fao on the 6th November 1914, the expeditionary force defeated the Ottoman defenders in battles for Basra and Qurna in 1914. At the battle of Shaiba 12-14 April 1915, the British defeated an Ottoman attempt to evict them, the last time that they would threaten Basra. But what next?
The strategists in London wanted to scale the operation back, in favour of the Western Front and other theatres. Those in India saw an opportunity to exploit success and capture Bagdad given the light, defeated opposition. This was to be achieved with the resources in theatre.
So on a logistic shoestring, General Townsend with a force of around 11,000 men of the 6th Poona Division was ordered to advance up the River Tigris, supported by river gunboats as far as Kut-al- Amara and , if possible Bagdad. On 29 September the British defeated the Ottomans south west of Kut after an night march and dawn attack.
By 21 November the 6th Division was approaching the next line of Ottoman defences on a six mile front at Ctesiphon 26 Km South East of Bagdad. The Turkish commander had entrenched his troops across the valley. The British plan was to form four infantry columns and attach the Turk positions at dawn on the 22nd while a flying column manoeuvred around the right, Eastern flank. Much of the fire-power to support the attack was to be from gun boats on the River Tigris. The Turks concentrated their artillery fire on the gun boats and by the end of the 22nd each side had suffered close to 50% casualties in a very bloody battle. Both commanders ordered their men to withdraw. Townsend had only a few thousand unwounded men, not enough to capture and hold Bagdad, and thousands of wounded. He fell back to Kut. The suffering of the wounded was pitiful. Townsend entrenched his men at Kut and waited for relief. The Turks brought up reinforcements, defeated relief efforts and in April 1916 Townsend and his Army surrendered. Prisoners of War were not well treated by the Turks and around half of the British and Indian soldiers who fell into their hands died in Mesopotamia or on a forced march to Anatolia or in the harsh conditions there.
Among them were the men of the 1/.5th Hampshire Howitzer Battery and the three batteries of the Xth Brigade RFA (63,76 and 82). The Commonwealth War Graves records lists 442 dead from these units, which had an establishment of around 800.
Two batteries of the current day 106 Regiment are based in Hampshire are continue the traditions of Hampshire volunteer artillerymen, even though 457 and 295 batteries draw on the traditions of the Hampshire Yeomanry. The regular batteries were reformed, but none survived the post WW2 reorganisations.
One other battery which took part as Force D is still in existence. The 23rd Peshawar Mountain battery (Frontier Force) was transferred to the army of Pakistan in 1947. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/23rd_Peshawar_Mountain_Battery_(Frontier_Force)
Camp of 1/5th Hampshire Howitzer Battery at Makina Masus near Basra, 1915.
Photograph, World War One, Mesopotamia (1914-1918), 1915.
1/5th Hampshire Howitzer Battery landed at Basra on 23 March 1915 and joined 6th Indian Division which had arrived in November 1914.
It fought in the Battle of Shaiba (April 1915) and took part in the advance towards Baghdad, including the Battle of Es Sinn, capture of Kut (September 1915) and Battle of Ctesiphon (November 1915). The battery was captured by the Turks following the British surrender at Kut in April 1916.
Blackadder goes Forth was the final series of the Blackadder BBC TV comedy programme. “The series placed the recurring characters of Blackadder, Baldrick and George in a trench in Flanders during World War I, and followed their various doomed attempts to escape from the trenches to avoid certain death under the misguided command of General Melchett.” The six programmes in this series were a satirical comedy set in the trenches of the Western Front. The characters were grotesque and funny, but the series ended with the poignant death of most of them in a hail of bullets in 1917, in slow motion with a final scene cutting into a shot of a field of poppies.
This was the “Oh What Lovely War” version of the First World War, with a heavy handed moral slant, but it is also glorious comic satire. And being funny is one of the core values of the British Army. Not the official Core Values of the British Army , which are Courage, Discipline, Respect for others, Integrity, Loyalty and Selfless Commitment. All worthy ideals but they do not round out the character of the British Army. There are at least three other unofficial core values –“ Sense of Humour”; “BS Baffles Brains” and above all “Don’t get Caught” all come to mind.
There is a grain of truth in each episode of Blackadder Goes Forth. Starting with the existence of a Captain Blackadder in the Royal Field Artillery, as reported by the Radio Times in 2014. The Imperial War Museum (IWM) has a copy of his diary. This is listed as providing details of his service in 151 Siege Battery Royal Garrison Artillery. However, Peter Hart and Nigel Steel, both senior staff members of the IWM, record his unit as the 152 Battery – so I am not sure which is right. Both of these batteries were raised in Scotland, equipped with four 8″ Howitzers and deployed to France in August 1916. Blackadder took part in the major battles from the 1916 battle of the Somme to the end of the war and his observations are a primary source for these battles. During this time he rose from lieutenant to major and decorated for gallantry for organising the withdrawal of his guns , ammunition and stores under heavy fire.
The real Blackadder, with his accounting background looks a little more like Tim McInnerny’s Captain Darling.
However, the extracts from his diary from summer 1917 in the 3rd battle of Ypres make it clear that he was far from a pen pusher with a paper-clip fetish.
The road to the new position is a mere apology for a road and as we are taking down the first gun at night the road surface collapses and the gun sinks to its cradle. It has lain there for three days now and we have not been able to shift it — two caterpillars failed to move it. Now we have had heavy rain so it is very doubtful if we will get the guns to their new place at all. The result of three nights’ work is to get one gun into a hole and another off to a workshop. Tonight I am to get the gun out of the ditch and another to the workshop if possible. The Hun shelled the battery all afternoon, broke another limber and badly damaged the road again. About midnight he again shelled and set off more ammunition but all the men got clear. I got the gun out of the ditch with two engines and into the new position. It was difficult to get the gun away to the workshop owing to the road being cut up but we succeeded without mishap about 3 a.m.”
29 July (1917) At night, about 11 p.m., the old Hun began to strafe us and all around. The guns got it first of all so I ordered all to clear out. Then he worked up towards the fighting post, a concrete erection left by the Hun. Several of the gunners had come up here for shelter some very badly shaken. The shells were falling very near now, the concussion putting out the lights several times, then, all of a sudden, a tremendous crash and all darkness and smoke almost suffocating us — a direct hit on the post! We lit the candles again, but could hardly see for the smoke.
After ascertaining all were untouched I tried to get out, the shelling having moved to the guns again, but found the entrance blocked with debris. All wires had been broken too so we were out of touch with the guns and headquarters. We soon worked a passage out and set to work to get into communication. Meantime some of the ammunition on No. 3 gun had been set on fire and the limber and stores were burning merrily: I got this gunner to come with me to put the fire out, this we did without mishap and returned to the concrete post. About 2 a.m. the shelling stopped and at dawn we reckoned up the damage done. Casualties, nil, material destroyed, very little. The fighting post was only slightly damaged and will stand many more hits thanks to the excellent work of` the Hun.”
Once again, it is ‘Der Tag’ and again we are nibbling at the Bosche line. Our Battery is busy closing up the Hun guns and during the day in addition to carrying out our programme during the attack, we received many calls from aeroplanes who saw Hun guns active. The Hun strafed the Battery area just before zero hour and broke all the communications to the guns, but we got these put right just in time. He did little damage though he hit No. 2 gun pit twice. During the day too, he endeavoured to neutralise the Batteries about our area with shrapnel and high velocity guns, but we got off with no damage.
Lieutenant Robert Blackadder 152nd (sic) Siege Battery Royal Garrison Artillery. (Steele and Hart Passchendaele: The Sacrificial Ground)
1. Steele and Hart Passchendaele: The Sacrificial Ground – on e of the best histories of this battle, drawing heavily on personal accounts and one of the few that tells the story from the Gunner’s perspective.
2. https://livesofthefirstworldwar.org/lifestory/366252 The entry credited to Paul Evans look like the work of Firepower’s archivist
3.http://1914-1918.invisionzone.com/forums/index.php?showtopic=101508 The pictures of 152 Seige battery, triggered by someone’s family research.
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