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Bob
Bob
August 8, 2013 12:59 pm

The history of WW1 was originally written by marxists and the marxist version is still used to indoctrinate British children that the whole thing was a slaughter perpetuated by an arrogant elite with no regard for the lives of ordinary people. This is of course pure fabrication (standard operating procedure for marxists) and slowly but surely research is proving that the German’s in 1914-18 were just slightly less ambitious versions of the Nazis and that actually the British officer and political class was remarkably innovative and ultimately successful in the face of remarkable odds- with Amiens and what followed being a great example.

HurstLlama
HurstLlama
August 8, 2013 1:26 pm

@Bob,

I am not sure I would agree with the “Marxist” label but there is no doubt a view of WWI, and especially the “guilt” of the British upper classes for what ensued during it has been allowed to take hold. In the commemorations that are starting in advance of next year’s centenary of the outbreak the people of the UK, especially out young ones, will be gravely misled if the likes of the, modern, BBC get their way and are allowed to carry on their spread of propaganda dressed up as history.

P.S. Thanks to TD for pulling together that series of videos. I remember the series on TV as a young man and how powerful it was back then.

Chris
Chris
August 8, 2013 1:51 pm

Indeed Bob the officers have been soundly criticized in the years since the Great War. I dare say there were a few who might have warranted the ‘donkey’ label in the early years – I recall one of the ancestor hunt TV programs where Dan Snow was horrified to find how his forebear behaved as a senior General in 1914/15. But I have also heard that trench warfare was not the expectation at the onset of war; it was a learning process for all including tacticians and strategists which required the effectiveness of new methods to be tested in real time. One of the most telling claims was that the Somme Offensive started as trench warfare but at its end three months later it had evolved into something much more like combined arms manoeuvre warfare – a huge change of approach in a matter of 12 weeks, and one that could only have been created and organised by the Army’s officers.

By the time of the Amiens offensive 20 months later the tactics were sharp and modern and effective. Infantry, armour, cavalry, artillery and airpower all brought to bear in proper coordinated cooperation. And light tanks made a big impact here – anyone unfamiliar with the actions of Musical Box, a Medium A Whippet commanded by a Lt Arnold, should find his account and have a read. I persuaded David Fletcher, famous tank historian, to clamber inside the Tank Museum’s Whippet to try to gauge if there was room to stand, He responded there was just about 5ft between floorboards and roof, but that the bigger problem was the stowed ammunition – over 5000 rounds of it – that prevented gunner & commander standing in the best places to operate the machine guns. He concluded the Whippet crews once inside the vehicle spent their time constantly stooped over. Something to consider while reading about Musical Box. I did ask Mr Fletcher whether anyone knew the fate of this particular tank (there are only I believe 5 known survivors, one each in Belgium, Canada, South Africa, USA and the UK) but apparently after the war most of the recovered armour, already becoming obsolete as newer types entered service, was sent for scrap. You might well have a little bit of Musical Box in your domestic washing machine.

Anyway. I am not entirely in accord on the opinion that all history is Marxist claptrap, but I do see that due to the circumstances of an unexpected entrenched conflict for which tactics had not been developed, the officers had to try new methods (often abortive and very expensive in soldiers’ lives) to determine which tactics worked in each new situation. To those looking on from Blighty it would have looked exactly like Tommies were being sent over the top in their thousands towards certain death for no better reason than because the Generals had nothing better to do.

Bob
Bob
August 8, 2013 2:03 pm

And when thinking about Amien it is worth remembering what was happening just four months earlier. Haig’s special order of the day, dated April 11th 1918 is one of the most powerful pieces of prose ever attributed to a senior British Officer in the field and one which underscores the reality of WW1; yet you will rarely see this in most history books about the conflict as the marxists have no interest in it. By contrast, Nelson’s “England Expects” is near ubiquitous:

http://www.firstworldwar.com/source/backstothewall.htm

Phil
August 8, 2013 2:37 pm

Christ it’s not 1976 last time I checked. WWI historiography has moved on tremendously since then. Time to update your libraries.

Bob
Bob
August 8, 2013 2:55 pm

Nobody said it hadn’t, in fact there have been some excellent works in recent years as well as re-prints of otherwise abandoned texts produced by officers at the time. However, the marxist version is still being taught in schools and pushed out by the Guardian and it’s broadcasting arm, the BBC.

Tom
Tom
August 8, 2013 3:45 pm

Bob – Please can you tone down the politics. I like to think of Think Defence as being largely apolitical sort of place and prefer it that way.

mike
mike
August 8, 2013 4:50 pm

Amen, Tom.

The whole point is to remember the sacrifice and the event in British military history.
Not to broadcast theories about the media, whom we all know needs a good table-spoon of salt when it comes to history. Even the History Channel can be dumb on what is a complex and confusing conflict history.

I think its understandable that during and after WW1 people (the vast majority of whom were of a ‘lower class’) sought to target those in charge because…well… they *were* in charge and people simply didn’t really understand why the conflict happened (and did not look at the wider picture Chris has pointed out re tactics and equipment tech) – heck, for a smaller modern example; look at Mr S. Wards first edition of his book, in which he berated the late Admiral Woodward of a great many accusations because he was “the flag”.

But WW 1’s great confused history is becoming much more clearer now. Sir H did a good blog post on WW1 and how the modern perspective/reflection on its history is changing a while back too. (Hope TD doesn’t mind); http://thinpinstripedline.blogspot.co.uk/2012/10/commemoration-of-world-war-one-and.html

Phil
August 8, 2013 5:06 pm

Agreed – it is not remarkable after a war that was unprecedented for this country and which for the first time since the Civil War and beyond had touched pretty much every community here, that scores were settled and cries of incompetence went up amidst the tragedy.

And it is not surprising that the paradigm was given a bump after WWII where we emerged from a longer war across more territory with a third of the number of dead.

Phil
August 8, 2013 5:09 pm

However, the marxist version is still being taught in schools and pushed out by the Guardian and it’s broadcasting arm, the BBC.

Hardly. An opinion based on prejudice not facts.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/worldwars/wwone/lions_donkeys_01.shtml

Craig
Craig
August 8, 2013 5:29 pm

And the greatest culprit of dodgy First World War history was Alan Clark. Not exactly a marxist!

Gloomy Northern Boy
Gloomy Northern Boy
August 8, 2013 5:39 pm

For those not familiar with it, “Mud, Blood and Poppycock” by Gordon Corrigan is an invaluable corrective to the ludicrous class war myths that have become the received wisdom about the Great War…many of them drawn together in the musical “Oh what a Lovely War”…an amusing piece of complete nonsense that was as much as anything else a Hippy/Pacifist anti-Vietnam War diatribe.

Corrigan reveals amongst other things that the casualty rate amongst British General and Field Officers and NCO’s was enormous, and belies any suggestion of them skulking behind the lines; and that the overwhelming majority of death penalties for cowardice and desertion were commuted…not least because by the middle of the war Shell Shock was increasingly well-understood and accommodated…with a few notorious exceptions the Men actually shot were a pretty bad lot in other ways…still not right, but very far from the stereotype of sadistic brutality in each and every case.

The War Poets wrote some great stuff, but in the end have a great deal to answer for…and I note that the popular fiction of the twenties and thirties…country house murder mysteries like D L Sayers Lord Peter Wimsey series, the stuff most people read for relaxation…take a pretty balanced view of the War, seeing it as a sad (sometimes grievous) necessity.

GNB

HurstLlama
HurstLlama
August 8, 2013 6:37 pm

Mr. Gloomy,

Corrigan’s book is indeed very good and is an excellent primer for getting people to think about WWI in terms other than they have been fed for decades. That said, Corrigan’s use of statistics is sometimes not quite kosher (e.g. comparison of casualty rates between the Somme and Normandy campaigns), which is a shame because he gives the “Oh What a Lovely war” crowd an opening to attack him on a the issue of relatively trivial numbers and, in doing so, cast doubt on his overall credibility.

Beautiful evening down here so,

Happy in Sussex

Ant
Ant
August 8, 2013 6:51 pm

Agree with the above Bob/Chris.
Recommend Gary Sheffield’s Forgotten Victory for general readers…

http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/0747264600/ref=nosim?tag=thinkdef-21&linkCode=sb1&camp=2378&creative=8430

ps: wait for silly price currently on Amazon to fall- must have been a run on it!

Obsvr
Obsvr
August 9, 2013 8:29 am

Some of us live in trepidation about the next few years and what sort of history we a going to be bombarded with.

As Terraine pointed out the BEF of 1914 grew into a formidable force that defeated the main body of the main enemy. There was immensely fast learning along the way. The vast majority of senior officers were pretty smart, they were the team that defeated the much vaunted Prussian General Staff. Part of this was innovation, and building on what looked like a runner, part was running a combined arms battle from very early in the war, a sound organisation was good starting point. It’s also useful to note that the Boer War had been a very useful experience.

The key to victory on the Western Front was getting the artillery right, notably to defeat the German artillery. The Somme went wrong because the GE arty hadn’t been defeated by 1 Jul, it was GE arty defensive fire that caused the casualties, their arty survival to do this was mainly due to bad weather that prevented the RFC observing and ranging the pre-Z day destruction shoots, it was an expensive lesson in learning to allow enough time, as the Canadians did the following year.

Phil
August 9, 2013 8:49 am

The key to winning WWI was overcoming the strategic mobility of the railways with operational level mobility and that includes communication needs. As is blatantly obvious, the technology simply did not exist until the very end of the war and then only in a proto format that was just starting to come together. WWI came at a strange hub in history where industrial organisation allowed forces to be raised that could form a defensive line across a continent and move them about – but there was a chasm between that level of co-ordination and mobility and the tactical / operational level which still relied on feet and runners once the battle started.

At the tactical level ground was constantly gained and lost, trenches taken and lost and it was no great difficulty in military terms to take trench systems (albeit at an inevitably high cost). What was nigh on impossible was exploiting the initial successes because communication and mobility dropped off a cliff once the blokes went over the top.

To win WWI you either had to keep killing the enemy until he ran out of soldiers and / or perceived he was going to (as happened) or you keep fighting until 1920 or so when operational mobility stood half a chance of getting around railway delivered enemy divisions. Even then communications would have been little better.

x
x
August 9, 2013 9:00 am

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blockade_of_Germany

Shock of new technology is always interesting. When the tanks arrived and made there staggering advances (“Through the mud and the blood to the green fields beyond…”) all the gains were rapidly lost because the the Army system didn’t know how to respond.

Phil
August 9, 2013 9:26 am

I agree. A useful case study for people who think technology is a panacea. If the system the technology is a part of can’t support it or doesn’t adapt to it then you’re going nowhere fast. If the war had carried on we’d have learned very fast but the whole Army was going to need to be re-written from an infantry / artillery led force to one involving greater emphasis on service, support and communications. Otherwise your tanks and proto trucks ends up having no more mobility than infantry and it’s back to square one.

a
a
August 9, 2013 1:12 pm

Here’s a thought, though: why were the troops on the Somme (and elsewhere) pushing extended-line wave attacks, rather than using fire and movement? It’s not because fire and movement hadn’t been invented. It’s because the troops were not well enough trained – or, rather, their commanding officers didn’t think they were well enough trained – to pull it off. The point of the wave was that it was all they thought the New Army divisions knew how to do.

The British Army by 1918 was extremely capable – the best then in operation, no doubt – and you’re right that this tends to be overlooked in popular impressions of the war (though not so much in modern historiography). But let’s not forget that, two years earlier, its commanders were sending troops into battle who simply _were not trained_, and thousands upon thousands of them died. And I don’t think they should escape condemnation for that.

HurstLlama
HurstLlama
August 9, 2013 1:51 pm

“…its commanders were sending troops into battle who simply _were not trained_, and thousands upon thousands of them died. And I don’t think they should escape condemnation for that.”

@a

Which commanders are we talking about here? The CinC was Haig, who didn’t want to fight on the Somme and didn’t want an offensive starting in June (or, as it became, July) because in his view the new armies would not be sufficiently well trained.

The decision to go in on the Somme was a political one (to keep the Frogs happy) and to go in June/July was also a decision taken at the behest of our French senior partners, not least because they were getting absolutely hammered at Verdun and felt, not unreasonably, that if some pressure was not applied to the Germans elsewhere, and soon, they could have been knocked out of the war.

So which of the Brit commanders do you think should be condemned?

Oh, the extended line wave attacks of which you are so critical were neither universal, nor a total failure. The performance of the army on 1st July varied greatly. In some places nothing was achieved, in others initial break-ins were made but could not be exploited/re-enforced due, primarily, to the factors noted by Mr. Phil above, in others (in the South) all day one objectives were taken with few, for a major war, casualties.

It is very easy, now, to criticise Haig, Rawlinson, Gough and the rest but less easy to say what one would have done in their place with the information and technology they had available to them and the context in which they had to operate. The Battle of the Somme was a fight on a scale previously unknown, the preparatory bombardment was the largest in human history to that point, who could know that it wouldn’t actually work?

Swimming Trunks
Swimming Trunks
August 9, 2013 2:57 pm

What gets me is the fact this stalemate, and the casualties which came from it, came as a surprise; the range and accutacy of soldiers individual weapons as well as evolving artillery had led to trench warfare in the American Civil war, Crimea, even the Boer war.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trench_warfare#Field_works

It was predicted in some Sci-fi works, and even (vaguely) were the solutions to it:

http://www.angelfire.com/art/enchanter/landironcladsintro.html

Dave Haine
Dave Haine
August 18, 2013 8:43 am

I think it’s been convenient to blame senior officers after WW1, mainly drummed up by womaniser and all-round bad egg Lloyd-George and his cronies. We mustn’t forget his attempts to sack Haig and the general staff, because they weren’t prepared to submit to his political interference (and his covering up of the immense profiteering going on). It was largely down to him, that the convention of serving officers not ‘commenting’ on the government of the day grew up. Until then, the CIGS and 1st Sea Lord would happily ‘put their oar in’. Unfortunately , Churchill wasn’t entirely innocent of this either.

I also think that Haig fought the war he was presented with, rather than the war he wanted to fight. Looking back at previous wars, the boer war even the napoleonic wars, the idea of mobile formations, outflanking, pincer movements etc were well understood. Because, despite what the donkey wallopers would have you believe, they weren’t there just to ‘lend tone to what otherwise would be a vulgar brawl’. You had ‘heavy cavalry’ and the RHA to punch through enemy lines and ‘light’ cavalry and the Yeomanry to recconoitre and exploit.

You also might want to look at Allanby’s campaign in Palestine. Lawrence aside, it was a classic mobile campaign, of which Haig was very jealous.

Swimming Trunks
Swimming Trunks
August 18, 2013 10:05 am

The Eastern front was also more mobile, at least for longer, with a bigger role for Cavalry. As I understand it that was due to the lower force density due to the larger area? There was also more mobile campaigns in Africa but they were more guerilla/counter guerilla actions I believe.

IXION
August 18, 2013 10:59 am

There was a general failure to absorb the leason of the Crimea, the Port Arthur csmpsign and the American civil war. And that failure applied to all armies in the west

I do not think the UK Generals were particularly bad at that.

Where there was a failure continent wide; was to appreciate how the steam engine had changed the speed at which reserves could be deployed. And how the internal combustion engine answered in part that problem.

After the Somme the famous ‘they came on in the same old way and we stopped them in the same old way’

Does become much more valid as a criticism.

But anyone who studied the great civil war battles should have seen what was going to happen…. after all the career of Maclellan shows that the great era of sweeping Napolionic manouvre was in trouble in the industrial age.

Chris.B
Chris.B
August 18, 2013 2:15 pm

I think the problem with analysing WWI is that we’ve let ourselves drift from one extreme to the other. We’ve gone from “Lions led by Donkeys” to “Lions led by Lions, who were just a bit unlucky”. The answer is probably somewhere more in the middle.

For example, for once I’d have to agree with IXION. The officers of WWI should have been well aware by this point of the massive amount of casualties that units advancing in line across open fields would suffer, even if they ran. The dangers of such tactics had been demonstrated bloodily several times before, since the era of the American Civil War and some of its mind bogglingly (for that time) gory battles.

Of course there were certain limitations imposed on what the generals could do with the quality of troops they had and the situations they were presented with. They did show some flexibility of tactics and methodology as time passed, but they were still guilty in many areas of plugging away with methods that had been shown to not work.

Were the Germans any better? At the start, perhaps not so much. But later on they absolutely showed a level of adaptation that was superior. On the Eastern and Italian fronts in particular they showed a much greater flexibility in their methods, and even this was against trench and wire systems. Erwin Rommels account of his experiences is very enlightening, especially when you remember he wrote that account well before WW2. The methodology displayed would probably be familiar to most modern infantry officers.

To say that our great war generals were stupid and incompetent in every regard is false. However, to say they are blameless is also false I think.

Dave Haine
Dave Haine
August 18, 2013 3:24 pm

Hmm, interesting…apart from the French and maybe the USA I think we could all find points/ theatres where the combatants, demonstrated knowledge and use of proper manoeuvre ops… However, just like the American civil war, and to an extent the Crimean war, the western front turned into a grinding match…after the French brought the German advance to a meat grinding stop at Verdun.

I get the feeling that once the German advance stopped, the German general staff just dug-in and settled down. The French were basically rebuilding after their enormous losses, so it was left to the British to break the deadlock.

Apart from mustard gas, chlorine and phosgene, and possibly trench construction, I’m not sure the Germans innovated particularly. Sassoon and Brooke’s writing both seemed to indicate a lot of experimentation with small unit tactics, both operationally and at general staff level.

I would say the standard of British staff work got better as the war progressed, while Germans got worse, on the western front anyway.

I still don’t think we’ve placed enough emphasis on the political interference faced by our general staff- the greatest example of which was Lloyd George stopping re-inforcements crossing to France, there were others.

Mind you Gallipoli could be used to batter some generals over the head with…

HurstLlama
HurstLlama
August 18, 2013 6:44 pm

“After the Somme the famous ‘they came on in the same old way and we stopped them in the same old way’

Does become much more valid as a criticism.”

No, I do not think that holds. Even during the Somme (nevermind what happened after) tactics were being refined, what worked was adopted and what didn’t was discarded. Results and changes were uneven, but at least some of that was down to the decentralised nature of the British Army (in modern days what we might call a “post-code lottery” where as others might call the same “local decision making”), but over all the generals were all moving in the right direction and learning the lessons. Those that didn’t were sacked and sent home. If people are going to criticise the commanders then I do wish they would name names and not rely on generalities.

As for staff work, Mr. Haine says he thinks that in the British army it got better as the war went on. I couldn’t agree more, but just a thought how much better could it have been on the run up to the start of the Somme? Getting hundreds of thousands of men through their training programme and up to the right position at more or less the right time whilst shifting hundreds of artillery pieces and millions of tons of stores down the same limited number of roads. Well, I’d like to see our modern staff try and achieve the same, especially using nothing more complex than pen, ink and a very limited telephone system.

HurstLlama
HurstLlama
August 18, 2013 6:58 pm

“Mind you Gallipoli could be used to batter some generals over the head with”

Fair go, but in all fairness you would have to start with the pillock who appointed a 62 year old dug-out who had never actually commanded in action anything larger than a company (yes, General Sir Ian Standish Monteith Hamilton who had retired from “active” service in 1910) had no idea about amphibious operations (though few did) and was excluded from the planning phase of the operation. Who was responsible for this ludicrous appointment? Step forward Field Marshal Horatio Herbert Kitchener.

Lindermyer
Lindermyer
August 18, 2013 7:09 pm

Long time lurker but I have an issue with the claptrap we were taught at school regarding this subject so thought id stick my oar in.

The British Army of 1914 was very capable of fire and manoeuvre etc.
However once the front stretched from border to coast and the stalemate set it there was no choice but direct assaults onto the enemy Trenches. I don’t think anyone was in any doubt that this was going to be anything but costly, It was also in hind sight doomed to fail until weapons evolved to breach those defences (Tanks) and exploit any penetrations – a comms problem not easily solved .
Regarding the Somme in 1916 The British were the only army that advanced in line all the others used fire and manoeuvre. That the British didn’t was not the failing of any man or even the system the army of 1916 was very inexperienced and more crucially there was no SNCO / officer experience, it was felt that anything other than straight lines would lead to more casualties as command and control would be rapidly lost.
Its worth noting Haig did not want to go on the offensive in 1916 he felt the army would not be ready prior to 1917, he was over ruled .

The same applied even more so for the staff officers.
IIRC The general in charge of the railways was a civilian expert bought in by Haig and given the rank to ensure he received the required respect

regards

HurstLlama
HurstLlama
August 18, 2013 7:29 pm

Wotcha, Lindermyer, welcome to the bear pit of Mr. TD’s blog. Nice first post, personally I would have mentioned why Haig was over ruled regarding an offensive on the Somme in the Summer of 1916 ; i.e. the Frogs were getting slit up a treat at Verdun and were likely to throw their hand in unless we attacked there and then (yes, for those picky ones, I know a joint offensive on the Somme was agreed before Verdun kicked off and so the Frogs pulled out of it, mostly).

IXION
August 18, 2013 7:36 pm

Hurst Llamma

I was being generous frankly.

If you read some of the stuff written about Crimean and the US Civil war, at the time it was frankly weird. Some staff reports for example that the defensive works at Sebastopol were ‘never proof against attack’.!!!!! And that events of the Civil war were the result of ‘conditions peculiar to the Americas’. and Port Arthur – The conditions of which directly foretold the western front, seemingly ignored.

There was a willful blindness about the effect of massed fire at 1000metre accuracy levels, the effect of artillery like the French 75, and how that affected infantry war. And as I said before the rate at which reinforcements could be moved by train and on good roads to block breakouts etc.

Ok the obsession with cavalry has been overdone in modern re-tellings but it was there. Coupled with a desire to ‘break thru the crust and restore maneuver to the field was an attested aim of the UK general staff.

Tactics did evolve but not frankly at any meaningful level, fire control, barrage accuracy, weight of supporting fire. Machine gun deployment both in number an coordination, use of gas, and mining, all improved incrementally. But the basic tactic of unprotected infantry trying to cross relatively open ground against massed artillery and machine gun fire form an enemy in cover and with defence in depth remained. The published attitude of ‘one more big push’ rather than what followed in 1918, lead to a series of overambitious offensives, doomed to fail, and doomed 10’s of thousands to death in attacks that at best lead to attrition by numbers of the German Army, but were never going to be the ‘big breakthrough’, with the inevitable blackadder quote of ‘tea and scones in Berlin for tea’.

Equipment wise It was not until the addition of mechanized cross country mobile, armour that that tactic changed.

It was not the case that massed armour rolled over trenches, but that armour support to take strong points and provide direct fire support was essential; as well as armoured cavalry in the form of armoured cars and light tanks , who could do what the horse could now not.

A tactic that gave up the ‘big push’, for coordinated limited objective attacks designed to wear down the enemy was the final piece for the puzzle. And might have worked without the armour. It may well have saved a lot of lives.

The generals of the entente armies can and should be criticized for the failure to appreciate at the start what was going to happen before the war, and for failing to adapt much more quickly during.

Chris.B
Chris.B
August 18, 2013 7:37 pm

I’m not sure we can give too much credit for the refinement of tactics. In some cases new ideas were given a whirl, such as switching to ten minute hurricane bombardments and the like, but even after the Somme a lot of the same tactics and strategy persisted; line attacks, a lack of machine gun support, broad front offensives etc. This was at a time when on the Eastern and Southern fronts zee Germans were using very different methods. Indeed both the French and Germans had tried new offensive methods, especially at the lower levels, for a long time.

The idea that the British commanders had no choice but to plug away with the same old methods doesn’t hold up that well. They had some restrictions on them, for certain, and they were dealing with a rough hand, but they most certainly could have played it very differently.

lindermyer
lindermyer
August 18, 2013 7:45 pm

Hi HurstLlama

I didn’t want my first post to become an essay, so I skipped the wherefores.
To be fair to les Frogs the UK was the junior partner it was always going to be Frances train set, and as half their country was on the wrong side of the front I suppose we cant blame them for pushing for an early offensive.

Re Gallipoli do we know why Kitchener chose the man he did, was it a case of he was the best of the rest, all the talent already commited on the western front, or was it an uncharacteristic brainfart.

regards

HurstLlama
HurstLlama
August 18, 2013 8:40 pm

I think I am about to scream.

“A tactic that gave up the ‘big push’, for coordinated limited objective attacks designed to wear down the enemy was the final piece for the puzzle”

You mean the bite and hold tactic that was favoured by Rawlinson in 1916? He was of course over ruled by Haig who insisted on trying for the breakout. A breakout that Rawlinson didn’t think was possible, so when it was actually within his grasp (i.e. High Wood that afternoon) he didn’t recognise it for what it was and refused to commit to another attack without adequate preparation for far of excessive casualties. If Rawlinson had moved quickly then the history of the Somme campaign would have read very differently, but who, knowing only, what he did would have made a different decision?

B

“The idea that the British commanders had no choice but to plug away with the same old methods doesn’t hold up that well. ”

The British commanders didn’t plug away with the same old methods. There was a constant evolution of tactics based on what worked. Look at the development, and expansion, of the Royal Artillery if you want proof, or the introduction of tanks (biggest cheerleader – Haig).

You say that Haig and his army commanders could have played their hand differently. Fair enough. How? What should they have done? You might want to refer to Mr. Phil’s post above on the limits of technology whilst thinking about your answer.

@lindermyer

Why Kitchener chose Gen. Hamilton, I don’t know. The histories I have read suggest that it was because he was the most senior general who did not have an active command (apparently protocol at the time stopped people asking why such a senior man had been over-looked with a full blown war going on). However, my knowledge of the British Army would suggest that the histories are correct, we needed a general, here was an unemployed general, job done. That he was a buffoon neither physically or mentally up to the task was neither here nor there. Not the first time we have appointed a totally unsuitable/incompetent commander; see Elphinstone (first Afghan war), Raglan ( The Crimea) and God knows how many others in small wars (Buller?).

HurstLlama
HurstLlama
August 18, 2013 8:59 pm

Dang, two posts have disappeared into the ether today. One about the nasty substances I could, just, understand as falling foul of the spam trap, but one whose content relates to a war that took place ninety years ago is a bit more puzzling.

P.S. Lindermyer, my reply to you was in that second post that the spam trap has seemingly gobbled.

lindermyer
lindermyer
August 18, 2013 9:23 pm

Aargh just lost a long post (finger trouble).

So to summarise quickly
@ Hurst lama Elphinstone popped into my mind as I read your post.
broadly agree with you response to Chris B, I had written a similar response.

Chris.B
Chris.B
August 18, 2013 9:24 pm

@ Hurst,

I’ll get back to you after MotD2.

IXION
August 18, 2013 9:26 pm

Hurst Llama

Scream away old bean.

If Rawlinson had broken through. WHAT WOULD HAPPEN NEXT? My time to scream.

The German High command brings up no reserves using the rail network?

The British army finds it can move its guns and supplies across the battlefield faster than the Germans?

The Germans can do it quicker because they are on better communcation lines and the front stableises on a line about 20 milesto the rear. No big break thru. No sauseges no tea and crumpet in Berlin. That is what the train brings to the fight.

HurstLlama
HurstLlama
August 18, 2013 10:15 pm

,

Perhaps if we scream in unison and in key we might make music together, othe wise we can debate Haig’s plans for what would happen if the breakthrough had occurred. Though I grant you we would then be entering into a third-order “what if” and therefore talking b*ll*cks by any stretch.

Swimming Trunks
Swimming Trunks
August 18, 2013 10:38 pm

I think the lack of relative mobility RE: break out is key – attacking fortifications with high casualties was not new – for example, the Forlon Hope during Sieges – but the besieged Fort, town etc was the objective; breaking the line and then returning to Grand manourve warfare as an objective was a different matter. The Stormtrooper led German offensives of 1918 broke the Allied lines but couldn’t exploit this; new lines were entrenched behind.

Chris.B
Chris.B
August 18, 2013 10:39 pm

Right, finished watching Chelsea cheat their way to a win, same old, same old,

@ HurstLlama,

“The British commanders didn’t plug away with the same old methods. There was a constant evolution of tactics based on what worked”
— There was a slight evolution of some tactics, including experiments with “Hurricane bombardments” and even some occasions where bombardments were forgone in favour of surprise. But this was sporadic and later often abandoned in favour of the old multi-hour hammering. Infantry tactics on the other hand saw little in the way of evolution. The attack in line was fairly standard right through towards the end of the war. This is despite the (well documented) experiences of US forces in the ACW and even British experience in the Boer War not that long before, which had taught commanders that close ranked advances were damn near suicidal in the face of modern firepower.

To suggest this was the only option available because of inexperienced men is not really sufficient. Leading them to the slaughter in a tactic that you know is clearly unsuitable, and using “control” as an excuse, is not really cutting the mustard. A slightly disorganised attack that didn’t expose men to murderous fire would have been preferable to having full control over the handful of men who managed to survive that far.

While the critiques just after the war understate the fact that some new tactics were at least attempted and presume that there was a magic way to avoid suffering any casualties, the recent trend of hand washing British commanders goes far too far in the other direction and somehow magically absolves them of the many failings for which they were still responsible.

“Look at the development, and expansion, of the Royal Artillery if you want proof, or the introduction of tanks (biggest cheerleader – Haig).”
— The artillery expanded because of the demands of war. We can’t really credit British officers with that, it was more of a natural process. The same as the tank. It was developed without significant input from senior commanders, and you could pretty much pluck any Tom, Dick or Harry out of the front lines and say to him ‘we have these new things called “tanks”, metal boxes with engines and tracks that are immune to rifle and machine gun fire, and have weapons that can shoot back, do you think these are a good idea?’ and he would have said ‘yes’. You can’t really credit Haig with developing the tank.

“You say that Haig and his army commanders could have played their hand differently. Fair enough. How? What should they have done?”
— Where do we start? Concentration of effort? Use of more dispersed formations? Better use of their machine guns for support?

We saw all of these things demonstrated elsewhere during the same war. Look at battles like Caporetto. If everyone just plugged away the same and then people tried to offer solutions in hindsight, I could understand. But the fact is that contemporaries were often doing things differently. They learnt quicker (without the benefit of prior experience in places like South Africa), adapted their methods better and achieved more impressive results, constrained really only by their lack of manpower and supplies in certain areas (and the fact that they were experimenting with new methods).

In summary, world war I was always going to be a bloody affair. It was always going to involve significant casualties, and without the faster armour that came about after the war it was never going to evolve into a magic “three weeks to Berlin” type war. But significant failings in command did cause unneccessary casualties.

Chris
Chris
August 18, 2013 11:28 pm

ChrisB – ref “The same as the tank. It was developed without significant input from senior commanders, and you could pretty much pluck any Tom, Dick or Harry out of the front lines and say to him ‘we have these new things called “tanks”, metal boxes with engines and tracks that are immune to rifle and machine gun fire, and have weapons that can shoot back, do you think these are a good idea?’ and he would have said ‘yes’.” – actually they said ‘No’, or at least some did. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Landships_Committee – the Army wasn’t interested in the distraction of developing armoured mobile gun platforms (they had a war to fight don’t y’know?) so tanks became a Royal Navy invention. Just one more thing (1st Lord of the Admiralty) Winston did for the nation…

A mild point of interest – one of my grandfathers was at Flers-Courcelette with the Royal Field Artillery, and thus would have witnessed first hand the very first use of tanks in battle. Sadly I never had the chance to talk to either grandfather about their times it the artillery – the effects of gas meant neither lived to a ripe old age.

Chris.B
Chris.B
August 19, 2013 12:28 am

@ Chris,

Erm, you basically just repeated what I said, with a little more detail added?

The Toms, Dicks and Harrys didn’t say “no”, because they weren’t asked. And had you done so right at the very start they probably wouldn’t have known what the hell you were talking about. But once it became clear that these new fangled contraptions were largely “bullet proof” and I suspect a lot of muddy ears would have suddenly pricked up.

Observer
Observer
August 19, 2013 4:17 am

Wasn’t there some attempts at alternate tactics including sapping? IIRC, they would tunnel close to the enemy trenches, then ship huge amounts of explosives in to blow up the entire trench system in that section.

lindermyer
lindermyer
August 19, 2013 6:26 am

B
But the British Army didn’t advance in parade line formations (as I and many of us were taught) throughout the war that is a myth, Yes they left there trench and charged at the German trench but not online fire and manoeuvre was used, shell holes providing a fair amount of cover. I think some of the confusion is because they still deployed in waves and people imagine that’s rigid lines.
The Irony is that its perfectly clear that tactics were developed and improved hence the 1918 counter offensive which but for the armistice would have become the manoeuvre phase of the war and the early success of Passchendaele.
The first part of Passchendaele was a success and had the battle ended there the commanders would have been lauded. Unfortunately phase 2 & 3 were fought against an alert enemy in worsening conditions with dwindling supplies, the Passchendaele battle was kept going for as long as it was not because the British were distracting the Germans .

On that note Haig and other senior Generals did not select the tactics operated by a rifle company on a given day.
Re 1916 The Army was very inexperienced with few experienced NCOs many felt that anything more complicated than a line would result in massive casualties from friendly fire. were they right who knows?.

Re Tanks, Haig was a big advocate of air power and Tanks or anything else that could break the deadlock and reduce the cost in lives, but kudos to Winnie for pushing that one.

Re failings of command On the western front I don’t believe that to be the case, which isn’t to say there weren’t mistakes or failures, but ought right failures of command no.

As an aside I saw cavalry mentioned, British cavalry was more akin to motorised infantry (or the original dragoons) than Napoleonic cavalry, The Horse was used to enable a rapid advance and flanking manoeuvres, they did not expect to fight from horseback. The lance was carried simply for emergencies.
French cavalry apparently still behaved in the manner of 1814.

Regards

HurstLlama
HurstLlama
August 19, 2013 11:28 am

“As an aside I saw cavalry mentioned, British cavalry …”

Just a plug to remind people that although the Indian infantry was withdrawn from France and sent to the Middle East in November 1915 (after doing sterling service, especially at Neuve Chapelle), the Indian cavalry regiments served on the Western Front until 1918. In total the Indian troops, all volunteers, suffered about 60,000 casualties on the Western Front of which nearly nine thousand were deaths in action.

Swimming Trunks
Swimming Trunks
August 19, 2013 11:29 am

Interesting info – Wiki but still…

“Infiltration tactics were first formally proposed in the Allied armies by French Army captain Andre Laffargue.[1] Laffargue published a pamphlet “The attack in trench warfare” in 1915, based upon his experiences in combat that same year. He advocated that the first wave of an attack identify hard-to-defeat defenses but not attack them; subsequent waves would do this.

The French published his pamphlet “for information”, but did not implement it. The British did not even translate it, but did gradually adopt the techniques, beginning with the Canadian Corps. The Germans, however, captured copies of the pamphlet in 1916, translating and issuing it to units,[2] but by this point they already had their own, more sophisticated infiltration tactics. An experimental Pioneer assault unit founded by Major Calsow and later commanded and refined by Hauptmann Willy Rohr had been formed in the spring of 1915, over two months before Laffargue’s pamphlet was published.[3][4][5][6] The methods Rohr developed are the basis of all modern small-unit infantry tactics.[7]

The Russian army first used storm tactics at a larger scale in June 1916 during the Brusilov Offensive with great success. But, due to the February Revolution in Russia, no further development of the tactics was carried out on the Russian side.

The British Army traditionally relied on superior rifle fire from its units; their men were expected to outshoot the enemy. Major N. R. McMahon, Chief Instructor at Hythe’s Rifle School from 1905 to 1909 had suggested that the advent of machine guns (MGs) and automatic rifles, with vastly greater volume of fire, made these tactics obsolete. He argued this would be all the more apparent when armies were formed largely of partially trained troops, who would be unable to carry out complicated tactics or maintain high standards of marksmanship. His solution was to abandon the fire fight as a distinct phase of battle. McMahon recommended quick attack tactics by means of infiltration and rapid movement. In the existing British system, movement waited on fire. Thus, preliminary fire was usually a give-away. The enemy would recognize heavy fire as a prelude to movement, and thus be alerted.

Instead, soldiers should be trained to consider fire as a means to facilitate movement in progress. Movement would be a call for fire. McMahon advocated using combined arms in the attack, particularly light machine guns (some six light and two heavy MGs per battalion) using a decentralised fire control and tactical command system (known as Auftragstaktik in German). These methods, suggested in 1909, bore a strong resemblance to the Stoßtrupptaktik used by the Germans six years later.[8]

In February 1917, the British Army issued Manual SS 143, which prescribed infiltration tactics. Using them throughout 1917 the British perfected all-arms battle. The British made the platoon the basic tactical unit rather than the company as in 1916. The platoon was made up of four sections, Lewis Gun, rifle grenade, grenade and rifle. The new organisation allowed the platoon make best use of the trench fighting equipment that had arrived in adequate quantities since the beginning of the battle of the Somme. They were also supported by sophisticated artillery flash-spotting and sound-ranging, something the German Army never perfected and instead relied on the aural method with ever more accurate measuring devices. Some historians consider the British infiltration tactics more sophisticated than the German system.[9]”

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stormtrooper

Chris.B
Chris.B
August 19, 2013 12:05 pm

@ Observer,
Yes, there were mines dug under a number of positions in preparation for some of the attacks, that then had their end chambers packed with explosives to create some very impressive (and deadly) bangs.

@ lindermyer
“But the British Army didn’t advance in parade line formations (as I and many of us were taught) throughout the war that is a myth, Yes they left there trench and charged at the German trench but not online fire and manoeuvre was used, shell holes providing a fair amount of cover”
— I’m sorry but that’s complete bollocks. We know its complete bollocks because the people that were there in the trenches (both officers and men) left many, many accounts written both during and after, of their first hand experience. The first hand experience of rising out of the trenches and advancing in line. Nobody’s saying they arrayed themselves before the guns in a perfect, Buckingham Palace worthy parade ground drill demonstration (not least because of the broken terrain), but they were still charging in lines. Typically the only time they really found themselves in cover was when someone crawled into a trench after all of his mates around him had been blasted, and found other survivors sheltering from the storm.

Now by 1918 the German army was even more exhausted than we were, its reserves basically shattered. They had nothing left to counter attack with, thankfully.

Haig. He may not have been responsible for the specific conduct of a company, but he and his subordinates a) were responsible for the broad conduct of the campaign, including the shaping of offensive action, b) are ultimately responsible for the level of training and preparation of the armies under them, and c) should have realised in the immediate aftermath of the early battles like Somme that what the army was doing now was disasterous and needed to change.

Like I said earlier, I’m trying to strike a balance here. The immediate press furore after the war swung far too far in one direction, but the modern revisions of history are swinging far too far back the other way.

HurstLlama
HurstLlama
August 19, 2013 12:52 pm

” [Haig et al] should have realised in the immediate aftermath of the early battles like Somme that what the army was doing now was disasterous and needed to change.”

Err, they did. Please see Lyn MacDonald’s book “Somme” and or Peter Hart’s “The Somme” for detail of how tactics changed during that one battle (and how lessons were learnt and applied). See also, “Cheerful Sacrifice” by Jonathan Nicholls to see how tactics had again changed and developed by the spring of 1917. I mention those three titles because they are easily accessible and are easy reading despite dealing with a serious subject in a serious way.

I am afraid the idea that the generals just kept on repeating the same tactics and mistakes really doesn’t hold water.

As an aside, how did the tactics used in assaults in WW2 differ so much from those of 1917/18? Look at the Normandy battles (and compare casualty rates) or, for that matter Burma in 1945 – see Fraser on the battle for Pyawbwe, the last set-piece battle of the war, when the infantry went in under fire from Japanese guns, “We formed up in extended lines … We moved off in the lead platoons wake, extending as we came into the open until there was five or six yards between each man … and between [us] and the lead platoon the tall figure of the battalion chaplain, swinging along good style with his .38 on his hip”. Save for the arming of the Padre, it could have been a description of a WWI attack, from the early years.

Chris.B
Chris.B
August 19, 2013 2:40 pm

@ HurstLlama,

“Err, they did.”
— No they didn’t, that’s the whole bloody point. Other than some reworking of the timing of artillery barrages, very little actually changed throughout the war. By the time of the later battles our army was still using very similar tactics to battles like the Somme. No amount of revisionist history books are going to change what actually happened on the fields.

“As an aside, how did the tactics used in assaults in WW2 differ so much from those of 1917/18?”
— You mean aside from the significantly different distribution and nature of weapons used, the evolution of platoon and section tactics etc? Other than that, not at all I guess. Taking the quote you brought up, and putting aside the fact that it’s one quote from one action in one theatre, notice the use of extended order with gaps of “five or six yards between each man”, something significantly different from what the men of the WWI experienced.

This is pointless. Once again the accounts of those present and the empirical data collected in the aftermath has just been chucked aside because someone wrote a revisionist history book to make a few quid. That famous quote about repeating histories mistakes is starting to make more sense now, because we seem determined to completely wash the hands of anyone who ever made a mistake and smother any evidence of it, instead of learning from it in a mature manner.

So yes, World War I was a great success, a true demonstration of British tactical and strategic brilliance. How masterful we were in our adaptation to circumstances and “making do”. Thank god for our Generals and Colonels, whose infinite wisdom guided us down the path to victory, and long may their memory be cherished alongside the likes of Nelson, Marlborough, Wellington and Park.

Huzzah!

… fuck.

lindermyer
lindermyer
August 19, 2013 3:12 pm

@ Chris B
Snip This is pointless. Once again the accounts of those present and the empirical data collected in the aftermath has just been chucked aside because someone wrote a revisionist history book to make a few quid. That famous quote about repeating histories mistakes is starting to make more sense now, because we seem determined to completely wash the hands of anyone who ever made a mistake and smother any evidence of it, instead of learning from it in a mature manner Snip

No the revisionist history was written in the 30s and taught in schools throughout the 80s (cant vouch after the 90s). Anti war was fashionable and books were written to sell.

Nobody is denying that the troops left trenches in a line with another line behind them, what I have attempted to point out is that the lines in 1914 1917 and 1918 did not walk side by side Human wave style, they used fire and manoeuvre .

As I stated above people confuse the term advancing on or in line with walking parade style and human wave attacks, that were not the norm. I agreed and stated that the attacks were to an extent futile until the introduction of both the tank and the required doctrine.

Many Generals would have liked nothing more than to remain on the defensive until 1917. France however wouldn’t/couldn’t accept that. So we had the disaster that’s the 1st of july.

The British Army of 1918 is reckoned to be more tactically astute and capable army than that which landed in Normandy in 1944. Whether you agree or not for that opinion to be aired implies that the army of 1918 did not just walk in straight lines into machine gun fire.

By the By many years ago I had very similar views to yourself, my opinions have changed as I have read more on the subject from many sources. That my opinion is different to yours does not make me right or you right. Nor on this occasion is my opinion bollox.

I suspect we will have to agree to differ.

Regadrs

Chris.B
Chris.B
August 19, 2013 4:37 pm

@ Lindermyer,

I’m replying in the hope that you’ll go off and check this independently, instead of relying on your history books, because this ……

“… the lines in 1914 1917 and 1918 did not walk side by side Human wave style, they used fire and manoeuvre.”

… Is complete, utter, and absolute bollocks. We have hundreds, thousands of accounts recorded by the people that were actually there (and lived to tell the tale), that actually went over the top and did the deeds that we’re talking about now.

They – to a man – describe going over the top, battle after battler after battle, right up until the end of trench warfare (and often beyond), in closed line formations, suffering heavy casualties in the process.

Now which, at a pure guess, do you think is more reliable? The mutually reinforcing accounts of scores upon scores of men who were actually there, in the thick of the fighting? Or a book or two written by historians decades later?

I know which one I’m going to put my money on.

lindermyer
lindermyer
August 19, 2013 6:25 pm

@ Chris B

But the “New History” is also taken from accounts of the time, perhaps published accounts previously may have emphasised one particular aspect because it suited an agenda.

At school I was taught and shown eyewitness accounts of the Trenches where men spent months on end in the wet exposed to all sorts of depravations. However the above was not true, the British army rotated its men so rarely did any man spend more than 3 days at a time in the trenches and then only once or twice a month in the front line trench.
The above is a matter of record yet witness reports imply differently.

Perhaps because people wanted a particular result they got it do we have dates on the accounts perhaps they all relate to a common time. Have you ever wondered why its only the British officers that became donkeys, Only british generals that lined the men up and marched them out. What about the commonwealth generals were they not donkeys also. Meanwhile the Germans were innovative and adapted.

The French and Germans used fire and manoeuvre, do you really believe our officers were so inept down to platoon level that even if it wasn’t already established doctrine they would not have learnt during the war.

The fact is that in 1918 Britain was mounting a successful offensive The Americans were not yet ready and equipped, they were also having there own 1st day of the Somme experiences despite trying to learn from both the british and French. Had the war lasted 1919 the Americans would have been a major contributor.
The French had not recovered from the 1917 mutinies (now they were the result of incompetent command) and the Germans were beaten. Its not excessive hyperbole to suggest that Britain (and commonwealth) was winning the war.

Out side of my history lessons and certain websites making a point*, I have never found a reasonable source that doesn’t acknowledge that British tactics developed, even those critical of the way, time or effectiveness of that process.

Regards

*Any website that states men went over the top officers stayed 100 miles back or that the poor working man was sent to his death by the upper class officers, is not worth reading . likewise Blackadder goes 4th was brilliant but it was satire, its scary how many people use it as their reference for history. One can only be grateful that Allo Allo didn’t achieve the same status.

I have a pdf copy of the 1917 Assault doctrine manual in that it clearly lists as elements to be taught Fire and Manoeuvre, so clearly the doctrine was there, If this isn’t what happened then I suggest the failings are at company level and below.

Sorry for the long and rambling reply but I have been trolling the net to see if I can find conclusive proof that tactics evolved or that although they evolved were not put into effect properly thus creating the illusion nothing changed
Regards.

P.S I don’t have a hardon for Haig but I don’t like being lied to and ive come to believe that what I was taught was virtually outright lies and slander.

lindermyer
lindermyer
August 19, 2013 7:03 pm

I wrote a long and rambling post detailing why I disagreed with you unfortunately its missing.
So succinctly
The books / sources I have are also using official accounts / memoirs.
There are reports written as to methods used war diaries witness statements. .
Witnesses are notoriously unreliable if they don’t understand what they are seeing.
The published books and accounts may well be the ones that corresponded with the authors views.
eg As an example of False history I was taught and shown witness statements that the troops were abandoned in the trench in appalling conditions for the duration of the war, this was not true a British soldier never* spent more than 3 days in the trenches at a time and probably only 2/3 times a month,
* For a given value of never im sure there were exceptions
British, Canadian, French ,Australian, French, German, American all had officers on the western front, all had horrific casualties at times. Yet only the British Generals are portrayed as donkeys. American casualties by there own admission were high because they lacked the experience to apply the british techniques effectively.
In 1918 America was building up , Germany was collapsing, france was recovering from collapse, The british army alone was capable of mounting an offensive, this would not have been the case if lessons went learnt.

Regards

Chris.B
Chris.B
August 19, 2013 7:36 pm

@ Lindermyer,

Last one, other stuff to do, can’t be going around in circles all day;

“Witnesses are notoriously unreliable if they don’t understand what they are seeing”
— Half true. Depends on your interpretation of “understand what they are seeing”. Still, witnesses can be unreliable for a number of reasons, which is why corroboration by multiple witnesses is so highly valued. And on that note, we have; large numbers of witnesses from the frontline that cross-confirm each others accounts of the closed line advances resulting in heavy casualties, meanwhile there is almost no first hand accounts of “fire and manoeuvre” being used in anything approaching even limited numbers. Conversely your “source books” are likely to be the opposite, relying on individual testimonies to paint broad pictures, as many books tend to.

We also have significant amounts of reinforcing accounts, both official and personal, on both sides, documenting many of the failures of senior British officers such as persisting in costly and wasteful attacks against strong positions, long after it became obvious that a) they couldn’t be captured, and b) if they were captured, there were no reserves left to exploit this, or to even hold the position against counter-attack.

“British, Canadian, French ,Australian, French, German, American all had officers on the western front, all had horrific casualties at times. Yet only the British Generals are portrayed as donkeys.”
— Many officers of the other armies often draw similar amounts of scorn. The reason we don’t hear so much about them is because this is Britain, and so books and news stories in this country tend to focus on our own forces, not other peoples. But that criticism does exist, as long as you’re prepared to do a bit of leg work to find it.

“In 1918 America was building up , Germany was collapsing, france was recovering from collapse, The british army alone was capable of mounting an offensive, this would not have been the case if lessons went learnt”
— The French did well for themselves. We always benefitted from a tendency by the Germans to reinforce areas in the south, such as around Verdun, more strongly. The history is there. The numbers are there. The accounts are there. We know it happened. We know about the appalling casualties and some of the futility of many operations.

No amount of historical revisionism is going to change what happened. No amount of agenda driven books trying to raise copy sales by ‘shedding a new, never before seen light on the battlefields of the western front’ is going to bring some of those men back to life and give them the opportunity to live the lives they would have had if they hadn’t been wasted away.

The least we can do in this day and age is to honour them properly, and part of that is acknowledging the fact that various failings along the way led to needless casualties.

Observer
Observer
August 19, 2013 8:29 pm

ChrisB, what is the purpose of “fire and maneuver”?

It is to get around the enemy’s flank and use the lack of defences on the side and the numerical superiority of a broad attack vs a point target.

Now you might ask me where am I going with all this? It is this point. If you are facing an interlocking trench system with no flank to turn… how are you going to use a strategy whose goal is to “turn a flank”?

It’s easy to simply diagnose “fire and maneuver” as a solution to all your ills, but a lot harder to understand why it won’t work in this case.

Though they did use “fire and maneuver” in very small scale, it’s not under trench attacks, it’s filed under trench raids. Problem was that the whole area was so defence in depth that all fire and maneuver could do was make very very small scale temporary gains, literally one trench at a time before having to run and probably came under small scale tactics than broad strategic moves.

Hell, even now, if faced with an entrenched enemy with such defences in depth, the only cure I can recommend is a huge application of firepower at a specific point to facilitate a breakthrough, not any fancy maneuver. All the running around comes only AFTER the breakthrough. And yes Phil, it is an acknowledgement that frontlines are a pain. :)

You could even say that the hurricane bombardments before people charged were “fire and maneuver” too, only with fire support providing the “fire”. Why did they maneuver straight at the enemy then? Because there was no flank.

Lindermyer
Lindermyer
August 19, 2013 8:38 pm

Snip And on that note, we have; large numbers of witnesses from the frontline that cross-confirm each others accounts of the closed line advances resulting in heavy casualties, meanwhile there is almost no first hand accounts of “fire and manoeuvre” being used in anything approaching even limited numbers Snip

But did anybody really ask them to describe tactics or did they just speak in the most general terms. just a thought.

Snip Conversely your “source books” are likely to be the opposite, relying on individual testimonies to paint broad pictures, as many books tend t Snip

But those books also draw on official sources and docs.

Snip Many officers of the other armies often draw similar amounts of scorn. The reason we don’t hear so much about them is because this is Britain, and so books and news stories in this country tend to focus on our own forces Snip

I will concede the point, I have usually encountered “It Was all The British Armys fault ” type articles when looking so tended not to dig to deep.

Snip We also have significant amounts of reinforcing accounts, both official and personal, on both sides, documenting many of the failures of senior British officers such as persisting in costly and wasteful attacks against strong positions, long after it became obvious that a) they couldn’t be captured, and b) if they were captured, there were no reserves left to exploit this, or to even hold the position against counter-attack. Snip

I agree with this however as stated previously context is needed, the worst example was Passchendaele, but that was done simply to keep the Germans busy while the French were out of it. That the Germans never discovered is probably the best kept secret of the war.

snip The French did well for themselves. We always benefitted from a tendency by the Germans to reinforce areas in the south, such as around Verdun, more strongly. The history is there. The numbers are there. The accounts are there. We know it happened. We know about the appalling casualties and some of the futility of many operations. snip

Here I absolutely disagree, the French bled themselves white trying to bleed the Germans dry. If you think British battles were bloody and futile they don’t hold a candle to some of the French ones. The seeds of Frances defeat in WW2 were set in WW1. All the allegations laid against our officer class are more accurately laid against the French officers. It seems they had no regards for the welfare of there men, however they are not thought of as Donkeys just uncaring Bastards. (This is based on UK Books and anecdotal which I agree isn’t best, but as I live in France, the wifes French etc Its certainly seems to be the case and I really dig because I was shocked).

We were on land the Junior partner most of our battles were in support of the French, they were always supposed to be main effort (supposed because the French army did nothing from mid 1917 (failed Nivelles offensive) through to early 1918 and hadn’t really recovered by the armistice.

snip No amount of historical revisionism is going to change what happened, snip

I agree however where we disagree is where the revisionism was applied.
The truth is probably somewhere in the middle.
Tactics evolved there is documented evidence to this, tactics didn’t change anecdotal evidence, Im inclined to believe the documents, but that’s not to say the anecdotes are wrong or men are lying in 1916 their right, later on perhaps its an impression or perhaps inexperienced leaders and men led to poor tactics at unit level throughout the war.

You may also consider that lives may have been spared had Lloyd George kept his nose out.
eg 1917 A breakthrough was possible (at 1 point) but there were no reserves, had Lloyd George not had men shipped to Italy where they were swinging in the breeze perhaps an early finish.
1918 Lloyd George (because of the losses in 1917) withheld reinforcements to the western front in order to save lives. Ironically the German offensive did as well as it did because the British army was badly understrength this it has been argued cost lives.

Gallipoli (like Anzio in 1944) stands out as an example where the man in charge should have been court-martialled and shot.

Regards

Edit 2 hours later the rambling post appeared
apologies for repeating myself.

Phil
August 19, 2013 8:51 pm

To play devils advocate:

As Observer points out – fire and manoeuvre is not a panacea.

Individual riflemen moving over rough terrain are very unlikely to be able to suppress any bastard at all. Especially MG redoubts. Especially when a good deal of those MGs are in defilade and are using indirect fires.

Fire and manoeuvre is also time consuming – this means you spend far longer in areas pre-registered with artillery and in MG beaten zones.

So fire and manoeuvre by infantrymen meant spending far longer in the kill zones and you were very unlikely to be able to suppress your enemy.

The solutions come at once – spend less time in the kill zone which means getting forward as fast as you can. And forget about using riflemen and LMG gunners to suppress – use artillery.

You then have a more useful form of fire and manoeuvre – all you’re infantry is manoeuvring at once since they’re going to do almost no damage until they get amongst the trench systems and you can have artillery suppressing in a rolling barrage or a short sharp barrage – perhaps if distances are small you’d chose the silent attack and just go for it.

Above all, you don’t spend time in the kill zone and you don’t keep men there when they can inflict no damage.

Cross the kill zone.

Extended line is a perfectly valid formation and is still the valid formation to use when assaulting the enemy – it aligns everyone to face where the enemy is.

In all the talk about infiltration tactics etc I never read much about F&M – it is all more about getting amongst the enemy as fast as possible and then infiltrating forward.

F&M in the traditional sense seem to me to have been a very dead end game from across the trenches which is why we hear so little about it from most armies of the time.

You just spend longer in the beaten zones achieving nothing.

Observer
Observer
August 19, 2013 9:31 pm

“Cross the kill zone.”

And don’t forget the smoke. Lots of smoke saves lots of lives. Many people underestimate smoke.

Despite all the whining, if this was a modern day situation, I honestly couldn’t say that there could have been anything done differently, tanks would be countered with AT guns or ATGMs, aircraft would just be another variant of artillery shelling and it would still grind to a stalemate, only the hygiene aspects would probably be better.

This is also why infantry are still valuable in war. In trench warfare conditions, they can jam up almost anybody.

Chris.B
Chris.B
August 20, 2013 12:18 am

Back, largely on account of new posts,

@ Observer,
“Now you might ask me where am I going with all this?”
— Nope. Because I didn’t bring it up. I refer you to Mr. Lindermyer, who seems to think this was a prevelant tactic among the British forces throughout (at least the latter stages of) the war.

“Problem was that the whole area was so defence in depth that all fire and maneuver could do was make very very small scale temporary gains, literally one trench at a time before having to run and probably came under small scale tactics than broad strategic moves”
— On the Italian front in particular and later on the Western front, zee Germans managed to figure out ways to penetrate much deeper.

“Why did they maneuver straight at the enemy then? Because there was no flank.”
— Yes and no. In the sense that the barbed wired stretched from the coast to Switzerland, there was no real flank. But what there was, was a German line made up predominantly of strongpoints linked by trenches. We seemed to have a big ‘un for attacking the strong points, while the more effective penetrations of the war in various areas came from bypassing the strong points, usually suppressing them to limit the amount of hassle they caused.

If you look at the Somme for example, the attack was thrown against many strong points like Beaumont Hamel and Thiepval. Yet just a little bit to the south, there was a significant gap (in terms of strong points) between the town of Montauban and the actual river Somme itself. A strong push through this sector of the line offered the opportunity to bypass and cut off all of the main strong points that were attacked head on during the Somme, and to help the French in the south by attacking Peronne from the North West (they reached the outskirts on their side of the river).

During the Battle of Loos there were many costly attacks thrown against the Hohenzollern Redoubt. This produced something ridiculous like 80% casualties in about five or six hours. Yet just to the north of this well defended strong point (and the thicket of trench works behind it) the German trench works thinned out significantly. We opted to throw everything at the thickest part of the German defences, as opposed to the weakest part.

Now these sort of actions don’t fit the traditional concept of “flanking”. You’re not really turning someones flank, unless from the perspective of the people in the strongpoints. It’s more feeling out a weak point and exploiting it. But it certainly beats the shit out of charging right into the mouth of hell.

@ Lindermyer,
“snip”,
— You know if you hold the shift key and the number 2 at the top of your keyboard at the same time it will produce a quotation mark, which is much easier to read than writing “snip”?

“But did anybody really ask them to describe tactics or did they just speak in the most general terms. just a thought.”
— I have a military themed drinking game for you. Pick any twenty first hand accounts of the battle of Passchendale that you like, provided by infantry (officers, NCOs or Privates) who survived the attacks. Any time you read a phrase like “lined up shoulder to shoulder”, “walked across the battlefield” or “we didn’t even make it to our own first line”, or words to that effect, take a shot of your favourite liquor. You’ll be lying comatose on a bed in A&E having your stomach pumped before you get halfway through. You can basically replace Passchendale with any other battle past the race to the sea and you’ll end up with the same effect.

“But those books also draw on official sources and docs.”
— No doubt. But you were complaining about the reliability of relying on witnesses. Yet your ‘source books’ are only going to be using a limited bibliography of quotes from a few witnesses. Compared to the cross matching of the many hundreds of accounts that exist describing the use of things like closed line advances.

“I have usually encountered “It Was all The British Armys fault ” type articles when looking so tended not to dig to deep”
— If you want some interesting reading look up the Canadian General Garnet Hughes. There are also plentiful examples that pop up in the French and German forces, from day one to the very end.

“Here I absolutely disagree, the French bled themselves white trying to bleed the Germans dry. If you think British battles were bloody and futile they don’t hold a candle to some of the French ones.”
— The French still had significant manpower available near the end. But this does bring up an interesting example of a potentially dodgy German general for you to look into, Erich Von Falkenhayn, he of “bleed France white” fame. Criticism ranges from the merits of his attrition strategy around Verdun, to whether he even rewrote history afterwards in his memoirs, adding the bleed France white idea retrospectively. Now there’s a man who’s been battered back and forth by history.

“The truth is probably somewhere in the middle.”
— Which is what I’ve been saying for the last few days. That the situation was neither as black as it was portrayed in the immediate aftermath of the war, nor as white as it’s been painted in recent years.

“… had Lloyd George not had men shipped to Italy where they were swinging in the breeze perhaps an early finish.”
— That was needed to prop the Italians up and keep them in the war after the diaster of Caporetto, where the Germans went a maraudering through Italian lines (15 miles of penetration through mountainous terrain in just the first day, followed by another 40 odd over the next three weeks).

@ Phil,
“The solutions come at once – spend less time in the kill zone which means getting forward as fast as you can. And forget about using riflemen and LMG gunners to suppress – use artillery”
— Partly agree. But a lot of the success of penetrations like Caporetto and others came from using demonstrations with several companies of riflemen and machine guns to pin the enemy and draw their attention (and in many cases, artillery fire), allowing other units to move forward. Broadly agree with the rest of what you said though.

Observer
Observer
August 20, 2013 12:33 am

Chris, why people go after strongpoints is the same reason as why the strongpoint was built there in the first place. They usually dominate their surrounding terrain. You can try to bypass them, but guess what. They’ll be firing into YOUR flank. That is why people have such a hard on for taking strongpoints. Because if you don’t, you’re opening yourself to a world of hurt. In reverse, if you can hold the point, you can sweep enfilade fire down the enemy lines and both cover your own troops as well as butcher the enemy.

And Mr Lindermyer was right about the later tactics. As I said, it was classed as “trench raids” not tactics or strategy. They had specialised units for it, which was also why most line soldiers don’t see them too much. IIRC, if you were in an infiltration unit, you were exempt from line charges, so if anyone said “We lined up” he obviously was not in one of the units that did the sneaking.

Chris.B
Chris.B
August 20, 2013 1:11 am

@ Observer,

“You can try to bypass them, but guess what. They’ll be firing into YOUR flank. That is why people have such a hard on for taking strongpoints. Because if you don’t, you’re opening yourself to a world of hurt.”
— Except that in that same war there are examples of people doing precisely that. Pretty much every time there was a decent penetration, it came from bypassing the strong points which were often being simultaneously hammered to shit by artillery, rifle and machine gun fire. This is not some back of the fag packet theory. This was actually done.

“And Mr Lindermyer was right about the later tactics.”
— We’re talking about the major offensives, not trench raiding. So no he wasn’t.

“They had specialised units for it, which was also why most line soldiers don’t see them too much.”
— In the later part of the war some German units appear to have been trained specifically for the task, but for most of the war all sides provided raiding parties from their regular units, who then had to fight in the main line during the big “pushes”.

Observer
Observer
August 20, 2013 1:36 am

Chris, what you are describing is called “Peaceful Penetration”. And I know of it from more than back of fag packet theory, which seems to be where you pull your info from, if not out of your own imagination. One of the conditions for this kind of blitzkreig, and yes, it is an infantry version of a blitzkreig, are porous defence lines. A super-extensive trench network is NOT a defination of porous defence lines.

You may put the British generals down for sticking on a strategy that does not work, but from what the people have been telling you, are you not doing the same thing? “Fire and maneuver!” To what? “Fire and maneuver!” In a killzone? “Fire and maneuver!” There is no gap to maneuver through! “Fire and maneuver!” There is a strongpoint on our flank dominating our route of advance!

You may look down on the WWI generals for being fixated on line charges, but you show the same inflexibility on “fire and maneuver” as a solution to all problems.

On a more interesting note, Chinese line charges in the Korean War vs the US worked horrifyingly well.

Lindermyer
Lindermyer
August 20, 2013 5:48 am

I have argued that tactics evolved and that the generals were not idiots but did the best they could with the resources on hand. I also acknowledged that they did (and still do) advance on line but this wasn’t the same rigid marching line as 1916.
However looking at Phils post It looks like I may have had a confused idea of how F & M was applied on the assault of trenches. In that I though there was greater use of Infiltration etc my mia culpa.

@ Chris B Yes thanks Im aware of how to get quote marks, I use “snip” because I find quote marks get lost in a wall of text.
Regarding Italy,
Italy had I believe stabilised by the time British troops arrived, or at least they had little effect on stabilising the Italian front. ( most of my books are in UK Im not so this is from memory) The addition of allied troops enabled Italy to go on the offensive, this was for Britain a wasteful and pointless side show.
Re France Manpower in the UK there is the myth of the lost Generation, in France its closer to the truth It hurt there demographics badly. But regardless of manpower France was effectively out of the war for the best part of 12 months following the Nivelle offensive (here is a good example of poor leadership at all levels).
Verdun was a battle of pride for the French which is how they let themselves get sucked in.

regards

Phil
August 20, 2013 9:01 pm

Please don’t read into my comments too much. I was merely going through a thought exercise. Very often in my experience a solution wasn’t adopted because it wasn’t suitable not because nobody had thought of it yet. So F&M would not have been very useful in trench warfare. Hence why a seemingly obvious solution wasn’t used.

Another thing influencing how no mans land was crossed was weight. If the blokes carry such little kit they can run across they’re going to have no endurance for anything other than local combat. If your objectives are ambitious the blokes need to carry the ammo and supplies to get it done. The German storm troopers faced the same problems regarding where the line lies between being light and nimble for local success or having operational endurance. It all boils down to the extreme logistical limitations of WWI armies in the attack. Once the blokes go over the top they’re on their own for a good period of time.

So I think we can start to see that extended line advances of relatively slow moving infantrymen were born of necessity – not an inability to adapt. Blokes carrying kit move more slowly, drop the kit and you gain greater chance of local success but at the expense of operational and strategic difficulties.

Phil
August 20, 2013 9:10 pm

“– Partly agree. But a lot of the success of penetrations like Caporetto and others came from using demonstrations with several companies of riflemen and machine guns to pin the enemy and draw their attention (and in many cases, artillery fire), allowing other units to move forward. Broadly agree with the rest of what you said though.”

The problem in my mind though is that these seem more ruses of war than tactics that can be applied across the board. They’d work once or twice. And the solution is simple enough and was adopted: have an outpost line to spoil and disrupt.

Funny how some things never change. Wellingtons Army had skirmishes as a screening force with a main defensive area and a reserve. In WWI what evolved was an outpost line, a main defensive area and then reserve concentrations. BAOR by 1989 had a screening force, a main battle area and a reserve striking force. Plus ca change.

Chris.B
Chris.B
August 20, 2013 10:08 pm

@ Phil,
“The problem in my mind though is that these seem more ruses of war than tactics that can be applied across the board. They’d work once or twice”
— It was used a fair few times. The main key I think was in the suppression effect of all those rounds, especially when the machine guns were laid against against pre-surveyed targets.

“Funny how some things never change” [re; three lines]
— Aye. Interesting when you read about some of the English Civil War armies, even back then you see (in some cases) skirmish lines, the main body, and then the reserves. Reading some of the accounts gives you quite an eye opening look. If you have the time, look up Colonel John Birchs’ account. There’s probably a bit of colour, promotion, and propaganda in amongst it, but overall an interesting and somewhat different account.

HurstLlama
HurstLlama
August 20, 2013 10:19 pm

Don’t forget, as you noted way up thread, that break ins to the enemy trench line were common and often achieved with few, for a major war, casualties and even on 1st July 1916 involved some interesting tactical experiments (e.g. Russian Saps and night advances to tapped lines ready for a hundred metre dash when the artillery lifted). The bitch, as you said, was getting up the reserves and exploiting the initial success. In part that was a problem of communication, the generals didn’t and couldn’t, given the availabe technology, know what was happening and in part it was down to some smart tactics by the opposition (e.g. curtain fire in no mans land to prevent reinforcements getting through, which leads us back to the effectiveness of counter-battery fire during the early to mid the war).

What, after forty-odd years of reading up on WWI, I am not prepared to accept is the notion that the same tactics were used all the way through and that our generals conformed to the BlackAdder stereotype. That is simply tosh, as a reading of just those three books I mentioned earlier (all of which rely heavily on first hand accounts and none written by “revisionist” historians) will demonstrate.

Phil
August 21, 2013 11:32 am

I think it all boils down to logistics and comms. They just weren’t able to cope with the reality of the Western Front.

I agree with you re tactics. I am sure there were plenty of dolts but I imagine if you designed a sample of battles across the war you’d see a variety of nuanced approaches. I’m merely pointing out that the things so often challenged (ponderous advances in extended line) were probably done for very real reasons. Traditional F&M would have been largely useless and the weight the blokes had to carry so any breakthrough could be sustained with unreliable resupply meant walking not running unless the lines were close.

Hurstllama
Hurstllama
August 21, 2013 12:40 pm

“I think it all boils down to logistics and comms.”

And what war didn’t :p (and artillery, of course)

One of thing that worries me about the Army 2020 plans is how much those elements are to be scaled back in order to preserve the “teeth arms” (read cap-badges). It was perhaps ever thus, at least since I remember (which goes back to the defence cuts of the the mid-sixties and the horrendous amalgamations of 1967), but I really do worry we are now dropping below the mass needed to actually fight anything more than a brigade action. At least the army is likely to end up in a better state than the Andrew and the Crabs. After all any deployment of the army is going to be optional and if we don’t like the odds we just won’t play.

Lindermyer
Lindermyer
August 21, 2013 12:43 pm

“The problem in my mind though is that these seem more ruses of war than tactics that can be applied across the board. They’d work once or twice”

On Just this subject (tactics working once or twice) the Germans developed the specialist counter attack divisions, these were a shock on day 1 by day 2 the British were using bite and hold tactics and waiting for the counter attack divisions, by day 7 they had ceased to exist. ( No books sure it was 1917 possibly Ypres, oh and possibly a little hyperbole on time line).
The other issue was that by recruiting the best troops into these units the quality of the average line unit was much lower. A claim ive also heard regarding the number of Popski type private army’s raised by the British in the next European outing.

@ Phil
I think your ” devils advocate” post sums things up well and of course puts into light why some people believe same old, same old and others are insistent tactics changed. Quite why I had in my mind that the lines pepper potted forward I will never know , I can only assume I confused more General tactics with those used in a Trench assault .

Re comms My History textbook was scathing of the Officers of WW2, and one of its criticisms is that an immediate counter attack would take 24 hours. Of course that sounded ridiculous , 20 yrs (ok 30) later and in fact im quite impressed that they could organise a corps level counter attack in 24 hours, given that most messages would have to be by runner / rider.

Not Tactics related but a regular criticism is that the british needed more troops to hold the same length of front. However as the british (regularly) rotated their troops and the other combatants only rotated Exhausted divisions, Its clear that this requires more men for a given length of front, it was also arguably a war winning idea.

Regards

Hurstllama
Hurstllama
August 21, 2013 2:04 pm

“A claim ive also heard regarding the number of Popski type private army’s raised by the British in the next European outing.”

The PPA was really very small, smaller even than the LRDG, so I am not sure that its existence diluted the quality of the British and Dominion infantry to any noticeable degree. However, Slim, surely the best general the UK has produced since Wellington, had no time for the special forces of the time – they were ill-conceived and based on a false assumption of what were the normal conditions of war, diverted effort, and, inter alia, didn’t have enough mass to achieve a result proportionate to their expense. His great line wa,s of course, that there is nothing that a commando could do that the ordinary infantry of the IVth army couldn’t and didn’t. After Afghanistan, I wonder if our planners need to go back and think a little more about Slim’s views and what our special and elite forces are for.

Lindermyer
Lindermyer
August 21, 2013 3:56 pm

@ Hurst Llama

I meant the plethora of Special Forces outfits, LRDG SAS, Commandoes etc, The view was there was so many elite units it was detrimental to the average unit particularly in a conscript force.
My apologies for the sloppy sentence.

Phil
August 21, 2013 6:55 pm

Logistics – indeed yes it all boils down to logistics. But WWI was particularly strange since there was a real imbalance for the first time in history in the landlocked environment. Railways could move troops with strategic ease but tactically and operationally the picture was very different. You load your troops heavily so they can push on for a few days or you load them lightly but remove their endurance if they are successful.

Interestingly, I think the German storm formations were not as light as is supposed and they still lacked the staying power once they were beyond the trench systems.