Category Archives: Western Front

17 AUGUST, 1918: Systems Analysis

I’m having a busy time right now, and I’m brewing something fairly deep about spies for later in the month, so today I’m copping out of the hard stuff and taking it easy in the trenches.  I talked about the changes within the apparently static world of trench warfare a few weeks back (30 June, 1918: Busy Going Nowhere), and ran out of space before I’d covered a lot of basic stuff, not least the very basis of everyday life on the Western Front, the trench itself.

Digging holes in the ground was an accepted form of improvised defence long before 1914.  Earthworks were difficult to destroy from a distance, could absorb bullets and most contemporary artillery shells, and could be connected by passageways to give defenders freedom of manoeuvre.  Early wartime trenches were essentially a series of connected foxholes, often dug by troops without shovels or other tools of ‘position warfare’, and trenches remained relatively shallow, improvised and readily abandoned on those battlefronts with shifting frontlines.  On the virtually motionless Western Front they became steadily more sophisticated, and developments there influenced trench systems on other static fronts in Italy, Gallipoli, Salonika and, for a time, Palestine.

Early trenches were horrible – German infantry at the Aisne.

Posterity has bequeathed us a simple tale of two ‘trench lines’ facing each other along the Western Front, but from the spring of 1915 trench systems evolved as a linked series of segments, each extending back from ‘no-man’s land’ to a variety of depths and at various angles.  The basic design of each segment incorporated a frontline trench, usually zigzagged for maximum field of fire and dug deep enough to protect infantry from snipers and most shrapnel explosions, though deep enough depended on the height of defending troops.  Canadian troops, for instance, tended to be much taller than Europeans, and needed to do a lot of fast digging if they found themselves replacing a unit of British bantams, none of them taller than five foot two (155cm).

Behind the frontline trench, communications passages led back to a second-line or ‘support’ trench, usually of similar design, and a third ‘reserve’ trench was generally located further to the rear.   The ‘reserve’ trench idea was pioneered by the German Army during the autumn of 1915, as was the introduction of concrete fortifications for local strongpoints and deep underground shelters to protect troops from artillery bombardment.  As these innovations matured into the tactical concept of ‘defence in depth’ (25 September, 1915: Deep Sh*t), German trench systems developed a degree of uniformity, often situated 2–3km apart and linked by chains of concrete machine-gun posts.

A year later, when the new high command under Ludendorff and Hindenburg decided to adopt a defensive strategy in France for the first time, German trench systems along the northern and central sectors of the Western Front were elevated to a whole new level in terms of strength, cost and coherence.  Known to the Allies as the Hindenburg Line, the German system wasn’t a line at all but a series of heavily fortified areas, extending back from the front to a depth of up to 15km, the links between them again protected by chains of machine-gun posts.

Each fortified position, or Stellung, contained its own system of mutually supporting strongpoints, each laced with trenches, festooned with barbed wire and bristling with firepower – and they each had names.  Wotan stretched from the coast to Cambrai, Siegfried (the first section built and the most complex) stretched some 65km to the St. Quentin area, Alberich stretched south to around Laon, Brunhilda covered the Champagne region and the fifth, least developed position, Kriemhilda, stretched behind the Argonne Forest as far as Metz.  The German Army withdrew to these new positions in the spring of 1917, a move that helped ruin the Allied Nivelle Offensive, and the Hindenburg Line loomed large in Allied offensive thinking until the Western Front’s final battles in the autumn of 1918.

All laid out in one handy diagram – a Hindenburg Line defence system.

German trenches were generally better maintained than their Allied counterparts on the Western Front, and the French Army fared better than the BEF.  Fighting on home soil, the French had early access to more than enough tools for trench building, and received more plentiful supplies than other armies throughout the conflict. The French Army also went to considerable lengths to make its trenches relatively comfortable from the start, so that by late 1914 they featured timber-lined walls, sandbags and habitable living quarters.

On the other hand the dominant orthodoxy among French field officers in 1914 insisted on offensive warfare at every opportunity, and during the first year of the War French Army trenches were designed exclusively as springboards for infantry attacks (or counterattacks), with horrible consequences for troops crowded into shallow forward positions.  Arguments for or against the orthodoxy raged within the French officer corps throughout the War, and local field commanders designed their trenches according to preference, so French sectors always included a bewildering variety of trench systems, and some commanders were still cramming infantry into forward trenches in 1918.

British trenches during the first year and more of the war on the Western Front were horrible, unhealthy mudbaths.  Dug into the rain-soaked Flanders lowlands, British infantry were required to sleep in caves carved out of the trench walls, and suffered a variety of health problems in cold, damp conditions.

The most notorious of these, trench foot, a fungal infection that could turn gangrenous and require amputation, was rampant in 1914 but the number of cases fell to a trickle once trench conditions improved a year or so later.  Because nobody bothered much with regular inspections of rank and file feet, commanders on both sides often viewed trench foot as a sign of poor personal morale (like having a finger shot off), but the other infamous Western Front disease, trench fever, brooked no such blindness.  Eventually identified, in 1918, as a disease transmitted by the excretions of body lice, which were everywhere in every trench, all the time, the fever displayed symptoms associated with influenza or typhoid, and although most victims recovered they generally spent several weeks in hospital.

By 1916 the BEF had worked out trench construction in Flanders – build up sandbags, don’t dig down into the mud.
And by 1918 they’d got the hang of foot inspections.

British trenches were generally up to French standards in all but supply by mid-1916, after which British trench systems generally conformed to the usual pattern, apart from a bespoke proliferation of ‘sap lines’ (listening posts) jutting out into no-man’s land.  They also conformed to pattern in development of peripheral furniture for trenches, using sandbags to protect infantry from bullets and barbed wire to discourage enemy infiltration.

Sandbags were nothing new, although they were actually filled with earth by auxiliaries employed full-time for the task, and they didn’t require wartime improvement.  Of little use against artillery fire, they could (according to British research) stop a rifle bullet if they were at least 15cm deep, and they offered some protection against shrapnel or fallout from nearby explosions – which was why they lined the front and back of trenches.

Barbed wire had been used before 1914 – in both the Spanish-American and Russo-Japanese wars – and was used in the same way at the start of the war on the Western Front:  laid in thin strands with tin cans attached as an early warning system.  Once the static nature of the campaign became clear, both sides soon learned to deploy wire in strength and in depth, creating impassable fields that forced attacking infantry into killing zones, and turning barbed wire into one of the most iconic features of the Western Front landscape.

Lines of barbed wire became fields – German wire in 1918.

The landscape of rear areas, directly behind third-line trenches, also underwent a progressive transformation as the campaign wore on. Hitherto rural districts became transport and communications hubs, crisscrossed with spur roads and light railways for supply purposes, and underscored by field telephone lines, used everywhere because radio was so insecure at close quarters.   All these systems had to be installed and maintained at night, for obvious reasons, and for all their modern technology they tended to collapse as soon as an army moved more than a few yards back or forward – so human or animal messengers or carriers retained a crucial role whenever trench warfare produced a spasm of movement.

So while the frontlines remained static – and because they remained static – trenches first proliferated and then evolved into something altogether more sophisticated, expensive and permanent than anything the world had seen before.  Modern mass media prefers to ignore this and other realities that challenge its simplistic, sepia vision of a completely static Western Front, but that kind of history is just another form of fake news.

8 AUGUST, 1918: Match Report

There’s no getting away from it.  Much as a global take on human history insists otherwise, I’m going to have to talk about the Western Front today.  I should probably be focusing on the landings of British, American and Japanese forces in Siberia during early August 1918, which were helping create a divide destined to define the second half of the twentieth century.  Or we could be looking at the vague promises of future self-government made to India by Lord Montagu, the British colonial minister, during a much-publicised speech to parliament on 6 August, which were part of an imperial let-down that put a (so far) permanent curve into sub-continental politics.

Then again, I could make a case for keeping our minds on the ongoing British conquest of the Middle East, or the civil wars bubbling in the Caucasus, or the rapid changes to US culture being wrought by the gods of war, or the mushrooming confidence in an imperialist destiny among military and political leaders in Japan, the Great War’s only real winner.  But today, 8 August, is the centenary of what that arch-dissembler, Ludendorff, called ‘the black day of the German Army in the history of the War’, and he was kind of right, so the Western Front it is.

Standard histories on the Allied side refer to the battle that opened on 8 August as the Amiens Offensive, but like most major operations on the Western Front it was named by its perpetrators in fairly arbitrary fashion as a means of distinguishing it from all the previous Allied offensives in roughly the same place.  It can be more helpfully described as a renewed Allied attempt to advance either side of the River Somme, and as the first major Allied counterattack after the long and scary German Spring Offensive had ground to a halt at the Marne in mid-July.  As such, and with hindsight, it marked the opening of the Western Front’s final campaign, the one that ended with the Armistice in November.

Allied military leaders in France had been planning the operation, on and off, since May, when talks between BEF commander Haig and Western Front supremo Foch generated provisional arrangements for a surprise attack just south of the Somme, at the point where the French First Army under General Debeney met General Rawlinson’s British Fourth Army.  At that stage Allied planning was being conducted in reaction to a cascade of German offensives erupting along the front.  I’ve talked about the cascade’s opening – the Kaiserschlacht Offensive (21 March, 1918: Stalemate Ends… Posterity Shrugs) – and about its last phase at the Marne (12 July, 1918: The Way We Were), but until now I’ve done little more than refer to the big, important German offensives in between.  So here’s some context.

This should come in handy during the next few paragraphs.

Having survived the shock of Kaiserschlacht in March, the BEF bore the initial brunt of the next wave of German attacks, launched in Flanders on 9 April and known as the Lys Offensive or, in Germany, as Operation Georgette.  Ludendorff and the German Third Supreme Command had originally planned to open their spring campaign with an assault on Allied lines in Flanders, but fear of bad weather and its attendant mud had prompted a switch further south, to the Somme sector.  When the Kaiserschlacht operation faltered after early successes, and the weather to the north had held, a secondary operation in Flanders was quickly upgraded to become the main focus of the next phase.

Intended to force evacuation of the Allied salient that bulged east of Ypres, and to drive on to the Channel coast at Dunkirk, the Lys attack got off to a flying start.  Advancing through mist and across firm ground along a front between the town of Béthune and the Lille satellite of Armentières, and supported by a vast concentration of heavy artillery, the attackers broke through a fragile Portuguese corps around Levantie.  British units to either side of the breakthrough, many of them tired after their transfer from defence of the Somme sector, fell back some 5km on the first day and took heavy losses.

The attacks continued for another nineteen days, but never repeated the trick.  Pushing northward towards the Ypres area, and bringing relatively fresh Belgian Army troops into the fight alongside General Plumer’s British Second Army, German forces inched forward as the battle degenerated into a mess of tit-for-tat local skirmishes.  Meanwhile Haig found himself in danger of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory for the second time in three weeks, and responded by appealing to Foch for release of reinforcements from French-held sectors further south.  Informed by French c-in-c Pétain that his exhausted forces expected an attack at any moment, Foch at first refused, but French reserves did eventually march north and joined the fight from 22 April.

By that time the Third Supreme Command – recognising that anything short of a strategic breakthrough in the sector amounted to failure – was already preparing an alternative line of approach if nothing more than local victories could be achieved.  The German offensive eventually got within 35km of Dunkirk, 18km beyond its starting point, and took the tactically important prize of Mount Kemmel from French forces on 25 April, but by then Allied defensive discipline had been fully restored.  With his forces close to exhaustion, and losses running at about 110,000 men on each side, Ludendorff suspended Operation Georgette on 29 April.

Haig and Foch hatched their counterattack plan during the lull that followed, intending to give French forces the lead role while the BEF recovered from its losses around the Lys – but Ludendorff’s third-phase offensive opened against French positions at the Aisne on 27 May, forcing the plan’s indefinite postponement.

Ludendorff was convinced that Germany’s only remaining hope of victory lay in driving the British out of Flanders, cutting their lines of supply across the Channel and forcing the BEF to evacuate northern France.  The attack launched on 27 May, generally called the Aisne Offensive of 1918 or the Third Battle of the Aisne, was intended as a gigantic feint to draw French reserves away from Flanders, but began so well for the German Army that it morphed into another pivotal push for total victory.

Unlike his counterparts further north, the French commander in the Aisne sector had no truck with the ‘defence in depth’ tactics that had been working pretty well on the Western Front for almost three years (25 September, 1915: Deep Sh•t).  A four-year Western Front veteran, General Louis Franchet d’Esperey was an energetic and rather cunning commander of the old school, which in French terms meant he was dogmatically committed to the power of all-out offence.  This was presumably his reason for ignoring advice from subordinates after intelligence reached them of a forthcoming attack, and cramming his troops into forward positions with the River Aisne at their backs.

One more for the moustache collection, and a particularly frisky donkey – General Louis Franchet d’Esperey in 1918.

After a preliminary bombardment by 4,000 heavy guns, the German advance began in the small hours of the morning on 27 May, hitting the French Sixth Army and four British divisions attached in support. Artillery decimated troops packed into forward trenches, gas attacks took out defending artillery and the defence crumbled, leaving 17 divisions of Crown Prince Wilhelm’s Southern Army Group to advance through a 40km gap in the line towards the Chemin des Dames ridge, a position taken at enormous cost by French forces during the disastrous Anglo-French Nivelle Offensive of 1917.  Surviving defenders scrambled back beyond the Aisne without destroying bridges, and by evening the attackers were at the River Vesle, an advance of some 15km.

This time German offensive momentum lasted longer.  Attacking armies had captured 50,000 prisoners and 800 guns by 27 May, and by 3 June they had reached the Marne, although the line of advance had narrowed as they moved west.  By the time exhaustion, supply problems and Allied counterattacks combined to halt German attacks on 6 June, they had established a 15km front at the Marne.

The fighting at the Aisne had cost the French Army 98,000 casualties, shorn the BEF of around 26,000 men, and triggered a sense of crisis in France that saw Sixth Army commander General Duchêne dismissed, Franchet d’Esperey transferred to Salonika and a general hardening of the Clemenceau government’s attitude towards the caution displayed by French c-in-c Pétain.  It hadn’t drawn much French strength from the Flanders sector, and so Ludendorff chose to regroup for a fresh attempt at the Marne.

Foch and Haig meanwhile went back to planning their attack in Flanders, this time with the BEF scheduled to take the lead role, and added a secondary plan to attack the flank of the new German-held bulge at the Marne.  Ludendorff again moved before the Allies were ready to act, but the German attack at the Marne in mid-July was the work of a broken weapon and the abject nature of its failure finally freed the Allies to strike back.

Haig was given command of the operation around Amiens, and his preparations reflected lessons learned from successful Australian ‘peaceful penetration’ tactics (4 July, 1918: Little Big Stuff).  The strength of General Rawlinson’s Fourth Army was doubled in strict and really quite effective secrecy, while advancing infantry was to be given protection from every mechanized device available, including 2070 artillery pieces, 800 aircraft, 342 Mark V heavy tanks and 72 ‘Whippet’ medium tanks.  Supporting French forces had no tanks, but they did have protection from almost 1,000 aircraft.  Facing a total of around 120,000 Allied troops along the 23km front slated for attack, General Marwitz could muster about 20,000 troops of the German Sixth Army, while the German Army Air Service could field only 365 aircraft across the entire sector.

Secure in the material superiority of his army, Rawlinson elected to do without the standard preliminary bombardment, and defenders were ill prepared when his infantry, massed behind the tanks, advanced on schedule at 4.20am on 8 August.  The central British advance met little infantry resistance during the morning, although many tank crews were reduced to delirium by the soaring heat, and both the Canadian and Australian corps had gained about 12km by early afternoon.  No less aware than Ludendorff of a fundamental shift in the balance of power on the Western Front, Allied commanders began talking in terms of imminent victory, but though well-planned and in places efficiently carried out, the day’s endeavours had hit a few familiar snags.

To the north, an attack to protect the flank of the main force had been stopped at Chilpilly Spur, and French troops had made only small, slow gains to the south, so although the offensive’s main objectives had already been reached the overall advance was more of a shaft than a wave.  Part of the problem was a rapid breakdown of coordination with supporting aircraft, which spent much of the day bombing bridges over the Somme after multiple communications cock-ups.  Meanwhile tanks had again demonstrated their fragility as much as their tactical value, with most out of action long before the first day ended, and the advance had triggered the same kind of supply problems suffered by every initially successful operation to date on the Western Front.

The Canadian corps did manage to gain another 5km on 9 August, but elsewhere on the attack front little progress was made and heavy losses suffered.  Attacks slowed over the next two days as fatigue set in and twelve German divisions arrived to bolster the defence.  By 12 August, with British tank strength was down to six, a new German defensive line had been established in front of Noyon, Ham and Péronne, and three days later Foch and Haig agreed to halt the operation, switching their attention to a new offensive a little further north, around Albert.

So this was Péronne, east of Amiens, in 1918, and I like this shot because it offers a balanced picture of what had happened to a town after four years on or around the front line. The usual wreckage can be seen, but this photo makes clear something heritage chooses to ignore – that the town was still alive.

Like the latter stages of a football game, when both teams are tired, the war on the Western Front had finally turned into an open game across the summer of 1918, but the first Allied attempt to exploit the theatre’s new defensive frailties had gone the way of the German Army’s best efforts.  And yet, with US forces about to join the campaign and the breakdown of Germany’s war effort suddenly clear for all to see, strategists on both sides knew the War was won and lost by the time fighting ended around Amiens on 8 August.

I can come up with two excuses for this extended plod through a relatively dramatic sequence of offensives and counteroffensives. One is to plug one of those information gaps left by the lazy sensationalism of the British heritage industry, which is busy celebrating the German Army’s ‘black day’ with some of the most hilariously ill-informed and embarrassingly inaccurate reportage even this war has managed to generate.  If you’re in any doubt about that, check out the spectacularly ignorant reports coming out of Amiens on Sky News.

My other aim is to spread a little opprobrium, because while Haig and Foch were obliged to continue the fight as long as the German Army remained at war, the German Third Supreme Command had only one reason for prolonging the horror on the Western Front after 8 August.  Before they finally gave up, walked away and left German politicians to sort out the mess, Ludendorff, Hindenburg and their elite gang of would-be dictators would force another three months of continuous bloodletting simply to preserve their own reputations and those of the classes they represented.  For all that heritage convention likes to rail at the ‘donkeys’ responsible for repeated tactical failures on the Western Front, the worst that could be said of the worst of them is that they were incompetent.  The men running in Germany in 1918, under the nominal leadership of an inert monarch paralysed by fear and despair, were war criminals.

12 JULY, 1918: The Way We Were

A crucial battle was about to erupt on the Western Front in mid-July 1918.  Known as the Second Battle of the Marne, it was a case of two offensives clashing.  In Berlin, Ludendorff’s Third Supreme Command planned one last attempt to turn the German Army’s great Spring Offensive, begun in March, into tangible strategic success (21 March, 1918: Stalemate Ends… Posterity Shrugs).  Short of supplies and experienced troops, raddled with influenza and suffering an unprecedented crisis of morale, German forces on the Marne were almost ready to launch a two-pronged attack towards Reims, as a prelude to a bigger offensive further north, in Flanders.

Meanwhile, despite the manpower crisis that faced both Britain and France after the bloodletting of the spring – and ignoring French c-in-c Pétain’s insistence that his exhausted troops were incapable of major offensives until US forces were ready to join the fight – Allied supreme commander Foch planned an attack on the western flank of the German salient (that’s a bulge to you and me) at the Marne. Thanks to prisoners and deserters, each side was fully aware of the other’s plans.

Not the world’s most useful map, but it was the best I could do…

The German attack began first, on 15 July, but had turned into an orderly withdrawal from the Marne positions by 20 July, and by the time it ended on 3 August French attacks (with some British and US support) had driven the line back beyond the Rivers Aisne and Vesle. The fighting was heavy and horrible, costing more than 95,000 French, 13,000 British and 12,000 US casualties on the Allied side, and an estimated 168,000 German losses.  The battle finally put an end to the Third Supreme Command’s offensive ambitions on the Western Front, and ushered in a series of, ultimately decisive, Allied offensives during the autumn.

There’s a lot more to say about the Second Battle of the Marne, its turning points, tactical nuances and military-political fallout, but it’s a popular choice with the posterity industry and I’ve got something less stirring and triumphal to talk about.  On 12 June 1918, the ‘Denaturalisation Bill’ passed through its first and second readings in the British House of Commons, on the way to receiving royal assent in early August and becoming law the following January.

Denaturalisation in this context meant the revocation of citizenship granted to those born in foreign countries but qualified as British through long-term residence.  The bill itself (properly known as the British Nationality and Status of Aliens Act, 1918), its bumpy passage into law and the noisy public debate surrounding it shine some light on a social norm of the time that hit one of its wartime peaks in Britain during the summer of 1918.  I’m referring to xenophobia, which was uncontroversially indivisible from patriotism for most Britons a century ago and has been making something of a comeback in the last couple of years.

Until 1914, the law concerning British nationality had been based on the 1870 Naturalisation Act, which allowed aliens to become citizens after five years of residence, but successive governments had come under press and political pressure to make it more difficult for hostile foreigners to pose as loyal Britons.  Promoted by influential right-wing and ‘diehard’ imperialist elements, this xenophobic pressure mounted in an atmosphere of increasing mistrust towards other European powers and their subjects, especially Germans, in the years leading up the War.  It bore fruit just as the conflict was erupting.

The 1914 British Nationality and Status of Aliens Act received royal assent on 7 August and became law on 1 January 1915.  It came in three parts. The first defined ‘natural’ British nationality as belonging to anyone born in the British Empire, anyone born with a British father (even a naturalised father) and anyone born on a British ship.  The second section concerned naturalisation, which the Home Office (interior ministry) could grant to any applicant who had lived in Britain for five years and intended to stay there, was of ‘good character’ and spoke ‘adequate’ English.  Candidates were required to take an oath of allegiance, and their status could be revoked if obtained by fraud.

The third part of the 1914 Act dealt with particulars, including the treatment of married women, who were deemed to hold the nationality of their husbands, so that a British-born widow (or ex-wife) of a foreigner was considered an alien and required to apply for naturalisation.  The section also made clear that although naturalised foreigners could hold any property (except for a British ship) in the manner of natural citizens, they were barred from voting or holding any kind of local or national political office.

Confirmed as law just as national paranoia became government policy, the Act came under shrill attack even before it became active, with the popular press and the right wing of the Conservative Party demanding stronger powers to denaturalise aliens from hostile countries.  Hysteria inevitably focused on some 6,000 naturalised former Germans living in Britain, who were portrayed as potential hostile agents, and critics decried the Act’s failure to require naturalised aliens to renounce their former nationality, raising the spectre of British citizens bound by loyalty to the Kaiser.  In fact, under the German constitution, Germans choosing naturalisation elsewhere were automatically stripped of their original nationality, but a clause in the same constitution that allowed dual citizenship in certain, officially sanctioned circumstances was portrayed as a loophole through which Berlin intended to destabilise foreign societies.

This one from 1915 – they got more virulent as the War went on.

Amid a tsunami of government propaganda based on the idea that Germans and German culture were intrinsically violent, militaristic, devious and bad, what now seems like hysterical paranoia found ready acceptance among many people at all levels of British society. It crystallised into a campaign in the press and in parliament for a legal means to denaturalise ‘hyphenated’ Anglo-Germans at the whim of the Home Office, and the demand soon became impossible for even a Liberal government to ignore.

The Home Office was considering an extension of revocation powers by early 1916, but civil servants considered it difficult to apply and the idea was still bouncing around committees when the Imperial War Conference of April 1917 was asked to approve a draft bill of amendments to the 1914 Act.  This proposed giving the minister power to denaturalise anyone obviously disloyal, of obvious poor character, convicted of a serious crime or absent from the Empire for seven years.  It also suggested extending the wartime ban on naturalisation of aliens from Germany or Austria for five years after the end of hostilities.

The Conference – representing British state departments along with representatives of the ‘white’ dominions (which had hyphenation issues of their own) and India – gave the draft bill its overall approval without stipulating any timescale for change.  Spared the rod, the coalition government took its time before finally introducing such an intrinsically illiberal piece of legislation for its first parliamentary reading in May 1918.  Meanwhile the increasingly furious impatience of the political right, the jingoist press and a considerable section of military opinion (including the Admiralty) were coalescing to turn fear of naturalised Germans into a major national issue.

Rampant anti-German sentiment was reaching a wartime peak by the time the new Act went through its second reading on 12 July. The anti-German ultras were already denouncing the new legislation as soft on aliens, and a proposal to strip citizenship from all Germans naturalised within the last thirty years (and their children, including many men in senior military and civil service positions) was being widely touted to general acclaim from the political right.  In this atmosphere, it was hardly surprising that the 1918 Act – essentially a reprise of the 1917 draft proposal – became a little tougher as it passed through parliament, adding contact with enemy states to the list of reasons for denaturalisation, and banning the children of naturalised citizens from public service jobs unless they were given exemption by a special loyalty tribunal.

Some politicians get to be important but forgotten. This is wartime British home secretary George Cave, the (rather vexed) face of the 1918 Nationality Act.

The new Act still fell far short of the Draconian discrimination against anyone born outside the Empire demanded by the ‘radical’ right and a massively self-important Fleet Street barony, and as such it can be seen as a rescue success for the liberal values at the heart of the Lloyd George coalition.  And because the War against Germany and Austria-Hungary had ended by the time it came into force at the start of 1919, momentum drained from the tide of populist xenophobia that had threatened to make the Act the thin end of a very nationalist wedge.

British public xenophobia would be back.  An instinctive reaction to fear that feeds on ignorance to identify targetable threats, it is always likely to surface in times of popular panic, especially when encouraged by powerful voices with an eye for populist profit.  Over the decades since 1918 it has only tended to come all the way out of the closet during major wars, but these days it’s flouncing around naked in peacetime.  So the only point I’d make around the flood of race hatred that almost carried the day in post-Edwardian Britain is this:  today’s demagogues of modern economic insecurity are tapping into a form of escapism that runs deep and dangerous in our collective psyche, so maybe we should work harder at coping with reality.

4 JULY, 1918: Little Big Stuff

This exercise in vanity publishing has been largely inspired by a desire to shout about the First World War in all the ways popular sources don’t, but today I’m sticking to the populist script.   US Independence Day marks the anniversary of the Battle of Le Hamel, a small Allied victory on the Western Front that has long been celebrated as a highly significant indicator of the final victory to come.  It was that and more, so here’s what happened and then I’ll talk about its extra dimensions.

The Allied attack around Le Hamel was originally conceived as an attempt to straighten a small westerly bulge (or salient) in the front line east of Amiens, opposite the British Fourth Army, and was never more than a minor operation in the context of major offensives being prepared on the Western Front.  A succession of German spring offensives had taken the front back to where it had stood in the late summer of 1914 – threatening Paris at the River Marne – and both sides were planning attacks there for later in July. Erasing the Le Hamel salient would prevent German forces from launching flank attacks on the massed artillery support being gathered for the proposed Allied offensive.

I like this map. It includes Hamel and gives a nice, easy picture of the flux on the Western Front in 1918.

The Le Hamel operation was planned by the new commander of the Australian Corps, General Monash, and executed by its 4th Division, with support from sixty heavy tanks and every machine gun unit that could be mobilised, along with four companies of US troops that had been attached to the Corps for training.  Launched on 4 July, the attack was a complete success, sweeping the surprised and lightly entrenched defenders of the German Second Army out of the salient.  Its limited objectives, the village of Le Hamel and the woods on either side, were achieved within an hour and some 1,500 prisoners were taken for the loss of about 1,000 Allied troops.

Australians and Americans sharing a trench for the first time in history…

Leaving aside the coincidence of its date with one of the first major actions fought by US troops, the reasons this little success has been so well remembered across the decades are primarily tactical.  The victory provided the most strategically significant demonstration of a new approach to the problems faced by attackers in the context of contemporary trench warfare.   Refined and perfected during three years of trench fighting, and able to flourish once the Allies enjoyed significant numerical superiority in most forms of infantry support weaponry, it was given the oddly insouciant title of ‘peaceful penetration’.  The man generally regarded as its leading pioneer was the aforementioned General Monash.

General John Monash – tip your hat to this guy, because he was as good as it got.

John Monash ended the War as Australia’s most famous soldier, and is still well known there, but these days he’s nobody’s idea of a big star anywhere else.  That’s a shame, because he stands out as an example of excellence in a War dismissed by posterity as a command black hole.  A reservist, called up to lead a brigade of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) in September 1914, he led his troops at Gallipoli, where they suffered horribly and he learned some hard lessons.  Given command of the Australian Third Division, which he trained and took to France, he soon gained a reputation for meticulous and efficient organisation, reflected in the division’s much-praised work at Messines and Passchendaele as part of General Plumer’s Second Army in 1917 (7 June, 1917: Listen and Learn).  By the time he was promoted to lead the Australian Corps in France, in May 1918, Monash was ready to put his ideas into concerted action – and they made a difference at once.

The basis of peaceful penetration was the concept that infantry should be used to simply occupy territory, rather than expended attempting to reach it.  In practical terms, that meant making maximum possible use of mechanised weapons – machine guns, tanks, artillery and aircraft – to devastate a limited quadrant of enemy territory.  Ground troops, usually supplied from the air, would then move in to occupy and secure the ground taken, while other mechanised forces were concentrated to prevent counterattacks. Carefully planned coordination between the various battle arms, a speciality of Monash, was obviously vital to any success, but the key word here was ‘limited’, because the difference between peaceful penetration and everything the British and French had done before on the Western Front was that it sought no ‘breakthrough’ into undefended territory beyond enemy lines.

Strictly limited aims, tight secrecy, overwhelming mechanised force and pinpoint coordination had demonstrated their effectiveness during the early summer in a series of highly successful Australian raids across no man’s land, which quickly began to make a noticeable difference to the position of the frontline, albeit metre by metre. Mopping up forward German trenches and taking prisoners with only minor losses, the peaceful penetration raids exposed defenders’ vulnerability to the tactics and prompted the experiment in larger-scale action around Le Hamel.

The success on 4 July did the trick as far as the Allied high command was concerned, and Allied generals would go on to imitate peaceful penetration tactics with varying degrees of success during the offensives of the autumn.  The other message received loud and clear by Allied leaders analysing Le Hamel was that the German Army was not the force it had been four years earlier.

The German Third Supreme Command had, characteristically enough, gambled everything on the success of its spring offensives on the Western Front, betting that it could achieve, if not total victory, at least a strong bargaining position from which to negotiate a compromise peace agreement.  By the summer, with the front line moved but unbroken, the gamble was failing, and the loss of around a million troops since March could not be made up.  If the British and French were already reduced to conscripting men in their fifties, German manpower shortages were far more acute, so that old men and boys now populated large swathes of the German trench system in France, while German economic atrophy was sharpening supply shortages that were already critical.  These were recognised by contemporaries as the prime reasons for an evident decline in German Army morale and operational discipline by mid-1918, and that’s still the heritage industry’s line – but the most cursory use of hindsight reveals another important factor:  the ‘flu.

It’s in Europe, and it’s coming here – Washington DC gets ready for the ‘flu epidemic.

The global influenza epidemic of 1918–19 (of which much more another day) is generally regarded as a post-War phenomenon.  It certainly killed a lot of people in 1919, but its first wave had arrived in Western Europe by the summer of 1918 and in France it hit the German side of the trenches first.  In other words, the victory at Le Hamel was in part the product of intelligent tactics, carefully planned, and partly an accident of nature.  This basic, unplanned change in the military situation during the Western Front’s last months has tended to get left out of standard popular narratives written by the winners, and is still being ignored by most of today’s heritage peddlers.  If you’re wondering why, I’m afraid you’re being naive about the enduring influence of nationalist triumphalism in a world that imagines itself more socially mature than the one that tore itself apart a century ago.  World Cup, anyone…?

30 JUNE, 1918: Busy Going Nowhere

So the world as people know it is going to Hell in a handcart, and the pace of scary change is accelerating all the time.  Some kind of big, global endgame is surely imminent, and local or regional endgames are already blowing away political certainties unchallenged in decades, even centuries.  In case you’re in any doubt, I’m talking about the middle of 1918.

Tsarist Russia was gone, and the Habsburg Empire was all but gone. The Ottoman Empire had already lost most of its outlying provinces, and had finally given up its attempt to expand into the Caucasus when it made peace with Armenian nationalists in May.  On 11 June, in a belated attempt to spark nationalist outrage at the Empire’s failure to gain more from the Treaty of Bucharest (7 May, 1918: Gangster Diplomacy), the Young Turk government in Constantinople gave up on the strict press censorship it had imposed throughout the War, releasing a torrent of internal criticism that would soon tear apart a corrupt and reckless regime.

Any excuse for a shot of Constantinople in 1918…

Germany, the other major player destined for defeat, was screeching towards economic collapse and political revolution, while those big hitters with better immediate prospects – France, Britain and the USA – were in the throes of momentous (if often temporary) internal change, self-consciously on the brink of a victory they expected to create a new world order.

Wherever you lived in the world at war in June 1918, except possibly Japan, a peep over the local parapets meant a disquieting glimpse of a bigger picture in rapid flux.  The old certainties were evaporating and the prospects kept shifting.  In that context, and without providing much in the way of reassurance, trench warfare had become something of a constant by 1918, if only because it had been around for almost four years and didn’t seem to have changed. For ordinary people in major belligerent nations, the static horrors of trench warfare had become a relatively well-established fact of modern life.  Reported and debated at enormous length and in great detail by press and politicians, war in the trenches had become the conflict’s principle and most consistent narrative strand, a status it has maintained ever since.

The wartime trench narrative was, of course, a mythic creation, a rolling propaganda tapestry of constant victories that made no difference to anything, side-lit by the ghastly, first-hand evidence of trench veterans.  These days, the heritage industry’s core narrative still resides in the trenches and is still steeped in mythology, but presents an anti-propagandist picture of constant defeats amounting to nothing, heavily arc-lit by memoirs of personal suffering.  Both pictures have conspired to turn our view of Western Front trench warfare into a collection of one-dimensional snapshots that stress lack of change during the course of four years.  Fair enough on one level; the Western Front trenches were static in terms of geographical movement, and the human suffering they inflicted remained the same – but the snapshot obscures the basic truth that trench warfare itself went through plenty of changes.

Trench warfare wasn’t completely new in 1914 – it had, for instance, been a terrible feature of the American Civil War half a century earlier – but the world had never seen anything to compare with the long lines of opposing, massively defended trench systems, invulnerable to flank attack, that were established across northeastern France and western Belgium during the War’s first months.  Although the Western Front was by no means the only theatre to experience trench warfare at its most gruesome, it was generally the test-bed for new weapons, defences and techniques, and after a brief phase of desperate improvisation both sides geared up for what they defined, quite understandably, as a gigantic form of siege warfare.

The first requirement of a siege, heavy artillery, was ranged behind the lines to destroy enemy earthworks, kill any troops in the open and take out enemy artillery, all tasks particularly suited to high-trajectory howitzers.  As I’ve mentioned before, wartime developments in the use of big trench guns involved increasing their size, trying (with little success) to find ways of moving them around efficiently, and improving their support mechanisms with advances in ballistic science, ammunition technology and aviation techniques (12 April, 1916: Crater Makers).

At closer quarters, whether across the narrow strip of ‘no-man’s land’ or in direct combat, reliance on the rifle as the soldier’s basic weapon never changed, with refinements of existing designs again the main thrust of wartime development (31 August, 1917: It’s All About The Riflemen).  More radical progress was made in the development of heavier anti-personnel weapons with greater killing potential, such as machine guns and mortars.

Universally pigeonholed as trench warfare’s great defensive weapon, the machine gun was a bulky, cumbersome, unreliable piece of kit in 1914.  Guns weighed between 40kg and 60kg – not counting carriage, mounting, ammunition or (sometimes) an armoured shield – and required a crew of between three and six men.  Generally mounted on a flat-trajectory tripod, they could fire 400-600 rounds of small-calibre ammunition per minute from a fabric belt or metal strip, but they were apt to overheat and needed cooling with air vents or a water bag to prevent buckling and jamming.  Water bags often needed changing every couple of minutes but machine guns still jammed all the time, so they were usually deployed in sections of three or more for defensive purposes.

Even when put on wheels or broken down for haulage the machine guns of 1914 couldn’t keep up with advancing infantry, so they were of little use when attacking and most wartime development was concerned with finding ways to turn them into viable offensive weapons.  They were attached to armoured cars for use on roads or in flat conditions, and eventually mounted on tanks for use in all ground conditions, at least in theory – but neither solution provided reliable direct support for advancing infantry on a regular basis, and the big change in wartime use of machine guns for trench conditions was a general shift to lighter weapons.

Light, portable machine guns existed in 1914 – a few Danish Masden models were in Russian service when war broke out – but were soon being churned out in large numbers by all the world’s arms manufacturers, and had become standard additions to all infantry units by 1918.  Weighing between 9kg and 14kg, they could be carried by one man and fired at a rate comparable with heavy models.  Ammunition still had to be carried on belts, drums or magazines, and was still heavy, but by late 1917 aircraft were being used to drop ammunition for attacking machine-gunners.  The War’s last year saw the appearance in the trenches of automatic rifles and sub-machine guns that were even lighter but often carried only 10- or 20-shot magazines.

Light machine guns could also be fitted to aircraft, for use against ground troops (and other aircraft) when weather conditions permitted, and became standard after the German invention of interrupter gear in 1915 enabled pilots to shoot through their propellers.  The mushrooming threat to trenches from the air meanwhile gave heavy machine guns a new role as high-trajectory anti-aircraft weapons, sometimes mounted on lorries.

No army enjoyed any great advantage over its rivals in the design and development of machine guns.  Among the most commonly used heavy weapons, the British Vickers and the German Maschinengewehr 08 – both derivatives of the original machine gun design, the American Maxim, as was the Russian standard Pulemyot Maxima – were generally more reliable than the French Hotchkiss and fired more quickly than the Austro-Hungarian Schwarzlose.

Maschinengewehr 08 – your standard German heavy machine gun.

The British Lewis and the German Maschinengewehr 08/15 were similarly well-matched light machine guns, although the former’s incompatibility with interrupter gear meant British planes mounted stripped down Vickers guns, but the most commonly used French light gun, the Chauchat, was notoriously unreliable.  The United States produced some 57,000 Browning guns after April 1917, along with a slightly smaller number of Browning automatic rifles, but although both were reliable, rugged weapons they didn’t enter service until the autumn of 1918 and the AEF fought most of its battles using borrowed French guns.

When it came to mortars – portable high-trajectory artillery, designed to launch the heaviest possible projectile from its stubby barrel – the German Army began the War with an enormous head start.  Mortars had been a feature of siege warfare in the 18th century, but had fallen out of use until the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–05, when they were deployed with some success by Japanese troops. This was ignored by most European armies but noticed in Germany, which had about 150 of its own Minenwerfer design in service by August 1914.  Production was stepped up once trench warfare became established on the Western Front, and they served throughout the War in light (76mm), medium (170mm) and heavy (245mm) versions.  Grouped in specialist engineering companies, they all had a maximum range of about 1,000 metres, and during the first year or more of trench warfare on the Western Front they made an important contribution to German tactical superiority.

By contrast, British and French forces entered the War with no modern trench artillery, and relied on antiquated siege weapons, improvised catapults or other crude projectors for a very long time. Allied forces could seldom deploy anything with an effective range of more than about 250 metres until the British Stokes mortar became widely available to trench fighters in early 1916.  Probably the most successful Allied design, the Stokes was a very light weapon and easy to construct, but it was relatively inaccurate and its effective range was only 750 metres.  By 1917 a full spectrum of French and Belgian mortars was also available, but though the Allies enjoyed an increasingly obvious numerical advantage during the War’s last year they never produced anything to match the Minenwerfer.

The Stokes mortar – second-rate but solid.

The arc of machine gun and mortar development was matched in almost every technical aspect of trench warfare between 1914 and 1918, and nobody seeing the entire Western front campaign from the inside could possibly have called it static.  Barbed wire, grenades, camouflage, ammunition, communications and trench design spring to mind as undergoing important changes, but the list could be a lot longer with a bit more effort on my part and might get some proper attention another day.  For now, this has been a small reminder that, no matter how often posterity freeze-frames them, the First World War’s trench fighters were experiencing the same tsunami of change that was sweeping the world beyond their shrunken horizons.

29 MARCH, 1918: It Came Out Of The Sky

Though the First World War was fought in and around many of Europe’s capital cities, a good few of which spent time under occupation by enemy forces, none of the continent’s self-proclaimed ‘great powers’ ever found its capital on the front line.  Their capitals did all suffer serious social, economic and political upheaval during the War.  London was also bombed, Berlin suffered serious privation, and shortages bit amid rampant political turmoil in Vienna and Rome, while St. Petersburg was engulfed by revolution and fleetingly threatened by the subsequent German invasion.  Only Paris spent the war years close to the actual fighting.

Right at the beginning of the conflict, occupation of Paris had been the German Army’s primary aim.  It had been a close-run thing and, with memories of German occupation during 1870-71 still relatively fresh, the city had spent the autumn of 1914 in a state of high, sometimes frantic alert. The situation had of course stabilised during the next three years, but with the front line about 100km to the east the city was never more than one military failure from disaster, a fact driven home by repeated German bombing raids.

Fear for Paris was in the forefront of French popular, military and political thinking with every subsequent crisis on the Western Front, so when the German spring offensives of 1918 brought fighting back to within 65km of Paris it was like 1914 all over again.  Martial law, evacuation of the Louvre, sandbags around monuments and blackout after dark – the city braced for an intensification of air raids and it came, but so did the Paris Guns.

The German Army had made use of giant ‘Big Bertha’ railway guns at the very start of the War, initially to attack fortresses on the way to France and then to attempt long-range bombardment of French civilian targets.  They had hardly been used since, but in the meantime the Krupps munitions company had been developing an even bigger adaptation.  Known in Germany as the Pariser Kanonen (Paris Gun) – or the Wilhelmrohr or the Wilhelm Geschütz (inevitably, William’s Barrel and William’s Gun) – it was technically the 380mm Max E Railway Gun and was specifically designed to attack Paris from previously impossible distances.

Three Pariser Kanonen were constructed, each with a 210mm barrel, lined to allow firing of a 120kg shell.  By shooting the shell into the stratosphere, where wind resistance was minimal, the guns could attack targets from a distance of about 130km.  Sounds impressive, and this was the ultimate in railway gun design, but it came with some severe operational drawbacks.

Check out my rod! Paris Gun in action, aiming for the stratosphere…

The gun was anything but accurate (although Paris is hard to miss), and it lacked the weight of projectile to cause serious damage when it did hit something.  It was also difficult and costly to use, because firing caused such severe erosion of the barrel that each shell had to be wider than the last and the propellant charge altered accordingly, until the barrel’s width reached about 240mm, after about twenty shots, and it had to be replaced.  None of this really mattered because the job of the Pariser Kanonen, like that of Europe’s growing heavy bomber fleets, was to test the theory that civilian morale would crumble under assault from the sky.

Ready for operation by the spring of 1918, and manoeuvred into position with the greatest secrecy during the opening phase of the Kaiserschlacht Offensive, the three Paris Guns fired their opening shots at Paris on 23 March.  The first shell struck the Place de la République at 7.20 in the morning, and by the end of the day the shelling had killed sixteen people and injured another 29.

Not quite lead story at the height of the German offensive, but close..

The immediate effects of the strike were everything German military planners could have wished for.  Even amid all that shocking news from the front, the Paris Guns caused an absolute sensation in Paris and across the Allied world, prompting fears of urban devastation to match that inflicted on battlefields by heavy artillery. Fear and outraged reached a crescendo, as did popular anxiety in Paris, on the afternoon of 29 March, Good Friday, when a shell collapsed the roof of the church of Saint-Gervais-Saint-Protais, just east of city hall (Hôtel de Ville), and exploded in the nave.  Though casualty figures vary, such is the nature of wartime propaganda, I’m going with 91 people killed, including a number of prominent figures, and another 68 injured, but the shock administered to Paris, and to France as a whole, went beyond details.

It came through the roof, obviously – St.-Gervais-Saint-Protais after the attack.

In all – and again figures vary, largely because German records of the operation were later destroyed – the Paris Guns fired about 350 shells in four distinct phases between March and August 1918.  The first phase ended on 1 May, the second ran for two weeks from 27 May, the third for two days in July and the last from 5 to 9 August, after which the guns were moved away from the front as Allied counteroffensives threatened their positions.  The attacks killed a total of 256 Parisians and wounded another 625, but they never again provoked the hint of mass panic that had greeted their first week of operations.

The Saint-Gervais-Saint-Protais disaster’s main long-term effect was to discourage Parisians from gathering in crowds.  Casualties diminished accordingly, and the city adapted to the threat in much the same way as cities attacked from the air have been doing ever since.  In one way that’s not really a fair comparison, because by 1918 aircraft were already subjecting cities to much heavier damage, more accurately delivered, than anything the Pariser Kanonen could inflict.  Then again, supporters of the theory always considered the impact of strategic bombing and its offshoots to be primarily psychological, and from that perspective the Paris Guns were yet further evidence that the theory was nonsense, or was until we all went nuclear.

The giant railway guns were never used again after August 1918, and although victorious forces made strenuous efforts to find them after the War, they and the relevant records were presumably destroyed to keep them out of Allied hands.  Despite their limited usefulness, they were not yet fully discredited as a strategic weapon, and the Hitler regime made unsuccessful efforts to revive the type during the Second World War.  Of course National Socialism was always impressed by the gigantic and thoroughly hooked on psychological warfare, excuses for its stupidity that can also be attached to the Luftwaffe’s civilian bombing campaigns during the Spanish Civil War and the Second Word War.   I’m not sure I can come up with any kind of excuses, revenge aside, for the thousand bomber raids carried out in the 1940s by the RAF, which replaced the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service on Easter Monday 1918.

As a postscript, and a curtain raiser to something grimly momentous, I should mention that while Parisians were scanning the sky during the spring shelling in 1918, a much more dangerous killer was flourishing under their noses.  The massive and deadly influenza crisis of the period is well known, but is generally placed in 1919 and 1920, the years of its peak power (especially in Britain and the USA), but the first of two overlapping epidemics had already begun, in Kansas, and was reaching France along with US troops.  The earliest cases attracted public notice in Paris during April 1918, and the flu would be a mounting problem in France for the rest of the year, killing more than 1,300 Parisians in October alone.  After a second strain of influenza struck from the east, reaching Germany later in 1918, the combined epidemic would erupt to kill at least 70 million people across the globe in the immediate postwar period – but that, as I keep saying, is another story.

21 MARCH, 1918: Stalemate Ends… Posterity Shrugs

As I never tire of pointing out, the Anglophone heritage industry treats the First World War as if everything beyond the Western Front was a sideshow, and therefore gets away with dismissing the whole conflict as an abhorrent waste of time, lives and resources. Stalemate on the Western Front hasn’t been the only key to the thesis – because the state of technology at the time created military stalemate on any front appropriate to trench warfare – but the battle lines in Belgium and northern France had been providing grist for its centennial certainties since the first Battle of the Marne in August 1914.

That changed on 21 March 1918, the day Germany launched the opening attack of its do-or-die spring offensives on the Western Front.  Known to the Allies at the time as the Second Battle of the Somme, the Ludendorff Offensive or the Michael Offensive (after its codename), often referred by modern English speakers as simply the Spring Offensive, and called Kaiserschlacht (Kaiser’s Battle) in Germany, it marked the end of the Western Front’s long and lamented static phase (though not of its horrors).  Trench lines would be firmly re-established during the summer, but they would never again rule the world at war.

The beginning of Kaiserschlacht was, in other words, a crucial turning point in the making of the modern world, yet you’re unlikely to be swamped with the same heritage fanfares that accompanied ghastly confirmations of the status quo like Verdun, the Somme or Passchendaele.  Sure, it was a German operation that didn’t reflect particularly well on Allied commanders, but neither of those factors has discouraged mawkish commemoration of other Western Front battles, and Allied command failures are usually guaranteed to spark a torrent of outrage and finger-pointing by our heritage industries. So what’s the difference?

As far as I can tell – and because we’re talking mass psychology, this is only guesswork – downplaying the spring offensive of 1918 is another symptom of the need to define the First World War as fundamentally atypical of our civilisation.  As I mentioned last week, the syndrome encourages focus on whatever makes the whole thing look like a crazy aberration.  The Somme and Verdun fit the thesis, along with smaller disappointments like Cambrai, but this was different.  The product of a logic that had nothing to do with attrition, Kaiserschlacht featured dramatic territorial shifts and, though not in itself decisive, instigated fundamental and irrevocable change to the balance of power on the Western Front.  Those may be reasons for playing it down, but they don’t look to me like good ones so here’s a quick run-though.

The background should be fairly familiar to anyone in touch with the War’s progress so far.  The German Third Supreme Command needed a big win, and needed it soon.  With Germany’s war effort already stretched to the point of socio-political breakdown, trade warfare was failing and the Americans were coming, so from Berlin’s perspective nothing less than a definitive victory on the Western Front could stave off ultimate defeat once the US Army joined the battle.

Ludendorff, always the strategic and tactical mainspring of the Third Supreme Command, recognised that the French Army was unwilling (and probably unable) to undertake major offensives, and regarded the British as the main obstacle to success in France.  He planned to attack in the Somme sector, at the join of the two Allied armies’ defensive positions, in the hope of separating them.

The Allies were meanwhile in no position to launch an offensive on the Western Front.  British and French commanders were still rebuilding their armies after the hugely expensive failures of 1917 (the Nivelle Offensive in the spring and Haig’s autumn offensive in Flanders), and the attempt to establish a unified command system through the Supreme War Council had so far generated nothing but bickering among the Allies.  Though German troop transfers to France from the Eastern Front were noted, Germany’s simultaneous commitment to the occupation of Eastern Europe was taken as evidence that the German Army was still too weak in the west to mount a successful offensive.

This wasn’t quite true.  German manpower strength on the Western Front had increased by 30% since November 1917, while Allied numbers had fallen by a quarter, leaving sections of the British line, especially those furthest from the Channel coast and closest to the French sector, with relatively sparse defences.  Ludendorff ranged a total of 63 German divisions in three armies (General Below’s 17th, Marwitz’s 2nd, and the 18th under master tactician General Hutier) along a 90km front between Arras and La Fère.  The northern third of the attack zone was defended by fourteen division’s of General Byng’s British Third Army, backed by the majority of British reserves, while the rest was defended by the twelve divisions of General Gough’s Fifth Army, strung out across 60km of frontline and short on reserves.

Elaborate German efforts to maintain secrecy worked to the extent of leaving the Allies unaware of the forthcoming attack’s scale, and when it was launched, with support from 6,000 artillery pieces, the ‘infiltration tactics’ pioneered by Hutier worked as well as they had done under trials in Latvia (3 September, 1917: Trial By Fire).  Helped by a thick morning mist, protected by strong air support and a ‘creeping barrage’, German infantry enjoyed spectacular early success against Gough’s thin, poorly organised defences, and were held only at the far north of the sector, around Arras.

The offensive was as high-tech as war could get in 1918…
… but that wasn’t so very high-tech.

With his right wing melting away, Gough attempted a withdrawal to secondary positions on 22 March, but retreating units did a bad job of destroying bridges and causeways as they went, allowing Hutier’s troops to pursue at speed and forcing another retreat.  By 25 March the whole British Fifth Army had retired some 40km to the west, dragging Byng’s Third Army along with it, and on 27 March the first of Hutier’s units reached the town of Montdidier, about 65km beyond their start point.

Nice going – and by Western Front standards, astonishing.

So far, so spectacular, and now the German Army had Paris in its sights for the first time since the summer of 1914.  Ludendorff went for it.  During the opening attacks, most German strength had been concentrated against Arras, and the 17th Army continued to attack there until 28 March without making significant progress.  Hutier was meanwhile ordered to pause pending a turn towards Paris, and the central German force, the 2nd Army under Marwitz, was sent into the gap between the two British armies, towards Amiens.

Paris in its sights… railway guns were about to make a comeback.

Exhaustion, supply difficulties and the British Third Army halted the 2nd Army’s advance around Villers-Bretonneux, some 20km short of Amiens, on 26 March, and Marwitz paused to regroup for a renewed attack.  The obvious Allied reaction – bringing the nearby French Army into the battle – was delayed by French c-in-c Pétain’s reluctance to commit his forces to battle (a position that persuaded Haig to back the more aggressive Foch as overall Allied commander of reserves), but General Fayolle’s French reinforcements did reach the front in time to halt a second German attack on 30 March.

A final attempt to break through to Amiens was launched by fifteen German divisions – some of them in a state of utter exhaustion – on 4 April, and its failure convinced Ludendorff that the opportunity for strategic success had passed.  He called off Operation Michael next day and switched the focus of attack to Flanders, where the next phase of the offensive, known as the Lys Offensive, opened on 9 April and followed a similar, if less spectacular pattern over the course of nineteen days.

For a while there, it had looked to both sides as if Kaiserschlacht might win the War at a stroke – but although brilliant tactics, careful preparations and a degree of enemy lassitude had delivered a rapid advance and created an enormous bulge in the Allied line, the German Army had failed to break through into undefended country. This was partly because the German armies, stretched to their limits and worked beyond the point of exhaustion, simply ran out of steam, but the same old, technologically based problems were still fundamentally to blame.  As long as an attacking army in 1918 faced organised defenders, it was doomed to suffer insurmountable supply and mobility problems as soon as it crossed into enemy territory.

That doesn’t mean Kaiserschlacht was just another failed offensive, as the more simplistic heritage commentaries are apt to suggest. The two weeks of mayhem that followed its launch cost the German Army some 250,000 casualties it really couldn’t afford, and it would never again be truly fit to fight a powerful, well-equipped foe. Although the Allies lost almost as many men their resources for recovery were by now infinitely deeper, while the undoubted shock provided by the sudden territorial collapse of late March prompted reform of the Allied command system, triggered a radical reassessment of material requirements for the campaign in the US, and temporarily reversed the noisy growth of war weariness in France and the UK.

In other words, although many other factors would influence the fate of both sides on the Western Front during the next few months, the stalemate was finally broken a hundred years ago today.  So where’s that fanfare…?

20 November, 1917: Reputations

King George V, the British king-emperor, famously approved of Sir Douglas Haig’s appointment as c-in-c of the British Expeditionary Force on the Western Front because, in the monarch’s opinion, the general was not too clever.  To be fair, the word ‘clever’ was often a pejorative term in early twentieth-century Britain, with a meaning we have since extended to the phrase ‘too clever by half’, but the faint praise still says something basic about the way British ground forces were perceived by their leaders during the First World War.

When the War began, the British Army was a small, professional force of highly trained men, well capable of conducting clever manouevres in pursuit of clever tactics.  Trying to do anything clever with gigantic armies made up of volunteers or conscripts, rushed to the front after minimal training, struck military professionals (like the King, who had spent fifteen years in the peacetime Royal Navy) as asking for trouble, so the bloated BEF needed a commander more comfortable with a sledgehammer than an epée.

Fair to say that’s what it got in Haig, and arguments will never cease about how the Western Front might have panned out if a bold British c-in-c had been given his head in 1917.  But if Haig’s performance has rightly been described as dull and cautious, the man himself was quite capable of being clever, or at least shrewd, particularly when it came to looking after his job and reputation.

On 20 November, the British Third Army launched a relatively minor offensive north of Arras, towards Cambrai.  Haig had originally vetoed the operation, but changed his mind in October, by which time the evident failure of his Ypres Offensive had left his good name in need of a success, what he called a ‘theatrical blow’, before the end of the year’s fighting season.

Haig’s was not the only reputation threatened by the summer failure at Ypres.  The British Army’s vaunted new assault weapon, the tank, had proved spectacularly useless in the Flanders mud, giving weight to the substantial body of military opinion opposed to its priority development.  The British Tank Corps, which was of course staffed by tank enthusiasts, looked for a way to restore faith in the weapon, and Third Army commander General Byng accepted a plan for a massed tank attack across dry ground in the Arras sector, between the Canal du Nord and St. Quentin.

The plan had been presented by Colonel John Fuller, the Tank Corps chief of staff and a figure well known to military historians as one of the twentieth century’s most influential and prescient armoured warfare theorists.  Like most committed ‘tankies’, Fuller was regarded as something of an eccentric by his more orthodox superiors, and grew used to having much of his wartime tactical advice ignored or only partially followed.

By 1917 Fuller was already planning the future of tanks as long-range strike weapons, penetrating far beyond enemy lines under cover of strong air, motorised and artillery support.  Though the War ended before sufficiently fast and reliable machines had been developed for the purpose, he laid out his ideas in a famous document known as Plan 1919.  This was ignored, or at least rejected, by the British Army, as were his postwar writings on the subject (along with those of his oppo, Basil Liddell Hart), but his work was very well received in German military circles and formed the blueprint for what was later called Blitzkrieg.

John Fuller, egghead and tank theorist, planned the Tank Corps success at Cambrai and was ignored in its aftermath.

The operation that began on 20 November (known to posterity as the Battle of Cambrai, and not be confused with the following year’s Cambrai Offensive) was the first BEF attack of any size to make use of Fuller’s tactical ideas, but they were fatally fudged by the high command.

Fuller recommended a massed raid across dry ground, without any warning in the form of a preliminary bombardment, followed by a rapid withdrawal – but Byng opted for a full-scale ‘breakthrough’ attempt spearheaded by the tank attack.  Under those circumstances, Fuller insisted that armoured reserves were held back to exploit and protect any successes – but Byng sent all 476 available tanks in at once, along with six infantry and two cavalry divisions, supported by about 1,000 artillery pieces.  As the icing on a cake that was already pretty unpalatable to tank commanders, the general also ignored forecasts of bad weather to launch on schedule.

Julian Byng, cavalry general and future Governor-General of Canada, messed up Fuller’s plan and got promoted in its aftermath.

Opening at dawn along a 10km front, and without a preliminary bombardment, the attack achieved complete surprise against the two German divisions holding the position.  By the end of the first day the BEF had made gains of about 6km and forced a gap in the German lines that opened the road to Cambrai, although General Harper’s 51st Division had been halted in front of its first objective, the village of Flesquières.

Harper’s failure has excited controversy ever since.  What you might call the ‘lions led by donkeys’ tendency has accused him of imposing his own, outdated ideas about tank tactics and keeping his infantry away from the machines, with expensive consequences. Apologists argue that the German defence system around Flesquières –heavier and cleverer than elsewhere in the sector – caused the setback, and forced Harper into a change of tactics to protect his men from heavy fire concentrated on the tanks.  Harper died in the early 1920s without leaving any memoir, so the controversy can expect eternal life, but Flesquières wasn’t the reason the attack’s good start went wrong.  The village was taken next day, and the British made small gains all along the battlefront, but without reserves they could do nothing to prevent German reinforcements blocking the road to Cambrai.

This being a war that somehow imbued field commanders with inexhaustible optimism (on land and in the air, not at sea), Haig took sufficient encouragement from the first day’s gains to press further attacks.  They continued, with little or no success, until 30 November, when a major German counterattack got underway using the ‘infiltration tactics’ perfected on the Eastern Front in the late summer (3 September, 1917: Trial By Fire).  The northern wing of the new British salient held but attackers broke through to the south, and almost all the ground gained by the BEF had been lost by the time fighting died down on 7 December.

All the maps of the battle I could find were rubbish. This was the least rubbish.

The Battle of Cambrai made very little difference to the state of the War, despite costing 45,000 British and 50,000 German casualties. It did keep the Tank Corps in business, because despite a routinely disappointing outcome (from an attacking point of view) its opening gambit proved to the British high command that massed tanks could be effective.  In contrast, Cambrai encouraged the German high command to the rather more sophisticated conclusion that, although tanks could bust through trench defences in ideal conditions, they didn’t solve the fundamental problem of how to exploit initial gains, and so weren’t worth the increasingly precious resources needed for extensive development.

The last major attack on the Western Front in 1917, Cambrai completed an almost uniformly disastrous year for the Allies in the theatre, but the tankies big moment at least gave the battle the appearance of strategic purpose.  For a British government wary of war weariness in revolutionary times, and no less anxious than Haig to benefit from a ‘theatrical blow’, this was a godsend.  Britain’s highly effective propaganda machine made a lot of noise at the time about the success of the tanks, and by the end of the War their fleeting impact at Cambrai has been woven into the kind of rational narrative that gets constructed for popular consumption around any final victory.

The Battle of Cambrai went badly wrong for the British, but made the name of the Tank Corps.

The tanks proved themselves at Cambrai, their leaders learned how to use them, they went on to roll over the German Army in 1918, and were thus established as the armoured weapon of the future. That was the narrative, and it was nonsense.  It completely ignored the marginal nature of tank warfare during the 1918 campaigns, and later proved indifferent to the fact that tanks as used by the Allies during the War bore little resemblance in design or purpose to those that became the armoured weapons of the future.

A basis in fiction hasn’t prevented the narrative from growing and solidifying to persist into the present, so take a pinch of salt before you get comfortable with the anything the Anglophone heritage industry has to say about Cambrai during the next few weeks.  If it’s still peddling the wartime tank narrative, you’re being sold hundred year-old propaganda.

 

31 JULY, 1917: The Crying Game

This is one of those moments when I find myself thinking along the same lines as the British heritage industry. The lines in question divided the northern sector of the Western Front, and the event that has us both interested was the opening of the British-led summer offensive in Flanders on 31 July 1917. Known officially as the Third Battle of Ypres, but better remembered in Britain by the name of its final objective, Passchendaele, it went on until November and was a God-awful mess.

It was by no means the first disastrous offensive failure on the Western Front, but it would prove to be the last attempt to end the campaign, and indeed the War, using ‘breakthrough’ tactics. Intended to smash a hole in the enemy line by massing vast forces for an attack on a narrow front, breakthrough tactics had been discredited many times during the previous two years, and their latest spectacular failure had taken place only three months earlier. Haig’s willingness to persist with the orthodoxy long after it had again proved redundant, along with the loss of an estimated 310,000 BEF casualties (as well some 260,000 German casualties) for what amounted to trivial territorial gains, helps explain why Passchendaele has become the great emblem of First World War futility and incompetence in the British public mind – as does the fact that this disaster was an entirely British creation that couldn’t be blamed on the French.

Deplored across a century of British heritage history, popular history and military history, the battle has provided generations of commentators with ammunition for outrage and for condemnation of those deemed responsible for the failure. That is changing. As must be blindingly obvious to anyone in the path of Britain’s Passchendaele centenary tsunami, the battle now provides a prime outlet for ‘human interest’ disguised as history or, to put it another way, emotion in place of analysis.

In the press, on the radio, on television, in Parliament and all over the Internet, the centenary of the Third Battle of Ypres, Anglo-Belgian style, has been about the suffering and death of the soldiers involved. Fair enough, there was a lot of death and suffering, but if history is about illuminating to past to inform the present what kind of information is that giving us? War is bad, its horrors are horrible… and that’s about all.

We have heard this before. It’s the same message we were given a hundred years after the Somme Offensive of 1916, and (for those Anglophones paying careful attention) a century after all the other ghastly, failed French, German, British, Russian, Italian, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman offensives that took place between the spring of 1915 and July 1917. There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with the message, but there is something wrong with ignoring any and all of Passchendaele’s other messages to the future. By way of putting all that emotionally draining mass slaughter into some sort of context, diluting our righteous indignation with a little understanding, and exploring those other messages, here’s a very basic rundown of the battle’s genesis and outcome.

The roots of the Third Battle of Ypres can be traced pretty clearly to Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, commander-in-chief of the British Expeditionary Force in France and Belgium. Haig had been in his post since December 1915, but had been required to support the plans of French commanders until May 1917, when the collapse of the French Army as an attacking force finally passed responsibility for strategic initiative on the Western Front to the BEF (29 April, 1917: All Riot On The Western Front). Haig responded by planning yet another breakthrough offensive but shifting the focus of attacks north, to the British-run sector in Flanders. With hindsight this was without doubt a mistake, but at the time there was something to be said for Haig’s reasoning.

Like most Western Front commanders, Haig still believed that breakthrough tactics represented the best hope of a significant victory, a belief reinforced by the commonly held view that conscript mass armies with only basic training would subside into chaos if asked to do anything more sophisticated. He also subscribed to the widely held view that the German war effort was close to collapse, and that a demoralised German Army on the Western Front was ready to crumble. General Plumer’s victory at Messines in early June didn’t change Haig’s mind on either score (7 June, 1917: Listen And Learn), but at that stage, with the usual costly, clumsy preparations for the main offensive already well underway, it would have taken a major leap of faith to prompt any significant alterations to the battle plan.

Once settled on another breakthrough attempt, Haig’s choice of Flanders as his main target couldn’t really be faulted. The region’s broad, flat plains seemed to offer the best chance for an attacking army to successfully exploit any breakthrough, and breakthrough tactics hadn’t been tried there before (although they had failed in wide open spaces on the Eastern Front). Any breakthrough in Flanders would also offer the BEF a chance to attack German U-boat pens on the Belgian coast, a prospect that appealed strongly to a British high command still very worried about the effects of submarine warfare.

So take away the hindsight, add in the perceived need to keep attacking in the west before Russia’s ongoing collapse freed German reinforcements from the east, and the offensive plan dismissed as futile and/or blinkered by the heritage industry (before it gave up on commentary altogether) makes a broadly acceptable kind of sense in the crazy context of 1917.

It only takes one big mistake to ruin a plan, and for all the talk of rain and mud during the battle that followed, the mistake that counted at Ypres in 1917 was the British command’s gross underestimation of the German Army’s power to resist. The weaknesses visible at Messines had been addressed, and the huge ten-day bombardment that preceded the attack on 31 July (3,000 guns firing a total of 4.25 million shells) found defenders in prepared, shellproof positions ready to meet advancing British and Empire forces. Led by General Gough’s Fifth Army, flanked by a corps of Plumer’s Second Army to its south and a corps of General Anthoine’s French first Army to its north, the attack was launched along an 18km front and made only insignificant, expensive gains before grinding to a halt. At this very early stage, Haig’s plan had failed.

It was the same old story, so why not end it there? For plenty of reasons, none of which satisfied generations of post-War critics but all of which had something going for them from a contemporary command viewpoint.

First, giving up on a big plan after one false start was inconceivable to everyone involved, including the civilian public, so of course there had to be a second try. Secondly, Haig and many other observers were victims of what you might call the ‘one-last-push’ illusion, unable to let go of the (essentially sensible) idea that nations couldn’t sustain this type of warfare for long, and that the other side was one firm push away from collapse. This had been at the heart of Allied thinking on the Western Front since the start of 1915, and the longer reality outstripped socio-economic logic to keep the enemy in the fight, the more certain it seemed that the next push would do the trick. Thirdly, and perhaps more culpably, Haig’s refusal to recognise failure smacked of political desperation. These were uncertain times for Europe’s ruling elites, and British leaders were in no hurry to present a war-weary population (civilian and military) with yet another disappointment at a moment when the very fabric of conventional society was being tested by fallout from the revolution in Russia.

You couldn’t go telling ordinary people the appalling truth…

So failure was postponed and the attack resumed, but only after a fortnight’s delay for unseasonal, torrential rain, which combined with bomb craters and further bombardments to produce the almost impassable morass of mud that has since become synonymous with the battle. Under those conditions, the launch of a second attack on 16 August was an exercise in extreme optimism, and the four days of heavy fighting known as the Battle of Langemarck produced miniscule Allied gains in return for heavy casualties.

Still in no position to declare a failure, Haig at last gave up on breakthrough. He switched the focus of his next wave of operations to the north, put Plumer in effective field command and pursued the policy of limited offensive operations foreshadowed at Messines. Plumer launched three tightly focused attacks around the Menin Road at the centre of the front between 20 September and 4 October, each of which succeeded in its very limited objectives but paid a high price in casualties. With the rain still teeming down and conditions for attackers worsening all the time, Haig was at last in a position to call a halt and claim a victory – but Plumer’s efforts had revived the ‘one-more-push’ orthodoxy. Once more convinced that the German Army was all but spent, and grasping one last time at the mirage of sweeping victory, Haig decided to continue the offensive with attacks towards Passchendaele Ridge, some 10km east of Ypres.

This is where the horrors of war so carefully reported by modern heritage commentators get tangled up with the command failures so noisily deplored by their predecessors. The mud was worse than ever while the German Army, far from exhausted, was being rapidly replenished by reinforcements from the east. It had also been supplied with copious amounts of mustard gas, and this took a terrible toll on the first two attacks towards Passchendaele on 9 and 12 October. Both were grotesque failures, gaining tiny amounts of ground at enormous cost, and dispelled any lingering idea that the enemy was crumbling. Haig nevertheless decided to hurl exhausted troops into three more attacks in late October, and to continue the offensive until British and Canadian troops finally took the village of Passchendaele on 6 November.

What Haig did.  Not much really.

This last phase of the battle has been regarded ever since as an unforgivable waste of lives, and the sentiment still occasionally gets an airing amid today’s mawkish memorabilia. Much as I prefer understanding to outrage, it is hard to disagree. Any strategic point to the offensive had vanished well before mid-October, and the only substantial excuse for carrying on regardless seems to have been maintenance of national prestige, not to mention that of the BEF and its commanders.

In the short term, strictly from a British high command perspective, Haig’s prolongation of the agony kind of worked. The British Army didn’t mutiny or collapse, and the British people didn’t give up on the war effort or fall to revolution. Despite lot of criticism from press and politicians – not least from Prime Minister Lloyd George, an ‘Easterner’ who had long been at odds with the Western Front command and had opposed the battle plan from the start – Haig kept his job and went on to plan a few more shots at glory.  In the longer term, Passchendaele has always been the definitive blot on Haig’s reputation and, along with the opening phase of the Somme Offensive in 1916, the principal piece of evidence that British Empire troops on the Western Front were lions led by donkeys.

A hundred years on, controversy around Haig seems to be all but ignored in the popular media, and not because the basic lessons to be learned from his darkest hour have ceased to be relevant. Modern British society may have grown out of treating ordinary soldiers as cannon fodder, but we still need reminding about the dangers of fatally underestimating a foe, and we definitely need to remember that when orthodox methods repeatedly fail to win a battle (against guerilla fighters, terrorists, drug addiction, you name it), it’s time to question the orthodoxy.  Then again, why bother with what actually happened around Ypres in 1917 when you can fill so much consumer space with easy exploitation of humanitarian outrage?

7 JUNE, 1917: Listen and Learn

This seems a good moment to take another look at the Western Front, because at ten past three in the morning on 7 June 1917 a massive explosion in Flanders, heard clearly in London, signalled the start of the limited British offensive known as the Battle of Messines.  Messines stands out as something rare indeed during the first three years of war in the theatre, a clear-cut victory for the BEF, and it marked a minor turning point in the War on the Western Front – but it gets my attention today because, with a little more creative thinking from the British high command, it might have been a major turning point.

The unarguable sense in which Messines was a turning point followed from the French Army’s mass mutiny at the end of the spring’s Nivelle Offensive (29 April, 1917: All Riot On The Western Front), which handed prime responsibility for further offensive action on the Western Front to the British.  British c-in-c Haig, who had been required to comply with the plans of successive French commanders since his appointment in December 1915, was finally free to run his own campaign, and the first thing he did was transfer the main thrust of British attacks north to Flanders.

The Messines Ridge, a natural strongpoint just south of Ypres, had been in German hands since 1914, forming a small salient (or bulge) in the Flanders front line. General Plumer, commanding the BEF’s Second Army in front of Messines, had been planning an attack on the Ridge for almost a year, and had devised a relatively cunning plan for the purpose. Making no attempt to achieve any kind of breakthrough, Plumer planned to make maximum use of mobile artillery, tanks and poison gas to protect advancing infantry. Heavy artillery would also support the attack with a creeping barrage, a tactic that had worked well during limited operations in the latter stages of the Verdun campaign but had failed miserably in support of full-scale breakthrough attempts (12 February 1917: Hope, Fantasy and Fear). Plumer’s plan also placed great reliance on one other surprise element: mines.

Anybody reading this probably doesn’t need telling about the nature of conventional land mines a century ago, but I’ll tell you anyway. Mines as we understand them today – essentially explosive booby-traps placed in the ground as anti-personnel devices – did exist in 1914. Primitive and largely ineffective, because they relied on the force of the explosion to cause any damage, they were regarded as barbaric by most regular armies and hardly used during the first three years of the War. Improvised anti-personnel mines had become a weapon of choice for guerilla fighters by 1917, most notably those of the Arab Revolt, who added shrapnel (stones, spent shells or anything hard that could be crammed inside the casing) to make them more dangerous, and underground mortars planted by the German Army as anti-tank weapons would become commonplace on the Western Front during 1918. In the meantime, mines on the War’s main battlefronts still meant tunnels dug beneath enemy positions.

Digging mines under the enemy had been a common extension of trench warfare, usually in siege conditions, since at least the sixteenth century. Used to hide infantry or filled with explosives and blown up, they were inevitably employed in great numbers by both sides of the static Western Front, and formed an almost private subterranean battlefront in its busiest sectors.

Shhhhh…..!

Wartime military mining was a tense and horrible job, whether in the crowded conditions of the Western Front or in the dangerous climates of other fronts. Specialist miners, usually drawn from coal-producing regions, worked under constant threat of discovery, often by enemy mines only a matter of yards away. Secrecy depended on silence, with ‘listening parties’ employed to detect enemy mines. Once discovered, mines were generally blown up (or ‘had their cover blown’), either by enemy ‘counterminers’ or by pre-emptive self-destruction, and sudden underground explosions were a routine occurrence around heavily contested hills and ridges.

Military buffs, then and now, get quite excited about Plumer’s mines.

Messines was one such ridge, and Plumer’s pre-match preparations counted as one of warfare’s great mining efforts. Starting in January 1917, his troops dug twenty mines under German positions, completing more than 8km of tunnels. Only one was discovered and blown, and the other nineteen were packed with 600 tons of explosives. Before the battle, an 18-day preliminary bombardment of German forward trenches by more than 2,300 big guns and 300 heavy mortars informed the defenders that an infantry attack was coming, but they weren’t expecting the mine explosions, which brought utter chaos, created a number of enormous craters and killed at least 10,000 men.

And I mean enormous…

Nine divisions of infantry advanced under a creeping barrage in the wake of the explosions, and took all their preliminary objectives within three hours. Reserves from the British Fifth Army and the French First Army had moved in to take their final objectives by mid-afternoon, and a German counterattack the following day failed badly, losing more ground than it recovered. Counterattacks continued for another six days but made no progress, and the BEF had occupied the entire Messines salient by the time they petered out on 14 June.

A tidy victory, and the first battle in the history of the Western Front to see defenders lose more casualties (25,000) than attackers (17,000), Messines provided a huge boost for Allied morale at a time when it was badly needed – but it could have been more. The enormous impact of Plumer’s mines, the knowledge that getting away with the same trick again would be very difficult, a sense that the Germans had been caught at an unusually weak moment, and the fact that mining was only really feasible under high ground all contributed to the operation being viewed by the high command as a one-off, when it was in many ways a blueprint for success in the context of trench warfare.

With the chimera of the knockout blow removed from the drawing board, Plumer’s success drew on the experience of front-line commanders fighting in conditions that made anything more than limited gains impossible – notably Australian veterans of the Gallipoli campaign, like General Monash, who had learned to focus everything on protection of initial infantry advances, and to settle for what they could get without losing that protection. As such, Messines foreshadowed the approach that would eventually bring Allied success during the last months of the war in France and Belgium, but in June 1917 it failed to change the thinking of the Western Front’s new head honcho.

To repeat one of my more routine tropes, there’s no justification for the idea that a collective failure of generalship was one of the fundamental reasons the First World War went so badly for everyone. Generals were needed in far greater numbers than ever before, so some pretty mediocre officers were inevitably given jobs they were barely fit to handle, but the real problem was the technology of the day, which rendered useless every form of attack known to military theory in 1914. Plumer was only one of many generals in many armies who found ways of overcoming or adapting to those terrible circumstances – but that doesn’t mean the First World War was distinguished by much in the way of great generalship at high command level, or that commanders you might class as competent didn’t have bad days or particular weaknesses.

I’ve always been inclined to classify Field Marshal Haig as a competent general, not special or exciting but on the whole sensible, and I like to rail against the ridicule he suffers at the hands of the heritage industry – but he wasn’t the man to spot a way forward in the details of Plumer’s attack, and you could call that a weakness, or at least as evidence that he wasn’t any kind of military genius.  Haig also had his bad days, and his subsequent decision to repeat the mistakes of his French predecessors and launch yet another massive breakthrough offensive, this time around Ypres, was definitely one of them. The decision propelled the BEF into the prolonged mess the British usually call Passchendaele, a disaster that has, for many of them, defined Haig ever since.