Saturday, December 10, 2011

The British High Command on the Western Front - Pt 3

Back to Part 2

Which Operational Method?

The four-month period between the Somme 1916 and Arras 1917 saw the BEF digest and interpret the lessons of the preceding four months and formally publish the two key documents, the SS 135 and SS 143, that encapsulated the experience of the war so far, and proved pivotal to the operational and tactical evolution of the BEF.  The SS 135, Instructions for the Training of Divisions for Offensive Action (December 1916), was a supplement to FSR that sought to regularise and standardise the duties of army, corps, and divisions in attack preparations.  The SS 143, Instructions for the Training of Platoons for Offensive Action (14 Feb 1917) was the seminal manual that helped transform the BEF’s platoon organisation and tactics in 1917 (Peter Simkins, ‘ ‘Building Blocks’: Aspects of Command and Control at Brigade level in the BEF’s Offensive Operations, 1916-1918’, in: Gary Sheffield & Dan Todman eds, Command and Control on the Western Front, (Staplehurst: Spellmount, 2004) p. 156).  An ad-hoc experience based, frequently bottom up, learning process had begun to crystallise into an operational method, tied through communications limitations to the artillery bombardment, which suited attritional (limited objective) rather than decisive (breakthrough) attacks.

The split within the BEF over the choice of operational method came to a head during the planning for Third Ypres in mid 1917.  Early in 1917 a GHQ planning team lead by Lieutenant Colonel Macmullen, that had been tasked to look at an offensive in Flanders, produced a report coincident with proposals from the army commanders on the ground, Generals Plumer and Rawlinson, that all advocated limited step by step operations within the range of the artillery.  Under pressure from both Haig and General Gough to seek the decisive breakthrough Major General Davidson (Head of Operations at GHQ) went further and advocated a series of limited step by step operations to be repeated every two or three days.  Davidson, like Plumer and Rawlinson, believed that a breakthrough was only viable when the enemy was beaten and in disarray.  Haig over-ruled his own planning team and supported by Gough endorsed Fifth Armies proposal to press for a breakthrough and advance as far as possible in the first ‘rush’.  Following early success the attack literally bogged down under German artillery fire, well coordinated counter attacks; Gough’s Fifth Army was the first in the BEF to experience the new formalized German defence in depth system, and heavy rain that continued with few breaks until the end of August and turned the battlefield into a quagmire.  As an impatient Gough repeated the small attritional attacks of the Somme GHQ rethought its strategy.  The result, implemented by Plumer’s Second Army, was the adoption of Davidson’s tactics, a series of limited step by step operations.  The battles of Menin Road (20 September), Polygon Wood (26 September), and Broodseinde (4 October) saw success on a par with Arras or Messines earlier in 1917 and caused the Germans defence in depth system to fail.  After Broodseinde Second Army became a victim of its own success.  Each successive attack increased the difficulty of the next as the BEF dragged their artillery and logistics tail across the terrain wrecked by the success of their last attack.  The BEF had lost its operational tempo and the limitations of a single axes series of ‘bite and hold’ attacks had been demonstrated.  By the end of Third Ypres however Haig, overwhelmed by the empirical evidence, had finally abandoned the breakthrough as an operational method.  Although his optimistic tendencies led him to expect too much at Cambrai.  What remained to be developed was the strategy of employing ‘limited’ attacks on multiple axes.

Haig Stubborn!

Central to Haig’s stubborn adherence to the notion of a breakthrough was the way he ran GHQ.  Again his methods reflected his learning at Staff College:

‘the Commander-in-Chief must be a determined leader, who must display a singleness of purpose.’ . .  [The] ‘authority of the Commander-in-Chief is impaired by permitting subordinates to advance their own ideas’. . . .  ‘There must be unanimity at HQ.’. . .  ‘The Commander-in-Chief should select strategic objectives but not anticipate details, or attempt to interfere on the battlefield,’  Travers, The Killing Ground, p. 97.

These elements when combined with Haig’s inarticulate and aloof character and an intolerance of criticism or suggestions at times made it difficult for his senior officers and staff to achieve the key element of decentralised command, that of really understanding, through dialogue, their commander’s intent.  This was particularly evident in the planning for Third Ypres where confusion reigned over the capture of the Gheluvelt plateau.  Haig’s Chief of Staff  (COS) at GHQ, Lieutenant General Kiggell, who should have provided the interface through which suggestions or criticisms could flow, lacked the strength of character to challenge Haig.  Kiggell was effectively marginalised as Haig, continuing at GHQ what he had started when in command of First Army, essentially acted as his own COS.  Unanimity had been achieved through acquiescence.  It was not until the enforced staff reorganisation at GHQ in early 1918, when Lieutenant General Lawrence replaced Kiggell, that GHQ began to develop into a well balanced experienced based team that was better placed to both inform and advise Haig.

Haig and his Army Commanders

Haig has been criticised for vacillating between a ‘hands-off’ and an ‘interfering’ approach with his army commanders.  The key to understanding Haig's approach to them is contained in FSR Pt 1 (1907) Operations.  The section on orders that promotes deference to the man on the spot contains the following caveat: ‘… with due regard to his personal characteristics.’  (General Staff War Office, FSR Pt 1 Operations, p. 27).  Implicit in this caveat is the cornerstone of decentralised command 'trust'.  On 14 June 1917 when Haig told Rawlinson ‘last year he had only one Army Comr.(me) now he had five who knew their business’ (Rawlinson Diary, 14 June, 1917, Rawlinson papers, CC 1/7.  Quoted in: Peter Simkins, ‘Haig and the Army Commanders’, in: Brian Bond & Nigel Caveeds, Haig a Re-Appraisal 80 Years On,(Barnsley: Pen & Sword, 2009), p. 97), what he meant was that in 1916 he had only one army commander he could trust but by mid 1917 he could trust all five.  This trust was not immediate, took time to build, but once gained could withstand significant failings as the leeway provided to Gough, and Haig’s protection of General Byng after Cambrai in 1917 shows.  Haig knew from his 1914/15 experience that control by higher commanders was near impossible once battle commenced and that subordinates on the spot must be trained to act on their own initiative.  In the rapidly growing BEF Haig was also well aware of the effect of ‘de-skilling’:

‘close supervision is especially necessary in the case of a comparatively new army.  It is not “interference” but a legitimate and necessary exercise of the functions of a Commander on whom the ultimate responsibility for success or failure lies’.  G.H.Q. to Fourth Army (OAD 123), 23 August, 1916. Fourth Army papers, IWM, Vol.5.  Quoted in: Peter Simkins, ‘Haig and the Army Commanders’ p. 94.

It is worth noting that the frequency of his meetings with individual army commanders, throughout the war, increased proportionally to the army commander’s involvement in ongoing operations, although by 1918 his intervention in the planning processes had diminished.  This would suggest that Haig’s vacillating was as much a product of the trust building process as it was recognition that he held the ultimate responsibility for success or failure.

Next: Part 4 ‘The Army Commanders

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