Friday, March 30, 2012

The BEF’s preparations for and conduct of the defensive battles during the spring of 1918 – Part 5

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The Technological Offset

To a degree this manpower shortfall should have been offset through the increase in BEF firepower.  Before 21 March 1918 most BEF divisions had received an additional company of 16 Vickers heavy machine guns.  Infantry battalions also had double the 1917 allocation of Lewis machine guns.  In each BEF division approximately 3,000 men (rifles) had been replaced by 112 machine guns (16 Vickers and 96 Lewis).  The key would lie in their effective employment in accordance with the BEF’s new defensive posture.

‘Before the battle, [21 March 1918] Gough was ordered to take 50 per cent of his machine guns and put them behind his front line. ….he did not do this.  The result was predictable, as described by the GSO 1 of III Corps,….  “The German attack in swamping the forward troops, captured or destroyed a large proportion of our Machine and Lewis guns….”  ’   Travers, How The War Was Won, p. 63.

Intelligence Failure!

From mid-December 1917 GHQ’s intelligence staff predicted a large-scale German offensive on the Western Front in the following spring.  To deal with this potential offensive GHQ ordered, on 14 December 1917, that the BEF should move over to the defensive.  In early 1918 the British army, including dominion and Portuguese troops, comprised 60 infantry divisions.  Fifty two of the divisions were formally assigned to Haig’s four Armies with the remaining eight allocated to his GHQ reserve.  On the eve of the German offensive the British front was far from evenly held.  The British Army deployment running north to south was; 2nd Army, 12 Divisions, 23 mile front; 1st Army, 14 Divisions, 32 mile front; 3rd Army, 14 Divisions, 28 mile front; 5th Army, 15 Divisions, including 3 Cavalry Divisions, (a cavalry division had half the combat power of an Infantry division), 42 mile front.  The main weight was allocated to the north and centre leaving Gough’s 5th Army in the south stretched and vulnerable.  Haig's force dispositions before the German offensive, whilst reflecting the geographical realities faced by the BEF, were undoubtedly influenced by an intelligence failure brought about by a German deception plan that emphasised an attack on the Channel ports.  From December 1917 onwards, as David French states:

'…British Intelligence received so many reports of German preparations for an offensive in the west at so many different locations and times that it was not until mid February that they were finally convinced that the Germans did indeed intend to launch a major blow between Arras and St-Quentin within about three to four weeks.  At the same time, however, they also gave equal credence to reports which indicated that this would only be one of a series of German offensives and that the enemy was also planning to strike a major blow in Flanders to capture the Channel ports at some stage in the spring or summer.'.  Michael Dockrill & David French, British Policy During the First World War pp. 91-92.

This threat to the Channel ports was to keep Haig’s attention focused north of 5th Army even after it became known that a German attack would be launched against Gough's Army.  Both Gough and GHQ had realised by February 1918 that in the face of a major offensive 5th Army’s front would be indefensible with the forces available.  In such an event retreat was regarded as inevitable.  Gough’s role as agreed with Haig was to:

‘retire gradually, and to delay and exhaust the enemy, without exposing [his] Army to annihilation.’.  Gough, The Fifth Army, p. 238.

On the eve of 21 March 1918 GHQ were expecting the first German assault to fall on the 3rd and 5th Army fronts from Arras to St Quentin.  An assault on the southern end of 5th Army’s front was deemed unlikely ‘owing to the difficulty of the country.’ (Gough, The Fifth Army, ‘Principles of Defence on 5th Army Front’, p. 232.).  The assessment of the location for the attack was almost correct, although when the attack came it extended the full length of 5th Army’s front; the difficult country had dried out!  What GHQ got wrong was the nature of the attack.  GHQ expected the Germans to adopt a BEF style attritional offensive, despite warnings from Rawlinson who stressed that the German attack in 1918 would be likely to follow the principles applied during the Cambrai counter attack, and Gough who wrote to GHQ in February 1918 pointing out the German use of a short bombardment and surprise at Riga and Caporetto (Gough, The Fifth Army, p. 230.).

Saturday, March 24, 2012

The BEF’s preparations for and conduct of the defensive battles during the spring of 1918 – Part 4

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British Manpower Crisis

From early 1917 the British government was well aware of an impending manpower crisis.  This coupled with a growing political perception, not just by Lloyd George, that Haig was squandering British manpower on the Western Front brought about a step change in the British recruiting process at the end of 1917.  As early as April 1917 the War Cabinet was using recruiting as a mechanism in an attempt to modify Haig's strategy on the Western Front.  In a memorandum Sir Maurice Hankey, Secretary of the War Cabinet, stated that the War Cabinet’s recruiting policies were intended to keep:

‘the War Office short to compel the soldiers to adopt tactics that will reduce the waste of man-power…’.  Memorandum by Hankey, 18 Apr. 1917, P.R.O., London, CAB 63/24 – quoted in: Woodward, ‘Did Lloyd George Starve the British Army’, p. 244.

This failed, Haig despite promising the War Cabinet a step by step approach to his Third Ypres campaign, with the option to cease operations if they became too costly, continued with the offensive despite growing losses and diminishing returns. Additionally, the reverse at Cambrai, on the back of its initial lorded success, created a media led backlash at home at the military losses of 1917.  By the end of 1917 the BEF was exhausted and under strength.  The effect of the War Cabinets recruiting limitations were now being felt at the Front.  Estimates of the BEF shortfall ranged from 41,000 to 100,000 men (Woodward, ‘Did Lloyd George Starve the British Army’, pp. 247-248.).  From a political perspective Haig had reneged on his promise to the War Cabinet and had failed to husband his manpower.  The War Cabinet had no intention of increasing recruitment to replace Haig’s losses.  The political preference was to husband resources by going on the defensive on the Western Front and wait for the arrival of the Americans.  Both the British and the French knew that the Americans could make no significant contribution until they were trained.  This, due to Pershing’s refusal to agree any force amalgamation, would not be until 1919.

In July 1917 Brigadier General A. Campbell Geddes, Director of Recruiting, provided a report on recruiting to the War Cabinet that sought to balance the conflicting manpower needs of the Military and Civil sectors as Britain attempted to come to terms with the demands of a 'Total War' effort (Campbell Geddes, ‘The Theory and Practice of Recruiting’ War Cabinet Memorandum, 23 July 1917, National Archives CAB/24/20 Image No 0083.).  The decision to implement Geddes' manpower proposals was taken in the shadow of the ongoing conflict over the strategic direction of the war at the end of 1917.  Geddes' proposals marked an end to the ad hoc reviews of manpower and established clear principles of military recruitment.  To replace losses and sustain offensive operations the War Office sought 600,000 category ‘A’ recruits for 1918.  The newly established manpower committee chose to promise only 100,000.  ‘The order of priorities were, first shipbuilding and the manning of new naval craft; second, aeroplane and tank output; and third, the reinforcement of the British armies in France.’  This order of priorities underpinned the political decision to wait for the Americans by emphasizing the enlargement and protection of the north Atlantic shipping traffic.  (Keith Grieves, ‘Total War?: The quest for a British manpower policy, 1917-18, Journal of Strategic Studies, 9, (1), (March 1986) p. 86.).

By 1918 Britain was physically unable and politically unwilling to continue to supply manpower at the rate requested by the War Office to support Haig’s Western Front offensive aspirations.  Britain was running out of manpower in 1918.  Between January and November 1918 only 372,330 category 'A' men could be pulled from the civilian workforce (Woodward, ‘Did Lloyd George Starve the British Army’, p. 248.).  The rationalisation of the use of manpower between the front, factory and field was long overdue however the circumstances and timing of its implementation almost proved fatal.  In defence of the politicians it should be noted that the War Office had it within its gift to provide Haig with the necessary replacements.  Up to 449,000 category ‘A’ men already in uniform were held in Britain.  This figure included the mobile reserve which had been withdrawn to Britain by the General Staff following a statement by Haig that the BEF could contain any German attack for 18 days.  The mobile reserve alone could have made up Haig’s shortage of infantry (Woodward, ‘Did Lloyd George Starve the British Army’, p. 248 and 251.).

The BEF manpower shortage was most acute in the infantry units whose average effective strength was down to 36%.  With minimal reinforcements available the War Office directed the BEF to restructure from a 12 to a 9 battalion divisional structure.  Between mid January and 4 March 1918 115 battalions were broken up.  Of these 7 were converted to Pioneer battalions and 38 were amalgamated to form 19 new battalions.  The 10 dominion divisions were unaffected.  Included in the War Office directive was the limitation that only battalions of Kitchener's New Army, Volunteer or of 2nd Line Territorial origin should be abolished.  Gough's divisions comprised a significant number of these units and as a result a disproportionate percentage of the changes occurred in 5th Army.  Battalion unit cohesion and time away from training were not the only casualties:

' [The] Disruption caused by moving soldiers to new, unfamiliar units in unfamiliar formations and working with unfamiliar supporting arms, artillery in particular, has to be experienced to be understood.'.  P.R. Carey, The German Offensive on the Somme - 1918, Royal United Services Institute of New South Wales, p. 10.

The extension to the British front and the shortage of manpower undermined Haig’s 1918 offensive aspirations and seem to add weight to his external 'excuses' for the BEF failings in the spring of 1918.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

The BEF’s preparations for and conduct of the defensive battles during the spring of 1918 – Part 3

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The Lloyd-George - Haig Clash

In December 1917 the BEF was caught in a clash between the British Prime Minister Lloyd George and the British Commander-in-Chief on the Western Front Field Marshal Haig over the strategic direction of the war.  Lloyd George genuinely believed that the war could be won in theatres other than the Western Front, at significantly less human cost.  Haig, a confirmed westerner, saw the defeat of the German army on the Western Front as the key to victory.  As 1917 came to an end Lloyd George was determined to establish his authority over Haig.  This he did via the newly created Supreme War Council and the allocation of manpower to the army.  Lloyd George was pivotal in the establishment of the Supreme War Council in November 1917 which he hoped to use to direct the war effort, bypassing Haig.  His attempts to create an Allied Strategic Reserve, outside Haig’s control failed, although in the process he effectively sacked the Chief of the General Staff General Robertson a staunch westerner and supporter of Haig, replacing him with General Wilson.  Additionally under the Supreme War Council umbrella he fully supported renewed French demands for the BEF to take over 60 miles of the French line, despite Haig’s justified misgivings.

Extension of the British Front

Without reference to the Supreme War Council Haig and Field Marshal P√©tain compromised over the extension of the British line.  The extension, of only 25 miles, went as far as Barisis just south of the river Oise.  Part of the compromise included a French promise ‘to provide an immediate reinforcement of six divisions’ in the event of an attack (Martin Middlebrook, The Kaiser’s Battle (Barnsley: Pen & Sword, 2007), p. 73.).  General Gough’s 5th Army took over the line extension from the French incrementally between mid December 1917 and the end of January 1918.  The trench system they inherited:

‘…was in a very poor state.  On some parts of the front there was no continuous line, no dugouts or observation posts, and communication trenches were few and provided inadequate cover’.  Hubert Gough, The Fifth Army (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1931), p. 222.

To compound the problem the infrastructure behind the line extension was practically non existent and what there was, was orientated south towards Paris.  To complete the necessary zoned defence system along his 42 mile front Gough estimated the need to dig ‘…about 300 miles of trenches…’. (Gough, The Fifth Army, p. 225.) Gough needed additional manpower and time to raise the standard of his defences, he received insufficient of either.  His only option was to use Infantry to aid the construction, taking them away from vital training.  Across the section of the front that the Germans attacked in March, the Rear Zone generally only existed on maps, and the fortifications in the Battle Zone, particularly on 5th Armies front, were underdeveloped:

‘ …there were excellent positions-on paper. There were “lines” of green and brown and all the colours of the rainbow; and “zones” of one kind and another, galore. …The green lines and the brown lines and the blue and other lines were mere scratches in the ground, and the redoubts were-paper redoubts.’.  COTTON TOWN: BLACKBURN with DARWEN Website – extract from: The East Lancashire Regiment’s history.

Monday, March 12, 2012

The BEF’s preparations for and conduct of the defensive battles during the spring of 1918 – Part 2

Germany’s Last Chance

At the end of 1917 the German people were at the limit of their endurance.  Germany’s allies, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and Turkey, were all on the verge of military and economic collapse.  The German army was suffering from a lack of basic necessities and losses of experienced soldiers.  Despite the hardships the allied position was equally bleak.  The BEF at the end of 1917 was ‘exhausted and much reduced in strength’ (Haig Memorandum 15 Dec 1917 M.P.C. 21, CAB 27/14 – Quoted in: David R. Woodward, ‘Did Lloyd George Starve the British Army of Men Prior to the German Offensive of 21 March 1918?’, The Historical Journal, 27, (1), (March 1984), p. 245.).  The French army much under strength was still recovering from the mutinies of 1917.  The collapse of Russia and Romania and the German victory over the Italians at Caporetto had relieved the pressure on the Germans from those fronts.  Additionally, Caporetto had forced the deployment of five British and six French divisions from the Western Front to Italy.  This combination allowed the Germans to deploy more than 40 additional divisions to the Western Front giving them a numerical superiority (Michael Occleshaw, Armour against Fate: British Military Intelligence in the First World War (London: Columbus Books, 1989), p. 364.).  First ‘Generalquartiermeister’ Ludendorff realized the German advantage was transitory.  America had entered the war in April 1917 and her troop numbers in France were increasing daily.  Germany's only hope for victory, or a compromise peace, appeared to lie in an offensive in the west.

Friday, March 2, 2012

The BEF’s preparations for and conduct of the defensive battles during the spring of 1918 – Part 1


The German spring offensive, when seen from the perspective of early May 1918, had inflicted a serious defeat on the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in France.  Casualties were in the region of 236,300, and a significant amount of territory had been given up (James E. Edmonds, Official History of the War: Military Operations France and Belgium 1918 Vol 2 (Nashville: Battery Press, 1995 ‘originally released 1937’), p. 490.).  Of greater significance was that the BEF, particularly in March, had come close to collapse.  Why had this happened?  Reasons and mitigation were offered almost immediately.  Field Marshal Haig recorded in his diary entry of 29 March 1918 that the BEF failings were due to; a lack of manpower, the extension of the British line, the number of Germans on the British front, and the slow response of the French in providing promised support (Douglas Haig (Sheffield and Bourne Ed), Douglas Haig War Diaries and Letters 1914-1918 (London: Phoenix, 2006), p. 395.).  These factors were all external to the BEF and have been regarded by some as excuses.  More recent research, by Tim Travers, places the blame squarely on the BEF citing internal factors principally the attempt to implement an ‘unworkable and misunderstood defence-in-depth system’ (Tim Travers, How The War Was Won (Barnsley: Pen & Sword, 2005) p. 89.).  A more circumspect view advanced by the Official History includes Haig’s and Travers’ ‘factors’, emphasising though that the BEF defensive system was compromised through a lack of counter attack forces, whilst adding the enforced BEF reorganisation, a lack of training, and the fog during the March assaults:

‘The initial difficulties of the British in 1918 must, then, be, attributed to an extended front with too few troops to defend it in depth, but the crisis was occasioned by the lack of reserves’. Edmonds, Military Operations France and Belgium 1918 Vol 2, p. 479.

On the surface Haig’s ‘excuses’ appear justified whilst Travers’ criticisms are harsh but well founded.  The Official History though comes closest to capturing the reality.  On 21 March 1918 the BEF found itself in a parallel position to that of 1 July 1916.  In 1916 the BEF began to learn how to attack, in 1918 they had to learn how to defend.