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.

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