Sunday, March 18, 2012

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

Back to Part 2

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 Pétain 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.

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