Friday, March 30, 2012

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


Back to Part 4

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  In each BEF division approximately 3,000 men (rifles) had been replaced by 112 machine guns (16 Vickers and 96 Lewis).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.).

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