Tommy, p.9Richard Holmes
Passchendaele, like the Somme, represented a British victory on points and, also like the Somme, provides the historian with another stark confrontation between head and heart. It played its part in the wearing out of the German army, was not an unreasonable response to the situation confronting Haig in early 1917, and, given good weather and limited objectives, might have produced a respectable tactical victory: it is hard not to speculate what might have been the case had Plumer been in command from the start.96 Yet it did not produce a breakthrough, impose such a strain that the Germans collapsed, or prevent the Germans from launching, in March the following year, an offensive which so nearly won them the war.
And while its cost in human terms was actually lower than that of the Somme, it did more serious damage to British morale. Philip Gibbs wrote that: ‘For the first time the British army lost its spirit of optimism, and there was a sense of deadly depression among the many officers and men with whom I came in touch.’97 Charles Bean, then a war correspondent and later the Australian official historian, assessed that his countrymen were reaching the end of their tether. After attending a conference given by Plumer’s chief of staff in October he wrote: ‘They don’t realise how very strong our morale had to be to get through the last three fights.’98
However, two official surveys of censored mail concluded that morale remained sound, though one observed that in 2nd Army ‘the favourable and unfavourable letters were almost evenly balanced’.99 There was no sudden rise in infractions of discipline, and in the case of 5th Army, whose records are complete enough to enable us to form an opinion, convictions for self-inflicted wounds, desertion and absence without leave remained low. An unnamed young officer summed up the harsh paradox of 1917: the army was better trained but less confident.
I am certainly not the same as I was a year ago. I can no longer write home to you, as I once did, of victory. We just live for the day and think of little else but our job, the next show, and our billets and rations. I may be a better soldier and know my job better than I did, but I dare not think of anything beyond that. After all, just imagine my life out here: the chance of surviving the next battle for us platoon commanders is about 4 to 1 against!100
First-hand accounts leave us in no doubt of the horror of Third Ypres, but also hint at the mixture of natural discipline, loyalty and sheer endurance that kept men going. On 27 August Lieutenant Edwin Campion Vaughan of 8/Royal Warwicks advanced on a German pillbox, nicknamed Springfield, with the remnants of his company.
Up the road we staggered, shells bursting around us. A man stopped dead in front of me, and exasperated I cursed him and butted him with my knee. Very gently he said ‘I’m blind, sir,’ and turned to show me his eyes and nose torn away by a piece of shell. ‘Oh, God! I’m sorry, sonny,’ I said. ‘Keep going on the hard part,’ and left him staggering back in his darkness … Around us were numerous dead, and in the shell-holes where they had crawled for safety were wounded men. Many others, too weak to move, were lying where they had fallen and cheered us faintly as we passed: ‘Go on boys! Give ‘em hell!’ Several wounded men of the 8th Worcesters and 9th Warwicks jumped out of their shell-holes and joined us.
A tank had churned its way slowly round behind Springfield and opened fire; a moment later I looked and nothing remained of it but a heap of crumpled iron: it had been hit by a large shell. It was now almost dark and there was no firing from the enemy; ploughing across the final stretch of mud, I saw grenades bursting around the pillbox and a party of British rushed in from the other side. As we all closed in, the Boche garrison ran out with their hands up; in the confused party I recognised Reynolds of the 7th Battalion, who had been working forward all afternoon. We sent the 16 prisoners back but they had only gone a hundred yards when a German machine gun mowed them down.101
The inside of the pillbox was filled with ‘indescribable filth’, two dead Germans and a badly wounded one. He soon noticed that his servant, Private Dunham, was carrying, in addition to rifle, bayonet, and a ‘Christmas tree’ of webbing, a mud-soaked sandbag. ‘What the hell are you carrying in there, Dunham?’ he asked. ‘Your rabbit, Sir!’ he replied stoutly. ‘You said you would eat it on Langemarck Ridge.’
Private Albert Bullock was in the Hampshires when he arrived in France that September. He was posted to the Royal Warwicks at Rouen, and joined the 8th Battalion at Ypres on the 29th, two days after the exploit described above. ‘Colonel Carson gave us a talk on the attack,’ he wrote. ‘Didn’t understand it much.’ He was in action the next day.
Lay on ground for some time and could feel cold breeze from shells that were going overhead … 7 o’clock move up over Steinbeek Stream supposed to be but more of a stinking cess-pool. Got in a hole with three others. 6-inch shell pitched 6ft away gave me clout in the back with lump of dirt and half buried us but didn’t explode. Counter barrage falling heavily 20 yards behind us … 12 o’clock move up to original front line in reserve, can see Germans moving about easily on Passchendaele. Am shaking from head to foot through concussion of so many shells, feel very anxious to see all that’s going on so keep from feeling windy.
He lost his platoon commander five days later:
He was only 19 same as myself and was walking about on the top with only a stick, dressed in an ordinary private’s clothes as were all officers so as not to be picked off by the snipers – heard later that he was shot through the heart just after I saw him.
Sent back through the mud, Bullock
reached Winchester Farm after a struggle. It was an Advanced Aid Post, and was like a slaughterhouse. The RAMC corporal asked us to take a blind Gloster down to Habnor Farm, he was an old chap and seemed to know what was up with him, it was very pathetic.
Creature comforts and curiosity helped keep Bullock going. He became more cheerful when a ‘B Coy chap … daft with fear’ bolted and abandoned his pack after a shell half-buried them. ‘We dug ourselves out and went through his pack,’ he wrote. ‘Found 200 Woodbines.’ Things were even better when he was out of the line a few days later, guarding some prisoners. ‘Helped prisoners raid truck of rations,’ he wrote. ‘Applied for transfer to R[oyal] F[lying] C[orps]. Some hopes.’102
Gunner Aubrey Wade, a Royal Field Artillery signaller, crossed the Steenbeek on
a bridge, composed of a compact mass of human bodies over which I stepped gingerly. I was not at all squeamish, the sight of dead men having long lost its terror for me, but making use of corpses, even enemy corpses, for bridge-building purposes seemed about the limit of callousness. The Major said nothing, but stopped to light his pipe on the farther bank of the stream.103
When he got back to the gun-line he saw a sight as characteristic of the artillery battle as widespread lines of men were for the infantry.
A few yards away the guns were incessantly firing, their barrels red-hot, their breechblocks jamming and having to be opened with pickaxes for the next round; the gunners, faces blackened with oil-splashes and smoke, mechanically slamming home the shells and staring sore-eyed through the sights.104
But his spirits lifted as soon as his battery came out of the line.
What did it matter that we were rotten dirty and crawling with lice, that we had not shaved for weeks, that our socks were all in one with our feet and boots, that our clothing stank of cordite and gas and mud, and that we were desperately tired, haggard with fear and nervous with kittens from incessant shell-fire?105
A bath, clean clothes and a visit to the fleshpots of St-Omer proved remarkably restorative. He visited the infamous ‘No. 4’, purely, he assures us, as a spectator. It was
easily as large as the average ‘boozer’ … a wide, thickly carpeted staircase of perhaps half a dozen steps, at the foot of which stood the proprietress of the place, a middle-aged, shapelessly fat woman, with black hair greased down over her forehead … Her skirt terminated half-way to her knee, and was raised still higher as she slipped small bundles of notes into her bulging stocking; the ‘customers’ paying before
One of Haig’s motives for bringing Passchendaele to a conclusion was that Sir Julian Byng, who had taken over 3rd Army when Allenby was sent off to command in the Middle East after the failure of Arras, had produced a plan to attack the Hindenburg line at Cambrai. Brigadier General Hugh Elles, commanding the Tank Corps, and his energetic chief of staff, Lieutenant Colonel J. F. C. Fuller, wanted the chance to let their tanks loose on more favourable ground than Flanders. And Brigadier General Hugh ‘Owen’ Tudor, commander Royal Artillery of 9th Division, had developed a technique of marking artillery targets without the need for pre-battle registration by fire which all too easily gave the game away. Gun positions were precisely surveyed, and the development of flash-spotting and sound-ranging meant that German batteries could also be plotted with accuracy. Although Tudor met with considerable opposition he was backed by Byng, whose plan for a large-scale tank ‘raid’ embodied this ‘new artillery’ which would make surprise possible.
Two of 3rd Army’s corps, supported by 378 fighting tanks and more than 1,000 guns, achieved total surprise when they attacked west of Cambrai on the morning of 20 November 1917. They captured 7,500 men and 120 guns, and pushed more than three miles on a six mile front. In comparison with what had been going on at Ypres, it was indeed a famous victory, and the church bells in England were rung for the first time in the war. But yet again it proved impossible to sustain early promise. Over half the tanks were out of action after the first day, and the fighting focused on a long and bitter struggle for Bourlon Wood. When the Germans counterattacked on 30 November, diving in hard against the shoulders of the salient, they came close to enveloping many of the defenders, but an attack by the Guards Division recaptured Gouzeaucourt and stabilised the situation. In all both sides lost around 40,000 men at Cambrai, and if the British retained part of the Hindenburg line at Flesquières they had lost ground to the north and south. It was a thoroughly unsatisfactory end to a grim year.
There was never much doubt as to what would happen in early 1918. On 11 November 1917 Ludendorff met a select group of advisers at Mons to elaborate plans for the coming year. Their discussions were overshadowed by the knowledge that American entry into the war would eventually change the balance of forces on the Western Front. Although a peace treaty was not to be formally signed till March 1918, Germany could capitalise on Russia’s effective departure from the war by shifting still more troops to the west. In the first months of 1918 the Germans would still enjoy quantitative superiority, and the development of ‘storm-troop’ tactics for the rapid advance of lightly-equipped infantry supported by a swift and savage bombardment would give them a qualitative edge too. Ludendorff was not only convinced that Germany must attack, but that she must attack the British. Victory over the French might still leave Britain in the war, now with the might of the United States at her elbow and able to continue her naval blockade.
Ludendorff’s staff developed several plans, many with suitably Wagnerian names. In the event he decided to use three variants of ‘Michael’, attacking the British from Cambrai to the south of the Somme. The main weight of the blow, which comprised seventy-four divisions attacking on a front of fifty miles, would fall on 5th Army in the south, its front recently extended by taking over more line from the French, taking the British front down to the River Oise. The British army was overextended and short of men. On 1 March 1918 Haig’s infantry was just over half a million men strong, constituting only 36 percent of his total strength instead of the 46 percent it had made up six months before. In January he warned the government that the next four months would be ‘the critical period of the war’. He was not wrong.
The Germans attacked on the foggy morning of 21 March 1918 behind a bombardment of unprecedented weight and ferocity: over 3 million shells were fired in three hours. Lance Corporal William Sharpe of 2/8th Lancashire Fusiliers recounted the effect of the shelling on the young soldiers under his command:
My section included four youths just turned 18 years, who had only been with our company three weeks and whose first experience of shell fire it was and WHAT an experience. They cried and one kept calling ‘mother’ and who could blame him, such HELL makes weaklings of the strongest and no human nerves or body were ever built to stand such torture, noise, horror and mental pain. The barrage was now on top of us and our trench was blown in. I missed these four youths, and I never saw them again, despite searching among the debris for some time.107
When the German infantry loped forward on the heels of the barrage they made good progress on 5th Army’s front, moving like wraiths through the lightly-held forward zone and slipping between the strongpoints of the battle zone. As the front was penetrated, so sinews of command and control were cut and men were fighting blind. Gunner J. W. Gore, behind the line with the administrative echelon of a heavy trench-mortar battery, recorded:
Mar. 21st. Got up and found the attack had started with thousands of gas shells. About mid-day we were told to get all maps and papers ready for burning. The road full of walking wounded and ambulances coming down the line. We made plenty of tea for the poor chaps on the road … Later Bombardier Cartwright came down. He had his jaw tied up and tried to mumble as best he could with what seemed to be a broken jaw that Jerry was advancing and that all our battery except four were killed or captured … Somebody got a GS [General Service] wagon and we put on it our kits and one blanket per man and marched back behind the wagon to Nobescourt, where we slept in a large hut by an ammunition dump. We felt lost and homeless, most of our pals gone and all the stores left behind for Jerry to loot.108
The British lost 38,000 men that day, 21,000 of them taken prisoner. For the next week 5th Army was bundled backwards, and 3rd Army, to its north, gave ground too. On 26 March Haig saw most of his army commanders at Doullens, and was then summoned to a conference in the town hall where Lord Milner, a member of the British War Cabinet, and Sir Henry Wilson, who had replaced Robertson as chief of the imperial general staff, were to meet a French delegation. Pétain, commander in chief of the French army, was characteristically pessimistic, but Ferdinand Foch, a tough-fighting general now serving on the staff, burst out: ‘We must fight in front of Amiens, we must fight where we are now. As we have not been able to stop the Germans on the Somme, we must not now retire a single inch.’109 Haig at once took the cue, saying: ‘If General Foch will give me his advice, I will gladly follow it.’ A paper was drafted giving Foch authority to co-ordinate the Allied armies on the Western Front. He was still something less than commander in chief, and although his powers were later extended he never enjoyed the authority of Eisenhower a generation later. But his strength and determination, rather than any notable tactical or strategic skill, made him the man of the moment, and the coalition braced up in its hour of greatest need.
The Doullens agreement did not win the battle, which still rolled westwards across the Santerre Plateau towards Amiens. On 11 April Haig issued a general order warning that his men had their ‘backs to the wall’, and ‘each one of us must fight on to the end’. High-sounding prose does not always strike the intended chord, and thousands of humorists at once inquired where the wall might be, for they would be glad to see one. On 24/25 April the German advance was checked on the long ridge of Villers-Bretonneux with the spires of Amiens, the crucial railway link between the British and French sectors, in sight on the horizon. In all the Germans had taken more than 90,000 prisoners and 1,000 guns, and had snuffed out all the gains so hard won on the Somme. They had inflicted a very serious defeat on the British army, and recent research suggests that had Ludendorff clearly identified that the offensive’s most valuable objectives were railheads (Amiens in the south and Hazebrouck in the north), the Germans might indeed have broken the Allies on the Western Front, with the French wit
Ludendorff tried again in April, mounting Operation Georgette in the Neuve Chapelle sector, breaking an overextended Portuguese division and knocking another deep dent into British lines. Foch sent French divisions north to replace some exhausted British divisions, and the latter were placed with the French 6th Army on the Chemin des Dames, quiet for a year. It became very unquiet when Ludendorff attacked again in late May, creating yet another large salient. But a pattern was now establishing itself. Each offensive showed less promise than its predecessor, and although the Allies were bent they were not broken. General John J. Pershing, commander in chief of American forces in France, was determined that his men would fight only as a unified force, not scattered under British or French command. But he was prepared to allow them to check the German advance in early June and then to mount a counterattack of their own at Belleau Wood, near Château-Thierry. Ludendorff knew that his time was up: two last attacks, in mid-June and mid-July – the last portentously nicknamed Friedensturm, the Peace Offensive – fizzled out.
The failure of the offensives which had begun with such promise on 21 March was not merely a tactical setback. Ludendorff had correctly recognised that American entry into the war would inexorably swing the balance of numbers against Germany, and his attacks had done nothing to alter that balance. Indeed, if the British had lost heavily in prisoners, the Germans had lost scarcely less heavily in killed and wounded, and Ludendorff’s policy of putting the bravest and the best into assault divisions meant that his losses – over half a million for the first half of the year – fell precisely where he could least afford them.
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