Deception | 17 Sep 1915


One of the more persistent myths about the war, as General Melchett embodies, is the idea that the generals not only refused to believe that their tactics were ineffective, they failed to appreciate the arts of subtlety and deception.  “Would this be the plan that involves getting out of our trenches and walking very slowly towards the enemy?”  (Walking across No Man’s Land will be introduced in time for the Battle of the Somme, and it was a good idea, for reasons which we’ll explore next year.)

This is in exact opposition to the actual situation.  An extensive programme of deception has been put in place by both the French Army and the BEF.  General Joffre has ordered the digging of jumping-off trenches all along the line.  Spurious signals, intended to be intercepted by the Germans, have been sent out, indicating that there will soon be a major British-led offensive north of the River Somme.  They’ve also noticed that the Germans appear to be paying particular interest to the movements of General Petain.  Accordingly, Petain has made a very obvious public visit to the garrison at Nancy, indicating that there will soon be a French attack in that sector of the line instead of at Champagne.

Meanwhile, the BEF is reinforcing the French deception efforts by planning a major diversionary attack in the Ypres salient to recapture the wrecked remains of Hooge Chateau and its large mine crater.  Again, jumping-off trenches are being dug in multiple locations.  I’ve previously mentioned the French using the tactic of suspending preliminary bombardments part of the way through to entice the Germans into coming out of their dugouts so they can be shelled, and so they won’t be able to rely on the bombardment lifting as a signal to come up.  This has now been widely circulated as a recommended tactic among the BEF’s artillery. 

This is also being combined with an extensive programme of “demonstrations”, feint attacks in which the bombardment will alter and the BEF’s machine guns will open fire, as if supporting an attack, in order that the feint be as realistic as possible.  Some units in sectors near the Loos battlefront are also constructing dummy soldiers which will be taken out into No Man’s Land and placed there under cover of smoke; this is becoming known, with the era’s typical racial sensitivity, as a “Chinese attack”.

On a wider scale, the whole of Third Army is being readied to attack in much the same way that First Army is preparing for the Battle of Loos.  They’re stationed at the southern end of the BEF’s bit of line, and arrangements have been made for British guns to support the French at Third Artois.  Should the French achieve a major success, Third Army will then go over the top in support.  If not, its preparations are still useful to disguise the definite push at Loos.

The final major measure being used is that BEF Intelligence is deliberately spreading a vast latrine rumour, designed for German consumption, that the British preparations on land are one gigantic bluff, and in fact the real attack will be a combined British/French/Belgian amphibious landing at Ostend, on the Belgian coast.  Royal Navy cruisers and monitors are preparing to support this deception with a coastal bombardment on the opening day of the autumn offensive.  It’s even very possible that this is why Louis Barthas is currently training at Oost-Cappel; it may well be that his battalion was stationed there in order to suggest that they’d be going to Ostend.  (He, of course, has heard nothing of this possibility, or even that there’s a major autumn offensive being planned.)

Digging in front of Loos

Meanwhile, all Lieutenant Waterlow of the 19th Londons knows is that he’s got a job to do, toot sweet if he wants to stay alive.  A long while ago I talked about the extreme danger to men in No Man’s Land if the enemy should fire some Very lights.  And, indeed…

The policy was for each pair of men [one with a pick, one with a shovel] to dig a hole to get them both as much shelter as possible.  When this was the required depth, the holes would be joined up into a continuous line of bays and traverses.  By a marvellous piece of good fortune, we only had desultory rifle fire from the Boche, in spite of the fact that they were sending up Very lights regularly which seemed to light us up so plainly that we could not fail to be observed.

Waterlow’s men have been scrupulous in adhering to the rule that the best thing to do when lit up is to stand stock still, as movement draws attention.  The stress and horror of having to stand exactly still, barely daring to blink or breathe, while occasional rifle bullets ping and whine across No Man’s Land, almost doesn’t bear thinking about.  However, tonight they’re in luck.

It gave one the impression of standing naked and unable to take cover in front of a vast throng of people.  But it was two hours before they sent any shells over, and by that time the men had dug some cover for themselves.  We got a few salvoes at intervals, but only two men were wounded.  The Boche knew where we were right enough, for the shells landed only a few feet away. It passes comprehension of the Boche mentality why he did not turn on a machine-gun, or even rifle fire, when he definitely knew we were there!

Theirs not to reason why; theirs but to dig and not die.  We’ll be back to see how the 19th Londons get on when it’s time to get stuck in.

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