As we surely all know, proper preparation & planning prevents piss poor performance. Let’s see how that’s going, with the autumn offensive on the Western Front now only ten short days away.
Second Champagne and cavalry
Yes, I said cavalry. One of General Castelnau’s takeaways from the thwarted advance at Second Artois (over Vimy Ridge and then back again) is not just that reserves were held too far back in general, but that cavalry was held too far back in particular. Extensive aerial photography has revealed that while the trench system immediately opposite is strong and deep, the two reserve German positions (three miles and nine miles behind the front) have only a simple line without any depth to it, and that much of it seems not to have been fully excavated yet.
He’s also developed a far more practical goal for the cavalry than simply “drive into the enemy’s rear”. In a concept that’s also quickly been adopted for Third Artois, the cavalry will specifically attempt to capture and destroy German artillery pieces before they can be withdrawn further to the rear. They’ve been doing intensive training exercises on how to cross trenches and broken ground while still on horseback.
If the initial infantry attack can create a rupture, and if accurate news of that can reach the rear quickly enough, there’s every chance of achieving something with this autumn offensive. But, as we’ve already seen in 1915, those are two gigantic ifs. Success is far, far from guaranteed.
Battle of Loos
Preparations for the Battle of Loos continue also in the BEF sector. They’re now just starting the process of sapping forward from their fire trenches and listening posts to create jumping-off trenches in No Man’s Land for the men to gather before they go over the top. Lieutenant Waterlow of the 19th Londons is in charge of one small part of the vast effort.
Our job was a somewhat ticklish one. The whole battalion was to go up the line armed with picks and shovels, file out along the various saps extending into No Man’s Land, and spread out along a line about 250 yards in front of our front line, where patrols usually only crawled about on their stomachs. We were then to dig a new front line, which would be marked out in white tape by the Engineers.
We had instructions to carry on with the digging, no matter how heavy the casualties might be. They were expected to be fairly heavy, because the London Irish had been digging the new line the previous night in the sector to our right. With the new trench running in a straight line and then suddenly ending “in air”, it should have been obvious to the Boche during the day what our game was.
This is rather a long story, and we’ll continue it tomorrow, when we’ll also have a look at the considerable programme of deception that’s being used by the BEF and the French. No, they’re not just witlessly hanging neon signs over the trenches at Loos saying “HEY MR FRITZ WE’RE GOING TO ATTACK HERE, OK?”
Meanwhile, Bombardier Alex Dunbar of the Royal Field Artillery has just arrived in the Loos sector with his battery, and he’s been given a special job of work.
My gun was detached from the battery and was to be used only on the day of the attack for cutting the enemy’s wire. For this to be effective the gun had to be taken as near to the target as possible, so that the trajectory of the shrapnel shell would be almost parallel to the ground when the shell burst, so as to do the maximum damage to the wire.
About a mile in front of the battery was a row of partly demolished houses, and their backs looked across open ground to the German trenches. Between the front lines was a distance of about sixty yards. One of these houses had a ground-floor room intact and from the corner of the house, we could look straight through to the wire about four hundred yards away.
My gun was brought up at night, and after cutting through the back wall of the room we positioned it facing the back corner. We then made a right-angled frame of wood and covered this with canvas, painted to resemble bricks. We cut out the bricks in the corner and replaced them with our dummy. I went out to the front line the next day, and I couldn’t tell our dummy wall from the bricks, even with binoculars. That was on 15 September, it was my birthday, and I was very pleased.
I absolutely love these stories of cunning and ingenuity, you have no idea how much. We’ll be coming back to Dunbar a few times also; he has some very interesting observations on what happened next.
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