Tactics and myths | 14 Jun 1916

Battle of Mont Sorrel

The Germans launch more obligatory counter-counter attacks today, but they’re short of men and the Canadians see them off with relative ease. And so the Battle of Mont Sorrel comes to an end. It seems only a minor affair, and had it happened in, say, the Vosges, I doubt anyone would ever have written about it in English. Casualties are light enough; about 8,000 Canadians (including one of our correspondents) and 5,000 Germans.

However, it (or something like it) is a very important data point in showing the reputation that the Canadian Corps is starting to build for itself. It’s also vital in showing that yes, British Empire generals and staff officers are capable of original thinking and of using new tactics and concepts. The effectiveness of Behaviour Modification has now been well and truly proven on the Western Front. Its use will quickly become standard in planning any offensive, and most of the artillery commanders on the Somme will incorporate brief lifts into their preliminary barrages.

Speaking of which…

Battle of the Somme

The battlefield tactics of the BEF at the Somme have, to say the very least, taken a little stick from the observers of the future. “Would this brilliant plan involve us climbing out of our trenches and walking very slowly towards the enemy?” Then follow machine guns, slaughter, and a crack battalion of officer-poets, champing at the bit to tell future generations how uniquely horrific it all was.

Let’s talk about walking across No Man’s Land, shall we? It does seem at first glance to be the most ridiculous idea. Everyone knows what a charge looks like. Besides, why would the generals want their men to be exposed to enemy machine-gun fire for longer than absolutely necessary? Stands to reason that you go over the top and then you run as fast as you bloody well can. If only it were that simple. In fact, advancing at a steady walk is in fact an extremely defensible concept.

For one thing, after you’ve crossed No Man’s Land, you then have to go into the enemy trench, and you’ll probably need to fight to get control of it. Would you rather arrive there breathing through your hoop after a 100-yard sprint, or does it not make more sense to walk and then fight with full lungs? Would you rather walk and be sure of your footing, or sprint and risk tripping and falling into a shell-hole, and get laughed at? It doesn’t matter if this means the men are out in No Man’s Land for a minute or two longer than they should be. They shouldn’t be vulnerable to enemy machine-guns.

The assumption is that the days-long prepatory bombardment (more on that in a moment) will either kill all the enemy, or at least mean they won’t immediately come out of their dugouts after your own guns stop firing, and your men can then get across No Man’s Land unscathed. Walking also helps keep the men in order. In theory, men can be deposited into the enemy trench all at once; it’s much easier to keep them together if they’re all walking at a steady clip than if everyone’s sprinting as fast as they can.

Now, this doesn’t mean that the battlefield tactics were perfect. Here’s one way in which they made a balls-up, though it came with the best of intentions. Previous offensives have all seen horrific communication problems, right? It’s taken half a day, or more, to establish communications with higher command, denying them an accurate picture of what’s going on. In the meantime, the men are struggling to prepare their newly-won trenches to be attacked from the wrong side, and without proper defences in place, they take far more casualties than they need to while fending off counter-attacks.

So, in their wisdom, the BEF has decreed that every wave of men, including the first, will go into battle hauling all the shit they might need before, during, and after capturing their objectives. This adds up to between 60 and 80 pounds of gear. (It also makes another excellent reason to walk across No Man’s Land instead of running.) Signalling equipment, stakes, barbed wire, you name it, they’re going over the top with it. This is fine as long as you’re going to arrive in a trench defended only by corpses. If not, you’re going to be at a severe disadvantage in hand-to-hand fighting, or in throwing grenades, or in doing much of anything, with all this stuff on your back.

Back to the artillery. Good news: some bright spark has figured out that counter-battery fire, artillery fire aimed at the enemy’s guns to suppress or destroy them, is going to be of critical importance. The more the defenders can be prevented from calling in their own guns to call in supporting fire, the better. However, finding out where the enemy guns actually are is far from easy. Even with the aid of aerial superiority, trying to hit a target as small as an individual German gun from six miles away is not unlike trying to score a hole-in-one in golf. The gunners lack experience of attempting such precision shooting.

In fact, with the rapid expansion of the army, many gunners simply lack experience, full stop. Their commanders, by and large, are also a few steps beyond the latest French artillery theories. General Nivelle has just succeeded in getting his new “rolling barrage” theories accepted as French Army doctrine, and a few of the most forward-thinking British artillerymen are eager to try them out. But, as ever with new ideas, there’s considerable resistance to them. And this is not entirely unreasonable, either.

The current approved British technique is the lifting barrage: the guns target one German trench, then just before the infantry are due to attack the barrage leaves that trench and goes on to the next one. Meanwhile, the infantry occupy the trench and assemble to attack the next one before the barrage lifts off it. There is an obvious point of failure here; if the timetable breaks down, the infantry gets to attack without their artillery support and they’re boned. But still, at least the guns are always firing on the enemy trenches. It’s simple and it’s very intuitive.

By contrast, a rolling barrage starts in No Man’s Land and then slowly walks forward onto the enemy trench, advancing at (say) 200 yard-intervals every minute, and then rolls off it and through to the next trench. The men follow as close behind as possible, and fall on the enemy before they can come out of their shelters. I can imagine the objections now. “What happens when Tommy Atkins loses his head and runs into his own shells, old boy?” “Why the devil would you waste time shelling open ground instead of places where the enemy are, bigads?” (Those questions will be answered later.)

In any case, in the BEF there is currently no Grand High Poobah of artillery; each corps and division commander will have to make his own plan. A couple of the more forward-thinking men will be able to try out a rolling barrage. But most of the infantry will be stuck with the old lifting barrage. And on top of all this, more and more gunners are starting to notice that their guns appear “tired” with constant use. Their fire is becoming less accurate. This is because the gun barrels are beginning to wear out, and each gun’s pattern of wear is different. When you have a battery of four guns all trying to shoot into the same spot, this is less than ideal…

Conclusions. The BEF’s battlefield tactics are not as bad as Blackadder would have you believe. Certainly they were far better when compared to what, say, the Italian Army was perpetrating on its own men at this point in the war. However, they were far from perfect, and some of their shortcomings materially affected the blokes’ ability to fight effectively. Of which more later.

Edward Mousley

Let’s now have a belated catch-up session with Captain Edward Mousley, last seen being shipped down the River Tigris in squalid conditions with a serious spinal injury. He’s since been forced to march 250 miles through the desert in midsummer, from Baghdad to Mosul. Many have not survived. There has been little food and less water.

The impression of life in Mosul is bad. We have some rooms in an appalling dirty barracks among gangs of Kurds in chains. Every day or so one of these is hung. Down below in the basement our men are dying wholesale. They are the survivors of previous columns. We have been compulsory guests of a Turkish officers’ club. They charged us three times as much as the town did, and generally neglected us.

General Melliss, however, told us to-day to go to the town. We quoted his high authority freely and went to a most excellent little Italian restaurant. The proprietor was from Naples, and we had some conversation of his old haunts. He did us very well and quite reasonably, actually cashing a cheque or two for us.

Hopefully there’ll be some room in among the battles of high summer to keep up with him.

Neil Fraser-Tytler

Lt-Col Fraser-Tytler takes us on a quick tour of his guns’ observation post, which acts as the gunners’ eyes.

In order to facilitate communication, seven or eight batteries are using the same disused trench for their OPs. Out of this trench, each pair of batteries has tunnelled a narrow T-shaped passage, which has to be negotiated for about 25 feet on hands and knees. The head of the T forms the double OP, consisting of two 15-foot shafts, terminating at ground level in an iron dome. When, already covered in the slime from the journey through the tunnel, the observer struggles up the tiny shaft and eventually reaches the little seat in the top, he discovers that he is now all mud – the shaft being nearly as sticky as the tunnel.

John Nunn [of a neighbouring battery] shares my tunnel. Imbert Terry and Fullerton are two other tenants of these “very desirable OPs”. The telephonists sit at the bottom of the shaft and pick up the things I drop. In spite of all our precautions to hide the slits and the domes, I fear they look painfully obvious when viewed from our front line.

Preparations continue.

E.S. Thompson

E.S. Thompson is still trying to heal as quickly as possible.

Had a wash. Aeroplane went out and was fired at but it managed to drop some bombs. Our artillery started bombarding the enemy and later on the far-off, long-range gun of the Germans replied. … Tried to stand but my ankle and leg are too weak so had to give it up. Leg getting on famously but it has got much thinner than my right leg. During the night a native and one of the 7th Regiment by name of McCrae died, both of dysentery. McCrae’s was another case of neglect.

And the African porter’s death was what? Not worth speaking of, apparently.

Maximilian Mugge

Maximilian Mugge has been seen by a doctor (again) and put on permanent light duty on account of his heart. Fortunately, even in the Non-Combatant Corps there is the need to push paper around at a rate of knots. This does give him the chance to make another very, very interesting point.

My work now is either in the Company Office, where I am ruling innumerable “Daily Parade States,” “Medical Inspection Sheets,” “Non-payment of Allotment Forms,” and other highly important documents, or I am fetching our letters from the harbour post-office.

The Army has one advantage which in its educational value equals that of travelling. One comes into contact with hundreds of different individuals, a great variety of intellects, faiths and follies. The enormous difficulty and complexity of administration in view of the vastness of the phenomenon called Mankind, can be realised.

OK, quick digression from the war. Feel free to scroll down to the next quotation. I’m only going down this road because Mugge’s pointed it out.

In Britain we have a political concept, the “post-war consensus”. Briefly, this was an unspoken agreement between left and right, Labour and Conservative, in favour of things like a strong and extensive welfare state, and nationalised industries not run strictly for profit. It lasted from 1945 to 1980; a 35-year period that coincides exactly with the prime of life for a generation for whom an extremely large number of men had either gone to war or who had done National Service in the 1950s. In the 80s came policies thought up by the next generation, a generation who hadn’t had that collective experience of being forced to meet people across social and class boundaries.

I disagree utterly with peacetime conscription, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the further we get from it, the more detached from the concerns of ordinary people the upper classes have become. For about 20 years, young upper-class men were forced to interact with people from different backgrounds; even though many of them became officers, they weren’t able to completely silo themselves away in public schools and elite universities and exclusive jobs. Perhaps there should be some kind of universal civilian service obligation? I seem to recall Mugge giving me happy thoughts about the Sewage Battalion a while back…

Never before have I perceived so clearly the awful stupidity of man in the mass and the need of education. More and better teachers are wanted. I am not blaming the present educators. Considering the handicap of low salaries, as far as the rank and file of their profession is concerned, considering the dreadful obstacles of bad housing and poverty in general that constantly neutralise their work, the men and women engaged in teaching are more unselfish and devoted than the members of any other meliorist profession.

It is the damnable ignorance of slimy, fat and unctuous shopkeepers, and the reactionary policy of the junker-class in every European country, that are responsible for the poor results of education and the awful stupidity of the men.

I’m trying very hard not to accuse him of being a champagne socialist, not least because the phrase (probably) hasn’t been invented yet, and in any case I don’t know whether he drinks champagne. Still, he’s wandering uncomfortably close to People’s Front of Judea territory here. On with that lovely war, I suppose.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Battle of Verdun
Battle of Asiago
Battle of Mont Sorrel
Brusilov Offensive
Battle of Mecca
Siege of Medina

Further Reading

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