high_explosiveArtillery at Third Ypres, 1917

This article was inspired by a talk presented to the Yorkshire Branch of the WFA by Rob Thompson

Rob started his talk by reminding us that Logistics and Engineering were at the heart of every battle in the Great War. He also reminded us that Passchendaele means ‘Vale of Passion’, and to refer to the 1917 battle by this name displaces the battle from military history and brings to mind sentimental ideas of loss. Instead he recommended that we refer to the battle as the Third Battle of Ypres, a name which reminds us where the battle fits.

In a deep and empty battlefield, artillery is the major weapon. Guns are lethal, accurate and, as the war progressed, capable of longer and longer ranges. When the infantry crossed the battlefield they would be faced with barbed wire and concrete emplacements. Without artillery to suppress these obstacles, the casualty rate would be too high to be acceptable.

Guns need a continuous supply of shells: in 1914 the 18 pounders fired mainly shrapnel ‘over open sights’ at advancing infantry; by 1917, millions of shells would be required for the offensive and they could only come so far by train. After being unloaded at the rail head, transportation depended on what the engineers had prepared. A light railway was usually considered to be best, but motorised transport on roads was the alternative. When the road finished, pack animals would be used for the final stage.

By 1917, counter-battery fire would be required at the start of any battle to silence the enemy’s guns. Finding the batteries was the left to the royal Flying Corps (RFC) who would use aerial reconnaissance and photography to pin-point the enemy guns which could well be sited ‘over the hill’ (OTH) on the reverse slope.

OTH firing required howitzers, guns the BEF did not have in 1914. The German and French armies had these in abundance, but the British had to commission their building in three types – medium, heavy and super-heavy. By 1915, the artillery was being equipped with these in decent numbers. Look at the figures for 1917, in preparation for the battle of Messines, the figures for 1915 are in brackets: 18 pounders, 3061 (625), 4.4’’ howitzers 948 (116), 60 pounders 480 (28), 6’’ howitzers 732 (32). The BEF also had new guns in the heavy and super-heavy type – 8’’ and 9.2’’ howitzers.

Messines must be seen as the preliminary battle to Third Ypres. It was the ridge which had to be taken before Third Ypres started in order to deprive the German Army of its use as an observation point or as an artillery platform. The battle was to be a limited objective (this meant it had a set objective with no follow up). It was fought on a 17,000 yard frontage with the infantry intending to advance 3,000 yards in 2 stages. It would involve nine divisions (II Anzac Corps, IX Corps, X Corps) with three divisions in reserve. There was an 11 day preparatory bombardment involving 2,200 guns firing over 3.5 million shells (which included 120,000 gas shells and 60,000 smoke shells).  The aim here was deception – the blast, the sound, the gas and the smoke were designed to disorientate the enemy and hide movement of the Allied troops.

Surprise was prepared by registration of the enemy guns by FOO and/or RFC. At 0310 (7 June), the mines exploded under the German lines and the artillery produced a creeping barrage as well as counter-battery fire.  By 1917 there were three types of barrage: creeping, which advanced ahead of the troops; standing, which protected the infantry in position from attack; and combing which moved forward and back to break up counter attacks. These barrages used 18 pounders, howitzers and machine guns. Each would fire at targets separated by 100 yards intervals. Messines was a total victory for the 1917 all-arms battle (artillery, infantry & RFC), but it was only the precursor for the next battle. It took Gough six weeks to prepare his attack after Plumer’s victory at Messines. He has often been criticised for this time delay. Only people who fail to understand Logistics and Engineering hold this view. The guns had to be moved up, roads built, light railway laid and the troops moved into position. Gough was going to attack on a 15 mile front with 17 divisions. He wanted an 18 day preliminary barrage. And he intended to achieve a 5,000 yard advance. Nothing like this had been attempted before.

But the conditions were far from ideal; not only did the weather cause problems but infantry advance faster than artillery can. Congestion on the roads was inevitable as so much movement was expected in such a short time. No one had considered the effect of wear and tear on the guns (so many had to be moved up from the Messines battlefield) but also, there was no surprise. The Germans would have observed so much of the movement and road building that they could prepare their defences.

An example of the problem Gough gave himself can be seen by comparing the Battle for the Pilckem Ridge with Messines:

  • Frontage – 26,000 yards (Messines  was fought over 17,000); Guns 5,000 (Messines used 3,000); preliminary barrage 18 days (Messines took 11 ); shells fired 4 million (Messines used 3 million).
  • At the start of the battle of Pilckem Ridge there was 1 gun for each 12 yards of front, at Messines there was one gun for each 7.5 yards.

To be fair, at the start of the battle for the Pilckem Ridge, 3,000 yards advance was achieved in 3 days. But the infantry had over-reached themselves and the guns could not advance in the extremely wet conditions. Gough had also failed to suppress the German guns on the Gheluvelt plateau (the protective barrage had lacked depth and strength). During 16-18 August, Gough attacked and took Langemarck but still could not advance on the Passchendaele ridge. The artillery preparation was hurried and the men were very tired.

Haig now changed commanders, he instructed Plumer to take over from Gough. Plumer’s plan was to deal with the German guns on the Gheluvelt plateau first. This entailed concentrating his forces on the southern part of the battlefield. He also wanted a sequence of limited operations starting with the Menin Road attack. He took three weeks to prepare during which he had fine weather. His engineers laid roads, built ammunition subparks and brought up the number of shells required. Pack ponies would be needed to cross devastated zones as there could be up to nine miles between the ammunition dump and the guns. Guns were not the weapon, shells are the weapon and guns require a continuous supply. A battery of 18 pounders would require 640 animals to make 4,680 trips to keep it supplied for the preliminary barrage.

To advance, divisional artillery required five miles of road space; a brigade alone would occupy 2,000 -3,000 yards depending on the size and type of gun!

Menin Road,  Polygon Wood and Broodseinde battles were successful. Counter battery fire did neutralise the German guns even though not all of them were destroyed. During the battle of Broodseinde, the artillery smashed a counter attack which had entered no man’s land. After this the battles were less successful – the battle of Poelcappelle (9 October) was a disaster, it did not advance the British line a yard towards Passchendaele. The first attempt to take the Passchendaele ridge (10-12 October) was no more effective. Now  Haig turned from the Anzac Corps to the Canadian Corps for the second battle of Passchendaele. Currie (the Corps commander) insisted on a new plan – a series of 500 yard advances each one prepared with artillery support. This was slow but realistic (time had to be spent repairing roads and tracks, actions which also included extra men). Passchendaele was taken on 10 November.

Earlier failures can only be blamed on mud, congestion and lack of roads. These were inherent problems caused by the sequence of limited operations, they were structural failures. The artillery insisted on moving and destroying roads before they were finished. The Lindsay report of 1917 recommended improvements in co-ordination between engineers, artillery and Corps commanders. All arms co-operation is impossible without co-ordinated engineering.

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