Troops in the Boer War used linear tactics largely unchanged since Wellington. Any revised infantry tactics were in their infancy prior to 1914. When the German armies advanced into Belgium in 1914, they presented a simple target to the BEF when they reached the Battle of Mons. They advanced en masse, expecting the weight of their numbers to carry the day.
The BEF were then involved in the retreat from Mons, the Battle of Le Cateau, the stopping and reversal of the German advance with allied attacks on the Aisne and the Marne. There followed the so-called 'race to the sea', the outflanking attempts which ultimately led to defensive, entrenched positions from the Belgium coast to the Alps. By the time the first battles of 1915 had been fought, over 96% of the original BEF were casualties. This had a knock-on effect with training the new Kitchener men who were swelling the New Army ranks in their thousands. The natural trainers amongst the NCOs and officers were already war casualties; the 'Kitchener Army' men had to be trained by older men from the reserves known as ‘dug outs', usually Boer War veterans. By the time 1915 had been reached, new ideas in infantry training were lost on the battlefields of Northern France and Belgium. The new men were trained in Boer War tactics.
With the British Army of 250,000 undergoing an expansion to 1.6 million, the training was going to have to be ‘in the field' and was going to take a long time.
Take the advance onto an enemy trench: the infantry would be about 150 yards behind the barrage. When the barrage on the trench lifted, the infantry had three or four minutes to rush the trench. Any machine guns still in the trench and not suppressed by the artillery could now take their toll.
Hence trench deadlock.
Training Manual SS 143 summarised the new infantry tactics: there were now to be specialist weapon operatives in every platoon. The Lewis gunner could now suppress machine gun fire during the advance and then the rifle grenadier and the bomber could ensure the enemy were kept further away as the infantry advanced. The use of the 18 pound field gun added to these tactics. It had a range of 6,500 yards and would be positioned 1,000 yards behind the infantry as they advanced. The advance would be a 3,000 yard bite and hold operation. With their range they could suppress German counter-attacks from 1,500 yards behind the target. But any further advance required the guns to come forward. This was not an easy task as first the horses had to be brought forward and harnessed (sometimes whilst under fire). Not only the guns but the ammunition had to advance. If the ground was too cut up, the engineers would be brought up to advise.
The first example of meticulous planning using new methods was the Canadian Corps' attack on Vimy Ridge in April 1917. The Canadian Corps (part of Horne's First Army) were supporting the Third Army attack during the Battle of Arras. Under Byng, the Canadian Corps showed what could be done: the planning of a creeping barrage together with surprise and good training (down to the junior commanders) led to a successful assault on the ridge. The Canadians were able to fight through to take their objective before re-organizing to defend against counter-attacks.
In the Second Army, Plumer & Harrington encouraged innovation, their hallmarks were training, trust and thoroughness. Their attack on Messines in June 1917 showed the beneficial effects of good preparation with troops who trusted their superior officers.
Examples of successful attacks could be found in nearly all 1917 battles: during the Third Battle of Ypres, Plumer's preparation for the assault on Menin Road, on Polygon Wood and Broodseinde were all examples of the new practice. The Canadian Corps under Currie had a successful attack on Lens (Hill 70) in August 1917; this latter battle was important as it was Currie's first since taking over the Corps from Byng.
However, these new tactics did not take into account the change in the weather. October brought rain and new problems. During the first attacks on Passchendaele ridge on 12 October 1917, Godley's attack with the New Zealand division advanced through the mud without adequate artillery (the guns could not be brought to bear because of the mud). As a result they failed to take their objectives and the Australians on their right had to retreat when enfiladed from the untaken lines.
Currie's preparation for the final battle for the Passchendaele ridge was much more thorough. He demanded a longer preparation time than Godley and, in the two weeks he was allowed, artillery were brought up in sufficient number and were correctly sited for the final battle. His plan was to advance in small steps; this meant that bite and hold tactics were back in force.
In 1918, the German attacks used stormtroopers against an elastic defence. By withdrawing and training their best men as stormtroopers, the German attack was prone to a weakness not seen in the BEF. In the BEF training had been universal and through this the BEF had a higher morale. At the Battle of Amiens in August 1918, the BEF brought the 'all arms' battle to the Western Front, something that would not have been foreseen in an amateur army. But then this amateur army had been trained to professional level in three years by experience in the field.
This article is based on a talk given by Chris Pugsley to the Yorkshire branch of the WFA.
Contributed by Peter J Palmer
"Canadians on Vimy Ridge" courtesy Wikimedia
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