Did the BEF get any better as the Great War progressed from 1914 to 1918? The rapid expansion of the army as the Territorial and New Army Divisions were recruited, trained and sent to France from 1915 onwards has been a 'hot topic' for historians since the war finished. What is obvious is the effect on the expansion of the BEF after the first battle of Ypres (October - November 1914) - a process of de-skilling. The regular army was not large enough to produce the number of experienced officers and NCOs to train the new men. It is easy to criticize the Generals in the early years of the war but, if a fair test is made, did the BEF improve in fighting skills in the face of the enemy? This article is concerned with the 49th (West Yorkshire) Division, a Territorial Division recruited locally in West Yorkshire from Territorial Regiments recruited in the West Riding: the King's Own Light Infantry (KOYLI), the West Yorkshire Regiments, the Duke of Wellington's Regiments and the York & Lancaster Regiments.
The 49th Division was recruited in the West Riding and sent to France in April 1915. It was made up of three brigades:
- 146 Brigade (1/5 West Yorkshire, 1/6 West Yorkshire, 1/7 West Yorkshire and 1/8 West Yorkshire);
- 147 Brigade (1/4 Duke of Wellington, 1/5 Duke of Wellington, 1/6 Duke of Wellington and 1/7 Duke of Wellington); and
- 148 Brigade (1/4 KOYLI, 1/5 KOYLI, 1/4 York and Lancaster & 1/5 York & Lancaster).
If a fair test of the 49th Division's experiences in the Great War is to be used as an examination of the 'learning curve' of the BEF during the Great War, the battles to be compared must have several features in common. In this case they will be dawn attacks on German lines as part of a major offensive.
As part of Fourth Army, the 49th Division was part of Rawlinson's offensive at the start of the Battle of the Somme (July 1916). 49th Division (Commanding Officer: Major-General Sir EM Perceval) was transferred to Gough's Reserve Army (later Fifth Army) and we look at the division's action as part of II Corps' attack on the Thiepval Ridge in September 1916 (part of the Battle of Thiepval, 3 September 1916). The division's attack was on a fortified German position between St Pierre Divion and the Schwaben Redoubt. The objective was to take three lines of German trenches with the objective the Strasburg line. 1/8 West Yorks and 1/6 West Yorks (146 Brigade) attacked to the left of 1/5 Duke of W and 1/4 Duke of W (147 Brigade). In front of 1/5 Duke of W was located a strongly defended German position known as the Pope's Nose. Machine guns sited here could enfilade the entire battlefield. The attacking division on the 49th Division's left (39th Division) had to be successful to prevent enfilading from German positions across the Ancre valley. When this attack was a failure, 1/8 West Yorks were machine gunned from two directions. The pattern of attack was the same in both brigades: two companies up front, a third company behind to leap frog when required and the fourth company to establish positions once they were taken. The artillery barrage began at 0510 on the German front line then, with five minute 'lifts', it would bombard all three German lines. The advancing companies were to follow the barrage as close as they could, but there had been no thought given to counter battery fire. The men advanced in lines. 1/4 Duke of W reached the first line of German trenches which they found destroyed. In fact they took shelter in shell holes when the German barrage opened up. They could not advance any further and pulled back by nine o'clock that morning. 1/5 Duke of W's companies also reached their first objective but machine guns at the Pope's Nose destroyed any further attack. Two communication trenches which ran from the English line to the German line (known tro the attacking troops as KOYLI west and KOYLI east) were not taken and a German communication trench close by was used by the German counter-offensive to feed men and ammunition into their old line to prevent a gap expanding in this front line. 1/5 Duke of W companies pulled back at 0930.
1/6 West Yorks came under shrapnel attack as the German bombardment opened. The second wave of men, who were carrying ammunition and grenades, did not make it to the German line and so the survivors in the first German line were dependent on rifle and bayonet to defend themselves. As they too were enfiladed by the machine guns from the Pope's Nose, they too fell back by 0800 that morning. 1/8 West Yorks were enfiladed by machine guns on their left as well as by the guns at the Pope's Nose. They were counter-attacked by German reserves and pulled back within two and a half hours of advancing.
The number of casualties for the division in this action was 1,728 (of which 471 were killed). The casualty rate amongst officers was 70%.
The criticism of the division after the battle did not include any comments on the plan. Instead the CO, Perceval, the Corps commander and Gough all criticised the troops in the division for failing to follow their officers and the 'lack of martial spirit' amongst the men. The other outcome of this debacle was the sacking of the Brigade commander of 147 Brigade.
With hindsight, the attack failed because of any or all of five reasons:
- there had been no counter-battery action so the men came under shrapnel fire almost immediately;
- there was a high casualty rate amongst officers;
- reserves and the resupplying of the men who reached the German front line was absent;
- men without officers pulled back when they saw men on their flanks pull back;
- most of the men were tired - they had spent the daylight hours of the previous days practising the attack and the nights digging their own jumping-off trenches.
In 1917, 49th Division took part in the Third Battle of Ypres (commonly known as Passchendaele). After Haig had passed the command of the battle from General Gough to General Plumer, 49th Division took part in II Anzac Corps' attack at Poelcapelle on 9 October 1917. This battle at Poelcapelle was the fourth limited attack as Plumer planned to get his army up Passchendaele ridge (the earlier attacks had been along the Menin Road in September, at Polygon Wood September-October and at Broodseinde earlier in October). The advance was the take the men over a featureless terrain. There were no outstanding features to aid the men in finding the direction of attack so the men advanced on compass bearings. The rain had started to fall on the afternoon of 4 October. It did not cease until the day before the battle. The artillery preparations suffered badly from this change in the weather as the guns could not be sited on firm ground and the shells required for the initial bombardment and for the creeping barrage were not arriving in the numbers required as the mules had to carry them up the corduroy line. When the men advanced, they were well armed but not weighed down.
The plan indicated the men were to advance 150 yards behind a creeping barrage. The direction of the advance (across the Stroombeek and up Belle Vue Spur) was up a gentle incline but the Germans had a very strong position above them. Well-sited machine guns at Wolf Farm and on Belle Vue Spur itself gave them the ability to sweep the entire battlefield with machine gun fire. The artillery were intended to fire 50% shrapnel and 50% high explosive with smoke flares to disguise the exact direction of attack. The men had been given SOS flares the call down artillery barrages on German positions which had been missed. In the attack 1/8 West Yorks, 1/7 West Yorks and 1/5 West Yorks of 146 Brigade advanced on the left of 1/5 Yorks & Lancs and 1/4 Yorks & Lancs of 148 Brigade. There had been no aerial spotting since 5 October due to the weather. The men had found the advance to their own lines very difficult - it took them the best part of 11 hours to walk the two and a half miles from where they had been billeted. At 0520 the attack started. The artillery barrage was feeble as the guns slipped back into the mud after firing and had to be resited. The short falls (which became increasingly more common) caused casualties even before the German machine guns opened up. The men crossed the Stroombeek with difficulty, some of the troops had brought up impromptu 'bridges ' to get across. The machine guns at Belle Vue Spur prevented the right hand attack from keeping up. The troops of 146 Brigade were able to take Yetta Houses just in front of their first objective. The gaps between the attacking battalions opened up and there was a very high casualty rate amongst officers and NCOs especially in 148 Brigade. When the German artillery opened up, the reserve battalions were unable to advance. Most of the first objective was taken but advance on the second objective was patchy. Eventually reserves were brought up to consolidate the first objective and to 'dig in' in front of the German wire.
The casualties of the division in this attack were 2585 of which 654 were fatal.
The 49th Division did not come in for specific criticism this time but Major-General Perceval was 'degummed' a week after the battle and replaced with Major-General NJG Cameron.
The general conclusion was the division had found it very difficult to reach their objectives as the state of the ground was appalling and the artillery barrage had been all but insignificant.
As a result of the troop shortages in early 1918, and the subsequent restructuring of the BEF, 49th Division lost three battalions; 146 Brigade lost 1/8 West Yorks, 147 Brigade lost 1/5 Duke of W and 148 Brigade lost 1/5 KOYLI.
49th Division was also involved in the final stages of the '100 Days' offensive in the autumn of 1918. Here 49th Division was part of XXII Corps (First Army). General Horne (GOC First Army) was preparing for the final offensive known as the Battle of the Sambre. 49th Division was positioned between Douai and Mons. In the preparations for the Battle of the Sambre, the German stronghold at Valenciennes had to be 'nipped out'. Horne decided not to hit Valenciennes with an all out attack as there were too many civilians within the area. He decided to attack around the stronghold and force the Germans to withdraw. On 1 November 1918, 49th Division was to attack between the Marly Steel works and the settlement at Preseau. In this advance, the troops would have to cross a river, the Rhonelle, and advance uphill. The GOC 49th Division, Major-General NJG Cameron, decided on a two battalion attack. 1/5 West Yorks (146 Brigade) on the left and 1/6 Duke of Wellington (147 Brigade) on the right. The lead battalions would advance on the final objective and the support battalions would follow up and fill in where needed. The troops set off at 0515 some 150 yards behind a creeping barrage. The men carried six light bridges (each one carried by four men), the artillery were using many more heavy guns than at Thiepval (Poelcapelle is not a fair comparison as the artillery had been so ineffective due to the state of the ground) and machine guns were firing over the heads of the advancing troops. During the crossing of the Rhonelle one of the bridges was lost to German shelling but this did not slow down the advance. The stronghold at Aulnoy on the left of the Intermediate Objective was taken by 0630 and the troops continued to advance on their final objective at the top of the ridge. They were supported in this by some of the Field Artillery which had been able to advance, crossing the river on strengthened bridges, without any problem. The battle was over by 0800 and the division had taken 443 casualties, of which 97 were fatal. The West Yorks had suffered 38% casualties and the Dukes 45%. The battle was a success and the Germans abandoned Valenciennes the following day. The success of the division in this battle was due to accurate artillery fire, combined with effective counter battery fire, and far better trained troops and much improved infantry tactics.
A comparison can be made between shells and casualties for these three battles in which 49th Division was involved.
At Thiepval the attack had been supported by the firing of 10,700 shells, at Valenciennes by over 100,000. (Poelcapelle is not included in this comparison).
Troops involved in each attack:
- Thiepval: 5,000 of which approximately 30% became casualties;
- Poelcapelle 5,000 troops of which approximately 50% became casualties;
- Valenciennes 1,000 troops of which approximately 50% became casualties (though only 55 fatalities occurred in the two leading battalions).
To conclude, did the learning curve of the BEF include 49th Division? Certainly, because lessons were learned, objectives were taken. But the casualties were still high. This is found to be the case in nearly all the attacking divisions during the 100 days.
Article contributed by: Peter J Palmer.
This article is based on talk given by Derek Clayton to the Yorkshire Branch of the WFA. The talk was recorded, and can be found in the WFA Website's Video Resources.