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14th June 1917

 

This was a drama set on the last day of the Messines battle.

 

I'm going to go through the key sources as usual, and then below them I've subbed some thoughts from my research that I hope you might find interesting.

 

The two key books directly about Messines itself were PILLARS OF FIRE by Ian Passingham, and Alexander Turner's MESSINES 1917, the maps and perspective views in the latter being the starting point for what I understand about the battle: the Osprey people really have this sewn up. Peter Oldham's MESSINES RIDGE helped me re-walk the area in my head, although the action of the play took place north of Messines itself, befitting a play as much about Ypres as Messines.

 

The key books for signalling were of course Nalder and Priestley. Jack Sheldon's GERMAN ARMY IN THE SPRING OFFENSIVES OF 1917 was as good as any other in his mighty canon, the Official History was as precise as ever about the British Army, but naturally lacked a New Zealand perspective. For this I went to THE NEW ZEALAND DIVISION by Stewart of the 2nd Canterbury's which you can read in the IWM Library, and the 2nd Canterbury's itself which you can find here. Those two covered me for the 14th June, but if you heard the play you'll know how grateful I was to Christopher Pugsley for his updating of TE HOKOWHITU A TU, the MAORI PIONEER BATTALION IN THE FWW, which gave me a tremendous start on these lesser known units.

 

The Royal Engineers and their work - the collision and adaptation required between construction, supply and destruction - has always fascinated me. I got FORWARD COMMUNICATIONS as part of the RE history and it is brilliantly evocative of how to build roads, fill trucks, operate battlefield trams - so much so you feel you could pop out and make a start immediately. NO LABOUR, NO BATTLE by John Starling and Ivor Lee took me inside the Labour Battalions, and KW Mitchinson's PIONEER BATTALIONS IN THE GREAT WAR did the same for the Pioneers.

 

I also got a insights for 14th June itself from the 25th Division War Diaries at all levels in the National Archives. Their GHQ WD paid detailed attention to the engineering and consolidation effort after the 7th, with an interesting pecking order for roads - make them mule-possible in the first instance then steadily upgrade them for wheeled traffic. They are also to be seen building the tramways. Note how they are doing this while operations at the front are being undertaken: the confidence they are relatively 'safe' is apparent. The 25th Division HQ RE War Diary has a summary showing a split beginning between what is required at the front and what they must do in the rear areas.

 

And now for what is probably not the world's best laid out essay. I pay tribute twice in it and I'll do it again here to the mind of Rob Thompson and my interpreation of his excellent analysis of the RE in this period. And when I'm not working on the next series I'll come back and try to tidy it up:  

 

"I love signalling as a tool for us to delve deep into WW1, and indeed signalling gets a look-in during this episode. But this is a drama about a vital service that we have never focussed on before, the Engineers.

 

As I will go into more detail below, this arm is filled with characters who have an utterly different take on the war to those who preceded them. We know about the civilians in khaki who were slaughtered on the Somme. These characters represent something new – a whole mind-set of the industrial age and its processes and systems. Managing an industrial organism was the very essence of these men. They've managed the growth of the industrial Empire for the decades before the war. At the front this means the officers are now managers of a workforce Army.

 

If we can get this notion across we will have defeated the lazy idea that the Army took on many civilians and won the war. Instead we will show that the Army became a civilian institution, which is a different thing.

 

And not, as we shall see, without opposition.

 

The Engineers were the keys to the isolated and strikingly successful attack on Messines, a one-day operation in which all the objectives were gained. They were allowed to prepare properly for it, and they did. Messines, June 7th, stands almost alone as an attack exactly contrary to every myth about the drawn-out grind of WW1.

 

Contained in this drama is the story of that attack, but just as importantly we throw forward to the cack-handed way in which the dictates of Personalities, Time and Money meant that the next operation, the Third Battle of Ypres, was doomed to fail.

 

It was not a question of dash, as our Canadians at Vimy might have had it, but of planning. Boring planning. Planning so dull that no-one wanted to listen to the Engineers who knew that from the times of Agincourt and Waterloo the battlefields of Belgium have always meant mud. Planning so dull we are going to admit that and put it front and centre of this drama.

 

The failure of the Allied attack in the second half of 1917 at Third Ypres - more emotively known as Passchendaele, and accurately recalled as a mudbath – is always attributed to the rain. But we are going show that the Engineers knew this and had planned and accounted for it at Vimy and Messines. The very philosophy of 'Bite and Hold' stipulated not stepping beyond the range of guns, and of roads. And with a plan to build the latter where needed.

 

So the answer to mud is not curse the weather. It is to avoid shelling an area to destruction, and to plan to build roads. (Compare the Danish saying, "there is no such thing as cold weather, just inadequate clothing".)

 

And with those apogees of 'Bite and Hold' Vimy and Messines costing billions there was a question whether any objective could ever be worth that strain on the national economy. We only paid off the final loans for the WW1 after all in March 2015.

 

So while the sound of the bells rung in Britain for the Messines attack had barely faded, the Engineers wanted to take action, move to the next location and do their preparatory work properly.

So our Engineer character's problem remains an under-resourced window of time to shift all the men and all the artillery and all the logistical support north to the Ypres starting line. On the map, Messines/Ypres is a measly seven miles. But in terms of time, it is a bewildering transport puzzle using very few roads and railways over which whole armies have to be shifted, and therefore took seven weeks. 14th June falls early in that timeframe, but those seven weeks of boiling sunshine gave the Germans adequate time to prepare because the British intention had been signalled by Messines. Seven weeks also used up a vast tranche of the summer needed for fighting. The day the British attacked, 31st July, the rain started falling. But the death toll at Passchendaele was assured before the first drop fell.

 

I couldn't get it into this episode because I ran out of time but one of the myths of Ypres is that it was a sea of continuous mud. In fact, there were weeks-long periods when the sun shone again so hard that shells ricocheted off hardened earth and clouds of dust became a serious problem.

 

A bit of background. Many's the time in TOMMIES we've stressed the British are the junior partners to the French on the Western Front. And with the French centre of gravity being Verdun, this has meant British battles have been fought towards the south of the British zone of operations - on the Somme for example.

 

For preference, the British always wanted to fight towards the north around Ypres because here the Germans threatened the Channel ports on the coast on which Britain's European trading future depended.

 

You'll notice that they wanted to fight at Ypres, when you might think they wanted to forestall the Germans along the actual coastal belt next to the Channel ports themselves. There are two reasons for apparently fighting in the wrong place.

 

The first is that operations are rarely about the place from which they are launched: whenever we say 'Ypres' we should say 'Roulers'. Because the Belgian town of Roulers (10 miles behind German lines) is the rail and road junction of the entire flatland of Belgium. If you can take that, you've taken back the entire country, more or less (the equivalent at this time in Britain might have been Crewe).

 

Secondly, the coastal strip was already flooded in part, and the actual coastal town which sat at the 'junction', Nieuport, straddled the two front lines running south to the Swiss border and had been concreted on both sides to within an inch of its life. It could only be attacked if the Germans were already comprehensively wilting elsewhere.

 

So 1917 begins as the Somme and Verdun battles have just ended. The generals concerned are back-burnered, and the new French commander is Nivelle. Today we can look back on Nivelle and wonder how anyone could believe a man who said that even though there had just been a 1916 of deadlock, his new Spring 1917 offensive would break through, although we have seen entire countryies recently pivoted on a few dodgy assertions, so who is to mock?

 

The attack on Arras on the southern end of the British line was in support of Nivelle. It was a 'Bite and Hold' (B&H) operation: only advance as far as your artillery can protect your men. It was remarkably successful, only to become a drawn out catastrophe when Nivelle's operation failed and British soldiers had to be poured into Arras in the old military style just to keep the Germans from wiping the French off the map.

 

1917 sees the French army mutiny to the point where they barely hold the line, and indeed they didn't attack in their sector seriously for the rest of the year. Why the Germans did not exploit this is one of the mysteries of the war.

 

Meanwhile the British felt a sense of skittish freedom to go fighting where they actually wanted to - Ypres. (Sorry, Roulers.) To this end they launched the B&H operation at Messines, because that piece of high ground dominated the area. With no need to compromise the end of the operation to go off and support the French, they could prepare for the next step, which was to attack Roulers from the jumping off points round Ypres. They could also simultaneously attack in the north.

 

I'm not going to go into the Belgian Coast attack here because it'll muddy this story, and I go into it in far more detail for the 21st June webpage.

 

A few words on the Messines operation.

 

In the artillery run-up the British had dominated the skies, keeping German spotter planes away. There was a sophisticated airborne early warning network, built up from Mickey's early efforts up the Eiffel Tower with Miss Softley. Now they had a level of office-style co-ordination to quickly assess German wireless traffic to decide where German aircraft were headed. They then vectored British aircraft who were permanently standing by to attack them.

 

Plumer used aircraft flying low over the British lines to disguise the noise of the tanks being brought up, and deployed his tanks to crush the barbed wire that used to be the job of the long barrage. He also used the 36-man platoon with the subdivided support sections (Lewis guns, bombers etc) that we saw at Vimy. 12 Divisions attacked in total, so you are looking at about 200,000 blokes.

 

The attack went in on 7th June 1917. Nineteen massive mines were exploded at 0310 under the German front line. This was truly a Shock and Awe moment (heard in London etc etc). Interestingly, the soldier diarists refer to the hurricane bombardment that followed as being louder and more terrifying.

 

Aircraft again – it wasn't an absolute first, but the RFC attacked ground targets with their machine guns as a matter of policy.

After a highly successful first move forward (it was five or ten minutes before the Germans recovered to shell them), there was two hour pause at 0500 to bring up shells and allow for gun barrels to cool, and the tanks to catch up with the advance.

 

There was a bizarre spin-off of the early success at this point. So many men had survived the first attack, the slopes of Messines were crowded with too many men to take cover from the admittedly desultory shelling the Germans were able to muster. The killing of these British soldiers was seen as the solo failure in an otherwise excellent day's work, although there was a bit of traditional friendly fire in the mix later as well.

 

The final objectives were then taken by an 0700 attack.

 

There was a gruesome blunder later that day by the Germans. Normally we expect to read about British commanders throwing the wrong men into an attack and seeing them wiped out: it's sort of their mythic speciality. But Messines was the turn of the Germans. We've read many times about their practised counter-attack specialists. But for Messines the Germans put these valuable men into the line a few days before as regular replacement troops and they were wiped out in the attack. The Germans then got raw troops with no experience of counter-attacking skills and put them into the, you guessed it, counter-attack. It was a massacre on both occasions.

 

The next week was spent consolidating the position, a rather bland sentence normally, but we are now sensitive to the notion that road repairs and mending shattered drainage systems was a priority, even as proper military operations continue right up to the 14th June, as we shall see.  

 

So what was happening today, June 14th?

 

The operation was continuing towards the southern end of the Messines front. This was in the hands of II ANZAC Corps. This corps consisted of four divisions as we have learned to expect, and as usual the name belies the actual make-up of the unit. They were the British 25th Division, the New Zealand Division, and the 3rd and 4th Australian Divisions.

 

So we begin events on June 14th 1917 with a myth-busting notion if ever there was one: today was going to be a major follow-up attack to take a German line of trenches called the Oosttaverne Line. The big Messines attack had assumed we could take a trench line on a bit of high ground just before this and overlook it. But once the advance was made, we realised it was going to have to be the Oosttaverne Line (which was still higher) or labour at a disadvantage. But get this: the Germans voluntarily fell back off the higher ground as part of their bigger consolidation after the Messines attack. So the British didn't wait until the 14th, they moved forward on the 12th.

 

So in the 14th we find the Anzac corps consolidating their Oosttaverne Line and pushing out advanced posts. At least that's what it says in the bland communiques.

 

2nd Canterbury have actually had an awful preceding night, but what we see apart from localised problems is an operation which is a micro-Messines which is helpful for our story. They put down a crushing artillery attack (both a standing and creeping barrage) and they take their objectives. It starts at 2030 with a coordination exercise with the supporting RFC aircraft and is all over by 2200.

 

So who were this different sort of men in the Royal Engineers and other support battalions?

 

By 1917 there had been a complete reorganisation of the culture within the British Army. Indeed, you could say that as most soldiers were now overwhelmingly civilians in khaki suits, the 'military' army had ceased to exist. Now civilians brought their mind-sets to solving military problems.

 

Anyone who follows the fate of the British Army and its logistics problems in 1917 will recognise the huge debt I own to Rob Thompson for the following thoughts, though all errors of interpretation are my own.

 

Before 1914 the military had been about courage and dash overcoming machine guns and trenches. Now the recruits knew that to be insanely untrue – the casualty lists proved it.

It was now a struggle between the productivity of the Midlands versus the productivity of the Ruhr. And the war on the ground would be about the most judicious application of the products of those industries.

 

Take the example of the steely field gunner of old as the cavalry galloped towards him, as opposed to the mathematician now required to sight a howitzer shelling a grid reference without ever seeing the target. This was now the combination of systems technology and industry on the battlefield, where the weight of firepower and integration was what won battles.

 

Another example. Take the very expression 'machine gun': is it a 'machine' or is it a 'gun'? The MG's task these days is to provide indirect covering fire at very long range to stop an enemy regrouping after a B&H attack. 'Machines' need engineers with clean hands to sight them and keep them operating. 'Guns' need those derring-do boys facing down that cavalry charge. There was no glory any more, just tasks.

 

(This might be the moment to introduce the idea of the two different machine guns of WW1. We all know the heavy tripod mounted and water-cooled MG invented by Maxim that was used by both sides – you can almost see it in your mind's eye with a crew mowing down the enemy rank on rank. It is this sort of MG that is now tasked in 1917 to lay down a barrage at anything up to two miles range. The other sort of MG is the one that both sides developed during the war for infantry to take into battle with them: in the British case this was the Lewis Gun. This would appear to us to be a big fat rifle, carried by one man, with a blokey helper carrying the 47-round magazines that could be automatically fired in bursts. When we read about every platoon having an MG section it is to the Lewis Gun that it refers.)  

 

And the task philosophy applied in defence. We've talked many times about the Germans changing their defence method to a looser system of outposts and killing zones rather than rigid trench lines. This was an admission on their part that the machines would have to take over the jobs that humans used to do. Let the barbed wire, the MG's and the artillery take on the enemy: keep your own blokes back directing the slaughter, not actually trying to get involved in it.

 

The battlefield was rapidly becoming a municipal area, where people went to work. The trench was not just a safety measure, it became a place where the soldier laboured just like his job back in Blighty. You continually read in War Diaries how men went off on endless fatigue parties and "knocked off at 4 and got back to billets". These were men who commuted to work, and their officers were their managers.

 

The front line area was a city under permanent construction -- it is not a martial place. Indeed, anything the military types destroy will only have to be built again: you can shell the enemy's rear areas all you like, but it'll be muggins who has to go in after the attack and rebuild them. If the area is prone to flooding, then it becomes a war of drainage, just like any town if once every six months you carefully destroyed the drains and sewers and run-offs.

 

One of the reasons Geddes (the civilian rail supremo brought in reorganise the railways) was so successful was he shifted everything – men, shells and horses – just the same. It was all freight to him. The attack from Ypres was not to kill members of the German army as Wellington had to actually kill members of Napoleon's army, it was to capture his means of transportation centred in Roulers.

 

Messines was a highly organised affair, using massed artillery. It was a standard measurement of the time to say how close the guns were along the line, and for Messines it was the still visually arresting One Gun Per 7.5 Yards, or 2666 in total. This included heavies precisely tasked to take out specific strongpoints.

 

They fired a preliminary bombardment of 144,000 tons of shells. My friends, that is one ton per second. And that on a land feature you can stroll across in 25 minutes. It is a weight of explosive equal to fourteen W47 tactical battlefield nuclear bombs, or two Hiroshimas. (Those familiar with Rob's work will hear my summarising of his acute analysis very clearly by now - I hope I do him justice.)

 

It cost a fortune: a gain of 3000 yards for £1.1bn in 2017 figures.

Messines was also two years in the preparation, including road and rail building. Also taking two years was the mining needed to set off the nineteen mines (above and beyond the explosive mentioned above) which was the largest man-made non-nuclear explosion, ever.  

 

You might ask why the man who planned Messines was not tasked for the attack on Roulers. Putting it simply, Plumer was too careful with his planning (sis staff practised the Three T's like any 2017 mission-statement wonk: Trust, Training, Thoroughness) and at the same time too profligate with resources to be allowed to inch his way B&H by B&H to Berlin. Now, by some superhuman doublethink, the British convinced themselves they could advance and get similar results without a smidgeon of the preparation.

Those are some key underlying changes to the world.

 

So what stands in the way today of our bright-eyed and bushy-tailed Engineer?

 

His first problem is a trundling behemoth represented by the Artilleryman. If there's a choice between bringing up road stone or shells, which do you think is going to be prioritised? Who, when any Tommy is threatened anywhere, is going to practically or philosophically wave forward a lorry load of beechwood slabs instead?

 

His second problem is his own corps, the corps of Royal Engineers - the RE. Why were they so resistant to change? It is hard to say, but let's look at what the Royal Artillery and another branch of the RE, the Signallers, have been doing.

 

But before I get to that, it's not to say there isn't some evidence the RE had a right to be worried: they were expanding hugely. For example, the Commander Royal Engineers section in 5th Army had doubled from 200 to 400 members.

 

Over in the Canadian Division, innovative thinkers were proposing that entire battalions should be able to down rifles and become specialist engineers (not navvies) whenever required and then effortlessly change back again. This to the tune of a quarter of the men – one brigade in 4. They were even prepared to say they'd prioritise engineers over infantry. We can wonder now if this was one of the reasons why the Canadian army was such a success in WW1. (The man who pioneered this, William Bethune Lindsay, was not only sidelined after the war and ended his life panning in the tar-pits of Canada, but in a modern twist, has the shortest Wikipedia page I have ever read on a major WW1 figure.)

 

The RE found themselves in competition by the growth of two organisations they reasoned were 'doing their job'. The first was the Pioneer battalions. Pioneers tended to be the once-wounded, the less than fit, and sometimes conscientious objectors tasked for manual labour. Secondly there were Labour battalions recruited from China and elsewhere (see Nieuport next week). None of these had endured the punishing rigour of pre-war Engineering examinations that far exceeded the work put in by their sneering infantry and cavalry colleagues, who derided the swots for good measure.  

 

The RE had been snubbed in another way before the war as well when they'd been denied a seat on the Army Council.

 

However, when the war started the rest of the Army was under no illusion as to the importance of Engineering. GHQ in 1915 stated there were two pillars to the war, Engineering and Artillery.

 

What have the other comparable arms been up to? The Royal Artillery, for example, chase hard to have officers of the right rank getting input into Corps level planning of operations. So did the Machine Gun Corps. As we've seen, Mickey was onto this back in late 1915, assisted by Ting-a-Ling Bell.

 

But the RE's don't push for any representation above that wielded by the captain of a Field Company, with only advisory roles above that. And there are only three Field Coys to a Division. It makes them impotent.

 

We've been batting on in the Vimy build-up about the new service pamphlets that empower Mickey to organise the battlefield to assist signalling to everyone's benefit. The similar documents for the RE merely state that the engineering officer is to carry out the wishes of the unit commander.

 

You might be asking that if the RE was so pledged to its own slower growth, how come Vimy and Messines were such successes?

 

The reason for this was that the infantry were responding to fill the vacuum. The effort is done at company and battalion level. Even at Messines, though, we see the coming inevitable problem caused by overworking the men. 3rd Australian Division has soaring sick rates and minor injuries as they prepare for the battle. During Third Ypres, Monash of the Australians moaned he only ever had two out of three brigades because one was always off labouring. Training was in tatters.

 

So although things looked good at Messines, the system has begun to totter. Inevitably, trying to counter the effects of an old-style Third Ypres attack over a much wider front with lots of old-style non-targeted shelling was not going to happen. Artillery was also in another double-bind. The B&H operations of the first half of 1917 had worn out the barrels of many guns, which reduces their range and accuracy. Indeed, during Messines itself, artillery had been ordered to rest one gun per battery. The obvious consequence was the other barrels just got worn out the faster.

 

So there's plenty of things for the other services to be doing right, and also be aware they are still headed for disaster. There are other indicators.

 

The war economy was in pretty good shape but supply was experiencing bottlenecks that no amount of money could dislodge. We know about guns, but where was the road stone, where were the trees for the wood? Where was the extra shipping to get supplies from the States – indeed, now the US was in the war they wanted those things for themselves. Petrol also came from there, and now there was a shortage to run the US-built lorries on the Western Front.

 

A lot of faith had been put in the use of light railways. If you say it quickly enough, they carry 1000's of tons of supplies. But that is self-delusion. For every 100 tons it inefficiently needs 40 tons fuel for its own use. It is notoriously fixed and requires immense amounts of labour or lorries to shift things from the railheads. And it is also horribly unreliable. At Messines, 9 Corps abandon trains for lorries. In fact, Haig's retention of lorries when the Motor Transport Conference of 1917 said they'd had their day was a masterstroke. He'd seen them used in the Hindenburg Line retreat, outstripping the railheads. He knew we'd need them again at Amiens in 1918 and, if his crystal ball was very clear that day, the March Retreat of that year as well..."