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21st June 1917

We've been waiting a long time to do the 'loads-of-work-and -all-for-nothing' story, which is the soldier's continuing lot in all wars in history.

 

The three-month build up to the Belgian coast attack is the biggest example of this in the entire war, in both macro and micro senses. A day spent trying to prepare for it is as authentically full of hard work and frustration and general bowel-loosening apprehension as prepping for an attack that actually happened.

 

How did I start tracking down the info on the battle that never happened? Where all sensible WW1 people go for a first read, Chris Baker's Long Long Trail website, to be precise, here.

 

It focusses mostly on the German counter-attack on 10th July to try to forestall the operation but it gets you in the door.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here's rather a blasty film that I shot on the Belgian beaches with none of the flair of the Hilary Easter films -- but we're saving up for new ones in the Autumn.

 

Those sources and that film are just about it for easily accessible knowledge of the episode.

 

There's a book by Andrew A Wiest PASSCHENDAELE AND THE ROYAL NAVY, the kind of book researchers love because the footnotes open up the archives before you even get there, and Admiral Bacon's contemporary book THE DOVER PATROL with good text and especially pictures that you can find here.

 

http://www.naval-history.net/WW1Book-Adm_Bacon-Dover_Patrol.htm

 

It's a good read as the author was the Rear Admiral Bacon in charge of all of this. It could be argued, and the Royal Navy often does, that had Bacon slipped up at any point in the war and the sea-bridge of men and supplies across the Straights of Dover was interrupted, the war would have been over in days. In his book you'll see the ramps to get the tanks over the sea wall, as well the building of a fake practice wall and all the other impedimenta.

 

Bacon also shows us the extraordinary role of the aerial reconnaissance photos in establishing the German defences and the tidal rise and fall that could completely bugger them, the use of distant lights they could line up in the night that were safely behind British lines (if you've ever done any sailing these operated as far as I can tell on the principle of leading marks), as well as photos and debate on how to make the pontoons work and then best of all the tanks and how they were to climb the sea wall at Middelkerke. He then goes through the pros and cons of the operation, all good debating material.

 

Next is the Official History which fills in the thinking on the coastal op and the German counter attack on 10 July more than anything else. It is just a few pages, though.

 

It doesn't happen often so you can be sure I was delighted to pretty much turn up something unheard of – the story of the German Electric Motor Boat, packed with explosives. These particular documents were in bound-in Admiralty files at the TNA. These take you through the discovery of what the Germans are doing in March 1917, the Navy's competing theories about what the boat was, how it works and what they should do about it, how they nearly lose a ship to one, and finishes in November 1917 when they sink one to their satisfaction. The unleashing of a flotilla of these things by the Germans on the Allied invasion barges must have informed their thinking, and indeed the unmanned drone has come back as the most feared anti-shipping device in 2017, so it couldn't be more apposite. While we are here, I sent a copy of these files to the biggest RCM buff I know, and he wasn't aware of it, which was pretty gratifying.

 

The same Admiralty files – this was my first contact with paperwork from the Senior Service - threw up other material.

 

Apart from being a step-by-step proposing, working-up, postponing and cancelling document, this is very useful because it emphasises how the Royal Navy, not the Army, were tasked with finally doing something in the War that would materially affect the deadlock on the Western Front. They have an extraordinary civility underpinning everything they do ("we should give the soldiers some cocoa") and an amazing Hornblower-esque vocabulary ("I would like to give your idea a fair wind") and traditional precision (the army is The Military, the navy is The Navy).

 

It begins with Admiral Sir Reginald Bacon's note on the whole idea which you'll be familiar with by now, and then begins with a discussion about the available fleet. The file then goes on in exhaustive detail. Things I like you might also like (this is not a full list):

 

- Soup with tot of rum in it was to be served before landing

 

- Detaials of the diversionary operations near Wendune (now Wenduine) up more Holland-wards.

 

- also on this page a desire to run telephone cables from La Panne to invasion fleet (10 miles, which is worth remembering I think in the context of the 50 miles of control cable out the back of the EMB), then split to different ships. Pontoons are so big they have telephone front and back, plus cable to be run ashore.

 

- Alarming tale of the old swimming collars (life vests) breaking men's necks when they jump into the sea

 

- Defences: the Germans can fire their shore guns at a range of 22 miles. That's Central London to Slough. (Oh come friendly shells...)

 

- They lie to their own men to increase security – tell them the fake operational details in the hope they'll go into the local town and blab. (!!!!)

 

- Navy to visit Military and go see the front (Messines) during their stay (!) plus providing nosh and football games

 

- Slightly childish use of expressions like pairs of ships are 'Chummy Ships'

 

- a Menu for a dinner party

 

- Temporary urinals and latrines on decks for soldiers

 

The 1st and 66th Division War Diaries helped me estimate how busy the site would have been before the arrival of the main body of troops. I was going to include the Chinese Labour Corps in this episode but HomeFront seemed to be covering this story so I decided not to. It looks as if the Chinese in the area would have come from China via a rail journey across Canada. And there are several deceased CLC in a CWGC cemetery in Sangatte of recent "Jungle" memory.

 

The IWM Library had lots of Nieuport colour in the private papers of A Winstanley, a signaller with the 2/5th Battalion, Manchester Regiment, including using a covered trench tunnel made of cellars to line, a brilliant description of being clouted by bloke in front of you's rifle when doubled over in gas masks, and of a bloke going mad when shell lands next to him and sits there, unexploded.

 

The private papers of F Hunt, 1/5th Battalion Lincolnshire Regiment has him on in swimming patrols going past the German front line on the coast. Also, the sea has jellyfish in it, but he has to enforce recreational swimming as it is in orders. This reminds me of swimming at Brentwood School in the early seventies when the 'season' started on May 1st in an unheated pool and I have literally been sent on a run to warm up afterwards round fields dusted with unseasonal snow.

 

A few thoughts about the Western Front in 1917.

 

I've given a picture of the ideas behind the attack on Roulers last week. Now to bring it up to date.  

 

From the beginning of the war if you were a British general you must have looked at the Western Front as a solid wall you always had to go through, rather than round – hence the adventures in Gallipoli and Salonika and elsewhere. This new operation against Roulers, just 20 miles from the coast, was the very first where you might conceivably be able to attack the Germans simultaneously from the front and the side, and we've learnt in TOMMIES that attacking from the flank is a basic military principle. It splits the enemy's troops, renders forward-facing defences obsolete, causes command disruption and very importantly, general dismay.

 

To begin with you'd hope to punch through the coastal strip at Nieuport, north of the flooded area. This would be no picnic: deeply fortified, it would require an effort as gritty as any other. Three British divisions were committed to an attack along a tiny front essentially bisecting the coastal town of Nieuport running between shattered houses and ruptured old streets. The problem would be more one of queuing the mass of men to get them through such a small gap. They were sent there from mid-June to rehearse. So it is a serious operation: mock up models of the town, and everything we've seen previously being brought into operational planning as a matter of course.

 

The idea we are focussing on was the masterstroke of a sea-borne landing at the same time. This was to be at Middelkerke beach, five miles along the coast. So at exactly the moment you have three divisions (30,000 men approx.) trying to squeeze along Rue de la Doodah in Nieuport, you have another division (10,000 men of 1st Div) plus tanks being put in behind the German defenders. These men of 1st Div had been in a special camp west of Dunkerque since late June quarantined for an infectious disease, but this was a cover story to stop them getting out and blabbing to the big-eared locals.

 

The camp featured a full-size replica of the steep sea wall they'd encounter at Middelkerke built by the same French engineer using his original plans. It also had the painted outlines on the ground of the 500-foot long pontoons (we'd call them landing craft but these are vast compared to the ones we know from SAVING PRIVATE RYAN) so the men could see where they were going to stand and how they would run off the thing when it was beached.  Also outlined were the places the tanks would stand. The tanks were to be equipped with special tracks to enable them to approach the sea wall and then flip a lightweight bridge carried on the hull of the tank over the top of the wall so the tank could haul itself up and inland. All this had to be developed in the three-month window available. I mean to say.

 

The Royal Navy had been tasked to put the men onto the beach and supply covering fire from ship's guns. A fleet needed to be drawn together, the pontoons built and a thousand problems from reckoning the tides to providing soup to the invaders were tackled since March. The Navy was active along this coast, hence their early start, but some of the steam for them to attack the Belgian ports for their own reasons had gone because the U-boats were using their bases in Germany itself for their unrestricted attacks.

 

The struggle to counter the threat of the German Electric Motor Boats (EMB's) would have rumbled from the first time the British captured one in March 1917. Imagine this: a normal, full sized motor boat approaches the British fleet in the Channel at high speed. A German seaplane circles high overhead. Morse from the aircraft deafens listeners. Minutes later the EMB explodes on the Nieuport harbour wall. The front half of the boat is packed with explosive, the rear a simple engine with automatic controls. No one is aboard. It's a maritime UAV or drone, or early Exocet missile.

 

If these can be unleashed on any invasion fleet, the whole project is in danger. When they examined the remaining bits and pieces, it was the possible wireless control from the air that really chilled the Navy's blood. But the actual method was nearly as extraordinary. Out the back of the fast-moving EMB was a rapidly unspooling line, trailing all the way back to a German controller on their coast somewhere. He'd been listening to course corrections sent by the seaplane and steering the EMB – by this time a good ten miles away – by sending signals up the cable to the automated controls. What an unnerving introduction the world we now find so familiar.