For the first time in history, two Australian Divisions fought a battle side by side in the Battle of Menin Road. Whilst a classic example of how a well-prepared and well supported infantry could take and hold ground, Roger Lee explores why this tactic would never win the war on the Western Front.
*Speaker: Peter (P), Roger Lee (R)
*Audience: (A) – no mic
*Location: National Library of Australia
*Date: 11th September 2017
P: Well good evening, ladies and gentleman. Welcome to another meeting of the Estaminet, the Canberra Great War Study Group, the Canberra branch of the Western Front Association. Who’s here for the first time? Oh good-oh, very welcome. This is another one of our anniversary talks and Roger Lee, the – Dr Roger Lee now of the Australian War Memorial, formerly of the Army History Unit will give us an expert talk on the Battle of Menin Road.
Can I ask, is there anyone in the audience who has a personal connection or a family connection to Menin Road? Okay, gee, I thought there’d be just one but there’s half a dozen. Good-oh well you’re particularly welcome.
Just to explain to those who haven’t been here before the Estaminet is a group of – well it used to be a small group of first world war enthusiasts who used to meet in a very small room at the National Museum. We used to meet at the various clubs around town you know the Austrian Club or the Services Club at Manuka but after the Services Club at Manuka burnt down I think we got a bit of a reputation. But the National Library has faith in us and we haven’t burned it down yet and for the last couple of years, three years, we’ve had a very close relationship with the National Library which has allowed us to hold originally four talks a year, this year we’re holding six on the theme of war and this year all of the war talks that we’ve given relate to the year 1917 and the next talk - just to advertise the next talk, it’ll be on the 31st of October and of course it will be about the battle of Beersheba and Jenny Horsfield will be talking about the Australians in the Middle East.
Those of you who’ve come in late don’t get a lucky door prize ‘cause I'm here and not there so those of you have got a lucky door prize ticket I’ll put them in this bag and we’ll draw them at the end and there are a number of good prizes but I won’t bore you by telling you what they are now but it will be worth sticking around – actually well sticking around because of Roger Lee.
Notices. I’ve got one notice. Has anybody published a book you know been on a trip? Advertising a guided trip they’re doing? Anything – got anything to announce? Anyone? No, okay. Well the thing I’d like to announce is that just before I came I got a message from Andrew Richardson who’s in the Army History Unit and he said the Army History Unit has finally got a new boss, a new head. For those who don’t know Roger Lee who’ll be addressing us tonight he was the former Australian Army History Unit head and he left to go to write one of the official histories at the War Memorial and so they’ve been without a boss for what, 18 months? Fourteen months but they’ve just announced the Lieutenant Colonel Tim Gellel, full colonel now – gee, I knew him when he was just a lieutenant – he’s a – Colonel Tim Gellel has got the gig to be the Army Historian and that’s a terrific thing for the Army History Unit.
It’s a terrific thing because – and this is where I very cleverly move to introducing Roger – because the Army History Unit is one of the most important institutions in documenting, recording and disseminating the history of the Australian Army and the reason it’s that important is that over the last – how many years? Twenty. Over the last roughly 20 years Roger Lee has been in charge of that unit, a very small unit of other army, 20 people? You know in Canberra. Oh goodness, gee, right. A very small unit of the army but one which has got the biggest reach because it’s got 17 museums? Nineteen museums in five states? No, no, the – so you can see that the Army History Unit’s got a bit of a reach but also, and this is the most important thing for people like this, the Army History Unit both gives people money to do research and in military history that’s very rare in this country, and it also publishes the results of that research in several very good series, campaign series and as an association with various publishers, and the Army History series with Cambridge University Press which I had the pleasure and honour to edit. So the Army History Unit is a really important institution for fostering and supporting and disseminating and understanding of the Australian army’s history. And you’ll be able to see why it’s got that authority when Roger – when I finally clear off and Roger talks to you.
Roger has been there for a long time, he knows the Australian army’s history in great depth and he especially knows the western front in great depth because he did a PhD at my own institution, the University of New South Wales Canberra under the supervision of the late Jeffrey Grey on command on the western front so Roger is a true expert in this area and he’ll give you the benefit of his views on the Battle of the Menin Road presently. I think that’s all I have to say – oh normally someone from the National Library welcomes you and they tell you that the toilets are outside, they tell you that they’re delighted to be associated with the Estaminet, they welcome you to country of course and generally that’s all they do so I’ve done what they’ve done. I do what I do, I’ll get out the way and here’s Roger. Good-oh, Roger.
R: One of the advantages of sitting in the audience before this happens is you see the obvious mistake on the slide. If you haven’t I’ll tell you, it’s a combination. I was actually putting up the date for the talk and somehow or other it morphed into the day of the talk and the date and the year of the battle so delete 11, insert 20 or delete 1917 and put 2017, whichever you prefer. Okay.
Thanks Peter. Peter’s threatened me with all sorts of things if I don’t stick to 30 minutes and those of you who know me know that I don’t follow a script, I’ll ramble so please excuse me if I read my script rather than stand here and talk to slides.
For the first time in Australia’s military history 100 years ago next Wednesday week, as our discussion says, on the 20th of September, two Australian divisions went into action for the first time side by side. The attack started at 05 – at 40 minutes past 5 in the morning and all the objectives were captured within five hours. By western front standards even the casualties were at an acceptably low rate. Menin Road was a major achievement and a rare example of a plan and its execution coinciding.
In dealing with heavily entrenched German defenders, many protected inside a complex and dense system of interlocking concrete pillboxes, a new German offensive strategy which was designed specifically to deal with the sort of attack that was launched at Menin Road with the appalling terrain – that’s a good example, that’s just [Vestook] 6:57 in – just short of the objective – sorry, just past the objective of the northern attacking Australian division – the Australian infantry performed exceptionally well, demonstrating a dramatically improved level of tactical skill over most of its performances in 1916.
But - that’s a map showing basically the area of Menin Road – but first let me put the battle into its strategic and operational context. The first point in this is that this campaign was not a new strategic idea, planning for an attack in the Ypres Salient had been going on in BEF headquarters since 1915. After all the – liberating Belgium was arguably the main reason for Britain’s entry into the war in the first place and the strategic analysts and planners found it was far more – easier to sell a major operation in Belgium to the British Government and people than it was to sell an operation in France.
The attractiveness of an attack in Belgium in addition to this political value was that the Germans were at more of an operational disadvantage there than at anywhere else on the western front. Their foothold in Belgium was shallow, the distance between the British front in – if I can make this work – there’s the British front line, they’re the objectives actually of the Passchendaele campaign – and the Dutch border which is there is only about 50 miles. This was insufficient to enable the Germans to trade territory for casualties or for trading of territory for long-term strategic advantage such as they did early in 1917 in the withdrawal to the Hindenburg line.
They had very limited and very exposed lines of communications to support their trips in their sector, indeed they only had two railway lines into the area, and with British control of the sea the German right flank was left exposed to an amphibious attack. For these reasons serious planning for an attack in the Ypres Salient in April or May of 1916 was underway when the Germans attacked at Verdun in 1916. Had it not been for this cataclysmic struggle which effectively derailed all the allied strategic planning of the late 1915 it is possible that the British would have attacked at Ypres and not on the Somme. Ypres had not lost its political and strategic appeal then, in 1917.
Turning the battle. Menin Road was the third of eight major battles of the Passchendaele campaign. Passchendaele ranks perhaps just behind the Somme for the volume of emotion, misunderstanding and rancour that it generates among historians and non-historians alike. I don’t obviously have the time to go through the strategic [arguments] 9:37 of the campaign but in summary it was launched for four basic reasons. The first one had to do with the fact that the German submarine campaign in mid-1917 threatened to starve Britain out of the war and the German submarine – major submarine bases were those two, there’s another one up here and then Bruges itself surprisingly, ‘cause of its canal connections, were important small submarine bases.
The 2nd point was to keep German attention away from the French army which was in a very fragile state after the Nivelle offensive in April 1917. My good friend, Elizabeth Greenhalgh, says that we can make too much of this, that it wasn’t as important as people like me give it credit for. I look forward to her research with some interest.
The third point was to try and win the war before the defeat of Russia by Germany occurred and that was becoming quite apparent to the strategic planners that that defeat was going to happen. And of course the fourth point was to try and win the war before the Americans arrived to claim all the credit for the eventual victory. That’s perhaps a little harsh but if you look at the documents out of allied headquarters there’s a grain of truth in it.
Haig’s initial plan was for an attack to be conducted by the British 5th army under General Sir Hubert Gough. He’s the short chap looking towards the camera. Gough had a reputation as something of a thruster and Haig, the Commander in Chief, wanted the attack prosecuted with considerable vigour and not caution. The plan was innovative and comprehensive, there was even an amphibious landing called Operation Hush, planned to land a British division behind the German lines just near Middelkerke.
Unfortunately there were also some serious errors in the plan, the main flaw being an overly optimistic assumption about the ease with which the dominating high ground in the area of operations, the Gheluvelt Plateau, just to the east of Ypres could be cleared of the enemy.
Gough launched his first attack, the Battle of Pilkem Ridge, and just - this is a scan from the official history, the British official history so I apologise – you’ve got to take this map and sort of stick it on top of there to get the full north-south, it doesn’t fit onto an A4 page. So that red line there coincides with that red line there if you can – and that’ll be the same policy for all these maps.
At 0350 on 31 July the Battle of Pilkem Ridge kicked off. It made good progress but the Gheluvelt Plateau on its southern flank – that’s this area of high ground. If you can see the ridge lines, it runs a bit like that – where’d I get to? The Ghel – on its southern flank proved impossible to capture. Having an exposed right flank then severely limited the 5th army’s ability to keep advancing and nor did the miserable weather help. The attack ground to a halt with some progress made but nothing like the depth of penetration planned in the timetable. A series of smaller efforts were then made to try and capture the Gheluvelt while the main attack further north paused and consolidated the ground it had taken.
Haig, coming under considerable political, allied military and timing pressures, put a lot of pressure on [Haig] 12:43 in turn to recommence the main attack as soon as possible even if the Gheluvelt remained in enemy hands. Consequently a second major attack, Battle of Langemarck, was launched on the 16th of August. It also made progress but again the exposed southern flank held it back. With this Haig rather lost patience with Gough and in late August he brought in the British 2nd army under General Sir Herbert Plumer – he’s the funny little chap with the walrus moustache on the right-hand side of that picture – on this side – on the southern flank of the 5th army which then in turn shifted north to accommodate the new forces and this army was brought in specifically to take the Gheluvelt and free up 5th army to press on with the main attack.
Both armies were to launch their next attack which as it happens is the Menin Road battle simultaneously. They believed that if the 2nd army could deal with the troublesome plateau 5th’s army advance could indeed catch up to its timetable. That’s Menin Road again, showing again same – different map of it showing you the objective lines.
For his part in the attack Plumer proposed a four-stage step by step attack with strictly limited depths of advance. He limited the Menin Road depth of advance to 1500m or actually 1500 yards. This was the depth he sets for each of the attacks. Don’t forget he’s going to not only do the Menin Road attack, Polygon Wood, Broodseinde and then the two Passchendaele battles were all part of Plumer’s plan just to clear the southern flank.
There was a six-day pause between each of these battles – was to be a six-day pause. During the pause, while the infantry consolidated the captured position ready to repel German counterattacks, the artillery was then to be moved forward to provide – give it the additional range necessary to support the next phase of the attack. Contrary to widespread British and French thinking on offensive tactics each front would be on a comparatively narrow frontage, for instance the frontage for Plumer’s Menin Road attack was essentially the same width as that attacked on the 31st of July by II Corps and whereas II Corps had attacked with two divisions 2nd army would attack with four, ensuring twice as many men in the battle and providing sufficient combat mass to both make the advance and to secure it for counterattack.
Menin Road is where the Australians, Plumer and 2nd army come together. Plumer, knowing the challenge of the Gheluvelt, had demanded significant reinforcement of his 2nd army because after his victory at Messines in June it had been plundered to reinforce the British 5th army for their main attack. The Australian infantry of first ANZAC Corps were resting and refitting in BEF reserve. Plumer requested them as a replacement for his worn-out II Corps which had been doing battles and I’ll talk about that in a minute. 2nd ANZAC Corps which contained the other Australian division was also in the 2nd army so for the first time all the Australian divisions were in the same army on the western front.
Menin Road was the first battle of the 2nd army’s involvement in the Passchendaele operation although it had been conducting operations in support of 5th army’s attempt to capture the Gheluvelt. Because 2nd army was on 5th army’s right flank on the southern side it was trying to take out all the supporting German elements that were you know stopping 5th army of advance along the plateau.
Despite Australian popular beliefs to the contrary Menin Road was not just an Australian battle. The battle called Menin Road which as you can see from the map extends well beyond Menin Road and the Gheluvelt Plateau, involves three corps from 5th army as well as the other 2nd division formations, 10th and 9th corps. In all the battle of Menin Road, 11 infantry divisions advance at dawn on the 20th of September of which only two are Australian.
The key point about Plumer’s plan for the Menin Road attack was that every aspect of it was subordinate to the artillery plan and I use that phrase just as an excuse to put this up ‘cause I love it, big guns, they’re wonderful. As well as infantry reinforcements 2nd army’s artillery assets were also greatly increased. While time will prevent me from tracing in detail each phase and element in the infantry attack - I’ll give you a brief summary in a minute – I do wish to spend some time on what I consider is the single dominating fact which enabled the Australian infantry to succeed and this was the well planned and well executed artillery support program.
To ensure the guns could deliver Plumer stripped the artillery from every division in his army not engaged in the attack as well as demanding significant reinforcements from all the other unengaged British armies. A large number of artillery units were transferred for example from the British 4th army which included three independent Australian army brigades of field artillery and the 22nd and 54th heavy artillery groups.
Heavy artillery group is an interesting concept – this is – I’m varying from my theme here but I’ve got four slides that’ll show the composition of the heavy artillery groups and when you consider the Australian army at the moment’s got one regiment of medium artillery and that’s it, you have a look at this, you understand there is just no comparison with the artillery that was on the battle front in 1917 where the Australians are fighting and what Australian soldiers could get in artillery support now. There’s four of these slides, I’ll roll through them as I keep talking.
These slides illustrate the size and combat power of the heavy artillery groups supporting the two Australian divisions, and these are just to support the two Australian divisions, every other division or corps gets similar scales of support. That’s an enormous number of guns.
Additional field artillery brigades came from army reserve. All of this meant that for one ANZAC corps alone it had nine field artillery brigades – that’s 324 18-pounder field guns and 108 4.5-inch Howitzers in direct support. In addition other field batteries plus the medium and heavy guns shown on these slides conducted the broader bombardment and were then used to augment the barrage.
To support all this Plumer assembles over 3.2 million shells of all calibres to support this attack. Compare that with the Somme where they had about 1.3 and fired in a seven-day barrage. It’s orders of magnitude bigger.
The fire plan to support – in support of the Australian attack at Menin Road was complex and in two phases. The first phase was a sporadic barrage of variable weight in the five days that preceded the attack. While firing a heavy barrage to maximise the effect is desirable such a tactic also warns the enemy that an infantry assault is imminent. Consequently while the preliminary bombardment was very heavy and intended to locate and destroy German artillery and as many German fixed defences, pillboxes, barbed wire entanglements, entrenched strong points as possible, it was done in a manner that quote appeared routine. Now I don’t quite know how over a thousand barrels of 6-inch or larger firing thousands of shells would appear to the recipient as being routine but that’s what the artillery orders demanded of it.
More emphasis however was placed in the orders on being accurate than on either the rate or weight of fire for the first time in any of the command orders that I’ve read for this battle – for this war. Right, that map which I put up prematurely is the map of the objective lines and they are very innovatively called the red, blue and green lines. The red line is the first objective, the blue line is the second objective and the green line is the third objective as will become apparent as I proceed.
The fire support phase for the attack itself was based on an innovative new approach to the barrage. Given the nature of the enemy’s deep and interlocking defences there was little purpose in having the traditional – Bean called it a thin - I think that’s a bit unkind – line of shells rolling forward just in front of the advancing infantry. For this attack the barrage was certainly not a single thin line of shells, it was a storm of shells – and this is Bean’s own words – a thousand yards deep comprising five separate lines, four separated by 200 yards while the interval between lines four and five was only 100 yards. The closest line to the attacking infantry fired by the 18-pounder field guns was a mere 150 yards in front of the forward infantry. You got to have confidence in your gunners when you do that.
The second line fired by the 18-pounders in the 4.5-inch Howitzers were fired by those and the next three were combinations of machine guns, 6-inch, 8-inch and 9.2-inch Howitzers. The heavier guns were kept for counter battery, mainly counter battery work.
The other interesting thing is that machine guns are now fully integrated into the artillery fire plan in a way that they were not in 1916 so you’ve got all the massed, biggest machine guns firing on fixed ranges well outside – they’re not firing on visible lines, they’re firing indirectly and they are a fully integrated pattern. And in fact the reaction in the German war diaries that we’ve seen to the effects of the machine gun barrage is you know in some ways worse than the reaction – they had a worse reaction to it than they did to 18-pounders which they didn’t find all that fearsome by the end.
The barrage would not commence until the assault troops had begun to form up in no man’s land, trying to achieve a small element of tactical surprise. At zero hour it rested in front of the start line for three minutes before it began to roll forward at a specified rate. Initially this was 100 yards in four minutes so in four minutes the barrage moves forward just 100 yards for the first 200 yards. It then slows to 100 yards every six minutes.
Although the Australian infantry would later complain that the rate of advance was too slow it was based on the bitter experience of the Somme where being separated from the barrage saw entire battalions destroyed. The barrage would then pause for an hour after it had passed the first objective, the red line to enable the infantry that took the red line to consolidate. It would then roll forward again at the even slower rate of 100 yards in eight minutes to the second objective, the blue line and then beyond it and after another two-hour long pause this time it would then roll forward 100 yards in eight minutes to the final objective, the green line.
The whole point about this whole thing is that the barrage is designed to protect the infantry while they get to their objective, while they consolidate it, while they bring up the next group of troops to do the next part of the advance. All this was to be done without interference from the enemy and that’s what the barrage was designed to do.
At 5:40am the barrage began and the infantry assigned the capture of the first objective, the red line, left their taped forming-up areas and began the advance comparatively untroubled by enemy resistance. Troops assigned to capture the second and third objectives were required to wait forward of their frontline trenches but well behind the first wave until the red line was captured and consolidated. The aim was to create a gap between the attacking waves of infantry and the predictable areas of forming-up like their own front-line trenches, to protect them from German artillery.
But in the heat of the moment many of the 2nd and 3rd waves pressed closely behind the leading attackers and basically followed them into the third objective. Given the long pauses by the British artillery on the objectives and the slow rate of the rolling advance the same eagerness caused bunching up and some – even some intermingling of units which as anticipated did add to the casualties when the German artillery got lucky and hit them.
Fortunately the German artillery spotters were slow to recognise the depth and rate of the advance and initially focused their fire on the old British front in and their predicted forming-up areas. The first serious shelling of the newly captured positions doesn’t in fact begin until 4:00 in the afternoon, 13 hours after the attack began.
The first infantry wave also pressed much closer behind their friendly artillery barrage than planned, incurring casualties from friendly fire as a result. However the trade-off was that by being so close in many cases they were able to engage the German defenders even as they were emerging from their shelters and long before they could set up their machine guns.
I don’t want to give the impression that due to the scale of the British artillery support the infantry had an easy time of it. Far from it. In many instances there was localised but fierce fighting at points where the barrage had either missed individual pillboxes or where enough German defenders scattered amongst the shell holes had survived to engage the advance.
In some areas such as Glencourse Wood which is there and the broken scrub around the [Hanovic] 25:42 Stream which is up north, on the north side of the plateau, there was some pretty fierce fighting – where’d I get to? Oh yes the survival of some of the pillbox and some examples of incredible bravery by the German defenders took a heavy toll on the attackers. The fighting around Glencourse Wood saw two Victoria Crosses awarded for individual acts of bravery, one to Second Lieutenant Fred Birks of the 6th battalion and Private Roy Inwood of the 10th battalion. There were also seven VCs in case people forget awarded to British soldiers for bravery on the same day.
It was no cake walk for the infantry. That said, for the most part the infantry were able to advance according to the plan, keeping to the timetable and securing all their objectives. Only on the southern flank of the attack at a place called Tower Hamlets which is – I can’t see it on the map, it’s around about there – did the attack fail to take all – it took some of its objectives, not all of it – while in the north 5th army’s – most of 5th army’s advances occurred except for just past [Bresinbur] 26:45 where they had to try and capture an area on the reverse slope and they were exposed to German artillery spotting. But overall these were the only two main areas where the objectives were not taken on the day.
The two Australian divisions attacked in a conventional order with two brigades conducting attack and the third in reserve – that’s the brigade. What is different though is the use of the battalions. Up until then the practice was to allocate most of the combat effort to taking the first objective, in this case the red line. These same troops then had to consolidate and continue the attack to the next and to successive objectives. This time Plumer instructs that each battalion be given one objective and when it’s captured that battalion was to remain to consolidate it and to garrison it.
The battalion following directly behind it was then to move through this reinforced and protected first position and follow the barrage onto the next objective. You will have noticed – that’s those of you who are still awake – that the green line had two battalions in nearly all of them except for this one – this one doesn’t but the others have got two battalions assigned. That’s because the northern flank of the objective zone – sorry, the northern flank goes further north and so basically it’s a much wider final objective so they have to put more troops into it.
In five hours the Australians had taken all their objectives and consolidated their positions. The much anticipated and feared German counterattacks did appear but neither in the strengths nor in the skills, nor in the frequencies that were expected. The artillery again played a major part in this. By breaking up German counterattack formations as soon as they were identified – and this is where lot of elements – I haven’t got time to talk about the complexity of this battle but there are a lot of new elements in it. Contact aeroplanes, they had aeroplanes dedicated to spotting the build-up of German counterattack divisions and these were directly targeted. There’s a lot in this sort of thing and this is what makes this a success.
By breaking up these large German counterattack formations and in some cases even preventing the dedicated and highly trained German counterattack divisions from even getting to the battlefield because they interdicted their lines of approach. I’d be happy to talk more in question time about that.
But I’d like to finish up – and Peter’ll be happy to hear me say that – by briefly addressing two points. Firstly, Passchendaele is synonymous with mud – and I’ll put that up now ‘cause there’s a bit to read – and it’s certainly true that mud was the dominant factor in the outcome of the overall campaign. There’s a lot of emotion about mud. All this rubbish that you hear about the British high command going up and bursting into tears when they see the conditions under which their troops are fighting. That’s absolute bollocks. If you read the – every headquarters’ war diaries, they’re all talking about the appalling conditions. They know it intimately, they had more aerial photographs per square inch of Belgium than the Belgian Government ever had, they knew the conditions in detail, they just didn’t have a lot of choice.
At Menin Road mud was much less of an issue. The excessive rain of early August and early October held off sufficiently in September for the ground to dry out enough to both reduce the mud as a tactical consideration for the infantry and indeed in some cases turn into dust. Some of the artillery observers in their war diaries complained that dust was obscuring their ability to direct fire.
If you take the mud out of the equation all of a sudden battle results in this campaign change. For what it’s worth I believe that the outcome of the Battle of Menin Road, and indeed the subsequent Battle of Polygon Wood, should be cause for those critics of Haig and his campaign plan to at least reconsider their position. Given that the conditions at Menin Road represented what was the normal weather pattern for that part of Belgium the then success in that battle suggests to me at least that Haig’s overall plan was not fatally flawed as is implied by many critics, and may indeed even have had the potential for some success had the weather been normal which of course it wasn’t as you can see from that.
Haig gets a lot for criticism for his plan however I believe the only really justifiable criticism that can be levelled at him is that he was a rubbish weather forecaster.
My second point - and again it’s just me being in love with the guns – my second point is a bit more philosophical, and this is the one I’d like to finish on. Menin Road, in isolation from the Passchendaele campaign as a whole is widely viewed as a success, indeed it’s been used to add to Plumer’s reputation as probably the best British general of the war. Now I agree with that but I can only assume that this is solely because all the objectives were taken and done so to the planned timetable, perhaps a bit like Monash at Hamel in 1918.
However I find this assessment rather puzzling given that the two Australian divisions alone suffered 5,013 casualties including over a thousand killed and that while the German frontline was captured it was not broken. How the popular view decides that Fromelles for example is a disaster but Menin Road is a success is thus something of a mystery and leads me to ask this question and I’ll put it to you, in this war what constitutes success and what constitutes failure? The Battle of Menin Road clearly demonstrated that Plumer’s bite and hold tactic for a cautious limited attack could be but does this in itself constitute success?
Given it took 20 days of prepositioning infantry, artillery, ammunition and all the rest of the material needed before it could be launched and given it only captured 1500 yards of ground it does not look to me like a strategic success. Given that rate of progress I’m pretty confident in suggesting that this tactic was no recipe on its own for winning the war.
While the Battle of Amiens in August the following year, which is the start of Germany’s defeat, superficially looks much like the Menin Road model in the way it’s put together and planned it was set in an entirely different context. Significant changes had occurred in numerous other factors that affected the battlefield such as technological developments, the dramatically improving morale of the French army, the presence finally of a large number of Americans and the plunging morale and material situation of the enemy.
I would argue that it was all these factors in combination with the careful planning that underpinned the Menin Road model that was the war-winning formula, not a single tactical concept like the bite and hold of Menin Road itself. Menin Road was unquestionably a successful battle but it was no template for winning the war. Thank you for your attention.
P: Well we promised you deep knowledge and that’s what you got but delivered in a very economical timeframe so the best of both worlds. We’ve got lots of time for questions and discussion. Now let me be clear here, the Estaminet, the Canberra Great War Study Group has a small group of people who can claim to be experts but don’t let them intimidate you especially if you’ve got a connection to this battle and something’s been niggling at you for years and you don’t know the answer, now is the time to ask the question.
Now I’m afraid that the National Library seem to have left us to our own devices. They often have microphones. We don’t seem to have a microphone today so if you want to ask a question please wave and when you get picked speak up and Roger will no doubt respond expertly. So who – there’s a – be the gentleman in the middle.
A: As you say Plumer was the successful British general in the war and he was a funny little bloke with a walrus moustache. Why didn’t all the other generals grow walrus moustaches? I speak with some personal interest.
R: It was a personal problem, they all tried. If you look at all the photographs of every officer in the British army in world war 1 they all had moustaches, it was very trendy.
P: It wasn’t trendy, it was –
R: Was de rigueur, was it? Yes, a requirement. That’s true, yes. The cleanshavenness comes into the military effect when we start wearing gas masks because gas masks stop an airtight seal being formed between the mask and the skin so that’s – as I understand it that’s the reasons that came into military requirements for cleanshavenness for certain categories of people. Before then I mean yes, yeah. But you’re quite right, he’s a caricature and when you try and give this lecture to teenagers you pop up a picture of Plumer and they die laughing on the floor, it’s a –
P: Up the back.
P: Katherine, yes.
A: Green line and blue line. <inaudible> 36:03.
R: Every battle has to have an objective set, you just don’t keep advancing unless you achieve a breakthrough where there’s no enemy resistance and away you go but in the planning stage you can’t assume that so every battle – if you look at every battle in the first world war they had set lines of objectives. Sometimes it was one, sometimes like Haig at the Somme and their first – day one of the Somme he had rather ambitious – with hindsight we know they were ambitious, at the time they didn’t know – lines of objective.
How they were described? Yes, they were usually a coloured line on a map. Again people don’t understand unless you’re like me, terrible condition to admit to, but I’ve spent more of my life in the dusty maps of world war one war diaries than you care to imagine and it was the issuing of maps with coloured lines on them that actually set in stone how we describe things.
If you look at the orders the objective lines are also specified by map references but they go for five, six, seven lines because they’re very complex so it’s much simpler when you're trying to get your order out quickly to a battalion or to a company to draw on a map. And if they’re in the front line, and for this battle both divisions send reconnaissance groups forward before the battle so they knew where they were going to be fighting, they had a very good idea of the layout of the land, they could then equate the line on a map with where they had to go and what they had to do. So – but the colours I think – probably the colour of the chinagraph pencils that were available in Plumer’s headquarters, I really don’t know.
A: So the red line was always <inaudible> 37:41.
R: No, no, not always.
A: <inaudible> 37:45.
R: The red was popular. Perhaps they had a lot of red pens, yeah, given that they also used to mark up their lowest headquarters’ orders so you know I don’t know. If you – dredging back to the maps that I’ve looked at there is nearly always a red line objective but quite often if there’s only one objective that would be it so – but I don’t think – there’s nothing sacred as far as I can tell about the colouring of the objective lines, it was just a way of delineating the depth of – the reason you have to do it is – and it comes back to the artillery, the artillery need to know where the infantry are going to stop because if you’re going to drop thousands of rounds of 18-pounder shells 150 yards in front you don’t want to be 50 yards out ‘cause otherwise it can get very awkward so – that’s the whole problem, people complained you know the people who don’t really understand the first world war battles don’t understand why everything is so rigid because with the appalling communication networks that they had available, they only had basically telephone.
I didn’t have time to say it but in this battle there’s a very innovative use of wireless. They’ve got a tank stuck – oh I have to put my map back – they’ve got a tank parked right there so it can be accessed by both divisions’ parties and it’s a wireless tank so it can get communications back because the moment you go outside the plan how do you tell all those thousands of gunners, how do you tell those aircraft, how do you tell the engineers who are looking for you, how do you tell the medical people who are taking your wounded away where you are? You’ve got to have communications. In this war the main form of communication was the infantry runner and the infantry runners were the highest casualty rating of any employment category in the British army. They suffered casualties about three or four times the normal infantryman’s rate. Because of course they’re moving, they have to get out of broken trenches and run along the top, they’re an obvious target. And everybody knows what they’re doing so yes.
A: Could you talk more about the air support?
R: Oh the air support, one of my favourite topics. There are whole books about it. One of the reasons that this battle worked so well is again Plumer understands that the days of a battle being dominated by infantry as the queen of the battlefield and artillery as the supporting arm is over, it’s a combined effect by all sorts of areas, and aviation provide the one thing that at this stage the commander doesn’t have which is visibility of his battlefield. So they have all different sorts of aircraft over the front field, you’ve got artillery spotters controlling – the artillery spotters work with either specific artillery batteries or some of them were almost like trip wires who would say there’s a big bunch of Germans forming up. The favourite point was back here, back behind the line down here there’s a town called Moorslede and at Moorslede is where most of the German counterattack divisions were kept in shell-proof bunkers so they had a couple of British observation aircraft sitting on the obvious lines of approach from Moorslede to the front. And the moment they saw more than about 10 guys moving they called in a whacking great artillery stonk on it and that’s – that was their purpose. So you had that kind of specialist aircraft.
British commanders never knew how far their troops were. They were told they were on the objective line but what if their navigation was bad so another of the group aircraft was called contact aircraft and these were very brave men who would fly at low level up and down the trench line sounding a Klaxon horn and saying look at me and the infantry would then wave a flag as Andrew and I found in the thing recently – what was it called? A something fan.
A: Watson fan.
R: A Watson fan which is a big sheet of material coloured differently and you wave it around ‘til the aircraft sees it and he says ah ha, that’s where our infantry are so he can then drop a signal back at headquarters and saying yes, they’re on this map reference so the artillery can then bring fire in much closer. So you’ve got dedicated specialist aircraft like that. Plus you’ve got the long-range thing, we had fighters overhead to try and keep the German observation aircraft away ‘cause the Germans are trying to do the same thing in reverse so yeah, there’s a whole separate book in the air war above the Passchendaele campaign and it’s fascinating.
A: This is a sort of other state of the art attack at this stage with objectives with each round effectively being <inaudible> 41:58 artillery range so you’d say this is a standard attack <inaudible> terrain objective that makes sense of the wider campaign. <inaudible> that they’re being run down <inaudible> scope for a more ambitious attack. So the situation is actually really quite different <inaudible>.
R: Ironically – I agree with you but ironically to the British at the time the situation was reversed. Haig’s head of intelligence had told him that after the Somme, after Verdun and some of the stuff that was going on in the eastern front the German army in 1917 and after the Nivelle offensive was on its last legs. Now Haig never forgot what happened to him in 1914, he was commanding the British in Ypres in 1914 as a divisional commander – divisional commander? Yeah, still division command.
P: Corps commander.
R: Corps commander, he was, that’s right - and the Germans had launched this massive attack and they were on the point of breaking through, they’d launched two attacks in which Haig’s troops had held on by the skin of their teeth. On the third attack Haig wheels out his cooks, his clerks, his bottlewashers, everything and they’re men in the fire pit and they stop the Germans. Haig knew that the Germans were within a whisker of breaking through and the whole story of the war might have been different. So when the situation’s reversed at Passchendaele and the German morale in this battle initially collapses. One of the reasons the infantry advanced so well at Menin Road is the barrage is so demoralising that the Germans, a lot of them, surrender in droves. A couple of them then proceeded to shoot the Australian soldier coming to take them prisoner and found out that’s not a good idea ‘cause they weren’t allowed to surrender after that. But on the whole there was mass – I mean at one stage one Australian in 10th battalion, I forget his name, captures a whole bunker with about 40 or 50 Germans in it so their morale’s at rock bottom. So Haig thinks – that’s one of the reasons he keeps pushing, he remembers what happened to him at Ypres, he’s getting all the intelligence that’s saying keep going, they’re about to crack. He thinks he can actually achieve his strategic aim here. Of course he can’t.
A: <inaudible> 44:09.
R: No, actually – well initially you thought he was there at the middle of September after Menin Road because there was – euphoria’s perhaps a bit of an overstatement – there was a great degree of self-congratulation going on in the various headquarters after Menin Road because it was such a resounding success in terms of it stuck to the plan. It was one of the few that had actually worked, it was amazing.
A: <inaudible> 44:34.
R: Oh yeah, no, I’ll come back. He’s quite right. Where I was going to, though, this is all happening now. When you turn your attention around Amiens, by this stage Haig’s learned to be very cautious but the German defences at Amiens were rubbish, they’d all been hauled off down to deal with the major French attacks down at Soissons so there was no reserves available, they were basically garrison divisions holding the trenches at Amiens. And to be honest too the Australian corps in particular but others had been doing it, the Australian corps in particular had been annoying the Germans by going out every night and capturing their outpost line so you know the Germans’d put another company out on outpost duty and the Australians’d go out that night and capture the lot so they’d come out in the morning, where’s our outpost line? It’s gone, oh better put some more in so the German commanders get so jack of this that they pack the front line with battalions so of course when the 8th of August barrage descends on them instead of killing one or two they wipe out battalions. So in that sense you know there’s a lot of things that change in this battle that - you can’t compare the two but fundamentally you’re right, in August – the 8th of August 1918 the German army was not the German army of September 1917. Apart from anything else the ‘flu epidemic was knocking them, about a third of the German army was either sick or – sorry –
P: Lee Crotchley.
R: It’s old age, mate, it’s old –
A: <inaudible> 45:58.
R: I need Steve Badsy here or Jong. It was a unit of the Australian Light Horse used in Menin Road, it was a messenger service. The cavalry provided the one thing that the allies lacked which was – still at this stage which was a means of exploiting success. Your biggest problem was infantry walk at about 4 or 5 miles an hour, it’s going to take you a long time to walk to Berlin. Cavalry still because tanks walked – oh sorry, walked, moved at 4 miles an hour. Armoured cars were good, in August 1918 they’d do good things but they’re stuck to roads so cavalry was really your only mass alternative to exploit any success you have or more importantly to plug a break so cavalry is there. But cavalry – A, horses don’t take cover too easily, B, they’re something of a prominent target, C, the terrain in this part of the world was appalling. I mean I saw an account where an entire team of - an 18-pounder team, six horses, the gunner and the caisson slipped off the road into a huge shell hole and all six horses drowned in the mud. Vanished from sight. They managed to get the gunners off but they couldn’t rescue the horses.
So in this battle there’s not a lot of use for horses. They would have been actually quite useful at [Combri] 47:18 when the tanks broke through but of course this was the technological leader saying we don’t need stupid horses, the tanks will do it and they didn’t. But yeah, the cavalry remains – people forget there were cavalry in world war 2 you know both the Germans and the Russians had huge cavalry corps on the eastern front so cavalry hangs around for a long time. The last known cavalry charge was in Mozambique in the rebellion in the 1990s as far as I can tell.
A: Thank you. Roger, you’ve made me feel a lot better about this battle. My grandfather was in the 28th battalion and I see they were aiming for that green line which looks a horrible way forward. Could you talk a little bit more about what you call the innovative use of wireless and what do you actually mean by that and how is it connected to tanks?
R: Those of my friends who’ve heard me bang on about this in the past will know that I think the fundamental flaw in the whole of the first world war was communications. I actually attribute most of the outcomes in battle to the poor communications. Generals in battle are there for one thing which is to coordinate, they are to move people to points where it’s threatening - to either fail or threatening to succeed, they are there to provide assets to an – to a unit which is in a position to use that asset effectively. You can’t do any of that at this scale. In the old days the general sitting on his horse on a hill watching his army could send a messenger on a horse and do it but you can’t do it in this scale of war, for that you need effective communications. And communications is the one area of technology which was not keeping up to all the others. Even medical technology was advancing faster than communications technology in this war.
Wireless had been around, I mean Marconi had sent his first message across the Atlantic I think before the war but wireless sets were not the sort of thing you’d swing on your back and go for a bushwalk. They were humongously heavy. Most of them were either in trucks – it was the British who first mounted them in tanks with tracks so they could go there and they tended to be behind the lines. The other problem about wireless is they required a big mast as the tank crew actually found and that big mast should have a big red flag on it saying shoot me, shoot me ‘cause whenever you saw a radio mast every German gun within cooee would fire at it and that’s actually happened to the wireless tank, it gets knocked out.
But the British are always recognising that if you’re going to win on the battlefield you’ve got to be able to – what’s the German technique? You strike where the enemy is weakest and you don’t know that until you get out there and probe it. So how do you get that information back to people who can then exploit it? You’ve got to send it either – well the standard method of communication was telephone you know the old-fashioned telephone with a long copper wire? I forget how many - I did see a stat that told me how many thousands of miles of copper wire were laid in this battlefield, on these battlefields in France but they’re still digging it up, miles and miles of it.
Every telephone had to be laid in a redundant pattern and there were different telephone nets so you had a command net, the artillery had a net, the airforce I think towards the end of the war has a net, everybody has their own telephone line so it must you know telephone lines are everywhere. Unless you bury them deeply telephone wires are susceptible to damage by enemy shelling but most of the damage I understand in these battles came when the advancing troops tore it up with their boots, just ripped it out.
So you normally would bury your telephone wires at least six foot deep. Well you can’t do that once you’ve launched an assault so between the start line and the green line any telephones are going to be run along the top and they were and they had a whole bunch of dedicated signallers with the battalions and in [sigcourts] 50:53 – well they were engineers, running along repairing the breaks. But they literally couldn’t keep up with the damage being done to the wires.
So communication becomes a bit dodgy so then you come back to what I said earlier, you’ve got two other forms of communication, one is runner, a runner, yeah, the officer calls in Bloggs, here, Bloggs, take this to brigade headquarters and give him a message. He will normally then call in another one 10 minutes later and give him the same message and say take that ‘cause you’ve got to have redundancy ‘cause the first guy’s probably not going to make it then off they go.
Or you can use some other techniques, they had - lots of communication was done by coded rockets so you’d launch a rocket that’s red, green, blue or red, green, white or whatever and you could have a certain number of actions that followed from that. The favourite one was the leading infantry would have what they call an SOS signal which was basically –
P: <inaudible> 51:38 out to you now.
P: An SOS –
R: I’ve got to shut up, have I?
R: Oh okay.
P: One more question.
R: Sorry. Basically the SOS would bring <inaudible> 51:43 communication, wireless, the British were trying anything and wireless was where they were getting in front of the Germans technologically.
P: Last question from the gentleman in the nice sweater.
A: Artillery was obviously very significant. Would you like to comment on the problems they had with the gun positions?
P: Yeah, artillery was important, artillery kills 56% of all the soldiers killed in this war so artillery was the dominant factor on the battlefield. Everyone thinks that gunners had a really cushy life and they only had to worry about gunners’ ear. I read not long ago that the reason the Germans developed mustard gas was not actually for its use on infantry but it was for its use on artillery because men who were working stripped down to shorts and boots are an ideal target for an area weapon like mustard gas. And the Germans used mustard gas in this battle for the first time in the war and they use it on the artillery and they give the artillery a very bad time. Doesn’t kill a lot of gunners but it sure as hell incapacitates a lot of them.
The other problem was the Ypres Salient is very small. Now you saw how many guns I was talking about, there were thousands of guns. You’ve also got all the logistics forces, you’ve got all engineers, you’ve got the infantry and their base depots, you know? All packed into this tiny little area. The Germans could hardly miss. You fire a round at random into this area, you’re going to hit something and that’s what they did. And because the gunners were one of the largest footprints there a lot of gunners were killed by harassing fire, interdiction fire, aerial bombing at night, the Germans bombed the zone quite regularly at night with night bombers so yeah, it was not a cushy life being a gunner. Plus gunners had to dig in their gun positions. Given the risks they had they had to dig several positions ‘cause you had to move ‘cause otherwise the Germans would triangulate where you were and hit you with counterbattery fire so not only were you being gassed, shot at and everything else, you were subject to hard physical labour. Being a gunner in this war was no cushy billet. My calling, I would have been in the pay corps. Everybody loved to see you and they protect you.
P: Well you can see why we invited Roger to give this talk, he knows his stuff and he tells you in detail. So can I ask you to thank Roger Lee for his excellent talk?
P: And Roger has one more duty to perform, a pleasant one. The lucky door prize. Now we’ll start with the magazine of the Western Front Association since we meet under its auspices so Roger, would you care to pull out a number? Get your tickets out.
R: Apricot, U10.
P: U10, who’s U10? U10. Ah, here we go, well done, okay. It’s here for you when you come to collect it, yeah, don’t worry, well done. Thank you. Right, now the next one, some of you will remember Graham Wilson who died only last year and who wrote a terrific book, Bully Beef and Balderdash and this one’s volume 2 so he’s taking aim at some of the myths of the AIF. He was a warrant officer, wasn’t he?
P: Yes, he was a former warrant officer. War Intelligence Corps but he had a powerful line in myth-busting so here we go for Graham Wilson’s – they’re all apricot so just –
R: I got to say this is a really good read so if you don’t win it I still recommend you go and buy it ‘cause it’s actually a good read. 70, U70. Oh well done. Okay. It’s there when you come back, congratulations. Right, now the next one, this is a very – oh no, I better do mine because it looks - otherwise it’s going to a climax. We meet under the auspices of the National Library, this is my latest book, The Crying Years, Australia’s Great War which is published by the National Library and the Library have given us a copy and I have to say it took me a while to get it off them because they said will the person you give it to write a review of it? And I said well I can’t promise that but they said oh alright. Anyway so the National Library have graciously given us a copy of The Crying Years which deals with Australia’s Great War so Roger, do the honours.
R: This has got to be soppy social history stuff.
P: Yes, soft social history. On the other hand I’ll sign it for you if you want.
R: 51, U51.
P: 51, who’s 51? Oh well done and you got a question too, there you go. Right, now the last one, this is the most appropriate book. The late Jeffrey Grey edited a terrific series of five volumes, the Oxford Centenary History of Australia and the Great War and of the five volumes this is the one most relevant to tonight because Bob Stevenson who is – often comes to the Estaminet but he’s –
R: He’s actually on the battlefields as we –
P: Is he? Okay, right. Which battlefields, though?
R: He’s at – today he’ll be at <inaudible> 56:16.
P: Oh so he’s on the western front? Oh okay so there you go. But Bob Stevenson’s book is called The War with Germany and it basically deals with the Australian involvements in the biggest struggle of the war, notably on the western front so this is a book worth having. Although if you win it you got to buy the other four volumes, of course. Here we go.
P: 44, who’s got 44? Four, well done, okay, it’s yours. Okay look, thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen, thanks Roger.
P: Okay. And – so the unlucky people come along to the next meeting ‘cause there’ll be some more prizes. I forgot to do something earlier on and that is we normally circulate the attendance book so people can record their names. To be honest we used to send out email messages and Aaron Pegram, our Secretary, still does but the email address is becoming a bit out of date and in any case the National Library do our promotions for us now so we’ve gone a bit quiet on the emails but if you do want to get messages from the Estaminet ‘cause Aaron does send out messages about the future meetings then come and sign the book and that way you can be sure of getting a message for the next meeting. But the next meeting will be here on the 31st of October when Jenny Horsfield will talk about Australians in the Middle East in the first world war. So thank you for coming and we look forward to seeing you next time. Thank you.
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