The Great Attacks of 1917





While, after the German withdrawal to the new defence lines, the Somme would be relatively peaceful for the year, the war was prosecuted with vigour elsewhere and new lessons were learned and more sophisticated tactics developed. The plans for 1917 were founded on the confidence of the new Commander-in-Chief of the French Army, General Robert Nivelle, that a knockout blow could be delivered to the Germans. While the British would hold enemy reserves in the north with attacks around Arras, the French were then to assault and to break through on the Chemin des Dames between Soissons and Reims, north of the valley of the river Aisne.

Nivelle had faith in the power of the artillery and believed that it could be used, as on the Somme, first to destroy defensive works and, second, to provide cover for the advance. These were rational views, but needed to be tempered by practical considerations in their application.

The British action around Arras was on two fronts. To the north the land rose along Vimy Ridge, overlooking the flat, open plains on which the battles of Loos and Neuve Chapelle had been fought earlier in the war. The German fortifications on the ridge formed the westward arm of the Wotan Position, of which the other, eastward, part was known to the British as the Drocourt–Quéant Switch Line. The Canadian Corps, part of General Sir Henry Horne’s First Army under the command of Lieutenant-General Sir Julian Byng, was to take Vimy Ridge. To achieve all of this, 2,879 guns, one for every 9 yards (8.25 metres) of front, had been assembled with 2,687,000 shells – missiles of greatly improved quality compared to those used on the Somme. In front of Arras the complex of underground caves and tunnels created over the centuries in building the city were augmented and used to move troops forward under cover. At Vimy Ridge tunnels were dug for the same purpose, generously large and lit with electricity. As only forty tanks were available, in part Mark I veterans of the Somme and in part Mark II training tanks without proper armour, surprise could form no part of the plan and a massive bombardment prepared the way. Moreover, the small tank force was shared out in little groups all along the front of attack.

The bombardment of Vimy Ridge began on 20 March and increased in intensity over the days that followed. The Germans called it ‘the week of suffering’. At 5.30am on 9 April the Canadian attack went in, and met with considerable success. The weather was terrible; a blinding snowstorm onto ground already soaked with rain. The tanks were useless in such conditions, but, emerging from their tunnels, the men moved fast. At the southern end of the line the attackers surprised the Germans while they were still in their bunkers, but at the highest point of Vimy Ridge (now crowned with the Canadian Memorial) the German resistance lasted all day. It was broken the next morning by the Manitoba and Calgary Battalions. The Canadians suffered some 11,000 casualties, 3,598 of them killed. The taking of Vimy Ridge was one of the outstanding operations of the entire war.

Field Marshal Haig, who had been promoted to this rank in January, noted in his diary on 13 April:

I was greatly pleased at the way the wire had been quite destroyed. This shows how effective our new instantaneous fuse (No. 106) for destroying wire is with the large heavy shells and no craters are formed. Beyond the defence wire no shell holes, showing how good our shooting was!

On the way I looked at our heavy artillery which were all ready to leave their emplacements… It is fairly easy work moving these great heavy guns nowadays by means of tractors. The real difficulty is getting the large amount of shells forward. Luckily our railways are following the advance well.

Further south the river Scarpe runs between Arras and Douai, and to the north and south of it the British XVII Corps, part of Allenby’s Third Army, attacked after the customary bombardment which blended into a creeping barrage, supported by about forty tanks. The advance of some 3.5 miles (5.6 kilometres) yielded a bag of more than 5,000 prisoners, but brought the British up against the next arm of the Wotan Position. The tanks bogged down in the snow and mud, and German reserves were coming up. The main action was over, but lesser, though no less lethal, actions stuttered southwards along the line. In mid-June Edwin Vaughan remarked that another attack had taken place at Bullecourt: ‘… For half an hour we stood admiring the spectacle, and pitying the poor blighters who were in the thick of it.’ It is interesting to note that, apart from noticing the shelling, he had not the least idea of what was going on.

The assault of Bullecourt was undertaken by the Fifth Army, commanded by General Gough, using the Australian 4th Division, I ANZAC Corps and 62nd (West Riding) Division on their flank. The objective was covered by the Hindenburg Line, by now protected with substantial barbed wire barriers and freshly completed trenches of formidable proportions. The original plan was to undertake the assault on 11 April, but that led to a danger of the front to the north having an open flank until Gough’s men could fill it, and it was therefore with relief that he learned that Major William Watson’s No.11 Company, D Battalion, Heavy Section Machine Gun Corps (as the future Tank Corps was then entitled) could carry out an attack on 10 April, substituting the surprise of their concentrated action for the tell-tale of preliminary barrage. It would be necessary to make a night approach because the Royal Flying Corps could not provide air cover to bring the tanks up the previous day. The Australians lay out overnight in the snowstorm. The snow affected the tanks as well, preventing their arrival at the intended start time of 4.30am. The attack was cancelled, but no one told the West Riding men. They suffered severely as they attempted to attack in support of the now-abandoned operation. It was fortunate that more snow covered the Australian withdrawal, but all units were angry with each other, failing to understand that staff communications overall had not dealt with the problem posed by the weather. The next attack, on the originally planned date of 11 April, reverted to standard procedure; preliminary barrage followed by tank and infantry advancing together. The tanks made excellent targets against the snow, and the Germans were entirely prepared for the attack. The coordination of artillery with the advance was poor, the lack of shells with the new fuses in this sector left wire uncut and as tank after tank was immobilised, most of them by shellfire, the assault disintegrated. The Australian confidence in the relevance of tanks was seriously undermined as their losses mounted. In the days that followed, further attacks and German counter-attacks increased the damage to both sides. Bullecourt would go down in Australian history as inflicting their worst losses on the Western Front. In the first battle they lost 3,300 men and in the second 7,500. The 62nd (West Riding) Division lost 4,200 men and the 7th Division 2,700. Sadly the disputes attempting to attribute fault echoed on to undermine mutual British and Australian confidence for some time.

The German defence had been in the hands of the 27th (Royal Württemberg) Division. The divisional report on the battle noted:

On reaching or passing our trenches the majority of tanks turn to the right or left, to assist the infantry in the mopping up of trenches. Odd tanks go ahead to enable the infantry to breach our lines.

Ordinary wire entanglements are easily overcome by the tanks. Where there are high, dense and broad entanglements, such as those in front of the Hindenburg Line, the wire is apt to get entangled with the tracks of the tanks. On 11 April one tank was hopelessly stuck in our wire entanglement. Deep trenches, even eight feet wide, seem to be a serious obstacle to tanks.

This account bears witness to the involvement of the tanks, later wrongly accused of failing to engage at all in the fight.

The French attack was to be launched against German positions on the Chemin des Dames, the road running along the ridge to the north of the river Aisne between Soissons and Berry-au-Bac. The eastern end of this ridge had been held since the first battle here in September 1914 and the front then ran down into the valley at Condé before climbing once more to Laffaux. While the new ‘Siegfried Stellung’, the Hindenburg Line, ended further west, the positions here had also been thoroughly fortified. The French plan was to storm the crest above their front line, break through the enemy line and advance past Laon onto the wide plains to the north to link with the British coming from Arras and another French advance along the river Oise. Success would depend on surprise, overwhelming force and speed. A major obstacle was that the plan was soon far from secret, for Nivelle himself had chatted away about his ideas during a visit to London in January, documents had been captured by the Germans and their spies sent numerous, detailed reports of the preparations. Surprise would be now be impossible to achieve.

The French Reserve Army Group under General Alfred Micheler was ordered to undertake the operation with 1,200,000 men (fifty-six divisions including twenty-six in reserve), 128 tanks and 5,544 guns of which 1,466 were heavy artillery. General Charles Mangin’s Sixth Army (seventeen infantry and one cavalry division) was to attack on the left and General Mazel’s Fifth Army (sixteen infantry and one cavalry divisions), the right. Having carried the German lines, each would turn outwards to allow General Dûchene’s Tenth Army (twelve infantry and three cavalry divisions) to break through the centre. The requirements of the assault were that the first 3,000 yards (2,750 metres) of wooded hillside should be crossed in three hours, the next 3,000 yards (on the reverse slope and thus out of sight of artillery support) in the same time and the final 2,000 yards (1,828 metres) at the same pace; eight hours of advance, three-eighths of it unsupported by guns.

The Germans had adopted the defence-in-depth concept in detail. The front line, overlooking the French start line in the valley below, was lightly held. The next section, the intermediate zone, was peppered with machine-gun positions and the artillery were scattered artfully to the rear. There were twenty-one German divisions in the defence zone with another fifteen, ready to counter-attack, held behind them.

The attack began at 0600 hours on 16 April. At first the men moved quickly, but then it began to rain, with occasional flurries of snow thrown in. The artillery barrage moved forward inexorably, according to schedule, whether the infantry were keeping up or not. The machine-gun posts took their toll. The creeping barrage moved steadily onwards at 100 metres a minute, come what may. The French exhibited extraordinary courage on this day and the next, but after the swift advance of the first day nothing more was gained and on 20 April the effort ceased. The losses had been huge. The Germans had expended 163,000 men in holding the line and the French suffered 187,000 casualties in failing to breach it. The French heavy tanks, Schneiders fitted with 75-millimetre (3-inch) guns, had made some inroads but most of them bogged down, broke down or were hit by German shellfire. Worst of all, some French units began to refuse orders.

Although the diversionary attack by the British had served its function in distracting German reserves and, indeed, had made significant gains, the French troops had been asked to do the impossible on the Chemin des Dames. On 29 April a unit at Châlons sur Marne declined orders. Other units followed. This was mutiny, at least to the extent of refusing to obey further orders to attack; more worrying, however, numbers of them began to desert. That the French troops were as vigorous as ever in defence concealed the crisis from the Germans. On 15 May Nivelle was sacked and Pétain, taking over as Commander-in-Chief, was given the task of restoring not merely order, but spirit, to the shattered forces of France. General Ferdinand Foch took over as Chief of the General Staff, the post to which Pétain had been appointed on 29 April. On 27 May the growing number of desertions became outright mutiny, and Pétain acted swiftly to stop the rot: some 23,000 French soldiers were found guilty of mutiny by courts martial, and 400 were sentenced to death, of whom fifty were shot, the remainder being sent to penal colonies. Pétain also acted to improve his troops’ lot, instituting longer periods of rest, more frequent leave and better rations. It was clear, however, that while the French Army would defend its positions, it would not, for the time being, make any major contribution to an offensive. Any such plans would have to fall to the British and Dominion forces on the Western Front.

Haig was now faced with having to use British forces to carry the whole burden of action. Events in Russia that would lead to the Revolution and a Russian surrender were already in train, and the possibility of German divisions being switched from the Eastern Front to France and Flanders was very real. Attacks on Allied shipping by German submarines operating from their bases in Belgium were causing serious damage to supplies and morale, although, because of a number of sinkings of US ships, they also had the effect of bringing America into the war on 6 April. A major attack in the north, in Flanders, was to be undertaken.

Ypres had remained in Allied hands since 1914. On 7 June 1917, at 3.10am, a line of huge mines was detonated beneath German positions on the Messines Ridge and the British and ANZAC troops from General Sir Herbert Plumer’s Second Army advanced. One day sufficed for them to achieve their objectives, for, like Vimy Ridge, the operation had been well planned, prepared and executed. The mines had so shocked the defenders of the ridge that many were reduced to passive helplessness. The tank and infantry assault was well supported by the artillery. The objective was sensibly limited so that the advancing troops remained supported and were able to entrench to resist counter-attacks.

The six weeks following the success on the Messines Ridge were filled with activity. In the warm, sunny weather the roads behind the British front line were filled with men, munitions, stores and equipment gathering for the next great onslaught. Field Marshal Haig was planning to strike into Belgium to seize the ports and put a stop to their use by German U-boats, as well as to inflict further heavy losses upon his enemies. It was an operation aimed at making a breakthrough and exploiting the space beyond the trench lines, not, Haig thought, an action suited to the steady, meticulous Plumer, architect of the recent success, but more to the flair and panache of General Sir Hubert Gough, commander of the Fifth Army.

The Germans observed the build-up of forces from the air and from their posts on the Passchendaele Ridge. They attempted to disrupt the activity with an attack at Nieuport on 10 July, fighting in the shifting terrain of the sand dunes. They shelled the British with a new and foul type of gas, dichlorodiethyl sulphide – called mustard gas because of its effects. It was almost odourless and, heavier than air, lay in hollows. It was soluble in water, which meant you could wash it off, but also that it lingered in puddles and in the water at the bottom of shell holes in which a man might shelter from shellfire. The victims suffered burning and irritation of the skin or, if it was inhaled, the lungs and digestive tract. In extreme cases vomiting and death followed. On 12 July the Germans used gas shells on the salient, killing eighty-seven of the 2,500 injured. Another 14,726 were gassed in the next three weeks and about 500 of them died. The British opened a bombardment on 17 July that would last until the battle began at the end of the month, hurling 4,283,500 shells, about 100,000 of which contained chloropicrin gas, a more sophisticated form of chlorine gas, at their enemies.

The Fifth Army was to strike between Zillebeke and Boesinghe, a front that included the rising ground of the ridge along the Menin Road to the Gheluvelt plateau in the south and the succession of undulations divided by a herringbone web of streams rising to Passchendaele in the north. To the left General François Anthoine’s French First Army would secure the flank, while Plumer’s Second Army was to perform the same function to the south. If the attack was successful a flanking operation was to be mounted, landing the 1st Division south-west of Ostend from specially built landing craft and with tank support.

As July drew to a close the fine weather came to an end. On 31 July, the day of the attack, more than three-quarters of an inch (21 millimetres) of rain fell. The Germans, expecting the assault the next day, pulled their troops back from the front line opposite Boesinghe on 27 July and the French and the Guards Division moved quickly forward to occupy the ground and to bridge the canal now in their rear. On 0350 on 31 July a creeping barrage moved ahead of the advancing troops. On the left the Guards had reached the Steenbeek stream by 0930 and to their right the 38th (Welsh) and 51st (Highland) Divisions also achieved their objectives, although with rather more difficulty than the Guards. The 39th Division was making for Kitchener’s Wood, supported by tanks of 19 Company, the Tank Corps. Only one tank reached its objective, the Alberta strong-point, and neutralised it; the others, when off the roads, bogged down in the shell-torn, rain-sodden soil.

To the south, along the Menin Road and towards Shrewsbury Forest, much smaller progress was made, but the first day did give cause for satisfaction. The rain, however, persisted. In the next two weeks 3½ inches (90 millimetres) of rain reduced the earth to soup. The Germans mounted repeated, desperate and, for both sides, costly counter-attacks. The British attacks made negligible progress and the cost was high. The prospect of a breakthrough drowned in the morass of the Ypres Salient. On 18 August the tanks were used in a carefully crafted operation against a line of troublesome blockhouses: The Cockroft, Maison du Hibou, Triangle Farm and Vancouver. As it became light, without a preliminary bombardment and covered by a creeping barrage, tanks and infantry moved in concert, the machines following the scarcely discernable routes of the roads. By 0700 hours all the objectives had been taken, the tanks suppressing fire from the blockhouses and the infantry moving to occupy them. The total casualties among the attackers were fifteen British wounded. Correctly used, tanks worked.

On 25 August Haig, under continuing pressure to maintain the fight here and avoid a German attack on the still-vulnerable French army, transferred the responsibility for the battle to General Plumer. He, true to form, adopted a policy of setting limited objectives, basing each operation on detailed planning and ensuring that his infantry always had artillery support. Bite and hold. It was three weeks before he was ready to renew the attack and during that time the weather cleared. At 0540 hours on 20 September the battle of the Menin road ridge began. The ANZACS took Glencorse Wood and advanced as far as the edge of Polygon Wood. Having nudged forward, Plumer paused to prepare the next effort. On 26 September the fight continued and Polygon Wood fell to the Australians and the line both north and south of it was, over a couple of days, moved forward.

On 2 October the rain set in again, and it continued for most of that month. Men could hardly move; indeed, some drowned in mud. What was worse was that the guns could not be moved. On 4 October the Germans were planning to counter-attack, but Plumer’s men were also on the point of moving without a preliminary bombardment. When the British artillery laid down its creeping barrage the massed Germans were caught in the fire and the Australians swept through them up to the ridge at Broodseinde while, to their left, the Gordon Highlanders and the Border Regiment also made their objectives and further north again, Poelcapelle was taken. The terrible weather halted progress. The British had established themselves close to Poelcapelle in the north and the Australians were on the ridge at Broodseinde, but left and right of the ANZACS the line sagged west in pools of mud. A massive effort on 12 October gained nothing of significance and left the surviving men exhausted. Plumer paused.

On 26 October the battle was taken up by the Canadian Corps and, after costly fighting, some Canadians actually entered the village on 30 October, only to be pushed back by German counter-attacks. Passchendaele finally fell to them on 6 November.

The likely total figures for all casualties (killed, wounded, missing or made prisoner) are 244,897 British (including Dominion and Empire forces), 8,525 French and approximately 230,000 German. The horror of the conditions obscured the lessons of the few successes. Preliminary artillery bombardment and the close contact of the infantry with their creeping barrage had, when mud had not wrecked performance, worked well. Tanks used on appropriate terrain had succeeded. That does not mean that the battle overall was a success; simply that certain tactical approaches could be seen to work.


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