Specialized soldiers operating with the German army in France in World War I.
It has often been said that the initial employment of tanks in small numbers on the Somme was a tactical blunder, and that it would have been better to wait until several hundred machines became available and then deliver a concentrated blow with the new weapon, so preserving the element of surprise. There is much to be said for this argument, but there is another side to the coin as well.
Once the Germans had recovered from their initial shock, they set about evaluating a number of tanks which had fallen into their hands. They found that not only were they mechanically unreliable, they were vulnerable to direct gunfire as well. In the opinion of many German officers the tank was a freak terror weapon of limited efficiency and with a strictly local potential. Special anti-tank ammunition, known as the K round, was developed for use by the infantry, and guns brought into the front line for use in the direct fire role. Of greater importance was the German decision not to divert resources to manufacturing their own tanks, a decision which seemed entirely justified by the sight of British vehicles wallowing their way into bottomless mud-holes during the 1917 Flanders offensive. But the German evaluation contained a number of blind spots. It was wrong to assume that the British would not improve the mechanical efficiency of their tanks; wrong to assume that armour thickness would not be increased, so reducing the K round to impotence almost as soon as it was issued; and, above all, wrong to assume that tanks would always be employed across the least suitable going.
The Tank Corps, as the Heavy Branch Machine Gun Corps became, had as its commander 36-year-old Brigadier-General Hugh Elles, a Royal Engineer officer who had advised Haig during the tank’s development stage. Elles’ Chief of Staff (GSO 1) was Lieutenant-Colonel J. F. C. Fuller, an intellectual soldier who had originally served with the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, and who would later become a distinguished military historian.
Fuller possessed an insight which amounted to genius. Although at first he was somewhat less than lukewarm to the tank idea, his conversion was total. Like many such men, he had little patience with those who failed to grasp what he considered to be an essential truth, treating them with caustic scorn. The cavalry he considered to be completely useless, the artillery an over-subscribed fraternity whose principal contribution was to smash up the ground which his tanks would have to cross. During the Passchendaele fighting he had a board erected outside Tank Corps HQ, saying,
DON’T BE PESSIMISTIC! THIS IS THE LAST GREAT ARTILLERY BATTLE!
Elles made him take it down; it was too close to the truth not to make enemies.
Both Elles and Fuller worked unceasingly for the chance to show what their Corps could achieve fighting en masse and on good going. Haig, more often remembered for his premature comment that the tank was “a pretty mechanical toy” than for the later support he gave to the Corps, granted their request after some prompting from General Sir Julian Byng, whose Third Army sector contained the most promising ground for the attack, consisting of rolling chalk down land as yet little cut up by shellfire.
The object of the offensive was to seize the enemy’s communications centre of Cambrai. The tanks would breach the formidable Hindenburg Line in conjunction with Third Army’s infantry, and the Cavalry Corps would exploit beyond. Artillery preparation was limited to a short hurricane bombardment at H-Hour.
The tank Corps had available a total 376 Mark IV gun tanks, plus a further 32 fitted with grapnels for clearing wire from the cavalry’s path, 18 supply tanks and a handful of communication and bridging vehicles. The Hindenburg trenches were dug both wide and deep, and were considered to be tank-proof by the Germans. To counter this many tanks carried huge bundles of brushwood, known as fascines, on their roofs, which could be released into the trenches, so forming a bridge.
The attack was to commence on the morning of 20th November 1917, and the evening before Elles sat down to scribble his now famous Special Order No. 6.
- Tomorrow the Tank Corps will have the chance for which it has been waiting for many months – to operate on good going in the van of battle.
- All that hard work and ingenuity can achieve has been done in the way of preparation.
- It remains for unit commanders and for tank crews to complete the work by judgement and pluck in the battle itself.
- In the light of past experiences I leave the good name of the Corps with great confidence in their hands.
- I propose leading the attack of the centre division.
Commanding Tank Corps. 19th Nov. 1917
Distribution to Tank Commanders.
Elles led out his men in the tank Hilda of H Battalion, proudly flying his Corps’ brown, red and green standard. He had chosen the colours deliberately as a demonstration that the tanks could and would smash through the mud and blood of trench deadlock and advance into the green fields beyond.
That morning, the Tank Corps affirmed another essential element of Blitzkrieg – overwhelming concentration of force at the point of impact. The Germans could offer little effective resistance and fled, routed and panic-stricken, leaving a huge six-mile gap yawning in their laboriously constructed defence system.
For a brief period, the cavalry had the chance to break out into open country. They did not take it, since their Corps Commander had installed himself in a headquarters several miles in the rear, and kept his subordinates on a tight rein. By the time he was fully conversant with what was taking place and authorized a general advance, the enemy had rushed in reinforcements to seal the gap, and the moment had passed; in addition, the horses had been on the move or standing to all day, and badly needed watering. Here again was a lesson that would be absorbed into subsequent Blitzkrieg techniques – that the commander of an exploitation force must travel with the leading troops if he is to make the most of the opportunities he is offered.
But for the moment that did not seem to matter; what really mattered was that at last a way had been found to break the German defences at a comparatively trivial cost in lives. For the only time during the Great War the church bells of Britain rang in joyous celebration of a great victory.
During the next few days, battle casualties and mechanical attrition progressively reduced the numbers of tanks available for action. The tempo of the battle slowed and the front seemed to reach a state of stabilization again. The tanks were gradually withdrawn find despatched by rail to their base.
Then, on 30th November, the unbelievable happened. The Germans counter-attacked with a speed and drive that had never been experienced before on the Western Front. Whole units were isolated and cut off, while others went down fighting to stem the tide. The few tanks which had not been shipped away, often battlefield recoveries, were formed at commendable speed into provisional units which succeeded in eroding the weight of the German effort, but by 7th December much of the ground taken during the great tank attack had been recaptured, and a little more besides. The Battle of Cambrai had ended with honours exactly even, and for the British this was as humiliating as it was inexplicable.
Reports were called for, containing an explanation for the disaster. Neither Haig nor Byng, nor the corps and divisional commanders, could offer any militarily intelligible explanations. To the eternal disgrace of their authors, those reports that were submitted sank to unplumbed depths of moral cowardice in that blame was laid squarely on the shoulders of the regimental junior officers and even NCOs, who, it was said, had failed to exercise proper leadership. These were the very men who had died resisting the German attack, and to whom military discipline denied any right of reply if they survived.
Obviously the general public was not going to accept this outrageous suggestion without making a great deal of trouble for the Government and the military Establishment. Some sort of quasi-plausible excuse was cobbled together, based on the lack of reserves which, it was said, had been absorbed by the Flanders sector or which were in transit to the Italian Front; but it did not explain why the German infantry had managed to break through the defences so quickly. The plain fact was that nobody really knew.
One officer, Captain G. Dugdale, diagnosed one of the symptoms when he wrote his own record of the battle. He wrote that “The German aeroplanes were very active, flying over our lines in large numbers, very low. They were shooting with machine guns at the troops on the ground, and I am quite sure this did more to demoralise our men than anything else.” Here was something that would be instantly recognizable to the Blitzkrieg generation – the use of air power in conjunction with the ground attack to eliminate centres of resistance and induce fear.
This was part of the answer, but only part. The Germans had in fact perfected their own method of breaking the trench deadlock, and the Cambrai counter-stroke was only a foretaste of what was to come.
The story began three months earlier in the most unlikely of settings, on the Baltic coast at Riga. Here the Russian Twelfth Army under General Klembovsky held a bridgehead along the west bank of the River Dvina. Their opponents were General von Hutier’s Eighth Army, which had the task of eliminating the bridgehead and capturing Riga as a prelude to an advance on Petrograd.
Klembovsky knew he was to be attacked, but imagined that von Hutier would first eliminate the bridgehead before crossing the river. He therefore retained his more reliable troops in the bridgehead itself, and detailed divisions of doubtful quality to hold the river line.
However, von Hutier’s strategy was the exact opposite. His plan was to force a crossing of the river and then swing north towards the coast, so placing the defenders of Riga inside a trap. In so doing he was employing the strategic principle of Blitzkrieg known as the Indirect Approach, a recognition that an enemy position could be made untenable as a result of successful operations elsewhere rather than by direct assault.
Apart from the overall strategy of the Riga operation, its tactical execution is of great interest as well. The first German attempts to use poison gas had been clumsy, involving the release of chlorine from cylinders in the front line when a favourable wind was blowing, but of course any change in wind direction tended to make this a very two- edged weapon. Since the early experiments chlorine had been replaced by phosgene, otherwise known as mustard gas, which required only one part to four million of air to be effective. It was, therefore, possible to incorporate a small cylinder of the gas into the filling of a conventional high explosive artillery shell, thus ensuring its accurate delivery. The beauty of the device, if that is quite the right word, was that the recipients were unaware that they were being gassed until it was too late. The results were extremely unpleasant, consisting of painful blistering and violent attacks of vomiting, with a consequent reduction in both the capacity and the will to fight. The new shell had not been used in offensive operations before, and von Hutier’s artillery was to treat the Russians to a very stiff dose.
The German infantry, too, would be employing new tactics. Once across the Dvina, the assault troops would rely on speed and infiltration to work their way through the enemy’s successive defence lines, while waves of ground attack aircraft raked the trenches with machine-gun fire.
They went in on 1st September, following a five-hour bombardment, a mere disturbance by Western Front standards, but enough to drench the Russian positions with gas, shake their occupants with high explosive and blind them with smoke. When the German infantry swarmed across the river their rapid advance past sectors which were still holding out completely unnerved the remainder of the defenders, who began streaming away to the east in panic. Within hours the front had been broken.
The very speed with which success was attained prevented von Hutier from reaping the full fruits of his victory. He had prepared a strict timetable which had been overtaken by events, and it took him some time to accelerate the northern thrust that was meant to be decisive. In that time Klembovsky, reacting with a promptness foreign to the majority of Russian general officers, re-appraised the situation and withdrew the remainder of his army through Riga and along the coast road to Pskov.
Casualties in terms of killed and wounded had been negligible for both sides, although 9000 Russians had been taken prisoner. The Kaiser, delighted at von Hutier’s almost bloodless capture of Russia’s second most important port, paid him the compliment of a personal visit.
On 24th October the same tactics were employed again, this time against the Italian Second Army on the Caporetto sector of the Isonzo front, by General von Below’s Fourteenth Austro-German Army. The Italian Commander in Chief, General Luigi Cadorna, had suspected that this sector had been chosen as a target for a major offensive, and had given instructions for a defence in depth to be prepared; his instructions were ignored, with catastrophic consequences.
The German bombardment, erupting among the surprised Italians, disrupted all communications with the rear, so that formation headquarters were left floundering in a fog of war as dense as that which enveloped their choking front-line troops. And then came the assault infantry, sinister grey ghosts flitting in groups through the zone of gas and on towards the artillery and administrative areas, followed by more substantial formations which eliminated any centres of resistance which had been by-passed. Regiments shredded away from the front, while those on either flank, bereft of instructions from the paralysed command system, were forced to conform to the movement. Soon the whole of Second Army was straggling towards the rear, thus compelling the withdrawal of Third Army on its right as well.
Cadorna hoped to check the flood along the line of the Tagliamente, but the pursuit was as rapid as it was ruthless. Crossings were forced before the Italians could reorganize their shattered forces, Second Army HQ being reduced to the common lot of fugitives, incapable of organizing a coherent front from the drifting wrack of its troops. Not until 7th November did the Italians turn and fight again, manning a hastily dug defence line which followed the southern bank of the River Piave.
In less than three weeks they had sustained a staggering 300,000 casualties, lost 2,500 guns, and been propelled back more than 70 miles from their original front line. It was a blow which almost knocked Italy out of the war, and which caused the urgent despatch of sorely needed British and French divisions from the Western Front to stiffen the defence.
The conduct of war is subject to certain inescapable rules, one of which is that the power of the attack diminishes in proportion to the distance it has covered. The operation of this rule had given the Italian Army the time it needed to form a new front; von Below had available neither armoured cars nor cavalry with which to exploit the sudden collapse, and the pursuit had been carried out by infantry who had reached the limit of their endurance.
Riga, Caporetto and the Cambrai counter-stroke all pointed to the way in which the German Army planned to fight its 1918 battles, but the evidence was too fragmented by distance for the Western Allies to draw any firm conclusions. Riga had been fought against troops already war-weary and demoralized by revolution; the Italians were not considered to have a first-class army, and anyway, mountain warfare was different; and of course Cambrai remained an enigma.
Meanwhile, the Germans were refining their techniques, forming their Stosstruppen into special battalions which would form the spearhead of their respective divisions. The Storm Troopers were chosen from among young, fit men of proven initiative and represented the cream of the army. They moved in groups, their favourite weapons being the grenade, of which each man carried at least one bag, the light machine-gun and the man-pack flamethrower. They came on at a run, rifles slung, taking advantage of all available ground cover, and if they encountered opposition they worked their way round it, jumping trenches without pausing to fight for them. Their object was to get into the enemy’s artillery zone, overrunning batteries and pressing on towards brigade and divisional headquarters with little respite. Continual movement was the essence of their tactics. On occasion, an attack might make ground so quickly that it was in danger of running into its own supporting artillery fire, and a system of rocket signals was evolved to inform the gunners when to lift onto the next target.
Behind the Storm Troops would come the Battle Groups, specially trained to reduce strong-points which had been left unsubdued, followed by the mass of the infantry divisions, which would eliminate the last pockets of resistance and secure the captured ground. The whole system resembled a gigantic snake in that once the tail had caught up, the head would shoot off again.
Overhead flew the Schlachtstaffeln (Battle Flights), more specialists who concentrated on ground strafing enemy troops in the immediate path of the Storm Troopers. Generally the Schlachtstaffeln, consisting of up to six Hannover or Halberstadt machines, attacked from a height of about 200 feet, sometimes dropping bundles of grenades to supplement the fire of their guns.
Both the Royal Flying Corps and the German Imperial Air Service had begun ground strafing in mid-1917. The RFC did not, however, believe it necessary to form special units for the work, which was considered to be an extension of normal squadron duties, and employed a variety of machines of which the best remembered is the famous Sopwith Camel. The British produced the better results by flying at ground level, there being several recorded instances of German soldiers being knocked flat by the wheels of British aircraft. The moral effect was considerable, provoking bitter complaint from the Storm Troops that the Schlachtstaffeln were not doing their job properly. An enjoyable diversion for the British pilots was the pursuit of motor-cycle despatch riders and staff cars – not quite the trivial occupation it sounds, since the undelivered message and the general prevented from exercise command can both contribute to the failure of an operation already plagued by difficulties. The French formed a large organization for heavy local ground support, the Division Aerienne, which could be moved about the front as required.
In previous offensives along the Western Front it had been the practice of the higher command to commit its reserves against the strongest resistance encountered. The strategy of infiltration differed radically in that only successful penetrations were reinforced; in this way the merest trickle through a broken defence could become a flood and ultimately a torrent. Whereas offensives had until now burst like a wave against the rock of defence, the new system could be likened to an in-coming tide, probing insidiously into the channels between sandbanks, flowing round them yet still maintaining its advance against the shore, while behind came the great mass of water under which the sandbanks would ultimately vanish.
As 1917 drew to a close it appeared that of the two alternative forms of attack, only the German method produced lasting results. For General Erich von Ludendorff, effective commander of the German armies in the west, it seemed as though the New Year was to be one of great promise.